Gallery: "aberdeen"

Soon after I moved to Aberdeen, I bought a cheap Kodak digital camera. As I recall, the first building I took a photo of was Marischal College. At that point in the early 2000’s, the college was an under-used part of the University, but it dominated Broad Street like a mescaline-laced wedding cake. I particularly liked it on dull days after rain, when the grey granite took on a sheen, although my photos didn’t do it justice.

Later, I returned with a better camera to take a shot of the pinnacles. I zoomed in to look at detail which seemed almost fractal, which kept on increasing as you looked more closely. If you don’t wonder at how many tens of thousands of hours were spent carving the granite, you’re not looking at all.

A year or two later I began contributing to a magazine called “Leopard”, which was published in Aberdeenshire. Over the course of the next few years I wrote about the life and work of many architects who built in the North East, including Pirie & Clyne, Robert Matthew, Leo Durnin and Michael Shewan. Eventually Leopard was sold, and publication ended before I managed to complete my article about Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, the architect of Marischal College.

I know intuitively that Mackenzie had presence. If you think Mackintosh dressed like a dandified fop, photos show the young Mackenzie as a Victorian psychobilly with a pimp moustache, little quiff and giant sideburns. Something like Wayne Coyne, but sent half a century back in time from the Flaming Lips to the place where John Byrne’s Slab Boys grew up.

The hairstyle fixes Mackenzie in time, in same way that his wide-lapelled tweed jacket does; yet fashions in clothing come around again in a way that architecture doesn’t. The Bauhaus was founded exactly a century ago, but just a few years beforehand, in 1906, Mackenzie completed the final wing of Marischal College. It was built in a strange and driven version of High Perpendicular Gothic which has never come back into vogue.

The college is perhaps the ultimate building in Kemnay Grey, the best-known Aberdeenshire granite. Marsichal College will hopefully stand for all time as a memorial to Mackenzie, and to the granite industry my grandfather worked in, which has all but gone. In the 1950’s when my grandfather began working at Kemnay, dimensional stone was still being cut, but by the time he retired in the 1970’s, that had finished.

There was a brief flash of hope when a face at Kemnay’s No.2 Quarry was reopened to win stone for the parliament at Holyrood, but that proved to be the very end. Yet the mercurial silver stone built so much of Aberdeen: His Majesty’s, the Town House, Holburn Viaduct, the Citadel, the General Post Office, Queens Cross Kirk, the old Palace Hotel, most of Union Terrace … and the icing sugar filigree of Marischal College, mostly erected during the 1890’s but continuing past the turn of the century.

Kemnay Grey was later used in the former Scottish Amicable and C&A buildings on Union Street, the Majestic Cinema, the Cowdray Hall, Hilton Kirk, King George IV bridge, and finally as a cladding on Norman Foster’s Faculty of Management at Garthdee. Further afield, it clad the upper storeys of the Royal Liver Building on Liverpool’s Pierhead, it paved Electric Avenue in Brixton, it built Albert Richardson’s Tormore Distillery, it lined the waterways of both Loch Katrine Waterworks and the Lochaber Hydro-power scheme, and Kemnay granite also founded the Tay and Forth Rail Bridges.

In London alone, the Tower, Blackfriars, Southwark, Vauxhall, Kew, Chelsea and Putney Bridges, plus the Thames Embankment, are all Kemnay stone. As it happens, Mackenzie also worked in London, and may have won lots of commissions both before and afterwards – but never built anything like Marischal College again. And neither has anyone else.

It’s post-modern, but eighty years before its time, caught somewhere between William Burgess’s neo-medieval Castell Coch and Philip Johnson’s Pittsburgh Glass headquarters. Those who came before as architecture writers in the North East, such as Douglas Simpson, had their own thoughts about Marischal College. Carving its spirelets, crockets and archlets, “involved a tormenting of granite in a way to which the hard crystalline stone is basically unsuited”, yet Simpson felt that the building with, “a great glistening front, with the deep shadows cast by the bold buttresses, is nothing short of magnificent.”

The closest I came to discovering what Mackenzie’s contemporaries thought was a fusty book dug out in a bookshop in a one-horse town way up Deeside. Briefly excited I drew it from the shelf, but soon calmed down when I saw its condition (mildewed covers and foxed pages), the content (more about dignitaries than architect) and the book dealer’s optimistic pricing. It may still be there on the shelf, gathering dust.

Meantime, in a city where the grey granite provides a kind of visual unity, the college still does its best to stand out. Marischal College’s conversion into council offices a few years ago hasn’t done much for it; the interior was gutted and the facade retention and stone cleaning has left something that looks like synthetic stone.

Everything changes: “Leopard” is extinct now. It was swallowed by Scottish Field and disappeared completely with last month’s issue; but if you’re interested in Aberdeenshire’s granite industry, seek out a copy of Jim Fiddes’s book “The Granite Men”. It’s the first book in seventy years to attempt to cover that ground, since William Diack’s “Rise and Progress of the Granite Industry of Aberdeen”.

Considering the enormous publication gap, it’s almost like Aberdeen is simultaneously proud and ashamed of the very stuff it’s built from…

By • Galleries: aberdeen

"Fit like the day, then?"
-Not bad, I replied, -How's it going here?
"Ach, I’m nae getting on worth a docken.  The site agent shook his head.  "I'm near certain these drains are chokit up.
We went out into the road, he picked up a crow bar and heaved – but the iron lid didn’t shift.
"Need tae gie it a great yark wi the pinch…
With a big effort, he rived up the manhole cover: the rich smell of fermenting malt hit us immediately.

"At's nae surprise, is it? and he nodded to the pagodas of the distillery malt house behind us.  It was gloamin, and their distinctive forms were silhouetted against a pale violet sky.
"We'll need tae pressure jet aa that – he nodded at the open manhole – an the chambers are collapsin, tae.  The drenns are connached.  You anes'll need tae gies anither Instruction, eh?
As he watched for my reaction, the site agent offered a smile for the first time that day and I began to understand where the expression "pouring money down the drain" originated…

The Song of the Drains is something we take for granted.  Rather like the keen hissing of the nerves, and the low note of our pulse, it's a sound which is with us all the time, yet we have to listen carefully in order to hear it.  It has deep roots: the song began over 150 years ago.  The Victorians were obsessed with sanitation – you could say they were anally-retentive about it – and they were the first to hear this song.  

Mucky water sluiced through iron and fireclay conduits at the start of Victoria's reign, and some of our present day infra-structure dates back to then, too.  Every building built before the 1950’s has a buried network of fireclay drains under and around it, socketed and spigotted together and all shiny with a rich chestnut-brown salt glaze.  There are complex manifolds whose tails fan out to gather in the branches, each laid gently on a bed of pea gravel, carefully back-filled with selected granular material – a work of artistry and loving care that no-one ever sees.

Just like every other component of a building, this is a world apart, with its own vocabulary, conventions, and hundreds of pages of B.S. to guide you.  B.S., in this case, being "British Standard" rather than the cow shit which flows down gullies in cattle courts.  Water sinks down into the fireclay system with a gurgle, then runs near-silently, with just a faint sussuration each time it flows through a trap.  Alongside the drains, you have the steady hum of electricity cables, the evil hiss of gas mains, and the enigmatic silence of fibre optics.  The only clue to the existence of this Underworld are the iron covers with cryptic messages cast into their lids.  

The fireclay industry began to decline in the Fifties as drainage pipes became plastic, roof tiles were cast in concrete, and stainless steel flues were introduced.  When the closely-related refractory industry crashed in the 1970’s, it took with it many of the remaining architectural fireclay manufacturers.   Until then, Scotland led the world.  Companies thrived in the coalfields of Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Fife for one hundred and fifty years:  since the coal measures harnessed to fire the kilns are often underlain by seams of fireclay, there was a happy synergy between raw material and the means of its transformation.   

The mantle passed successively from the Garnkirk Fireclay Co. to J&M Craig of Kilmarnock, and finally the Glenboig Union Fireclay Co., which was the world’s largest fireclay producer for many decades.  From sinks and baths and lavvies made by Shanks of Barrhead, the fireclay pipes run under the building, through the scarcements of the external wall.  Often, they’re trapped under great drifts of rubble and sour earth.  

Once they escape from those confines, the pipes meet up with other effluents from tanks and rectifiers and gullies, then make their way gently downhill – the pipes grow in diameter, gathering momentum until they reach the Disconnecting Manhole.  At that point, Private drainage (and if ever you wanted to keep something to yourself, it’s this), becomes Public drainage.

Drains represent the inner world, and in contrast to the outer concerns that architecture usually has, great sums are spent in order to keep it out of sight.  Designing a building with its gizzards on display would be no different from leaving the lavvy with an Andrex tail hanging from one's strides.  Authenticity of appearance and truth to materials never stretched this far.  There are so many things to hide: like the Buchan Trap, for instance.

This ill-natured switchback, designed to prevent bad air venting through the system, is also an impediment to good drainage.  The Buchan Trap is the cause of so many blockages that the "Hot Rod" companies suspect it first when the water backs up.  In the old days, the Victorians flushed through the system regularly … we don't, so the Buchan Trap chokes up.  Mr Buchan's name has been taken in vain many times.  In fact, you could say that his name is dirt.

The Buchan Trap lives underground with other things bearing wonderfully evocative names, like the “Ames Crosta Gully Pot”.  I knew nothing about that until I happened to visit the Clay Cross foundry in Derbyshire.  Just like the nearby Stanton and Staveley, Clay Cross was the descendant of an ancient iron founding company which latterly made castings for hydraulic engineering, from simple drain covers to complex valves.  In the usual manner of these things, the Ames Crosta company had been successively swallowed up by larger and larger rivals like Babcock until the pike at the head of the water treatment foodchain, Biwater, bought it.

While the initial lure of Clay Cross was the rumour of several old XJS Jaguars lying abandoned inside, I discovered huge fab halls and iron foundries which had been abandoned when Saint Gobain bought Biwater over and closed Clay Cross down.  The dark, grimy sheds were too interesting to ignore, and I photographed everything from timber casting patterns to an ancient furnace bank incorporated into modern buildings.  On a later trip through the area, I discovered that the site had been completely cleared, and a white sales cabin spoke directly about what would come next.

Similarly, gully gratings come in many designs, but two of the most common in Scotland are the Grahamston pattern and Bo’ness pattern: both named after big industrial foundries in the Falkirk area.  They are still available from McLuckie of Dalry, who have developed a theft-proof gully to foil the metal thieves who steal anything they can weigh in at the local scrappie – even if that meant leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the road.

Then you have the mysteries of life.  I recall a Shone sewage ejector which lived in a deep shaft down by the river.  Every now and then it would give a deep hiss and thump, leading the surprised visitor to ask "Just what do you keep down there?”  It would have been no surprise at all if we’d replied that it was one of Tolkein’s balrogs.

Darkness proper had fallen at the distillery, so I turned my back on that sweet, rich scent of malting grain, leaving the labourers up to their knees digging out the sodden barley draff.  They toiled for a whole week.  And so the project's Contingencies were flushed away, and the Completion date went down the pan.  Oh, let that be an end to the puns.  Let's keep walking.  

As in the Classical myth, Orpheus must not look back when he leaves the underworld – otherwise the site agent will catch him and demand yet another Architect's Instruction, to rebuild yet more collapsing manholes...

By • Galleries: ghosts, aberdeen

Over the past decade or so, the Carbuncles have captured the popular imagination.  Community activists quickly grasped that publicity in the anti-awards gave them leverage – and for that reason, politicians resent them.  Folk don’t like their deficiencies being pointed out, and which town or city couldn’t bear some improvement?

Yet perhaps a more apt question is where you set the Carbuncle baseline.  It’s the same judgement which the Scottish Government makes when regeneration takes place in areas which score highly on their “index of multiple deprivations”.  Not everyone agrees with using that yardstick, though, and the key issue is egalitarian – to each according to need, or fair shares for all?  As a result, some of this year’s nominations come from towns like Nairn, a douce Royal Burgh on the “Scottish Riviera”.  It doesn’t seem like natural Carbuncle material, so we went to investigate.

Nairn’s economy is a mixture of retirement village, golfing resort and dormitory suburb for Inverness – but compared to the out-of-town retail deserts of the latter, Nairn’s High Street is affluent and bustling with people.  We visited the Inshes area of Inverness last year and concluded it was a car park with big sheds attached – yet the centre of Nairn has many independent shops housed in characterful buildings.  Beyond the High Street lie a couple of derelict buildings, one of which is scaffolded, and an abandoned petrol station.  Dereliction should be accepted, grudgingly, because we know towns have to evolve – the issue is its extent, and how long it lingers for.

Nairn is split by the busy A96 trunk road, and it has exactly the same issue with through traffic as nearby Elgin.  Its many sets of traffic lights are an irritation to drivers, yet the crossings help to stitch the town together for pedestrians.  As in Elgin, the need for a by-pass conflicts with the hope for passing trade; the development of the town fights against the flow through its main artery.  The government’s plans to upgrade the trunk road are there, in the background: it’s difficult to say what the impact will be although Huntly, further down the A96, is probably a guide.

Nairn consists of three parts – the old fishertown with its couthy little streets; a Victorian core with grand tenements and hotels; and modern bungalows around the edges.  The approaches to the town have quite different characters: from the west you travel through a landscape of Victorian villas, from the east you pass some industrial units and a new supermarket.  The latter seems like a grudging concession to progress, and one comment we heard was that the small Sainsbury’s store was preferable to a huge Tesco, as was the case in Huntly. 

As we walked through Nairn, we were struck by the lack of typical Carbuncle cues - such as sink estates, abandoned factories or decaying concrete monsters.  If you consider it against the coastal towns further east, such as Buckie and Fraserburgh, you realise that Nairn’s issues with dereliction and traffic are transient, whereas the fishing ports have deep-seated structural problems with employment and communications.  Instead, Nairn is closer in character to Elgin and Fochabers, where the social and economic baseline is relatively high.

Until recently, Fraserburgh’s waterfront consisted of a series of mouldering fish factories; Buckie’s coastline is dominated by derelict boatyards.  By contrast, Nairn’s small harbour is now a tidy little marina – with none of the fog-bank of dereliction which hangs over the dying North Sea fishing ports further along the coast.  Perhaps because fishing historically made up a small part of the town’s economy – its championship golf course, and grand seaside hotels are more prominent – Nairn was hit less hard by its collapse.

The recent defence cuts which effectively closed the airfield at Kinloss as an RAF station, and raised a question about Lossiemouth’s future – for now Leuchars in Fife looks set to lose out to Lossie as an interceptor base – may hit Nairn to an extent, but that could be balanced by the promise of renewables contracts.  Local fabrication yards, including the site at Ardersier which sat in mothballs for many years, are now earmarked for wind turbine manufacturing. 

Perhaps the underlying concern which prompted the town’s nomination is a fear for the future: the threat of housing developments on the town’s edge.  That unease often manifests itself in a series of ciphers – the call for lower speed limits really means cutting out non-resident traffic; higher quality development translates into exclusivity; and conservation equates to preservation of the status quo.  After all, the current population has a vested interest in maintaining quiet roads, uninterrupted views, property prices and manageable school rolls.

Regardless, Nairn has none of the anti-charisma which hangs about Carbuncle towns, so whilst some things could certainly improve, there are communities elsewhere with far greater challenges to surmount.

By • Galleries: aberdeen

Two things characterise Scottish industry in the 21st century: the richness of its heritage, and the dismaying speed with which parts have been wound down.  This process, often called de-industrialisation, has become a recurrent theme, devastating coal and steel, shipbuilding, truck manufacture and even food production.  It has touched every aspect of Scottish life, from our politics, economy, architecture, to our literature – Archie Hind’s “Dear Green Place” features the relict industrial landscape around Clydebridge, and Jeff Torrington’s “The Devil’s Carousel” describes the demise of the Rootes factory at Linwood.  Each slash of destruction cuts deeply into our identity, and our sense of ourselves.  It also harms the 250 year heritage of industrial buildings which those industries built around them.

Heavy industries from the first wave of the Industrial Revolution were also the first to be devastated.  Deep coal mining ended in this country several years ago, and all traces of the last of the fireclay companies disappeared before that.  Yet Scotland had some of the largest and most modern pits in Europe, such as Seafield and Longannet; and companies like Glenboig Union Fireclay and Stein Refractories were world-leading enterprises in the 20th century.  Almost all traces of them have disappeared, as if their legacy was deliberately erased: but that means the legacy their architecture has also been thrown away.  The dramatic concrete winding towers designed by Egon Riss for the National Coal Board have virtually all gone.  Giant northlight sheds which once held dozens of tunnel kilns have been levelled.  Other industries have been similarly affected.  Their loss hits Scotland on every level, and that makes the case for a Scottish industrial museum all the more compelling.

That museum’s role should be to save not only ephemera from these moribund companies (things such as ledgers, letterheads and catalogues which sit easily on the shelves of archives) but also a representative selection of the machinery they used, which is more difficult to accommodate; and also the buildings which housed them, without which it’s almost impossible to appreciate their context.  Properly conserving our industrial heritage means looking after them all.  In some cases that means retaining buildings intact, in others campaigning to have them listed, or sensitively converted to another use.  At the very least, it means photographing the factory, mill or works both inside and out before it is altered or destroyed.  The rate of change today means that the window of opportunity is often brief.

RCAHMS has already recorded a range of industrial premises, but these buildings make up a small part of Scotland’s industrial heritage, and the need to conserve extends far beyond them.  Our industrial patrimony includes some unique buildings, from the ground-breaking North British Diesel Works at Whiteinch, one of the very first Modern Movement buildings – to Paton’s Mill in Johnstone, claimed to be the world’s first machine factory.  Whilst historic complexes like New Lanark and Stanley Mills have been saved for posterity, Paton’s Mill wasn’t so fortunate.  After closure, it was allowed to decay irretrievably – and that neglect emphasises how important the work of recording is.

Of course, some sectors of Scotland’s industrial sector have succeeded, and ironically an ongoing record of their achievements is also necessary, because success means unremitting change and development.  As much can be lost in a restructuring as a closure, and architecture is often the first thing to disappear, as in the re-construction of shipyards and papermills in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  For example, BAE Systems’ two shipyards at Govan and Yarrows are still in business, but building ships in radically different ways to their predecessors 50 years ago.  That means the old fabrication halls and sail lofts have gone, replaced by covered building bays which are simple, steel-clad sheds.    Similarly, at the Carrongrove papermill at Denny, modern machine houses were constructed over the ruins of the old – although both ancient and modern alike have now been demolished.

So industrial preservation has to cover the spectrum, trying to preserve a disparate range of activities housed in a diverse cross-section of architecture.  From the triple-expansion steam engines pioneered by firms like David Rowan, to the armaments of William Beardmores; from Alfred Nobel’s huge dynamite factory in Ayrshire, to the electric motors built by Bruce Peebles of Edinburgh, or Barr & Stroud’s precision optics: each one generated its own peculiar and unique buildings.  Sometimes they are monumental stone-built workshops from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, sometimes strange metal-buttressed hills as at Ardeer, where Nobel perfected his explosives.  Even though the architectures are radically different, the aims of industrial preservation are the same.

Accordingly, we need to rescue things which would otherwise be destroyed; to preserve unique and important aspects from each industry; to conserve artefacts where they have begun to decay; to interpret those relics so that their purpose is clear; and to spread knowledge about the importance of preservation.  The “bricks-and-mortar” museum is important, since it provides a container for what has been saved already, and a springboard for the work of saving what remains.

Hopefully this piece explains some of the motives behind previous blog articles, and will help make sense of the things which follow…

By • Galleries: aberdeen

To follow on from an article I wrote elsewhere about community design, I thought it would be worth explaining where some of the ideas behind shared space stem from, since the two concepts seem complementary.  Following the logic through also throws up an unexpected conclusion…

“Radburn Crescent” began life as a traditional street, in the sense of a strip of tarmac 5.5 metres wide, with pavements roughly 1.5 metres wide on each side.  The transition between the two is a line of precast concrete bullnose kerbing, which is complemented each evening by an unbroken line of parked cars.  It’s a piece of traffic engineering.  Speeds in Radburn Crescent are high, at up to 30mph, considering it leads nowhere other than past folks’ houses.  In some ways the changes needed to make it more like a woonerf, a kerb-less street first introduced in the Netherlands in the 1970s, are slight but significant.

A woonerf is usually residential, and translated literally from the Dutch it means a “living yard”; rather than having separate roadway and pavements, everyone shares one surface.  For the woonerf to succeed, speeds have to be low – perhaps even lower than the 20mph speed limit which is gradually being brought in for housing estates across the country.  The implicit idea is that if a street is suitable for children to play on, it will be safe enough for adult pedestrians, too.

Most people associate the idea of the shared surface or shared space with Holland, but arguably its roots lie in a report published in Britain by the Ministry of Transport in the early 1960’s.  Colin Buchanan, who was an architect as well as a roads engineer, was tasked with investigating what could be done to reduce congestion and acknowledge the impact of the car.  Even in the Sixties, there was a burgeoning conflict between cars and towns.  Buchanan’s team came up with a technique for rejigging urban road systems by creating zones which they called “urban rooms”.

These rooms would acknowledge issues like noise, pollution, social activity, pedestrian routes and aesthetics.  Depending on the prevailing requirements, some would segregate traffic and pedestrians completely, whilst others would allow pedestrians and vehicles to mix in the street.  It was a seemingly obvious yet subtly revolutionary – though ironically the “Traffic in Towns” report had a much greater impact in continental Europe than it did in Britain.  German and Dutch planners enthusiastically adopted the idea, and many still refer to Buchanan as the father of traffic calming.

A few years later, in 1976, the first Woonerfen were built following a new set of guidelines – “Pedestrians may use the full width of the highway within an area defined as a woonerf; playing on the roadway is also permitted.  Drivers within a woonerf may not drive faster than at a walking pace. They must make allowance for the possible presence of pedestrians, including children at play, unmarked objects and irregularities in the road surface, and the alignment of the roadway.”

In due course, the woonerf spread from Holland to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and eventually back to Britain – in this country it’s often called a Homezone, which equates to a Wohnstraße in German-speaking countries.  I recently passed through Holland on a road trip, and woonerfen were quite evident in Eindhoven – although on busier roads traffic was still segregated, even to the point where pavements were divided into a cycle lane and a pedestrian lane.  Beware of the cycle lanes, though: the Dutch allow folk to ride motor scooters along them, and as we stood admiring an old Philips factory, we were nearly mown down by mini-Mods on a Vespa…

Travelling further back in time to seek the roots of the Woonerf, and of Colin Buchanan’s report, many streets in the north-west of England, around Salford, Wigan and Liverpool were designated as “Play Streets” in the years after the war.  No cars were allowed to drive down them between 8am and dusk, hence effectively “traffic calming” them, and without the need for speed humps, either.  That posits the question about quality of place: is it just about the lack of cars?  In a moment of lucidity, I realised that traffic speeds and volumes ultimately work their way back to the pivotal factor of density.

High density inner cities were the grail of urban designers for many years, and even yet many look to create medium density, low rise cities.  They seem very “sustainable”, given the aim of creating walkable neighbourhoods with schools, shops, parks and public transport within a ten minute walk.  By that token, the very low density landscape of crofts that you find in rural Angus or Aberdeenshire is desperately unsustainable.  After all, it appears you have to drive everywhere – for shops, for school, even for work – because crofts are strung out along valleys, on winding tracks that lead off equally winding B-roads.  So far, so what, because the answers for urbanists lie in urban design.

The size of settlements usually relates to the provision of services: a series of clusters might be populous enough to support a primary school.   Population thresholds for the viability of local services are always under attack – schools, libraries, banks and post offices are still being closed down by an unsympathetic government and its agencies – it seems the natural thing to do is to increase population density until it supports those services.  That also pushes up land values, and helps to generate the margin needed to build things.

Turn again, Dick Whittington.  The answer might lie instead in rural design.  We already have thousands of small communities which are sustainable to an extent because they’ve dealt with the issues of density.  Shopping can still be bought thanks to travelling shops, schools are reached using school buses, and work is integrated thanks to many villages being truly “mixed-use” clusters of dwellings and workshops.  More importantly for the shared space thesis, there’s no need for any intervention on the single track leading up to a croft house – the narrow roadway is implicitly shared, by tractors, bikes, sheep and children.  

Rough metalling, hedges, bends and potholes combine to foster low speeds, so there’s no need to artificially traffic calm them with the much-hated speed humps.  Land values may not support the kind of traffic engineering you find in cities – blacktop with drainage, winter gritting, road markings retro-reflective signs, and cats’ eyes are expensive – but perhaps much of that is overkill.  If urban streets were de-engineered, simplified and greened, speeds would naturally reduce.  They might also have a resonance for hard-pressed city dwellers tired of deterministic design – whether from urbanists or traffic engineers.

Perhaps Colin Buchanan’s urban room and the woonerf’s living yard have a future in the countryside.

By • Galleries: aberdeen

When the future looks back on the present, it will see everything and nothing.  Thanks to the proliferation of cheap digital cameras and the accessibility of photo-sharing websites, events are recorded and uploaded to the net within hours of taking place.  Current affairs is simple, when you have thousands of pictures of Knut the polar bear, or the death of Concorde at Gonesse, within hours of them being taken.

A virtual record of the world has quietly usurped the physical one.  In the late 1980’s, “The End of the Book” was gloomily predicted by newspaper columnists.  Funnily enough, the book is still with us, as are those Cassandras, but other kinds of printed matter are disappearing.  More traditionally-run architects’ offices still have what might be called a “paper library” of product brochures, samples and literature.  Some of the material is a few years old, yet although out of date, it still forms a useful record of what was used on previous schemes.  But physical catalogues began to be replaced by CD-Rom’s in the mid-1990’s, then websites with downloadable PDF’s by the start of the 2000’s.  Although paper-based catalogues are still available, many architects go immediately to the website because it tends to be up-to-date.  We have faith in the currency of information on the web.

Yet what happens if you want something which isn’t up to date – say you’re trying to match a radiator installed fifteen years ago in the first phase of a project; or track down vaguely-remembered old product; or perhaps you’re one of those insatiably curious people who research old things in order to write magazine articles about them?  The strength of the internet becomes its greatest weakness: if it is instantly up-to-date, the corollary surely is that there is nothing out-of-date to be had there.  Even when an old PDF file or screen grab is lurking on your hard drive – can it be dated accurately, and does it have any integrity?  After all, everything on the internet is mutable – an image file can be Photoshopped so readily that Uncle Joe Stalin might have written the software himself.

So you are forced to fall back on the old ways, to collect dusty catalogues which too often tumble off shelves into the wastepaper basket.  If you have access to a product library that hasn’t been cleared out in a while, there may be some interesting stuff lurking there.  This is true particularly when trying to establish the trajectory of a company which has been taken over – the old brochures may give you lots of background on its history, which the new owners have no interest in.  Whilst the graphics and production of brochures have changed over time, it’s certain that today’s ephemera will become tomorrow’s collectables, particularly as the current slew of printed matter may be the last we see, before it goes “all digital”.

Specialist book dealers maintain a small but valuable trade in old catalogues and manuals – though predictably they concentrate on those with visual appeal, such as Victorian-era compendia from ironfounders featuring hundreds of engravings of fancy castings; or unusual sales pamphlets bound in silk cord and leather boards.  As many have said, the internet takes away the pleasure of holding something in your hands and feeling some connection to the people who made it. 

Then, of course, we also maintain a record of our own ideas on paper.  The working sketchbook is a home for ideas which would otherwise be homeless.  Architects aren’t unique in using sketchbooks or notebooks, but we use them in a different way to artists or writers.  I’ve got a line of them on the shelf, 15 years’ worth, which range from smaller than A5 to foolscap.  Not nearly so many books as Bruce Chatwin kept – he used little black-covered Moleskine pocket books which he bought in Paris, and went through a dozen in a year; as he recounted in “The Songlines”.  Once he discovered that the sole remaining bookbinder was to stop making them, he made a special trip to buy them up in bulk.  Nor as many as Lebbeus Woods, who has an inexhaustible supply of notebooks bound in coarse linen and filled with his cryptic sketches: he occasionally scans some pages to put on his blog, which is an inspirational place in itself.

At degree shows, a small pile of dog-eared sketchbooks is a good sign, and the first thing I tend to do is pick them up and leaf through them.  If you’re fortunate, you will see the inner workings of a thought process, which culminates in the final sheets tacked to the wall.  For others, the sketchbook is a place to jot down disconnected thoughts, in the hope that a pattern will emerge in time: the book is a means rather than an end, it will be carried around and stared at until something jumps out.  That method also leads inevitably to the working sketchbook’s typical character, that of expediency.  The pages are covered in scorings out, tippex, doodles in many different inks.  It’s creative death to treat it as presentation material.

Similarly, it’s irrelevant what the physical book is.  If, like Bruce Chatwin, you’re hung up on the book’s appearance, then the vessel has become more important than the cargo.  Mine came from countless different places: a local stationer, an art store in a distant town, off the Ebay website, from a bookbinder in the Black Mountains, and via a mail order company which stopped selling them immediately after I bought one and decided it was ideal!  One even came as a free sample after the charming rep of a French papermaker took pity on me.  Yet what they are when new doesn’t matter: what’s important is what they become.  Most are old and battered by the time they’re full … full but never “complete”.

One strength of these working sketchbooks is that you can go back to use them as a quarry.  They are a tool for thinking with, returned to at intervals as the thinking develops.  Using bound books also saves back-of-envelope sketches from being posted in the bin, accidentally. 

Quite different is the holiday sketchbook, in which the privileged record southern France in quavering pencil and insipid watercolour: the drawings, and how they’re made, are self-conscious.  They are seen as an end in themselves; because of that, they’re no place for creative experimentation.  They’re too precious, which means they are never taken where they might be left on a subway train or dropped in the Med.  That’s a great waste of an opportunity, since they should be a means of prompting what Marcel Proust called madeleines – a visual cue that makes you recall a memory or sensation.

In the very last book of “Remembrance of Things Past”, Proust’s protagonist is tired, depressed and sickened by himself as an artist, and his failure to find a way of working.  However, something happens to show him that he’s been looking in the wrong places for inspiration: he steps out of his carriage and slips on a cobble.  Suddenly, a wonderful happiness comes back to him, as he recalls the same happening to him when he was in Venice.  The memory, which he wasn’t able to recall by deliberating, comes flooding back, down to the details: the chill of the night, the sight of St Mark’s, and the smell of the sea.  The sketchbook can act in the same way.

So the gradual abandoning of product brochures, and the slow retreat of architects and students from sketching, may not be changes for the better.  Their homeless ideas need to be given somewhere to stay.

By • Galleries: aberdeen

First published in Leopard magazine five years ago, posted here by request…

In the years between the two world wars, the Modernists believed in the new, at the expense of an old world that was rotten beyond saving.  They felt that art and architecture could help to build a better society: design was conceived not as a servant of private gain, but an agent of the public good.  The resulting buildings had a lot to live up to – but they finally dragged Scotland out of the Victorian era and into the 20th century.

The typical Aberdeen tenement is granite-built, three or four storeys high, with an attic storey expressed as a mansard, where the roof pitch is very steep – in fact, the slates are hung almost on the vertical, and there is a stair at the back, which a passage connects to a door on the street.  Otherwise, it is similar to tenements in other Scottish cities, with back greens and shared WC’s giving onto open platts.  Thousands of tenements still exist, but thousands more have since been demolished, partly as a result of the 1917 Royal Commission which found that “the housing accommodation in Scotland was undoubtedly a serious cause for concern.”

Rosemount Square was a social experiment which grew from that concern, an exploration of what a modern tenement could be like – albeit a rethought, rational tenement house rather than the overcrowded slums which were being pulled down in Shiprow, Gallowgate and Kirkgate.  It is a granite fortress, an island of socialist influence in douce Aberdeen.  The horseshoe of flats is bounded by Leadside Road, South Mount Street, Richmond Street and Kintore Place, and surrounds an inner courtyard, which is a vastly scaled-up version of the traditional tenement back green – but where did the impetus come from?

Legislation, in fact.  The 1935 Housing Act forced Scottish burghs to improve their housing stock, so that the process of slum clearance was accelerated.  The shock is that it took 18 years for serious progress to be made after the Royal Commission.  Once the Act was on the statute books, the Secretary of State instigated a study of housing stock in Europe – he had heard that great things were happening on the Continent.  A deputation visited the Spangen and Keifhock schemes in Rotterdam, by Oud, and Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, by Ehn – their names were like epigrams from the future to Scottish architects – and these schemes became models for development, when “Working Class Housing on the Continent” was published later that year.  Its authors felt that Ehn’s work was “bold, forceful and perfect”, and this made a great impression on Scottish architects who were keen to create a new kind of housing in a modern image.  They just needed their chance.

In July 1937, fire broke out in the former C & E Morton’s provisions works in South Mount Street – although by that time, it was occupied by Alex “Cocky” Hunter, a local worthy who ran a small empire of junk shops.  The entire block was gutted, the Council decided to acquire the 2.5 acre site for housing – and Cocky moved his chaotic operations to Castle Terrace.  By the start of 1938, the City Architect submitted proposals for a four-storey granite tenement of radical design, to be set around a courtyard and accessed via thirteen stairwells.  During the Thirties, and beyond, Aberdeen had one of the most capable City Architect’s Departments in the country, under Alexander Buchanan Gardner, who assembled a team of gifted designers working under him, including Alexander McRobbie (who designed the Bon Accord Baths), and Leo Durnin.

Rosemount Square was largely designed by Durnin, and it is unique in Britain thanks to its marriage of socialist precedent with Aberdeen’s native granite.  At the time, the city’s Housing Convenor was the omnipresent and forceful Tom Scott Sutherland, who was responsible for germinating the idea of Rosemount Square.  Politically a Conservative, he surely had no sympathy with the agit-prop of Red Vienna, yet the City Architect’s work was well-supported by the convenor and successive Lord Provosts.  When Gardner encountered opposition from the elected members at council meetings, he would silence them with a magisterial, “Now gentlemen, who is the City Architect here?”   Rosemount Square was approved by the Council in April 1939, and went out to tender: construction began just as the Second World War diverted resources away from civilian work.

Rosemount Square is sometimes compared to Karl Marx Hof, the largest public housing scheme built in Red Vienna – 1382 apartments – and the most famous of the super-block Hofs.  Although Rosemount has only 104 flats, there are certainly similarities: the Art Deco decoration (in the form of ceramic sculptures at Karl Marx Hof);  the horizontal bands of glazing;  the giant arches which lead into the inner court.  Beyond that, any comparison with Ehn’s work is a spurious one.  When the Social Democrats were elected in 1919, Red Vienna was born and the city instigated a massive housing programme – by 1934, 64,000 apartments had been built.  400 housing blocks were distributed through the city, in which workers’ dwellings were combined with kindergartens, libraries, clinics, theatres and co-op stores.  So the scale is vastly greater than Aberdeen: Karl Marx Hof is one kilometre long, with archways on a truly cyclopean scale.  For architectural “trainspotters”, Rosemount Square’s horseshoe plan is actually closer to Bruno Taut’s Hufeisenseidlung scheme in Berlin.

Thus architecture in Scotland is not thirled to political cant, but the crucial step is that the public sector, and architects became involved – in the past, tenements were designed and built by in the private sector, by speculative builders.  The results were distinctly nippit.  However, once the profit motive was removed from construction, mass housing could be built to a higher standard.  The ensuing programme of public works also helped the country to build itself out of the Depression.  Injecting money into the economy by means of a programme of housing, education or healthcare buildings is a favourite technique for chancellors who want to “pump prime” the economy.  Gordon Brown isn’t unaware of that, either.

Rosemount Square was designed to epitomise brightness and cleanliness: sanitation was improved by modern plumbing and the provision of internal WC’s.  The horizontal windows with slim steel frames, in contrast to the chunky timber “simplex” sash-and-case windows in old tenements, created light-filled and cross-ventilated apartments.  Another shift away from tradition was to move the building entrances off the street frontage, and into the courtyard.  In contrast to, say, Golden Square, this building’s public face is on the outside, yet the enclosed “square” is actually hidden on the inside of the block: the four-storey horseshoe surrounds a central landscaped square which allows children to play safely away from traffic.  In this, Leo Durnin anticipated the impact of the private car, and also neutralised the bane of pre-Great War tenements, the backlands with their reeking middens.

Rosemount Square’s structure is granite, but with prefabricated details and concrete balconies on the courtyard elevations.  The design is simple and monumental – well-suited to the Rubislaw stone which the Council insisted on using, forming sheer walls in rough-axed granite.  A high parapet partly obscures the shallow-pitched blue slate roofs and blue brick chimney stacks.  This was one of the last such housing schemes, as the costs of working granite increased exponentially, and stone was abandoned in the 1950’s as cheaper alternatives took its market away.  The former C&A building on Union Bridge, designed in 1956 by North & Partners as a replacement for the old Palace Hotel, was almost the last building in Aberdeen built in load-bearing granite.  After that, the architecture of the steel and concrete skeleton destroyed the “stone culture”, and with it the unity of Aberdeen.

The quality which “lifts” Rosemount Square is how it embodies the modern age, and this extended to the sculptures set above the wide arches.  Included in the building cost were three sculptured panels by the head of the sculpture department at Gray’s School of Art, Thomas Huxley-Jones.  The allegorical figures were to represent Rain, Wind and Cold, and would have cost £500 in total: as it is, only the bas relief panels of Wind and Rain were completed, in an effort to save money.  Huxley-Jones spent his early years in Wales, then won a Rome Scholarship when he was a student – he moved to Aberdeen in the 1930’s to practice and to teach, and he seems like a good example of a Modernist artist who tried to efface his own ego by serving the community.

The figures are youthful, clean-limbed in an Art Deco style, and they are at least partly inspired by Greek myth.  “The Spirit of the Winds” on Leadside Road is Aeolos, the Greek custodian of the four winds, and she literally rides like the wind on her charger – although her pointy hairstyle gives her away as a flapper from the Great Gatsby.  Rain, on South Mount Street, is treated more literally, and consists of a figure tipping a pail of water over the pend.  The sculptures are twelve feet by five, and were executed by the mason John McKay, of Taggart’s Allenvale Granite Works.  After several months’ work, they were slotted into the building like jigsaw pieces.  Although McKay died in 1947, Huxley-Jones had a long-standing relationship with Taggart’s: thirty years after Rosemount Square, they worked on his sculpture for an Essex branch of NatWest Bank.

Construction at Rosemount Square was delayed by material and labour shortages caused by the war – but it did at least progress slowly, rather than being abandoned for the duration like so many others.  In 1944, future Lord Provost Tommy Mitchell (Scott Sutherland’s successor as Housing Convenor) noted that a substantial portion of the scheme had been completed and many of the houses were already occupied.  Yet by now, Scots housing was in transition, and the tenemental form had been rejected. 

Shortly after Rosemount Square was completed in January 1945, a housing competition at Kincorth was launched.  It was to reverse everything Rosemount Square set out to achieve – low density as opposed to folk being concentrated;  set on the periphery rather than being at the heart of the city;  terraced maisonettes versus flats stacked up several storeys high.  One criticism of Rosemount Square which Scott Sutherland had to fend off came from a determined lady who asked how the coalmen could carry their sacks up four flights of stairs.  Yet the scheme was commended by the Saltire Society as the best Local Authority housing scheme completed between 1939 and 1947, and is now Grade A listed.  Incidentally, it was apparently named “Rosemount Square” by Scott Sutherland himself – exerting that droit de seignur which housing convenors have.

So inner city was rejected in favour of suburb, creating sprawling estates with geometrical road layouts.  It took the tower blocks of the 1960’s to change the pattern of housing once more.  Rosemount Square marks the last gasp of the tenement form, of the solid granite wall, and of enlightened patronage in housing.

By • Galleries: aberdeen

The winter of 2009/2010 has turned out to be a reflective period for architects, commentators, and Scotland in general.  Perhaps that thinking time is a result of our having been snowbound for days on end.  We’ve been given a variety of things to think about: the colour of our government may change shortly; the economy may drop into the second trough of a “double dip” recession; architectural practices may retrench, fail – or, despite everything, pull out of their current doldrums.  Who knows, but we’ve seen these things happen before: the last time practices suffered like this was during the early 1990’s, and although architecture school insulated me from the worst of it, I do recall nervous times for practitioners.

The vision of a steady stream of work for practices, leading to smooth cashflow and regular employment, proved to be just as illusory during the Nineties as the political creed “Boom and Bust is Dead”.  A few good years, “perhaps the pattern has finally been broken?” then back to Great British Whale, an economy which dives then surfaces again.  Stasis and change are eternal themes, and in my case that meant when the Lighthouse shut up shop, so did my articles commissioned by their website.  However, the evolution of Prospect into Urban Realm means I’ve been offered another platform.  The tenor of what I write here will be similar: photo essays, explorations of lesser-known architects and marginal places, plus the odd rhetorical or polemical piece.  Given the theme of this article, I thought it appropriate to look at the see-saw relationship between Scotland’s third and fourth cities.

Dundee and Aberdeen have always sat uneasily, 60 miles apart, and we find it hard to resist making comparisons between them.  Over the past three hundred years, their fortunes have waxed and waned on the basis of mercantile wealth (Dundee); woollen and paper milling (Aberdeen); the jute trade (Dundee); offshore oil (Aberdeen) – and now both have pinned their colours to some kind of hip new cultural economy.  The Dundee Contemporary Arts centre (DCA) recently celebrated ten years in existence, whereas Ian Wood’s current battle with Peacock Arts for control of Union Terrace Gardens is the latest instalment in Aberdeen’s efforts to catch up.  At present, Aberdeen doesn’t have a full-blown contemporary arts gallery.  In terms of traditional venues, Dundee’s McManus Galleries are in the final stages of a £8m revamp, and the building is due to re-open next week; whereas Aberdeen’s Art Gallery is at an early stage of navel-gazing about its future.

Yet those two Dundonian advances over Aberdeen mask the real ambitions of both cities, which are far more expansive.  In Dundee’s case, the Victoria & Albert Museum are keen to open a northern outstation, like the Tate did in Liverpool twenty years ago.  The proposed V&A-on-Tay is already being touted as a world-class piece of architecture – yet it could easily turn into an own-goal for the city.  Quickly, the local press jumped on the Frank Gehry “brandwagon”, with Mike Galloway (the city's Director of Planning and Transportation) trying to elicit Gehry’s involvement in the gallery, which it’s already been decided will be built on a promontory jutting out into the river.  But that move seems like a pale echo of Glasgow’s policy of commissioning an icon-builder to design the new Museum of Transport on the Clyde.  Perhaps wisely, Frank has ruled himself out of the running.  How about appointing an iconoclast instead, and doing so through a limited, or even an open competition?  Somehow, you have to maximise your chances of getting the best design.

That, it could be argued, is what Aberdeen University did when they chose Schmidt Hammer Lassen to design their new library.  The European approach, the articulation of simple volumes to create spaces for people, contrasts with the school of manipulating three-dimensional forms for visual effect.  The latter, whether you call it Deconstructivism or parametric design, was born on the Pacific Rim, at the Peak in Hong Kong, and Culver City outside Los Angeles.  The twisting and torqueing of steelwork to create fractured buildings has been fashionable for the past quarter century, in the hands of a handful of architects whose star ascended during the 1980’s.  Those architects became corporate brands, and their signature style was bought in by cities keen to ape Bilbao.  That approach has now been discredited, as it’s unlikely to result in truly timeless buildings.  Aberdeen University appear to have avoided that trap, and should be commended in avoiding a mere “statement” piece of architecture.

However, the V&A run a risk of repeating their “Boilerhouse” fiasco – if they, and the city council in Dundee, are set on commissioning a NAME rather than an appropriate talent.  If you recall, Daniel Libeskind (one of the most famous of architectural iconographers) produced numerous versions of a metal box with tesseract or Rubik cube contortions for the so-called Boilerhouse extension to the V&A in London, although each evolution of the scheme was quietly shelved due to heritage or financial issues.  Hopefully those behind the V&A’s new outstation will realise that the age of the icon is over, and that Dundee already has plenty symbols on the central waterfront: the landfall of the Tay Bridge, the Discovery’s masts, the ghost of the Royal Arch.  Why not build something on Riverside Drive, which as several writers have pointed out is one of the grandest approaches to any European city (provided you don’t allow superstores to build alongside it…)

Aberdeen’s V&A-rivalling plan is to create a vast urban square.  Others have talked about the P.R. chicanery which lie behind the Union Terrace Gardens campaign, so I will concentrate on the urbanism which might result from it.  At first glance, it seems as if Union Terrace might become something like Castle Terrace in Edinburgh.  If you build a multi-storey car park in a gulley, you create lots of city centre parking (although that’s not really the done thing in 2010…) and gain a “plaza” on which farmers’ markets, carnival jugglers and political rallies can do their respective piece.  Yet the north-easterly aspect of Union Terrace is ill-suited, and creating a vast open space will open the Terrace up to the biting wind which howls in from the sea.  There is also the serious matter of destroying one of the city centre’s few green lungs, and chopping down many handsome trees.  No-one has closely scrutinised the financial side of the proposals yet, because the latter are merely a few artists’ impressions.  Maybe that doesn’t matter, because Ian Wood’s proposal is superfluous.

You see, Aberdeen already has a large urban plaza, and it was the hub of the city’s life for hundreds of years: the Castlegate.  A former market place at the knuckle of Union Street and King Street, it later became the main node in Aberdeen’s tram system.  The scale of the open space to the surrounding buildings seems far happier than a vast treeless tract stretching from Union Bridge to Rosemount Viaduct, along which empty chip wrappers will race unhindered.  Perhaps if Ian Wood had the benefit of wise counsel, his focus might be shifted towards endowing a new wing at a local hospital, for example, or bequeathing money to fix the city’s real problems.  Aberdeen has several good examples of philanthropy, such as the WW1-era Cowdray Hall next to the Art Gallery, and the Crombie family’s gifts to the University which were used to build residences during the 1960’s.  As it is, both Aberdeen and its southern neighbour have more glaring issues to deal with than the need for a large expanse of paving slabs.

Aberdeen has serially failed to build a by-pass for the past forty years, so the main route through the city is still the pot-holed Anderson Drive, constricted to the south by the medieval Brig o’ Dee, and to the north by the hellish Haudagain roundabout.  Dundee’s airport is little more than a base for flying club planes, and needs investment or perhaps relocation to Errol, to enable short-haul jets to use it.  Dundee lacks a large conference facility, whereas the AECC in Aberdeen is in financial straits.  Aberdeen’s modern ice rink has been shut as a cost-saving measure, which means that its curlers and hockey players have to travel to … Dundee’s Ice Arena, if they want to practice their skills.  All the talk about urban squares and new galleries masks the inertia at the heart of both cities.  Drivers, airline passengers, conference-goers and ice enthusiasts realise that the more everything appears ready to change, the more it actually stays the same.

A decade may pass before we know whether the new Union Terrace Gardens, or the V&A’s outstation, made a difference.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, aberdeen, dundee