Gallery: "books"

Sunday was the first bright, clear day in Angus for a long, long time, so I went a few miles out the road to Ardestie.  The souterrain there, just off the A92, sits on a hillock that rises gently from the surrounding fields.  It's a place I like to visit during short days when the light slants low across the Firth. It can be peaceful there too, when the wind blows the noise from the dual carriageway away in the opposite direction towards Carnoustie.

At the entrance to the souterrain, a Pictish earth house built perhaps three millennia ago, is an interpretive board.  Often these boards are a cop-out, because we enjoy it better when we have to figure out for ourselves what we're looking at.  However, rather than an artist's impression of Picts with woad tattoos and Neil Oliver mullets, the board includes a photo of the RCAHMS team who excavated the earth house in 1950.

We learn that FT Wainwright led the dig, and there he is in an Indiana Jones canvas jacket and boots, with clay pipe and homburg hat both tilted at a jaunty angle.  Then there are the assistant diggers, keen young women in short sleeved blouses and sensible slacks, and young men in sweaters with strange, pre-Brylcreem hair piled up above their foreheads like a cream horn pastry.

But the interesting aspect is what you don't see, either in the exposed souterrain or on HES's board.  A while after the dig was complete, the archaeological findings were written up and published in a learned, peer-reviewed magazine.  In return for academic scrutiny and the certainty that experts had checked the 3000 year old facts to the extent that anyone can, the article was circulated among a coterie of specialists.

It would be left to someone else, perhaps writing in the Scots Magazine or Scottish Field, to write for a broader, interested public.  That article would likely be shorter, use little or no jargon, and would use hooks to pull ancient history towards the modern world. But in return, it reached tens of thousands of people, rather than a few hundred. That's the contradiction I've come across time and again during my career. 

Mostly I write for trade or specialist magazines like Urban Realm and Blueprint and Archive, and in parallel I've contributed to titles such as Leopard, and also ended up writing for Scottish Field a few years later. Their bag is cultural journalism with a more popular remit (definitely not "populist", now that word has been debased by far right politicians).

Occasionally I've been invited to contribute to academic titles, but that’s where the system falls down, at least for someone who maintains that research and publication are an important part of being an architect, yet doesn't have any ties to an institution.

Academic magazines generally don't pay contributors, because they can get away with it.  They know that academics with tenure have a stipend and receive grants for research and conference attending, and are mostly glad of the chance to publish – plus that keeps them in a job, indirectly.  Some academic careers rely on making a set amount of journal contributions each year.

As the late Charles Rattray told me ruefully, Architectural Research Quarterly or ARQ, where he was associate editor for many years, had keen contributors but a fairly small circulation.  He sometimes asked himself, what's the point of publishing if your ideas and hard work don't reach as wide an audience as possible? Sometimes you write for the love of architecture only, reaching a small audience of peers – but that isn’t quite the same as journalism.

Thankfully each piece of research eventually finds a home, hopefully including a 6000 word essay which I wrote last year during a difficult time in my life.  The research and writing helped to take my mind off life in the evenings.  The essay was short-listed in a competition, but didn't win: nonetheless the judges were keen that I should publish it somewhere.  It wasn't bound for the society's journal, nor for another they suggested which is based in the same city but not only doesn't pay for publication – it takes and retains copyright to your text and images, forever!

That practice should be outlawed, since it takes advantage of the young and keen but inexperienced. In the real world, an author or photographer always licences their work to a magazine for publication, normally first publication rights only. Anything else is exploitative.  Sometimes you have to set your ego aside, when trying to get your name into print, and be patient.  You consider your options then decide, "None of the Above”.

By • Galleries: books, dundee

Whilst in between adventures, Mr Wolf took a job with an architecture magazine. You might in fact say he was a cub reporter.

It was a start-up title, bankrolled by a media company which wanted to move into the glossy, controlled circulation titles which are aimed at “professionals” … little realising that there’s less money to be had in design of any sort than in the legal, advertising or medical professions.

Mr Wolf had already established a minor reputation for himself as a commentator. He was occasionally phoned up by Radio Scotland when they wanted an opinion on a tower block going up, or a well-known landmark burning down. As he put it on his years-out-of-date personal website, he was a “go to” voice for radio debates. Really? Can you even say that about yourself without blushing?

Ultimately he fancied an Arts slot on TV, sifting culture on the leather-upholstered settee with Kirsty Wark – but he had to make do with sixty seconds chatting to Janice Forsyth on Radio Scotland’s graveyard slot, or an occasional quote in the papers. After all, he wasn’t Scotland’s Most Famous Living Architect.

Nonetheless, a minor reputation got his loafer-clad foot in the metaphorical door, and he snagged a commission to write the manuscript for what became FOUL AIR, a fast-paced thriller which explores the invention of the air admittance valve. It was heady stuff, an intellectual battle of wits between the Andersson family’s Durgo company which created their first AAV in 1970, and Sture Ericson who designed the Bjare Valve in 1973. (True story, kids). The book was one of Scottish Architectural Publishing’s better sellers that year.

Popular opinion has it that journalists never fully commit to an opinion, so most articles offer both sides of the debate in order to let the readers decide (and to avoid alienating half of the readership). Regardless, Mr Wolf was happy to offer strong opinions and divisive comment, on demand, wherever he could find an outlet.

Despite that profligacy, it was difficult.  Not long ago there were several magazines which published long-form journalism: intelligent pieces which took time to research and write and edit. But not today’s popular press.  The tabloids offer a steady diet of affirmation, focussing on simple topics which require little research or background. They hype and they hector, but rarely force you to think.

Sometimes the architectural press isn’t much better. One former favourite weekly used to be 100 pages long and printed on decent stock; they employed subs to fact-check and make squiggly marks all over the proofs. Now it’s all soft proofed on PDF, and we know from bitter experience that screaming typo’s never show up on screen.

Nonetheless, the magazine format is still important. Edwin Heathcote, architectural critic of the Financial Times thought that, "Architects are like novelists. They regard the most important thing in their careers as being published. Buildings are all very well but the are somehow only truly complete when they have appeared in a glossy mag.” (Is It All About Image?: How PR Works in Architecture).

So Mr Wolf made contacts. That was easy. Early on, someone explained that architects are complete tarts for journalists or anyone involved with the media, because they think they have useful contacts that they can exploit on their own behalf. The other side thinks exactly the same, so you have everything required for a mutual exploitation society.

Once he got into his stride Mr Wolf was, by a long way, the most unscrupulous writer I ever came across. He wrote headlines first then retro-fitted the story. He made things up. He lifted snippets from back issues of other magazines, hoping that nobody would notice, since architects are only interested in seeing photos of their completed buildings and don’t bother reading the words which interrupt the images. Or so they say…

He even invented an inventor, who used to pop up now and then with some new, radical building material when there was a gap to fill in the News pages. It was Fake News before that term was popularised by Donald Trump, but had more sinister roots. As Joseph Goebbels once said: "If you tell a lie often enough, eventually people will start to believe it."

So Mr Wolf told stories, and when he lied, he made sure the lie was good and repeated often. For example, when he reviewed a monograph about a dour Edwardian architect with a walrus moustache, he puffed that it was “Uplifting, tender, brilliant, insightful and compelling.” It was the sort of dull book that he traded in at a secondhand bookshop on Great Western Road, five minutes after he’d finished skimming it.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.  He came across that phrase first in a book about the architectural illustrator Gordon Cullen, and he added it to his notebook of cribs for future use. Years later he discovered that Cullen had stolen it from Thoreau and when Mr Wolf was caught out, he recited, “Talent borrows, genius steals” – ironically without giving any credit to Oscar Wilde.

That’s what Mr Wolf’s life is like. A morality tale for all the family.

Just in case you’re still trying to keep up, some previous instalments in Mr Wolf’s story are here:

Merry Christmas Mr Wolf

Setting the Wolf amongst the pigeons

The irresistible rise of Mr Wolf

Immortality Projects

Mr Wolf rides the rails

This is the Ice Age

By • Galleries: books, mr wolf

The King’s Quair was only open for a year or two. I wish now that I’d taken a photo to remember it by. Its bare timber floor, walls of matchboard and raw plaster lined with shelves, plus a table in the middle of the floor loaded with cheap books. Towards the rear of the shop, beside the bookseller’s desk was a large trapdoor. Through it he periodically disappeared down a flight of steep stairs into the basement.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the Quair was a secondhand bookshop in King Street in Aberdeen. King Street, with the Brig of Don at the top end, cheap student flats near Pittodrie in the middle, and social clubs, cleaning supplies store and tobacco blenders towards the Castlegait end, close to its knuckle with Union Street.

The bookshop was presumably named after the poem written by King James I about his dream vision – but I never discovered whether the owner was a medievalist, or an antiquarian who just happened to run a secondhand bookshop on a run-down street in Aberdeen. In 2005 it was still feasible, just, to make a living by selling old books from a physical shop, but a few years later Amazon shut down that possibility and Bezos replaced charity shops as the enemy of second hand book dealers.

The King’s Quair disappeared a year or two later. Next door is now a Halal food store, with a Turkish barber and a Thai massage parlour further along, and a Polish shop one street across. King Street is multi-cultural but heading downmarket, and who knows what goes on in the flats above the massage parlour.

The Quair wasn’t alone. I don’t ever recall going into the Old Clock Repair Shop, which was diagonally opposite across King Street – despite its name it was another bookshop, but may not have been open on Saturday mornings when I parked in the Safeway car park on the site of Hendersons’ crane works. Further out of town was the Old Aberdeen Bookshop, and during my lunchtime walks through the week I sometimes spotted its owner mooching around the Union Street charity shops. That was evidently how he bought his stock.

Down the narrow gulch of the Adelphi, just off Union Street, were some shelves of “roast beef” titles in an antiques store, and nearby were the knackered ex-shops on Marischal Street, an off-the-main-drag street which you felt would be ideal for a tired second-hand bookshop, yet no-one seemed to take up the invitation. It would be grand if you wanted a quiet life, sitting alone in a bookshop all day with nothing to do but read – or perhaps you could become as grumpy as Bernard Black used to be in the Black Books television series.

The philosopher John Locke didn’t think much of book dealers. “Books seem to me to be pestilent things, and infect all the trade in them with something perverse and brutal. Printers, binders, sellers and other that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not confirmed to the good of society and that general fairness which cements mankind.”

There’s a good chance Locke got ripped off in the type of antiquarian bookshop I've got in mind, where the proprietor looks like Peter Cushing. You enter the shabby storefront through a creaky door and catch a whiff of the interior – dusty, archaic and funereal. Whatever your poison is – antique toys, stamps, coins, duck decoys, flint tools, ethnographica, enamel advertising signs or books about the Jacobites and Covenanters – fustiness is a given. And as this is in Aberdeen it likely has a magnificent, century-old “fooshtieness”.

However, the purpose of this piece is to celebrate what we missed during 2020 and 2021, rather than lament what’s gone wrong with the High Street, or whether things will return to the way they were prior to Covid. Hopefully we’re browsing and rummaging as a means to pick up reading material, and just like when I was a kid and had a birthday, I have a book token to spend. :-)

There is a serious side to the decline of architectural bookselling. There are few specialist shops in Britain selling architecture titles nowadays. Triangle was one, in a space sub-let from the AA in Bedford Square in London. Leslie Fraser had a decent selection in the Perth Bookshop; I believe he’d once been architecture correspondent on The Scotsman. Janette Ray is another, with a bijou little shop in the centre of York. But things change.

In the early 1990’s, at the start of the Great Acceleration, it was predicted that we’d see the End of the Book. Printed matter would join vinyl records in the dustbin of history.  At that point, we had CD-ROM’s and it was assumed that you’d fit thousands of books onto a disk, just as you can fit an hour’s music onto a disk.  As it turns out, we don’t enjoy reading large amounts of text from a screen – whether a tiny smartphone screen, a Kindle or the huge smart TV’s which takes up an entire wall in some people’s living rooms.
Nevertheless, although the physical book had been with us for four centuries, space was increasingly an issue.  In 1945 Fremont Rider predicted that library capacity would need to double every 16 years or so, due to the number of books being published each year.  Rider was an American librarian with a penchant for spiritualism and was a proponent of “One World Government” – a favourite topic of conspiracy theorists everywhere, including those suspicious of the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar and so forth.
His suggested solution was to use microfilm, so that each page could be reduced to the size of a postage stamp then enlarged again and printed out on demand.  That happened to a certain extent with newspaper archives and public records, and even now I can hear the accelerating zoom of the Bell & Howell machines in the Central Library, followed by the fluttering noise when they reach the end of the spool of film.  But Rider couldn’t have foreseen that microfilm would be overtaken by the CD-ROM, then the internet.
When searching the API (Architectural Periodicals Index) and the Avery Index (its American equivalent) whilst writing my architectural school dissertation, we had to borrow the appropriate CR-ROM each time – that was much faster than searching microfilm or even worse, a card index.  But the internet made all of those obsolete.

For a time, there was a parallel stream to bookshops. Until the 2000’s, many architecture booksellers sold by catalogue, such as Inch’s Books from York or Richard Sidwell at Monmouth House Books in the Welsh marches. Now every bookshop struggles in the face of Amazon, yet nothing beats visiting a physical store. For example, GT Coventry, at the eastern end of the long High Street in Kirkcaldy was a strange and unique blend of tobacconist and bookseller. When I drove down to have a poke around redundant buildings left behind by the linoleum industry, I always stopped for a chat with McLean Dorward.

Leakey’s in Inverness (above, courtesy Idavoll) is arguably Scotland's largest secondhand bookshop with 100,000 books … the nave of the old Gaelic Kirk is filled with shelves and a wood-fired stove. It’s a Scots version of Barter Books in Alnwick, but with fewer tourists and more accurately calibrated prices. If you’re through in Glasgow, Caledonia Books on the Great Western Road in Glasgow is a local institution with a cavernous store and one of the biggest general stocks in Scotland. By contrast, the nearby Voltaire & Rousseau is madly disorganised.

To end on a recommendation, the Book Room in Melrose is a small country town bookshop of the sort there used to be all over Scotland. There are fewer of them nowadays, but this one has the bonus that it’s within striking distance of several Peter Womersley buildings… an ideal constituent of a weekend jaunt with Modernist concrete sightseeing and lunch in a country pub, if you like that kind of thing. But post-Covid, it’s always worth checking that shops are still in business, and open when you plan to visit.

By • Galleries: books

The publisher’s blurb suggests that Scotch Baronial is the right book at the right time: an examination of political identity in our architecture, at a point when Scottish independence is back on the agenda. May 2021, the most venomous Scottish elections for a long time, which come at a turning point in the progress of Scotland, Britain and Europe too.

The book builds on the work of Charles McKean and Michael Davis, discerning a line from castles built during the Wars of Independence through to the country house builders of the early 20th century. It covers the usual suspects – Inverary Castle, Holyrood Palace, Balmoral Castle – with many others along the way.



The First Castle Age created everything from defensible mansion houses to out-and-out war machines. The former are McKean’s Scots châteaux, such as Craigievar, Castle Fraser and Fyvie, which couldn’t have been built anything other than here. Their outlines with pepperpot turrets and crowsteps are characteristic. The latter, curtain-walled fortresses like Caerlaverock and Tantallon, were assertions of political and military defiance.

The authors analyse the ever-shifting relationship between old-fashioned defensive concerns, classical symmetry, the scenographic arrangement of massing, the relationship between materiality and setting, and the brutal practicality of these castles, which often hides behind a rich tapestry of myth, folklore, tartan and “Hoots Mon” nationalism.

But politics were not the only thing driving Baronial architecture: the clan system and feudal land ownership were critical, as were raw materials such as stone and slate, rather than brick and timber used over the border. Also crucial was cultural interchange through the Auld Alliance, William Wallace’s efforts to make connections with the Hanseatic League, and more prosaic aspects like the trade between Scotland and the Low Countries, a side effect of which was the importation into Fife of pantiles.

The subject area would reward further poking around into the cultural, material and mercantile as well as the political, and the authors turn up one genuinely fascinating parallel: that with Germany’s own search for a representative style, which helps to emphasise Scotland’s role as a pioneer in the expression of nationalism, which seems ironic for a country which lost its statehood three centuries ago.

This first age passed after the Union of the Crowns, but a few decades later Scotland unexpectedly had a Second Castle Age – the Baronial Revival – which was sparked by Walter Scott and his house, Abbotsford. The second age ran from the 1820’s to the years before the Great War, and the authors argue it represents unionist nationalism, an assertion of Scottishness within Britain.

Architecturally at least that was a success, with a vivid re-imagining of the themes, proportions and details of Scots castles in the work of the Adam brothers, the Playfairs, David Bryce and William Burn. They trawled the castles of medieval Scotland for inspiration,

Baronial Revival buildings are like haggis pakora: a good one balances elements from different cultures and reminds us that internationalism is a productive pursuit.  Revival details and materials are Scottish but the massing, parti and outline might pinch from French chateaux, German schlossen and Venetian palazzi.  In fact, rather than falling back on the hackneyed deep-fried Mars Bar in order to slight Scots cuisine – we should celebrate the haggis pakora, which is one of the great inventions of fusion food.   

We should be very grateful to the folks who first came up with the idea, and incidentally it also proves that Indo-Scots cultural appropriation is a Good Thing. Both parties gain – and making a serious point, our identity shouldn’t be copyrighted in the sense that I somehow need permission, or am not allowed to write about people who are different from me.

To do so is what Toni Morrison called cultural apartheid. If only certain people are allowed to write or think about certain things based on their gender, ethnicity, and so forth it would be a terrible loss to the culture of the world as a whole. We would lose sympathy for people from a different background, because they’ve excluded us from their world, and we’d also lose the wonderful cross-pollinations which come about as a side effect.

The Baronial Revival ended with Lorimer and Matthew's powerful Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle and what came next was less sure of itself. Similarly, the book’s final chapter covering the 20th century is less convincing, including an attempt to thirl Mackintosh to the Baronial Revival, despite Mackintosh protesting that the Hill House, “…Is not an Italian Villa, an English Mansion House, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House.” The authors also touch on Scottishness in the work of Robert Matthew, Basil Spence and James Shearer, but while their work speaks heavily-inflected Scots, it’s not Baronial.

Critically, Glendinning and Mackechnie fail to distinguish between pasticheurs like Ian Begg, who used Baronial wallpaper for the Scandic Crown Hotel’s façades, and architects such as Mackintosh and MacLaren who transcended their influences to create a heartfelt Scottishness that pervaded the whole building. Their work, along with that of Robert Lorimer, arguably marks the end of Scots Baronial’s authentic influence. However, the focus on figures like Patrick Geddes – who latter reimagined Edinburgh using the Outlook Tower and Ramsay Gardens to combine elements of Scots tradition with twentieth-century aspirations – helps to broaden the discussion beyond merely a “Scottish style”.

A brief vignette of Scots politics covers the creation of the new Scottish Parliament, where Scotch Baronial heads completely off piste. Glendinning and Mackechnie state, “ It is a paradox that the proud talk of a national rebirth – coincides with an underlying reality of international homogenisation and commercialisation.” Historians aren’t always best placed to discern what’s going on in present times, and we’re still working out what Holyrood actually represents both architecturally and politically, as May’s elections will likely demonstrate once more. As such this book is a polite architectural historiography rather than a passionate political manifesto.

Scotch Baronial was originally published in hardback during 2019 and has just been issued as a paperback. The illustrations – small, flat and monochrome – deserve full colour litho printing, but that doesn’t detract too much from this thorough and balanced introduction to eight centuries of Scots Baronial architecture, which should appeal to nationalist and unionist alike.

[This is an expanded version of a review I wrote elsewhere].

Scotch Baronial: Architecture and National Identity in Scotland
Miles Glendinning and Aonghus Mackechnie
Bloomsbury Visual Arts
ISBN: 9781474283472
Hardback £65; Paperback £24.99

By • Galleries: books, independence

Sometimes publication of a book traps an entire world in amber.  In this case, The Information Book isn't Martin Amis's novel of a similar name, but a glimpse into Scottish architectural practice during the 1930's.

John Burnet trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts during 1870’s.  Afterwards, he joined his father's practice Burnet Son & Campbell, and later established his own in Glasgow with a second office in London set up in 1905, after Burnet won a commission to design the Edward VII galleries at the British Museum.

One of Burnet's key assistants on the project later became a partner: Thomas Tait studied at Glasgow School of Art under the Beaux Arts teacher Eugene Bourdon (after whom the ugly brown brick building on Garnethill is named).  By 1910, Tait was a leading member of Burnet's staff, and played an important part in the design of the Kodak Building in London, considered to be among the first examples of modern architecture in the UK.  

Tait worked for a time in New York and was a highly skilled perspectivist, but is best remembered nowadays for Tait's Tower at Bellahouston Park, part of the 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition. Other notable works include St. Andrews House on Calton Hill in Edinburgh and Hawkhead Hospital in Paisley, along with many projects in London. 

The third leg of the partnership was Francis Lorne, who was by all accounts a skilled manager and also became the spokesman for the practice, arguing that Modern architecture required “a change of heart … only by getting back to architecture as a practical building problem for our own country, our own people, our own climate and conditions of life, can we produce an architecture that will mean something.”

The firm became Burnet, Tait & Lorne in 1930, and the expat Scots working from Glasgow and London grew into the leading British architectural practice during the 1930's, in a way that wasn't repeated until RMJM's glory days of the 1960's.  Big cities are full of opportunity if you're in a position to seize it, which Burnet, Tait & Lorne were able to do during the inter-war period.

It was Francis Lorne who wrote the book “Architectural Office Administration” in 1921, then a decade later pulled together The Information Book of Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne, which should be better known as it's the prototype for the New Metric Handbook, The Architect's Pocket Book and pretty much every other guide to design practice which followed.

Today The Information Book is the best work of reference for 1930’s and 40’s era buildings in Scotland, and the rest of the UK. It’s coloured by the dual influence of North American practice in steel-framed medium-rise office blocks which was particularly influential in Glasgow, plus the Art Deco and Moderne buildings erected in London between the wars which prefigured full-blown Modernism.

Its genesis is described in Christian Barman in the book’s Foreword (for greatest effect, read out loud in your best imitation of Miles Cholmondley-Warner):

“The need for a great compendium of information first impressed itself on me some five or six years ago, when I had not long taken over the Editorship of Architects’ Journal.  The more the task was studied, however, the more difficult it seemed. … The thing was just about as much as a commercially produced periodical, however well intentioned, could ever dare to consider.
“Then, one day, good luck brought a sudden and, I feel, a most happy solution.  Chancing to be at the house where my friends Thomas Tait and Francis Lorne maintain their finely staffed office in partnership with Sir John Burnet, RA, I saw a draughtsman coolly turning the pages of the book of my dreams. … It did not need a close scrutiny of the Information Book to convince me that it was a very superior specimen of the kind of thing I had myself been trying to bring about.”
First published in 1933 by the Architectural Press, in the days when that was run by the splendidly-named Hubert de Cronin Hastings, The Information Book begins with a couple of chapters on the Secretarial Department and Draughting Department.  These describe what we’d now call practice management, and are followed by a series of 147 Information Sheets which cover everything from construction details, brick and board sizes, terminology and electrical symbols to extracts from the Building Regulations. 

It may have begun as an in-house guide to Burnet Tait & Lorne’s office standards and procedures, but The Information Book became universally useful, and Lorne wasn’t the only one to think that a book like this could be handy.  In 1932, “Architectural Graphic Standards” appeared in the US, and twelve editions later it’s still in print and has developed into a doorstop-sized handbook of typologies, ergonomics and design data.  Similarly, Architects' Data, universally known as “Neufert”, was first published in Germany in 1936, and after many German editions it was translated into English in 1970 and published by Lockwoods.
The simultaneous emergence of these three books demonstrates that the 1930’s was an inflection point, where the Modern Movement and its modern methods of construction became properly mainstream.  Structural steel and concrete frames were being widely adopted, so our day-to-day knowledge had to extend beyond traditional building techniques.  As Barman says in his introduction to The Information Book, “It only seems the other day that the main facts about building science could still be got between the covers of a book of average size”.  No longer. 
Neither Neufert nor the later New Metric Handbook tries to cover as much ground, from practice management to design data, as The Information Book ­- but during the intervening forty years so much extra information has come into the world that an architectural “book of everything” would be a massive tome.  As it is, Neufert weighs 2kg.

Reference works such as The Information Book and its cousins were essential in the pre-internet world.  I entered practice at the changeover, when CD-ROM’s and early webpages had begun to supplant technical books.  But we still hung on to brochures and supplements which included priceless information, like the Corus steel sections booklet or Pilkington’s glass guide.  They provided a safety blanket of reassurance, even if you rarely needed to consult them.
Today, Burnet Tait & Lorne’s Information Book is a reminder of two things: firstly that the state of the art eventually becomes a quaint curiosity lurking in an antiquarian’s back room; yet the book also retains some usefulness. It’s one of the few places where you can see how buildings from the 1930’s and 40’s – of which there are hundreds of thousands still standing – were put together, and how we went about achieving that.

ps. Note to book dealers researching their catalogues - please credit me and link to Urban Realm if you find the information in this piece useful. :-)

By • Galleries: books, specification

On photobooks and social media

The enforced sabbatical which Covid-19 gave us could have been an opportunity to think, write and develop ideas into prose which was carefully edited and polished. But by June, lockdown had become oppressive, with worries about work, the health of relatives and a growing unease about the future. It’s difficult to think creatively when you’re distracted by and worried about everyday life.

Rather than trying to speak about one of the many huge, pressing issues which will define the next decade, such as virus pandemics, climate change or equality in all its forms, this is the second half of my previous piece which introduced how photos (architectural or otherwise) reach the Explore page of Flickr or the front page of 500px. In that I discovered what I already knew: online feedback is an anomaly and no substitute for interaction in real life.

Firstly, for architects whose training included studio crits, the biggest issue is that online feedback is often anonymous and disengaged. People offer an opinion, “nice shot”, “well captured”, then move on. Secondly, just as I found, rankings and plaudits on photo sharing websites are affected by how much you comment on other pictures, write about your own pictures, and how often you post the content which those websites rely upon.

Used carefully, Flickr, 500px and the others are a great way to discover people whose work and ideas you wouldn't otherwise come across, but that’s tempered by the fact that there’s a self-inflicted pressure to adhere to a certain style of photo, drawing or painting which attracts praise. It’s easy to become a slave to the faves and likes. There’s also the issue of looking at images on a screen, as opposed to photographic prints or images in a book: not only the colours, but tonal values look very different rendered in ink or silver halide, rather than pixels.

Hence if you’re interested in how architecture is portrayed, instead of relying on likes, faves and comments, if you get the chance it’s worth searching out some of the classic photobooks which you can sit quietly with, look through repeatedly, studying how individual images work and how series of images are put together – and try to learn from them. Plus they might temporarily take you away from the worries of Covid-19 and transport you somewhere else, even for half an hour.

If you’re lucky you might experience what the American photographer Edward Weston called “the shock of recognition”. That’s the feeling when you realise that a photographer has look hard and seen a small part of the world afresh, and thanks to him or her, has enabled us to look and see something brand new. Arguably that's the power of a strong image, to bring us back to something approaching a childlike gaze, which finds wonder in the world then later on draws meaning from it.

In landscape photography for example, you might have come across so-called "vista" photographers, such as Colin Prior, Joe Cornish and Charlie Waite whose high impact and sometimes spectacular images often feature on calendars and postcards. But to my eye, those who photographed "intimate landscapes", in other words more subtle details of rocks, trees and water are more engaging – as with the work of Paul Wakefield and Fay Godwin. They make you look more closely, encouraging you to work out just what it is that the photographer decided was worth capturing and sharing.

Another purpose is to somehow combine reportage or documentary with creative expression or visual poetry, so that the photo has two messages or narratives. One is external and objective, describing what you can see on the surface; the other is internal and subjective, what the photographer was feeling or thinking when they made the shot. If the relationship between the two is successful that makes the image all the stronger and perhaps more likely to strike a chord.

The following photobooks don’t consist exclusively of architectural photos, but they all feature photos of architecture and how it fits into the wider environment. The styles are very different (from New Colour Documentary to pictorial to New Topographic), and I think there’s something to take from each one of them. Hopefully most are available from the larger libraries in cities and universities and colleges, once those reopen in the next few weeks. That’s as opposed to having to buy them from the $1.5tn American online megacorp which in recent years has begun to kill off bricks-and-mortar bookshops across the world.

Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes, “Remains of Elmet”
Eric de Maré, “Architectural Photography”
Paul Strand, “Tir A’Mhurain - The Outer Hebrides of Scotland”
John Davies, “The British Landscape”
Bill Brandt, “Shadow of Light”

Paul Graham, “A1: The Great North Road”
Stephen Shore, “Uncommon Places”
Ezra Stoller, “Modern Architecture: Photographs by Ezra Stoller
Robert Polidori, “Havana”
Edward Burtynsky, “Quarries”


By • Galleries: books, photography

A few years ago, I reviewed a little book about a building refurbishment.  I thought the book was interesting, but pointed out that it might be seen as vanity publishing since it didn’t bear a cover price, a publisher’s name, distribution details or even an ISBN number. 
The book’s author, an expatriate Scot, took great exception to that, and began a heated correspondence with the editor (not of Urban Realm, in this case).  The review was positive and balanced, so people told me, but its author took “vanity publishing” as an insult, perhaps even a personal sleight, and demanded retractions and clarifications.  I hate to think how he’d react to a negative review.

As for the book itself, it consisted of two texts bound together, back-to-back, so that the edition had two front covers. You finish reading the first book (which ends in the middle of the volume), close it then flip through 180 degrees, Janus-like, to begin the second book.

That is a book designer’s gimmick called the tête-bêche binding, and readers may find it either playful or tiresome. Like a 7 inch single with a double A-side, tête-bêche books often bind together two themes which have a loose relationship, yet each is too slight to stand on its own. A more skilled editor might have resolved the books’ themes more effectively, and perhaps a better-developed version of either could have stood alone; together they sit awkwardly on the bookshelf.

Meantime, the book in my hand still lacked a price, publisher or ISBN. It’s a fact that every commercially-published book must list its publisher’s details and ISBN number on the title page or colophon, otherwise neither Amazon nor bricks-and-mortar booksellers like Waterstones will stock it. Nor will it even legally count as a Book, in terms of the National Library of Scotland on George IVth Bridge in Edinburgh, which is a legal deposit library which holds a copy of every single thing published commercially in this country.  Without those details, it’s a Non-Book.
Thousands of non-books are published in Scotland each year, and some of them disappear without trace.  Others have merit, and in time a few of them even become valuable.  Architectural practice brochures from 50 years ago, or sales catalogues from well-known companies which have since disappeared, are invaluable to researchers and students – but strictly speaking none of them are a Book. 

On the other hand, vanity publishing, or self-publishing as it’s sometimes known, has a long tradition in architecture, and has played its part in developing quite a few reputations. For architects, the most obvious thing to do is publish about your work, and often that takes the form of a monograph, a book about a single architect or artist.

Architectural monographs come in at least four distinct types. The first comprises books about already-famous architects from the past such as Mackintosh and Le Corbusier, which are generally commissioned by editors at firms which specialise in Art publishing, such as Lund Humphries, Phaidon and Thames & Hudson.  They’re written by authors with an art historical background and published on a commercial basis: provided the architect is well-enough known, the book will sell in the thousands and make back its money with no bother.
The second category are books about less well-known subjects, which are often published to accompany exhibitions.  They have a short print run and may sell a few hundred copies to the people who attend the exhibition. Afterwards, they may become the definitive (sometimes the only) record of the architect’s work - a good example is the book which The Lighthouse published about Gillespie Kidd & Coia, which is sometimes offered for sale at ridiculous money -

A third type are books about active practices which are commissioned by the practices themselves, and written by architectural journalists who they have a good relationship with.  Often the practice approaches a commercial publisher with a strong Architecture list, such as Artifice Books used to have, and ask them to put the book together.  Usually the practice makes a contribution to the book’s costs, because they recognise it won’t be a big seller, but can be used as a handy marketing tool. Best known are Jim Stirling’s “White Book” and “Black Book”, and the series of volumes which Watermark produced over the years to document Norman Foster’s output.
The fourth category are vanity projects, books written by people with a harmless obsession or a private theory they’d like to share. Perhaps they've been hawked around all the publishers and gained a rejection slip from each one. Possibly the author is determined to make an art project, without a commercial publisher’s backing, and might create a wonderful experiment in print making. Just occasionally, though, something in this category has real merit, saying something that no-one else has. Digital publishing platforms such as Blurb have made this process easier.

When I was researching the crossovers between the street art, urban exploration and train-hopping scenes, self-published magazines or “zines” in the fourth category were crucial.  They’re pretty much the only lasting documentary evidence of sub-cultures which flourished on private internet forums and bulletin boards, then as years passed, faded away. I have a little collection of Not Guilty magazine, Section 61 and UE Magazines, Railroad Semantics and There’s Something About a Train. All of them were put together by amateur publishers, and without them, the scenes from which they grew might have passed unrecorded.
There have been lots of books published about street art and graffiti, fewer about urban exploration, and only a handful about train-hopping. Most of them concentrate on making striking images, but they only touch on what the zines do best – recording the day-to-day experience of people involved with the scene, the incidental stuff which gives us some context and records some details about how a complicated mess came together into a thing.

So vanity publishing gives you something that commercial titles usually don’t. Self-publishing also gives you control over everything: content, layout, copy, editing, production and the choice of paper stock. So to our expatriate friend, attacking the idea of vanity publishing actually betrays a lack of understanding about how publishing works.  There are lots of reasons why we create – but publishing, exhibiting or uploading our work does involve a little vanity, otherwise we’d do it all anonymously, wouldn’t we? A vanity project isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, almost everything we offer to the world involves some vanity; even this blog.

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The classic image of Sea Ranch captures a series of timber-clad gables breaking like saw teeth through a sea of wild grass. The architecture is defined by its landscape: not the heat haze and pollution of L.A.'s sprawl, but the cold, wild coast of northern California which lies three hours beyond San Francisco.

Sea Ranch was influenced by two social themes: the optimism of post-War California and a burgeoning sense of environmental consciousness during the Sixties. You might say it began with a few well-heeled creatives who designed weekend retreats for themselves, far from the noise and hustle of the Bay Area, but it embodied wider changes in society.

The project was orchestrated by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who selected a site on the ocean’s edge and drew up the masterplan in 1965. At that point, Sea Ranch consisted of rough grazing which had never been developed. Houses are clustered around shared open spaces, set back from the sea cliff’s edge, each of them clad in redwood and no higher than 16 feet. There are no streetlights, no lawns, and cars are deliberately hidden away.

The community has its own shop, sports club, open-air swimming pool and even a 3000 foot airstrip. While private flying is popular in the US, the home of Cessna, Piper and Beechcraft, it's still the preserve of a fortunate 1%. That underlines Sea Ranch's exclusivity: these are not cheap holiday lodges, and even today there are only a few hundred permanent residents spread over several thousand acres. Driving from the centre of San Francisco to Sea Ranch up Route 1 takes around three hours; a flight from SFO (San Francisco International) to CA51 (Sea Ranch airfield) takes around 40 minutes in a Beech Bonanza, and I’m sure would be a pleasant way to get there.

Sea Ranch is also defined by what it isn't. It’s not tract housing, nor a gated community of McMansions, nor anything like Disney's town of Celebration. Halprin's strict design code, emphasis on shared space and credo of living harmoniously with Nature attracted a particular kind of person: to begin with, many were Arts graduates from the University of California. According to Becker and Fletcher’s book, many of them still live in the houses they built decades ago.

Several books have been published about Sea Ranch over the years, but this is the best overview I've seen. It's illustrated with a mixture of archive and contemporary photographs along with Halprin's design sketches. The site analysis diagrams, brought to life by coloured pencil rendering, explain the landscape concept very effectively. The text is in-depth, and the project's participants speak at length about the project's gestation and discuss its successes and failures.

As a result, The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism, includes the human interest, personal reminiscence and well-informed retrospective analysis needed to bring its subject matter alive. We learn something about the personalities – many of them most colourful characters – who have directed the Sea Ranch’s course for the past half-century.

Prestel has a broad architecture list, and The Sea Ranch was published in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It's a quality piece of book production, a quarto hardback printed onto heavy art stock with glazed covers and a cloth spine. Graphically it captures the Modern spirit in which Sea Ranch was created.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Half a century later, Sea Ranch doesn’t quite look like Utopia. Halprin’s masterplan succeeded, but more slowly than he hoped. Sea Ranch is a rare 1960’s example of environmentally-conscious architecture, yet as an archetype for community creation, it failed. Like Siedlung Halen in Switzerland, it’s a unique experiment admired by architects – but difficult to replicate anywhere else, so you are left with the sense that The Sea Ranch was a beautiful anomaly when it was begun, and is even more so today in Trump's America.

The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism Joseph Becker, Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher Prestel ISBN: 978-3-7913-5784-3 (Hardcover) £45.00

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"…Although it is still possible, at some risk to life and limb, by climbing across railroad bridges and the like, to see Concrete Central from the other side, that is the less interesting and less familiar side of the complex, offering nothing to the view but hundreds of bins and interstitials.  The more familiar and rewarding view is the one shown in Taut [Bruno Taut's book] of its wharf side and three loose legs, though now it must be seen over a jungle of undergrowth that lies between the river and the lower reaches of Katharine Street.  Closer views are not normally to be had, unless one goes upriver to it by boat or is prepared to undertake an adventurous and circuitous safari on foot – it is completely inaccessible by wheeled vehicles these days – through thickets of red sumac bushes and along rusting rail tracks.

"The journey is worth it, however.  In lonely but not yet totally ruinous abandonment, this huge rippled cliff of concrete dominates a quarter-mile reach of the river.  It is truly enormous in scale; its capacity of four and a half million bushels made it the largest elevator in Buffalo and one of the largest ever built anywhere.  For comparison, it is about twice the bulk of recent megastructures such as Cumbernauld Town Centre or Centre Pompidou, but because it consists almost entirely of closed storage volumes to which there is no casual access, it remains impermeable, secret and aloof.  There are some elevators where one can penetrate into gigantic storage volumes – the Electric [Elevator] extensions of 1940, for instance – and marvel at their sheer dimensions, but at Concrete Central the storage volumes remain as inaccessible as the interior of an Egyptian pyramid, to use an exotic comparison…

"The first time I reached Concrete Central by land, a series of incidents emphasised its abandonment and isolation.  Shrubbery had already begun to grow out of its upper works, inviting a comparison with Roman ruins that was enhanced by the flight of a bird of prey from the head-house at the sound of my approach.  That sound was amplified when my foot crashed through a rotted plywood cover that had been laid over an open culvert.  As I extricated myself, I reflected on my folly: had I sustained an incapacitating injury, rather than mere scratches, in that fall, even those who knew approximately where I was would have no idea how to reach me, after they had finally decided they had waited too long for my return.  I remembered the fate of the Chicago architectural photographer Richard Nickell, lying dead in the ruins of the Schiller theatre for weeks before his body was discovered.

"Yet the sense of distance from help and civilisation was exhilarating rather than depressing; the presence of the huge abandoned structure produced a mood more elegiac than otherwise.  Coming out of the wharf, dominated by the three largest loose legs ever built in Buffalo, now semi-transparent as the winds of the winters had blown away more and more of their rusted corrugated cladding, it was difficult not to see everything through eighteenth-century picturesque visions of ancient sites, or even Piranesi's views of the temples of Paestum…”

This long extract from Reyner Banham’s A Concrete Atlantis - US Industrial Building and Modern European Architecture 1900 - 1925, is not only a sustained piece of good writing, it also sums up many aspects of exploring derelict buildings.  Banham's experiences will be recognised by anyone who has gawped at the Leith Mills in Edinburgh, the Meadowside Granaries in Glasgow or Millennium Mills in London, then found a way inside.

Peter Reyner Banham taught in the architecture programme at the State University of New York at Buffalo between 1976 and 1980.  During his tenure at Buffalo, inspired by the daylight factories and the grain silos of the region, he conducted research that led to A Concrete Atlantis, which charts the development of North American industrial building in the early 20th Century and its influence on European architects.

The scale and abstraction of the grain elevators of Buffalo are exhilarating, and they became one of the inspirations for early Modern architects. Le Corbusier described them as “the magnificent first fruits of a new age” and went on to use them as illustrations in his 1923 book, Vers Une Architecture. Following a visit to see the silos in Buffalo, Erich Mendelsohn wrote that, “Everything else so far seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams."

A Concrete Atlantis is a good book to read if you enjoy armchair exploration, and a unique history and explanation of industrial architecture from the start of the 20th century onwards – particularly grain elevators, like Concrete Central.  Patricia Bazelon's photographs of the grain silos – despite being black and white, and relatively small, are worth buying the book for in themselves – link here.

The book also shows that the more perceptive historians and architecture writers have always explored places physically, rather than writing vicariously using other folks' experiences.  Reyner Banham isn’t the first, and won’t be the last to describe the experience as, "Once you were inside, it was like being in a totally different world." That becomes a feeling you've chased ever since, but perhaps never found again in its entirety.

As I wrote in Blueprint Magazine several years ago, exploring old buildings is personal – it’s something you do to satisfy your own curiosity.  That would appear to be the very definition of a hobby; and like all hobbies, you go a bit mad with it at the start, then chill out once you’ve got over the initial passion to consume it whole.  It’s purely about the joy to be had from exploring hidden aspects of the world.  Banham’s book reminds you of that, too.

A few years ago, there were few external influences on exploring: it was just you with one or two mates, plus the odd photographic book of rusty ruins which puzzled and inspired.  When you discovered that others shared your interest it was a good day, rather than a source of forum rivalries.  Lasting friendships were forged on the rare occasions when people met up by accident in some elysian ruin of scrap iron and ferns.

The motivation for exploring these places are complex, but as John Locke believed, fear gives our lives a shove, without which we would sink into passivity.  With progress comes a mixture of hope and fear; human emotions which we need to experience, but which we rarely associate with architecture.  Instead, we accept places as we find them, unchallenged and unchallenging.

There are many things to overcome; the spiky fence is the least of them.  First is to break with our social conditioning: the mantra drummed into us from childhood to heed the warning signs.  Then there’s our 21st century fear of scrutiny, that Big Brother is watching on the CCTV system.  Next comes a fear of the unknown, accompanied by the retribution which might strike from on high.

Yet curiosity drives a few onwards, and sometimes they become consumed by recording the final throes of a building’s life.  Hopeful to discover a time capsule with intact machinery from Edwardian times; wartime posters still pasted to the walls; a secret passage leading to a hidden room.  They press on, regardless, with scratched arms, dirt under their nails, ripped clothes: mere collateral damage as their eyes gradually open.

After visiting, it may have taken a morning of digging in a faraway library to find next to nothing, and days more to understand a little of the place’s long and complex history.  A clothbound booklet in a dusty box file might be the only footnote about a great company’s past.  Where had its history gone?  Its archives, ledgers, correspondence books and catalogues?  Had no-one documented that before it shut?  What would be left once it crumbled…?

Just one piece of advice; don’t have a Grail.  Because if you’re unlucky enough to carry that Grail in your head for a few years, then finally achieve it, it kills the urge to do anything else.  Ordinary life seems wan afterwards, and other experiences pall.  That’s when it becomes dangerous…

By • Galleries: books, ghosts

A few years ago, I walked into a bookshop in a small town and found a paperback copy of "Atlas Shrugged”.  It was gathering dust on a high shelf – something which had been ordered but never collected, according to the lady bookseller.  That was the beginning of my curiosity about Ayn Rand, and why some architects secretly admire her.

Born to a wealthy family which fled the early days of Bolshevik Russia, Rand is best known for “The Fountainhead”, which is the single worst piece of publicity the architectural profession has received in decades…

The Fountainhead’s main character Howard Roark was reputedly based on Frank Lloyd Wright.  His egotism and will to power are only matched in American fiction by Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ film.  But Rand’s book is much less about the genius of design, more about how he forced buildings into existence through sheer force of will. 

Rand rejected the collectivism of the USSR and instead argued that history is forged by a small élite of so-called great men who she called the “motor of the world.”  Frank Lloyd Wright neatly fits that bill.  These man (and although Rand was a woman, her protagonists are men) are set apart by their ruthlessness and possess what she charmingly terms “the virtue of selfishness”.  According to Rand, they are the “most oppressed minority” because they have to negotiate with unions, follow labour and environmental laws, and pay income taxes.

Rand’s later novel “Atlas Shrugged” tells of a few more great men, led by John Galt, joining together and withholding their contribution to society to protest against having to pay income tax, follow anti-monopoly laws and respect the right of workers to form unions.  They even go so far as to withhold their greatness from an ungrateful society.

We’ve all met people who believe they are indispensable – but indispensability is a delusion.  You struggle to find any proof from history that a business won’t live on without a specific leader or ideology.  The USSR survived Lenin, John Pierpoint Morgan has been gone for 100 years, but the bank bearing his name is still with us.  Even Jaguar Cars carried on without William Lyons, although it’s been a close run thing on several occasions. 

What is capitalism, if not a perfect example of the world moving on from Adam Smith’s time but an idea surviving?

Anyhow, it was a strange decision of Rand’s, making Roark an architect.  He wasn’t fighting intransigence: he was actually fighting against the fundamentals of what architecture is.  Design is a collegiate activity.  Unless you somehow build a house for yourself by acting as your own client, funder, architect, engineer, buyer and labourer all rolled into one, you can’t operate in a vacuum.  Architecture isn’t an act of pure creation in the way that sculpture or novel-writing can be.

Maybe if Roark had been a poet-hero figure such as Ted Hughes, or perhaps like Captain Ahab locked in his duel with the giant whale, then we could accept that the moral purpose of his life was the pursuit of pure self-interest, as Rand claimed.  “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

From an enlightened modern point of view, it’s difficult to subscribe to that.  In the hands of Rand and her modern successors such as the people behind the Adam Smith Institute and the Battle of Ideas, libertarianism – the freedom to act in a free unconstrained way – actually offers licence to a select few to do as they will, to everyone else.  They believe the only path to achieve “liberty” is by supporting laissez-faire capitalism.

But with that, “libertarian” has lost its true original meaning, just as “National Socialism” has little to do with socialism, and Neo-Liberal represents nothing like liberality.  Aside from dreadful acts of misogyny in The Fountainhead, Rand’s so-called objectivism is morally ugly.  Her underlying message – the triumph of the individual over the mass – is actually about psychological mastery.  For her, life revolves around the egotism of winning, and the need to keep score.

Interestingly, I read a while ago that in the US, sales of Atlas Shrugged go up during an economic downturn.  Perhaps its message comforts casualties of the recession.  Instead, it should anger them, because their jobs may have been destroyed by the very laissez-faire capitalists who were inspired by the book in their hands.  I’m sure that Donald Trump, if he reads books, will have a copy of Atlas Shrugged at his bedside.

Another of Rand’s assertions, “Throughout the centuries there were men who took the first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision,” is an example of incomplete thinking and faulty logic.  She suggested that some men are genuinely "self made," and that they alone were the pavers of their own "new roads," but Isaac Newton’s famous non sequitur which is inscribed into the milled edge of the £2 coin, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” comes closer to the reality.

One of those giants is Jeremy Bentham.

Rightly or wrongly, many of us believe that architects need a theoretical base, just as academics should also build things.  You may still end up with compromised buildings – but at least you’re trying to resolve all the competing demands of cost, quality, ergonomics, aesthetics, longevity, and so on by adopting an *approach*.

Utilitarianism is an approach which everyone misquotes.  “Utilitarian” gets a universally bad press.  Too often it means a low spec, plainly-finished thing which is robust rather than stylish, but the term has its roots in what Bentham called "the greatest happiness principle" or "the principle of utility", a term he borrowed from David Hume.  At its crux is the notion that we should do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Bentham wrote, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.”

So, where does happiness reside?  Is there, as Alain de Botton’s book suggests, an Architecture of Happiness?  If so, can we use Bentham’s ideas to measure that happiness?   Well, his abiding concern was the total reform of British society and law based on the principle of utility.  In an effort to apply it to legal reform, Bentham developed the hedonistic, or as it is sometimes called, the felicific calculus.  If the end result of that reform is happiness, then that could be an index of his success.

So referring to a building as Utilitarian Architecture should actually be a back-handed compliment, although “utilitarian” means completely different things to a philosopher and a designer.  Nonetheless, the impact of Bentham's ideas is still powerful today: the words international, maximise, minimise and codification were all coined by Bentham.

Bentham’s other connection with architecture is less obvious.  When he joined his brother Samuel in Russia in 1785, he devised a plan for the Panopticon, a model prison where prisoners would be observable by guards at all times.   The planform ensured that prisoners could never see the “inspector” who surveilled them from the centre of a radial plan.  Because the prisoner never knew whether he was being watched, he was more likely to behave.

He hoped the concept would interest the Catherine the Great but after his return to Britain in 1788, Bentham spent the next 20 years fruitlessly pursuing the idea, spending the bulk of his inheritance in the process.

Bentham also had a great influence over British politics: the Reform Bill of 1832 and the secret ballot both reflected his concerns and his influence spread to some unexpected places.  George Kinloch, the reform candidate for the Dundee constituency, marked his friendship with Jeremy Bentham in a unique way.  The village of Ardler lies in the very heart of Strathmore, and there Bentham Street, one of the shortest streets in Scotland, is named after Kinloch’s friend, the political radical. 

Remember that whereas Rand thought that a person’s own happiness was the moral purpose of their life, Bentham felt that we should do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Which is the fundamentally moral approach?  Just as they dreamed that a rational architecture would bring about a rational society, perhaps a "moral" architecture could improve society's moral fibre.

Of course, just as the moral choices we make are never so clear-cut as Food Bank versus Puppy Slaughter, there are subjects we're wary about tackling.  Bentham had no qualms about addressing emotive issues such as penal reform, religious adherence and egalitarianism – perhaps today we could add sex, drugs, and euthanasia.  In the modern world, Nina Hartley promotes the idea of thinking “sex positive”; Calton Athletic FC championed the harm reduction model for drug addicts, Margo MacDonald supported tolerance zones for prostitution in Edinburgh and pursued a campaign to legislate for the right to assisted suicide. 

It would be easy to condemn some of the people affected, but that spirit of moral improvement has been largely consigned to the dustbin of history.  For that reason it’s worth reading Rand’s books, such as The Fountainhead, even if you find yourself flinging them across the room in disgust.  If nothing else, they demonstrate how some people have a vacuum where the soul would be in a moral human being.

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