Gallery: "books"

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.

By • Galleries: books

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

By • Galleries: books

"…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.

By • Galleries: books

This is an expanded version of my review of City of Darkness Revisited, which was published recently in the RIAS Quarterly.

City of Darkness Revisited is an unusual book about an astonishing place.  Just over twenty years ago, Kowloon’s Walled City was demolished.  In the early 1980’s over 40,000 people lived there, although only 33,000 were officially registered, and at the time it was the most densely-populated place on the planet – all built without the input of an architect. 


The Walled City evolved from a squatter settlement near Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport.  Some 300 buildings, which ultimately rose to 17 storeys, were crammed onto a site of 200 x 100 metres.  The only building code adhered to was a height limit set by the proximity of Kai Tak’s flight path.

KWC confronted the rest of Kowloon along its north edge, the Tung Tau Tsuen Road.  The thoroughfare was lined with the illuminated signs of doctors, dentists and convenience stores; the precarious caged balconies which residents built to extend their apartments cantilevered out above them.  The city’s south and west elevations overlooked a park built after squatters’ huts were cleared in 1985, and this reduction in density introduced more sunlight into the Walled City.

The Wall consisted of a haphazard elevation of balconies, stairs and verandahs – rifts between the apartments provided the narrow pends through which you entered it.  Behind the apartments, many only one room deep, lay a maze of alleyways broiling in heat, humidity and darkness.  There, the City of Darkness lived up to its name, but most stairways led up to the roof where residents could breathe fresh air and escape the claustrophobia.


KWC’s roof was also a place from which to gaze towards Lion Rock to the north and watch the planes taking off and landing at nearby Kai Tak airport.  In fact, the most arresting images from City of Darkness Revisited show just how close the Walled City was to the final approach into Kai Tak.  Aircraft only ever flew “short finals” onto its runway: the approach was steep, followed by a banking turn after which airliners lined up on the VASI lights at the last moment.  At decision height, they were pretty much flying at rooftop level!

The Kowloon skyline is a jumble of skyscrapers and apartment blocks which make up only part of Hong Kong’s urban agglomeration.  KWC’s architectural identity lay in an extreme version of this, and from ground level the way its seemingly chaotic blocks loomed over the conventional Hong Kong streets surrounding it.

With unimaginable density and living conditions, KWC has been described elsewhere as anti-architecture.  Perhaps no architect could have dreamt it, but film designers have since attempted to re-create it.  Outsiders assumed the Walled City was entirely autonomous and lawless, a place of “drug divans, criminal hide-outs, vice dens and even cheap unlicensed dentists,” but the authorities did collect rubbish and supply power and water – although illegal connections were made whenever folk thought they could get away with it.

The Walled City was condemned in the late 1980’s, but even though Lambot and Girard spent five years photographing it, Mr Lui the postman was acknowledged as the only person who knew his way around the whole City.  A network of bridges and corridors at the higher levels meant the City could be traversed without ever touching the ground.  Photographing there, as Lambot admitted, was a constant adventure. “It was pretty easy to get lost in the maze of stairways and corridors whenever you entered the buildings, so I learnt pretty quickly to photograph anything interesting when I saw it as you might never find it again. It was always that combination of being in the right place at the right time with just the right light.”


Since its demolition in 1993, the Walled City’s influence has extended from the film Chungking Express to William Gibson’s “Bridge” novels, which gave rise to the myth of the city as cyberpunk dystopia and went on to inspire both video game designers and urban theorists.  Laurence Liauw's polemical essay, "KWC FAR 12", in MVRDV's book FARMAX, focuses on the density, fluid organisation and blurred typologies of the place. 

Much of KWC’s influence is down to the Lambot and Girards’ original City of Darkness, which was published in the 1994 and has since become a cult book.  Perhaps that has been amplified by the politics of post-colonial Hong Kong, where natives and expats alike feel sentimental towards what the colony once was.

City of Darkness Revisited is a companion volume which develops the authers’ thesis in a larger format.  It’s a 21st century book, in the sense that they funded it through a Kickstarter campaign, and it goes some way towards de-mystifying the Walled City by focussing on its daily life.  Lambot and Girdard combine oral histories, maps and essays with vivid photos which are evocative of a way of life swept away during Hong Kong’s last few years as a colony.  By fusing architectural, social, cultural and photographic material, the book provides a more rounded understanding of the Walled City.


Now to consider what I didn’t have space to discuss in the printed review: why the Walled City grips our architectural imaginations so hard.

Perhaps KWC appeals to a mindset which has outgrown the systematic, rational approach of Modernism.  The growth of the Walled City bred an intense visual complexity, and made it easy for us to view it as an organism which had somehow freed itself from human agency and taken on a life of it own.  The city as organism (bacteria, fungus, beehive, ant’s nest) is a popular metaphor amongst architectural theorists, but one man’s complexity is another’s chaos.

In KWC the many competing forces reached enough of an equilibrium for the city to work in a quotidian way – but it was forever in flux, and more importantly the human forces at work were subtle and unseen.  Even though the facts revealed in City of Darkness prove otherwise, the idea of Kowloon Walled City operating within its own rules – perhaps like a principality such as Andorra, a city statelet along the lines of Passport to Pimlico, or a micro-nation like Sealand – remains an attractive idea.  It harks back to the walled cities of medieval times, and through that, KWC has become a metaphor for some kind of workable anarchy.


One of the book’s many messages is that you can’t legislate for a community like this – in fact, the authorities tried to stifle it at birth.  Another is that the Walled City’s very persistence offers hope that centrally-planned redevelopment projects, which consume vast amounts of time and resources in their assembly, aren’t necessarily the only way forward.  A third theme is that it’s possible for people to live at far greater densities that we acknowledge, but the highest cost in this case is darkness and squalor.  Like La Torre David which I previously wrote about here, the Walled City is not necessarily a “model” to apply elsewhere, but shows that doctrinal Modernism isn’t the only way to achieve high density urban development.

City of Darkness Revisited is the most engaging book I read in 2015.  If you enjoyed other things I’ve written about – such as Lebbeus Woods’ drawings, Lucien Kroll’s architecture, or what the anarchists achieved at Christiania in Copenhagen – you may well enjoy both text and images in City of Darkness Revisited.  It comes from the same vein of socially-engaged poetic inquiry into architecture in its widest sense.

City of Darkness Revisited can bought from the City of Darkness website, or if you’re in Edinburgh, from the RIAS Bookshop in Rutland Square.

All images courtesy of Ian Lambot at Watermark Publications.

Bibliographic details:
Girard, Greg and Lambot, Ian.  “City of Darkness Revisited”  London: Watermark Publications, 2014.  ISBN: 978-1873200889

Other titles about Kowloon Walled CIty include:

Girard, Greg and Lambot, Ian.  “City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City”  London: Watermark Publications, 1999

Miyamoto, Ryuji; Muramatsu, Shin.  “Kau Lung Shing Chai”  Tokyo: Atelier Peyotl, 1988
A small format photo essay about the Walled City, shot on monochrome film.  This is the first edition, and certainly the more valuable for book collectors.

A later edition was published in a different format as:
Miyamoto, Ryuji.  “Kowloon Walled City”  Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1998

Suzuki, Takayuki and Terasawa, Hitomi.  “Large-scale Illustrated Kowloon City” Japan: Suzushi Kuwabara
Large, intricately-detailed cross section drawings of KWC.

Maas, Winy and van Rijs, Jacob.  “FARMAX: Excursions on Density”  Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1998
Expositionary essays about various places including the Walled City.

By • Galleries: books, ghosts

Why do we read biographies?  It’s a question I’ve asked before and one for which I’m still working out the answer.  Many of us have an idle fascination with other peoples’ lives, which is why so many books of biography are produced.  Most are written about well-known or famous people, and we read about them for different reasons.

Perhaps we’re smitten by them; we want to understand the root of their genius; we hope to learn something about how they came about their fortune, or we simply hope that their lives are more interesting than our own.  It helps if the subject has a complicated past: 18-carat love affairs, bankruptcies, court proceedings, that kind of thing.  Driven or downright strange characters are welcome, provided they have redeeming features.  Those who crop at history’s pivotal events are a biographer’s dream. 

As a result, Winston Churchill’s life is one of the 20th century’s most written-about, and he rarely disappoints.  Perhaps, as a biographer himself, he lived his life with an eye on history’s lens.

Architectural biographies are uncommon, probably in proportion to the number of architects which the reading public can name.  Charles Rennie Mackintosh is universally-known, and Norman Foster springs to mind as the only living architect which non-architects have heard of, thanks to his bouncy bridge as much as the viaduct at Millau or the HSBC bank in Hong Kong.  These biographies can be split into three types, including a recent one about Foster by Deyan Sudjic in which his career was allegedly subject to some Stalinist editing.

Visual biographies which combine life and work into one, usually larger format, book with lots of images of the work.  These are usually published by art book-type publishers on art paper, and are often authorised by the subject.  All carry with them the danger of self-glorification, and because the lesser ones are uncritical they become little more than practice brochures.  Visual biogs tend to be reviewed in the architectural glossies.

Full-blown biographies which concentrate on life and people, to which detailed discussion of the work becomes incidental.  These are often produced by publishers with a respected list of biographies, such as Faber & Faber, and whilst sometimes authorised, often include a whiff of revisionism or scandal.  They are sometimes researched while the subject is living, but are often published after their death – witness Susie Harries’ book about Nikolaus Pevsner.  These full-blown books tend to get serious notices in the broadsheets.

A handful are vanity publications – titled “A Life in Architecture”, or something similar – which are written by architects in their 70’s or 80’s with an eye to posterity.  These are self-published or put out by small presses and rarely get reviews.  The reason for that isn’t that the architect was unexceptional, rather that the book has greater value as a representation of the context or milieu in which they practiced.  In a similar way, Colonel Siefert took the role of a walk-on villain in books such as Oliver Marriott’s “The Property Boom”, which isn’t a biography at all, but includes many pen portraits.

In the first category are Alan Powers’ books on Albert Richardson or Tayler & Green which pull together both career and life, providing glimpses of how they fitted together.  Rutter Carroll’s biog of Ryder & Yates is also a model of this approach, whereas Miles Glendinning’s long-awaited book on Robert Matthew is definitive but spoiled by its rather dry tone, and the author’s agenda.  Namely, to concentrate on certain aspects of his subject’s career at the expense of others.  There are so many aspects to draw upon: Lorimer, Royal Festival Hall, Turnhouse, work for the Hydro Board, Universities, Power Stations, New Town and conservation work, New Zealand House, and the International and Commonwealth architecture bodies?  Perhaps you can’t fit them all into 624 pages.

The second type of biography includes Bryan Appleyard’s book about Richard Rogers, an authorised biography from 25 years ago, which is one of the best on a Modern architect.  Rogers is sympathetically drawn, his humanity and flaws are illustrated without dwelling on them, and a picture emerges of him, his work, and his view of the world.  Of course, there’s a supreme difficulty in trying to relate someone’s character to the work they produce: for example, was the Pompidou Centre competition really a happy accident, won by a crew of innocents?  If you read these books with the aim of pinning down the essence of the man or woman in order to figure out how they design, and then steal that essence - you’ll set the book down and walk away disappointed.

Appleyard’s tales of James Stirling stealing ashtrays from posh hotels are nothing compared to the indiscretions about “Big Jim” in Mark Girouard’s book of the same name.  The latter was somewhat less authorised than Appleyard’s book about Rogers, and discusses an architect in the past tense.  While everyone cares about their reputation, and descendants leap to their defence once they have passed on, it’s true that you can’t libel the dead.  A bad biography is a poor read, but won’t usually result in legal action.  But Big Jim is another excellent book, which provides a unique insight into the man which his carefully-curated oeuvre displayed in the Black Book and White Book could never do.

Naturally, the best-known architects have had several books written about them.  Modern masters like Aalto are portrayed as universal men.  Corb appears like a Nietzschean force of nature, and Frank Lloyd Wright lived several lives over the course of his lifetime.  Both are huge characters who biographers struggle to contain within one book.  Architects such as Louis Kahn are different.  An air of tragedy surrounded him, and the unrealised projects became even more poignant once you learn more about his life, and the circumstances of his death.  This book achieves an sad, elegiac quality, whereas Nigel Warburton’s book about Erno Goldfinger is pure melodrama.

You get the feeling there were more, even darker and stranger, things which Warburton could have told us about Goldfinger, but was unable to do.  Charismatics are a problem to the biographer, because they tend to be “controlling”, and make efforts to edit their own past.  Goldfinger‘s wartime career was lived like an Alastair Maclean novel.  His practice was a testing place to work and his personality overhung everything it produced.  Towards the end of their life, men and women like Goldfinger make bonfires of their scrapbooks, diaries and photos; perhaps they develop an uncanny sense that someone will come along afterwards and do a hatchet job on them.

In fact, primary sources are everything.  Without the chance to interview the subject, you approach their friends and colleagues.  Once they’re gone (and only if their estate co-operates, back to the authorised approach) you can read through your subject’s personal papers.  If those have been burned, you have to rely on anecdote and speculation, perhaps filled out with snippets from the Press of the day, and photos of the buildings.  This is why some lives are written at article length when you know fine that they deserve an entire book.

Of the third type of biography, I would have loved to see a book on Peter Womersley’s life, although Rutland Press never did get around to publishing it.  Perhaps it will appear yet in another form.  I seem to recall a few minor press biographies cropping up in book dealer’s catalogues, one example from an architect-planner from Edinburgh, whose name eludes me just now… and I once came across a slim book about the life and ideas of a self-taught architect-monk who designed his own monastery with radically-detailed brickwork.  The market for books about self-taught architect-monks must be limited – although I lent it to someone who didn’t return it, so perhaps there is more of an appetite than I give credit for.

There are parallels in other disciplines.  One in particular was written by a naval architect, the splendidly-named Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, who was the Admiralty’s Director of Naval Construction, in overall charge of designing the biggest capital ships for the Royal Navy during the spell between the Wars when it was the world’s most powerful.  In it you’ll discover that he treats his career in a humble and self-deprecating way and downplays his achievement in creating the world’s largest and most complex machines for Churchill (there he is again) when the latter was First Sea Lord.

The protagonist never comes across as a “man of destiny”, yet he made the most of his circumstances and a peculiar combination of destiny, personality and luck came good.  So apart from the banal conclusion that great architects didn’t necessarily lead great lives, it’s true that some characters deserve a book about themselves, far more than their contemporaries deserve a book written about their work.

There are many books in print or available second hand about the lives of Winston Churchill, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.  As for the others I mentioned,

Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, by Susie Harries; Pimlico, 2013

Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture, by Deyan Sudjic; Phoenix, 2012

Sir Albert Richardson: 1880-1964, by Simon Houfe, Alan Powers, John Wilton-Ely; RIBA Publications, 1999

Ryder and Yates, Rutter Carroll; RIBA Publications, 2009

Modern Architect: the Life and Times of Robert Matthew, by Miles Glendinning; RIBA Publications, 2008

Richard Rogers: A Biography, by Bryan Appleyard; Faber & Faber, 1986

Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling, by Mark Girouard; Chatto & Windus, 1998

Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style - A Life in Architecture, by Carter Wiseman; W.W. Norton, 2007

Ernő Goldfinger: The Life of an Architect, by Nigel Warburton; Routledge, 2004

Peter Womersley, by Joseph Blackburn and Simon Green; Rutland Press, not published.

Dom Paul Bellot: Architect and Monk and the publication of Propos d'un batisseur du Bon Dieu, by Peter Willis; Elysium Press,1996

A Shipbuilder's Yarn; The Record of a Naval Constructor, Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt; Hutchinson, 1948

By • Galleries: books

It can be difficult to represent someone in words, if you try to balance truth to your subject with a racy narrative.  If the subject is still around, they may well take offence at their portrayal.  As Thomas Carlyle roared at a portrait painter - "You have turned me into a devious-looking mountebank, full of violence, awkwardness, atrocity and stupidity, without recognisable likeness.”

Two possible solutions are to write only about dead folk, as they can’t object to your libels, or to work on authorised biographies and ghosted autobiographies.  That way you avoid causing offence, but also run the risk of missing the colour which makes for a better tale.  At the moment I’m researching an article about a Scots architect who was once well known but appears to have been forgotten by subsequent generations.  The trick here seems to be to reveal the man through his work, or other aspects of his life, yet the successful architectural biography is a rare bird. 

The only full, satisfying biography of a modern architect which I’ve read in the past few years is “Big Jim” by Mark Girouard.  Piece by piece, the author builds up Stirling’s character through episodes and asides, until you feel you understand something about how he ticked as a man, as much as an architect.  The doorstop which Miles Glendinning wrote about Robert Matthew is a feat of scholarship rather than a ripping yarn, which is a shame, but a book one third the length might have illuminated Matthew’s character more brightly.  Deyan Sudjic’s recent book about Norman Foster is overpoweringly un-critical, which suggests that it tells one side of an interesting story.  I’m struggling to think of others, so perhaps we should take a step back and ask what the architectural biography is for.

“He wanted the world to see what he did, not who he was,” said Don Warrington in tribute to Leonard Rossiter, the actor who played Rigsby in Rising Damp.  Put simply, you can split people into two types – the people who “are”, and the people who “do”.  The former are extroverts who rely on personality and charisma – or their face may be their fortune, as folk used to say.  Many books about architects are really just a catalogue of their work, with very little consideration of its creator – they are people who “do”.  In fact, many are keen to let nothing obscure the work and for them, ego is manifested in what they create.  As a result, they are happy to talk about their work, but have little to say about themselves.  In this era of celebrity culture, that may be a blessing.

Others are so strangely driven about their vocation that there is little to say about them – husbands, wives, children and hobbies have been ignored, to the extent they aren’t complete people, and a proper biography would only show up that lack.  The most impressive people in any sphere, though, are keen to learn about all aspects of the world, and to satisfy their own curiosity through experience.  They have many facets, and arguably make better biographical subjects because they have lived life more fully.  That’s why Frank Lloyd Wright has proved to be a popular subject within an unpopular genre.  Guns, dames and the genius of the self-proclaimed greatest architect who ever lived.

Beyond that, there’s a vain hope that you may stamble across a meta-biography, or in simple terms a book which tells us about architects as a type, or even reveals the fountainhead where ideas come from.  Vain, because when you consider it, much of what we do stems from personal experience, and it’s mostly subjective.  A fascination with wing-shaped canopies, structural trees, or porthole windows is easy to explain: chances are the subject of the biography spotted one elsewhere and decided they liked the look of it.  Yet archetypal forms come from far deeper in the psyche.  You are unlikely ever to discover where unconscious doodles, which eventually develop into sketch plans, magic gizmos, or screenprint patterns, actually come from.

So that leaves us with raw description, interpretation and critique when it comes to someone’s work, rather than any true insight into how their mind worked.  Similarly, assessment of the subject’s character may come directly from a long and close friendship, but more likely sources are interviews with friends and family, phone conversations about them, and long rambling emails or letters full of anecdotes.  From experience, these often tell you more about memory’s power of retention for trivia than the person in question.  You need a good cicerone to guide you through the difficult land that lies between recollection and fact.

After all, forming a critical opinion of a person is far removed from writing about a building.  The quicksilver personality of some creative people makes them elusive; others compartmentalise their lives and seem to keep separate, unrelated groups of friends in different spheres.  Those people, who knew him in different contexts, will take away very different impressions of who their friend was.  Not only can the biography give a wrong impression, but sometimes the person portrayed is violent, awkward, atrocious, or stupid – and with luck you may find someone who combines these traits.  A barely fictionalised account of one of Dundee’s gangster property developers springs to mind…

The architectural biog. has one advantage over other examples of the form: in getting anything built, there are guaranteed to be fights, fallings out and bitter criticism, as well as more positive emotions.  Provided the biographer can tap into the nervous energy, and set it into the context of how it serves the building, then it should help us to understand something about architecture’s means.  In that respect, the story of the Sydney Opera House has only been partly told, and the Scottish Parliament was barely uncovered, despite all the newspaper and TV coverage.  Maybe one day we’ll be able to read Enric Miralles’ memoirs, or Brian Stewart’s biography?

So, what’s the architectural biography for?  A marker for posterity, a valediction, a piece of entertainment … or is it as Carlyle himself thought – “All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books”.

My next piece for Urban Realm is a review of a new building in Dundee which is 100 years old, and the following one lined up for the blog will toy with the facts…

By • Galleries: books

Since all fifty of the articles I wrote for the Lighthouse website have disappeared, in its slow motion takeover by A+DS, I’ve lost a great deal of what folk call “web presence”.  Thankfully I have the original files sitting on this Powerbook so from time to time I’ll re-post pieces which are appropriate to current events or what I’m working on now.  This one was originally posted in December 2007, and will be followed by some new thoughts in light of the swingeing cuts meted out by the current Tory government…

From the moment of its birth, Scotland was shaped by war.  Our country was forged in battle by the great Pictish warrior kings – Onuist, Nechtan, Drosten – and victory over the Northumbrians over 1300 years ago created a Scottish nation with its heart in Strathmore, the Angus valley which separates Highland Scotland from the Lowlands.  As a result, our architecture is martial – the characteristic Scots building is the castle.

From prehistoric hill forts such as Dunadd, Bennachie and the Caterthuns; through rock fastnesses like Stirling, Dunottar and Edinburgh, the line continues through Ruthven Barracks which dates from the time of the ‘45, to Fort George, which is still used as a garrison by the Army.  Modern Scotland is shot through with our bellicose attitude, and given expression by the massed ranks of the Tartan Army; a national anthem – Flower of Scotland – which taps into the spirit of Bannockburn; through to the stature of Rob Roy, the Wallace and the Bruce in our national pantheon alongside Burns, Hume and Adam Smith.  We’re imbued with a warlike character.

Mons Meg

Yet this belligerence is not sentimental, nor a thing of the past.  Modern Glasgow was shaped by two world wars: Beardmore, Fairfields, John Brown and the many other Clyde shipyards built the most powerful navy the world has ever seen.  War also created a legacy of fortifications, and not just at Scapa Flow and the inches in the Forth, but in concrete blockhouses and pillboxes and gun emplacements from the Clyde to Invergordon to Loch Ewe.  The world’s largest explosives factory was built outside Annan.  In fact, Beardmores were the first integrated arms company in the world, building battleships, submarines, airships, aircraft engines and excelling in many of these disciplines.  In fact, the armistice of 1918, with the resulting treaties and “peace dividend” were extremely bad news for them, as their R&D work on new technologies came to an abrupt end.

Today, if we were allowed inside Faslane, Coulport and Glen Douglas, the naval bases on the lochs north of the Clyde, we would find an impressive series of sheds and underground caverns packed with giant conveyors, robotic forklifts, and smart-chipped parts for ships and submarines.  Lossiemouth is the RAF’s largest fast jet base, and with its sister stations at Kinloss, Milltown and Tain is effectively a small military city sitting alongside the rapidly-growing town of Inverness.  Cape Wrath on the far north-west tip of Scotland is given over to a giant bombing range; and the enormous runway at Machrihanish, once the Master Diversion airfield for transatlantic flights suffering problems, has been used for many secretive test flights.

Britain, despite the talk of its being a failing power in world terms, spends more on defence per capita than any other country in the world, except the United States.  Several weeks ago, on 27th November, HMS Diamond was launched into the murky waters of the Clyde from BAE Systems’ shipyard at Govan, whose slipways used to belong to the mighty Fairfield Shipbuilders.  Diamond is the latest in a fleet of new destroyers, each costing £600m, which are claimed to be the most advanced in the world, and whose destructive capability exceeds that of a WW2 battlecruiser.  Aside from the superlatives, it is obvious that this is a new type of ship – the angular planes of its superstructure, and the polyhedral, faceted surfaces of its bridge instantly make it different from everything which went before.  There are no cluttered masts antlered with aerials, spinning dishes, revolving radars, Bofors gun barrels poking out… it’s a Stealth ship.

HMS Diamond

Opposite the toastrack blocks at Glasgow Harbour, the shipbuilders are creating something genuinely new.  The buildings have bolted steel frames, and are clad in EPDM-gasketed curtain walling, which are techonologies from the 1890’s and 1950’s respectively.  In contrast, BAE’s ships have nothing in common with their predecessors – their powerplant, hullforms, armaments, sensors, structures, materials have all changed beyond recognition.  HMS Diamond makes the new buildings opposite look old-fashioned, and makes other ships seem traditional and reactionary.  In the first years of this new century, Stealth geometry has taken over from fractal geometry of the 1990’s as a new paradigm.  Stealth influences many things – the American F22 Raptor aircraft, the Lamborghini Reventon sports car, and its entree into the construction industry, Plasma Studios’ architecture.  Today, Deconstructivist architecture has discovered military aesthetics – and however inappropriate a technology transfer, we use low radar signature shapes for visual effect.

Today, we are living through the onset of digital war: satellite imagery and smart bombs with TV cameras in their noses, and the influence of the military has returned.  The nightly news assaults us with terrorism and guerrila warfare, but that is only a part of it.  We are returning to the total war, a concept born in WW2 where the whole of society bent itself to a military end, and everything was militarised.  With the current round-the-clock coverage of a troubled world, we are more aware than ever of the role of the military.  As a result, camouflage, epaulettes and forage caps are back in fashion, and “Stealth” is the modern aesthetic.

The close parallel to the progress of Stealth is the way “streamlining” became fashionable during the Art Deco 1930’s, as a metaphor for speed.  Speed was the holy grail in those days of the Mallard locomotive, the Bluebird car and the S6B aircraft.  Even today, vehicle designs pick up on steamlining as a design cue, even though that's absent from architecture nowadays.  Stealth is a metaphor for how we live now – survivalist, commando-style, terrorist-proof.  it is inevitable that our architecture will reflect the rest of society.  Already, the unconventional war being fought againist terrorists has affected the detailing of our architecture.  There are concrete blockade barriers outside buildings, dragons’ teeth on access roads, and polylaminated glass to resist bullets and bombs.  CCTV and PIR systems have become universal on new buildings.  Measures to counter ram-raiders in the 1990’s have become the means to defeat car-bombers today.

Alvis Titan bridgelayer

Alongside building the world’s most advanced warships, Britain is the world’s largest maker of armoured vehicles, thanks also to BAE Systems and its Alvis, Vickers, and Hagglunds subsiduaries.  The Armstrong Works turns out the Titan bridgelayer, a hugely impressive piece of kinetic sculpture powered by a 1200hp engine, which can build a 26 metre bridge span within two minutes – and can go on to span gaps of 60 metres.  The country which invented the tank has developed the tracklaying vehicle to a point where 60 tons of steel and composites can travel cross-country over fields and ditches at up to 50mph.  Tanks, just like medieval castles, have glacis – the sloping surfaces which deflect artillery.  However, these flat polyhedral shapes – which you would imagine might increase visibility to radar – actually reduce it.  Diamond and the other Type 45 destroyers, each displacing alomost 8000 tons, are said to appear li\ke a fishing boat on enemy radar screens.

The military works with a precision and swiftness which puts the construction industry to shame – although military spending is around 2.2% of Gross Domestic Product, whereas the construction industry represents around 6.5% of GDP, depending on which indicator you use.  Draw your own conclusions.  We publish books like “Why is the Construction Industry so Backward?”, yet the answers are there if we wish to look for them.  We can use Vickers as an illustration.  The Vickers company used to make ships, bulldozers, steel and cement plant.  As time went on, its management saw that more promise lay in ships and steel than bulldozers and cement, because the margins were higher, and each time the construction industry suffered a depression, the factories which made bulldozers and cement plant stood idle.  Today, Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering (now part of BAE Systems) operates one of only three or four shipyards in the world capable of building nuclear-powered submarines.

So what?  The relevance is the increasing influence of the military sphere on civil society.  All through our history – and that of our European peers – war was a regular occurence, as Hobbes, Malthus and many others predicted.  From the Boer War, the Great War, WW2, Korea, Suez, the Falklands, Bosnia, to the two Gulf Wars, the last century was shaped by it.  Designers admire military design, for its utility, its robustness, and austere functionalism – and because we were exposed to the aesthetics of war for so many years.  However, after the founding of CND, followed by the Peace movement in the 1960’s, meant that the military realm was increasingly distanced from civil society.  After all, the Peace movement is an anti-War movement, and society was worn out by the all-out militarism of the first half of the twentieth century.  The influence of the Ministry of Defence waned, and military programmes like the TSR2 were cut back.  When it was axed, the TSR2 was the world’s most advanced warplane, at least five years ahead of any other aircraft.

TSR2 prototype

There’s a commonly held truth that war drives technology forwards.  The military-industrial complex which developed electronics, information displays and plastics for aircraft like the TSR2, also indirectly created many of the things with which we define our civilisation– microwave ovens, computers and the internet, G.P.S. systems.  They all spun off from what Churchill called “war science” – and although most people feel that we spend too much money on machines for killing people with, we happily accept the progress in civil society which comes only from warlike aims.  Swords into ploughshares, we move forwards by adapting war materiel to peaceful ends.  Of course, this is one of the finest examples of moral relativism that you’re ever likely to come across… and today we are living through a strange inversion of society, where civilian life is violent and filled with aggression, stemming from terrorism to gang culture and video games; whereas the military take on peacekeeping roles, and sailors can be kidnapped without a shot being fired.  But we were aware of everything that happened to the sailors, in real time.

The result of it all is that the military have a far greater grip over the public imagination, and ordinary peoples’ lives, than we acknowledge.  As a result, the military’s culture and tropes – like Stealth – are part of a wider currency that we all understand.  Since belligerence is part of the human character set, it’s better than we understand that and benefit from it, rather than trying to repress it.  Thousands of years of history prove that we can’t.

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