Gallery: "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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Mutuality – our ability to help one another – depends on opportunity and altruism, but at its root lies shared values.  A willingness to find common ground, whether through education, the quotidian of working alongside someone for years, or friendships struck up through a common interest, is the thing that matters.  Maybe that’s why the Big Society is struggling to catch on.  It’s an paradoxical notion, this edict from the top down to be “bottom-up”, especially as it comes from the political right who not so long ago declared there was no such thing as society.  In fact, if you are prepared to go out into the world and live, show your worth and share what you have, then you will always find people happy to help you in return.  Sometimes politicians become blind to the fact that they’re human, too.

Perhaps the epiphany came when I was hundreds of miles from home in a suburb of Manchester, where I’d crashed out on a futon in the spare room of a redbrick terrace.  We spent the evening sharing experiences, then pasta for breakfast, sweep the Rizlas from the ashtrays and thanks to our samaritan.  Everyone was a little bit richer for having shared the things we held in common, then after the morning showers cleared we thought about hitting the motorway – maybe stopping off en route to have a look at a huge rotting seminary somewhere deep in Lancashire.

Today, the Young Turks coalesce around internet movements, keen to challenge the risk-averse world we live in, to seek out some kind of imagination and adventure in a world which increasingly holds us back.  In the 20th century, it was politics that fired people up: Kropotkin’s plans for Mutual Aid; the Red Clydesiders during the Great War, the Jarrow Marchers during the Depression, the French radicals of the late ‘60’s, the UCS Work-In during the 1970’s.  Earlier this year, I mentioned the last of these, to mark the passing of Jimmy Reid.  Another notable who wasn’t around to see in 2011 is Colin Ward, who was referred to as an “anarchist philosopher” in many obituaries.  He may have been seen as such by his obituarists, but most of all, he was the man who put into practice what the Situationists and other radicals of Paris ‘68 talked about, argued about, and chain-smoked Gitanes about in Rive Gauche cafes. 

Ward’s ideas may not have begat the “The Big Society”, but they had everything to do with mutual aid and cooperative self-help.  He believed that social policy should be conceived from the ground up.  His interest in housing issues led him to support squatting movements, housing co-ops and self-builders – he promoted practical, grass-roots action over utopian dreams of revolution.  “Anarchy, for Colin Ward, is simply any social space in which the techniques of mutuality predominate. It is a social space which people enter and leave freely; relate as equals; and do something creative, to solve a problem, meet a need, or just enjoy creativity for its own sake.  And the aim of anarchism is to try to push and shove society in the direction of greater anarchy in this sense.  Thus, Ward emphasised that anarchy is, in fact, already very much part of our social world.”

On a recent trip to Bristol, I spotted a housing co-op in practice: a relatively rare thing in the UK, but which makes up for the fierce poverty and dereliction in the city, summed up by the burnt-out concrete shell of the Parcelforce depot which glowers over Temple Meads station.  In any other British city, land values for such a prime site would have seen it re-used or cleared long ago.  The housing co-operativists took a tract of waste ground with a derelict workshop on it and built their own houses there, with a minimum of state or council interference.  They follow a quiet tradition.  Immediately after WW2, displaced people squatted recently-vacated military camps, organising their own communal services.  Then, in the 1970s, a similar movement erupted across vacant local-authority properties, starting out as inner city squats which evolved into the long-term housing co-operatives which still exist.

Out of all the things I’ve written about for this website, or in print for various magazines, the idea of buildings springing from a “systematic anarchy” is the most deeply-rooted.  It was planted some time in the 1990’s, and underlay my Honours dissertation, which saw me set off in search of a sustainable architecture rooted in low-tech salvage and re-use.  Arguably it was spawned by the casual recycling which has always gone on in the farms and woodyards of Angus, which is the antithesis of the architect’s dream of the walled city as a self-sufficient environment, a city-state on its own as a cyberpunk setting, dystopian hive city, or an overpopulated arcology.

Years ago I knew an old guy called Jim Murray who lived in one of a row of cottar houses that lie behind Dundee, at Burnside of Duntrune.  He made his living by fixing up old bikes – he had several sheds full of them – and the most he would charge for one was a tenner.  They weren’t bonny to look at but they were mechanically sound, and affordable for folk on a low wage, or a laddie saving up from his paper round.  His culture of salvage and repair is alien to the portrayal of cycling these days – the advertising and editorials in bike magazines shows shiny modern 24-gear bikes with carbon fibre frames and suspension forks.  The bikes cost over £1000, and represent the technological, consumerist fix which I’ve discussed before – but there’s no point in encouraging people to cycle if they can’t afford a bike. 

The same argument should be applied to buildings.  By 2008, British society had reached a point where many people were latched to houses they couldn’t afford, and this affected both home owners and people renting in the private sector, too.  The more “systematic” of the anarchists offer an alternative: they follow a tradition of folk who still believe in the notion of society as a two-way process, although I suspect they read mainly Tolkein and Hesse in their youth.  Many adhere to a very conventional non-conformism, in Jonathan Meades’ apt phrase – and certainly some of the buildings created by them at Findhorn, and the C.A.T. in Machynlleth, have more than a passing resemblance to hobbit houses – but the underlying principles are sound even if the resulting buildings don’t appeal to architectural sensibilities.

Lucien Kroll is one of few architects to actually build in this way – not only carrying out the social engagement which Ralph Erskine did at Byker, or enabling people to muck in with construction, as in Walter Segal’s schemes – but providing a matrix within which people can change everything about their houses, using whatever materials they have to hand.  Kroll’s scheme at Alencon is the opposite side of the sustainability coin to the “bolt-on High Tech” approach based on expensive photo-voltaics, aero-generators and electric cars which our Big Government seems keen on.  Lucien Kroll took on the doctrinaire approach of Belgian bureaucrats because he realised that, rather like this Big Society caper, there’s no point in discussing any kind of “society” unless you can provide a roof over heads at a price people can pay.

I’ll carry on this train of thought in a future article…

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It’s an ill wind – or as the Dutch say, "De een zijn dood, is de ander zijn brood", the translation of which is "One’s dead, is the other one's bread" meaning that someone’s misery or death is another’s money or pleasure.  That’s the common portrayal of demolition: a one-way process with an obvious outcome.  However, the story of a building’s demise is more complex than that.

Just like young married people sometimes glance wistfully at strangers, wondering idly what their life might have been like had they chosen differently, we look at the shells of old buildings and speculate how their story might have continued if they hadn’t been earmarked for redevelopment.  Architecture falls in and out of use – but its end can come quickly, or be subjected to a long drawn-out knell.  Demolition for salvage is a gradual operation, the unlayering of history as a building is gradually un-built, recounting its story on rewind.  The demo contractor has to do a risk assessment, then the area has to be securely fenced to prevent folk straying into a machine's swing or the "danger" area where rubble might fall.  The hoarding also discourages his equipment from sprouting little legs and wandering off into the night.  Asbestos remediation can hold up work for months: outwardly nothing happens, but inside, Wombles in spacesuits work in a polythene tent to remove the white candy-floss wrapped around pipes and boilers. 

On the other hand, the grim reaper sometimes wears fluorescent yellow, and instead of a scythe, he wields a 40-ton full-slew with a wrecking arm.  In that case, the demo process is swift and unrelenting.  Of course, the end to end all ends is explosive demolition.  The blowdown is terminal: chimneys and tower blocks are imploded using Dr. Nobel’s chemical linctus, atomising masonry in the process.  The techniques go back hundreds of years to the first engineers – military as opposed to civil engineers – who under-mined enemy strongholds and planted gunpowder in their burrowings.  Once the charges were set, they ran like the Earl of Hell himself was on their heels, in case the gunpowder fuse burned faster than it should.  Today, firms like Safedem and Controlled Demolition use modern plastic explosives, whose performance is a little more predictable.

Very few people appreciate destruction for its own sake: its connotations are almost always negative, but the Dadaists and other art movements knew that there is a special energy released by smashing things up.  Wee boys enjoying smashing things up, too, and it gives them pleasure.  Yet the habit of destroying stuff is drummed out of them by parents and authority figures: it’s anti-social because it conflicts with the values of the society they’re being trained to live in.  If creativity is overseen by sensitive souls in polo-neck jumpers and designer glasses, destruction is orchestrated by chortling demons in top hats.  It embodies all the stereotypes we’re taught to vilify: the evil developer destroying our heritage; the slum landlord having his lackey burn down a tenement for the insurance money; the mindless neds venting their frustrations by smashing things up.  Empty pubs are occasionally hit by “brewer’s lightning”, a selective bolt from the blue which burns out licensed premises while leaving their neighbours intact.

Nevertheless, the process of destruction can be fascinating, and it can have positive, aesthetic qualities.  One of the more thought-provoking books I’ve read is “Memento Mori” by Peter Mitchell, a photographic journal of the slow death of the Quarry Hill estate in Leeds.  It was a huge block of council flats built in the 1930’s as an early experiment in concrete prefabrication: by the late 1970’s, it had been condemned, and Mitchell began making trips into the empty buildings with his camera.  At first unofficially and then with the demolition company’s sanction, he produced a series of square, medium format photographs with a melancholy beauty to them: most of all they capture an atmosphere.  The feeling is that evoked by Joy Division’s song “Decades”, recorded around the same time in a similarly run-down Northern city. 

These images of destruction may seem antithetical to creativity, but you need to see both sides, and de-generation is the necessary precursor to re-generation.  “And decay proceeds as inevitably as growth,” as Louis Sullivan wrote. “Function is declined, structures disintegrate, differentiation is blurred, the fabric dissolves, life disappears, death appears, time engulfed. The eternal life falls. Out of oblivion into oblivion, so goes the drama of creative things.”  Often we’re too close to the subject matter to see that it’s part of a cycle which has been changing our cities for over a thousand years.

Set against this personal vision of decay, and mourning over the loss of our memories as buildings disappear, are the demo men.  They have less regard for aesthetics – instead, they have an especial kind of gallows humour.  They’re easy to spot: in plaid shirts, clorty jeans and rigger boots, their hard hats decorated with JCB stickers, they make their way to Greasy Shiela’s mobile death van for their midser.  A chip roll, or a fried egg trapped between two Aberdeen butteries, both liberally spread with bacon dripping.  Health food!  I can hear their furry arteries screaming from here.  In time they return to giant Tonka toys, climb into the caged cabs, fire up V8 turbo-diesels – and as the hydraulic pumps whine into action, they cross-hair their target.  The joystick is tipped forwards, 500 horsepower roars at 2500rpm, and a giant steel arm slices through a leaf of brickwork – spilling copings, windposts and mortar dust onto a smoking heap.

This is the experience which architectural critics – noted for their Italian suits and lily-white hands – scrupulously avoid.  They have not experienced the sensation of scrambling up a mound of demolition arisings – or put on a harness and climbed on top of a crane cab for a better view.  As a result, they miss the essence of what a building is.  They miss out on the asbestos survey; the metal salvagers with beat-up Sherpa vans and flame cutters; the hydraulic peckers and breakers moving across the landscape like prehistoric predators; and the mobile crusher which renders architectural history into dust. 

The effort is worthwhile, as the endnotes of a building’s history reveal things which everyone, including the building’s architects, forgot long ago.

The photos portray the last days of an industrial foundry in the English Midlands which I recorded prior to its demolition.  They will hopefully form the basis of a longer article about the foundry’s history, and the building’s parallel evolution.

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A blustery autumn day in 2035 – two figures walk along the sea wall at Marine Parade.  Dead leaves whirl around their feet, and a sere wind whips the dark Tay.  The giant blocks of stone are encrusted with barnacles and reid tangles.  In the distance, the old Victoria & Albert museum stands derelict, jutting into the river like something from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

As they approach a rusting barrier in front of the building, the pair stop and both look up at the building, which is shaped like an old-fashioned spaceship, something from 50 years ago.  The man is in his fifties, wearing a thick black overcoat; a few steps away is a young woman, less than half his age, with a parka pulled up tightly around her chin.  They carry on walking across a pontoon, into the shadow of the building, and up to a boarded-up set of doors which are covered in graffiti.  A demolition company’s signboard is nailed across their stiles.

The windswept space on the landward side of the building is empty, and a chip wrapper scoots along the ground, then suddenly rears into the air driven by a gust of wind.
–Bit of a waste, this place?
It’s jist a white elephant, no wonder they’re pullin it down.
–But it must have been futuristic at the time it was built?
“From what I mind, they were jist lookin for something that looked flash”
–That’s pretty superficial.
“Why else would ye build it like this, pokin out into the river?  Plenty solid ground out Riverside Drive.”
“They had a carry on about which design to choose.  Didnae matter in the end.  They all end up the same.  Rubble.”

The long white tiles which clad the hull of the spaceship stream with dirt, and seagull crap is piled up on the building’s many ledges.  Hundreds of birds roost on its seaward face, which to them must seem like a sea cliff.

“I mind when it was announced.  The news was full o it at the time.  Aa very positive.  But you have to mind that in those days, there was still work in Dundee.  DC Thomson was still in business.  Well I think they’d shut down their West Ward Works, but they were still printin papers and magazines on the Kingsway.  An ye ken what eventually happened to them – went the same way as NCR and ABB afore them.  Mibbe thae names won’t mean much now.”

“The politicians seemed to think aa the factories could be shut doon, and museums and galleries or whitever would tak their place.  I mean, when I wis your age, there were still industries here – they just let them go.  There wis a high tech firm aff the Perth Road makin transformers, they shut doon the same month the V&A was announced.  Nae support, nae offer o assistance.  Things were bad, that was the year aa the computer games companies shut doon, Aberdeen Cooncil wis declared bankrupt, an even Dundee Fitba Club went bust.  Scotland took a hammerin.  Funny thing though, the politicos jumped at the chance tae build this.”

As they walked further around the spaceship’s hull, the walkways were littered with broken white tiles.  They walked around the hull, its strips of glazing caked with salt spray and the metalwork below rusting.

“Well ye see what the Victoria and Albert in London didna let on was that they’d only gie it money for ten years.  After that, cheerio lads, see tae yersels.”
–They must’ve said something?
He gave a dry laugh, “Aye maybe someplace in the sma print, Kay.”
–Come on Dad, you’re an old cynic.
“I mind when it was first in the papers, a photo wi the committee folk lookin well pleased wi themselves, pleased tae see the city gettin gentrified.”
–At the time they probably thought they were doing the right thing
“Mibbe, but you’ll mind hearing about Martin Pawley or Reyner Banham from your theory lectures?
She shook her head. –I don’t remember the names?
“Hmmh, the architecture course at Dundee isna what it was, when I was there.”  He laughed, “Well I did tell ye no to repeat my mistake and study architecture.  But ye would have yr own way…”
–What did Pawley and Banham say?
“Different things most o the time, but they both reckoned events would overtake these buildings.  Icons, so-called.  There wouldna be a need for them.  Right enough, now we’ve got hologram projectors, ye can see any artwork in yer ain house, walk right around it, rather than stuck ahind a sheet o glass in a museum.  They kennt things would change, it’s just that the change took a while longer than they imagined.
“When I wis a teenager, they said printed books were on their way oot, but it’s only a few years ago that really happened, eh?”
–I’ve still got books, Dad.
“Aye but ye don’t read them, though.  Ye just use the net.”

Kay poked her finger at the white tile, cracked and crazed and crumbling away.  They walked on.

Whit about your history lectures – they’ll have told you what was here aforehand?
Kay pondered, –The Royal Arch?
“Lang ago, when I wis your age, afore this thing was here, they had a railway station, the cooncil offices, swimming baths, and a hotel here, aa linked together with walkways.”
–Why did they get rid of them?  Sounds like a good idea, putting all the civic buildings together.
“Dundee’s got a great record of knockin things doon.  This place is jist the latest.  Of course, there were also the Customs House and Mathers Hotel as well.”
–I’ve never heard of them?
“Aye, architecture lecturers, still useless… they dinna tell you anything about the city you’re living in.”
Kay grimaced.
“They took all the listed buildings and sold them.  Dismantled them, rebuilt elsewhere.  The city was broke and needed the cash.
“See – decades ago lads like James Caird and Ron Bonar, they gave millions to the city – but they’d *made* the money first, that’s the difference.  They were rich men, they could afford tae gie something back.  this idea that the Cooncil builds places like this - when there’s nae work in the city – there’s nae money in the city.  Ye see whit happened though when the city wasn’t makin money – the jute museum at Verdant Works, that wis made intae flats.  Barrack Street Museum wis made into a nightclub.  This thing here – V&A on Tay – is standin empty.

Kay peered through the narrow slot of glass at waist height – it was filthy, and inside was too dark to make out anything worthwhile.

–Anyway I suppose the Telford Society folk will be pleased
“Aye well, I guess they will.  It’s sic a shame that Dundee jist relies on tourists an heritage these days.
“For instance…”
Kay looked at her father with a “oh here we go again Dad” expression.
“When I was young, India and China were poor countries.  Now they’re rich, an we canna afford to buy what they mak.  Of course, they pay themsels too much, they’re mair interested in long holidays and fancy cars than workin.  They spend billions o rupees on art collections and the museums tae house them – but the difference is they can afford them.
–A hundred years ago it was the other way round.
“Quite so, an why do ye think the fields in Strathmore are blue nowadays?”
“Flax plants – we used tae import man-made cloth fae Asia, but it costs too much to dae that the day.”
–Anyway there’s no oil to make plastics with, and I thought the flax plants were down to the environmentalists, organic farmers, that kind of thing?
“Nah, no really.  It’s need, we need cloth and that’s the cheapest way to get the fibres.  One day, some of thae flax firms will get big enough tae tak on the Indians.  I mean we buy their fancy Indian machinery, but we could probably mak it cheaper oursels.
–They have the technology though.
“Aye.  But the smart lads here should be lookin to see how it’s done, learn aa they can from the subcontinent, then undercut their prices.  I mean, imported cloth isnae cheap, no once ye pay a huge carbon tarriff to ship it halfway round the world.”

They walked on, across a footbridge spanning the trackbed of the old East Coast rail line – a few years ago, it was shut north of Edinburgh to save money.

–I can remember being in the V&A
“So can I.
–So what happens now?
“Mair work for the demolition firms – and ye ken, while they were building this place, they knocked down a dozen tower blocks in Dundee, that hadna even been paid for?  There’s a moral in there someplace, eh?
–No shit, Kay replied, rolling her eyes.

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Traditional farm steadings, with their mossy roofs and rubble walls enfolding a sharn-filled yard, are couthy places, inextricable from a life of open fires, sheepdogs and Land Rovers.  They look as if they emerged naturally from the landscape.  The form developed over hundreds of years, culminating in the development of scientific agriculture, which gave us places like the Coo Palace in Dunecht, and similar model farms on other estates.  However, modern “agribusiness” means that thousands of them became surplus to requirements from the 1950’s onwards – which is why the steading conversion became a staple of rural living.

As critics have pointed out, too many people convert steadings badly, destroying their character.  Arguably, this is worse than leaving these honestly functional structures alone, to decay with dignity; yet the best conversions reveal their character without resorting to pastiche.  Because planning departments oppose the construction of new housing in the countryside, the conversion of old buildings has often been the only option for people who want to live in the country.  Far more steadings exist than abandoned mills, kirks or castles – and although many date back only to the nineteenth century, they have an enduring character which suggests the passing of many aeons.  Steadings are very much a part of the agricultural hinterland, where folk subscribe to the Scots notion of bield, taking shelter from the climate: the steading is a protective building, throwing off the worst of the weather. 

There were two main periods of agricultural prosperity which stimulated the construction of steadings.  Firstly came the Age of Improvement, around the time of the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the nineteenth century – although it should be remembered that John Napier, the Scot who invented the decimal point and the first calculating machine, also pioneered the use of common salt to fertilise the soil two hundred years before.  Secondly came the High Farming period during the Victorian era, where close scientific study of each element of agriculture optimised the process and improved conditions in order to increase yields.  Scots took a major role in pushing things forward: James Meikle invented the threshing machine, Hugh Dalrymple invented the field drain, James Anderson conceived the modern ploughshare, and the reaping machine was perfected separately by two men, James Small and Patrick Bell.  Meantime in 1833, John Loudon published his “Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture”, which was effectively a pattern book that encouraged farm buildings to be developed along certain lines.

As the Victorian era progressed, agriculture became increasingly intensive, latterly using artificial fertilisers and pesticides to boost crop yields.  By the 1950’s, “agribusiness” was developing, and there was a need for bespoke stores and silos.  When coupled with the amalgamation of farms into larger units, this led to redundant buildings.  There is a telling contrast between old steadings and modern farm outbuildings: barns with steel portal frames, timber openwork sides and asbestos roofs will not lend themselves to conversion once they eventually lose their usefulness.  In fact, since the 1940’s, the number of farms in Scotland has been reduced by a third, to less than 30,000 holdings – and the days of the foreman, tractor hands and “orra loon” have long gone, too, with one farmhand now working an average of 500 acres.  He uses a powerful tractor with computerised four wheel-drive, drawing a five or six furrow reversible plough – a far cry from the wee grey Fergie.  As a result, not only were many cottar houses vacated as farm labour was cut back, but the combined running of several small farms from one site meant that many smaller steadings were abandoned by agriculture, too.

Typically, a steading incorporated several functions: the barn with its high walls and tall doors; the horse mill or “mill gyne”, which is circular; the long, low cart shed with up to a dozen open ports; and the dark, cobbled byre, and the brighter stable block, complete with hay loft.  Each element has a different character but typically, the steading is one-and-a-half or two storeys high, arranged in a “C” from around a court.  This was often penned-in to create a cattle reed, where the nowt were kept over the winter, but could spill into the enclosed yard to get fresh air.  The great attraction of steadings is that their fabric is robust – although plain, unrefined and unheated – so that it has the ability to be modest and unassuming from the outside, but offers the freedom to carve out living spaces within.  Steadings are usually built from locally-quarried stone set in squared rubble, often with the flush or “butter” pointing characteristic of the north-east – where mortar is seemingly smeared over the faces of the stones to the extent that the wall looks more cement than granite or sandstone.  Habitually, they have double-lapped slate roofs, with clay ridge tiles and stone parapets, plus ventilators inset into the roof to allow hay or straw to stay dry, and to ventilate the spaces when full of beasts. 

Retaining the character of the place is almost always reliant on attention to detail: the choice of a slim window section, the careful re-pointing (or not) of stonework, the fitting of sympathetic rooflights.  One virtue of recycling a farm steading is the ability to use the cartshed as a living space – its open bays, which are typically ten feet wide to suit the dimensions of horse-drawn carts, can be glazed in to form generously-scaled windows.  If discreetly done in a high-performance system as manufactured by Janssen or Rationel, these transparent screens prove one of the axioms of architecture – to get the best effect, don’t spread all your money equally throughout the building.  By concentrating it on two or three key elements, the eye will be drawn to them, and no-one will notice that the rest of the building is less lavish.  Upstairs, the smaller windows of the hayloft are suitable for bedrooms, and coombed ceilings aren’t necessarily a problem.

Another important consideration is how to deal with the interface between old and new.  The existing rubble walls in old steadings may lean and bulge all over the place, so in order to cope with this and also insulate them and contain services such as electricity and telephone cabling, the flanking walls can be lined with plasterboard or timber.  This inner skin straightens and plumbs everything up – you’ll struggle to hang pictures or fix skirting boards to rubble – yet the gable walls can be left exposed to act as a foil to the smoothness of the new lining.  An alternative is to create a clean-cut modern structure inside the old, rough-edged one – with a small gap between the two to emphasise that they’re discrete in time and function.  The key to a successful conversion, then, is to work with what you’re given – but if its character is unsuitable for a house, then perhaps we shouldn’t force it to become one. 

After all, if the end result destroys the building’s character, it completely misses the point, which is to live sympathetically with the farm around you.  The steading conversion should subscribe to the Danish concept of hygge – a sense of the cosiness of homely things, such as domestic comfort, and the conviviality of life in small communities.  The “fermtoun” was once a little community on its own, and the distinctive form of the cattle court was part of the symbolic landscape, like a tithe barn or oast house in other parts of the country..  It formed part of a larger cluster – the steading plus farmhouse, barns and cottar houses – and was often protected by a windbreak of elm or beech trees.  These touns punctuate the countryside, and sit particularly proud in flat areas, like the Howe of the Mearns, or the Buchan plateau.

When it comes to newbuilds, architects are in the habit of designing as much as they can – proscribing, as well as describing – and the process can culminate in trying to create the mythical “total work of art”.  There is an apocryphal story about Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who encouraged his clients at Hill House to wear slippers which co-ordinated with the carpet…  The steading conversion offers a chance for designers to step back from this mania for total control, to create buildings which leave things to chance, for the inhabitants to decide, to complete later, or not at all.  Steadings also relate to the notions of a more recent architectural thinker.  Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn” identifies what he calls “low road” buildings, which are the opposite of high design ones.  His is a thought-provoking book for non-architects and architects alike, since it goes some way to explaining how a building changes and adapts throughout its life.  The “low road” building’s very lack of “designedness” provides opportunities for simple and constant change, as the users chop it about to suit new needs.

The countryside is the next frontier, as large amounts of rural building will be necessary, soon, if we believe what the politicians say.  Gordon Brown’s plans for ecotowns will affect the countryside more than the cities.  It can be argued that we have a rural housing crisis in Scotland, with young people leaving the countryside in droves because they can't afford housing.  Some steadings and cottages will almost certainly be owned by someone in another part of the country (or another country) who rarely visits them, or, worse, by a property speculator.  Amongst all the individual houses, there will be the need for bigger buildings, too – doctors’ surgeries, village halls, schools and so on.  The steading is one of the few traditional rural forms which works well when subdivided into a number of units, but could also be used to contain a single function.  Hence, it is a prototype for several kinds of rural development, and that should provide consistency when set alongside farmhouses, cottar houses and more modern developments of agribusiness. 

Ironically, the steading is more in danger from the farmer than the architect these days: a proposed conversion into housing will be scrutinised by a professional planner, then by a Council committee, but buildings embedded in a working farm can be adapted or demolished under the rules of “permitted development”, thus avoiding the normal controls.  In fact, it could be said that farmers can drive a coach and horses through the Planning regulations … if no longer through the steading itself.

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Given my preoccupations during 2010 – BP and its crises – books which architects should read instead of “architecture books” – and the resurrection of General Motors – it seems apt to round off the year with a piece which integrates them, and investigates how all three affect us in ways we don’t realise.

The watchful part of me has been aware of the narrowness of architects almost since I began training as one.  We learned what the generation before us learned: Mies, Corb and Frank Lloyd Wright; supplemented with Jimmy Stirling and High Tech, before raiding the journals for fashionable deconstructivism.  We didn’t learn much about the forces which drive and shape Scottish architecture.  When we graduated, we found that design-led practice has its limitations.  There’s a strange monomania about it all and ultimately, as greenhorn actors and novelists are drilled – you need to live in the wider world in order to understand it.  You need to become a complete, rounded human being, because an architect who knows little outwith architecture, is little use to society.

This has everything to do with the mindset of people who decide to be architects.  There is an intellectual narrowness about them, adopting received ideas such as those houses with windows set flush with the skin, and roofs made of the same stuff as the walls.  Those are designed by architects for an audience of architects, and have their genesis purely in skimming books of fashionable Swiss architecture.  Books written for architects can be the last thing that architects should read, and I was reminded of this again when I tripped over the Archidose blog, one of those long-running American weblogs written by a thoughtful architect who regularly reviews publications.  Whilst one week he mentioned City of Quartz, an excellent book about urban sprawl around Los Angeles, he reads very little fiction.  That’s a personal choice, yet it means he missed out on an even better book about the nature of Californian urbanism and how people live on the West Coast – “Vineland”, written by Thomas Pynchon.

Out of Pynchon’s six novels, I came to Vineland first – perhaps just as well, since “Mason & Dixon” is a historical doorstop, and “Gravity’s Rainbow” is an American Finnegan’s Wake, the kind of book you sometimes can’t find the intellectual traction to read all the way through.  The Great American Novel – Heller, Updike, Bellow – is an East Coast phenomenon, but the country’s economic pulse has long since shifted westwards.  I guess Pynchon recognised this, and wrote something about the West Coast which talks about the very fundamentals of society – the economy, culture, individual freedom and the role of the state.  It’s just the right length for a novel, has both narrative and characterisation, and offers a window onto a way of life which might be very different to our own, if it didn’t have surprising parallels.

Pynchon’s California of the 1980’s is a by-product of both a booming economy, and the hippy counter-culture.  It already has giant windmills spinning on its hilltops, proving that one solution to our energy crisis is a technological rather than a cultural one.  The lesson is you generate energy using alternative methods, rather than merely consuming less.  His is also a car-based culture – from the kitschy cedar-shingled campervan which Zoyd borrows when the Feds are on his trail, to the custom PanAm which DL roars off in, like something from “Vanishing Point”.  In fact, Pynchon has a canny eye for American pop culture, and films from the recent past are a staple of Vineland.  It’s a road-trip culture, with one proviso – when muscle cars ruled in other states, California’s legislators led the way in trying to curb the automobile.  After all, they insisted 30 years ago that the quaint MGB sports car should be fitted with side impact bars and a catalytic converter: left to their own devices British Leyland might have got around to fitting them sometime in the 22nd century.  Where California leads, the rest of the world follows.

Until now, state legislation has concentrated on reducing pollution, such as nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions so that today, the gas emitted by the exhaust is cleaner than the air sucked into the induction manifold.  Having got that far, a bigger, trickier beast is now in California’s sights: the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).  It will be much more difficult to eradicate, because carbon lies at the heart of industrial society.  Car manufacturers will be forced to make a growing proportion of their cars ZEV’s – zero-emission vehicles – which means battery electric, or hydrogen fuel cell-powered.  The ultimate Californian aim is to kill off the internal combustion engine by 2040, though it has yet to address the fact that hydrogen has a lower calorific value than petrol, and electricity often comes from power-generating monsters that guzzle coal or the even dirtier lignite.

This raises a couple of points – Pynchon demonstrates how life in California is fundamentally planned around the auto, not only with 12-lane interstates and strip malls on the urban fringe, but also symbolised by the female ninja DL’s alternative suburban existence – “She had by now grown into a relationship with the Plymouth, named her Felicia, bought her a new stereo, was washing her at least twice a workweek plus again on weekends”. Compare this with Rex’s cherry red Porsche 911, similarly washed and tended with loving care.  Rex called the car “Bruno”… and it ended up being driven away by a spin-off of the Black Panthers.  When DL was whisked away to a Tokyo concubine auction, “Her little car was left alone in its space, sometimes, across miles and years, to call out to her in a puzzled voice, asking why she hadn’t come back.” This works on several levels – the emotional investment we make in the car as an agent of our freedom, the anthropo-psychic life we assign to our possessions, and Pynchon’s magical realism which springs from the work of the philosopher Roland Barthes, who described cars as magical objects which are appreciated by the public in the same way as the great Gothic cathedrals.

So it seems the novel’s protagonists are wedded to their personal transportation, culturally as well as practically, and the American economy agrees, as does General Motors.  The General returned a $2bn profit for the last quarter, and started to repay the billions it borrowed from the federal government to stave off bankruptcy.  While it’s realistic to encourage us to use the bus, train, tram and bike within cities, it’s essential to make cars cleaner, because GM will keep building them for as long as we keep driving them…  Now that oil companies are evolving into energy companies (BP at one point had a strapline on its adverts, “Beyond Petroleum”); the car companies have grabbed their alternative technologies with palpable relief.  On the opposite side, environmental charities are looking at the private car’s other problems, such as causing congestion, physical inactivity, and contributing to road accidents.  Everyone tacitly acknowledges that private transportation won’t go away any time in the next few decades.

The relevance to our townscape is that a culture steeped in the car finds its cities shaped by the car, and technology is actually working against the multi-modal vision of how cities might work, a la Jan Gehl and Jane Jacobs.  At one point, it looked like the automobile would die in the aftermath of peak oil, as an unavoidable consequence of Hubbert’s Law.  One extrapolation was that car-focussed planning, such as the Radburn layout, would be supplanted by walkable neighbourhoods.  Visionaries proclaimed that a car-free world was coming – but the zero-energy vehicle changed all that.  Pynchon’s West Coast techno-utopians believe the solution lies in equipping the car with a fuel cell or lithium ion battery, albeit “zero energy” is a conceit since neither the fuel cell- nor the electrically-powered vehicle is a perpetual motion machine.  More energy will always go in than come out the other end – if only to overcome mechanical losses. 

Outwith the city, the California of “Vineland” could be Scotland – both are several hundred miles long, with an ocean coastline; a belt of low-density urban sprawl in the middle; its valleys running inland to the desert are similar to glens reaching into the massif of Grampians and Cairngorms.  We will need our ZEV’s to reach Bakersfield and Barstow (where the drugs kicked in, according to Hunter Thomson, RIP…), just as we need ZEV’s to get to Braemar and Blairgowrie.  You would need to empty the countryside completely, and vastly increase the density of cities, to render the private car obsolete.  In reality, the opposite is happening – “some day this would be all part of a Eureka-Crescent City – Vineland megalopolis,” and the huge stands of redwood trees will be felled.  Cities are growing, and increases in travel are a symptom rather than a cause of this.

By definition, the shape of cities themselves will develop far more slowly than the technology of vehicles, as the time and money is being spent developing the car itself rather than the city.  Progress in urban planning often consists of looking at precedents then trying to create something new, and the biggest jolt to traditional planning was the introduction of the car.  It profoundly affected urbanist thinking in the 1920’s, but since then we’ve merely tinkered.  Look at diagrams from recent New Urbanist or sustainable community proposals: then compare them to the Essex Design Guide of the early ‘70’s, Gordon Cullen’s “Townscape” from the ‘60’s, or Walter Bor’s work in Liverpool just after the War, which included the creation of “play streets” where cars were banned during the daytime.  They all create places where people take priority over cars, which after all is the objective.

The wise have argued that we have been through all this before – many times before – but we have to keep coming back to the start, because we forgot the initial lesson.  That doesn’t mean you should, like the New Urbanists of a Leon Krier stripe, simply run a set of James Craig’s plans through the Xerox machine.  Now for the crunch… although none of the New Urbanists consider that the Radburn layout is *less* car-friendly than the Georgian New Town in Edinburgh, the latter’s long, straight, wide boulevards – with cars parked against both kerbs and in echelons along the centre – are dominated by the car, whereas the 1960’s New Town like Glenrothes has its cars tucked away in a series of cul-de-sacs.  Is Edinburgh’s car-choked George Street, or a SSHA housing scheme like Auchmuty, with cars tucked away in parking courts, the more people-friendly?  I hope you can see that current design dogma is no help to us, because Liverpool achieved child-friendly streets decades before the Dutch Woonerf, or indeed Disney’s ersatz town called Celebration appeared.

“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible,” said Voltaire – but we’re all snowflakes, and the car-planned city is the avalanche.  Yet we invented the snow shovel a long time ago, and all we need to do now is grab it when we go into the toolshed.

Thanks for reading this, Happy Christmas, and if you’re currently out of work, I hope you find a job in the New Year.

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A few years ago, the Arrol brewery on Whins Road in Alloa, John Tullis & Son’s polymer factory in Tullibody, and the Forth Paper Mills at Kilbagie were part of a working landscape.  Today, two out of three have been demolished, and the mills lie silent.  This process, often called de-industrialisation, has become a recurrent theme which touches every aspect of Scottish life, from politics, economy, and architecture, to our literature.  For example, Archie Hind’s “Dear Green Place” features the relict industrial landscape around Clydebridge steelworks, and Jeff Torrington’s “The Devil’s Carousel” describes the demise of the Rootes factory at Linwood.

Weir's Forth Paper Mills

Industries from the first wave of the Industrial Revolution were the first to be devastated.  Deep coal mining ended in this country several years ago, yet Scotland had some of the largest and most modern pits in Europe, such as Seafield, Killoch, and Castlebridge which I wrote about previously here.  The cluster of traditional industries around Alloa was particularly interesting, since it gave birth to a series of unique buildings.  A handful of miles from the town centre lies the Kilbagie papermill at Kincardine – it began life as a distillery, later converted into an artificial manure factory, and over a century ago into a paper mill.  Today its machine halls are silent, although parts are still used by a recycling company.  A few miles east in Tullibody lay the Tullis Brothers tannery, and right in the heart of Alloa was the former Arrols brewery.  Having looked at the architecture of coal mining, I’d like to look at paper production, leather tanning and brewing buildings in an attempt to learn how Alloa has changed.

Arrol's Alloa Brewery

Since the 1970’s, economists have fondly stated that we live in a global economy (doffing their caps to Milton Friedman).  Beer, leather and paper can come from anywhere, and go to anywhere.  The only God is the market, where capital will flow to the place it finds best value, ie. the cheapest place to make something, and the most expensive to sell it.  Today we know better, as that economic policy has laid waste to parts of Scotland, and it crucially ignores the cost of transport.  We’re entering a new age where the cost of generating carbon to transport goods and people is greater than the value of the commodities themselves.  150 years ago, towns aspired to have working economies with a wide range of industries, and the breadth of their economy helped to protect them when the economic going became tough; it also shaped the towns’ architecture.

As you can tell from the preceding paragraphs, Alloa doesn’t have a paper mill, tannery nor a brewery any more; and while it’s predictable to criticise the loss of these industries as short-sighted in terms of employment and investment, the town lost more than jobs and works buildings.  It lost vital connectivity between all its industries.  Down in the former docklands of Alloa, the United Glass plant on the banks of the Forth is still working, as is the maltings opposite – but the breweries they served have gone.  Both the glassworks and maltings were weakened by their closure – they lost connectivity, and their place in the civic life of the town was weakened, too.  The effect in Alloa was to destroy a truly “mixed use” town by replacing industry with offices, retail and housing developments – ironic, since mixed use towns are the grail of modern town planning.

Tullis Brothers' Tannery, Tullibody

The instruments which allowed this to happen are the Local Plan and the Strategic Plan, which try to offer a cohesive picture of the towns we’d like to have in five or ten years’ time.  While they’re being prepared, there is a series of hearings, at which representations are made by planning consultants on behalf of their clients, in order to influence the future.  The consultants broke down the plan into a series of plots labelled by ownership – but arguably the Planners should have produced a connectivity diagram instead.  Economic relationships between areas of the town are more inportant than communication lines or conservation areas – because without them, the town will die.  In an environment where businesses are failing, preserved buildings are like prisoners of conscience, and once the town loses its economic life, they inevitably die, too. 

Tullis Brothers’ Tannery
The tannery at Tullibody, in Tullibody was a four storey brick building, shaped like an “L” with unequal legs.  Before its demolition a few years ago, Historic Scotland decided it was the largest and most complete example of a Victorian tannery in the country – but its pigeon-filled shell militated against preservation.  The building was constructed around an iron frame, with the two uppermost storeys clad in louvres to encourage the tanning fumes to dissipate.  Weatherboarded timber was fitted between steel joist mullions, just as timber floor joists slotted into the webs of the iron beams in the tannery’s composite floors.  The tannery’s landmarks were a pair of slender brick water towers, one of which had been “beheaded” years before.

The tannery specialised in heavy leathers for soles and belting – it began life in the late 18th century when the Paterson brothers built a small tannery and boneworks beside the Delph Pond in Tullibody.  It was rebuilt in 1880 as the red brick tannery seen in the photos, and became Tullis Brothers in the 1930’s.  When the leather market became tougher, the company evolved from John Tullis & Son into Tullis Polymers: after the war, the company made nylon stampings and profiles, plus patented plastic belting.  When leather became expensive in the 1950’s, the tannery business began to flag; it was closed in 1962 when it was decided that replacing the obsolete tanning plant would be prohibitively expensive.  From then on, the building operated as a plastics factory.

However, the tannery’s layout was unchanged, and most features remained, along with the timber floors steeped in chemicals (and tanning pits which were thought to harbour anthrax, according to the local Press).  John Tullis (Plastics), which took over the factory when tanning work ended, was a subsiduary of John Tullis & Son – but although they had adapted to the modern world by producing plastic pressings, and casings for automotive brake cables, the tannery was too large to suit their needs, so Tullis Polymers relocated to another factory elsewhere in the town.  Tullis entered administration in 1991 – although the tannery buildings survived for over a decade beyond that.

Arrol’s Skol Brewery
You rock up to Alloa expecting to see a Modernist brewery at its heart, but you meet a superstore instead.  Around the back on Whins Road is a big shed housing a distribution centre, with ranks of Heineken’s dark green curtainsiders in the lorry park.  This is all that remains of Arrol’s brewery, the most modern (and last survivor) of the eight breweries which once worked in Alloa.  It was comparable to McEwan’s Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh, and to the new side of Tennent’s Wellpark Brewery in Glasgow – a post-war beer factory, with a brewhouse which resembled a control tower or BR signal box from the same era.

In fact, the long-established business of Archibald Arrol was independent until 1951, when Ind Coope of Burton on Trent assumed control, and decided only to brew lager here.  Three years later, the old Arrols brewery was demolished, and a completely new complex built in its place.  It was one of the first breweries built post-war in Britain, and its architecture had hints of the Festival of Britain style about it, which was influenced in turn by Scandinavian Modernist architecture.  Fitting, then, that the new Arrols brewery was kitted out using Swedish equipment.

Arrols’ submergence into Ind Coope was the start of a long period of consolidation in the brewing industry which continues today, and may eventually end up with all beer coming from one company, perhaps from a stainless steel mega-brewhouse somewhere in Belgium.  I mention that because Ind Coope decided to concentrate Arrols’ production on lagers because lager brewing plant was installed in the old Alloa brewery in the 1920’s, and it went on to make Graham’s Golden Lager, which was very successful and was re-branded as “Skol” in the Fifties, when Arrols was rebuilt.  Hence the new building was sometime referred to as the Skol Brewery.  Later, with the assistance of the brewers Calders, further business deals took place, and by 1961 Arrols’ Alloa brewery had become part of Allied Breweries, when Tetley, Ansells and Ind Coope merged – then were bought over by Carlsberg, becoming “Carlsberg-Tetley”.

Although over £2m was invested in the brewery during the 1980’s and early 1990’s (including the reintroduction of beer brewing alongside lagers), Carlsberg closed it in 1998.  Before it was demolished, the brewhouse tower still bore the ghost of its previous owners: on one face, a large green Heineken sign stained with the weather; on the other, the impression of the illuminated SKOL lettering which had been ripped from the wall several years before.  More so than the paper mills or the tannery, the brewery was part of the urban scene in Alloa: it was a landmark which gave scale to the town centre, and took its place on the town’s skyline among the kirk spires and silo of United Glass.

Weir’s Forth Paper Mills
One of the high class Swiss watchmakers fondly points out in its adverts that you don’t own one of their timepieces, you merely look after it on behalf of the next generation.  In a sense, the owners of buildings like the Forth Paper Mills are only custodians: they not only look after the fabric of the building, but also carry forward the culture of the firms which operated before them.  That’s especially true when their history goes back to the very start of the Industrial Revolution.

From a distance you can see the Edwardian buildings of Weirs’ old paper mill at Kilbagie, their solid brick-and-a-half walls enclosing three and four storey halls held up with girder truss columns and trussed roofs: the pattern of ridges and ventilators is obvious now, but during the mill’s working life, it was usually wreathed in steam.  However, deep inside the mills, surrounded by those machine halls that once housed huge Fourdriniers churning out paper 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, are dark, damp buildings with rubble sandstone walls and slated roofs.  They once held the largest gin distillery in Britain, which proves the mill has regenerated themselves more than once. 

The mills were built alongside Kilbagie House; as with the paperboard mills at Carrongrove, (which were latterly owned then closed down by the same firm, Inveresk Paper – there are some photos of Carrongrove here) the mansion house became the mill’s offices, and was gradually overwhelmed by its ever-expanding neighbour.  The buildings swallowed up their water supply, which now runs underground and trickles into a lade on the far side of the mill – then once the papermaking machines were fitted with electric drives, the giant steam engine was made redundant.

Similarly, the Kilncraigs Mill in Alloa itself, which latterly spun wool for Patons & Baldwins, was originally powered by reciprocating steam engines, but from the early years of the 20th century until its closure in 1999, it used three steam turbines to generate electricity for the individual motor drives on the frames.  Their waste water efflux was sent through a now-rare timber cooling tower, one of those old-fashioned frustums or truncated pyramids which you see in the Bechers’ books of industrial typologies.

A Working Landscape?
Perched in the paper mill’s water tower, peering through a skylight in the tannery, or high up in the Arrol brewhouse – perhaps the first thing you realise is that they have their brick construction in common.  Never much in demand for housing in Scotland until recently, firebrick was mainly used for industrial architecture.  Coal is typically found in strata which also include fireclay, so there were a multitude of brickworks alongside the collieries on either side of the Forth.  Likewise, the Carron Ironworks across the Forth was a world pioneer, so Scotland was one of the first countries to adopt iron and steel frame construction (the Ca d’Oro in Glasgow being a good example).  A third factor is the Functional Tradition in architecture, so-called by the Architectural Review in the early post-war years.  The tannery certainly adheres to it – plain, unadorned brickwork with tiers of louvred cladding above it – and similarly, the paper mill grew organically around a working core.  Perhaps more so than the fussy stonework of Alloa’s civic buildings, that brick-built tower of Arrol’s brewery translated what the town was about – part of a functional tradition which evolved to suit its native industries.

With thanks to John McArthur of David Mortons for the demolition photos.

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