Album: canon

The Maclaren Style

15/10/18 19:55

Following on from my piece in the Autumn ’18 print edition of Urban Realm about Glasgow School of Art, I thought I would expand on one aspect by trying to separate the so-called “Mackintosh Style” from Mackintosh the designer.  As you'll see, that phrase is a misnomer.

Some people read widely and travel in order to soak up influences.  Others purposely avoid looking at what their peers produce: they’d prefer that their own work isn’t influenced by anything outside themselves.  It’s a similar notion to authors who avoid reading other peoples’ books whilst in the process of writing their own.  They claim that’s the only way to create work which is truly original.

Chasing that chimaera is a strange and perverse pursuit.  Firstly, it’s impossible to avoid other peoples’ architecture, whether reproduced in magazines and at the hands of Kevin McCloud on Channel 4, or in a more concrete form that we walk past every day.  Another issue is that unless you’re a genius or idiot savant, creating something that’s completely original is almost impossible.  Every tectonic combination has been tried before; we’ve had several thousand years of practice.

Even if you’re lucky enough to have that idea, what do you do when others take inspiration from you, and try to emulate your originality?  If you work in isolation, maybe that doesn’t matter.  You won’t be aware of your imitators, so you’ll continue refining your original concept – despite the fact that your work no longer looks fresh, and might even be seen (ironically) as a poor pastiche of your imitators.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that’s the position Mackintosh ended up in after his death.  Following the revival of interest in his work during the 1960’s and 70’s, there was a bad outbreak of “Mockintosh” during the 1980’s.

After working the summer holiday after I left school, for an old-established Scots practice with a portfolio of what you might call modern Scots baronial buildings (of which I was totally ignorant at the time), I graduated and went to a more contemporary practice in the city.

Three of their completed buildings stood out for me, although they’re not the best known in their portfolio.  One was an office building on a science park, but rather than a low-slung steel-and-glass pavilion, this had a sandstone rubble core which read from exterior to interior, and inside it various screens and balustrades which picked up on the Mackintosh grid.  It was a modern reinterpretation of the forms, proportions and materials Mackintosh used.

The second was a bank branch in a provincial town which was highly-detailed to the verge of being over-worked.  It had one eye-catching feature: a glazed corner which opened up to reveal a clock face set into a Mackintosh grid, very much Derngate circa 1916.  That was an intricate piece where shopfitting met furniture design, and thirty years later the bank which commissioned it is better known for closing branches than doing up their interiors.

The third was a private house built in the grounds of a large mansion in the suburbs, and it was a play on the crowstep, with stepped gables, a stepped section with scissors stairs, and endless grids inside which broke down into stepped shelves and screens.  From certain angles, it appeared to have lifted pieces of Mackintosh buildings, such as the Hill House, and collaged them together.

Were these three buildings modern interpretation, Mackintosh-inspired homages, or just plain pastiche?  All three owed much to Mackintosh in an obvious way because his motifs were so prominent, when compared to my summer holiday practice which integrated historic Scottish architecture in a more abstract way.  The latter used modern techniques such as reinforced concrete frames and patent glazing, alongside more traditional timber boarding and rubble cladding, in order to create a sense of materiality.

Even though we’ve long since left behind the Victorian Battle of the Styles, architecture and the other arts are often judged on appearance, rather than intent or execution.  Yet artists draw inspiration from sources outside their own art: Expressionism grew from the work of psychologists such as Freud and Jung; the work of philosophers, sociologists and cosmologists was drawn into the architecture of Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi, for example.  The key thing is to acknowledge those influences.

That’s why recent scholars have questioned the claim of the author Thomas Howarth that Mackintosh fell to earth fully-formed, bearing a new architecture in his lap.  We know Mackintosh was inspired by many things – for example, he won the Alexander (Greek) Thomson travelling scholarship and filled sketchbooks during his European journey.  Also, Mackintosh does have one acknowledged influence in Scotland: James Maclaren, who designed the village of Fortingall in Perthshire and more besides.

It could be argued that James Maclaren developed the “Mackintosh Style”, by which I mean the stylised Scots baronial later applied to Windyhill, the Hill House and other domestic commissions.  Maclaren also influenced Robert Lorimer, who was his pupil for a time.  There’s nothing wrong with studying the work of people you admire and learning from it.  Be proud of your influences, because equally there’s no shame in acknowledging those on whose shoulders we stand – just as Mackintosh stood on James Maclaren’s.

By Mark • Albums: canon

Well you learn something every day, as the old cliché goes. As I was browsing, I came across the concept of the ideation room. Ideation appears to be a recently-coined portmanteau word, from “idea” and “creation”. Ideation might well become the next hackneyed term in workspace design, joining touchdown desks, break-out areas and co-working spaces in the parlance of workplace designers and space planners.

This particular ideation room is located in a grimy old brick-built block in the East End of Glasgow, not too far from Urban Realm’s offices. The building originally housed one of the biggest hand tool firms in Glasgow – which eventually became one of the last toolmaking firms in Glasgow. I wrote about another, William Cook & Sons, in Archive magazine a few years ago and have since collected lots of material about the Scottish Machine Tool Corporation which built tools at the other end of the size and complexity scale. Sheffield is the best known British centre for tool manufacture, but Glasgow had many hand and machine tool firms at one time. They’re far less well known.

The toolmaker’s factory churned out well-understood tools whose purposes and forms were fixed during the Victorian era, and were little changed in the first half of the 20th century. Workplace consultants on the other hand, are fairly desperate to find novel forms in which to wrap up everyday functions. The high-sided upholstered booth is one; an overgrown couch which is usually wired with USB points so that the hipsters can charge their iPhones. The boardroom table with grossly over-sized pendant lamps is another; pale spirits of the giant Artemide anglepoise lamps which you still occasionally see in interiors magazines. Both sit against a context of the bare brick and raw concrete which emphasise the arte povera aspirations of a particular kind of industrial conversion.

The novelty forms are just an adjunct to the pieces of jargon and time-worn phrases such as “Front and centre”, “Low-hanging fruit” and “Blue sky thinking” which some workplace consultants employ, yet no-one should use in a meeting or write in a report, far less mention in a magazine article. They’re examples of lazy articulation, phrases which have lost their original sense through overuse, and as George Orwell observed, clichés like these result in "phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse." As it turns out, ideation is just a new word for brainstorming – but perhaps with a little more brainstorming, the workplace planners could have coined a better name for it.

Meantime, 21st century rag-and-bone men masquerading as antique dealers are selling off the framed displays of tools which used to showcase the firm’s products as you came into the building. What a shame that, despite the yearning for “authenticity” and a superficial attachment to the hand-made and artisan, the class of people who use the building now have discarded the very last artefacts which say anything about its roots.

By Mark • Albums: canon

Long before “Black Friday” became an internet shopping frenzy, Steely Dan released a song about its precursor – the original Black Friday.  On Friday 24th September 1869, a failed ploy to beat the banks left many wealthy investors broke.  They’d attempted to corner the market in gold, buying as much as they could in order to drive up the price - but when the US government found out, it released $4 million worth of gold into the market.  That drove the price back down, wiping out the investors.

Just over a century later, a pair of cynical sophisticates from upstate New York wrote “When Black Friday Comes”, which saw their protagonist fleeing the States to escape financial meltdown.  He is described later, feeding the kangaroos in Muswellbrook, a hamlet in the Australian outback.  It’s a curious tale accompanied by jazz guitars.
Sometime in the 1970’s, just after the song was released, Black Friday’s meaning turned around.  From then on, the Americans took it as the day close to Thanksgiving when stores were "in the black” thanks to a frenzy of Christmas gift buying.  This Black Friday’s importation into Britain is more recent, during the last ten years or so when Amazon imposed it on us.

I’m currently reading a book which explains the flaw in our nature which enabled the original Black Friday to come about.   “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, was written by Charles Mackay in the mid 1800’s.  Mackay was a Scots journalist and leader writer for the Glasgow Argus, and although his book says very little about investment best practice, it’s become a become a standard work of reference for investors and bankers.

Instead, it gives detailed explanations of how people delude themselves – especially where money or emotions are concerned.  As the publisher’s blurb on a modern edition puts it, “Learn why intelligent people do amazingly stupid things when caught up in speculation”.  Mackay predicted the regular occurrence of events like Black Friday, which he classed as popular delusions – his examples include Railway Mania of the 1840’s, Tulipmania in Holland, and the South Sea Bubble. 

Today’s equivalent is the boom in the value of Bitcoin, which is almost certainly headed for disaster.  Crypto-currencies aren’t investments; at best, they’re gambles and at worst, they’re Ponzi schemes.  As someone said, the value of an object is often dictated by impulses from our subconscious – including flaws of character, such as vanity, lust and greed.  Greed, in particular.

Mackay maintains that, “The subject of speculation is capable of inspiring as much interest as even a novelist can desire.  Is there no warmth in the despair of a plundered people? No life and animation in the picture which might be drawn of the woes of hundreds of impoverished and ruined families?  Of the wealthy of yesterday become the beggars of today?  Of the powerful and influential changed into exiles and outcasts, and the voice of self-reproach and imprecation resounding from every corner of the land?

There’s your warning, right there.  Anyhow, it’s the Madness of Crowds section of Mackay’s book which I’d like to pick up, because this year, on Black Friday, I attended a lecture given by a couple of architects from Page/Park, which reminded me that that we practice in an era with no stylistic rule book to follow.  In some respects, today is similar to the “Battle of the Styles” during Victorian times. 

Enric Miralles chose upturned boats in Northumberland to inspire the Scottish Parliament’s roofs; Kengo Kuma chose the sea cliffs at Arbroath to inspire the walls of Dundee’s V&A.  This Design by Analogy is a strange kind of popular delusion, started by the Venturis when they separated architecture into the Decorated Shed and the Duck.

The decorated shed is a plain building, which is ornamented using architectural themes.  The Duck was designed in a literal-minded way, like something from folk art: the Venturis’ example was a kiosk which sold shotgun cartridges to duck hunters.  The building was an unmistakeable advert for the business, because it was shaped like a giant duck…

Meantime, the Page\Park lecture was interesting and well delivered, but I left with the same feeling I had when I listened to David Page speaking ten years ago about his Maggie’s Centre in Inverness.  There, he chose the metastasising cell which causes cancer, as the generator of the plan.  At the time, I thought it was inexplicable and gauche to shape a building into the thing which is killing the people which the building cares for.  Yet this is Design by Analogy at work.

Of course, perhaps it’s part of a sophisticated intellectual game where the building is a gestalt which embodies both the disease and the cure, but even then the resulting form is a helix, which looks dynamic but must feel disorienting if you’re seriously ill.

A similar scenario repeated the other week, with the first scheme presented by Page\Park being a newly-completed building in Paisley, the Hawkhead Centre for the Scottish War Blinded.  It’s a well-considered building with generous spaces and quality materials, yet the young architect opened by describing the building sitting like, “an alien form, like a stealth bomber.” 

Surely the building’s users, who may have lost their sight when they were attacked from the air by bombers, wouldn’t appreciate that allusion?  There are other, less “loaded” things to use as generators of form – for example with hawk’s wing which someone literal-minded drew from the place-name, Hawkhead.

Happily, the second scheme presented by Page\Park on Black Friday was the rejuvenation of St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, whose forms and decoration were inspired by musical instruments displayed in the building.  So the outcome of the lecture was positive, but I left with a deep reserve about Page\Park’s blindness to the symbolic value of architecture, and whether the worth of Design by Analogy is actually just a delusion.

Happy Christmas, when it arrives … and it’s not too late to grab a copy of “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” as a present for an architect you know …

By Mark • Albums: canon

It was late afternoon in November when I was heading back towards Berlin from Saxony, and realised from the signs on the autobahn that I was close to Dessau.  Martin Pawley’s description of Dessau twenty-odd years before, just after the Berlin Wall came down and the East was accessible again, stuck in my mind.



At that time, in the early 1990’s, the Bauhaus was an active design school but hadn’t been made ready for the 21st century.  Pawley’s was a pre-internet Bauhaus, reproduced in monochrome in dozens of books.  East Germany was a black-and-white place, the DDR before re-unification, and Pawley found Dessau strangely desolate, lacking in traffic, investment and hope.  To him, it felt very flat and grey although he chose to express that greyness in Trabants and soot.



Relying only on Google and a Michelin map, I discovered that Dessau’s road system is confusing – it’s a city without a real centre, just a main drag which invariably sends you in the wrong direction each time you come round.  However, the Bauhaus was unmistakable when I eventually found it by setting off down a side road and keeping going in what felt like the “wrong” direction.



I certainly crossed to the wrong side of the railway tracks, into a run-down area with a derelict, Victorian-era brewery crumbling onto the pavement.  The bricks simply seemed to turn to dust, and the windows were glassless hollows.  But only a couple of turns later, Dessau changed again and the road emerged onto a broad avenue of trees with immaculate inter-war blocks of flats behind them on one side, and a 3/4 scale model of a famous building suddenly popped up on the other.



After I parked nearby and walked slowly up to the building.  At first it looked underwhelming, but I guess that’s often the case when you think you know somewhere – yet have only seen heavily-mediated images of it.



I didn’t pay the fee or take a guided tour: I wandered around myself, and once I was done it was enough just to stand on the most famous stairs in Europe and disregard the students and staff filing past.  Rather like meeting a well-known person you’ve seen on TV, or finally acquiring something you’ve lusted after for a long time, the experience was different to what I expected: neither better, nor worse, just different.   So much for preconceptions…





Some of the Bauhaus was as you imagine in your mind’s eye: the beautiful typography, bright corridors and stairs, and planes of sheer glass.  Yet one aspect which surprised me, in a way, were the splashes of bright colour.  So many architectural photos were shot in monochrome, and most architecture books from the birth of the Bauhaus right up to the 1980’s were printed in black-and-white, that you picture it in black and white.



As Mark Twain noted, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice,” and that surely holds true for the Bauhaus.  It’s arguably the wellspring of all Modern architecture, yet it’s so often misunderstood.  After my visit, I realised I had been among the many who misunderstood it.  The Bauhaus isn’t monochromatic.  There are planes of chrome orange and cadmium yellow, bands of bright crimson red, planes of sienna brown linoleum – the old-fashioned battleship lino that DLW still make at Delmenhorst in the north.





Only the exterior is tonal: the interior is a colour exercise which demonstrates how controlled Walter Gropius's grasp of design is, how colour advances and recedes, works with and against tone.  Of course I should have known better, having read Johannes Itten’s colour theories, and bought a book a few years ago about the “ideal house”, written by Bruno Taut around the same time that Itten developed his ideas.  Both go a long way to demonstrate how integral colour was to the Modern Movement – and that’s hopefully clear from my photos.



When I went outside, I was treated to the afterglow of the winter sun hitting the Bauhaus lettering on the building’s gable: and then it was a rush through the back streets of Dessau, across bumpy pavé that takes you past the derelict brewery to find the Way Out.  Even so, it was dark by the time I hit the Berliner Ring, concentrating very hard to make sure I found the turn-off for Genshägen and didn't wind up on my way to Poland…



Happy Christmas. :-)

By Mark • Albums: memory palace, canon

Picture this.  A design journalist, perhaps someone like Marcus Fairs or Naomi Cleaver, is raking through the bargain bin at Habitat.  Like an alien sociologist on a fact-finding mission from Mars, they come across a “Design Classic”.  They pick it up, admire its lines and fondle its contours – then herald it in their newspaper column.

All sorts of things, from the Kalashnikov rifle to Adidas Samba trainers have been cited as Design Classics.  To a certain kind of design journalist, the classicism of the classic aligns with a certain kind of Britishness.  Since we can’t readily own a Supermarine Spitfire or an AEC Routemaster bus, we buy a Dualit toaster, Dyson vacuum and an Anglepoise lamp instead. 

Do we value them for what they are they are – how beautifully made they are and how much utility they have – or for what they signify?  As Grayson Perry said, this is the “emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive.”  Design Classics are charged with social meaning as well as design values: we hunt them down to say something about who we are.



So we head for the Habitat and the flea market, the brocante and the interiors shop.  If we’re lucky, we might score a Hille Supporto task chair, some of Knud Holscher’s D-Line handles, and a run of Vitsoe 606 shelving.  At the end of the search, we collapse onto an Eames chair … and pour some real coffee from a cafetière: Richard Sapper’s “9090”, made by Alessi.

On one level the search for the Classic is the search for making an ideal environment in a world that is not ideal; on another it is about finding out who we are.  Arguably we belong to a “Designer” age which grew up in the 1980’s and became jaded in the 1990’s.  Soon, we found ourselves looking back over our shoulder to rediscover Mid-century design, with its clean lines and fitting use of materials.

That era also retained a residual pride in the Made in Britain tag.  Time was when firms such as English Electric made everything from toasters to locomotives and Lightning jets.  But now British-made white goods are what you see lined up along the kerb, ready to be uplifted by the scaffies – replaced by widgets made in Turkey or the Far East.

Half a century later, design journalism affects scorn at little bijoux and “home accents”, yet delights in things like the Alessi “Firebird”, Starck’s phallic-looking gas lighter.  But Firebird isn’t a Design Classic, not if design means the integration of ergonomics, economics and aesthetics to make something which works well, meets a demand, and whose appearance acknowledges and reinforces its function.

Firebird is a little piece of ornamental sculpture, a bourgeois gew-gaw like china ducks flying up the wall, or a wild boar’s head mounted on a plaque.  The unshaven clown prince of design had a big laugh at our expense with the Firebird, just as he did with the “Juicy Salif”, a lemon squeezer that wouldn’t.  That’s the difference between applied design and decorative art.



It also represents key themes in the 21st century: disposability, wastefulness, and the overwhelming victory of marketing over everything else.

The American approach to product design is marketing-led.  The marketeers define the brief for new products by emphasising consumer research, trend research and style forecasts. Then the designers and engineers would be asked to create products in response - therefore the emphasis became stylistic and short term.  That’s what happened when Braun was taken over by Gilette.

Before that happened, Dieter Rams noted that his approach at Braun was collaborative, bringing marketeers, finance, design and engineers around one table.  This has been likened to the Apple design process under Jonathan Ive, which is perhaps why there are parallels between Rams' Braun products and those from Apple.

I’ve just finished reading Leander Kahney’s excellent biography of Jonathan Ive, in which he makes the point that Apple’s fabulous profits are a direct result of design quality.  "We are really pleased with our revenues but our goal isn't to make money.  It sounds a little flippant, but it's the truth.  Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products.  If we are successful people will like them and if we are operationally competent, we will make money," he said.

Quality also means sustainability – a tag which is casually applied to everything these days.
Dieter Rams drew attention to an “increasing and irreversible shortage of natural resources” in his Design by Vitsoe speech in 1976. “I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk,” he warned.  Of course, mankind knows how to make stuff that lasts; so if stuff doesn't last, it's made that way by choice.

As another of the greats, Kenneth Grange, pointed out, “That’s the force of plain commerce as opposed to manufacturing commerce, which is what happens when money is the biggest single driving force in every damn thing.  You can make more money making something cheaply and selling it expensively than by setting out to make something new.  And to that extent the sort of accountancy temperament that the ingenious villains of the City thrive upon has come to dominate every other branch of commerce.”

In 1968, the Situationists came to the same conclusion with their famous non sequitur: In the décor of the spectacle, the eye meets only things and their prices.



Some think that Design Classics are things which people can aspire to, such as the Eames chair – but by definition, exclusive things work by excluding you from owning them unless you can surmount the high barriers to entry – in other words, their expense.

Others think Design Classics should be objects that everyone can own, like a pair of Converse All-Stars.  Those shoes represent America and rock n’ roll, in the same way that the row of toiletries on the bathroom shelf is a city skyline reduced to a scale we can afford. 

On reflection, I wonder whether Jasper Morrison’s Hannover trams aren’t a far more democratic piece of design, since no-one owns a piece of them.  You can’t buy or sell them; they just are.

By Mark • Albums: memory palace, canon

It’s December in Illinois.  Fat snowflakes fall from the sky.  There is a queue of SUV’s snaking along the interstate, waiting their turn to nose into the Engine Sheriff’s garage for a set of winter tyres.  Mr Wolf isn’t particularly warm, because the architect who designed this particular building was in thrall to Mies van der Rohe.

As a result, three walls are fully glazed, floor to ceiling, with 1960’s double glazing units.  The glass is uncoated, although it has a grey solar film on the inside.  A draught whistles in around the profiles, the seals around the units have shrunk, and there are gaps between the frame and the soffit which should have been siliconed.

A zipped-up metal roof sits above the suspended ceiling, with only a meagre amount of Timber Roll to provide insulation.  The heating consists of a hot air blower, which struggles to warm the air around it, far less put heat into the fabric of a building which has negligible thermal mass.  Mr Wolf is grateful for his fur collar, but he recalls once more that the glass box wasn’t conceived for northerly latitudes.

Mr Wolf flew into O’Hare yesterday to meet the Shale Barons.  He convinced them that a giant Scottish box fabricated from crinkly Rigidal was exactly what they needed.  They found his accent quaint, but sat up when he showed them his teeth.  The meeting was a success.  Moses, Senior VP of Production, took him to a fancy restaurant on Lake Shore Drive afterwards.  Despite his fur collar, Mr Wolf felt the biting wind coming off Lake Michigan when he left the cab and crossed the sidewalk.



When Mr Wolf was younger, he heard all about the John Hancock centre and Sears Tower from his father, who was out here in the 1960’s trying to sell Scottish machine tools to the Yankees.  These are the ingenious devices that, in war or peace, automatically drill the bores in rifles, stamp the fenders for Cadillacs, and cut the turbine blades for jet engines. They range from small machines, such as workshop lathes that sell for a few hundred dollars, to giant complexities that automatically cut and shape a section of an aircraft’s wing.

Back then, Scotland sold as many of its own brainchildren as it imported other peoples’.  Wolf senior was on an equal footing with the industrialists he sold machines to – they recognised that original ideas would always be in demand.  You can afford to be magnanimous, even a little humble, when folk beat a path to your door.  He wasn’t here looking for business: it had come looking for him.

A decade ago, by contrast, his offspring’s attitude was a curious mixture of sentimentality and hubris.  The former he felt for the place where he was educated, a school of architecture named after The World’s Most Famous Scotsman.  That was the making of him, he had decided.  The latter stemmed from where he was going.  He was convinced he would lead a world-famous practice within ten years’ time, “or I’ll eat my Calvins.”  Eyebrows were raised in amused scepticism, but his fan club on the internet cheered him on. 



Nine years have passed since he boasted that prediction; he no longer believes he is on a Mission from God.  He has almost convinced himself that he can make architecture from anything, by transmuting base materials like Kingspan and Alucobond.  Others were less than convinced.  Nonetheless, the junior wolf had always fancied seeing the windy city for himself.  Now here he was, standing in The Loop with an hour to kill before dusk, when he would return to his hotel. 

He’s surrounded by structural glazing and curtain walling – not far from Alcoa’s and Pittsburgh Corning’s factories which helped to develop this stuff in the first place.  Yet something has changed.  This isn’t the “New World” any longer, not the place which Bellow and Updike wrote about in their youth – it was the place Bellow wrote about in his dotage, of failed marriages and academic sinecures.  Tin sheds and glass boxes were a vision of the future from the 1960’s.  The companies his old man sold machine tools to, were sold in turn to the Chinese and Koreans years ago.  It was all about salesmanship.

Mr Wolf realised that he had sold the Americans their own game: a refraction of what they already knew.  But why was he still sold on the idea of High Modernism, that canon of failed experiments which looked like a million bucks, but were poorly resolved?  Things fell off them.  They cost a fortune to heat.  Their leaky roofs kept Shanghai bucket manufacturers in business.  His father’s “future” couldn’t be his.  The world had changed.

He had a lot on his mind as he gained the hotel foyer, nodded to the bellhop and took an elevator upstairs.



As Mr Wolf drifted off to sleep, the lucid part of his brain recalled re-runs of American cartoons from the 1960’s.  There was a cat called Mr Jinx who had two friend-enemies in the mice, Pixie and Dixie.   The cat had an ambivalent attitude to those two mice: he hated them, yet he was defined by them.   Their relationship was a good example of symbiosis – just like the critique of Mies van der Rohe’s aesthetic inevitably leads to discussion of detailing failures.

“There are giant glass pavillions in Chicago,” said one mouse, “which rocked the world.”

–”What’s aa this nonsense?” asked the cat, who across fifty years and a broad ocean had developed a Dundonian accent.  Mysteries of life.

“They have subtle detailing that makes you think that the structure is less material than it actually is.”

–”Pish!  Not so,” replied the cat, “That trickery with planted-on steel beams is a cheat.  The lack of materiality is all lies.  It’s lies, I tell you – lies!”

“Mies was the grandmaster of infinite space and light,” crowed the other mouse.

–”Haivers,” replied the irritated cat, “Crown Hall was badly-detailed, the roof leaked, the walls were riddled with cold bridges, it used energy like naebody’s business.   Who in their right mind would build a glass box in a cold climate?”

“But glass pavilions are abstractions of pure form…” said the first mouse.

–”Come aff it, why would ye ever put a flat roof on a building somewhere that gets both heavy rain and deep snow?”

“But you forget his enormous influence on other architects,” said the other mouse.

–”Architects?  More like degenerate copyists,” sniffed the cat.  “The Miesians are vermin, just like you.  That’s why I hate those Miesians to pieces.”  What was that, Mr Jinx?

“I hate those Miesians to pieces,” growled Mr Wolf in his sleep.

Merry Christmas, Mr Wolf.  Sleep tight.  You might just experience an epiphany on Boxing Day…

By Mark • Albums: canon

Last year’s degree show at Duncan of Jordanstone was notable for the work of one student in the Masters Year, Sam Wilson.  I ended up writing a review of the show as a whole for the AJ, and an in-depth feature on Sam’s scheme at Brymbo Steelworks for Urban Realm.  His striking drawings were printed in both magazines, and here’s hoping he capitalised on the coverage he gained to find himself a job.

This year’s degree show forces the visitor to dig deeper, though.

The walls on Level 6 of the Matthew Building are hung with examples of polite rationalism, and sensitive conservation schemes.  Evidently, there are a few Asplund juniors in the Masters year, amongst whom are the authors of an ironically po-faced Cartoon Museum, and a sub-Seagram scheme for Dundee’s main railway station.  The restoration work tackles Slains Castle and the fortress at Dunnottar: both schemes are well-mannered but a little tentative.

By contrast, Magnus Popplewell’s drawings outline his idea to create an inhabited bridge spanning the Tay.  Rather than dropping another “icon” on Dundee’s central waterfront, he proposes a three kilometre long megastructure.  This is the one piece of ambitious architectural thinking on show at Dundee in 2013.

The bridge springs from a northern abutment above Seabraes, with student studios slotted into the frame, then flats for the general run, and retail units, leading to a hotel.  By then, we are hundreds of metres out into the Tay and the accommodation thins out.  Mid-river, there’s a jetty and – bizarrely – a basilica on an artificial island, founded on the kilometre-long Middle Bank, one of the Tay’s many sandbanks.  Further south, there’s a navigation span over the shipping channel, known as the South Deep, before the bridge sweeps onto its southern abutment at Tayfield, between Wormit and Newport.

Popplewell’s clean, simple pen drawings owe something to Frank Ching, but present his concept coherently without any tricks of presentation.  Neither is there the baggage of theory, phenomenology or mytho-poetics which often accompanies student schemes.  It would have been nice to see a model, though…

Many folk have proposed a modern version of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio or Venice's Rialto Bridge - including Rem Koolhaas’ scheme at Rak Jebel, high in the mountains above the Persian Gulf, and Laurie Chetwood’s proposal for a modern “London Bridge 800”.  Unlike previous examples of Living Bridges with huge towers filled with luxury flats, shops and restaurants, Popplewell’s bridge is linear and flat-topped.

The Thames is a small, sluggish river bounded by a city.  The Tay is many times wider, and the volume of water which flows down it is greater than the three largest English rivers combined.  As a result, the three kilometre long pedestrian deck crosses the Tay in one constant slow arc and evokes Corb’s “Project Obus”. Anything less would be gestural.  It works on a variety of scales: the largest of megastructures; the public apparatus of a city; the structural gird; down to the domestic scale of rooms, and their fittings.

It seems ideal territory for a student thesis.

This course of action, choosing a hypothetical brief then allowing it to run to its conclusion, opposes “The Challenge of the Ordinary”, a brief which academics elsewhere have set students.  That proposition was apparently brought about by a juror’s remark a propos the 3D Reid Student Prize - "We saw a crematorium, a monastery/ brewery, a "cidery‟ in a tower, a bench, a theatre and an exploration of the caverns of Naples.  We did not see a house, an office, a warehouse, a hospital or a supermarket.  Where were the schemes pushing everyday architecture down exciting new paths?”

This remark, as rational as it seems, betrays a lack of insight.  This is not the intellectually sophisticated line which James Gowan took when he noted drily that, the more complex the brief, the more banal the solution; whereas the more banal the brief, the more sophisticated the solution.  Rather than a challenge to think in a more sophisticated way, it sounds like a mere call for novelty.  After all, what is “excitement”?  Wouldn't resolution, sophistication, or articulation be more fitting? 

Paradoxically, students in their final year should pursue unlikely ideas and unusual typologies – the so-called “unbuildable” schemes – whereas they should only tackle “straightforward” things like houses, offices and shops after 15 or 20 years of experience.  The subtleties of the latter are learned by doing, whereas opera houses, monasteries and wineries will almost always be one-offs.  As a consequence, their design will be informed by the study of precedents, operational research, and brief extension – the very activities in which students are well versed.

Unconvinced?  Each modern opera house is a prototype; yet consider trying to design mass housing from scratch, without practical experience and hence without exposure to the norms applied by the firms who help you to realise it.  Why not try to impose your own personal module on the ceiling, floor and partition grids of offices – or argue in the face of the British Council for Offices’ (BCO’s) logic about net lettable areas (NLA’s).  Perhaps you could subvert social housing by trying something which ignores the prescriptive standards driven by the Housing for Varying Needs (HFVN) guides, and paid for by Housing Association Grants (HAG’s).

Do you already have a grasp of the concepts hiding behind those acronyms?  If the answer is yes, it will undoubtedly spring from direct experience.  A measure of that experience would be hard, although not impossible, to apply in a degree course, because we can’t properly replicate how buildings are born.  The interaction of people and firms is just too complex, and both time- and cost-intensive.  Crucially, much of the design process comes about as a result of actors offstage, and given that student architects are assessed as individuals, pitching them into a bear pit would not serve any real purpose.

Let’s return to The Challenge of the Ordinary.  Since people never set up propositions for no reason at all, this one must spring from a considered attitude towards the world.  For example you might take a narrow, vocational view of architectural training, one aim of which is to produce fodder for the big, commercial offices.  That implies you should only learn to design what they design, build how they build, and have your ambitions delimited by their experience.  Consideration of “everyday architecture” shouldn’t be restricted to certain typologies which the big commercial practices churn out.

An alternative is to consider a broader education which seeks to open peoples’ minds and offers them a fresh perspective on the world.  Provide the intellectual tools and you have set them up for life, so that they can follow their curiosity where it leads them, and the more ambitious you are at this stage, the better.  I’m with Mark Twain on this one – “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambition.  Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Exploring the caverns under Naples is a perfect example of an opportunity which should be seized with both hands.  Imagine being offered the chance to engage with history of the tufa quarries, find out how southern European urbanism works, and live for a while within another culture, society, language and climate.  This isn’t just an “academic” point – I can speak from experience, having taken part in an ERASMUS exchange to Athens during my 4th year.  In Athens, I learned a few things about architecture, and far more about people.  I owe much to that opportunity.

My conclusion is that the course should build intellectual equipment, and broaden cultural horizons, rather than trying to reflect what happens in practice too closely.  The vocational part of training an architect will come later, from the experience of practice.  Ambitious briefs will help to stretch the mind; unambitious briefs may lead to a bounded imagination.

All that said – at the other end of the school, first year, is Hugh Ebdy’s habitat for an artist, at Kenmore on Loch Tay.  One beautifully-composed sheet of pen-line plans and elevations, and a gouache perspective of the habitat, cutaway to show the warm cocoon of the habitat surrounded by the enveloping blue twilight of the mountains.  Made from SIP panels, the habitat seems like a good place to be during the Scottish winter, a place to return to after a day’s exploration, to write up notes and fill out sketchbooks.

Between these two students, there are some well-resolved ideas and the promise of more to come.  Underlying them, is a lesson about didacticism and how to equip students for practice.

By Mark • Albums: canon

At architecture school, we learned about the canon.  Only the great, and a few of the good, made it into the canon.  Yet once we win a glimpse inside the decision-making process, we discover that someone has spiked the canon.

We ask ourselves, “Which is best?” 

The short answer is, “I like this building.”

The long answer is, “How do you answer a rhetorical question?”

Notions of “best” are based on our immediate responses: subjective, emotional, preconceived.   Beyond the gut reaction, choices are made on the basis of taste and discretion, both of which can be learned from publications and teaching.  However, the architecture which appears in books and on shortlists for awards represents a mere snapshot, and the decision-making process is rather less objective than it may appear from the outside. 

Not only will many folk disagree with the results of the Best Of, but some question why we need it at all.  Why do we need a canon?

Why do we single out certain buildings?   Should awards be there to reward excellence, or pour encourager les autres?   There are certainly far more competitions around than there used to be: the Scottish Design Awards, Saltire Society diplomas, the RIAS/ Andrew Doolan Prize, the Regeneration of Scotland Award…  Perhaps there is a danger that they become self-regarding, even self-congratulatory: it’s certainly true that there is an agenda at work in each case.  

Awards are the creation of philanthropists and altruists, as well as architects who want to keep their name alive – and journalists in need of copy.

Some buildings will make every list: St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross is the prime Scots example of a serial poll-winner.   By contrast, there is always another architecture, often over-looked and under-represented – you stumble across these buildings, then try to find out more in books and magazines – only to discover that they are invisible.   Who decides whether these latter works should remain outside the canon – and by contrast, who will ensure that the iconoclasts don’t ignore good architecture just because it’s “too obvious?”  

Our critical faculties need to be sophisticated enough to distinguish between unfamiliar points of departure and merely bad buildings.

Likewise, it is worth considering why buildings which are regionally as well as nationally significant should be included: a Scottish list which only features architecture from a small part of Scotland would not only be unrepresentative, it would also destroy the listmaker’s credibility.   In this regard, Neil Gillespie of Edinburgh architects Reiach & Hall made an acute observation a few years ago: deep in some glen, there is probably work of international importance being produced.   In this and the pieces which will follow, I aim to put forward some examples which may counter the idea that much of the architecture in Scotland can’t be good, because it isn’t “canonical”.

That we don’t get to know about it is due to a lack of research on the part of the judging panel, rather than our unwillingness to open up to something new.

Goalposts must be set accordingly, too.   The architecture of capitals is not equivalent to that of provincial cities:  budgets are different, some ideas can’t be scaled down, and certain types of building are missing.   Therefore, how well a building works within its context must be a determining factor – and this is where Scotland can show off its credentials.   We have always had local architectures: the Art Nouveau of Langlands & Lamond in Dundee (which David Walker first highlighted in the 1950’s); the expressive Modernism of Peter Womersley in the Borders; the modern vernacular of Baxter Clark & Paul in the North-east.  

Finding out about them may not be so simple, but the research will reward you with something fresh to think about.

Scottish architecture has operated in a series of cycles – the emergence of a New Vernacular after the war; the Post Modernism which travelled north with Alan Phillips; and Robert Matthew’s creation of a National Movement of the late ‘50’s, are all cases in point, which lead in turn to reactions and reversals.  Awards march to a faster beat.  So it is that any considered list should be representative of the whole era in question, even though the cycle has low points as well as highs, since posterity will re-evaluate the work of unfashionable architects.  

Awards or publications which consider several years’ worth of buildings have an advantage, whereas annual contests suffer from periodic gluts and droughts.  They both serve a less immediate purpose, too: they can chart the progress of our architecture from the fashions of the Fifties and Sixties, to the fashions of the present.  In fact, the selection process becomes fraught once you consider recent architecture.  

Architects who are still in practice have a personal investment in the results: plaudits and publication are important for your reputation, since winning the bays will ultimately lead to both new commissions and peer recognition.  Too much is at stake, and these beauty parades are often just an extension of the practice’s public relations effort.  Too bad if you’re a small practice without a marketing tsar, or (imagine!) a designer who feels a blush of shame when promoting herself.  

Quite often one set of award judges will be loathe to acknowledge a building already recognised in a separate competition, and the panel may even wander past the display boards, whistling that old Bryan Ferry standard, “The In-Crowd”, as the habitués of the shortlist turn up yet again.

So, what drives the decision making process?  It’s worth considering the psychology of how we reach decisions.  Sometimes the reasons are less our own than we’d like to think.  Firstly there’s the “herd of independent minds” – architects have similar backgrounds, and most have passed through the same architecture schools, so we behave similarly and exhibit similar tastes.  As a result, we tend to think alike and often arrive, independently, at the same conclusions.  There’s also the heuristic of social proof, which says that folk copy each other, because each believes that the others may know something he doesn’t. 

On the other hand, there’s the so-called salience heuristic, which suggests that we suffer from cognitive biases such as wishful thinking, which is often buttressed by the “Lake Woebegon” effect – we believe that we’re smarter than all the other idiots out there.  Other factors at work may include our self-serving memory, which remembers success, but forgets failures, and tells everyone else accordingly.  The suggestible among us may also suffer from the “Halo” effect: our belief that all good qualities must be connected, magically, by some common factor. 

Architectural education also breeds a cult of individuality, which runs from the genius, portrayed in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, to the bloody-minded individualism which many of us exhibit at some point in our career.  Finally, we all suffer to some extent from a love of novelty, and that sometimes means that we value the new over the good.  Are you still convinced in the worth of the canon?

In the end, reaching decisions through open debate is likely to improve the rigour of a short leet, and that’s exactly how we should consider any “Best Of”.  After all, only when your arguments are robust enough to present, debate and defend in public, can you really justify them, and that’s one thing the canon lacks, writ large as it is on tablets of stone.

By Mark • Albums: canon