Gallery: "canon"


18/12/23 22:45

The end of the year is a time for reflection, and I guess this year won’t be any different.
About to make a change in my own career, I inadvertently realised that I started out with a holiday job at a “traditional” slightly old-fashioned practice, then went to work for a “design-led” practice after I graduated – and spent the rest of my twenties there.  During my thirties I worked for a practice which blended good design with commercial acumen, then I worked for an out-and-out “commercial” practice for most of my forties.  Accidentally, the jobs seem to coincide with my own decades.
The categories are set in inverted commas because they’re categories which other people apply to the practices, rather than their own descriptions of themselves.
The Narcissism of Small Differences is a term coined by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud to point out that we sometimes find ourselves arguing about the trivial details which distinguish us from others, who are in fact virtually the same as we are.  To the layman, the differences are invisible, because all architects are the same – even those wearing bright red trousers or black polo neck jumpers.
A classic example of the NoSD are the imaginary lines we draw between what we perceive as different categories of practice.  So you get “conservation” practices, “design-led” practices and “commercial” practices, neatly pigeon-holed as if there’s no crossover between their work.  I blame tutors at architecture schools, who in turn lean heavily on critics such as Pevsner who had an art historical training.  Pevsner couldn’t help himself from sorting sheep from goats.

One result of sorting the sheep and goats into different pigeonholes (apologies for the strained metaphor…) is that swathes of good architecture are ignored.  I’ve just finished researching an article about the evolution of power station architecture in the UK.  It includes a discussion on the roles of the critic Reyner Banham and a practice called Architects Design Group in the development of the 2,000 MW capacity coal-fired mammoths which are currently being demolished in the Trent Valley.

ADG were based in Nottingham and their work was ground-breaking: they helped to developed an approach to landscape design which is still used today (the Zones of Visual Influence technique), and their work won many awards at the time. However, ADG’s work is no longer widely known, quite a lot has already been demolished, and very little has been written about it.
That’s the curse of being a “commercial” practice: your work isn’t taken seriously by historians and academics.
An opposing example is a small project which a big-name architect took on a few years ago.  Desperate to wring some expression from the brief, and to demonstrate what a “design-led” practice could achieve, they took a speculative bungalow built by Bett Brothers in a town with a history of masonry construction.  It was a perfectly ordinary house, designed in the modern vernacular of the 1970’s, which just needed modernising and upgrading.
It could have been upgraded almost invisibly by adding 300mm of Rockwool in the attic, 150mm in the solum, cavity fill insulation in the walls plus triple glazed windows – allowing it to retain its character by tidying up the white Skye Marble harling, and setting it off with black eaves boards and window frames.  Instead, the walls were overclad in rough-sawn timber boarding and stained in a virulent colour, then a clashing colour was chosen for the replacement windows, and an oblique dormer sprouted from the roof.  Now, the house looks utterly out of place, as if it’s been parachuted in from an Icelandic fishing village and repainted by fashion designer Paul Smith.
That’s the curse of being a “design-led” practice: you strain to do something visibly different, when you could have done something thoughtful instead.
I think I was happiest during my thirties, working with a mentor who understood intuitively how to design effectively while making money, who valued good architecture above novelty or self-indulgence, and who saw there wasn’t any mileage in trapping himself in a pigeonhole.  I learned more from him than from all the other firms I worked for, put together.

As is traditional, I wish you Happy Christmas and hope you avoid being pigeon-holed – although at this time of year, partridge-holing or perhaps even turtle dove-holing would be more appropriate…


By • Galleries: canon

During a recent trip to an archive north of the Highland Line, I began to ponder the evolution of colour conventions. I watched the archivist unload cardboard boxes from the filing trolley, then untie the little cotton ribbons to release rolls of tracing linens and dyelines. The Victorian and Edwardian working drawings had brightly-coloured walls, roofs and founds which peeked out from the curve of the sheets.

Architectural drawings from the Italian Renaissance were usually monochrome, but I’ve read that the French military engineer Sébastien de Vauban was the first to introduce colour to his sectional drawings. Eighteenth century architects in France and the Low Counties appear to have adopted de Vauban’s idea of shading the cuts on cross sections with a pink wash. I assume the habit spread across Europe thanks to foreign architects who trained at l'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris then returned to their home countries.



From there, a set of conventions developed, and most Dean of Guild and contract drawings from the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century use the same set of colours to denote materials. The best of them have ruled Indian ink lines and vivid washes of colour on stout cartridge paper that’s stayed white – rather than the dull, fugitive watercolours of the early 19th century on cheap paper which by and by has faded and foxed.

In the Georgian era, two centuries beforehand, the drawing began with pencil guidelines, then the architect drew over the pencil sketch using a ruling pen with india or bistre ink. Typically thinner lines or diluted ink were used to outline more distant forms; heavier darker lines outlined the structures in the foreground. Unlike today, human figures, dogs and cars weren’t added to anchor the architectural scale. Finally, the drawing was brushed with diluted washes of colour.

The consensus seems to be:
Yellow for wrot timber
Pale orange for unwrot timber
Brown for masonry
Red for brickwork
Dark blue for iron and steel
Turquoise or green for concrete
Bright orange for copper
Purple for insulation and also render or roughcast
Pale blue for glazing



So two hundred years ago, the architect and artist used exactly the same techniques and materials. You only have to look at the work of Francis Towne, the “Lone Star of Watercolour Painting” as Adrian Bury’s book called him, to see how he influenced the architectural perspectivists working even a century later, and their line and wash techniques were also used for orthogonal drawings.

Speaking to a recently-retired colleague, he recalls that colouring-up drawings for Warrant was an absolute requirement back in the day. It had to be done for all drawings whether new build or extension, although latterly the requirement was only to colour the extended area.  Colouring started to fall by the wayside as printing methods changed. For example, architects used to make copies on linen sheets, but those were supplanted by plastic sheet copies, which he recalled were terrible things to crayon on …

I entered practice towards the end of the tradition, so only had a few years of sending Building Control “two papers and one plastic” (some older officers even referred to them as, “two papers and one linen”) before the Portal appeared and the chore of printing and folding then the Post Office run, was replaced by the chore of uploading PDF files. Even so, a few Building Standards departments such as Midlothian still request a drawing in what they refer to as "traditional" colours…

Until then, I coloured up a print occasionally, but it was usually with coloured pencil on a plain paper copy by that time – or maybe the last of the dyeline prints, during holiday jobs while I was still at architecture school. The death knell for hand colouring drawings would have been accelerated as CAD came more to the forefront and practices started invested in colour-capable printers which allowed the drawings to be more realistically rendered by computer.



Downtakings are still dotted red, which is a convention that survives – even though the multi-coloured sections and details haven’t lasted into the CAD era. But coloured pencil or CAD both compare unfavourably to the pleasurable but exacting task of using coloured wash. The archive drawings were originals drafted on heavyweight cartridge paper, and were effectively pen and ink manual copies of the original drawings made for tender, contract or record purposes.

Plan copiers were rare beasts at the turn of the 20th century, and while big city practices like Keppies had access to a heliostat or velograph machine at the time when Mackintosh was working on the Glasgow School of Art, it took several decades for diazo (dyeline) copying to emerge as a universal method. Until then, you worked on originals, and copies were manually made on tracing linen.

As my retired colleague noted, “I’m not sure at which stage junior staff would have been entrusted with colouring up and potentially ruining expensive, hand-drawn proposals. Pretty far down the line, I expect.” Running a wash and getting it badly wrong would be a game of jeopardy which the apprentice just couldn’t afford to get wrong. There’s no Ctrl-Z command in watercolour painting.

Meantime, a side effect of spending time in the archives was the need to buy an Imperial scale rule to measure the archive drawings with. All I’ve ever used is metric, whereas this is the realm of 1/12, 1/24, 1/48 and 1/96 scale. So off to Ebay we go…

Nevertheless, it could be worse. They said of the Vikings “Once you’ve paid the Danegeld, you’ll never get rid of the Dane” and CAD software firms learned that lesson at the start of the CAD era in the late 1980’s. Once you’ve bought CAD licences, you’re trapped – the software libraries and proprietary filetypes are embedded in ways that would be painful to unpick. So you have to keep stumping up licence fees. CAD software firms are the classic rentier capitalists.

I’d be very interested to read more about the evolution of colour conventions from years gone by: I searched books and hunted for research papers, but didn’t find much at all. Like the Giant Rat of Sumatra in the Sherlock Holmes books, the story will probably never be told. As Conan Doyle explained, it may even be a story for which the world is not yet prepared…

It’s also a demonstration of the tacit knowledge an older worker holds in his head that a younger colleague can access by picking his brains. From experience, some graduates thinks you can learn about most things online, with little need for guidance or mentoring. Here’s a small lesson in just how wrong-headed that notion is.

So please get in touch if you have anything to add, as it seems this tradition has more or less died out. That’s a pity, because colour makes drawings more legible, and can lift them from mere working drawings into architectural artwork.

By • Galleries: ghosts, canon

A few years ago, a self-proclaimed speculative architect called Liam Young advocated that we should forget the nametag “architect”, because an architect’s skills are wasted on buildings.

In an interview with Tank Magazine (The City Limits Issue, Autumn 2014) he claimed that was a good thing: “It means that the profession can find traction in other fields: the architect as a strategist, as politician … as activist or storyteller. Finding ways to operate in other disciplines just gives us more agency.”

Tank is one of the sharpest cultural magazines around, and it publishes some challenging journalism.  So I read the article carefully. It's an opinion piece by an intelligent man, yet ultimately he's just a guy with an opinion which matches his worldview. What he wrote didn't resonate with me, and I disagree with him. In fact, as I re-read it, I realised that Liam Young couldn't be more wrong.

Young’s article came back to me recently as I read through one of the London-based journals and heard a faint echo of his position in a story about young activists. Architecture certainly teaches multi-faceted skills such as creative problem-solving – yet the same applies in most fields of study.

If Young’s idea of “activism” advocates giving up architectural practice, it ignores the fact that most of us studied architecture in order to build. It’s also an abdication of the implied contract we sign up to when we go to architecture school.  Society invests in our education and enables us to chase our aspirations; in return we give back to society through design.

Rather than squander seven years' training by encouraging the brightest graduates to leave the profession, we need skilled architects because there’s still so much to do.  Perhaps even more than during the 1960’s, or after World War Two. Is there any greater social purpose than helping to provide safe schools, humane hospitals and care facilities, and above all decent housing for people who live in unsuitable, too small, too damp, energy-inefficient, houses and flats?

We won’t always be able to improve things, though. After all:
Most start-up businesses fail.
Over 40% of marriages end in divorce.
Many athletes don't become professionals.
Things might not work out – but that doesn't mean no-one should try.

Lots of us naturally leave the profession, becoming tutors or photographers, project managers or academics in architecture-related fields. On principle, I don’t speak in detail about what I’ve designed because the chance to write for architecture magazines shouldn’t be treated as a platform for self-promotion, but I'm proud to have helped to create buildings which hopefully improved the lives of other people. I’m sure many folk reading this will feel the same.

On the other hand, further through the interview in Tank is a telling quote from Young: "I worked for Zaha Hadid, designing science-museum-opera-art gallery-China-Dubai projects. All of which, in the context of making and shaping cities right now, is utterly fucking irrelevant." (sic). This neatly sums up what's wrong with Liam Young's world view, and why.

The Riverside Museum in Glasgow is the clearest Scottish example of a building designed with contempt for its brief. Its crazy roof betrays an ignorance of the rational engineering which Clydeside was famous for. Its cramped floorplates mask the exhibits. It makes visitors uncomfortable trying and failing to see what they came here for. It betrays a disregard for its context, and says nothing about the Clyde, Glasgow, or Scotland – but everything about its designers.

Young still thinks and writes from the perspective of ten years ago, when graduates were desperate to join the star system, building these capricious "icons" with no social value.  Arguably Hadid, Gehry and their ilk didn't create architecture: instead they produced elaborate, resource-intensive building-sized sculptures.

They also poisoned the expectations of a generation of people like Liam Young, graduates who have gone on to become tutors and lecturers at architecture schools and developed a deep cynicism about architecture’s inherent purpose. Yet that sour disappointment about their own experience working for what Rem Koolhaas sniffily called “author architects” shouldn’t put graduates off from becoming architects.

By • Galleries: canon

We often disdain teenagers, glued to their smartphones and instantly reacting to events via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. But having got back home from today’s RIAS Convention in Edinburgh, I reflected on what I saw and heard there. For me, Amin Taha was the highlight, thanks to his architectural insights and well-paced delivery.

Taha’s career so far has produced a number of well-resolved buildings which have brought him increasingly larger and higher profile commissions around London. Each one builds on his serial investigation of materials, so far exploring the nature and possibilities of non-loadbearing brick, of load-bearing stone, and now embarking on a journey to discover the possibilities of sheet brass and bronze.

Taha presented his take on the Etymology of Architecture, starting with a potted history of art and architectural history. Giorgio Vasari was arguably the first art/ architectural historian with his encyclopedia of artistic biographies, “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”. It anecdotally recorded the process of creating art. Two centuries later came Johann Winckelmann with his “History of the Art of Antiquity” and its follow-up volume, which additionally offered some opinions about the work. Perhaps that was the birth of naive architectural criticism.

Taha’s reflections on those books sets his own work into a context: he’s conscious of the Art Historical Industry and aware of the labels it coins. Perhaps there’s a Post-Modern (or post-Venturi) knowingness to his buildings. That said, the remaining half hour covered the evolution of his work, through housing at Barrett’s Grove, Bayswater Road and Upper Street – all of which explored in different ways how CLT (massive timber) construction could provide a more economic structure than concrete or steel frame. In cities like London, most of the development cost actually pays for land, not the building which sits on it.

Most of Taha’s insights came in the form of asides about technique and building economics, such as the housing development at Upper Street in London where the client initially approached Daniel Libeskind, but found him too expensive. The building was completed for around £3000 sq.m., whereas Libeskind was hoping for a budget of at least double that. Shades of the supermodel who wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning for less than £10,000…

Next Taha touched on a Metro station in Sofia, before going into detail about Clerkenwell Close, his home and the office of his practice, Groupwork. The initial concept involved creating a bronze exoskeletal frame, but it was eventually built using trabeated Portland stone. The natural face of the stone is expressed where many would saw it to form a veneer, then dress or flame finish its face. The result is both startling and obvious, although the local Planners evidently hated it so much they fought in the courts to have it demolished.

In a world where we’re rightly pre-occupied with climate change, social and political issues, it was nevertheless good to hear someone speak with clarity about architectural language and materiality. To paraphrase Amin Taha's sign-off at the end, “Let the materials drive the architecture”. I’m glad the RIAS invited him to Edinburgh, where he studied architecture years many ago, and I hope he eventually gets the chance to build in Scotland, too.

By • Galleries: canon

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 • Galleries: 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 • Galleries: 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 • Galleries: 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 • Galleries: 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 • Galleries: 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 • Galleries: canon