Gallery: "carbuncles"

What went wrong with the Scottish Government’s flagship Spaces for People programme?
It was billed as a “community-led” initiative, to create space in towns and cities so that people could move around safely during the time of Covid. The logic was that since road travel was heavily restricted from March 2020 onwards, the roads were empty, so pedestrians and cyclists could spill out onto unused streets and maintain a safe distance.

Spaces for People is part of a growing trend of Tactical Urbanism which, just like New Urbanism, is a concept imported from the US.  New Urbanism failed (see my article about Knockroon) because it gave people something they didn’t want, and didn’t offer any alternative – yet the Scottish Government backed the charette process through the good offices of A&DS because it offered a chimera of public consultation.
Tactical Urbanism is the same. “Cities around the world are using flexible and short-term projects to advance long-term goals related to street safety, public space, and more. Tactical Urbanism is all about action. Also known as DIY Urbanism, Planning-by-Doing, Urban Acupuncture, or Urban Prototyping, this approach refers to a city, organisational, and/or citizen-led approach to neighbourhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions to catalyse long-term change.”

But under cover of offering public consultation (rather than true public involvement or public empowerment) Tactical Urbanism pushes through a pre-agreed agenda.  People quickly recognised that offering them the chance to leave comments and feedback, isn’t the same as giving them the right to object and demand meaningful change, so Spaces for People has become a PR disaster for councils.
What were specifically billed as “community-led” projects were carried out hurriedly with no public consultation beforehand. There was no mechanism to impel councils to reverse unpopular, ineffective or even dangerous measures. Hence the open outcry, petitions putting pressure on councillors and ultimately the threat of court action. So much for democratic change and people power.
The first Spaces for People measures were imposed on communities using Temporary Traffic Regulation Orders (TTRO’s) which council officers say were used to reduce “specific risks” to the public – in this case the transmission of the coronavirus.  These powers allowed the council to install measures without prior consultation for up to 18 months. 

Once that period was up, the councils added another 18 month “temporary” period by switching to Experimental Traffic Regulation Orders (ETRO’s), rather than the usual legal process during which formal objections can be lodged by residents. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that the Spaces for People projects were sneaked through during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the mechanism of TTRO’s was used to prevent people from having any say or influence over their own community.

18 months later, the inquest has begun on whether that was fair, or even legal. Edinburgh Evening news reported on 10th August that -
“City of Edinburgh Council's internal audit report did not pull any punches when it stated that the specific measures were based on suggestions from ‘a relatively small group of officers and external stakeholders’ and most were initially prioritised by six project team members ‘with limited justification available to support prioritisation outcomes’.” 

“So, as many people have long suspected, the proposals were hastily drawn up by a small group of people and rubber-stamped by Coalition councillors with ‘limited justification available’ and then imposed on the Edinburgh public.  No meaningful consultation or engagement with local residents or community groups before implementation, just a ‘we know what’s best for you’ attitude.”
The impact on disabled people wasn’t considered, either.  The Edinburgh Access Panel, RNIB and the National Federation of the Blind were belatedly consulted by City of Edinburgh Council.  The EAP raised concerns about the risk of people with mobility difficulties being injured in collisions with cyclists where they have to cross a cycle lane to reach their bus.  The panel’s other major concern is that access and parking for Edinburgh’s 6500 disabled blue badge holders is being made much more difficult because blue badge parking is prohibited on the new “temporary” cycle lanes.  For many blue badge users their only option for getting about is to use their car.

It looks like the proponents of Spaces for People have a very narrow view of urbanism – presumably they are young, able-bodied and fit – and take no account of anyone else.  I guess they don’t have elderly parents or grandparents, or know anyone who uses a wheelchair or zimmer frame to get around, or who has impaired vision or hearing.  So Spaces for People has pitted the able-bodied against the disabled which is unfathomable and deeply discriminatory.

Perhaps they should have asked architects to get involved, because our training and the regulatory framework of the Technical Standards mean we have to consider accessibility for all at every stage of a project. The losers are everyone. Cyclists who are targeted by enraged drivers. Pedestrians who fear being knocked flying by aggressive cyclists. Disabled people who can no longer reach shops and offices. Bus passengers who struggle to reach “floating” bus stops. Emergency services whose response times have increased. And of course faith in local democracy.
Spaces for People misses the point. Studies have repeatedly shown that Scotland needs multi-modal transport, so the Spaces for People cash should have been spent on things like better park and ride facilities, commuter trains on which bikes are allowed, and electrifying all the railways in Scotland to make them swifter and greener. After that, perhaps providing public transport in rural areas which have been systematically stripped of bus and train services during the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s would be a wise move.

But the biggest lesson from Spaces for People is that Tactical Urbanism isn’t “community-led”.  It has taken urban design out of the realm of professional designers who consider users’ needs as paramount, and handed it to a coterie of special interest groups vying for government funding, and politicians desperate to be seen to “do something”. Spaces for People demonstrates that the champions of Tactical Urbanism pay no attention to what people actually want and need.

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The media – of which I grudgingly concede this weblog is a small part – thrives on contention, scare-mongering and the creation of bogeymen.  Issues which excite public outcry are ideal, and campaigning journalism sometimes generates stories which run for months.  All the better since, as my grandfather used to say, “they ay need to find something to fill up the papers wi.”

Missing children, dead pop stars and pollution are three habitual column-fillers; whilst the parameters of the first two are pretty obvious, the nature of pollution has changed over the years.  No doubt early editions of Blackwood’s Magazine complained about the poor sanitation of the Old Town: the gutters were open sewers, and the Nor’Loch was a giant cess pool.  This pollution made cholera and typhoid almost endemic, and it took the Age of Enlightenment to fix Edinburgh’s plumbing. 

In Victorian Glasgow, the air was a choking soup of pollutants – sulphurous vapours from works like Parkhead Forge and Dixon’s Blazes, also chemical fumes from Charles Tennant’s works, the alkali plant which built the world’s tallest chimney in an attempt to fix the problem – or at least throw it a few miles further downwind.  Dundee, at its height as Jute City, had some of Europe’s tallest chimneys too, yet the worst pollution hung around inside rather than in the skies above the city.  Jute workers suffered from respiratory complaints due to the jute dust, and byssinosis (presumed by Lancastrians to be a complaint unique to cotton mill workers) was rife. 

Every town and city sat under a smog of coal smoke – coal and coke were the universal fuels of factory, mill, forge, kirk and home.  The smog which contributed to London’s “pea soupers” was an issue in Scotland, too, often mixing with the sea haar to create a colloidal fug which hung around for days.  SInce the 1960’s we have gradually cleaned up our world, although noticeably more slowly than we fouled it up.  The Victorians built treatment works and labyrinthine sewerage systems; the textiles industry discovered dust extraction; the oil companies paid for detergents, booms, and wildlife rescue centres.  Perhaps the biggest change is that you can’t burn coal any more in cities. 

Between the Clean Air Acts of the 1950’s and the death of deep mining in Scotland, most coal either goes to old-fashioned thermal power plants like Cockenzie and Longannet, or is converted into coke for the shrinking steel industry.  In each case, we either look on these sunset industries sadly, regretting their decline – or express relief that they have been exported to India and China, who are just starting to understand why the West gave up this dirty work.  Both power stations and coking plants in the West have sophisticated flue gas treatment machinery fitted, anyway.

Other evils were the big dirty lorries which used to annoy environmentalists so much.  Not any more: Euro4 and Euro5-compliant engines burn low sulphur diesel oil, and use either exhaust gas recirculation or urea injection (AdBlue) to make their exhausts almost as clean as catalysed petrol engines.  Refrigerants in air conditioning plant and freezers have been changed, replacing the ozone-depleting halon gases with friendlier alternatives, including ammonia.  So what’s left?  Well, we made huge efforts to fight air and water pollution, but in return the media have found new forms of “pollution”. 

The new causes of pollution are the things which middlebrow journalists class as visual pollution.  We have dog crap, litter, chewing gum and graffiti – the first three are an annoyance, rather than being life-threatening.  Graffiti is different.  Its abstract patterns, giant cartoon animals and wry observations make up part of the city’s visual richness, creating colourful murals on the dreichest walls and animating hoardings in dead parts of town.  But the campaigners always need a target, whether it’s Donald Trump or traffic congestion; or representations such as the Caithness uranium prospectors in James Miller's novel “A Fine White Stoor”. 

Campaigns against graffiti writers are symptomatic of a fundamental insecurity about folks’ right to self-expression in their own city, and a kind of middle class propriety which extends far beyond its natural remit.  The fading paintwork on factory gables, the shop signs advertising goods from another era, the palimpsest of tags on lamp standards, the stencils which Banksy popularised, the cryptic punchlines scribbled on bus shelters – all of these animate the city.  They remind us that other people are here, not just us, and that they should have their say, too.

Graffiti has its enemies.  The corollary of style magazines, makeover shows on TV, carping columnists and politicians seeking re-election, is that attempts are made to sanitise everyday life.  Not only risk and danger, but happenstance, clutter and serendipity are being minimised.  It would be terribly good if they could be made to disappear completely.  The Valkyries screech at us – urban regeneration, pedestrianisation, traffic calming, red routes, green zones, tolerance areas, Twenty’s Plenty, Take your litter with you, Pick up after your dog.  Are we happy for our little lives to be bound up by so many rules? 

Elsewhere, the very “mixed uses” which the gurus of urbanism like are being wiped out by their own urban villages.  In Edinburgh, inner city breweries and whisky bonds have been replaced by flats, offices and supermarkets.  The umbilical link to industrial processes which remind people where things come from, and which are our connection to the wider economy – the thing which built our cities in the first place – are being severed.  In Kirkcaldy, linoleum plants and maltings are being replaced with flats.  In Greenock, Scotland’s last marine engine builder has become waterside apartments. 

Scotland’s future is Glasgow Harbour (where the residents complain that the Govan shipyard on the opposite bank makes too much noise and is an eyesore); and the serried ranks of alien flats on Leith’s waterfront and Dundee’s docks.  The obliteration of graffiti is a step along the road towards a gated city, under 24-hour CCTV surveillance, with no litter, no graffiti, no smells or tastes on the air; no variety or grain.  Nothing out of place.  Only mile after mile of tattie print flats.  The only thing that stopped them, temporarily, was the Credit Crunch. 

As Sverre Fehn said in 1997,
“In the suburbs, people have developed an animal rationality.  That’s why they hang themselves about with chains, dress in leather and put rings in their noses.  And they start getting tattoos.  Even the buildings are tattooed, by graffiti.  The buildings give no answer, offer no resistance, they have no face.  So people have to put a face on them.”

He continued,
“Rational housing creates aggression.  It has no ameliorating links, not even a porch.  You just have the door, leading straight out into something.  In these circumstances, humans start forming territories.  Who started tattooing themselves?  Sailors.  Why?  Because they had nowhere to live.  By tattooing they made the body their house.  Tattooing makes the body into an artistic object which you can’t run away from.  You write on yourself and therefore inhabit your own history.”

Graffiti writers make their mark on buildings in an attempt to humanise their city – but why should it need to be humanised in the first place?

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Design – or at least the business of externalising and explaining it – works by analogy, and just as they say the brain has only so much room for memories, so it only has so much capacity for innovation.  Perhaps that’s why the Beech Starship, an aircraft from the future, was forgotten over a decade ago.

In fact, from the perspective of the handful of hours I’ve flown in a flying school Cessna, the Starship comes from the far distant future.  The Cessna 152, its door pull a length of string, its R/T jacks crackling, its pitot head bent out of shape, is a product of 1940’s technology.  When the Beechcraft company became a Starship builder, it took a decade leap in design, materials and manufacturing from the late 1970’s straight into the 1990’s.

Aircraft design has gone through several revolutions, and each was driven by materials science.  From the timber frames clad in doped fabric of early biplanes, through the development of plywood to build the de Havilland Mosquito, we reached stressed-skin aluminium less than forty years after the Wright brothers first took off.  The Mosquito was one of the least resource-hungry aircraft to build, as it pioneered the use of composite construction, with plywood used in preference to carbonfibre, of course, since the latter hadn’t been invented at that time.

If you think the two are worlds apart from each other, consider that a matrix of wood cellulose fibres laid up in resorcinol resin isn't too far removed from a matrix of carbon fibres laid up in epoxy resin.  In both cases, the composite is tailored, since the fibres can be orientated to best resist the forces which an aircraft encounters: both static and dynamic.  In between the Mosquito and the Starship came the laid glassfibre construction of sailplanes, but the Starship went one step further than GRP, proposing filament-wound carbon composites as a construction process for aircraft fuselages.  The choice of such a futuristic material was a philosophical as much as a commercial one.

Many architects don’t have a deep philosophy – what they do is instinctive, and the thread of continuity running through their work is often a stylistic tic rather than a line of intellectual inquiry.  Think about sliding glazed screens, “structural tree” columns, randomised chequerboards of coloured cladding.  Burt Rutan, who designed and helped to develop the Starship, first came to notice with his dragonfly-proportioned sailplanes: the projects which followed made it abundantly clear that he was following his own path.  His philosophy was to attempt the impossible… and with the Starship, Rutan tackled three things simultaneously: How it flies, how you control it, and how it’s made.  With those three came a fourth: how to measure your expectation of what an aircraft looks like. 

The connection between Beechcraft and Rutan is at least as important as the connections which both made with the outside world.  Since 1950, Beech had been run by its founder Walter Beech’s much younger widow, Olive Ann.  Through the post-war decades, it sounds like an enlightened, almost matriarchal company: a 1980's magazine article noted that Mrs. Beech would put yellow “happy face” stickers on the office doors of executives, and she organised company picnics for the workers.  However, a few years before, Olive Beech and her husband did business with Buckminster Fuller – in 1946, Beech planned to use their wartime production lines to make Dymaxion houses.  They projected quarter of a million rolling out of the Beechcraft factory in Wichita each year … reputedly, in the end, only two were built.  Fuller’s zeal was undiminished, but Beech’s approach for the next thirty years was more conservative – until Burt Rutan appeared.

If Martin Pawley believed that Fuller was a “Twenty-first century man”, Rutan perhaps comes from the 25th, like Buck Rogers.  Early in his career, Rutan developed a microlight for Colin Chapman, the man behind Lotus Cars.  That was the first indication that Rutan’s philosophy was worth something beyond the closeted world of aircraft design.  Chapman, after all, specialised in building sports cars using glassfibre composites for light weight and rigidity, in pursuit of excellent handling.  Rutan was just as uncompromising as Chapman, and his guiding philosophy was – if half the people at his firm, Scaled Composites, don’t believe a project is impossible, we don’t take it on.  Rutan came to specialise in lightweight composite aircraft with canard foreplanes and pusher propellors.

Starship development began in 1979, continued with a brief break when Raytheon bought Beechcraft in 1982.  A year later, Rutan produced a proof-of-concept aircraft which looked like a prototype, and convinced observers that production was close.  However, as Max Bleck, the former President of Beechcraft later recounted – “Not only was the development not very far along, but Beech Aircraft had virtually no experience with the materials or the manufacturing techniques required to build it. We had never built anything out of composites, and we did not have any data on the properties of resins, fibers, adhesives, composite honeycombs or sealants necessary to design it.”  Five years’ further work was needed before the aircraft was ready for manufacture, and that included building one of the world’s largest autoclaves (pictured above) to cure the composite fuselage within.

What was the point of developing the Starship?  On the simplest level, Beechcraft's product line was ageing, and in order to compete it needed to develop a new aircraft which would see the company into the 21st century, replacing the Queen Air and King Air turboprops.  Modern engines, better aerodynamics and a lighter, composite structure meant that the aircraft would cruise faster and be more fuel efficient – which works on an economic as well as a sustainability level.  Starship also converted Beech to computer-aided design, and a major portion of the work was done on a system called “CATIA”, which provides a three-dimensional design environment and interfaces with tooling.  CATIA – before it was co-opted by Frank Gehry for his baroque ornaments – was developed by Dassualt of France to design aircraft with.

Both in economy of materials, and efficiency of design, the new aircraft was designed to be more sustainable than its predecessor, the King Air.  Even in the 1970's, sustainability was an issue.  As happens when there's a surfeit of lions on African savannah, we're consuming more than is sustainable.  Unlike the lions, we don't suffer from a population crash when we've eaten all the gazelles, although raw material prices may increase to the point where they're uneconomic.  Some advocate stopping human progress in its tracks, but a better solution is to look for alternative ways of doing things.  After all, we were a drain on the environment even when we were hunter-gatherers, and barring some terrible Malthusian event, humans will continue to sit at the top of their food chain whilst they invent more efficient ways of travelling around.

Like Fuller’s Dymaxion House, and despite its revolutionary character, the Starship wasn’t a commercial success.  Perhaps it was ahead of its time, the usual apologetic qualification given to futuristic machines which don’t catch on.  Yet aside from glib lessons about the dangers of being the first company to harness a new technology, or using military spending to lower the barriers to entry (several other aerospace firms benefitted from stealth aircraft contracts, subsidising the development of carbon composites), the Starship is regarded as a historical curiosity.  It’s stuck in that fascinating dead end called “the past’s view of the future” and occupies a similar position to 1950’s science fiction about space travel, or 1980’s cyberpunk fiction about the internet.  Nothing ages as rapidly as predictions about the cutting edge of technology.

Perhaps there’s an application for Beechcraft's principles in 2011, though.  Olive Beech had the vision to work with Buckminster Fuller in an early example of “technology transfer”.  In Britain, the Vickers company had a similar relationship with Barnes Wallis (the father of the bouncing bomb, Wallis also pioneered geodesic construction and is one of the godfathers of the space frame).  Even though there is no direct connection between them, it’s worth noting that Barnes Wallis developed the geodesic construction which Fuller later put to use, and he also pioneered asymmetrical aircraft, which Rutan later tried his hand in designing.  All three went in search of the elusive "economy of means", using modern materials in new forms.

Fuller’s Dymaxion insight was that light weight may not be a huge advantage during the erection of buildings, but it makes a huge difference in raw material costs, and in getting the house to site.  Similarly each extra kilo which an aircraft hauls into the air decreases its range, and increases its running costs.  In an era when we are finally creeping towards systemised prefabrication – prefab toilet pods are well understood; piped and wired services are pre-hung on five metre boards, pre-connected and tested before arriving on site; and curtain walling on larger projects is unitised rather than being “stick built” – prefabricated assemblies travel from all over Europe to reach our building sites.  The time, cost and fuel consumption entailed in getting them to site are a growing issue.  As a result, it’s only a matter of time until carbon composites are incorporated into buildings – a larger gain might be realised by minimising weight.

So we might yet create a “low carbon economy”… by using carbon construction… oh the irony.

Photos copyright Beech Aircraft (Raytheon Corporation)

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