Gallery: "ghosts"

“It’s like wartime,” complained Mr Wolf, then added, “Not that I’m old enough to remember.”

His technician shrugged and threw a clog of wood into the stove.  They were working from Mr Wolf’s house: a temporary arrangement.  Their office in the city was cold and dark, because in the last few days gas and power in the city had become intermittent.

Driving in and out to the office was a bad idea, too.  Not that the roads were busy; in fact the city centre was quiet these days.  There were miles of queuing lorries at standstill on the motorways, the quaysides lined with part-unloaded ships.  Their cargoes were trapped in Customs while the politicians argued.

Driving meant burning fuel that may not get replenished, so the interim government encouraged people to use the railway instead.  However, a circuit board had blown inside the signal box where the tracks converge on Waverley, and several trains were stuck fast in the gullet.  A replacement board had to come from Germany, but the urgently-needed package was stuck in Customs at Dover.

“Well I can’t get to site tomorrow.  We’ve only got petrol coupons for next week, and anyway we’ll only get 20 litres at a time from BP.  Barely enough to get there and back.”

“No point, there’s nothing going on down there anyway.  Last contractor’s report said they’d laid off due to shortages.”

The site had run out of plasterboard weeks ago, truckmixers wouldn’t deliver beyond the city boundary, and copper pipework was like gold dust.  There was talk of building licences being re-introduced, just like during the 1940’s.  So Mr Wolf turned back to the internet, which for the moment at least was still working, and tried to source some ironmongery.

There was no point specifying familiar brands; factories were on a shutdown and stocks at the wholesalers had run out.  After a couple of hours spent scouring the net and making fruitless phonecalls to ironmongers in little country towns, Mr Wolf struck lucky.  He found an ancient business in the Black Country with old stock in its warehouse.

A picture formed in his mind: dusty boxes massed in corners, on shelves, hung from hooks, piled on counters, set out on stands, stood up on the floor, and hidden away in stock rooms … all to be fetched out after a hunt.

The hardware man came back to him: “Many thanks for your enquiry, I went out into the stores to see what I have (and it's very cold out there!)   I’ve found two dozen 4" x 2 5/8" DPB washered butts, BMA finish.  Old stock, the boxes are tatty but the contents are like new.  They’re British made, Arrow Brand.”

“Regarding the actual maker, at the time my company would have bought them, maybe 50 years ago, there were dozens of small manufacturers.  Indeed they often made special locks and ironmongery for the larger companies you’re more familiar with.  But most of the little firms died out after we joined the EEC…”

Mr Wolf did a quick calculation from metric back into the Imperial measures which the interim government had imposed a few weeks before, along with food rationing and blue passports.  “Right then, I’ll take the lot.”  Lately came the fear that if you didn’t snap things up when you had the chance, someone else would.

So that was the door hinges sorted – but shortly afterwards the electricity went off.  Then the internet. 
Mr Wolf was secretly pleased, and turned to his technician:  “I’ve reached breaking point with TV and the net.  I’ve got a giant lever I’m about to pull.  All the politicians, journos and pundits – plus Fiona Bruce – are going to drop into a pit with hungry orcs at the bottom.”

It was 4pm, so he decided to quit whilst ahead and go for food.  As he sclytered though the snow, he could hear dull thuds resounding across the firth.  Perhaps they were bird-scarers, or wildfowlers blasting ducks from the sky – only now for food rather than sport. 

Soon he reached the small supermarket at the foot of the brae, hoping to discover it had received a delivery that afternoon.  An old man was tying his dog up outside the shop.

“It’s no easy,” he shook his head, “I cannae even get his food down the Co-Op any mair.”  They both looked down at his dog, a long-bodied basset with a morose expression.  The dog looked up, sneezed and shook itself.  Mr Wolf thought it did indeed look hungry, but they always do and besides the dog could do to lose a few pounds.

When he got back from the shop with a giant bag of pasta, a wedge of stale cheese and a dented tin of pear quarters, the technician had packed up and was ready to leave.  Mr Wolf nodded and waved him off, “We’ll need to carry on tomorrow and see if we can get some lever handles and pulls. 

“From where?  Off the black market?”

“I don’t know, I really don’t.”  Mr Wolf knew that things weren’t looking good – yet the folk protesting on the streets today and the angry hacks in the tabloids, had all been in favour until the reality struck them personally.

“Yeah, but it’s the same bandits that profit when things go wrong - guys like Arturo Ross.”

“Arturo Ross … now there’s a blast from the past.”

“Aye, I remember him.  God.  Arturo Ross …”

Next day was cold and bright, so Mr Wolf decided to take his chances with the petrol and see if he could find more hardware.

The client had agreed to keep paying fees provided Mr Wolf could lay his hands on materials.  To do that, Mr Wolf had to use all his ingenuity.  He fell back on old contacts, called in favours, and even searched in the baccy tin where he’d kept ten years’ worth of business cards, just in case this day should ever come.  At the very bottom of the tin was Arturo Ross’s card.

Half an hour later, Mr Wolf pulled his car up onto the unmade pavement in front of an old bleachworks.  The whitewash was peeling from the brickwork, and a few windows had been smashed, but the gates were open and machinery was running faintly somewhere inside.

Hi Arturo, how goes it?

Arturo looked up from vat of noxious chemicals.  He pulled out a length of metal which steamed and sparkled as it met the air.  It was a two foot long pull handle.

Mr Wolf brightened, “Where did you lay your hands on that?”

Arturo cleared his throat and replied vaguely, “A lad called James Riddell.”

“What?  You’re taking the piss.  Anyway, I’m needing handles, bronze or something that looks like bronze.

“You’ll be lucky son, replied Ross, “though I can mibbe help.”

“I hoped you might.”

When Mr Wolf returned a couple of weeks later with payment, Arturo Ross held out a lumpy package wrapped in brown paper - “These are the last pull handles in Scotland.  I hope your client is very happy wi’ them.  Cause he’ll no get any mair, no for love nor money.”

Ross ran the fifty pound notes under an ultra-violet lamp (you couldn’t be too careful these days) then added them to a roll held together with a fat elastic band.  There was no pale blue or sepia brown, but Mr Wolf got the want of many leaves of purple and magenta.

As Mr Wolf left with his door handles, Arturo Ross was smiling faintly, “What next eh?  Martial law?”

For months to come there was no let up in the cold weather: the city was dead and the ice showed no sign of melting.

By • Galleries: ghosts

The next issue of Urban Realm will include a few photos I took ten years ago in an abandoned building which has since been demolished.  If you drove down the road today, you’d never know it existed, and that gives the images more meaning and greater power – or perhaps just an innate sense of melancholy for what’s now gone.

I trained as an architect, so it goes without saying that I’m interested in buildings for their own sake; but shooting photos of abandoned places has also made me sensitive to the relationship between the man-made and the natural.  That might be how industrial architecture such as a colliery or steelworks sits in the landscape, but also how nature takes back buildings, such as when ferns take root inside a derelict mill. 

Years ago I came across a book called “In Search of the Wild Asparagus” and that was one of the rare occasions I’ve come across an author describing an experience I can identify with exactly.  In one chapter, the botantist Roy Lancaster rambles over the sand dunes at Ainsdale Beach, and that brought back my own trips to Tentsmuir Point and Buddon Ness, exploring the wartime bunkers and flotsam which the tide had brought in. 

In another chapter, Lancaster described how he explored wasteland and bombsites - then went on to discuss the rather commonplace plants he discovered there, such as fireweed, goldenrod and buddleia flourishing amongst piles of crumbling masonry and rusting pipework.  Nature and the man-made exist in a two-way relationship which is closer to synergy than dichotomy: you can see exactly that when a plant takes root in a crumbly old wall, or mounds of moss choke up the rones.

Roy Lancaster’s photos show the visual richness of old industrial sites being reclaimed by nature, and I’ve gone back many times to places like this, to root around for interesting objects and textures and juxtapositions to draw and photograph.

As I’ve alluded to before, shooting photos of newly-completed buildings requires a different approach.  Many contemporary buildings are visually sterile, lacking the rich textures and colours of decay, but also any sense of time passing and the history implicit in that.  Of course, if you shoot photos of cocktail bars and nightclubs, they may have lots of colour, pattern and detail – but for the most part “maximalism” is unpopular in contemporary design. 

That leaves you with architectural photography as a study of materials, natural light and proportions and its poorest relation is the Grand Designs House, which is often very reductive and boils down to aspirational people who create the biggest volume they possibly can for the money, paint the interior white, then scatter a few pieces of furniture around.  They use industrial cladding and reinforced concrete in the hope it will save them money (it rarely does) and the glazing often consists of huge single-aspect screens which provide great views, but blast the front of the space with uncontrolled light.

Perhaps this sterility helps to explain the appeal of photobooks about abandoned places, but these books have their own hang-up.  The authors are desperate to show us places which are “hidden”, “secret” or “unknown”.  I wish them well, but in my experience very little is secret any more – the internet has put an end to that, and uninvited visitors with cameras tend to follow in each others’ footsteps.  Besides, these mysterious places were someone’s home, workplace or church until a few years ago, and it takes a generation at least for people to forget them.

The search for abandonment is an odd discipline.  I know a few people who have travelled far and wide to collect “that shot”, the perfect capture of somewhere which others have been before them.  Places like the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl power plant and nearby town of Pripyat in Ukraine, or the former Communist memorial house on top of the mountain at Buzludzha in Bulgaria -

Does pursuing your own version of an iconic photo devalue the photo that you take yourself?  No, because it’s still your image and you got the chance to see the place with your own eyes.  But it does devalue the intention behind it.  The more somewhere is publicised on the net, the less secret it is, and if you chase these chimaeras, you risk becoming the thing which everybody hates – a tourist.

The tourist looks at everything as a photo-opportunity (usually involving a selfie to post on Instagram); the architectural traveler looks at buildings as an opportunity to learn, perhaps from their detailing or materials choices.  But I’m still interested in stepping outside the professional architect’s mindset – although I realise that after over 20 years it can never really be switched off – and trying to look at buildings as subject matter, something I can photograph or sketch/paint.

Over the past year I’ve met up several times with a friend who shares my interest in decay and abandonment.  Although we both studied at Duncan of Jordanstone, we followed different disciplines and after each trip I look forward to seeing her photos, because she sees the world in a markedly different way.  As she said, it’s very obvious our photos were taken by different people.

So far I’ve been surprised and puzzled at how different our subject matter, technique, processing and everything else is, considering we visited the same place at the same time, and watched each other working with the same “content”.  Sometimes it’s difficult: although we have much in common it feels like we’re struggling to find a shared language.  There is much room for misunderstanding, but we’ve shared a few things already and she’s begun to help me see things differently.

There you go, that’s as much of a positive message as you’re going to get at the end of 2018, while the world outside descends into constitutional crisis and madness.  Happy Christmas and all the best for 2019…

By • Galleries: ghosts

This is a brief post about an old flour mill in France which looks like a Flemish palace, and about a far older book … a book so old that it’s close to being classed as incunabula, which sadly puts it far beyond the reach of most folk who’re interested in old architectural books.

A few years ago, I stayed overnight in Lille and went out in the evening to have a poke around the neighbourhood.  I was aware of the husk of the Grand Moulins de Paris mill, in the Marquette-Lez-Lille commune (despite its name, it’s nowhere near Paris).

Photos of Les Moulins in 2012

It was late in the year and evening had fallen quickly, but the ruined buildings were still clearly visible behind a barricade of precast concrete panels.  It was far from pitch dark: the glow of Lille was a dull orange which extended almost to the zenith.  And the place seemed to breathe in the dark, the wild shrubs swayed and whipped in the breeze.

The building loomed up vast and louring in its wilderness.  There were no day trippers, no chattering troupes of hipsters with cameras.  Some might have a feeling of unease here, and the strangeness of it might frighten a casual passer-by.  And why not?  For this is one of the last remaining members of a dying race.

Several millers from Lille joined forces after the Great War, and this imposing 25,000 m² mill was the result.  Designed by the architect Vuagnaux in a neo-Flemish style and built between 1920 and 1923, it opened as Les Moulins Hardy-Lebégue and ground over 600 tons of wheat per day, against 1,000 tonnes in the Grands Moulins de Paris, a competitor which bought it over in 1928.

Like the Victorians, the Edwardians were addicted to architectural ambition, and they applied a style to a function in order to make industrial processes impressive.  Later, the Modern Movement drove the development of reinforced concrete industrial buildings, stripping away any concessions to grandeur.  Most of these old mills have been overtaken by progress, and only a few remain as a memory of what the industrial world once was.

Historic postcards

The collapse of the flour market in the early 1980s, with the arrival of a new tariff policy in the United States (sounds familiar?) had serious consequences for Les Grands Moulins de Paris.  Flour milling ceased in 1989 and the last 57 employees were laid off.  Then the building became a spectacular shell which looms above the Canal de la Deûle. 

The site was bought in 1995 by SCI Diane de la Provenchère, and sold on a couple of times but a huge fire gutted the main building in 2001 and it sat derelict and ignored for the next decade.  Meantime the mill, with a façade 140 metres long and a belfry tower 40 metres high, was listed in the Inventory of Historical Monuments in May 2001.  That didn’t really help; the scheme’s complexity and disputes with the site’s owner held up progress.

The building lies at the heart of a regeneration masterplan of 65 hectares called the "Rhodia Enlarged Site" which includes the Bouverne industrial zone, the Marquette Archaeological Park, the Rhodia site at Saint-André.  But the proximity of the former Rhodia chemical plant, and arguments about the costs of remediation (the mill’s basements were contaminated with pyralene which spilled from electrical transformers following a copper theft) complicated matters.

Marquette’s mayor Jean Delebarre promoted a new scheme in 2012, designed by Lille architect Hubert Maes. That included loft apartments, restaurants, a hotel and underground parking.  Disagreements about the bill for remediation, building permits and other planning issues carried on in the background.  Financière Vauban bought an option on the site in 2014, but the building permit was only applied for in November ‘17, after which they finally took possession and installed security guards.

Some CGI’s of Maes’ scheme

In all, between 400 and 500 apartments and houses are planned, with around 250 units in the historical part, 95 in a building next door plus some newbuild housing.  The concrete silos will be retained, and a triplex apartment with "a view to Belgium", will be created in the campanile.  On the ground floor at the foot of the silo will be a parade of shops, a nursery, offices… so it’s a mixed use scheme in the tradition of 21st century development across Europe.

Despite its ruinous appearance, the building’s frame is still in good condition, since it consists of massive reinforced concrete columns and beams which carried the heavy milling machinery.  All that concrete was hidden behind the decorative brickwork,  of course.  A sign on the fence said “Peril Imminent” and this is quoted for truth; if you went inside you’d discover enormous holes in the floors, and ten storey high stairwells without their balustrades.

So what prompted me to write about Les Grands Moulins, several years later?

I came across a four hundred year old book called “Des Fortifications et Artifices, Architecture et Perspective”, written by Jacques Perret de Chambery, who was engineer and architect to Henri IV.  The engraved title page depicts a classical portal crowned by an equestrian portrait of Henri; at the foot of the title page is a bird's eye view of the city of Paris and the legend: "Par le grand Roy Henri IIII. Le vingt deuxieme de Mars 1594."

Perret’s images from Des Fortifications et Artifices

Perret’s imaginary fortifications and city plans from over four centuries ago must make this the very first book of “visionary” architecture.  A French architectural historian wrote that Perret’s baroque tower block, a 12-storey tower complete with rooftop sculptures, urns and fountains, prefigures the modern urban skyscraper.  This folio also includes a series of models for cities and citadels with geometrical designs, mostly drawn from a bird’s eye perspective.

Comparing the engravings in Des Fortifications et Artifices with the derelict mill, I reckon Vuagnaux, the original architect of Les Moulins Hardy-Lebégue, must have admired the work of Jacques Perret.  Perhaps he even earned enough fees through designing flour mills to be able to afford to buy a copy of the book which was, in those days, merely three centuries old… hence much more affordable than it is today…

Happy New Year. :-)

Images of the proposed scheme courtesy Cabinet Maes -

By • Galleries: ghosts

There’s a special kind of nihilism at work in Barrhead, on the south side of Glasgow.  The vandals have returned time and again to smash up somewhere that’s already been utterly destroyed.

In the 1980’s, the town had a thriving Nestlé factory, a Volvo bus and truck import centre, and a large sanitaryware factory which belonged to Shanks of Barrhead.  Today the town is living through an industrial death – Nestlé, Volvo and Shanks have all gone.  In a world where the remediation of old industrial sites is often swift – to preclude ongoing business rates, and clear land for lucrative housing – Shanks’ former site became a black eye for the local council. 

25 years after its bosses down south shut the Shanks pottery and foundries, there’s finally a hint of renewal.  A few years ago, some buildings had been cleared, others had fallen to the bottom of the value chain, taken over by car repairers and second hand furniture men.  Still other parts had their plumbing (ironically) and wiring stripped out for copper, their roofs lost their lead, walls covered in graffiti, then burned out, random parts demolished, and the shells filled with rubbish.

Beyond the works lay mountains of broken pottery: smashed seconds, crocks, kiln furniture, firebricks, chipped enamel ware.  Everything had been bulldozed into hills ten metres high – a tessellation of crazed white vitreous china plus the arctic blue, blush pink and avocado glazes of 1970’s bathroom suites.  Below them lay an industrial blight, with piles of burnt-out tyres, broken pallets, and rubbish strewn across the nearby railway embankments.

Shanks of Barrhead was started by Paisley plumber, John Shanks, around 1851.  In 1865, he invented an under-waterline closet for use in ships, and in 1868 he opened a foundry in Barrhead to make brassware.  It was many years later before he developed the bath and lavatory fittings which made the firm famous.  Shanks supplied all the sanitaryware for the ocean liners RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth, as well as many humbler ships.

The firm was incorporated around 1875, and in 1904 the firm moved from the centre of Barrhead to a much larger site on Blackbyres Road alongside the railway, and began to manufacture their own sanitaryware.  Shanks’ Tubal Works and Victoria Pottery were built on the site during the first couple of decades of the 20th century, at their peak employing over a thousand people. 

After World War Two, Shanks recognised that the future lay in vitreous china, rather than the earthenware which many Scottish industrial potteries produced.  During the 1950’s and 1960’s Shanks took over its Scottish competitors such as Howies of Kilmarnock and Southhook Pottery, eventually becoming the largest and finally last of the Scottish sanitary ware firms.

Shanks of Barrhead remained independent until it merged with Armitage Ware in 1969.  The English firm was founded in 1817 by Thomas Bond in Armitage, Staffordshire – the new company became Armitage Shanks – and by the 1970's it was the only company left in Scotland manufacturing sanitary ware.  The new firm closed subsidiaries in Kilmarnock during the 1970’s, but the Tubal Works to the west and neighbouring Victorian Pottery to the east remained at the heart of Shanks.

In 1980 another takeover resulted in the company becoming part of the Blue Circle Industries: the company experienced difficulties during the 1980s, and in 1989 the decision was taken to close the Tubal Works, marking the end of brassware production at Barrhead.  Despite concerted protests, the announcement was made shortly afterwards that the Ceramic Works would close, too: the successor to the Victoria Pottery shut completely in April 1991, with 345 people losing their jobs.  After a period as a distribution centre, the site was abandoned.

A group of Shanks’ former workers came together to resurrect the business as a cooperative called Barrhead Sanitaryware, claiming it was the spiritual descendant of the famous Shanks of Barrhead.  They hoped to employ up to 100 people.  Barrhead was founded in August 1992 and took a factory on the Hillington industrial estate in Glasgow. 

In February 1995, it became part of the Baxi Heating group, and by the 2000’s, Barrhead was the only independently British owned vitreous china manufacturer, but it was sold to Utopia Bathroom Group and shut down a few years ago.  The factory’s pottery machinery was put up for sale in 2010.  That just left Carron Phoenix  – the grandchild of the great Carron Foundry – making sinks and so forth in Scotland, and their parent company recently announced that will soon shut down, too.

Meantime, when I visited Barrhead in 2012, the sad remains of Shanks’ pottery and foundry made up one of the most devastated landscapes I’ve seen: much already demolished, other buildings remaining but clearly not maintained since Shanks gave them up, and still others burned out by arsonists.

To the east lay those huge mountains of broken crockery.  From the 1930’s, you could choose from a wide spectrum of colours – lilac, pink, yellow, ivory, avocado green and baby blue – whereas today Armitage Shanks only offer white, Chablis (cream) and Honeymoon (ivory), “fired to a glass-hard finish and guaranteed permanent and fadeless”.  Smashed fragments of them all remained in giant mounds on the site, which was known as the Shanks Industrial Park. 

Rumour has it that site clearance began at the end of 2012, which seems sadly in synch with everything else that happened to the Scots fireclay industry that year, when the brickworks at Manuel, Etna, Mayfield and the museum at Birkhill were also demolished.  I’ve already written here about the death of the Scottish brickmaking industry…

Other places feel melancholy, because when a small corner of a bustling city falls derelict, the sadness is tinged with the knowledge that it will be regenerated.  Barrhead had a hard edge to it: yet the folk remain, the same folk who we first met in Edwin Muir’s “Scottish Journey”, and James Campbell’s “Invisible Country”. 

A teenage lad in a Tacchini tracksuit, picking over the wasteland as he walks with his collie cross.  A young woman who gives me an awkward smile as she hands on an open gate – wearing a fashion jacket and long black boots – “Pendulum” spilled out as an earphone bud fell from her ear.  Both probably wondered why I was bothering to take photos of this coup, a shooting of rubbish in an abandoned corner of Scotland.

They are the same folk who our various governments have failed for the last quarter century, deprived of the chance to hope for something better, because Shanks’ works was left to rot.  For years they were governed from a place that felt so far away that it may as well have been on Saturn.  So the recent PAN (Pre-Application Notice) lodged for a “major residential development” at Shanks Park is a step forward: with the site cleared, the optimists have something to hope for, and the nihilists are left with nothing.

Postscript: If you’re interested in the firm’s history, I recommend seeking out a copy of “Shanks: The First Hundred Years 1851-1951” by Gilbert M. Shanks

By • Galleries: ghosts

"…Although it is still possible, at some risk to life and limb, by climbing across railroad bridges and the like, to see Concrete Central from the other side, that is the less interesting and less familiar side of the complex, offering nothing to the view but hundreds of bins and interstitials.  The more familiar and rewarding view is the one shown in Taut [Bruno Taut's book] of its wharf side and three loose legs, though now it must be seen over a jungle of undergrowth that lies between the river and the lower reaches of Katharine Street.  Closer views are not normally to be had, unless one goes upriver to it by boat or is prepared to undertake an adventurous and circuitous safari on foot – it is completely inaccessible by wheeled vehicles these days – through thickets of red sumac bushes and along rusting rail tracks.

"The journey is worth it, however.  In lonely but not yet totally ruinous abandonment, this huge rippled cliff of concrete dominates a quarter-mile reach of the river.  It is truly enormous in scale; its capacity of four and a half million bushels made it the largest elevator in Buffalo and one of the largest ever built anywhere.  For comparison, it is about twice the bulk of recent megastructures such as Cumbernauld Town Centre or Centre Pompidou, but because it consists almost entirely of closed storage volumes to which there is no casual access, it remains impermeable, secret and aloof.  There are some elevators where one can penetrate into gigantic storage volumes – the Electric [Elevator] extensions of 1940, for instance – and marvel at their sheer dimensions, but at Concrete Central the storage volumes remain as inaccessible as the interior of an Egyptian pyramid, to use an exotic comparison…

"The first time I reached Concrete Central by land, a series of incidents emphasised its abandonment and isolation.  Shrubbery had already begun to grow out of its upper works, inviting a comparison with Roman ruins that was enhanced by the flight of a bird of prey from the head-house at the sound of my approach.  That sound was amplified when my foot crashed through a rotted plywood cover that had been laid over an open culvert.  As I extricated myself, I reflected on my folly: had I sustained an incapacitating injury, rather than mere scratches, in that fall, even those who knew approximately where I was would have no idea how to reach me, after they had finally decided they had waited too long for my return.  I remembered the fate of the Chicago architectural photographer Richard Nickell, lying dead in the ruins of the Schiller theatre for weeks before his body was discovered.

"Yet the sense of distance from help and civilisation was exhilarating rather than depressing; the presence of the huge abandoned structure produced a mood more elegiac than otherwise.  Coming out of the wharf, dominated by the three largest loose legs ever built in Buffalo, now semi-transparent as the winds of the winters had blown away more and more of their rusted corrugated cladding, it was difficult not to see everything through eighteenth-century picturesque visions of ancient sites, or even Piranesi's views of the temples of Paestum…”

This long extract from Reyner Banham’s A Concrete Atlantis - US Industrial Building and Modern European Architecture 1900 - 1925, is not only a sustained piece of good writing, it also sums up many aspects of exploring derelict buildings.  Banham's experiences will be recognised by anyone who has gawped at the Leith Mills in Edinburgh, the Meadowside Granaries in Glasgow or Millennium Mills in London, then found a way inside.

Peter Reyner Banham taught in the architecture programme at the State University of New York at Buffalo between 1976 and 1980.  During his tenure at Buffalo, inspired by the daylight factories and the grain silos of the region, he conducted research that led to A Concrete Atlantis, which charts the development of North American industrial building in the early 20th Century and its influence on European architects.

The scale and abstraction of the grain elevators of Buffalo are exhilarating, and they became one of the inspirations for early Modern architects. Le Corbusier described them as “the magnificent first fruits of a new age” and went on to use them as illustrations in his 1923 book, Vers Une Architecture. Following a visit to see the silos in Buffalo, Erich Mendelsohn wrote that, “Everything else so far seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams."

A Concrete Atlantis is a good book to read if you enjoy armchair exploration, and a unique history and explanation of industrial architecture from the start of the 20th century onwards – particularly grain elevators, like Concrete Central.  Patricia Bazelon's photographs of the grain silos – despite being black and white, and relatively small, are worth buying the book for in themselves – link here.

The book also shows that the more perceptive historians and architecture writers have always explored places physically, rather than writing vicariously using other folks' experiences.  Reyner Banham isn’t the first, and won’t be the last to describe the experience as, "Once you were inside, it was like being in a totally different world." That becomes a feeling you've chased ever since, but perhaps never found again in its entirety.

As I wrote in Blueprint Magazine several years ago, exploring old buildings is personal – it’s something you do to satisfy your own curiosity.  That would appear to be the very definition of a hobby; and like all hobbies, you go a bit mad with it at the start, then chill out once you’ve got over the initial passion to consume it whole.  It’s purely about the joy to be had from exploring hidden aspects of the world.  Banham’s book reminds you of that, too.

A few years ago, there were few external influences on exploring: it was just you with one or two mates, plus the odd photographic book of rusty ruins which puzzled and inspired.  When you discovered that others shared your interest it was a good day, rather than a source of forum rivalries.  Lasting friendships were forged on the rare occasions when people met up by accident in some elysian ruin of scrap iron and ferns.

The motivation for exploring these places are complex, but as John Locke believed, fear gives our lives a shove, without which we would sink into passivity.  With progress comes a mixture of hope and fear; human emotions which we need to experience, but which we rarely associate with architecture.  Instead, we accept places as we find them, unchallenged and unchallenging.

There are many things to overcome; the spiky fence is the least of them.  First is to break with our social conditioning: the mantra drummed into us from childhood to heed the warning signs.  Then there’s our 21st century fear of scrutiny, that Big Brother is watching on the CCTV system.  Next comes a fear of the unknown, accompanied by the retribution which might strike from on high.

Yet curiosity drives a few onwards, and sometimes they become consumed by recording the final throes of a building’s life.  Hopeful to discover a time capsule with intact machinery from Edwardian times; wartime posters still pasted to the walls; a secret passage leading to a hidden room.  They press on, regardless, with scratched arms, dirt under their nails, ripped clothes: mere collateral damage as their eyes gradually open.

After visiting, it may have taken a morning of digging in a faraway library to find next to nothing, and days more to understand a little of the place’s long and complex history.  A clothbound booklet in a dusty box file might be the only footnote about a great company’s past.  Where had its history gone?  Its archives, ledgers, correspondence books and catalogues?  Had no-one documented that before it shut?  What would be left once it crumbled…?

Just one piece of advice; don’t have a Grail.  Because if you’re unlucky enough to carry that Grail in your head for a few years, then finally achieve it, it kills the urge to do anything else.  Ordinary life seems wan afterwards, and other experiences pall.  That’s when it becomes dangerous…

By • Galleries: books, ghosts

Howdens is one of the last remaining Victorian heavy engineering works in Glasgow, and towards the end of its life, this redbrick complex was the birthplace of the tunnel boring machines which dug the Channel Tunnel.  The company, now called Howden Group, is still in business but left their home of ninety years in Tradeston in 1988.  The building’s future has been in doubt ever since, and it currently lies empty.

The company began in 1856, when James Howden set up in business on his own as a consulting engineer and registered patents for machine tools.  Before that, he was apprenticed to a firm of steam engine builders.  Howden’s interests gradually moved from machine tools to improving the design of boilers and steam engines, and he began experimenting with higher pressure compound engines.

The firm was incorporated as James Howden & Co. in 1862 and began building main boilers and engines to Howden’s own design.  Howden built a factory at Scotland Street in Tradeston then began experimenting with axial flow fans to force air through marine steam engines.  That was the root of Howdens’ business for the next century: fans, blowers, compressors, turbines and other steam machinery.  Today, they also make wind tunnels, refrigeration plant, circulators for nuclear power stations and mobile breathing systems for aircraft.

The original works further along Scotland Street from the present site were outgrown in 1870, and a new works was built a couple of blocks down the road.  “Howden’s Forced Draught System” was a great success, as it improved efficiency and fuel consumption, and in the 1880’s over 1000 boilers were converted or built to Howden’s patents.  Howden then turned his attention to auxiliary steam machinery, and realised his “new” factory wasn’t suitable, so he built another factory … this one … at 195 Scotland Street.

The works and foundry were designed by Nisbet Sinclair and opened in 1898, and had handling equipment and overhead cranes built-in plus (unusual in those days) a central heating system.  By then, the boilers in many famous ocean liners used the Howden system – the Lusitania and Mauretania – and later the Queen Mary, Normandie and Queen Elizabeth.  The original machine and constructing shop consists of six smaller bays running east-west; the much larger turbine fitting shop runs north-south with its brick gables facing the street: they’re largely hidden by the various offices which front onto Scotland Street. 

Business boomed, and extensions designed by Bryden & Robertson were built in 1904 then again in 1912, and (according to Howdens’ official history) the firm went on to build the largest turbo-generator in the country for Manchester Corporation.  In fact, Howdens were pioneers in the manufacture of steam turbines, and these were used on land as well as onboard ships.  When the Great War broke out, the Admiralty decided that all ships should be fitted with Howden blowers – the idea was to give them enough performance to outrun U-boats, and that saved the lives of thousands of seafarers whose ships would otherwise have been torpedoed. 

The company built a factory in Wellsville, New York in order to export their system to America.  After the war, Howdens gradually used their expertise in forced draught fans and preheaters to win orders for power station machinery, and in 1930, they were the probably first firm to use a fax machine to transmit data – they sent working drawings to America using radio-telegraphy.  In the late ‘30’s, Howdens developed dust collectors to clean up the smoke from power stations, although the further development of these was put on hold during WW2.

From the early part of 1940, the Howden factories (Scotland St as well as Govan and Old Kilpatrick) were used to build Sunderland flying boat hulls; torpedo bomber fuselages; and fins and flaps for Lancasters.  Scotland Street employed 1700 people during the war, and also developed a gadget to eliminate visible smoke from the exhausts of steamships, which was a giveaway to the location of convoys.  During the war, Howdens took over the neighbouring Subway Power Station – it was unique, as it powered the world’s only cable-haulage subway system.  Howdens used the building as a pattern shop. 

Shortly after the war, the works received a large order of steel furniture, making use of the aircraft tooling, then orders came in from the CEGB for new power station equipment, including fans, air preheaters and dust collectors – flue gas cleaning equipment – and similar kit was fitted to a new generation of ocean liners.  Howdens supplied the massive forced draught fans at Inverkip Power Station, each of which are around three storeys high.

A new block of research labs was built around 1950 at Scotland St., and as a result of their R&D, Howdens went on to supply the fans which cooled the atomic piles at Windscale from 1956.  Howdens extended the Scotland St. works westwards with a large new Assembling Shop in 1954, then another in 1964.  These parts lay behind Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School and have since been demolished, but they were constructed as erecting shops for tunnelling machines, the next chapter in Howdens’ adventure in industry. 

Tunnel Boring Machines are a complicated mass of components and machinery.  They grow ever more sophisticated over time, but effectively the components remain the same: a boring head (usually a big rotating wheel with teeth) and the means of preventing the tunnel caving in before the permanent lining is installed (a tail shield and pressure-balancing equipment which allows the boring head to work under pressure to the stop ingress of water).

The TBM also needs a means of propelling the complete unit forward as excavation proceeds (usually hydraulic rams at the back of the shield); an equipment pack with motors, hydraulics, control cabin and so forth; a means to get the spoil away - usually conveyors but there are other solutions; and finally the mechanism for receiving and erecting the permanent lining, be that segmental or sprayed concrete.  It all has to get reach the back of the shield and be put in place before the shield is moved forwards.

The most famous artefacts to come out of Scotland Street were the “tunneliers” or tunnel boring machines (TBM’s) which excavated the Channel Tunnel.  The order was placed by Trans-Manche Link for three Howden open-face tunnelling machines of just under 8 metre diameter and weighing over 500 tons, which made the landward drives of the main running tunnels; plus two Howden-Decon machines of 5.3 metre diameter which excavated the service tunnel which lies between them.  Each of them cost £7.5m.

One of these was later used to dig a storm water sewer in Brighton, but once its sister had finished her task, she had to dig her own grave.  The machines were supplied in kit form and had to be welded together on site: when work was complete, it wasn’t practical to completely dismantle them, so the TBM which dug the seaward part of the service tunnel was steered into a 60 metre radius curve away from the alignment, bored into rock, then entombed in concrete.  It still holds the record for the longest single TBM drive, of 22,000 metres, which was achieved between December 1987 and October 1990.  The one which survived intact was on display for a while, and then auctioned on Ebay a few years ago.

SInce I wrote that in 2008, I’ve spoken to a civil engineer who suggested that TBM's have never been buried – or certainly not the complete machine.  At the end of a tunnel drive, it’s common for the machine to be dismantled and used on another drive on the same project.  By the end of the project, most of the moving parts are likely to be well past their sell-by date and will be extracted then refurbished or recycled.  On occasions its cheaper to leave the tail shield behind (which is little more than a short length of large diameter steel tube) as a tunnel lining, than to dismantle it and put a lining in its place.

Howdens later supplied TBM’s for the Storebaelt tunnel in Denmark in the mid-90’s, and also built tunnelling machines under licence from Wirth of Germany in the late-’90’s, but Scotland Street closed in 1988, so those were presumably built at Howden Group’s newer factory at Craigton … and then began the search for a new use for this massive factory.  Even with the demolition of the post-war assembly shops, the buildings left still cover 1.5 hectares.  I’ve yet to discover whether Howdens built the machines which excavated the nearby Clyde Tunnel, but it would certainly be fitting if they had done.

Scotland Street Works has been bought and sold several times since Howdens moved out, and was owned in 2008 by Tiger Developments, who reportedly bought it for £10m.  It’s passed through the hands of other developers who pondered uses for it, and at one point there were proposals to convert it into a museum of industry and technology.  Can you hear alarm bells ringing?

Anyone with a good Scots education knows that the industrial revolution owes its success to mass production, which relied on several things: the harnessing of steam by James Watt, the invention of the hot blast furnace by James Neilson and the development of the steam hammer by James Nasmyth.  The world’s greatest ironworks which belonged to the Carron Company outside Falkirk, and it benefitted from all three developments and much more besides. 

Aspects of the iron, steel and machine-making industries are preserved at Summerlee in Coatbridge (which was once the Hydrocon crane factory) but there are plenty other things to consider: the global explosives industry grew up in south-western Scotland; the UK’s paper-making machinery centre was Edinburgh, and Dundee was the capital of the world’s jute textile and jute machinery trade.  As far as I know, there are no plans to preserve a recent naval or merchant ship on Clydeside.  The QE2 sailed off to Dubai, but why not repatriate another Clydebuilt vessel? 

Yes, Howdens should be saved; yes, Scotland probably does need a museum devoted to science, industry and technology … but the two issues are independent of each other.  It might make sense to use the buildings as a museum meantime (or artists’ studios, or industrial units, or a nightclub …), but you can bet the developers will try to recover their investment by demolishing it and building flats or supermarkets on the site instead.  Now that the machinery of the economy been thrown into reverse, the owners of 195 Scotland Street will need all the ingenuity of James Howden to make a success of things.

I originally posted this at the tail end of 2008 on The Lighthouse’s now-defunct website … I’m posting it again here because things haven’t improved for Howdens’ building.  Finally, here’s a comment which was posted in response on the Lighthouse website:

I and a fellow plater Tam built the front section of the services tunnel machine.  It was built in quadrants etc.  Our names are on one of the conical plates at the front of the machine.  It was a great achievement and I was proud to be part of it, but are we forgotten me and Tam? Peter Thompson came and got me out of Govan to do the Borie - Orly tunnel machine.  In Renfrew I met a girl who was a PR on Borie project.  She found out I was the fabricator and wondered why we the builders were forgotten.  I'm the Wombat, my nickname means nothing.  Did James Watt build the steam engine?  No, he prepared the engineering drawings etc.  So scottish platers and fabricators are not even remembered for this great feat of building the Channel Tunnel.

Yours Willie McLennan, The Wombat

By • Galleries: ghosts, technology

Detroit, home of Henry Ford and the motor car, and of Motown and punk, was once the US’s fourth biggest city.  It lay at the centre of what was once the cradle of mass production, of what became known, in Huxley’s Brave New World as “Fordism”.

It’s there, at the intersection of Manchester and Woodward in Highland Park that Henry Ford perfected mass production.  The Model T Automobile Plant, built in 1909, housed the world’s first moving assembly line.  At its peak, the plant built 1000 “Tin Lizzies” each day.  Today it stands semi-derelict, probably the most important factory in automotive history.

An American journalist, Lincoln Steffens, coined the famous phrase “I’ve seen the future, and it works”, after his visit to the Soviet Union in 1921.  Steffens was an early campaigner against the corporate corruption that dominated America’s industrial cities, and he took Detroit as a prime example.  However, in his enthusiasm for an alternative, he failed to spot that the Soviet system had adopted some of the dehumanising aspects of Fordism.

Car assembly typically took place from top to bottom, with raw material on the top floor, and a car rolling out on the ground floor, ready to be fired up.  Car chassis travelled down in huge electrically-powered lifts.  Machines were arranged according to their function in the manufacturing process rather than by type; overhead conveyors, gravity chutes, and belts were used to transport materials from one work station to another.

Body-building, upholstering and panel-beating were carried out on the second floor.  There were also machine shops which made pistons, water pumps and brake drums.  The linking range may have been used as stores and quality control areas.  The car’s “body in white” travelled down to the first floor where it was attached to the chassis and fitted out.  Final assembly was carried out on the ground floor, then finished cars were loaded onto rail wagons on the factory’s own sidings.

Today, Detroit’s great temples to the motor car – the iconic factories of Ford, General Motors, Cadillac, Fisher Body, Packard and many others – lie in ruins.  The architect who conceived them was Albert Kahn: most famously, he designed the plant at Highland Park in Detroit where the Ford Model “T” was produced but over the course of his career, he pioneered reinforced concrete frames and built many hundreds of other factories.

Arguably, Albert Kahn was The Architect of the 20th Century: his buildings made a greater impact on the world than Le Corbusier’s or Frank Lloyd Wright’s.  These photos show one of Kahn’s buildings, which survives despite the ravages of time and the defeat of Fordist thinking.

By • Galleries: ghosts

Technology is spurred on by war, which in turn speeds up the process of its evolution.  It's fitting, in this case, that raw materials for salvage can be found in the cast-off pile of the Ministry of Defence.

Perhaps the first spur to this salvage culture was the Ministry of War's vast Disposals Sale at Great Missenden in Oxfordshire in 1946.  The War Department is the MoD’s predecessor, and to recoup war debts, everything from Churchill tanks to Bailey bridges was sold.  The lots covered 20 acres and the sale continued for two solid weeks.

Not only cheap vehicles and generators but also structural parts of bridges, tents and temporary structures were available; some of the Bailey bridges exist in use to this day.  When WW2 ended, the Attlee government also instigated a programme to use the no-longer required corrugated iron which had been made for air-raid shelters, as prefabricated housing.

All the things scrapmen acquire were originally produced to do a job, but they were thrown out when their usefulness in that role expired.   The scrapmen use a malefic alchemy by which they turn the products of the Cold War into ploughshares.  The process rests upon the hunter/gatherer instincts of the skip-rakers: people who go to vehicle auctions, rake in scrapyards and dig in tips.

With dozens of shipbuilding yards, and a heavy naval presence in Scotland – vast naval bases at Scapa Flow, Invergordon and Rosyth – there was never any shortage of ship parts.  That continues today, with Faslane on the west coast plus Rosyth (now run by Babcock) with its submarine graveyard.

We also have an aviation industry: with Vector at Almondbank, BAE Systems at Prestwick and Rolls-Royce at Hillington all of whose predecessors contributed to the junk pile.  For example, military aircraft breakers supplied the Dakota passenger seat which Gavin Maxwell had in his cottage at Camusfearna, along with fish boxes and butter barrels fashioned into furniture.

Likewise, old and knackered road vehicles are destined for their own specialist scrapyards, such as the locally famous CWS bus breakers in Barnsley: several firms share a fifty hectare site, covered in hundreds of reduced chassis and littered with mangled wrecks, burst engine blocks and piles of impacted body parts.

Each of these sectors – metal recyclers who break down ships, aircraft and vehicles – is controlled by SEPA.  In contrast to these official operations is the approach of the inhabitants of the remote Hebridean islandsI who harvest what scrap they can and build it into their houses.  Everything is used many more times than it might be elsewhere, particularly things which have had to come across at great expense on The Boat.

On South Uist, among the ruins of the black and white houses many crofts boast a caravan, either in use as additional living space or as storage overspill.  Caravans are often left in situ for such long periods that blockwork walls are built around them, to protect them from the winter storms.  The notionally temporary actually becomes permanent.  Abandoned buses and coaches are also used for storage. 

Most islanders keep their wrecked old cars, which make the inhabited areas of the island look like a low density rubbish tip.  In fact, when the Atlantic began to wash away parts of the beach at Middlequarter Dunes on North Uist, the Army was enlisted to plant old cars into the ground to act as sea defences.  Of course, the constant Gulfstream current also brings a constant stream of driftwood and flotsam to shore to be used for fences and firewood.

The Hebridean approach has a lot to do with the paucity of material; but expediency can also grow up around an abundant source of scrap, such as along the northern shore of Montrose Basin.  As someone wrote, travellers and their elaborate mobile homes have been settled alongside the municipal tip to crop its waste: they often park up in roadside lay-bys, to set out and sort through their gleanings. 

Tourists arrive for the short summer season and also camp alongside on the older middens, from where a residue of demolished homes spews out onto the south shore, now clad in wild flowers. 

Sometimes, an ideological viewpoint emerges from salvage culture.  Travellers’ camps exist at Glastonbury, the New Forest, the Rhythm of Life camp in the Forest of Dean, and between 1992-4 there was a camp at Glen Shiel, which evaded not only building legislation but also anti-traveller laws.  Around twenty vehicles were parked up on flat land where the old Wade road to Kyle separated from the new, skirting a disused two hundred year old bridge and the track parallel to it. 

Their trucks had been narrowly saved from the breakers, the sheet alloy roofs of the caravans flapped in the wind and windows were patched with insulating tape.  The vehicles were surrounded by dogs in polythene tunnel kennels, and “benders” – small yurt-like domes of plastic sheet over bent wood, with a chimney at the apex – had been erected on the grassy flood shelf of the river.

I originally wrote the passage above as part of my dissertation at architecture school, and amongst other things drew a comparison between the travellers’ benders, and the green timber diagrids then recently erected at Hooke Park College by Frei Otto, ABK and Ted Happold.  Having rescued the dissertation from a 3 1/2 inch floppy disc and read through it again for the first time in years, I realised that somewhere I visited a few years after graduating actually fitted the ethos better – although not an impressive piece of contemporary architecture, more as a demonstration of an un-self-conscious way of life.

The military cast-offs, Highland canniness and New Age travellers’ sensibility merged at Balnakeil: a former RAF radar station near Cape Wrath in Sutherland.  It was built in 1954 to cater for a new radar station on the nearby promontory, Faraid Head.  There were barracks, mess rooms, a medical centre, canteen and so forth.  But the planned ROTOR radar became obsolete before it had even been completed, so the buildings at Balnakeil lay abandoned for several years, until local artists colonised them.

Somehow, the utilitarian buildings look rather Modernist with their Crittall windows and white rendered planes; from the distant glimpse, the cluster of rooftop water tanks stand out but don't have a scale, and their tower-like silhouettes make Balnakeil seem like a Highland version of San Gimignano. There’s an interesting history of Balnakeil craft village here, and its long-serving artists have proven to be the canniest of salvage men and women, long before artisanal skip-raking and “upcycling” became fashionable among the hipsters of Shoreditch in London or the Kreuzberg in Berlin, with their tweed caps and ironic beards.

Perhaps a shift of 700 miles between the densely urban and the extremely rural makes all the difference…

By • Galleries: ghosts

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

All images courtesy of Ian Lambot at Watermark Publications.

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

Other titles about Kowloon Walled CIty include:

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: books, ghosts

When I was a student, the regeneration of Temple Bar in Dublin was held up as a model of How To, but with the more recent delivery of “Helicopter Money” from Brussels to bail out the Irish economy, it became a model of How Not To.  On visiting Dublin in 2014, everything seemed a bit too expensive, there were many empty shops and on the outskirts stood miles of unsold houses.

All the investment bank head offices along the Liffey were built during a boom founded on speculation.  Since their failure, Dublin has evidently concentrated on a Guinness, James Joyce and U2-based economy: yet while I was there, several people told me that Dublin isn’t really Irish.  The Paddywhackery theme pubs along the Liffey – as one native described them – are the same phenomenon as the pipers in See You Jimmy hats who haunt the Scots Wha Hae pubs on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

Whether they didn’t like immigration into it, or the emigration of young professionals from from it, callers to the local radio station were unhappy with Ireland in 2014.  As a talk radio host on RTE said, Dublin is the gun crime capital of Europe, with one death per week.  While the violence affects peripheral housing estates rather than the touristy parts, its threat hangs over the city as a whole.

In some respects, Dublin’s history is underlain by violence: for me, Bolands Flour Mill and its place in the 1916 Rising was soundtracked by David Holmes’ “69 Police” which happened to be playing on the radio as I drove back through Dublin towards the airport.  Of course, violence is a tradition in the south of Italy, in the Balkans and in Scottish cities too… and civil society has existed despite and alongside it.

One of the motives to visit Dublin was to meet up again with an Irish architecture student, Kathryn, who I met while on an Erasmus exchange in Athens in 1995.  Young professionals in today’s Ireland was met in the person of a serious, moon-faced young man on the DART coming in from Malahide to UCD.  He wore a cream linen jacket, loafers and distressed jeans and was absorbed in reading an article about sustainable housing (Accordia and all that) on his iPad.  What future for him? 

Will he be forced to emigrate, like previous generations were, only this time to escape the Ponzi scheme of a housing bubble funded by a financial pyramid, fuelled in turn by bank lending secured on ever-rising land values?  Or perhaps it was a carousel fraud, with finance houses cross-collateralising and propping each other up until the money-go-round finally ground to a halt.  Once that happened, many developers failed, most notably the company behind the regeneration of Battersea Power Station in London which was led by the flamboyant tycoon Johnny Ronan and his business partner Richard Barrett. 

Their £5.5bn plan to revamp Battersea collapsed into administration at the end of 2011, when their main lenders – Lloyds Banking Group and Ireland's state "bad bank", the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) – lost patience and put the developers’ holding company into administration.  Once Irish developers began to struggle, Irish contractors began looking greedily across the North Channel to find work in the UK.

If the city of Dublin raised the spectre of a failed economic boom, beyond the city lay the cheerful cynics of the Health Service Executive at Portrane who allowed me to shoot photos in a Georgian asylum; and the softly-spoken girl with pale skin and dark hair at the wayside strawberry trailer.  In certain parts of Belgium, there are little frites stalls at the roadside, painted bright yellow: in Eire there are roadside strawberry vendors, including one with a kiosk in the form of a giant fibreglass fruit.  This was Robert Venturi’s “Duck” put to work in Co. Dublin.

The Irish countryside around Kildare, Cork and Waterford prompted another question.  In rural Ireland there are countless bungalows strung out in ribbon developments: it’s no different to Highland Scotland, which it resembles in so many ways.  For Irish natives, the mixture of language, culture, landscape and economy makes up their own Internal Landscape and the new bungalows enable them to stay on their patch of soil, which is surely a good thing considering the economic exodus from Ireland.

Yet why do planners hate ribbon development so much?  Is it because we were educated in cities – where medium and high-density developments are driven by land prices as well as a tradition of living in tenements – and are unsympathetic to the aspirations of folk in the country?  If people want to live in their own detached houses, which is a traditional aspiration in British Isles, is it for us to sneer at them?  Is it inverted snobbery, or the French concept of “deformation professionel”?

Arguably there’s no right answer, because adequate housing requires both land reform and bank reform.  The supply of sites and the supply of mortgage finance largely dictates the supply of houses.  Both of those are political issues, and people will vote for the government which looks like giving them what they want. 

Some would have no development – usually those who already own property and do not care for others to share their good fortune.  Urban Realm’s visit to Nairn a few years ago was a clear example of that.  Others are keen to see development at all costs – and Ireland’s ill-fated developers perhaps fell into that trap. 

Perhaps the most telling thing is that I only saw a couple of truckmixers all the time I was there; the truckmixer, as I’ve written before, is the construction industry’s barometer, bellwether and its green light at the end of the dock all rolled into one.

The second part of this piece will cover a trip to Athens, and try to find common ground between the state of the western fringe of Europe and its eastern edge.

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