Gallery: "ghosts"

For a spell in the 2010’s, I did consultancy work for an environmental charity which was headquartered down south, but worked all over the country.  They were keen on Homezones, pedestrianisation and the like, but their roots lay in the construction of bike paths along abandoned railway lines. 

It’s ironic that many of the lines they chose to save became battlegrounds.  For example, when the Airdrie to Bathgate line was reopened as a railway, there was friction when the charity realised that their bikepath would disappear.  It raised a rhetorical question. Should bikes take precedence over railways, despite the fact that the infrastructure was built for trains in the first place? A compromise was struck, the trackbed was bought back by the railways (Network Rail, it had been owned by BRB Residuary before that) and a new bike path was constructed alongside it.

Of course, other organisations have utilised the trackbeds of dismantled railway lines for footpaths and long distance tracks.  Around Dundee, stretches of the Dundee to Newtyle line have become footpaths – such as the Miley, leading from Lochee towards the Kingsway along a muddy, litter-blown cutting.  Beyond Rosemill and Bridgefoot, its character changes completely: it was once a goods line serving the Leoch quarries which provided Dundee with building stone, now it runs through a completely de-industrialised landscape.

The goods branch to Fairmuir and Maryfield, both of which were early industrial estates, has largely disappeared under houses and parks. Just like the first mile of the Dundee to Forfar Direct line, which later becomes a footpath as it crosses the Seven Arches viaduct, then heads northwards beyond the city boundary and disappears into scrubland where railway bridges have been demolished, leaving only a series of stranded abutments punctuating the trace of a line along cuttings and embankments.

The photos show another former rail line a few miles north of Dundee, which once ran from somewhere to somewhere. It’s always cut through a rural district but it passes sawmills, oil depots with giant tanks, farm steadings with silos and grain dryers. Once, all those were fed by rail, now the trackbed is choked with brambles, birches and willow trees and thorn bushes.

I’m sure it’s far down the list of railway lines to be reinstated: the Borders railway, the Alloa line, the Levenmouth branch and perhaps the Peterhead and Fraserburgh tracks will gradually come back to life, but others have been forgotten for good. Perhaps that’s because this line is far away from the decision-making centres of the central belt. It’s also far from the heartland of environmental charities, populated by student activists on fixed gear bikes, middle class commuters on Bromptons with laughably small but lethal wheels, and the angry, angry men who take many-thousand pound carbonfibre cycles for Sunday races on public roads.

As I discovered when I revisited the trackbed with a friend, nothing has changed since my last visit a decade earlier. The irony is that this area – beyond bus routes, miles from post offices, corner shops, GP practices, village schools and further education colleges – and most of all, far away from opportunity and well-paid jobs in the city – is crying out for the better transport links that doing something productive (anything productive) with the trackbed would bring.

By • Galleries: ghosts, dundee

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: ghosts, canon

I’ve just seen an advert on TV for mail order food boxes: the soundtrack in the background is the song Enola Gay by OMD. The jaunty electronic pop tune is a tribute to, and lamentation over, the aircraft which dropped the first atomic bomb in anger. A strange choice for an advertisement, it’s almost as dissonant as the “advert” for itself which the BBC has been playing recently.

The climax of This Is Our BBC is a clip of Jimmy Reid explaining that “This is something for all of us.” Superficially, that’s what the BBC’s credo is, something for everyone in the UK. Yet I wonder whether the people who montaged all the video clips together have an inkling of what Jimmy Reid symbolises to folk north of the border. Reid took on the British Establishment, the System, the political machine, and won.

Some would argue that the BBC is the Establishment’s state broadcaster, and a po-faced one with an undeveloped sense of irony at that. So it would be rather amazing if the BBC imagined that *it* is a Jimmy Reid figure, swapping sides in 2022 to take on the Establishment in the form of a political elite which it has helped to prop up for the past century.

Meantime, I’m currently finishing off a project and yesterday was taken up with the laborious process of collating and uploading all the certificates needed for the CCNP, or “Construction Compliance and Notification Plan”. That includes an Emergency Lighting Installation Certificate, Electrical Installation Certificate, Fire Alarm Certificates, Air Testing Certificate, and CE marking on steel.

The biggest surprise came as I read the steelwork certificates. As I brought them together into one Acrobat file, I paused to read where all the steel originated. It was supplied by local stockholder, Brown & Tawse, whose HQ is just along the road at West Pitkerro, although they sourced it from much further away:

• Advance UCS’s from British Steel in Scunthorpe, a company now owned by the Chinese
• PFC’s from Celsa Steel in Cardiff
• CHS’s from Tata Steel in Corby, the plant which once belonged to Stewarts & Lloyds of Glasgow
• RSA’s from Liberty Merchant bar in Scunthorpe
• Smaller steel flats from Lamines Marchands Européens in Trith-Saint-Léger, France
• 152 x 152 UCS’s from Stahlwerk Thuringen in Unterwellenborn, Germany
• 254 x 254 UCS’s from ArcelorMittal Steel at Olaberria-Bergara in Spain
• Larger steel flats from Stahl Gerlafingen in Germany
• Rebar from Megasa Siderurgia Nacional in Maia, Portugal
• Handrail tubing from Çınar Boru in Turkey
• And finally, hot rolled steel plate from Hyundai Steel in South Korea

So despite Brexit, despite the Suez Canal incident last year, and despite calls to de-globalise, some of the steel has travelled several thousand miles. This matters, because imports cost money in fuel, import duty, and indirectly may end up funding people who we’d rather not support. No sign of Russia’s biggest steel producers such as Severstal, Evraz Group or Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works – but can you ever really know?



Of course, we used to make steel here in Scotland. The hot blast furnace was even invented here. But Corus has gone, and its predecessors too. Ravenscraig was an integrated iron and steel plant with the biggest hot strip mill in Europe. It was built by Colvilles, and if you work on older buildings, you’ll still notice that the webs of the beams are stamped Lanarkshire Steel Co. which was one of Colvilles’ subsidiaries.  The steel which Brown & Tawse used to supply was made a couple of hours down the road.

We used to make steel here in Scotland, but the Scottish steel industry didn’t have a Jimmy Reid to fight for it. So most of it was destroyed by Thatcher's henchman Ian MacGregor, and what remained, including the mills at Clydebridge and Dalzell were sold off to the lowest bidder. Now when we complete our CCNP, the certificates resemble the entries in a Eurovision Steel Contest.

Scotland, null points.


By • Galleries: ghosts, specification


05/05/22 21:33

I never tire of seeing graffiti. When you see the same tag all over the city, it makes you wonder about who wrote it, and why? I like the fact that you never really know the answer.

For a while, the tag BF (Brain Freeze) was ubiquitous in Dundee. It takes guts, cheek and cunning to tag up a whole city, but also a special kind of cleverness to reach the inaccessible gable ends, retaining walls, gas holders and advertising placards. Another one is Shite – who self-deprecatingly spray-painted his tag "Shite" everywhere in Glasgow. He may be shite, but you have to respect the drive, and that on its own makes him an artist.

Graffiti of one sort or another has been with us since the days of the Picts, but the line between art and vandalism remains a matter of taste. Kids will always tag, it’s one of the few ways they can (to use the current jargon) gain “agency” over their environment and feel “empowered”. Tagging, when executed well, is in essence calligraphy with an aerosol can.

As Banksy pointed out, corporations are allowed to give their message anywhere they can afford. Big business and politics pollute the city with banners, slogans and images which aim to brainwash the public into consumerist oblivion. It’s intimidating and depressing. Bill Hicks had a great take on that: “I’m just trying to rid the world of all these fevered egos that are tainting our collective unconscious and making us pay a higher psychic price than we can imagine.”

As individuals we’re not supposed to put our own message up in response but some try. Of course, what gets Banksy off the hook is that someone influential decided his work is art, then developed a celebrity following and carries a political message and is deemed artistic. That people turned this into an art movement was an interesting development, then the movement was co-opted by the Art Establishment. Tough luck for anyone who doesn't fall under that banner. You're just a vandal.

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.”

Graffiti writers make their mark on buildings in an attempt to make their mark on the city as a whole, and perhaps also to humanise it – yet graffiti’s critics think that tagging de-humanises it. That’s a serious philosophical divide.

Graffiti artists fall into two camps. There are those like Futura 2000 who cultivate their creativity and those like Tox who crave ubiquity. Just like the OG (original gangster) graffiti writers in New York in the late 70’s, Tox aimed to get his name up as much as he could, and go “All City”. He achieved that by bombing the Tube trains and tracks in London, before the BTP caught up with him…  Futura on the other hand, developed his craft on New York’s subways and eventually ended up with his work being shown in galleries and also on record sleeves, like UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction. His cone-headed aliens are instantly recognisable, just like Rammellzee’s panzer calligraphy.

In recent years, graff writers have had to simplify their work on tracks and trains because the security is tighter and the yards are patrolled regularly by security staff. It's still possible to produce interesting work at high speed, which is probably why Banksy and others switched to stencils. The idea reportedly came to him while hiding from the 5-0 after being interrupted painting a massive mural…

In another reaction to law enforcement, in recent years graff has gone legit. The Open/Close street art trail in Dundee, like the NuArt project in Aberdeen and City Centre Mural Trail in Glasgow, has commissioned fine artists and graffiti writers to create artworks on blank walls. Yet ten years ago Glasgow City Council commissioned Smug to paint murals over all the walls that used to be legal. Fellow graffiti writers felt this was a step in the wrong direction since there were six well-known legal walls at that point. Now there are none…

Maybe that's part of the high psychic price which Bill Hicks had in mind.

By • Galleries: ghosts, scotland

A while ago I posted some thoughts about architectural photography, critiquing the approach which some practitioners take to achieve their own “style”. Image-makers, like architects, are sometimes caught in the trap of delivering what’s expected and the vogue for the past couple of decades has been photo-realistic CGI (computer-generated images).

Several folk from my year at architecture school went on to work for computer games companies, building virtual environments which players navigate through. Yet the way these imaginary spaces link together – despite their visual sophistication – lacks the imaginative or even metaphorical structure of even early multi-media such as Chris Marker’s “Immemory”.

Rather than writing full-blooded critiques on this blog, I try to briefly mention things which I find inspiring, then try to explore the things which in turn inspired *them*. One of those is Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker”. As time goes on, it seems more relevant than ever – Chris Marker acknowledged Tarkovsky as one of the greatest film directors – and dozens of computer games have picked up reference points from the film.

While its title it may sound like a Hitchcock thriller – with tension building up as the heroine is stalked by a maniac – Stalker in this context is like the highland guide who shepherds a group of hunters into the wilds in a John Buchan novel. Stalker is simultaneously truer and far more difficult than any film made in Hollywood, because it’s about ideas, which the visuals support rather than offering a spectacle.

Stalker has been labelled with all sorts of badges: science fiction, existential, art-house … but if you are interested in ideas, you should search out a copy. Stalker captures the atmosphere that hundreds of computer games tried to copy in the years following; it foreshadows the most terrible environmental disaster of our era – Chernobyl; I went into a bit more detail in my piece about Chernbyl in the magazine.

For years Andrei Tarkovsky was better known for his earlier film, Solaris, which is the prototype of the modern science-fiction film, and among film-makers is probably more influential than Stanley Kubrick’s “2001”. Having successfully transported us to a space station in Solaris, Tarkovsky sought an other-worldly environment for Stalker. While the steppe of Tadjikistan was considered early on, Stalker was eventually shot in an industrial wasteland in Estonia on the Baltic.

Stalker revolves around “the Zone”, a super-natural territory, but by the account of Tarkovsky himself doesn’t symbolise anything in particular. “The zone is a zone, it’s life, and as he makes his way across it man may break down or he may come through. Whether he comes through or not depends on his own self-respect, and his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing.”

Tarkovsky battled against the Soviet apparatchiks to get his films made – and sadly it seems that creative people in today’s Russia will end up as dissidents again, given the horror unfolding in Ukraine and the tightening of Putin’s grip on the Russian state and its media.

Meantime to lighten the dark mood, I’ll mention Georgia Daskalakis’s book, Stalking Detroit, which looked at the non-places and terrains vague left in the city of Detroit at the start of the 21st century. The photos and text make the case that the ruins of Detroit form somewhere with the same atmosphere as Tarkovsky’s film, although the Zone is in visitors’ minds as much as on the ground.

I bought a copy of Stalking Detroit over the phone, in a fraught transaction with Triangle Bookshop in London. They’re no longer in business, but whoever picked up the phone when I called seemed incredulous that someone had called from Dundee, and was interested in buying an architecture book. Send it to where? But that would require packing and posting! Yes, but I’m happy to pay? There was a long disgruntled sigh at the other end of the line.

It looks like I was lucky. It’s yet another interesting short-run architecture book which Amazon’s algorithm has hiked up to $300, when it should be available second hand for a far more reasonable price.

Perhaps civilisation really does end at Watford Gap, and architecture books too.

By • Galleries: ghosts, photography


06/12/21 21:27

The past twenty months have given us time for reflection – too much time. In an attempt to steer clear of the 24 hour social media newsquake which is drowning out architectural discourse, I’ve begun to jot down aspects of practice which have changed in the couple of decades since I graduated.

Some are elements of architectural culture from not so long ago which have been lost along the way during the pandemic. Others were obliterated by practice in the 21st century, which is increasingly taken up by people describing themselves as facilitators, change agents or tactical urbanists…

Reprographics is a good example. At my first summer holiday job I was introduced to a beast of a dyeline printer which reeked of ammonia. I was warned to be careful when operating the UV lamp since it was so easy to blow and very expensive to replace. I treated the lamp with great respect, handling the switch tentatively as someone might approach a religious icon. Fortunately I never had to change the ammonia bottles.

Although the practice I worked for owned its own Ozalid machine, many smaller practices relied on farming out prints to one of several repro firms in the city such as Sime Malloch, Prontaprint, TechArt and Burns & Harris. The latter were a commercial printer, and at the front of their Marketgait Printworks was an architectural repro centre with several giant Océ dyeline machines. As I recall, you had the choice of blueline or blackline paper, copy negs onto plastic film, or a heavier presentation paper with a warmer tone and a reddish-brown line.

Next came large format Xerox plain paper machines, which enabled you to paste up drawings onto A1 sheets, add lettering using Transtext, then make a clean copy onto trace. This “internegative” could either by dyelined, xeroxed again, or just hung against a sheet of coloured backing paper.

Figuring out how to harness these possibilities took experimentation across our first and second years. Then I got more a bit more ambitious. During the summer holidays before fourth year, I stayed with my cousin who lived in Uxbridge at the time. I explored London using the Tube system and began discovering interesting bookshops along the Charing Cross Road, plus the exotic places advertised in the back pages of the AJ.

Sarkpoint was one of those: it was the premier repro firm in London and its premises were in the Euston area, from memory along William Road, a long walk from the nearest Tube station. At that point, the reception was downstairs and the repro equipment lived upstairs, latterly in a room taken over by computer monitors. It seems the wrong way round, given the weight of some of those Océ dyeline machines, top of the range, along with various Xerox and Canon printers and plotters.

The name Sarkpoint, like for example Wintermute or Seventyholds, is a portmanteau word of the kind people use when setting up shell companies without anything literal-sounding in mind, such as Scottish Ashtray Industries Ltd.  It maybe meant something to the person who coined it, but to the rest of us it seems like a poetic-sounding conjunction of two otherwise unrelated things.

In 1997, Sarkpoint was bought over by UDO, their largest competitor in the lucrative London architectural market, and later they relocated next door to Richard Rogers at Rainville Road in Hammersmith. They knew their market well. Around the same time, the Scottish repro firm Sime Malloch was also absorbed. Later all of them were swallowed up by Service Point.

I still have a beautifully-produced brochure from UDO, an oversize folio which illustrates all the different printing techniques they offered. It must have cost a small fortune to produce, and I hung onto it for its own sake since it’s an attractive thing. By then, Sime Malloch’s premises at the far end of Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow had a Canon bubblejet printer, which made full colour flatbed copies up to A1 size, or you could reduce A1 drawings down to A3 for your portfolio.

During the short period when digital was coming in, when we still drew some things by hand, that made everything possible. I joined a queue of students from the Mac with drawings rolled up in telescopic plastic tubes, or the unwieldy A1 portfolio cases which were always on the verge of taking off if you walked up the road in a storm.

A couple of decades later we have wonderful things like inkjet plotters which can print banner-sized drawings at 1200dpi, and the Océ Arizona flatbed printer which will print anything onto pretty much any medium. Even cladding panels. But what you don’t have is the good old/ bad old dyeline machine, reeking of ammonia.

In a fit of nostalgia I tried to find someone who still has a working diazo machine, so that I could run off a print of a favourite drawing for old times’ sake. I still have the tracing paper negative rolled up in a tube in the loft. Some intensive Googling turned up a copy shop in a Manchester suburb with an out-of-date website which still advertised dyeline printing. Sadly, though, I discovered they’d disposed of their dyeline printer a few years ago.

So the dyeline printer has gone the way of the gas streetlamp or the valve-powered radio, and perhaps predictably there’s a name for that. The “Montgomery Burns Effect”, after Homer Simpson’s boss in the TV cartoon series. Mr Burns invested in booming companies when he was a young man, then held on to the shares for decades, so even now he’s a stockholder in Transatlantic Zeppelin, Confederated Slaveholdings and the Baltimore Opera Hat Company.

A point made for comic effect actually reveals a serious insight from the US futurist Ray Amara in the 1960s: “We overestimate the impact of technology in the short term, and underestimate the effect in the long run.” That’s as true of reprographics as it is of air travel, pharmaceuticals and quantum computing.

Perhaps all isn’t lost. Maybe, like film photography and vinyl records, the dyeline machine will be discovered by hipsters and suddenly become fashionable again… just don’t ask me to operate the ultraviolet lamp or change the ammonia bottles…

By • Galleries: ghosts

A small village on the Somerset Levels … a large hill in Armagh … or perhaps an American photographer? In fact, things aren't what they seem.  Mountweazels are apocryphal places which were conceived to be misleading – as opposed to potentially real things that were never built, such as the Edinburgh Opera House, or simply fictitious places such as Brigadoon.

Some are copyright traps set by cartographers so that plagiarists are caught out: these include trap streets which don’t exist, real streets with deliberately mis-spelt names, and even towns that never were. Best known was the town of Argleton, which either Google Maps or Tele Atlas created around 15 years ago – in reality its location is a series of grass fields between Aughton and Ormskirk. Journalists reckoned it was a copyright trap, and in due course it was deleted from Google’s maps.

Another was the aptly-named Lye Close, a small cul-de-sac which appeared in an A-Z street map of Bristol. This cartographic easter egg was designed to catch out the map publisher’s competitors – the kind of people who don’t want to wear out their shoe leather when they can pinch someone else’s research instead.

As well as artifice, cartographers are also guilt of sins of omission. Until recently, the former Royal Ordnance Factory at Bishopton, west of Glasgow, wasn’t shown on maps. Comprising several square miles of buildings which made the explosives for artillery shells and propellants for rocket motors, the factory is no longer active, and remains fenced off. There’s a faint irony in the fact that Ordnance Survey deliberately missed a huge ordnance factory from their survey…

Conversely, biking campaigners are sometimes responsible for creating lengths of phantom cycle path. I used to overlook a pocket park with some handsome trees, a square of dogshit grass, and a through road which had been stopped up decades before. A few years ago, I noticed the 150 metre stretch of dead street had been designated on maps as a cycle path – despite being blocked by kerbs, bollards, and hillocks of rotting leaves.

Other mountweazels are false trails, deliberate confusions, and even grand deceits. During World War II, Jasper Maskelyne built a mockup of the night-lights of Alexandria in a bay three miles away with fake buildings, lighthouse, and anti-aircraft batteries. Effectively he created a fake city, intended to conceal with real Alexandria and the Suez Canal from German bomber raids.

One well known confusion tactic came at the start of the War, when the authorities removed road signs to hinder German paratroops if they landed in rural Scotland and tried to navigate through the countryside. Of course, fake road signs have been a popular prank through time. Around ten years ago there was a fake road sign project in Lyons, France, in which "105 street signs, realised by 47 worldwide artists, and just similar enough to real traffic signs to give one pause, have been attached to street-side poles around the french city of Lyon."

All of these art pranks, honesty tests and metaphorical elephant traps seem to ring that much truer today, in an era of alternative facts and fake news. Perhaps I should also mention their patron saint, Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, the “fountain designer and mailbox photographer” who haunted the pages of the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, excerpted below…

By • Galleries: 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 mournful eyes, droopy leathers and drooling flews.  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