Gallery: "ghosts"

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

“Graff”

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

Sarkpoint

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 - http://www.buzludzha-monument.com/

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 - http://www.maes-architectes-urbanistes.fr/portfolio/grands-moulins/

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