Gallery: "ghosts"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: books, ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours Willie McLennan, The Wombat

By • Galleries: ghosts, technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: ghosts

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

All images courtesy of Ian Lambot at Watermark Publications.

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

Other titles about Kowloon Walled CIty include:

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: books, ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: ghosts

The village pub lies on a quiet road, a long way from anywhere else.  You might expect it to be busy on a Sunday lunchtime, but today there’s only one patron.

Outside, the air is sharp and the trees are turning – but Mr Wolf sits in the lounge bar of the Admiral Rodney, his nostrils full of the smell of defeat and disappointment.  Things aren’t going well.  He’s preoccupied by the troubled project he’s working on, his girlfriend’s complicated life, and the fact that another year has passed swiftly by.

Having cleared a plate of scampi and chips, he returns to a book - Escape from Evil - written by Ernest Becker.  Becker was a cultural anthropologist who spent the latter part of his career examining man's fear of death, and his struggle to overcome it through heroism and symbolism.  He believed that our culture is fundamentally contrived: "Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death."

And so we engage in Immortality Projects.

In Becker’s world, the creation of a building is a struggle of will, the individual’s triumph over all the other architects.  Its continuing existence is a reminder that you persist, and its demolition is the abnegation of self, and proof of mortality.  The book is doing nothing to cheer Mr Wolf up, but it has provoked him to think.

Becker’s thesis is one reason why the “Rubble Club” is so poignant, and why an architect who Mr Wolf used to work with bitterly regretted the disappearance of one of the first things he designed, a shopfront in a seaside town.  The shop sold shoes, and in the 1970’s its frontage was remodelled to resemble a giant glass shoe. 

Had Scotland been Northern Italy, the shoe-fronted shop would have been called architecture parlante.  If the shop had been in Nevada, Robert Venturi would have circled it making quacking noises … but when the premises were refurbished in the 2000’s, the shoe was replaced by a big sheet of Armourplate and the shop began selling sandwiches. 

“This shouldn’t happen; it makes you realise that you’re getting old,” the architect complained, although he really meant “mortal”.  Not even the combined efforts of DIY SOS, John Harvey-Jones and The A-Team could disprove the fact that buildings are just buildings, dispensable, and we’re only mortal.

Perhaps the driver of architecture isn’t the egotism of a designer who believes they have more insight, talent or genius than others do.  Nor is it the avarice of a speculator who wants to make money from it, nor even an expression of the client’s taste.  Perhaps the pursuit of architecture really is an Immortality Project.

Some leave behind statues, books or belief systems - but buildings are concrete proof of what we achieved.  Perhaps writing about them through the filter of anthropology tells us something about folk whose practices have failed, been taken over by corporates, or gave up their identities in mergers.  It helps to explain why they fought so hard for what they’ve lost. 

The work they created was more than a creative outlet or a business – it was their legacy.  Beyond that, Becker goes on to explain why some people drive a larger Saab, Audi or Alfa Romeo than their colleagues.

"The ideology of modern commercialism has unleashed a life of invidious comparison unprecedented in history ... modern man cannot endure economic equality because he has no faith in self-transcendent, otherworldly immortality symbols; visible physical worth is the only thing he has to give him eternal life.  No wonder that people segregate themselves with such consuming dedication, that specialness is so much a fight to the death ... He dies when his little symbols of specialness die."

Humans, Becker writes, will always have “a need for a ‘beyond’ on which to base the meaning of their lives.”  His conclusion is that people live to ensure they have a legacy, and this is why we work so hard to prove ourselves our whole lives.  In the process of doing that — especially if we're power hungry or in desperate situations — we do things which make other peoples’ lot immeasurably worse.

Becker suggests that we are not evil because we have an instinct to be, but because we're the only animal on this planet which knows it's going to die.  "But evil is not banal as Arendt claimed: evil rests on the passionate person motive to perpetuate oneself, and for each individual this is literally a life-and-death matter for which any sacrifice is not too great..."

Albert Speer’s work in the 1930’s and 40’s during the so-called Thousand Year Reich is an extreme example of an Immortality Project, and arguably the methods used in pursuit of the aim lie at the crux of Becker’s book.  Immortality Projects throw us right back to Thomas Hobbes - the battle of every man against every man.  Life can be nasty, brutal and short and sometimes architecture does nothing to mediate that. 

How can this be overcome, when society has progressed more slowly and modestly than advocated by Rousseau and Marx?   Becker didn’t have an easy answer, but sometimes we need to get our heads up, release ourselves from the grip of immortality and absorb ourselves in the now. 

With that weight lifted from his shoulders, Mr Wolf closed the book and wandered out into the wan autumnal sunshine.

By • Galleries: ghosts

We discovered that Muirfields were in trouble one Wednesday morning, when a colleague’s wife texted him to say that folk were standing around outside their offices in Dryburgh, Dundee – seemingly locked out by the management.

Rumours had been circulating during the preceding week … but we were lucky, in the sense that Muirfield Contracts had just finished dealing with the defects period on a local project I worked on.  Several hundred workers were less lucky, and it must be heartbreaking for Maurice McKay, who left Charles Gray (Builders) Ltd. at the end of the 1980’s to start Muirfields, then spent the next 25 years building it into one of Scotland’s biggest privately-held contractors. 

He sold the business to Azure Investments, a private equity firm, about 18 months ago; a day after the gates were locked, the Dundee Courier stated that over 400 employees’ jobs were at risk.  What went wrong?

Muirfields were the last of the big, Dundee-headquartered contractors … for now at least … and the environment they worked in appears to have changed.  In the past few years, they built many care homes for Balhousie Group - whose period of rapid expansion is perhaps at an end.  Muirfield's specialist rendering division was very successful at winning local authority housing contracts, although I imagine that much local housing stock has been upgraded now.  Muirfields built several schools over the past few years, but changes in procurement when the East of Scotland Hubco framework was won by Robertsons must have had an effect. 

As an aside, the Hubs, just like PFI before them, have served to reduce choice and drive out competition, which will eventually push prices up … the opposite of what was intended. 

As for the catalyst of Muirfield’s demise, we can only speculate.  According to reporting in The Courier, the firm’s managing director left after a few months in post, then the finance director quit a month before they went into administration – that’s always a bad sign.  In other cases where a contractor has plenty of work and a decent “pipeline”, as Muirfields appeared to have, yet still went into administration, two factors are often blamed. 

Poor cashflow caused by difficulty getting the money in, or a lack of working capital from the firm’s backers, eventually strangles the firm.  Both of these financial throttles lead to delays in paying suppliers, sub-contractors and finally their employees … as a result, the firm's credit rating drops, their accounts with the merchants are put on “stop”, and the firm struggles to get completion bonds.  Business becomes unsustainable when the rumours spread to the extent that workers walk off site.

As I say, we can only speculate.  However, if you know about construction, you’ll know that firms regularly go bust, so that over the course of a decade or two you end up dealing with the same folk, in the same capacity, but working for a different firm each time.  If you think about it, each contract won comes at a price.  By winning a tender, you’ve come in below everyone else and by definition that means either your estimators have missed something, your margin is vanishingly slim, or worst of all you’re having to “buy” work merely to keep the business turning over.

If you know about investment … you’ll be aware that building contractors aren’t a good punt.  In fact they’ve been trying to turn themselves into “property services” or “facilities management” companies for years – because the margins are thin, the return on capital is poor, and the risks are high for general contractors.  The people who invest in them seem to underestimate the challenge of funding contracting firms, with their endless appetite for working capital.  Short term, you can use a contractor’s turnover to draw capital out of a business – longer term, money has to be ploughed back in if it’s going to survive.

Balfour Beatty, the largest civils and building contractor in Britain, has performed poorly for years by various measures, including that of its share price against the stock market index.  You’d be much safer to invest your pension in a drug company, a car manufacturer, or an inventor of widgets.  Probably best to avoid the banking sector, though. ;-)

A couple of years ago, I wrote that W.H. Brown Construction had gone into administration: it joined a list of large Dundee contractors who have gone bust in the past few years.  Before that I mentioned Charles Gray (Builders) Ltd., who were the biggest contractor in Dundee and one of the largest in Scotland at that time, employing many hundreds of people.  They went down in 1994, during my Year Out, and that came as a shock because Grays were turning over more at 1994 prices, from memory around £40m, than Muirfields’ turnover of £48m at today’s prices … if you adjust for inflation Grays were two or three times as large as Muirfields.

In between Gray’s and W.H. Brown’s failures, Taycon, Torith, Forman and several others have gone, too.  Now Muirfield Contracts joins the unhappy list.

The irony of Dundee’s ailing contracting sector is that the city is in the midst of a multi-billion pound growth spurt.  It’s the first since the glorious decade from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, when Dundee was practically rebuilt.  During that period, the Overgate was re-developed, the Tay Road Bridge constructed, Dundee University expanded all the way back to the New Hawkhill, the Wellgate Centre was built, along with countless new schools, many tower blocks built, and Ninewells Hospital, the largest teaching hospital in Europe, was created.  Dundee’s contractors boomed: Grays, J.B. Hay, and John McConnachie’s firms all benefitted and grew with the city.

In the 2010’s, the Central Waterfront is being redeveloped – only this time none of those firms are around to contribute, nor are there any Muirfields, Browns, or Toriths.  That leaves the next tier of contractors such as George Martin Builders, Marshall Construction of Perth, and Shepherds of Forfar – plus incoming firms whose interest in the city will pass once the glamour jobs are finished.  So far Interserve have converted the Tay Hotel into a Malmaison, McAlpines are working on the Waterfront’s infrastructure, and BAM have just begun on the V&A’s groundworks.

Other business failures have changed the shape of the construction industry in Tayside.  For example, there are lots of laminate and furniture firms in the River Tay corridor – both fabricators and merchants – and for years I wondered why that was.  Shore Laminates in Perth, Lam-Art in Dundee, Tayfirth Laminates in Dundee, and the largest of them, JTC Furniture Group who occupy the former Timex factory on Harrison Road in Dundee. 

I discovered that all of these firms (and several others) were the direct or indirect offspring of Tay Valley Joinery, the furniture firm built up by James Chalmers, a distant relation.  TVJ was set up in 1971, and from the old bleachworks at Claverhouse they grew to have two factories in Dundee and one in Perth until 1984, when “a catalogue of unusual business events coincided to bring about its demise”.  Those who served their time with TVJ went on to start their own firms, and James Chalmers went on to start JTC, so at least their collective knowledge wasn’t lost to the area.

Perhaps that’s how it goes with building contractors – their existence is tenuous, even when they appear to be well established.  Look at the recent influx of firms such as Graham Construction and Lagan Construction from Northern Ireland – their home market has dried up, many domestic competitors have gone bust, and now they’re searching for work in Scotland.  Look also at what happened to one of the longest-established Edinburgh contractors, Melville Dundas.

I clearly recall when Melville Dundas, who were a large, well-known 200-year old contractor, went bust at the end of the 1990's.   I also recall trying to discover what happened to them.  There was little information to be had, so I began a staircase of phonecalls towards the heart of the business, explaining that this was a press enquiry, and trying to resist the requests to speak to the administrator.  Eventually I reached a P.A. who promised someone would ring me back.  No-one ever did.

For whatever reason, it always proves difficult to discover much about building contractors, and soon after that Melville Dundas ceased to exist, and both their assets and staff were spread to the winds.

The list of dead contractors goes on … but perhaps only John Stodart, the chairman of Azure Investments, knows what went wrong at Muirfields.  He bought the contractor 18 months ago, and has presided over its failure.  Graham Huband at The Courier is carrying out an ongoing piece of investigative journalism into Stodart's affairs, such the other Dundee firms which he took over and which have since gone into administration…

As an aside, you would think that with the construction industry forming around 7-8% of the economy and the workforce, the rise and progress of its companies would be recorded somewhere.  You’d be wrong.  Only a handful of the biggest contractors bother to record themselves (I can think of books on John Laing, Balfour Beatty and  Edmund Nuttalls) whereas all the others are lost to history.  Perhaps the Abertay Historical Society should collect the histories of firms such as Charlie Grays, J.B. Hay, McConnachie’s, W.H. Brown, Taycon, Torith, Forman and Muirfields – along with housebuilders like Bett Brothers – before they pass out of memory, like their predecessors have.  As an aside, you can read my piece about Dorran Construction and Dye Builders here - link.

By • Galleries: ghosts

Several decades ago there was an ideal of “Great Britain”.  The broad, sunlit uplands of Churchill’s phrase evoke farmland dotted with Southdown sheep (the breed which look like woolly teddy bears) and hedges full of songbirds.  The horizon is punctuated with spinneys of elm trees and the spires of parish churches.  Did it ever exist in reality?

We released a long, pent-up breath and went in search of somewhere else … Unwittingly, just like Jonathan Meades, we found ourselves abroad in Britain.

During the 1940’s, the image of broad, sunlit uplands was a powerful metaphor; it gained currency during six years of total war.  Spitfires roared overhead as the smell of roast beef wafted over a honeysuckle hedge.  The ideal was something to yearn for while bogged down in the trenches of the Bulge.  

During the flooding earlier this year, the uplands metaphor took on another significance, since the uplands aren’t floodplains.  The Somerset Levels and Thames Basin were inundated; in previous years, the Humber at South Ferriby suffered, and before that the River Tay overtopped its embankments at Perth.

The higher land acted as a refuge from the flooding, just as it was a bulwark against the loss of British identity during wartime.  That cherished landscape, abundant with trees, wildlife and villages has inspired many pieces of pastoral music, and perhaps you can already hear Vaughan Williams’ “Lark Ascending” playing in the distance…

A biographical article which I’m writing at the moment reminded me of the parallels between place, architecture and music.  The visual and auditory cortices in the brain are closely allied: they have rhythm, structure and composition in common and sometimes they come together in a synaesthetic way.  As I was writing, I thought about this song, which evokes the broad, sunlit uplands.

Talk Talk’s track, “New Grass” is topographical.  The sound picture it draws is an open, rolling landscape; the warm-toned electric organ and lilting guitar achieve a feeling of tranquillity and disquiet.  The music seems to capture what the uplands, but also hints at fears for their future.  New Grass evokes a folk memory of agrarian Britain, particularly the years immediately before the Great War when radical young men in walking boots explored the countryside.

The Great War poets suggested that Britain’s essence lay in the pastoral, with its traditional and modest values: by contrast, the city was brash and inauthentic.  That duality carried into the Modern era with poets such as W.B. Yeats who looked back to Thomas Hardy and forwards to Phillip Larkin.  Similarly, it had a relationship with pastoral music where Talk Talk found a place of their own, between mystical Romantics like William Blake and composers such as Delius and Vaughan Williams.

“The Lark Ascending” was written at the start of the Great War when there was an underlying fear of the loss of countryside, culture and ways of life.  Similarly, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk completed “New Grass” in the last years of the Thatcher government.  The track was released in 1991, by which time much of the Green Belt had been lost, agribusiness had destroyed the hedgerows and joined hands with suburbia.  The Idea of the South remained, but the reality had shifted.

That’s just my interpretation, of course, because Mark Hollis retreated from the showbusiness machine many years ago, and doesn’t seek out publicity.  Apart from "Chaos" on the UNKLE album Psyence Fiction (the one with Futura’s cone-headed aliens on the cover) he has kept a very low profile.  Maybe he decided that the yearning and wistfulness of New Grass said everything he needed to say.

Still, for me, New Grass *is* the South Downs, which roll gently towards the Channel.  It’s more than an idealised version of wartime Britain: in that track the ideal, the image and the music are now inextricable with the place.

The South is another country.  Where does it begin and end?  You keep travelling until you run out of land in Sussex.  Brighton seems the most English of towns, but it’s almost as close to Dieppe as to London.  Nonetheless, the Great Wen has the same push-pull attraction on Brighton as it does on the rest of the country, and going up to London takes just an hour on the electric train.  Perhaps it’s too close…

The North is far enough from London to seem exotic.  From the wild moors above Haworth to the sooty gritstone of those dark satanic mills, it was captured in John Bulmer’s photojournalism from the 60’s, a Kestrel for a Knave, to the TV drama Our Friends in the North.  For the metropolitan media, The North is Lancashire and Yorkshire; it’s Way Up North when you hit Teeside and Tyneside, and the Far North once you cross the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick.

At architecture school, I discovered how this perception differs according to your starting point.  For people living near the south coast, The North would be an escape – but Scotland was like internal exile.  Jo from Guildford, Nick from the Isle of Wight, Pat from Southampton: among their reasons for choosing Duncan of Jordanstone, so they claimed, was to get as far from home as possible…

At first, the hard-edged Scots tongue must have seemed abrasive.  Those stone-built cities which climb up towards the Campsies, the Pentlands and the Sidlaws come from a different tradition.  The clear air, harsh winters and heavy industry bred hard men and socialism.  So the place was straightforwardly different, even though people are people across the world; all brothers and sisters under the skin.  

As the North is to them, so the South to us.

One day, I escaped from London and explored the town at end of the sunlit uplands … Brighton … a magnet for teenage runaways, love-struck couples and musical dreamers.  The hazy sunshine and mild winters are agreeable, and soft accents roll from stucco terraces which go down to the sea.  Yet beyond the comfortable politics of reaction, there’s a community of bohemians and anarchists here, radicals on their own terms.

So, join the Little Magnets who tumble off the train like freshly-struck coins, then stroll along the Marine Parade and take in the swirl of hot dogs, candy floss, perfume and cigarettes around the Palace Pier.  Leave the attics in bedsitter land and walk out along the front on a quiet midweek afternoon; saunter through the antiques markets and vintage clothing stores, hang out in the coffee shops and catch gigs at the Concorde.

The Brighton scene has pedigree: from Graham Greene and Mods & Rockers, to Quadrophenia and the Zap Club.  I remember the cool graphics of club fliers which drew me there: punk was followed by indie music, then the crusties and acid house came along.  Brighton also has a full-on graf scene: writers have made their mark in sprawling wildstyle.  And it has COTS – the Colossus of the South – a series of vast stormwater chambers which tempt the bravest to explore during dry weather.  

But most of all Brighton meant Transvision Vamp.  I recall a friend at school, Scott Clark, who was a huge fan of Wendy James, but I can appreciate them for the music they wrote, too.  

As she said in an interview, “I was a young teenager and the world was opening up for me… My life was beginning, that's how I remember Brighton.  The world was full of possibilities, and Nick and I made our own bubble and lived in it, working, working, working towards the day that we would have our music ready for the world.”  Freed from other peoples’ expectations, they were able to make themselves up as they went along.

That comes through in the music, along with the trashy aesthetic of Pop Art which chimed with Brighton, the saturated colours of Jamie Read’s posters along the Kings Road, the powerfully-amplified fairground music which encircles the pier and beneath it the onrush of the Channel breaking over the shingle beach.

Transvision Vamp became what Talk Talk began as: a pop band which sprang from punk.  For a glorious moment, they achieved what they set out to do.  They channelled all the yearning, the pent-up energy, and the self-discovery into three minute pop songs.  Who knows what their equivalent is today; it certainly isn’t played on Radio 1.

That’s the first impression, of high-energy kinetic tracks such as “The Only One”.  The song reaches its chorus, then… (Clarkson Pause) … the middle eight punches out.  On a tinny iPod you pick up how compressed the guitars are, but over a club PA with a decent bass response, it destroys the place.  It’s also a good example of eidesis.  The lyrics don’t repeat through laziness: they repeat for effect, just like Miesian buildings gain much of their power through the unbroken repetition of the grid.  That’s a rhythm thing.

Transvision vamp The Only One from Mark Alchin on Vimeo.

However “Landslide of Love” is the most completely-realised track they recorded.  Nick Sayer once said it was the song which he felt at the time was his best example of "pure" song writing.  It nails exactly how teenagers can be overwhelmed with emotion, which swings from pure elation to feeling so low that you think you’ll die.

At first listen, you catch the song’s uplifting harmonies, the synthesised strings and the guitar part in the bridge.  Afterwards, you begin to hear the lyrics and realise how cleverly they resolve the song into something wistful.  The vocals sound like ignited oxygen on The Only One, but world-weary on Landslide: there's something equally melancholic about a seaside town out of season, and Landslide seems to capture Brighton’s faded glamour just as it was around twenty years ago.  That’s an atmospheric thing.

Landslide was released in 1989, and a few years later Transvision Vamp followed Talk Talk into silence.  Having burned brightly, they faded away.  At this point, it all goes back not to Blondie, T-Rex, Marilyn nor James Dean … but to Marcel Proust.  Pop music creates the most powerful madeleines of all, the mnemonic triggers for memory which take us back to places and times we knew: it takes us to Brighton, where the modern pastoral ends and the Idea of the South runs out into the sea.

By • Galleries: ghosts