Gallery: "independence"

The publisher’s blurb suggests that Scotch Baronial is the right book at the right time: an examination of political identity in our architecture, at a point when Scottish independence is back on the agenda. May 2021, the most venomous Scottish elections for a long time, which come at a turning point in the progress of Scotland, Britain and Europe too.

The book builds on the work of Charles McKean and Michael Davis, discerning a line from castles built during the Wars of Independence through to the country house builders of the early 20th century. It covers the usual suspects – Inverary Castle, Holyrood Palace, Balmoral Castle – with many others along the way.



The First Castle Age created everything from defensible mansion houses to out-and-out war machines. The former are McKean’s Scots châteaux, such as Craigievar, Castle Fraser and Fyvie, which couldn’t have been built anything other than here. Their outlines with pepperpot turrets and crowsteps are characteristic. The latter, curtain-walled fortresses like Caerlaverock and Tantallon, were assertions of political and military defiance.

The authors analyse the ever-shifting relationship between old-fashioned defensive concerns, classical symmetry, the scenographic arrangement of massing, the relationship between materiality and setting, and the brutal practicality of these castles, which often hides behind a rich tapestry of myth, folklore, tartan and “Hoots Mon” nationalism.

But politics were not the only thing driving Baronial architecture: the clan system and feudal land ownership were critical, as were raw materials such as stone and slate, rather than brick and timber used over the border. Also crucial was cultural interchange through the Auld Alliance, William Wallace’s efforts to make connections with the Hanseatic League, and more prosaic aspects like the trade between Scotland and the Low Countries, a side effect of which was the importation into Fife of pantiles.

The subject area would reward further poking around into the cultural, material and mercantile as well as the political, and the authors turn up one genuinely fascinating parallel: that with Germany’s own search for a representative style, which helps to emphasise Scotland’s role as a pioneer in the expression of nationalism, which seems ironic for a country which lost its statehood three centuries ago.

This first age passed after the Union of the Crowns, but a few decades later Scotland unexpectedly had a Second Castle Age – the Baronial Revival – which was sparked by Walter Scott and his house, Abbotsford. The second age ran from the 1820’s to the years before the Great War, and the authors argue it represents unionist nationalism, an assertion of Scottishness within Britain.

Architecturally at least that was a success, with a vivid re-imagining of the themes, proportions and details of Scots castles in the work of the Adam brothers, the Playfairs, David Bryce and William Burn. They trawled the castles of medieval Scotland for inspiration,

Baronial Revival buildings are like haggis pakora: a good one balances elements from different cultures and reminds us that internationalism is a productive pursuit.  Revival details and materials are Scottish but the massing, parti and outline might pinch from French chateaux, German schlossen and Venetian palazzi.  In fact, rather than falling back on the hackneyed deep-fried Mars Bar in order to slight Scots cuisine – we should celebrate the haggis pakora, which is one of the great inventions of fusion food.   

We should be very grateful to the folks who first came up with the idea, and incidentally it also proves that Indo-Scots cultural appropriation is a Good Thing. Both parties gain – and making a serious point, our identity shouldn’t be copyrighted in the sense that I somehow need permission, or am not allowed to write about people who are different from me.

To do so is what Toni Morrison called cultural apartheid. If only certain people are allowed to write or think about certain things based on their gender, ethnicity, and so forth it would be a terrible loss to the culture of the world as a whole. We would lose sympathy for people from a different background, because they’ve excluded us from their world, and we’d also lose the wonderful cross-pollinations which come about as a side effect.

The Baronial Revival ended with Lorimer and Matthew's powerful Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle and what came next was less sure of itself. Similarly, the book’s final chapter covering the 20th century is less convincing, including an attempt to thirl Mackintosh to the Baronial Revival, despite Mackintosh protesting that the Hill House, “…Is not an Italian Villa, an English Mansion House, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House.” The authors also touch on Scottishness in the work of Robert Matthew, Basil Spence and James Shearer, but while their work speaks heavily-inflected Scots, it’s not Baronial.

Critically, Glendinning and Mackechnie fail to distinguish between pasticheurs like Ian Begg, who used Baronial wallpaper for the Scandic Crown Hotel’s façades, and architects such as Mackintosh and MacLaren who transcended their influences to create a heartfelt Scottishness that pervaded the whole building. Their work, along with that of Robert Lorimer, arguably marks the end of Scots Baronial’s authentic influence. However, the focus on figures like Patrick Geddes – who latter reimagined Edinburgh using the Outlook Tower and Ramsay Gardens to combine elements of Scots tradition with twentieth-century aspirations – helps to broaden the discussion beyond merely a “Scottish style”.

A brief vignette of Scots politics covers the creation of the new Scottish Parliament, where Scotch Baronial heads completely off piste. Glendinning and Mackechnie state, “ It is a paradox that the proud talk of a national rebirth – coincides with an underlying reality of international homogenisation and commercialisation.” Historians aren’t always best placed to discern what’s going on in present times, and we’re still working out what Holyrood actually represents both architecturally and politically, as May’s elections will likely demonstrate once more. As such this book is a polite architectural historiography rather than a passionate political manifesto.

Scotch Baronial was originally published in hardback during 2019 and has just been issued as a paperback. The illustrations – small, flat and monochrome – deserve full colour litho printing, but that doesn’t detract too much from this thorough and balanced introduction to eight centuries of Scots Baronial architecture, which should appeal to nationalist and unionist alike.

[This is an expanded version of a review I wrote elsewhere].

Scotch Baronial: Architecture and National Identity in Scotland
Miles Glendinning and Aonghus Mackechnie
Bloomsbury Visual Arts
ISBN: 9781474283472
Hardback £65; Paperback £24.99

By • Galleries: books, independence

Locked Out.

19/06/19 22:32

This morning I headed into the city to survey a long-empty shop unit and the basement underneath it.
I like to make sure that someone else is with me on a survey – one Stooge fires the Disto and shouts out numbers, the other Stooge notes them on the plan – but today it didn’t work out. I was on my own for most of the morning. Likewise, I’m always careful to look out for rotten floors, asbestos and live electrics. Yet for the first time I can remember, I nearly got trapped in the building I was surveying.
It started off innocently enough: I pulled up the roller shutter, unlocked the front door and checked the power and the alarm were off, then walked around to get a feel for the place. Enough of the suspended ceiling was trashed that I got a few glimpses of ornate Victorian plasterwork, but the rest of the ground floor was under attack by dry rot and rising damp, probably caused by rainwater leaking in from the abutment with a flat-roofed extension to the rear.
I switched the torch on and headed downstairs. The basement was a labyrinth and split up by lots of cheap 1960’s flush ply doors with Georgian-wired vision panels. Up until that point all the pass doors had been unlocked, but I turned left and went through a pair of narrow leaves fitted with old-fashioned panic bars, took a step forward and they slammed behind me.
I spun around in half a second, but it was already too late. I discovered I was stuck in an internal pend with various locked leading into it, including the pair I was trapped on the wrong side of. It was dark, apart from faint daylight leaking through a fanlight around the corner: the pend was right-angled and at the end were some steps up to a doorway. I kept the torch on and tried a few switches until a bulb overhead came on.
The doors I’d come through opened in the direction I’d just come, so there was no point in trying to kick them in – I’d be kicking against the stops. Another two doors in the pend were also outward-opening and appeared to be screwed shut. So the only way forward appeared to be up the steps to a pair of what I assumed were fire exit doors.
The doors had a panic latch, plus two steel tubes barring them shut.  Presumably the building had suffered burglaries in the past, but pity help anyone caught here in a fire. I pulled the rusty bars out of the way, then pushed the panic latch. At first it didn’t budge, but I gave it a big shove and that sprung the doors open. I was outside at least, in another pend, but this time open to the sky and giving onto the street. Relief. But my bag and survey gear were still inside, locked in the building – and I’d left the front door keys in the front door lock.  I also knew there weren’t any spare keys…
After standing vacantly for a minute, I headed back to the car, rooted through the boot and found a big screwdriver. I hurried back to the pend. The lippings on the meeting stiles of the locked doors were already slightly chewed, so I rammed the screwdriver in and pulled against it.  The door leaf bowed outwards. After a few attempts, using all my weight to lever against it, I managed to slide the screwdriver shank in at an angle then pull it towards me so that it acted on the panic bar.
After a few attempts to jiggle the panic bar with the screwdriver, the doors swung open quietly and without effort as if to say, what’s the problem? I jammed them open against the uneven stone slabs in the pend then stared: they weren’t fitted with floorsprings, overhead closers or Perkomatics.  I’m not even sure why they slammed. Perhaps rising butt hinges, yet once wedged open they didn’t strain to close again. 
The rest of the survey was an anti-climax after that excitement, but now I know what I always suspected – it isn’t difficult to break into old buildings, if you really need to. Flush ply doors are pretty useless at keeping people out. I’m also reminded of Henk van Rensbergen, the Belgian photographer who explores derelict buildings. After almost getting trapped in a cell inside a long-abandoned barracks after a door slammed, then discovering there was no handle on the inside, he always takes a lever handle and spindle with him on his expeditions.
Ultimately I wouldn’t have been stuck in that pend forever, because I had a mobile phone, a torch, someone knew where I was and would eventually have come looking for me. If they couldn’t help, an emergency locksmith or even the Fire Brigade would. But it does make you think. If circumstances were different, and I was in a remote place, perhaps with no phone reception or a flat battery, a door bolted shut rather than barred…
As one of my colleagues often says (with apologies to Hill Street Blues) – “Let’s be careful out there”.  If you’re going to survey in an unfamiliar building, please think about taking a phone, torch and a big screwdriver or one or two other tools, just in case. As this episode hit home, it can happen to anyone.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, independence

Somewhere in our past, a lone kilted figure looks out over a herd of Highland cattle, knee deep in heather and thistles. Through the mist, the pipes skirl, a towerhouse glowers and a burn tumbles, brown with peaty water running off the moors. This is the heritage which Walter Scott invented for us in the 1820’s, and which the Victorians assiduously set to work, marketing their engineering might by pretending that its forges and steel mills were in Brigadoon, not Bridgeton. Which, I guess, is why the spring clips we use to clamp paper to a board are stamped “WAVERLEY”.

The bulldog clip is a seemingly simple gadget of tempered spring steel. It comes in many varieties, yet all consist of a barrel spring with two lever-shaped handles. Every home has several, tucked away in the back of a drawer. I first relied on it when I was a schoolboy: several clips clamped a large sheet of Fabriano paper to a board, and that allowed me to go outside to sketch. Through its life, the bulldog clip evolved, and its highest evolution is the Waverley Clip.

The bulldog clip was reputedly invented at the end of the 19th Century in Birmingham, where metallurgists developed spring steel, and where the British stationery industry grew up, centred on dip pen nib manufacturing. The technology quickly spread. MacNiven & Cameron was a firm of printers and stationers, originally founded as Nisbet MacNiven, a paper maker in 1770 at Balerno. They developed as a stationery wholesaler after moving into Edinburgh in 1788, and for many years they had a printing works at 23 Blair Street in the heart of the Old Town. The brothers John and Donald Cameron became involved in 1840, and the firm’s name changed to MacNiven & Cameron in 1845.

Duncan Cameron, another brother, invented the Waverley nib: its narrow waist, with an upturned point rather than a convex point, took the extreme point of the pen off the paper and made writing smoother. It was first manufactured for the company by Gillott in 1864, and later by others. In 1881, the company diversified and the Oban Times newspaper was acquired then run for a time by Duncan, then his son Waverley Cameron – the boy being named after the pen, rather than vice versa!

As their business grew, MacNiven & Cameron expanded their “Waverley” brand to include the Waverley Clip. Premier Grip, which has been in production for a century, claims to be “the original bulldog clip”, but Myers make their Foldback clip, Rexel their Boston clip, and Perry their Victoria clip… all of which are variations on the same theme, yet the Waverley clip is perhaps the highest evolution. It bears no ornamentation, nor decorative tooling, just a simple fluting of the handles for strength. Its name, in chunky moderne lettering, is pressed into the steel lips of the clip. It’s appealing simply because it’s the ultimate in unregarded objects.

The clip’s trade name and trade dress recalls the powerful reach of Walter Scott, author of the famous “Waverley novels”, the first of which was published in 1814; his portrait was combined with the McNiven & Cameron’s slogan on product packaging: “They come as a Boon and a Blessing to men: The Pickwick, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen”. Scott is shown complete with bangs of flowing hair and a high collar, but he didn’t endorse the nib or the clip, because he died long before they went into production.

Brands like Waverley are strong simply because we know that their reputation grew from quality and longevity, and they emerged before the onset of corporatism and the relentless cost-cutting which is really the destruction of value. If the clip was launched today, it would be injection moulded from plastic in a sweatshop, then packaged to sell on price rather than quality.

Eventually MacNiven & Cameron bought a factory at Watery Lane, Bordesley, Birmingham and manufactured clips, nibs and other things for themselves, from 1900 to 1964.  By the 1960’s, the stock-in-trade of their factory was the barrel spring-type paper clip, although some nib manufacturing continued to the end, mainly for the Indian market. After that, the company moved to the Waverley Works in Edinburgh: thus, earlier Waverley Clips are stamped “Made in England”, and later ones “Made in Scotland”.

More recently the remnants of the company relocated again, still making stationery under the Waverley Cameron name, to Dunkeld Road in Blairgowrie. That too became the Waverley Works, which is where the Waverley clip ended its days.

MacNiven & Cameron’s progress follows a familiar trend: a slow decline from Victorian times, firstly they closed an old factory in the Black Country, then their offices in the heart of Edinburgh were shut because the buildings were worth more than the business they contained. Finally they moved to a modern industrial unit in a small provincial town, always moving further north, to lower overheads and the margins of the industrial belt. The business shrank, Walter Scott fell spectacularly out of fashion, but the Waverley Clips are still going strong.

Image from Maynard's Wine Gums advert – copyright Aardman Animation, used with permission.

By • Galleries: independence

I fetched up at Stirling on a scorching July afternoon, when heat had slowed the city’s traffic to a crawl.  Sunshine soaked into the Monaro I was driving at the time, its boot filled with boxes of old architecture books, and every surface inside the cabin was hot.  The honey-coloured sandstone of Stirling’s terraces gave off wafts of heated air which made the place shimmer when approached down the M9 motorway.

Ahead lay the great rocky incline which the castle sits on; another pinnacle with the Wallace Monument perched on top, and further west, Craigforth rising up from the floodplain where the Teith meets the Forth.  Turning off the M9 you leave Craigforth behind, with its great wooded mound and cluster of insurance company buildings set apart from the city, and head up towards the university. 

Designed by RMJM, and built between 1967 and 1974, Stirling was the first complete newbuild campus in Scotland, as distinct from existing technical or university colleges which gained a promotion.  Looking back through magazines in the dusty stacks, the University was well critiqued at the time it opened, such as in John McKean’s piece in The Architectural Review of June 1973. 

It was the only brand new Scottish university built after the Robbins Report was published, and the first to be established in Scotland since the University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583.  Unlike the “Redbricks” in England from the same era, Stirling consists of crisply-detailed buildings of dimensional blockwork and precast concrete, all faced with sparkling chips of white spar.  The whiteness was dazzling that day, but I located shade near the base of the Pathfoot building and quickly realised that my visit had coincided with a conference on Poetry and Politics.

Pathfoot was the first piece of a masterplan which conceived of terraced buildings set around an artificial loch, with carefully-considered contours and planting.  It steps down a landscaped hillside in a series of cascading flights of steps linking the long, transverse wings whose spirit is Scandinavian.  The white precast fascias, black timber spandrels, and large expanses of yellow pine joinery inside are so typical of that era – and the building’s whole programme is contained in a coherent building.

The political poets – or perhaps poetic politicians – made parallel tracks across the campus.  In fact, I’ve heard that some of those who use the building complain of the sameness of the rigorously rectilinear corridor system, but that grid was necessary to contain the great variety of functions.  The Pathfoot Building is a variation of the “spider” plan, often employed for military barracks and also wartime emergency hospitals such as Bridge of Earn, Stracathro and Killearn.

As the first building of a new university, Pathfoot used that arrangement of a main spine corridor with wings and secondary corridors branching off laterally, to organise its accommodation.  The spider contains staff rooms and library on the lowest terrace; undergraduate and research laboratories, lecture rooms and admin offices on the middle terrace; with common rooms, seminar and lecture rooms, and restaurant on the topmost level.  Other typologies from that era included the Racetrack plan and the Mat building.

Interestingly, before it became the university, the site was earmarked for a hospital, which proves the concept of system thinking.  In other words, big bureaucracies like the NHS and the further education system create similar scales of building with similar typologies on similar sites. 

As I wandered down the central stairs, I ran into groups of academics – mainly middle-aged women with cropped hair and penny-round glasses, speaking in Home Counties English and Midwestern American accents.  They were, presumably, from those same Redbrick universities like Keele or East Anglia, and they loudly extolled the “craft” of one of the speakers. 

I wondered how they responded to to the craft employed in creating the building, or whether they even perceived any parallels between the architecture and their own field?  You would assume that people attuned to the subtleties of expression would appreciate the modulation and articulation involved in creating the spaces around them.  Perhaps not.  Earwigging into their conversations, there were offhand comments about the building, mainly grumbling about the flights of stairs, and the vertical distance they had to travel …

From the original Pathfoot building and MacRobert Arts Centre onwards, the campus is laid out in a series of freestanding blocks which cluster around Airthrey Loch, an artificial body of water which, forty years on, looks completely natural.  Fringed with reeds and willows, the loch is home to waterbirds and its flowing, concave curves contrast with the stepping forms of the buildings, suggesting something of Aalto or Pietila.

This is apt, since a composite of the Scandinavian Modernists’ approaches to architecture was what Robert Matthew had in mind when he developed his Scottish Modernism a decade before Stirling.  The timber and rubble masonry approach of the Queens Tower at Dundee University, Crombie Halls at Aberdeen, plus Lochay and Cashlie power stations in Perthshire, developed into the rationalised architecture used here, with steel frames and prefabricated claddings.

The form-making at Stirling is different to those early period Matthew buildings, because RMJM were seeking a less self-conscious sense of Scottishness.  The university is located in a European, rather than Scottish or British, context, and is one of the finest collections of buildings of that era.  It isn’t urbanism, which is the fashionable discipline which students are pointed towards nowadays … instead, it’s about setting modern buildings into the landscape, to complete a unified environment which is neither urban nor rural.

In effect, the University of Stirling is a working model of a much larger community: residential accommodation is within walking distance of the workplace, and cultural facilities sit alongside.  Sports and leisure buildings are equally accessible, and there are good transport links too.  The whole sits within a landscaped park which has a benevolent microclimate, and although the Wallace Monument glowers down on the campus, it’s full of self-conscious symbolism which is far away from the qualities of Airthrey.

The conference ended and the poetry delegates filed up the steps towards the car park.  Unlike Martin Amis’s characterisation of poets – “Poets can’t, don’t, shouldn’t drive.  British poets can’t or don’t drive.  American poets drive, but shouldn’t,” – these were critics and academics, so presumably they did have driving licences.  As they climbed into their new-style Minis and retro-inspired Fiat 500’s, did they realise how Scotland changed in the century which separates the monument and the university?

Or were they in fact more familiar with the Drip Road post office in the Raploch, from which they posted off Wish You Were Here postcards featuring the castle and Wallace Monument, but missed the point completely…?

By • Galleries: independence

Carrying on the theme of Tayside’s shrinking construction industry from my previous article about the demise of Muirfields, I thought it would be worth recording another sector which has virtually disappeared: construction plant manufacturing.

I grew up a mile from Low’s Foundry in Monifieth, a long-established engineering firm which occupied the block between High Street, Reform Street, South Street and Union Street.  After at least a century of manufacturing textile machinery, James F Low (Engineers) Ltd sought to benefit from the post-War building boom, so their trajectory changed around 1955, and they diversified into “Rob Roy” construction plant.

Photo courtesy of Plant wiki

The small amount of information published about the firm concentrates on their textile heritage.  Monifieth Foundry was established by James Low and Robert Fairweather before 1800, and the firm became internationally known for machinery to prepare and finish coarse textiles such as jute, hemp and flax.  At one time Low’s exported to 30 countries and their foundry spread over 15 acres.  Until the 1950’s they made machinery for the many jute mills in Tayside, and were eventually taken over by a company on the Indian sub-continent where much of their machinery was latterly sold and from which raw jute is imported.

While giant yellow bulldozers and full-slew excavators grab the attention, small plant is often overlooked.  Rob Roy’s range was at the lighter end of the spectrum and included site dumper trucks, forklifts, concrete mixers, concrete pumps and vibrating pokers.  Through the post-War years they developed a range along the lines of what the Winget company produces nowadays, and many of their machines were powered by Lister or Petter 2-cylinder diesel engines.  The “Rob Roy” of its name has little or nothing to do with Clan MacGregor but is part of the undercurrent of Walter Scotticism which lasts in Scotland, even to this day.  I guess its use in this context is intended to suggest the same ruggedness as with Albion Motors’ “Claymore”, “Reiver” and “Clydesdale” lorries.

Speaking to folk who worked in the local construction industry during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Rob Roy concrete pumps were prone to break down at the critical moment (“they were buggers of things to choke up”) but otherwise their 4/3 and 5/3 concrete mixers were sturdy and reliable, and their 1/2 yard and 1 yard site dumpers were basic but tough pieces of kit.  As I was growing up, I remember the thumpity-thump of a two-stroke Lister diesel as the Rob Roy dumper trundled around a building site.

However, as with the much larger Vickers conglomerate which I wrote about previously, Rob Roy’s construction plant business proved less profitable than hoped.  While Vickers retreated back to their natural territory, the defence industry, Rob Roy disappeared around 1984 when James F Low went into liquidation.  The site was sold and partly cleared: William Low’s (no relation) built a supermarket on the northern part of the foundry, then a few years later sheltered housing and spec-built villas emerged on the southern side.

With the exception of JCB, which is gradually catching Caterpillar in the battle to become the world’s largest construction plant manufacturer, Britain’s retreat from heavy plant began in the 1980’s and has continued ever since.  Somewhere in the wilds of Lanarkshire are warehouses full of obsolete plant parts bearing names such as Liner, Mortimer, Hymac, Whitlock, Priestman and Massey Ferguson – which are now of value to collectors of classic machinery but little use to the men who use and hire out plant to earn a living.

Priestman were bought over by the owners of Acrow and all their clever design innovations, such as the variable-counterbalance excavator, were lost.  For over 70 years Benford was a leading manufacturer of dumpers, mixers, rollers and compactor plates; they were taken over by Terex in 1999 and the name was dropped.  Ruston Bucyrus became RB Cranes, changed hands, and Langley Holdings eventually closed them down after they succumbed to the 2008 recession.  Barford has similarly disappeared in the past few years.

In Scotland, Hydrocon Cranes of Coatbridge were a major manufacturer of off-road mobile cranes.
As their name suggests, they pioneered hydraulic cranes but their former factory is now part of the industrial museum at Summerlee.  As another example, while I was researching the brick industry for an article a couple of years ago, I discovered that Mitchell Engineering of Cambuslang were once in the major league of brick-making machinery manufacturers, but they went out of that business as the Scottish brickmaking industry shrank.  It continued to shrink, until as it stands today there’s only one active brickworks, and a handful of abandoned sites.

Before you reach for the whisky and raise a toast entitled, “Sympathy for the Construction Industry”, there are some heavy plant success stories in Scotland.  McPhee Brothers of Blantyre build concrete truckmixers and Albion Motors still exists too, in the form of Albion Automotive who build lorry transmissions in South Street, Glasgow.

As for Rob Roy, it’s unlikely that any of their machines have been preserved in museums, but some are still to be found lurking in the overgrown yards of small contractors.  A rusty Rob Roy 1/2 yard dumper lay, unused and unloved, in the flood plain of the Gowrie Burn until recently, when a small developer began building a clutch of houses on the site.  Presumably the dumper went off to the great scrapyard in the sky, perhaps via one of Morris Leslie’s epic autojumble auctions at Errol.

If anyone has any promotional material, brochures, photos or memories of James F Low and Rob Roy, please get in touch.

By • Galleries: independence

“Strome Ferry - No Ferry” is one of the best-known roadsigns in Scotland.  It owes its fame to Iain Banks’ novel Complicity, which was published 20 years ago; Strome Ferry’s glory days were long gone by then.  Strome prospered during the 1970’s, when Howard Doris built enormous oil production platforms at Kishorn – but when the oil work dried up, the village shrank and eventually the hotel at Strome Ferry burned down.

I stayed at Strome for a wee while in the mid 1990’s, where I made the acquaintance of an interesting guy who we’ll also call Iain.*

Iain arrived there as an electronics technician with Marconi, working on the torpedo range at Kyle.  In his spare time, he built computers.  His current project was a strange Sharmanka-like object, with Motorola 68k processors slotted into an armature consisting of bits of metal.  It sat close to an open fire and breathed in wood smoke and rollie-up fumes all day.  The computer didn’t “do” anything in particular, it just sat there running a language called Forth and executing the bits of code which Iain compiled.

Iain’s vocation was electronics, but his day job was as a self-employed joiner, doing small works, house extensions, erecting timber kits and that sort of thing.

I stopped at Strome while travelling around the edge of Scotland and within minutes of arriving, Iain was quizzing me gleefully about the joist depths required to span his living room.  At first I was taken aback by the vehemence of his opinions – he had at least 25 years on me, and his points were well made because they were well-rehearsed – but as I reflected on them and got to know him better, I understood his viewpoint. 

He was determined to prove that university education left an architect ill-equipped to do the kind of work he did.  That’s probably true – at university and afterwards I learned about industrialised systems, crosswall construction and sway frames.  Over the next 15 years, most buildings I’ve worked on have been steel-framed with Holorib decks, plus one concrete frame and a couple of composite SIP-type timber kits plus a few random glulam beams thrown in.

At the moment I’m grappling with a set of Bison floors which the contractor seems to think will be cheaper and faster to erect and finish than Holorib with pumped concrete.  He is alone in thinking that.  Perhaps he has shares in Bison.  Anyhow, in rural areas the constructional specialisation of the city isn’t practical, so someone like Iain thrives on being able to turn his hand to any traditional or so-called “rationalised traditional" buildings. 

Hopefully our education equips us to be both a technical architect and a design architect; I think you need to be both these things if you’re going to practice successfully and realise your ideas.  However, Iain’s argument went that you don’t need an architect at all to build extensions to vernacular houses.  Fair point.  But it seems you don’t need a “builder” either.

It still baffles me that the rural building industry casually recruits people like Iain in the way it does.  Why does anyone “practical” feel that they can take up building work?  After all, there couldn’t be traffic in the other direction – few joiners or brickies would tackle re-progamming a Tigerfish torpedo’s guidance computer.  Perhaps Iain is right and the profession’s expertise is too narrow; maybe the professional has strayed too far from the practicalities of the self-builder Walter Segal or the enthusiasts at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. 

Perhaps it’s a good thing that rural handyfolk can turn their hand so readily to building houses.  This democracy of sorts is only made possible by the timber kit, since more skill is needed to build in stone than to nail stud frames together.  As for the the pious hope that this universal access to building might lead to adequate and affordable rural housing, there isn’t an architectural solution to that issue: it’s a political, economic and land tenure problem.

As I said cheerio to Iain and his partner, she was thinking of foreign air travel, and his head was buried in the footwell of his Rover 800, sorting out a problem with its ECU (black box) in order that they could get to the airport at Dalcross a few days later.  As for his homebuilt computer, it may still be running “Forth”, and I still have the pamphlet about the Forth Interest Group plus a little book about Motorola 68k instruction sets which Iain gave me as a leaving present. 

The computer will probably outlive the Rover, and the house extensions he built will outlast them both…

* - In the spirit of the late Iain Banks, the people and places portrayed in this piece are fictitious, and any resemblance to real life is a mere coincidence.

By • Galleries: independence

Architectural education is broken. How many times have we heard that?

Usually we hear it from partners in architectural practices who take on a graduate – then realise how much technical ground they need to cover before the graduate becomes useful as a fee-earning drone.  But an architecture degree isn’t a vocational course which only teaches you how to detail buildings so that the water stays out and the heat stays in.  If it teaches you to think, you’ll be able to solve technical problems which haven’t even been conceived yet.

Sometimes we listen to the cry from students who decide that architecture isn’t for them – the stress of deadlines and crits weighs heavily, especially if you’ve left home for the first time, are struggling to earn money in a part-time job, also grappling with the subject of architecture – and trying to have a life, too.  For others the attractions of skateboarding, smoking joints and partying are too great.

Occasionally other voices are heard.  This piece was partly inspired by a chance discovery on the internet: I found someone railing against architectural education by mounting a campaign on the web.  They identified a high rate of re-sits and drop-outs from Part II architecture courses in the UK, and have used freedom of information requests to glean what they can from the architecture schools.

I suspect the campaigner has their own motivation for campaigning, years after they left the education system.  I believe they stumbled on the right conclusions, but for the wrong reasons; the F.O.I. figures themselves are only a symptom, not the cause, of people failing architecture.  Set against the campaign are thousands of staff in Britain’s architecture schools, and I fear the campaigner is standing outside the tent pissing in, whereas they might achieve more by climbing inside and pissing outwards.

Regardless, partners, students, campaigners alike are all asking the wrong question.  Access to education in the first place is a bigger issue.  You can only make something of the architecture course, or realise it’s not for you, once you get through the front door. 

During the mid-1990’s, one of my fellow students came from the Ardler area of Dundee – a large housing scheme with a mix of council, housing association and private houses.  Back in the day it had a poor reputation, although as the tower blocks came down and the area was regenerated, that improved.  At her interview to get onto the architecture course, my friend was told, “We don’t get many folk from your background here”.

The lecturer’s comment has haunted me for years.  It reflects the fact that the architecture school is a middle class ghetto.   We no longer accept discrimination on the basis of gender, colour or creed – and during the 1990’s we were told that society would become more egalitarian.  Still, access to education in today’s Britain comes down to your parents having the money to pay for it.

The student grant withered under Thatcher and finally died during the early 1990’s.  Student Loans followed, and now tuition fees and graduate taxes affect other parts of Britain.  In an egalitarian society, you’d expect that the profession would have men and women from every social background.  But I have a horrible feeling that increasingly those who study architecture, and those for whom they design, are a privileged few.

Beyond the observation that access to education costs money, the problem is more fundamental.  It’s actually access to literacy.  A few times, I’ve visited someone and discovered that their children are being brought up in a house without books.  I crumble inside when I see that.  To progress in the world you have to break into the formidable cartel which literacy and scholarship has built over the past few centuries.

A study published in the journal “Research Stratification and Mobility” (2010) found that having books around the house, even unread, correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete.  Living with 500 or more books was as great an advantage of having university-educated parents.  But both university education and books correlate more strongly with family income now, than they did twenty or thirty years ago.

Education is a road in to civilisation, because it provides us with the necessary intellectual and cultural equipment to take part in society.  As Richard Hoggart's “The Uses of Literacy” points out, it also enable you to have some influence over the course of your own life.  So if we reach a point where no-one from lower income families makes it into architecture school, then architecture schools haven’t failed (as the campaigner thinks) – but society has failed.

That is the most scandalous waste of all: not to drop out aged 21 when the course gets too tough, nor that you struggle at 18 to pay for university, but that as a child of four or five years old, your chances of entering further education are already slim.  The biggest problem with architectural education isn’t how the courses are run – but that access to them has little to do with talent or aptitude.

By • Galleries: independence

Smell is an under-rated sense and one we rarely deploy when thinking about architecture.  We’re trained to think visually, with some understanding of tactile things, too.  Form, scale, mass, light and shade are understood and described in a sophisticated and nuanced way, because we deal with them constantly.

Nevertheless, smell is inescapable.  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, growled Kilgore in Apocalypse Now.  That association may never leave American soldiers who served in Vietnam.  Similarly, architecture goes well beyond the visual.

When the exhibition "Beauty and Waste in the Architecture of Herzog & De Meuron" was staged at the Netherlands Architecture Institute in 2005, the architects created a limited edition perfume called Rotterdam, which listed Rhine water, dog, hashish, algae, vin chaud, fur and tangerine amongst its components.  “Since architecture itself cannot be exhibited,” said Jacques Herzog, “we are forever compelled to find substitutes."  So they collaborated with a perfumer to fill that void.

Peter Zumthor also touched on the notion of architecture being broader than that in his RIBA Gold Medal address in 2013. “Architecture is not about form, it is about many other things,” he said. “The light and the use, and the structure, and the shadow, the smell and so on.”  Yet most smells are by-products of something else.  They just happen, rather than being designed.

That’s one difference between buildings and people: people make a conscious decision to smell a particular way.  They design themselves, when it comes to aftershave or perfume.  Today the desire to own a few drops of liquid sophistication is what supports a £15-billion-a-year fragrance industry.  Its results are tangible - often overpowering - yet rather subjective.  Smells aren’t easy to define, beyond a concentration of parts per million (ppm) of many different chemicals in the air. 

Sound, temperature and humidity in the air are measured in a scientific way; but smell itself is fugitive and the palette, or perhaps palate, required to describe it requires discrimination.  It’s defined using a series of words: the whisky nose, the wine buff, the perfume connoisseur each have their exclusive vocabulary.

Perhaps it should be simpler; after all, smell is universal.  Whether the scents which take you back to childhood such the cedarwood of a sharpened pencil, or deep in a forest after the rain with wet moss, pine needles and lots of oxygen released into the air, smell is about analogy, and perfumers design scents to evoke these and many other different things.

In fact, scent is literally a chemical analogue of a real thing.  Sea salt and ozone are evoked using calzone, the strong scent of the bitter orange is represented by petitgrain, and the muskiness of a furry creature crawling from its den comes from castoreum or civet.  There are also the manly smells which work their way into cologne: the aromatics and aldehydes in whisky; or the leathery smell of upholstery and farriers’ shops which inspired “cuir de russie”.

Buildings might also be designed to smell a particular way - if you lined a room with cedarwood panels or floored it with linoleum for the express purpose of spreading the material’s scent.  We’re drawn to organic smells, which are wired into our ancestral memory.  We feel an affinity towards timber smells - oak tannin, pinewood, cedar - and earth smells such as terracotta, stucco and concrete.  Perhaps there’s a receptor in our brain which recalls the smells of medieval houses, the huts before them, then way back to prehistoric caves and forest shelters.

Although we consider that an unoccupied space is empty – aside from its furniture and fittings, the mass of air inside the building picks up aroma because when you sense a smell, you’re actually breathing in molecules of the building material themselves.  You may even savour the smell of new buildings.  Outside, the smell of wet subsoil and the acrid exhaust of a heavy plant, plus sharp bursts of burning powder from the Hilti gun.

Inside, freshly-ripped softwood gives you the crisp smell of pine as the resin oozes from its sap, then there’s the sharp, limey, bitter smell of new concrete as it cures, and the complex formaldehydes of carpet tiles as they off-gas.  Once occupied, the building’s materials settle into the background, providing what perfumers call a “base note” - while a shrill mixture of furniture polish, toilet cleaner and air freshener hits you when you come through the door.

Those are the scents of individual buildings, which combine into a city-wide smell.  That can be just as distinctive and as someone else said, Paris is the capital of smell.  Balzac, perhaps: “Tout parfum est une combinaison d’air et de lumiere.”  Many of the worlds’ great perfume houses grew up there, in grand townhouses off Hausmann’s boulevardes.  From the giants of perfumery owned by LVMH, to the niche firms such as Creed or Diptyque, to the candlemakers, Cire Trudon.  Given the Parisian sensibility, it’s no surprise that Parisians are stimulated by the noxious as well as the sweet. 

One of the most unflattering descriptions was La Morandière’s description of the Palace of Versailles - “The cesspool that adjoins the palace, the park, the gardens, even the castle catches one’s breath with its stinking odours. The paths, the courtyards, the wings of the buildings, the hallways are filled with urine and fecal matter even at the very feet of the ministerial wing, a butcher bleeds and grills his pork every morning, the St. Cloud Avenue is covered with sewer water and dead cats.″

Yet you can combat the latter quite easily.  During the Middle Ages, herbs such as chamomile, meadowsweet and lavender were strewn on the ground to give off a sweet smell when trampled, which grew into the Corpus Domini ritual of the flower-carpeted street.  Sweet woodruff was hung from kirk rafters, rosemary was burned in hospitals to purify the air, and fires of juniper and laurel branches were lit in city squares during epidemics.

Trees such as cedar, juniper, thuya and laurel are fragrant thanks to their essential oils, which also repel insects and offer some measure of rot-resistance.  Using them, plus the first man-made olfactories which we synthesised in Victorian times, we attempted to sanitise the city.  Centuries later, we’ve got rid of the smells of horse manure, industrial effluent and latterly vehicle exhaust: yet if you walk through Glasgow, Manchester, Dublin or any other large city today, the impression you still gain is one of rancid piss, unemptied bins and sour drains.

The voiceover man in a recent documentary about Glasgow’s Duke Street, which is Britain’s longest pointed out, “Dirt, filth, stench everywhere - and believe me, there are back courts just as bad as this throughout Glasgow.” When we used fragrant plants to mask those bad smells, that was a reductive use of scent.  By contrast, modern cities bombard us with additive smells. 

Supermarkets smell a particular way for carefully calculated reasons.  Just as they fine-tune the colour temperature of lighting over the fruit displays, and control the volume and tempo of music (Mahler works better than Metallica if you want wine buyers to linger in the Reisling aisle), then the yeasty pastry smell which meets you at the door of Waitrose was designed that way.  Similarly, Starbucks, Walt Disney and Dunkin Donuts are reputed to carry out environmental conditioning to “enhance the visitor experience”, ie. using smells to sell more stuff.

This enhancement by scent in buildings isn’t a new idea … in fact, we rarely come across genuinely new ideas – and when we do, we dismiss them too readily because they strike us as sorts with the way we already understand the world.  For example, where I grew up there were lots of invisible boundaries.  One was the postcode boundary between suburb and countryside, another the catchment line which separated neighbouring primary schools.  A subtler one was the Clean Air Act line: houses on one side were built in the 1960’s and had at least one chimney.  On the other side, nae lums. 

Before central heating banished smoke from our houses, wood fires scented the house and folk with fireplaces, who ignore them throughout the rest of the year, often make up a fire at Christmas time with pine logs.  Pine smoke is a welcoming, festive smell… which is now so unfamiliar in the city that we have to visit the grandparents to enjoy the sweet smell of kindling and the acrid smell of bituminous coal banked up in the grate.

Perhaps the Clean Air Act was a turning point, during some otherwise unremarkable year in the 1960’s when the city smelt a little more sterile, ironically just as the perfume houses released all those potent musk colognes and patchouli perfumes which our parents began wearing.  Simultaneously, the 1950’s world of coal gas and soot, bleach and carbolic, Woodbines and Izal receded into memory.

The more strongly individuals smell, the more architecture collectively fades into the background.  Perhaps that’s another difference between buildings and people.

I’ll return to this again in future, as I’m interested in what the future looks like, and smells like…

By • Galleries: independence

I wrote this when I visited the smouldering remains of the Mac a few weeks ago, although I didn’t get around to posting it until now as we were away in Ireland (trying to avoid the World Cup, in the same manner as Brazil's goalkeeper wishes he could have).

Even now, a week later, the smell of fire hangs in the air. 

Things look normal from Dalhousie Street, but Renfrew Street is filled by a giant mobile crane, its outriggers stretching from pavement to pavement.  Scott Street is barricaded off, and Reigart Demolition are already working on the dampened-down shell of the library.  

Saturday afternoon strollers peer through the Heras fence panels at the crane and a skylift platform parked alongside it.  Tourists take photos on their iPhones as the crane takes down the library tower, one block at a time.  A couple of men hang suspended in the basket of the lift, 100 feet up, slinging the stones and directing the crane driver.

The parapet above the library’s oriel windows, at the western gable end of the building, was badly damaged in the fire.  Each tiny piece of ashlar is lifted from its bed of lime mortar then descends, growing all the time until it becomes a metre-long block of sandstone which is landed gently on a pallet.  One of Reigart’s men notes that none of the blocks weigh more than 200kg – otherwise an even larger crane would have been required.

From my vantage point on top of a wall, I spot a couple of local worthies approaching.  One is like a middle-aged Anthony Burgess, whose features have compressed over the course of a hard life.  He has pouches under his eyes and broad cheeks which have slumped into large jowls.  Despite the sunshine his companion wears a greatcoat, and has a wild beard and sparkling eyes.  They are out for their Saturday constitutional, in between pit stops.

The bearded chap glanced sideways at me -
Ye ken what did it?
I’d heard it was a slide projector which went on fire, after a lump of foam landed on it.
He shook his head.
“A lassie in the toilets - smokin’ a fag - it’ll be in aa the papers!
In the papers?
He looked questioningly at my camera, then me.
“Are you fae the Evening Times?”  Shake of head.  “The Herald?”  Nope. 
I have met Peter Ross, of Daunderlust fame, though, and he notes that Glasgow may be the only European city to have once been home to more than a million people, but to now have fewer than that. 

That should give both of these worthies, the School of Art’s governors, and the City Fathers something else to worry about.  Glasgow’s tax base, how it projects itself, and its future are at stake – think for example of the “Scotland with Style” banner which hung incongruously next to the derelict shell of Gray Dunn’s biscuit factory on the Southside.

The bearded chap isn’t impressed by my analysis.
“What’s your interest then son?” 
I replied that I just wanted to see the devastation for myself.
He scrutinises me.
“Take it easy my man” he declares finally, as the two wander off up Dalhousie Street, arguing about how the Scottish education system should be funded…

Hopefully the restoration is swift and true.  No-one wants to see a burned-out husk where Macintosh’s best work once stood.

By • Galleries: independence

How the web flattens out architectural history

Shearer and Annand were an important and long-established Scottish practice, who dissolved in 1994 – the year the World Wide Web was created.  I worked for them when I left school – my first job, during the long summer when Acid House reigned and the Stone Roses ruled the radio.  Shearer & Annand had almost reached the end of the architectural practice lifecycle by then, and worked from an office in Maygate, the old quarter of Dunfermline, along with a branch office in Broughty Ferry. 

I sat there, beside a dormer window overlooking Brook Street on a creaky drafting stool and answered the phone, traced simple details using a drafting machine, and took dyeline prints.  The diazo machine sat in an ammonia-reeking back room lined with old product literature and was literally eye-watering … I can just about remember “linens” (really plastic film) and brown-tinted copy negs.  All the time spent in that office, had a primitive fax machine and a borrowed xerox machine in the foreground, and a background of tomorrow’s music.

Lairg Power Station, Shearer & Annand

During lunchtimes, I worked my way through a large stack of unread AJ’s – from the days when Patrick Hannay’s building reviews alone made it worth reading, and both the strong monochrome photos of urban decay, and vivid colour portraits of new buildings impressed themselves on my receptive mind.  Everything was new to me, and in retrospect I learned far more from my time at Shearer & Annand than I gave credit for at the time: yet I had no idea of Shearer and Annands’ history, or their significance in 1950’s and 1960’s Scottish architecture. 

That came many years later, when I read about James Shearer’s work for the Hydro Board and came to strongly identify with his approach.  Marcus Johnston and Gordon Withers wound up the practice four years after I left, so Shearer & Annand exist now only in a virtual sense; the RCAHMS have preserved their archive, and part of it has been placed on line thanks to the Scottish Architects’ Papers preservation project.  A limited amount of material by them and about them is available on the web – given my connection, I thought it would be worthwhile finding out more.

Aigas Power Station, Shearer & Annand

A few weeks ago, I travelled into a parallel world where the remains of the practice exist in aspic.  In RCAHMS’s archive, there are buff card folders full of cream-coloured bond paper and yellow carbon copies – the letters transcribed onto them are typed in the articulate, exact language which business was conducted in during the 1950’s and ‘60’s.  Not any more.  Also gone is our ability to specify in poetic terms like James Shearer could:
“Facework to be random rubble not exceeding 11” high, and except where pinning is necessary, not less than 4”.  No stone to exceed 180 square inches in area, or to be less than 5” thick on bed.  Stone to be quarry-split, with only a moderate amount of tooling to dress off large projections.  One deep bond stone to every superficial yard of surface; and inbands and outbands to external corners to be brought to courses.  Joints to be raked out 3/4” deep, flush pointed, and wiped with a rubber pad.”

James Shearer tried very hard to make modern buildings which were intrinsically Scottish, and he succeeded in capturing the magical massing and proportions, along with using the right materials for his work’s setting.  He was one of several consultants to the Hydro Board, but after the deaths of Tarbolton and Fairlie (in 1947 and 1953 respectively), he landed a number of large commissions.  In fact, his client Edward MacColl (the chairman of NoSHEB) and he travelled around the Highlands together, looking at exposed concrete and natural stone, to see which weathered best.

Achanalt Power Station, Shearer & Annand

David Walker, the architectural historian, characterised James Shearer as an Edwardian character, a slim man who wore a brown suit, high-laced boots and a broad-brimmed felt hat.  Hence Shearer & Annand – their work and the men themselves – have been portrayed by architectural historians, rather than by Shearer and Annand.  That may not matter, yet it does if we have any doubt about how accurately the web portrays them.  Had they stayed in business as a practice, there’s no doubt that a website would have been commissioned at some point, although it may only have featured their recent work.  Architects’ websites are promotional tools rather than archival documents, and this often gives them the taint of public relations; more noticeably, they are often myopic.  With only a few exceptions, a practice’s more recent works take precedence, and history is flattened out.

There are many firms in Scotland with antecedents stretching back half a century, but the current protagonists have a bias towards recent memory.  The past is a foreign country, and all that … if you look at RMJM’s or Reiach & Hall’s websites.  This selective view of practice hangs in the ether, picking up links and perhaps even gaining credibility.  From there, context is rapidly lost, and we head towards a place where posterity is served by a top ranking on Google.  The website’s potential to act as an ongoing recording device, capturing architecture as it happens and holding it there for the future, remains untapped.  Provided with a suitable bit of software which serves the web pages in a suitable format – the web is moving from HTML towards XML – the information could sit on a secure server and remain accessible for as long as the web is.

Plas Menai, Bowen Dann Davies

Equally telling is what happens if you have no profile at all.  A while ago, I became interested in a Welsh practice called Bowen Dann Davies, after coming across a passing reference to them.  By coincidence, their architecture has similarities to Shearer and Annand’s: pitched roof, stone facings, and accretive massing.  As I knew very little about recent architecture in Wales, I turned to the internet for information, particularly on their National Watersports Centre, Plas Menai. 

Web searches and queries turned up next to nothing about the practice itself, until eventually a link tucked away in an obscure part of a large database brought me to the architects’ homepage.  They’re now called Bowen Dann Knox, and their presence on the web means little if it is so well hidden that people can’t find it.  I guess they haven’t submitted it to search engines, although their work deserves to be better known.  The website can’t act as a promotional tool, far less a documentary source, if no one can find it.

Conwy Castle Visitor Centre, Bowen Dann Davies

Today, the internet presents a cavalcade of history: Beethoven bops with Blondie, Robert the Bruce batters Francis Begbie, Felix the Cat smokes Snoop Dogg – and if you look closely enough, all of human life is here.  If that’s the perception, it’s a misconception.  In fact, plenty of architects still don’t have a website – for instance, the Adam Brothers never got around to uploading theirs – and many of those who do, haven’t asked the most important question.  “What’s this for?”

As before, all photos were taken by Mark Chalmers, and all are copyright.

By • Galleries: independence