Gallery: "independence"

The fire at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s gesamtkunstwerk on Renfrew Street on 23rd May 2014 was quite unlike the everyday disasters we see on television.  Those usually afflict people in other countries, wrecking their lives through the action of cyclones, tsunami, or a hail of bullets.  On Friday the western end of the School of Art, including its beautiful library, was gutted by fire.

Thankfully no-one was injured, but the building and its contents were seriously damaged – by the flames then the thousands of gallons of water which quickly followed.  It’s especially bad luck, since the School of Art was due to fit the building with a fire suppression system in the next few months.  Also, with the degree show approaching, many students had brought all their work in for assessment.  The timing couldn’t have been worse.

Mackintosh’s biographers have portrayed the man as being unlucky.  By the late 20th century, he was held to be a prophet without honour in Scotland, who firstly went into exile in Suffolk, then latterly to the south of France.  But for ill fortune and circumstances, Mackintosh could have been a prolific genius in the Wright or Corb mould.  That’s an assertion which people have argued about for decades.

However, there’s no disputing the fact that Mackintosh’s buildings have suffered even worse fortune. 

The Hill House had to be rescued from dereliction in the early 1980’s, with a helping hand from the RIAS.  Queen’s Cross Church was converted into a visitor centre after it was abandoned as a kirk.  The House for an Art Lover was stillborn, although it was eventually built on a different site to serve a different role.  The Tenement House was rescued from motorway bulldozers and transplanted into William Whitfield’s Hunterian Museum.  Now Glasgow School of Art has suffered a catastrophe.

Heartbreaking as it is, the fire proves several things.  In a moment, it rendered insignificant Steven Holl’s new Reid Building across the street.  No-one cares how good that might be, when faced with the destruction of Mackintosh’s original.  The new building would always be in the older building’s shadow, now it will become a home for the fire’s refugees, rather than a building in its own right.

Mackintosh achieved the seeming impossible, by creating a modern architecture which was intrinsically Scottish – without pastiche, caricature or the kind of ersatz baronialism which consigned attempts from Abbotsford to the Scandic Crown Hotel to the dustbin of history.  No-one since Mackintosh has built a convincingly modern Scottish building.  James Shearer, Robert Hurd, Page & Park and Crichton Wood have tried; Robert Matthew came closest.

At the same time, Mackintosh was a romantic renegade, to use Tony Dugdale’s phrase.  His was a synthesising intellect and he was a creative individual, rather than a design committee in the modern fashion.  His exile came at the height of his creative powers, and the parabolic curve of his career – from *that* portrait with louche moustache and floppy cravat, to an early death – combined to mythologise him.  It also granted him immortality, as it did for Lord Byron and Jim Morrison.

Mackintosh had to manage a difficult site on a steep slope, a restricted budget and an ambitious client.  The School of Art surmounted those problems, and became an integral part of the neighbourhood.  The fringes and skater shoes of the art students flow into a rolling sea of neds with IrnBru cans on Sauchiehall Street, genteel waves of patrons for the CCA and Cooper Hay, (Scotland’s poshest book dealer), plus the ebb tide of Blythswood with its dubious night-time economy.

Few architects understand how light works, particularly the watery light of Clydeside, as well as Mackintosh.  The impact of the sequence of rooms in the Hill House – the grand reveal as you enter the Tenement House – and especially the sequence which leads you into Glasgow School of Art’s library – demonstrates Mackintosh’s mastery of it.   When you walk into one of those spaces, the birse on the back of your neck stands up, you get goose-bumps and you stand silently, trying to figure out how Mackintosh did it.

He may have spawned a CRM repro industry, but unlike the “Mockintosh” designers who stole his clothes during the 80’s, it seems Mackintosh built well.  It’s little surprise that the fire caught quickly then raged for hours: the building was lined with old dry wood, and the students’ turps, canvas and paper fed a fire which reached high temperatures.  We’re told that 90% of the building fabric can be saved – despite the crimson flames which leapt from the windows and through the roof of the library. 

It’s certain that the School of Art will be rebuilt swiftly and faithfully; Mackintosh’s stature and its A-Listing guarantees that.  The less imaginative will speak about a phoenix on Renfrew Street, but it will never be the same; even the most faithful rebuilding is still a reproduction job.  The masonry can probably be salvaged; the windows probably can’t be.  Timber will need to be matched up, and the decorative work will need painstaking restoration.

Technically speaking, perhaps the timber can be treated with “Aquafire” or “HR Prof” to fire-proof it; a VESDA system could be installed to provide early warning of a future fire; and the School of Art could be plumbed for sprinklers, as had been intended later this year.  Eventually, it will be reopened and the new work will gradually tone down towards what remains of Mackintosh’s original.

Why is it worth all this effort?

Standing on the sidelines of an Andy & Isi crit in the Bourdon Building during the late 1990’s, I reflected on why we train architects in ugly, dismal and poorly-articulated buildings.  By contrast, the Mackintosh building is the best teaching tool an architecture student or tutor could have on their blonde sandstone doorstep.  Hopefully the restoration of the School of Art will reveal the anatomy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s genius to a new generation.

Meantime, the first task for Simpson & Brown, or whoever gets the job of restoring Glasgow School of Art, will be to order up a large tanker of good luck for 167 Renfrew Street.

By • Galleries: independence

I began writing this in the attic bedroom of a 300 year old farmhouse in the Forest of Dean.  After dark, I looked out from a dormer between the oak beams: clouds flitted across the moon and night birds called from the Severn mudflats.  It was an idyllic place, although its peace was bought with remoteness.

The farmhouse sits at the end of a long, bumpy track which begins with a BT payphone.  The phone box is filled with giant nettles, and the glass is opaque with mould, but at least the handset is still working.  The callbox is a reflection of what happens when nationalised industries reach the private sector: the unprofitable bits are pruned or left to wither. 

In the hazy distance are pairs of giant pylons which carry power lines in a graceful arc across the Severn – in this rural context, they’re a first hint of the industrialised countryside – and a few miles up the road lies the former Coal Research Establishment.  The CRE was the research & development arm of the mighty National Coal Board, which once employed 700,000 men and kept British industry alive.

Perhaps our minds are wired such that we recognise cognate facts and repeating themes, but every few months I come across the work of CRE’s unlikely leader, Jacob Bronowski, in unlikely places.  Bronowski came to public attention as one of the surly academics who Newman & Baddiel later satirised in their TV series.  “That’s your best idea, that is…” was loosely based on The Brains Trust – a series of televised debates during the 1970’s in which academics battled each others’ rhetoric. 

In fact, those debates epitomised the way in which some academics take facts and spin them into whatever argument they want to make.  They then spend their working lives arguing with fellow academics over who is right, and who is wrong.  Arguably, The Brains Trust did individual reputations a great deal of good, but confirmed that academics in general often pursue a personal rather than a socially useful agenda.

However, Bronowski came from a different tradition.  His influence grew from his work during World War Two, and its reinvention in the post-war Socialist world.  The wartime work was known as “Operational Research” – which I wrote about previously for Urban Realm in the context of the Glen Fruin Torpedo Tank.  His later career was with the Coal Research Establishment, where the National Coal Board developed things like “fluidised bed” combustion, which is now used in power stations across the world. 

Another project was a coal-powered motor car…  I know that I wasn’t the only one to pass through the village of Stoke Orchard in search of the mythical coal-burning Torano, and now that the CRE has been demolished, I can safely admit that someone within my circle took an adjustable wrench and unbolted several doors – but left no further forward in his search.  Presumably it was locked in a shed somewhere.

While the CRE experimented with coal liquefaction, its counterpart in Scotland known as the Westfield Development Centre, developed coal gasification.  Using a so-called Lurgi plant, low-grade coal was converted into gas and coke under steam pressure.  Like the CRE, Westfield now stands abandoned, a rotting hulk on the road to Cardenden which belies an investment of the hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Brains Trust had long since gone by the time I started architecture school.  Instead, we watched Bronowski’s later work, The Ascent of Man, a magisterial series of documentaries about mankind’s evolution.  I imagine it was screened in an attempt to make rational humanists of us; I fear that was only a partial success.  Our history lecturer – a wry bearded man who gently communicated his disappointment in how thick we were – left us to make our own connections between Bronowski’s broad canvas, and the task at hand.

Jacob Bronowski clearly understood the dilemma of the Two Cultures, how art and science often conflict, and occasionally come together, as in the case of architecture.  Bronowski also fought to escape from the long shadow of Arthur Koestler, whose “The Ghost in the Machine” was one of the post-War world’s most influential books and the bane of other émigré thinkers.  He succeeded: Bronowski became a coal-powered philosopher who showed us the limits of history.

History does sometimes change things.  Stuff is dug up, secrets are revealed - but the careless reinvention of history is dangerous, because all too often it uses modern thinking and applies it to the same facts in an age when people did not think in a modern way.  Some today, for example, argue that the huge post-War expansion of coal mining was mistaken.  No-one thought that at the time.  That’s the power of post-rationalisation.

In defence of history, we can use it to explain why previous generations pursued aims that we now deem to be wrong … and perhaps it would be wise for us to think more about what we are doing now, and how history might judge that.  The past does have lessons for the future.  In the case of Bronowski, he applied the wartime methods of Operational Research to the peacetime extraction of coal.

O.R. studied the scientific and economic context of coal production and combustion, but largely ignored the surface traces of coal-getting.  As an example, look at what happened to Selby: the largest deep coal mining complex in the world.  A vast seam of coal sat under the Vale of York, but locals cried out that the countryside would be “industrialised” if collieries were constructed in it.  So the NCB built collieries which were disguised so that they didn’t look like collieries at all.

By the 1950’s, the skeletal frames of colliery headgear which we associate with Victorian collieries had been supplanted by giant concrete shafts.  As elements in the landscape, they echo church bell towers and the keeps of medieval castles.  The arrangement at Selby was the next step in the winding tower’s evolution, and each steel-framed winder was clad in mellow-coloured brick, in order to sit harmoniously within the rolling farmland of the Vale of York.  I suspect the winding towers were designed by the PSA (Property Services Agency).

Mining was controlled by a system called “MINOS”, running on Ferranti computers – its designers pursued the Coal Board’s dream of automated coal mining, which was first tried out in the late 1950’s remotely-operated loading face (ROLF) projects in Nottinghamshire.  ROLF was a good example of Operational Research being applied to technical problems; perhaps it should have considered architecture and landscape, too. 

The miners of Fife, the Welsh Valleys or South Yorkshire may have scoffed – but fitting a new deep mining complex into a rural setting was a constraint, much the same as geologists struggled with cyclic deformation of the rock strata at Selby, and British Coal’s sales teams fought to win markets for the coal won underground.  The visual impact of the Selby Complex, as the cluster of deep coal mines was known, consisted of a number of satellite pit heads which were used to take men, materials and machinery down to the working faces.  However, there was only one spoil heap and one coal washery, sited next to the main drifts at Gascoigne Wood.  Haulage by rail lessened the destructive impact of heavy lorries on rural roads, and all the sites were screened by berms and planting.

Sylvia Crowe was perhaps the first designer to look critically at how industrial developments could sit happily beyond the urban edge.  Crowe looked at building in the context of wilderness, such as Basil Spence’s nuclear power station at Trawsfynnyd in Wales, as well as cultivated landscapes similar to the Vale of York.  Half a century later, we recognise that extractive and generating industries must have their place, but a combination of pollution laws, pressure from environmental groups, low prices for coal and a lack of subsidy, plus the politics of the 1980’s mean that deep-mined coal has shrunk to a rump of half a dozen collieries.

Selby was the last great gasp of King Coal: when it closed a decade ago, a couple of billion tons of high grade coal were abandoned underground.  Perhaps we’ll go back one day to recover it.  A few years later, after a series of visits to coal mines throughout Britain, I had a better appreciation for British Coal’s architecture.  I wrote about Longannet, Harworth, Clipstone and Tower on – although like the miners’ jobs, those pieces have long since disappeared.

Just like the overgrown phonebox at the end of the bumpy track, the coal industry suffered once it left the public sector, after which a promising line of inquiry into how to integrate industrial buildings in the countryside stopped dead.  Meantime shale gas comes from a similar geology to Selby’s coal, and its extraction inevitably means building industrial plant in rural areas.  The new coal mines of the 1980’s, like the windfarms of the 2000’s and the shale gas operations being planned today for the 2020’s, all have that in common.

Perhaps we need to apply Operational Research to the “problem” of extractive design in the landscape?  That we don’t have a solution to the industrialised countryside is Thatcher’s legacy to the formerly Great Britain.  But, thanks to Jacob Bronowski, we do have the tools we need, should coal enjoy a renaissance at some point in future…

By • Galleries: independence

Happy New Year.  By all accounts, 2014 will be an important one, so I'd like to mention a few of the issues which will hopefully emerge in the next few months.  First off is our architectural identity, which is inextricably tied up with the definition of nationality, and that of course is up for debate.

Nationality means little once you realise that folk are the same the world over.  Welsh, Scots, English, Irish – we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns.  By contrast, places are distinct, as are the buildings which emerge from them.  Architecture is influenced by local materials, climate, tradition and so on, and we should celebrate the variety that creates.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to convince ourselves: witness Carol Craig’s recent book, The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence.  Some architects feel uneasy about overt Scottishness, perhaps scared to appear parochial, yet previous generations including Mackintosh, Lorimer and Hurd suffered no such hang-ups.  Do the detractors fear an outbreak of crowsteps?  No danger – because as Richard Murphy said, Scottish architecture is not about a national style.

Instead, it’s an approach.  The “stern exterior with a sensual interior” which Carl MacDougall identified in Painting the Forth Bridge, is typically Scots.  Likewise, the courtyard form, the re-entrant angle, deep-revealed windows in massive walls, and pitched roofs with skew parapets evolved in response to particular conditions.  Individually, few of these are unique to Scotland, but in combination they became characteristic.

The notion of Scottishness applies on a city-wide scale, too: our tenement blocks constructed from stone are quite different to the brick-built terraces typically found south of the border.  The pattern of riggs and closes in our medieval towns, and the great set-piece of the New Town, aren’t replicated elsewhere, but are distinctly Scots solutions to the universal brief of laying out cities.  Some even date back to the days before 1707…

In fact, there’s solid proof that independence will spur on a distinctive architecture.  When the National Movement emerged in the 1920’s, it formed part of a broader Scottish Renaissance.  The Saltire Society was created soon after, then Reiach & Hurd wrote Building Scotland, a manifesto for a native Scots modernism.  From that grew Robert Matthew’s work in the late 1950’s, including Dundee and Edinburgh universities, and the hydro stations in the Breadalbane range.

Just as importantly, that generation of Scots architects also took a philosophical position.  They published articles, put forward manifestos, and defended their work in public debate.  Today’s independence campaign could catalyse something similar, and perhaps find a resonance with Robert Matthew’s declaration that the architect’s task is “to lay the foundations not only of a new architecture, but of a new society”.

Independence could be good for the construction industry, too.  Already, devolution has enabled work to begin on the new Forth Bridge, the Alloa and Waverley rail lines, and reconstruction of the A9.  The rural housing crisis needs a solution, and an independent Scotland will need venues for its new institutions.  Building all those could provide a decade’s work.

To rationalise: my conviction is that Scotland can prosper without the Union.  After all, why wouldn’t the country which produced so many inventors, gave birth to the Adam brothers, Mackintosh and Geddes, and has copious natural resources, succeed on its own account?  Next, I hope to explore this train of thought in more detail, with not a "Cassandra" in sight.

By • Galleries: independence