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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

HL Memorial Lecture 2016, The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

August 24th, 2016

A film, a play, a discussion, following the theme of Eco-Max, this year SEDA will focus on the life and legacy of Rachel Carson. Her book Silent Spring, is widely recognised as a catalyst for the environmental movement and was written in 1952 when Rachel was herself suffering from cancer. She brought to the attention of a contented America enjoying homespun rock & roll and Walt Disney, stories of dead fish in rivers, silent songbirds in hedgerows and children storing up toxins.

Eco-Max was set out by our own Sandy Halliday in last years inaugural  Howard Liddell memorial lecture. Paying respect to a number of eco pioneers, Eco-Max questioned whether with everything to gain, ecological design is still marginalised and largely perceived as counter cultural. She noted that we continue to ignore science and common sense and pondered whether we will ever be able to create a radical change of direction. Each year Sandy will choose an eco pioneer to develop both Howard’s and her own ideas. We are all delighted that this year, together with Liz Rothschild, she has chosen marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson.

Having first read Silent Spring in bursts over the last half decade, it is not the science Rachel Carson lays bare but the dark beauty of her writing which keeps drawing me back. In 1952 science was quite different to what it is now but the poetic prose continues to perceive the negative effect humans can have on the natural world;

‘the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poison'

For those who are unfamiliar with Rachel Carson, her main argument is that pesticides and their poison are never limited just to the target, they concentrate inside the bodies of all living things. Most of the book is devoted to their devastation of natural ecosystems but four chapters are specifically devoted to human misery, accusing the chemical industry of spreading disinformation and officials who unquestioningly accept industry claims.

The evening will commence with the film, The Power of One Voice: A 50-Year Perspective on the Life of Rachel Carson a documentary examining the life of Rachel Carson and the profound implications of her environmental work. This will be followed by a reading by Liz Rothschild, a writer, performer and celebrant. Liz worked as a community arts worker and then trained at the Bristol Old Vic. She worked in rep and small scale touring. Knowing the SEDA crowd expect a lively debate to follow, which will spill out into the streets and pubs after the Lighthouse has shut it’s doors.

So join us for a film, a play and a discussion, about a book and the woman who wrote it. Come along on the 29th to meet Sandy and Liz and discover how deep the legacy of Rachael Carson does truly run.

The second Howard Liddell Memorial Lecture will be held at the Lighthouse, Glasgow  on the 29th September 2016 at 6.00 pm - 9.00 pm. For more information and to reserve tickets please refer to the link below. Please note that spaces are limited and it is recommended to book early.

Link for tickets through Collective Architecture Web Site here http://collective-architecture.tumblr.com


The Better Days, at the Briggait, Glasgow #archifringe

July 5th, 2016

Aware how Jude Barber can weave politics, art and architecture, I took time out during a frantic early summer to drop into the last few days of this passing exhibition. The components are simple, an intriguing title; the foreword to a book; identical letters addressed to each of the 129 Scottish Members of Parliament and the same number of small elegant ceramics laid out on a large table.

Exhibition titles in themselves have become important and on arriving, my first point of enquiry was when or when to be, were ‘the better days’. Knowing that the exhibition formed part of the Saltire Society’s 80th Anniversary, I had come prepared for a nostalgic journey through the history of their housing awards. It was therefore immediately enlightening to discover that the exhibition title had been gleamed from Thomas Johnston’s forward to the Saltire Society’s 1944 publication ‘ Building Scotland’ and informed us that ‘the better days’ are to be.

The complete forward written by Thomas Johnston, is hung in a large format banner on one wall and makes powerful reading, reflecting on the spirituality of John Ruskin and looking forward to a heroic post second world war construction boom. Thomas Johnston, was the then Secretary of State for Scotland, a one time Red Clyde-sider, long supporter of Home Rule and one of the most inspiring politicians of his era as this short extract from the forward demonstrates;

“And in this beautiful land of ours, the free people who inhabit it, and who have paid such a high price for their freedom, will, in the better days that are to be, surely insist that the architecture of their buildings, public and private, shall be worthy of them."

1944 was a while ago, plenty of time for these better days to have already passed by and the product of the heroic second world war construction boom is currently undergoing mass demolition.

The opposite wall is covered in the 129 letters still to be sent to all the Scottish Members of Parliament and are signed and dated the 08th July 2016. They bring to the attention of the newly elected representatives of Holyrood the value of architecture and the role environment plays in health and it’s impact on opportunity. Health has always been a crucial factor in housing, previously this has been evidenced in obvious physical need. An indoor toilet, decent private space, uncrowded room to sleep, a place to cook a decent meal. It is heartening to sense that having some control of your personal environment ranks amongst these needs and it is now understood can affect both physical and mental well being.

The exhibition is housed in two rooms straddling the main entrance to the Briggait, I moved on to the second room which in the centre sits the table laid with the ceramic objects. The ceramics have been produced by female architects and collaborators, formed in shapes and adorned with words taken from the 1944 publication. They cover the table top forming a pattern but each retain the individuality of different hands and the irregularity that comes through the firing of clay. Each one will be matched with one of the letters hung on the wall next door and ready made packaging for both sit waiting to be posted out on the 8th July. We all hope the politicians take heed.

There is something enjoyable about the smaller exhibition when the content is simple, the message complex but the effect hard hitting. I left still unsure if the better days have been and gone, still to arrive, or are always with us. Perhaps we just have to look more closely or try a bit harder.

 

The exhibition runs until the 08th July at the Wasps, Briggait Project Spaces, 141 Bridgegate, Glasgow G1 5HZ . There will be a panel discussion on Thursday 7th July at 6 pm close by in the South Block, Glasgow. Please refer to the link below for further information.

http://www.saltiresociety.org.uk/event/building-scotland-past-and-future

The project also forms part of the Archi-Fringe 2016 programme and has been inspired and supported by The Saltire Society. Please refer to the link below for further information.

http://architecturefringe.com/


 

Fortnightly Blog - Madrid real vs imagined

May 9th, 2016

Once upon a time a King moved his palace to the centre of his divided realm. This was no ordinary King, he ruled over the worlds first super power and the wealth from that empire flowed into his new capital. The city grew quickly never shedding it’s political roots to become a centre of conflicting views and reflect a country whose national anthem has no words. This was the chosen destination for the 2016 Stratharch third year field trip which unfortunately clashed with a reunion to celebrate Carmen Polo, beloved wife of General Franco. Dr J immediately sent out a warning to his fellow companions, avoid traditional architect black.

Checking in at Glasgow airport it quickly became clear that none had heeded the warning and the tutors would have no problems blending in with any fascist reunion. The students on the other hand were bright and cheery, to the extent our own leader Don Pedro was seriously tempted to don a discarded pink sombrero, as a metaphor to the split personality that is Madrid. Pedro resisted but later admitted to a recent Ebay swap of his 1970s AR collection in exchange for a pair of Carmen Polo’s under garments, which dwelt beneath his very own Primarks.

The sharper trolls in the box might be questioning the authenticity of the many facts being spun, and they would be correct, the bigger question is which ones. Keep a score of what is gospel and we shall see who wins, Real or Imagined. For example polls show that those who vote for the rightwing People's party are three times more likely to support Real Madrid than Atletico Madrid, anecdotal evidence backed by former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, a card-carrying Real Madrid fan who has repeatedly mused about joining the team's management. Or Spain is now being run by a party called ‘we can do it’ who barely two years old, seek to address the problems of inequality, unemployment and economic malaise that followed in the wake of the European debt crisis. There will be a prize for the correct score.

Day one brought choices, Don Pedro had organised a tour of regal proportions including the Palacio Real where it is claimed that the Hapsburgs invented a medieval form of photovoltaics using South American gold; the Plaza Major where the Spanish Inquisition expectedly burned a witch in each corner and a large one in the middle; a rusting metal structural wonder conversion that is the Caixa Forum; and the star of the morning Pedro Salinas Library by Juan Navarro Baldeweg (1992) apparently ‘zapped out of Terry Eagleton´s discworld’. Are you keeping a tally.

The alternative choice made by myself and a handful of die hard students, was Dr J’s tour of the Spanish Civil War front line which formed the siege of Madird. Coincidently this ran from our hotel across North West Madrid to the University, most visible in the Parque del Oeste where bullet holes decorate statues and two hastily built concrete gun emplacements strategically guard a summit. The exact route is carefully described in ‘Frontline Madrid: Battlefield Tours of the Spanish Civil War’ by David Mathieson, a copy clutched tightly by Dr J as he preached ‘Imagine the war, it’s easy if you try, fascist bastards below, above us only sky’, then proceeding to mock bayonet the nearest rosebush. Our imaginary war snaked to it’s conclusion at the Dept of Philosophy, the first structure taken by Franco, which he proceeded to blow up and murder the inhabitants. Madrid held out for two and half years but in the end fell on the 28th March 1936 to the Francoist armies aided and abetted by Adolf and Benito. The ramifications of this inglorious war are still felt today in a divided country of haves and have nots. We wondered back past the humble monument to the fallen International Brigade wedged between two car parks then onto the monstrous Moncloa Gate designed by the ironically titled Modesto Lopez Otero (1949) which celebrated Franco’s victory. Through the main arch on a clear day you can see Franco’s grave, 158.23 kilometres away in the Valle de Los Caidos. Do you believe all this.

Day two, I joined Don Pedro and Ayrshire Gordie who delivered a gruelling schedule of architectural fare, frog marching us past some delicious gems such as Francisco Javier’s brutalist wonder the Torees Blacos (1968) and Moneo’s beautifully proportioned Bankiter (1977). These were sadly more than matched by some gut retching piles, none fouler than the Hotel Puerta America by Jean Nouvel (2005) complete with starchitect interiors. Middling fare preferred nicknames in an attempt to elevate their blandness, this simply brought derision as we chortled at the ‘handbag’ by Norman Foster (2009). Ayrshire Gordie had scrapped the mud off his tattie hooking boots to reveal spanking black leather which he used in an attempt to move us all quickly past these atrocities. Don Pedro was not having it and gathered the eager faced and recited jubilantly from his guide book the merits of Bankunion by Corrales and Molezun (1975), I quote ‘with it’s vocation of absence, seems to attend the ensuing carnival with some sorrow, wearing brutalist shoes it can be heard muttering, I would prefer not to.’ After scratching our heads we could do nothing but stop and gawp at the 23 storey freak show which is the Torres de Colon by Antonio Lamela (1976) affectionately known locally as ‘Plug’. Am I pulling your leg.

Day three the entire party united for Don Pedro’s tour of social housing, which started in a failed urban landscaped amphitheatre in the periphery of Madrid. We put the ruin to good use with a lively debate on the merits of social housing and it’s links to politics. After such a build up and a dangerous wander across the motorway to MVRDV’s Mirador (2005) slab block with it’s communal hole in the middle was more than a disappointment. Projects seemed to alternate between thumbs up and thumbs down, the work of the B listed starchitects varied as follows; Shepard Robson, fed to the lions; Coco Arquitectos, saved to fight another day; Morphosis, throat humanely slit; Foreign Office Architects which even Ayrshire Gordie had to admit deserved the freedom of the city. Who is kidding who.

All journeys in Madrid seem to end at the glorious triumphant of art galleries; the Prado, Reina Sophia and Thyseen - Bornemisza. In a past life I had spent many an hour wondering through the Prado, marvelling at Valazquez jutting chins and Goya’s madness, so I headed for the Reina Sophia. First stop Picasso’s Guernica partly to get the obvious out the way but this time to take in film footage of the Internationale Brigade. I was wondering why there are no historic films of the Fracoist army, when I heard a whisper, Dr J in full architectural combat gear was beckoning me downstairs into the New Babylon exhibition, what a revelation as Dr J introduced me to Constant and the Situationist City. After such an intellectual feast we were in dire need of something more physical and stumbled across the Casa Fundada a former Workers Union Cafe behind the Peurta del Sol which has managed to retain genuine Madrilenos charm. To our surprise and resembling a pair of Hemmingways there were Pedro and Gordie, for whom the bar they propped, and together we devoured Rabas and drunk Rioja until the sun also rose.

Now to the final score, a whitewash for the real Madrid as everything written is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For those students whose score matched my own please forward a self addressed envelope to Don Pedro at Stratharch who will post you his Carmen Polo's which I have to confess was the only untruth.

Huge thanks to Peter Welsh for organising yet another fantastic field trip, to Cat Mirren for her help on the trip and most of all to the students who as always were fantastic ambassadors of Strathclyde University. For the best in high brow writing please visit Jonathan Charley’s web page at www.jonathancharley.com


Fortnightly Blog - A Thousand Huts, a social revolution waiting to happen

March 15th, 2016

Described as an ideal, a disease and a temporary container for poetry; for architects they are a bad dose of unrequited love. They can be solitary but when more than one, they become difficult to describe. A Jabba of huts being my favourite collective noun, how then would you describe a thousand huts perhaps ‘a social revolution waiting to happen'.

This seemed to be just the case when during a leap year February, Reforesting Scotland published their new guide to help hut builders make the most of emerging opportunities in Scotland. Launched at the Scottish Parliament the event was attended by members of the planning, building and design communities, who were informed why Scotland’s planning authorities are likely to receive a new generation of planning applications. These have come about as a result of changes in the policy and regulatory framework.

The pressure building towards the publication has been long brewing and instigated by the success of the hutting stronghold of Carbeth in Stirlingshire. There the few of little means, through the Land Reform Act Scotland 2003, managed to raise the princely sum of £1.75 million for the right to buy their huts. This led to the ‘thousand huts’ campaign led by Reforesting Scotland who have spent the last 2 years producing this guide to help planners, architects and hut builders alike achieve good practice in new hut developments.  The guide explains better than I ever can, the Scottish Planning Policy ‘definition of a hut’ and it’s emphasis on preserving the low-impact, environmentally sustainable ethos of traditional hutting. For those whose interest is more legal the guide also covers pre nup issues such as ownership and hut site tenure.

With more than half of Scotland owned by fewer than 500 people, it is easy to see why hutting has more a political dimension than just 4 walls and a roof. At it’s core is the relationship and pride that Scots have with their landscape and how with half our population living in cities, it is important we all get access to our heritage. A very serious but excellent Scottish Executive Central Research Unit paper ‘Huts and Hutters in Scotland’ was published in 2000. At first read, not very helpful to the hutting cause documenting minimal numbers and no evidence of any fresh sites after World War 2. It would appear at the turn of the century huts were heading for extinction and the list of hutting colonies set out in the publication read more like a series of Historical Battles than a census;

Rascarel 1972 - Burned to the ground.

Barry Downs, Carnoustie 2010 - Legal action lost with neighbouring caravan site owner, huts destroyed.

Ardfern, Argyllshire - Small community happily co existing with owner. 2007 Argyll and Bute Council serve enforcement and eviction notices.

Hopeman - Brightly coloured beach huts with 10 year waiting list to join. Not hut enough to make the Scottish Government 2000 census.

Lochwinnoch 2015 - 35 huts reduced to 7 huts, two owned by the Andrews Family from Wellhouse, East Glasgow. Eddie Andrews still organises trips for the Wellhouse Junior Walking Club to his huts.

Carbeth 1920 - Partly built to house survivors of the Clydebank Blitz and incorporating ladies lido. Legal success winning the right to buy, May 2013, the fightback begins.

I am hopeful that architects will flirt seriously with this social revolution as our very own Le Corbusier loved a hut. There are many others such as Aalto’s wonderful Muuratsalo summer getaway but nothing compares with Corb’s petite cabanon on the Cote d’ Azur. It’s vital statistics measure exactly 2.26 meter high (modular man with one arm above his head) with 3.66 meter sides (two modular men lying in a row). Originally built for his wife as a result from a fall out with Eileen Gray, it was paid for by building his Unitie de Camping, inspired by Gypsy caravans, for local restauranteur Mme. Rebutato. Le Corbusier lived here, off and on, for 18 years and it became, in part, the inspiration for the Unite d’Habitation in neighbouring Marseille. Corb shared a love for tranquility with fellow hutters and it allowed him to draw, dream and exist. It was in the Cote D’Azur that the city of Changridah was conceived together with his most wonderful of his masterpieces, the Chapel of Ronchamp. He died in in 1965 in the manner he wished, swimming out to sea in sight of his beloved petite cabanon which together with Eileen Gray’s house, and his Unitie de Camping have been posted for a 2013 UNESCO world heritage listing.

The Carbeth Huts beat the Cote D’Azur by 10 years, achieving the much prized Stirling Council Conservation status in 2003. It is not now possible to self build in your own image, you have to follow the Planner’s Guide to build a rickety shed. Specific window sizes, the correct rough looking materials and how to erect CCTV in woodland are all now carefully specified. This goes against the earlier aspiration for an ecological and low carbon economy of hutting; where much is recycled or plucked from a skip and where energy is taken naturally. Despite my comments Stirling Council’s Carbeth ‘Conservation Area Management Statement’ has pride of place in the Carbeth Hutters Community Company, web site. Whilst perhaps restrictive to their open philosophy the Conservation Status has been a clear acknowledgement of their culture and helped the cause.

The New Hutting Development publication is a decent read and offers excellent guidance. It will be fascinating to see if the recent breakthrough leads to something more lasting and whether local authorities will now consider hutting in their development plans. I would recommend that those who are interested download a copy of the document at www.thousandhuts.org and perhaps help rekindle our romance with these structures who really don’t need us.

For the video of William Roberts short poetic film of Carbeth Huts, their owners and their alternative lifestyles visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSFL1a5gIjk

For Jonathan Glancey’s video of Le Corbusiers replica cabanon at the RIBA in London visit http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/video/2009/mar/10/le-corbusier-cabanon


Fortnightly Blog - We three Architects of Orient are

December 20th, 2015

It is an astronomical fact that Halley's Comet flew “westward leading” over Syria, 2015 winters ago. The Kings in that story were led by the star of wonder to Bethlehem, so geography tells us these three Magi travelled across that same land. With the Arab Spring receding and so many fleeing in the opposite direction what light can Syrian architecture follow once the grim events unfolding have taken their course.

The scale of the Orient, calculated by the French who like to include North Africa, is vast. Syria is but a small part of this mythical world but has harboured more ethnic and religious groups than any other. This has included Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Circassians, Mandeans, Turks, Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Mandeans, Shiites, Salafis, and Yazidis which has left a rich landscape of architecture and archaeological heritage, at the mercy of a conflict which encourages looting and destruction. Whilst nothing compares to the human cost, spectacular monuments such as the ancient city of Palmyra are defenceless and modern cities such as Aleppo, a historic urban jewel, lies in tatters. Aleppo, larger than and lesser known than its sister Damascus, has been the scene of the fiercest fighting and looks set to take its place amongst Dresden, Coventry and Hiroshima.

As vulnerable as the past may be, pre civil war Syria was well known for it’s advancements in the field of education and home to a number of thriving architectural schools. All Syrian education is a casualty of the war, with school attendance rates dropping to as low as 6% and over 500 cases of kidnappings and killings targeting schoolteachers and university professors, continuing an architectural education in this context is pretty challenging. One method has been to send students abroad to finish their studies in friendly countries such as China, Russia and Iran; unbelievably countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany held sanction against these possibilities and the USA free education provider still blocks access to Syrian students.

Through all these hurdles some stars do shine, following ideas of contemporary need and historical cultural value (where else does such a combination seem more appropriate) it is great to see three bright young Syrian architects find their way. The CA’ASI ‘Young Arab Architects’ competition in 2012 awarded honourable mentions to Nivine Ibeche for her project ‘Alif, LAM: between body and Damascus, an architectural dialogue’ and Ahmad Tehlawi for his project ‘Alkelania district archeological site’ both exhibited as part of the Venice Biennale. Abdullatif Dalloul a post graduate student from the Tsinghua School of Architecture in Bejing, joins this regal company, winning the 2015 UIA (International Union for Architects) competition for his “Syria Smart Skin”, a mobile medical device unit for public health, his inspiration drawn from fundamental needs affected by disaster. Abdullatif still works in China; Ahmed was forced to leave Syria as a refugee and now works in Berlin; and Nivine may have recently returned to Damascus from Paris, posting on the website “Syrian Eyes of the World” her intention to return for the same reasons that led her to leave. She works as an artist learning from the old city of Damascus with its labyrinths, contradictions, enigmas and rebellion.

Syria was granted independence from France in 1946, up to which point there was not one single architect living in the country, all design work being carried out by foreign multi purpose offices. It took until 1950 for architecture to be taught at a Syrian University and only as one of four specialisations in Engineering. Pre civil war there were 7000 architects, encouragingly 43% women and 67% male, un-encouragingly two-thirds of both were employed by construction firms. It is therefore not surprising that few contemporary Syrian architects emerged from the second half of the 20th century. Of those that did the two issues of modernity and tradition fought hard against each other, different architects choosing different approaches. Syria had to wait until the start of the 21st century for a third more meaningful gift combining contemporary need, sometimes to the extreme and a depth of historical cultural which could only exist in what is known as the cradle of civilisation.

The resilience of the young architects forced to follow their light to foreign shores bring hope through their determination to return. No one can predict the outcome of the horrific conflict and what they will return to, however some have dared to make plans. ’The Future of Syria’ project has consulted with a thousand Syrians to determine how Aleppo will function when the fighting ends. Foreign young architects also try to help, Cameron Sinclair and Pouya Khazaeli have founded RE:Build where Syrian refugees with no prior knowledge of construction build themselves schools from local and available materials such as scaffolding, sand and stone. This allows their children to continue their education where currently two-thirds cannot and ensures they once again feel in charge of their own destiny. This is a brilliant, adaptive short term solution however the longer term lies with the likes of our Three Young Architects of the Orient, may their star lead them home to help rebuild Syria.

 

For further information on the good folk of Syria check out www.syrianeyesoftheworld.com