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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.

Fortnightly Blog 11 - Alienation, Resurrection and the Cult of Sustainability

April 29th, 2014

Can't follow the language, not read the rule book, is it that difficult to understand. Over devotion to cause, life outside a group, us and them. Deal in guilt, talk of saints, stamp out dissent. With the recent passing of the first full moon since the equinox (how we date Easter), now seems a decent time to consider what is a movement when it stands still.

In 1972 Jimmy Reid spoke of alienation as part of his inaugural speech as rector to Glasgow University. A cry for those who are unable to shape their destiny and our common environment: all that is good in our heritage involves the recognition of shared humanity and Jimmy hoped that his generation would move us towards that goal. Published in full by the New York Times and described as the best speech since the Gettysburg address, this was over forty years ago and things have not got much better.

In 2010 Harry Burns presented the Kilbrandon Lecture, recently retired as Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Harry was one of those students who sat in the Bute Hall and listened to Jimmy. Visceral and heart felt, those words sunk into his consciousness, but demanded to be proven, measured and ticked off. The brilliance of Burns was to statistically show how Scotland’s poor health can be linked, to our poor control of environment. This was 5 years ago, Burns has proved to us how bad things have really got.

In 2014 Sandy Halliday spoke at SEDA’s Research Conference about the History of Good Ideas. A Mechanical Engineer, Sandy set the context of sustainable development through a comparison between the stress / strain of a material and the environmental melt down of our planet. We were introduced to the elastic region, where deformation is temporary; the plastic region where permanent changes begin to occour; and the completely broken region when any stress or strain will have a catastrophic affect. Taking from the likes of Rachel Carson, Victor Papenek, and Patrick Geddes we were reminded of 12 good ideas to help keep us flexible, ranging from bio diversity through to political decentralisation, nothing new but shockingly simple. The Club of Rome formed in 1968 raised similar thoughts, that was 45 years ago. Sandy spoke yesterday and pointed out that these 12 good ideas have now turned into 12 lost oppotunities.

How do you measure happiness, by measuring unhappiness. Burns has logically shown that the depth of misery in the West of Scotland concentrated in Glasgow’s East End, can be expressed by our mortality. Scotland’s life expectancy from being mid-table, is now the worst in Europe. Blamed on our lifestyle of fags and booze, this does not explain why countries with a greater consumption of these drugs live longer. The difference stems from other factors, in particular the inability to control your environment. No doubt Mr Burns had a more medical agenda but for an architect this link is profound. We have always known that foul environments forced on the many by the few were not good for you and we have always known this is more complicated than we dare to think; but when it comes down to life and death this should be more simple.

Is it a surprise that when housed in something that looks a filing cabinet you feel a bit sick; that the construction industry’s best solution (passivhaus) suggests you are not allowed to open a window and that the ability to use an on / off switch has become increasingly difficult. There has to be a new way to measure sustainability, beyond the limitations of a BREAM tick-box and the art of Post Occupancy Evaluation. Quoting Vitruvius, ‘Firmness, Commodity and Delight’ with an emphasis on delight; Richard Atkins by assessing environmental, social and financial equilibrium in the built environment has shed some light on a way forward. Small gains across a range of interventions can add up to significant overall improvement. We now see numerous grant funded projects where valiant groups struggle for a few thousand pounds to plant a vegetable patch or mentor local children, there was a time when these were real jobs built into our social fabric. For the last 30 years markets have driven economic and social development, the Reid Foundation have put forward an alternative Common Weal where society takes that lead.

In his 1972 address, Jimmy used an anti metaphor, ‘we are not rats in a rat race, we are human’, to point out a basic truth. Religion requires a similar leap of faith, while as animals we are endowed with immense instinct, we know what is right or wrong. Sustainability needs to look beyond it’s sect, become more catholic and set a path towards something new.

'If we suspect a problem we should talk it up not down' Bill Bordas.

 

Dr Jonathan Charley will discuss 'The Ecology of Disaster' at a joint SEDA and Architecture @131 May Day Green Drinks at Strathclyde University. Check www.seda.uk.net for further details.

To learn more about the Reid Foundation and the Common Weal please visit www.reidfoundation.org

Fortnightly Blog 10 - Lisbon, skin, knees and toes

March 5th, 2014

Eyes, ears, mouth and nose featured prominently as part of the annual ribbing of an eventful field trip to Lisboa. Fifty three of the best young ambassadors Glasgow could hope for, descended on the city of the seven hills, from the four corners of Europe, to join with six tutors lacking in the hair but long in the tooth.

Dr Barnabas's baton, (now heading up architectural history at Liverpool University) has been picked up by Dr Jonathan and transformed into a series of fascinating cultural anecdotes. These fell thick and fast through the Bacalhau and Super Bock; I now understand Lisbon's rich Muslim heritage running through the tumbling lanes of Alfama; the blood letting of the Reconquista Crusader hired guns who laid siege to the city: and a slave trade history which was the envy of their 'man and brother' merchants lording it in Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol. The most spine chilling story was delivered on a windswept wet walk into the Praça do Município to examine it's late eighteenth century stone spiral Pelourinho (pillory post). It was here that each of the 12 million slaves who past through Lisbon were gently prepared for their cruise to South America by being whipped into submission.

Body parts grew into anecdotes, a drive past Lisbon Bull Ring prompted a discussion of Georges Batailles "Story of the Eye"; his surreal metaphor hung straight through to historic Sintra where we were met with the bizarre spectacle of the twin metallic conical towers of the National Palace. Royal palaces abound in Sintra and our limited time led us to concentrate on the Palacio Nacional da Pena, a Romanticist pile constructed for the young Emperor of Brazil by Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, a mining engineer come amateur architect. The result was a PoMo feast which would happily grace the set of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a negative body politic for a mega rich despot.

Filled to the gunnels with history we craved something more contemporary and happily pulled on some Portuguese straight-legs. For a while now I have been fascinated with stylistic differences between the massive overhang (flairs) and the minimal merge of facade to roof (straight legs). Clearly we are enjoying a dominance of the straight-leg, epitomised by the skinny jeans of the hipster, mirrored by minimal architectural style such as the stunning Thalia Theatre (2012) where Goncalo Byrne's mustard cocoon envelops what has past. Senhor Byrne’s students Aires Mateus were next out the changing room, donning sparkling leggings in the form of the Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum in Carcais (2010). Blinded by such an apparition we unfortunately were not enamoured by the ill fitting Paulo Rega Museum by Eduardo De Moura(2009) where a pair of flesh coloured truncated pyramids strangely glorified the cafe and gift shop, perhaps a reference to the dominant metallic cones of Sintra who merely vent the Royal kitchens. Impressed by Portuguese form making I was reminded by Dr Jonathan that the co-joined red walls and red roof of NORD’s Bell Simpson House (2004) predates all we have just seen by 5 years, I never realised we were so hip.

The next morning we caught the Lisboa/Oriente Express for the Parque das Nações embarking at Santiago Calatrava’s extravagant railway station, celebrity engineer come amateur architect. Expo ’98 was not the preferred setting for Dr Jonathan’s cultural studies assignment summed up by the lonely giant green plastic dinosaur dwarfed by the massive sagging concrete roof of Siza’s Portuguese Pavilion. We all persevered and the students introduced me to Pallasmaa's "The Eyes of the Skin" as we wondered the emptiness contemplating the relevance of hand drawing in the digital age. Glasgow had it’s share of Expo’s over the years and there was much debate over these mega events and their relevance; the current riots in Brazil over the cost of the World Cup and having a portrait of Putin on your bedside table in Sochi must give most countries cold feet. For me they are all summed up by the sadness of ‘Happy Street’ the Dutch Pavilion for World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

The human cognition process ranges from the simple to the complex and from the abstract to the concrete. The human body and its structure influence how things can be meaningful for us. It seems that one of the most important objects of knowledge is one's body, you could say that we don't see things as they are; we see things as we are. But before we managed to completely climb up our own nether regions we spent our last night in Lisbon’s smallest bar, where the fifty nine fitted into eighty three square feet, with three musicians, two rice shaking samba dancers and one barman with a smile bigger than his face.

 

Special thanks to Peter Welsh, all the third year part time / full time tutors and the talented students for a wonderful @stratharch field trip.

SEDA Green Drinks Edinburgh will be held on 13th March at the Edinburgh Centre of Carbon Inovation by Andy Kerr and Annabel Cooper of Malcom Fraser Architects. Dr Jonathan will deliver Glasgow SEDA Green Drinks on 01st May (TBC) at Strathclyde University discussing the ecology of disaster.

For further details on these and all forthcoming SEDA events please check out http://www.seda.uk.net/index.php?id=49

Fortnightly Blog 9 - Fin de 'Fin de Siècle'

February 10th, 2014

Faster than a movement, more creative than a fad, able to complete tall buildings in a single bound, was that a 'fin de siècle'. Neither DC Comics, Nietzsche nor Goethe can claim Superman, the spirit of fin de siècle on the other hand seems to have been fermented by the latter's mate Schopenhauer in the late 19th Century: boredom, cynicism, pessimism and a widespread belief that civilisation leads to decadence.

When within, it can be hard to realise, educated during the height of post modernism, I have mixed emotions for this derided movement; I learnt recently about the probable demolition of Michael Graves's Portland House, described by Charles Jenks as a seminal building: I disconcertingly reminisce Charles Moore's moniker crushed into a fake capitol as part of his seminal Piazza d"Italia in New Orleans: I wonder one day will all this be lauded: I cringe to think it might.

'The past is but the beginning of a beginning, and all that is or has been is but the twighlight of the dawn' (HG Wells 1899). Herbert George could not have expected the endless 60's, 70's and 80's revivals we have been forced through over the last decade. Nothing is original, according to Jim Jarmusch's fifth rule, 'steal from anywhere which resonates and from that which speaks directly to your soul'. It is again with mixed emotions that I learnt of FAT's last gig, you have to admire those who swim against the flow, I love the engagement but not necessarily the PoMo revival.

Steven Holl's addition to Glasgow School of Art's campus was completed this month, commissioned a century after the completion of the Mackintosh building, that most fin de siècle of all structures. The principles of magical thinking informs us that if two objects come into contact they will affect each other even when apart, will the magic of Mackintosh rub off on Holl, if the rooster does not crow will the sun rise. A chance to view the relationship between the two can be enjoyed at 'Drawing on Holl' an exhibition curated by Mark Baines to be seen at the Mackintosh Museum. Apparantly there are 7 laws of magical thinking, the sympathetic law provides meaning and understanding of the baffling events that may occur to anyone in any place; Alan Miller is collecting just such memories from the Victoria Cafe and it's history spanning the original salvage from Govanhill by Mac students to the latest vieled embrace by the Reid building. Details on how to pass on your memories or how to visit the exhibition please see below.

Mackintosh died penniless in 1928, spending his later years producing exquisite water colours in the South of France merging the man made with the natural, what does the future hold for this generation. The 19th Century fin de siècle was quickly followed by the mass horror of World War One, dissilusionment of the old and the birth of the Modern Movement. We currently have a foul recession draining our standing in the construction industry with the possible exception of the starchitect, in a world where the gulf between the rich and poor widens, architecture is no exception. Unbelievably recent surveys have shown the pay gap between male and female architects has grown.

2014 holds some possibilities, in Scotland it includes the vote for independence. My difficulty is an aversion to nationalism; an acceptance that the best ideas are with Holyrood and an affinity with English industrial cities. Would London be swapped for Edinburgh, either way Glasgow would remain the second citiy and share that gallus nature with likes of Barcelona and Chicago, which together enjoyed the lions share of the last fin de siècle. My hope lies with the similarities in the counterculture of the fin de siècle and the punk movement. Both celebrate the romantic willful sense of decay and a rejection of social order. Both are concerned with equality, freedom, individualism, direct action and free thought, that's a way forward.

Such potential holds the key to an alternative approach to architectural practise; by allowing individuals to flourish and enjoy a decent relationship with the public perhaps we can win back their faith. In the words of one who mamaged to straddle the decades better than most:

"I'm not a prophet or a stone aged man, just a mortal with potential of a superman" (David Bowie 1970)

 

To pass on memories of the Victoria Cafe, Glasgow School of Art, please contact Alan Miller at either abnormals@me.com or admin@theartschool.co.uk

"Drawing on Holl' from 08th February untill 23rd March 2014 at the Mackintosh Museum, The Glasgow School of Art, 167 Renfrew Street, Glasgow G3 6RQ. For further details please check www.gsa.ac.uk

Festive Fortnightly Blog - horribilis or mirabilis

December 27th, 2013

Humans are not natural cannibals, at arguably the most demanding time of the year they prefer to show feelings of bonding and togetherness. This is because as a species they need to work 'cheek by jowl' to survive however the stronger urge to propogate, leads to power and control. This desire to rule can be such that as with Cronus, chief Titan of the Golden Age, to prevent his sons from ruling, he ate them.

Complicated stuff, but how about an anarcho-syndicalist commune where turns are taken to act as executive officer for the week (search for the Holy Grail, 1975). Or what about buying your Christmas presents from a mega rich company who use vast ware houses, pay no taxes but offer a huge selection, the cheapest prices and deliver to your door (Amazon, 2013). Or even the most glorious building designers in the world checking your bank balance to be sure you can afford to work at their feet for free (Libellous, 1984).

The winter solstice is the darkest time but not the most demanding, this will arrive as reserves run low and the biting cold of late winter has still to be overcome. Recessions follow a similar path, as when finally there is an economic reversal the wolfs continue to pick off the weakest, with more companies going under during the upturn than the recession itself. At this time it is important that we shrug off the dark side and avoid the urge to consume ourselves, feasting on low fees, poor quality work and further loss of public confidence.

Come the revolution will we still have the Queen's Speech, from what I can tell 'annus horribilis' was an invention of our fine monarch during one of her better known recitals. Many believe this a reference to the antics of her offspring and is spawned from the lesser known 'annus mirabilis'. This was a description of 1666, the year of both the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, stangely 'annus mirabilis' translates as the Year of Miracles. The original poet John Dryden searched for the positive and his title was re-used by Philip Larkin in reference to his miraculus loss of virginity in swinging '1963, rather late for me'. Those with a love for poetry should have a think about entering The Empire Cafe's poetry competition, an opportunity to participate in the cultural activities of the Commonwealth Games, and enjoy tea, coffee, sugar and cotton, in the company of Jude Barber and Louise Welsh, entries to be submitted by 12th January, details below.

We harvest what we sow; for me 2013 has been more mirabilis than horribilis. SEDA is reinvigorated, Collective Architecture plough new fields and the Glasgow Institute of Architects make steps to scatter seed far and wide. If karma can be chameleon, it will surely come out of hiding in 2014  in the fluttering form of architectural anarchy; the individual shall flourish rejoicing in the group. The G.I.A.'s task would put Santa to weep, it's size and variation is diverse. It spans from Oban to Dumfries and Moffat to Tobermory; it houses the urbanity of Motherwell and Greenock to the isloated splendour of Bowmore and Campbletown; while it's wealth is kept in Helensburgh and Hyndland witheld from Cumnock and Calton. Memebers are called to arms from top down to inside out to participate in 2016 The Year of Architecture. Glasgow will be host from Burns Night to Leap Year Day, those interested please make contact, details below.

As the New Year approaches and as you look back, what if Keir Hardie had not settled in Cumnock, Walter Blackie not built in Helsnsburgh and Campletown Loch was whiskey; surely revolutions would go wrong, revelations become a disappointment and resolutions be broken; let's just give each othe a bit of mirabilis.

 

Glasgow Institute of Architects 'Call to Arms' for members across the chapter, check www.gia.org.uk/our-work/council/2016-festival for details.

To submit a poem to The Empire Cafe prior by the 12th January 2014, check www.facebook.com/scottishpoetrylibrary/posts/662367417131304 for details.

SEDA Green Drinks 30th January 2014 with Frank McAveety discussing urban cycling at Siempre Bike Shop, 162 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow. Check www.seda.uk.net for details.

Fortnightly Blog 7 - renaissance person and the art of multi tasking

December 1st, 2013

As the horseman Haiyan wreaks destruction, famine, pestilence and death, I feel confusion as I contemplate the spork. The cyclone can at least multi task fourfold and the spork twice, what if anything, can fulfill a solitary task. Buildings certainly have a good bash, anyone who has tried to convert a church will agree, while the humble Glasgow tenement is oft quoted as flexible. It's flexibility though is misplaced for it's longevity, but a genuine multi tasker?

Reduction of destruction, labour and war has set the male world in quandary, they wonder networking and collaboration. They now make up less than half of all entrants to architectural school and medical school has seen their numbers dwindling at a quicker rate. Stereotyped as the slow starter, shamefully they still take the lions share of the better jobs, we are all well due for a change. Interestingly a new breed has emerged which prospers, the metrosexual; well groomed, communicative and more willing to work with others, but a genuine multi tasker?

The tenement and the metrosexual have a lot in common but neither can compete with a bare chested Putin riding across the tundra barking orders at the peasants. Putin would be a decent name for a cyclone, I find it wierd the most destructive cyclone in recorded history was called Mitch who managed to scythe down 11,000. It was heartening to see our metrosexual monarch Becks, contribute his designer clothes to help the Philippine disaster. PR stunt or not a bit of recycling helps, for an alternative contribution try www.change.org

Jonathan Charley had been scheduled to deliver SEDA's October Green Drinks on the ecology of disaster, this would have been timely in an unfortunate way. Jonathan released a whiff of the talk by letting SEDA know that solar panels and domestic wind turbines piss in the wind of natural global forces. His contribution to SEDA's 'Green Cities' recently published magazine, took a more personel view on mankind's ability to shape the planet with his comparison to Asmirov's entirely urbanised planet Trantor.

The magazine is a reaction to the recent fact that half the worlds expanding population reside in cities while the enduring image of ecological design is rural. Everything the urban eye beyolds is designed, surely this is where ecological designers should cast theirs. A great evening was spent last Thursday at the Lighthouse debating this point with the evangelical Diarmaid Lawlor of A+DS tackling the topic 'do greens hate cities', quoting Herbet Giradet, Petra Kelly, Doreen Massey and Juhani Pallasmaa, just a few from a galaxy of planet sized brains.

Flexibility now seems different to a dimmed light, bachelor bed folding from the wall, and has been resurrected as something more thoughtful and scrubbed up; one person's perfection is another's dystopia. As UPVC reduces the sperm count, the doomed male bastion of inflexibility contemplates the horrific branding of greek letters in the cowardly old world. Hands up who preferred John the Savage, to the Alpha Plus, metrosexual perfection of Mustapha Mond (and who preferred Clockwork Orange to Brave New World).

What now is the amoeba of the architectural world and who dishes out the somma. A single sex organism can at least divide in two while architectural practice sharpens its hold on psycological manipulation and operant conditioning. This pales in the shade as the human race takes a man look at the fact our current rate of global consumption is one and a half planets, while we need five planets to survive, summed up by Bill and Ted in their original encounter with Socrates, 'we are all dust in the wind dude'.

 

SEDA 'show and tell' 03rd December 2013 at 5.30 pm, Edinburgh A+DS. Check www.seda.uk.net for details.

Bill and Ted 3 featuring 'death' the fourth horseman of the apocalypse is due for release in July 2014.

SEDA Green Drinks 2014 is kicked of on 30th January with Frank McAveety discussing urban cycling at Siempre Bike Shop, 162 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow. Check www.seda.uk.net for details.