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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 14 - to P or not to P

December 16th, 2014

'What a question, is it nobler to take on board the thoughts of others or to follow your own path'

Is the watered down soup of the many, at best destined for bland mediocrity or at worst a frankenstein minestrone of co-joined ideas. Is the strong minded individual, at best a Fountainhead from which clarity rings true or at worst the egotist erecting hatred, discomfort and generating social disease.

Architecture can not shed it’s disasters of the sixties and seventies, deluded that it is beyond the understanding of the great unwashed. The anti modernism of the eighties and nineties did little to win back the public, now out of these dark ages has there emerged an architecture of P.

'There is nothing either good or bad: but thinking makes it so'

P brings legitimacy, ownership and has become such a necessity that no decision will stick unless all have a stake, but what does P mean. One way is to check out Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of P, twenty years old but still relevant today. The top rungs are reserved for citizen control, delegation and partnership; mid rungs are dedicated to tokenism, consultation, informing and placation; on the bottom rung sits no P and it’s world of manipulation.

Rarely does architecture ever reach the dizzy heights of citizen control and today’s P sits uncomfortably in the realm of tokenism, consultation and placation neither half way up or half way down. If mid table is the worst of both worlds which way should we climb.

'I must be cruel only to be kind: thus bad begins and worse remains behind'

It was standard practice for the Ancient Greeks to debate their future environment and the merits of their architecture, while it was expected that a Caesar would erect a massive monument to himself. On which rung would you place Monsieur Charles Edouard Jeanneret, revered by architects, less so by Senior Theodore Dalrymple, try his paper ‘The Architect as Totalitarian, Le Corbusier’s baleful influence’. Suspicious of anyone who uses a self invented nom de plume, Theodore describes Le Corbusier’s life’s work serving both Stalin and the Vichy as appalling.

It is hard to argue against the misery for which Le Corbeau helped to create; the result of a heroic age, the fault of poor maintenance, sink estates and second rate imitations his followers still cry. The fact is these experiments have been a catastrophe, while you wonder why it took over fifty years for us to realise that the crow, a symbol of ill omen, would be lucky to perch on the bottom rung of P.

'Though this be madness, yet there is method in it'

The top rung is the true land of P, and these days it’s getting a bit overcrowded. Some have been tottering up there a while now, the likes of Rod Hackney, community architect supremo and unlikely bed fellow to that most global of totalitarian families, the Windsors. It is hard to argue with the Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities’ manifesto - established to teach and demonstrate the principles of traditional urban design and architecture which put people and the communities of which they are at the centre of the design process. Top rung pure P.

The sceptic in me suspects this unlikely marriage is a result of the Prince sharing architectural taste for Georgian and Victorian nostalgia with the general public, which is understandable. Yet if the public had more of a preference for brutalist reinforced concrete, can you imagine the Prince building his very own megastructure in Poundsbury. This is of course here-say, Poundsbury has proved so successful it is now cited as an example of good practice in government manuals for improved design. What is also true is that Poundsbury is not cheap, note what happens when some mid to bottom rung developers take hold. Those hideous swathes of Barrett noddy houses built over the last thirty years would make the most stained of seventies concrete disasters desirable.

'Conscience doth make cowards of us all'

It seems that there are few rungs on the ladder of P where we can hope for any success or perhaps the problems lie more with those who climb up and down, than the rungs themselves. Those obsessed with P are as bad as those who disregard P, and those neither half P up or half P down sit on a very unhappy middle ground. What is required is the architect strong enough to gain respect through skill and clever enough to speak to people.

'This above all, to thine own self be true: And it must follow, as the night the day: Thou canst not then be false to any man'


SEDA's Krystyna Johnson Award 2014 will be exhibited at the Lighthouse from 04th December 2014 until 28th January 2015, please check for further information.

Fortnightly Blog - Towards a New Sustainability Part 1

September 22nd, 2014

Swotting up on ecological textbooks, I have been struck by the absence of human emotion. My favourite quote from the pathfinding book ‘Silent Spring’ is not by it’s author Rachel Carson but from it’s more passionate preface; while Howard Liddell’s well thumbed handbook ‘Eco-minimalism’ can only manage a passing reference to the ugly. Lack of empathy has not always been the norm, early ecological pioneers such as Patrick Geddes, Aldo Leopold and that bastion of Victorian good taste, John Ruskin all paid homage to beauty. When then did the numerical take over the world of sustainability and at what point did it become a veil to obscure the ill designed.

Over the past few years this thought has concentrated my mind and it is clear that human emotion has to play a more important role when evaluating ecological design. Through a series of ecological essays this thought has been explored to reach a critical mass and suggest that a new sustainability has emerged. This journey started two decades ago at Strathclyde University through our teaching of Architecture and Ecology and in practice at Collective Architecture through our combined endeavor. The essays began three years ago through Faith Week and an invitation to address an assembled congregation of bishops, rabbis and architects, with little to go on.

Numbers  took over the aesthetic, courtesy of Pythagoras, 3000 years ago with his secret code of the universe. Observing nature grows to precise mathematical laws, he concluded that it was not by chance that plants and flowers unfold in beautiful patterns. The patterns were based on a particular geometric ratio, but it took the Renaissance to figure out the ratio of 1 to 1.618 (repeating), better known as the golden section. Feelings could now be measured and the godly ratio could be found everywhere, if the width of the mouth is precisely 1 to 1.618 the width of the nose we fall in love. In the same way do the SAP, the BREAM and the Carbon Footprint lead to beautiful ecological design.

Spiritual sustainability was the result of my fishes and bread broken for the bishops; the recognition that there was so much more to ecological design than science and nothing as important than the love of your environment and those you share it with. The first essay reflected on the work at Collective Architecture and it’s search through community participation and whether this could lead to an architecture. An architecture which through engagement brought ownership, pertinent idea and buildings which would be loved, enjoyed and last; longevity brings the best kind of sustainability. An idea so clear it could not be refuted, but ‘in theory, theory and practice are the same, in practice they are not’, many hands do not necessarily always make light work. The buildings which are more often the best designed come from the most ruthless of dictatorial architects, the hand of the one. Is it possible to manage both, to both empathise with others and maintain strong design responsibility.

The  passionate preface to ‘Silent Spring’, Raechal Carson’s record of the chemical industry’s abuse of the environment was written by Julian Huxley who could not help but name drop his famous brother Aldous and it is his observation that as pesticides devastate insects and worm food, country hedgerows and meadows will lose their lovely and familiar flowers and English poetry half it’s subject manner. Practical design predominates within Howard Liddell’s ‘Eco-minimilism’ while feelings are kept close to the chest, occasionally rising above the subjective parapet in forms such as camouflage architecture, to be dumped amongst the vile greenwash and eco bling. Can no one find time for the beauty of natural wood, the appropriate hue of local stone or clay and the joy of natural light. Adored by the great unwashed but of course difficult to measure, tricky to argue and awkward to research.

The second essay attempted just such a task, placing emotions ahead of science, I joined forces with three phd students from Strathclyde University to consider ‘How to Measure Happiness and Architecture’, as part of a one week research blitz. A back to basics, exploring what is happiness and can it be measured (even before architecture joins the touchy feely). Happily this can be achieved by measuring unhappiness, care of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The route to happiness begins by satiating those needs which bring unhappiness; physiological, safety, social, esteem and self actualization (the motive to realise one’s full potential). Architecture follows a similar path, in the same way the basic requirements of shelter, warmth, safety, and society can be housed in the simple shed, but at what point do these structures rise to become architecture, a thing of esteem and potential.

Very philosophical, very theoretical but in need of some practicality, the third essay tackled a more direct issue, does ecological design have an aesthetic. Traditionally sustainability has taken the garb of either the hairy toed hobbit hole or the sci-fi weather station. Concentrating on recycling and it’s appearance it became clear that there was some gain, through perception, for a recycled chic. Recycling can either take on the appearance of complete reuse (retain) or be completely hidden (lost) or much more interesting an aesthetic where that which is recycled is not obvious (broken). The broken can be seen in many a scale from cities to clothing but always brings the greatest pleasure.

We are not alone in recognising more the importance of emotion in sustainability. The early pioneers like Jane Jacob championed human joy and more recently the work of Jan Gehl has shown how humans can win back the city through gradual incremental improvements. We are also not alone in our protagonists, ‘Ecology Without Nature’ view the chief stumbling block to ecological design is the image of nature itself, and that ‘nature is not natural and can never be naturalised’. Nature of course is beautiful, it takes little faith to realise this, and forms a crucial part our life, as the flower attracts the bee, we desire to live amongst beauty often at the expense of base needs.

The fourth essay enjoyed a swipe at the cult of sustainability, by nature an alienation of others, home to the activist, the hand knitted middle class and a carbon reduction way of life. This kind of sustainability guards it’s borders with science but needs to look outwards, a New Sustainability with an emphasis on easily understood emotion will bring more meaningful progress. As greenwash and eco bling rampage through society we still require to crunch the numbers, as Howard Liddell warned to guard against the sceptics, but it's time to smell the roses.

Towards a New Sustainability Part 1 will be presented on Wednesday 24th September 1.00pm - 2.00pm at RCAHMS, 16 Bernard Terrace, Edinburgh. Please visit for further information.

Fortnightly Blog - Extract from A_SPACE, Strathclyde School of Architecture's student yearbook 2014

May 29th, 2014

Is Housing Architecture.

Isi Metzstein once said that only Dutch housing was architecture, a statement not so much about Dutch excellence but the architectural merit of housing.  Housing makes up over half of all architects workload and at Strathclyde University we devote the larger half of our third year to it’s study. This paradox has recently been sharpened with the role of housing in our economic decline, it’s potential rise and how housing has become a simultaneous symbol of failed architectural experimentation and the promise of architectural responsibility.

To start, it is important to understand the depth and range of housing from the affordable to the desirable, from the mainstream to the specialist and from the rural to the urban. Strathclyde University third year students are at the end of a journey from a first year grounding in the rural, a second year wander through the small town, to a rude awakening in the urban. Housing peeks round the corner throughout this passage but it is in the city, where housing steps out from the shadows to become our first dilemma. Is good housing a standout art in itself or just a backdrop for more important urban pursuits.

It does not take long for students to realise that housing is not as easy as it looks, nor to realise that society forgets that housing is but one ingredient, very often the important staple, as part of a balanced meal. These ingredients are cleverly worked into the third year curriculum as ‘to live, to work, to play’ however are quickly forgot as we struggle with stacking, circulation and what is a front compared to a back. In my own unit we place a further emphasis on an ecological design which shares social intent with the search for simplicity. All this leads to another dilemma, does housing sculpt crescents and generate vistas or does it generate lifestyles and sculpt relationships.

These struggles continue into architectural adulthood and form a decent slice of the workload at Collective Architecture where we search for social interaction and personalisation as part of urbanity. Examples of these include our recently completed mainstream modern tenement in Argyle Street, Glasgow for Sanctuary Housing Association and our specialist Alcohol Related Brain Damage centre in Tollcross, Glasgow for Loretto Housing Association. We revel in our work with students and Collective Architecture’s studio mimics the culture of an architecture school. It is no surprise therefore that our project architect for Argyle Street is Nick Walker, third year tutor at the Mackintosh School of Architecture and our project architects for Tollcross are Strathclyde's very own fifth year tutor Ewan Imrie and fourth year tutor Fiona Welch. Happy to say that both projects have been shortlisted for this years Saltire Housing and Scottish Design Awards.

Housing design is once again a young architectural opportunity, only recently the Peabody Trust, London’s oldest Housing Association announced a shortlist of designs by 20 young architects which they hope will become blueprints for the next generation of affordable homes. At what point these blueprints become architecture is still unanswered, I have always thought that when a building design rises above the essential of shelter that is the point of transcendence. This will vary from brutalist architect to ordinary citizen but this is where vistas, lifestyles, crescents and relationships merge.

For more information on Strathclyde School of Architecture Exhibition 2014 please check for details, copies of A_SPACE will be available to purchase via a small donation at the opening event on 13th June at the Barras Art and Design (BAaD) from 6.30 pm.

The editorial team for the yearbook are Michael Cockburn, Kim Noble, Mark Kitson, Emma Long, Jonathan Dawson - Bowman, Michal Supron and Jamie Yeo. Thanks also to the whole team who worked on the yearbook collectively known as the A_SPACE team.


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 for further details.

To learn more about the Reid Foundation and the Common Weal please visit

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