Gallery: "Uncategorized"

A couple of years ago, Holyrood’s presiding officer Ken Mackintosh met Bertel Haarder at the COP26 conference.  Haarder was President of the Nordic Council, which consists of elected members from the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, plus the Faroes, Greenland and Åland. 
Shortly afterwards, the biggest Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published a long piece entitled “The Sixth Nordic country”, and a Finnish MP called Mikko Karna said he would launch an initiative to achieve observer status for Scotland on the Nordic Council.  So they postulated that the sixth Nordic could, possibly, potentially, be Scotland.

This is a theme which Lesley Riddoch has conscientiously pursued for over a decade, and her recent book McSmörgåsbord, subtitled, “What post-Brexit Scotland can learn from the Nordics”, tried to kindle a political debate about the parallels and differences on either side of the North Sea.

At the time, there were a few headlines in the popular press about Scotland becoming Scandinavian, then the story was swiftly buried under other things – Covid, Brexit, Trump. Yet we still gaze across the North Sea occasionally, wondering whether the Nordic countries are a good model for what Scotland could become. 

Scandinavia is seen as having egalitarian values and wise government.  The Norwegians have been canny, investing their oil wealth for the future.   The Finns have been steadfast in holding off their neighbour, the increasingly grumpy Russian bear.  The Swedes have always been clever engineers – developing cars, aircraft, ships and heavy engineering. And the Danes have achieved excellence in architecture and design. 

Danish design companies have become global brands. A few names spring to mind in furniture, lighting, jewellery and audio: Skovby, Louis Poulsen, Georg Jensen, Bang & Olufsen – plus of course the architect’s favourite brickmaker, Petersen Tegl. Many of their products were created by designers with an architectural training, such as Arne Jacobsen, Jorgen Moller and William Wohlert.
Denmark is a small country on the North Sea coast, not so different in size and population to Scotland. The two countries have traded with each other for centuries, so they share a common heritage. But there is the paradox. Scotland had (and in some cases, still has) comparable designers and companies working in similar areas of the economy to the Danes, but despite the efforts of The Lighthouse, A&DS, sporadic visits to the Venice Biennale and so on, Scotland’s reputation for design-led manufacturing is patchy.

Linn Products make audiophile stereo systems in an impressive factory designed by Richard Rogers. Linn’s products are high end and uncompromising: the company’s founder Ivor Tiefenbrun even developed his own microprocessors, when commercially available computers wouldn’t do what he wanted them to. Critics occasionally snipe at Bang & Olufsen, claiming that they make steam-powered spaceships which look futuristic but use old technology; the same criticism can’t be levelled at Linn, which remains at the cutting edge of audio technology.

McIntosh of Kirkcaldy are best known for their mid-century modern furniture, particularly teak cabinetry and sideboards. From 1948 until 1983, Tom Robertson worked as head designer and while his most notable design, the Dunvegan sideboard, could be mistaken for a piece of Danish Modern, the company was proudly Scottish. McIntosh employed skilled cabinetmakers who used traditional techniques, and their emblem was the Scottish thistle and crown. I can vouch for the quality, as my folks bought a Macintosh dining table when they married in 1969 and it’s still as good as new. The firm is still in business as ESA McIntosh, although no longer making the design-led timber furniture which made it famous.

Coughtrie have occupied the same factory in Glasgow since their inception eight decades ago, and they still make their SW wellglass external light and SP bulkhead which were designed during the Second World War and have gradually become design classics. The wellglass fitting in particular, with its cast aluminium top, and teardrop-shaped glass is a characteristic "retro" form. Coughtrie were established in 1941 on Montrose Avenue in Hillington Industrial Estate and their lights are beloved of salvage hunters and those in search of industrial chic - think of TV celebrity antique dealers with flat caps.

Caradale was the last traditional brickmaker in Scotland and could easily have developed along similar lines to Petersen. Their brickworks at Carluke and Armadale used ancient Mitchell of Cambuslang brick presses, and their Hoffman kilns were fired with coal and oil: they were the last of the so-called colliery brickworks, and the last maker of Scotch Commons. They had a proud heritage and made a unique product, yet theirs is a sad story.  After the firm closed down, I visited its brickworks at Carluke and Armadale. While I was standing in a clay mill building at dusk, having just shot some photos, a former worker appeared though a hole in the wall where a door used to be. He’d come for a final look, before the brickworks was pulled down, and his parting words were, “I’ll better away up the road afore I start to greet.”  
The truth is that for all the talk of Scottish Design (common usage always places those words in capital letters), we may have fostered the careers of some architects and designers, but we haven’t championed the companies we need to make the things they design. If we want to join the Nordics, that’s something which needs to change.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

I hadn’t intended to write about Covid ever again, but just at the moment I received my second vaccination, the World Health Organisation announced that six Scottish health boards were among the top 10 worst-hit regions in Europe. NHS Tayside has the highest rate, with 1,146 cases per 100,000 people.

The BBC reported Jason Leitch (Scotland’s national clinical director) explaining that a lack of "natural immunity" in the population has led to Scotland having the highest Covid rates in Europe. A few months ago, we were doing well… not so now. For the next few days, Dundee will probably be the most infectious place in Europe yet when I go down to the city centre there are blithe people walking around, seemingly tourists, who are strangely oblivious.

I received my blue envelope then had my inoculation a few days later in the Caird Hall.  More so than the enormity of NHS Tayside’s task, the thing that struck me was being in a huge concert hall filled with hundreds of vaccination stations spaced out geometrically across the stalls floor – oddly it reminded me of the Central Services Office in Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil”. A lateral flow kit was thrust into my hand as I left the hall and emerged blinking into the sunshine on Crichton Street.

Bad news, like Dundee’s current infection rate, travels fast – but you rarely hear about the gene technology labs in the city, the cluster of biomedical companies, or the research success of Ninewells Hospital, which was the largest new teaching hospital in Europe when it opened in the 70’s. Or indeed Murray Royal in Perth, which was redeveloped in 2012 as the largest new mental healthcare hospital in the UK, replacing an impressive asylum designed in the 1780’s by William Burn which is the prototype for many that came after.

Because mostly, healthcare and its architecture is a good news story. That prompted me to think about the “capital versus revenue” issue which I’ve heard several times from clients, when the door creaks open a fraction and you get a glimpse into their professional life. Sometimes the frustrations spill out, such as when someone senior at a subsea engineering firm came off the phone after an exasperating negotiation and looked at me: “We’re not selling a commodity product! The things we make aren’t like cans of baked beans!!”

The first time I came across the short term/ long term funding argument was when I worked on a theatre project which won a Lottery-funded capital grant to redevelop on a grand scale. After a long gestation and many battles, they ended up with a much-loved venue – which went bust a decade later. One of the reasons, according to the Press, was a cut in their Scottish Arts Council revenue funding support.

The other side of the capital/ revenue debate was illustrated last month when I went to Perth Royal Infirmary as a visitor. A Canon Medical Imaging lorry trailer was parked in a courtyard, its thick umbilical slinking into the building. This is a mobile CT scanner, brought in to supplement the capacity of hospitals in Dundee, Perth and Brechin.

Having had some experience doing clinical planning, I know that Computerised Tomography suites are complex beasts with large footprints, lots of servicing and if they serve an interventional radiography role, they need air handling units as large as a single decker bus. Short term, it makes sense to use revenue to pay for hiring in scanners to reduce waiting lists, while developing capital projects at Ninewells to permanently increase the scanner “fleet”.

So reading the self-serving Op-Ed pieces in various architecture magazines about how architects can somehow make a difference in healthcare provision, made me consider a fundamental point. What can architecture and design do to improve the natural immunity of Scots – can we build our way out of infection? Or is there only so much buildings can do, and after that it’s down to a lottery of birth with your genetics, background, diet, and so forth dictating your health?

I think the answer may lie with another client I worked for, a few years after the theatre. He was a GP on the verge of retiring from practice, and had spent his final few years developing his idea for a Healthy Living Centre. Conceptually it was somewhere you go in order to stay well – rather than a Medical Centre you attend after you’ve fallen ill. The former Chief Medical Officer, Harry Burns, had similar ideas but sadly the project I worked on didn’t happen. Perhaps the idea will catch on one day.

Hopefully next time I add something to this blog, Covid will be receding in the rear view mirror and we’ll be able reflect on the aesthetics of what you might call “pure” architecture, rather than the everyday necessities of “applied” architecture.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, covid-19

Reading through the readers’ comments posted below-the-line in response to an article about graduate salaries on the AJ website, I found some thought-provoking issues. Paul Finch attempted to have a sensible debate with an anonymous commenter who continually tried to bait and troll him – it struck me that the real issue wasn’t the level of “compensation”, it was London itself.

Our capital-obsessed government, financiers and developers seemingly can’t look beyond an endless cycle of feeding a city which is resource-hogging and disproportionate in scale to the rest of the country. No other country in Europe has such a disparity in population and status between its capital, and its second and third largest cities: it isn't by chance that so much of the UK's most valuable land and around half the UK's architects are concentrated in and around London.

Given the ever-growing imbalance, it's unlikely that we'll ever see a "provincial" practice take a leading role again, although Ian Simpson's success with high rise blocks in Manchester, and Glenn Howells’ in Birmingham hint at the possibilities, as did RMJM’s prominence during the 1970’s and 80’s. That also goes to underplay other the UK’s other conurbations – the West Midlands, Greater Glasgow, Tyneside, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.

As a result, there’s a tradition, which continues today, that some of the best Scottish graduates go down south, drawn to the bright lights and opportunities. Once there were alternatives. During the 80’s there was Hong Kong prior to its handover to China, in the 90’s there was Berlin after reunification but before Brexit – but since then the draw of London has been hard to fight. Some Scots stay forever and become expatriates, others return with a halo of glamour on their CV.
Today, the UK is a small country with an imperial-sized capital. It lost its role as the administrative centre for a quarter of the world’s population long ago, yet London is still a magnet for people and money, and in the language of today’s social justice warriors, that makes it over-favoured and especially privileged. The pulsing of currency and capital (both sorts) are palpable in Leadenhall Street and Canary Wharf; their vast glossy surfaces reflect each other and the mid-Atlantic accent which The Square Mile has developed since the Big Bang in 1987. 

If you catch the breakfast service at a Square Mile restaurant such as The Mercer in Threadneedle Street, you might even overhear some tips about where the smart money is going, from the men in sharp pinstripes and Church’s Oxfords shone to a high polish.  Edinburgh, by comparison, is more discreet. Sir Fred Badloss may have broken the Royal Bank, but an incomer would never guess that hundreds of billions of pounds are managed behind the douce facades of Georgian townhouses.

Meantime, under the present government at Westminster, the Edwardian chimera of the Imperial City lives on. At one point twenty years ago, Richard Rogers looked like he would become Baron Haussmann to Tony Blair’s Napoleon III; but for now Boris is in charge and acting out his destiny as the Great Self-Memorialist. Aside from all this other chronic flaws (egotism, dishonesty, and greed) the current prime minister is a man suffering from chronic folie de grandeur who is obsessed by his built legacy.

He has already spawned the bridge that never was, the airport that could never be, the bus nobody wanted and the cable car no-one uses. Perhaps he’ll eventually manage to build a mega-bridge (or tunnel) across Beaufort’s Dyke between Stranraer and Larne – and if he does, he’ll also need to re-construct 50 miles of dismantled railway and create a motorway to link Stranraer to the rest of Scotland via the M74 and WCML, then on to HS2 which will finally connect to … London.

Meantime, to the disaffected troll who took a pop at Paul Finch, the explanations for why graduate salaries don’t cover the cost of living could be either that salaries are too low, or the cost of living is too high.  The reason why graduate salaries are “too low” is easy to debate but far more difficult to solve, because it’s rooted in the changing role of architects.

Some of the theories advanced are: in order to maximise the grants they receive from the Scottish Government, the architecture schools turn out too many graduates, and that suppresses wages; lots of experienced architects have come into the country from the EU and further afield, and that suppresses wages; thanks to the Architects Act and the ARB, architects have a protected title but not a protected function – which means technicians and “plan drawers” can also do their work, and that suppresses wages; Thatcher’s obsession with ending monopolistic practices resulted in statutory fee scales being axed, and that suppresses wages; some graduates are prepared to do unpaid internships with big name practices, and that suppresses wages…

Lots to disagree over.

But the reason the cost of living is “too high” is much simpler to grasp, and for the benefit of the AJ’s anonymous provocateur – it’s London. Everything about the modern mega-city is expensive, including an exorbitant cost of living. Before they arrive in the Great Wen, prospective students might imagine living there is like a stage show turned inside out onto the pavements of Shaftesbury Avenue, where the people are haughty and over-privileged but essentially harmless, like poodles somehow transmogrified into human form.

Instead, they learn that it’s a grimy rat-race where people hustle, elbow and pick your pocket in the shadow of skyscrapers occupied by kleptocrats. During the 1990’s, I remember exploring London by experimentally taking the Tube south of the river. Inspired by the Carter USM song, I got off at New Cross – but quickly fled back onto the train. It felt Gangster even in the days before Grime. Nowadays in the East End you also have the “Shoreditch rough”, consisting of a character with a top knot and hipster pants plus a can of paint and a stencil, who imagines he’s a graff king…

The crux of high living costs is that they make life much tougher. With good qualifications and some experience, we’d hope to earn a decent salary which allows us to live a well-rounded life. With somewhere of our own to stay, whether bought or rented; the freedom to choose a car, motorbike, cycle or train as transport; the chance to take trips abroad occasionally; and the opportunity to save money for a rainy day and into a pension – but if you’re an architecture graduate on a starting salary, London removes those possibilities.

Yet the issues thrown up by London aren’t solely financial. Big cities in general, but London in particular, are also part of the problem with Covid. For someone on a low salary, living in a densely-packed area, London is bad for your health as well as your pocket. When you concentrate several million people together, you create economic growth and lots of jobs – but along with those come long commutes, gridlocked roads, over-packed trains, crowded streets and corridors, queues and lifts packed with people.

Just as capitalism thrives when you bring companies and people into close proximity with each other, you create social opportunities if you concentrate health and education infrastructure in one place, but you also form a high human density environment for a virus such as Covid, which likes people to rub shoulders.

Perhaps Covid will prove to everyone that the big city with its pollution, resource-intensiveness and ruinously expensive property is part of the problem. Another example: a big city like London or Paris for that matter, is a heat island.  On 30C+ days in recent years, you had the choice of either living outside on patios and terraces and broiling like a piece of bacon on a griddle – or staying inside and boiling like a lobster in a pot.  You could easily argue that in a temperate country like this, aircon is expensive, energy hungry and even obscene, yet in inner London it’s become commonplace.

On reflection, when siren voices whisper that Covid is a chance to rethink our lives, reset how we work and embed a set of changes, perhaps we should ask whether mankind's greatest invention, the city, isn't the underlying problem. Maybe we should dismantle London, as the radical planners proposed after the War, and disperse investment, jobs and people across the country. That could begin to shift us away from an entrenched system that many agree is unjust, but which is too dense and dangerously overgrown to change. For one thing, politicians like Boris have too much to lose on a personal level.

Failing that, perhaps graduates should consider so-called “provincial” cities or even practice in smaller towns as options, rather than automatically assuming that London is the only worthwhile destination for their talent. Perhaps their efforts and enthusiasm could even make the increasingly dis-United Kingdom a more equal place to live. As a parting shot, perhaps quality of life is a better reason than pure capitalism as to why Edinburgh is now Europe’s sixth biggest financial centre, and rising fast. Discuss…

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

Happy New Year.

This is the sorry tale of a broken tile. It had survived for many decades, laid on the floor of someone’s hallway, walked over, washed and polished many times, then salvaged for future use elsewhere: but it ended up in a bin down south after a young oaf dropped and broke it.

Cement encaustic tiles have roots stretching back to biblical times. Encaustic painting with wax was mentioned by Homer in 800 B.C., when he noted the waxed hulls of the painted warships sailing into Troy. Encaustic tiles became popular in the mid-Victorian era and became known for their durability, but only when laid horizontally on the floor. Rather than a fired clay base with a glazed surface, in the case of encaustic tiles a fine sand and marble powder top layer is impressed into a Portland cement base, then dried to form a monolithic whole.

But they don’t bounce well.

Shame, it was a beautiful tile with an unusual pattern, and it was made in Stoke-on-Trent by Minton Hollins. The rose, blue and grey colour combination is subtly evocative of ancient Egyptian art, rather than the usual Victorian burgundy and beige drab. Minton, Hollins & Co. were one of the most famous and prolific tile makers of the Victorian era, and its tiles were used in the Houses of Parliament, US Capitol building (which as I write is being stormed by Donald Trump’s supporters), the Victoria & Albert Museum and many other high profile buildings.

There were several different Minton companies around Stoke, but Minton Hollins was the best known and it was bought by Johnsons in 1968 who still use the name.

I spotted the solitary tile for sale on Ebay a few months ago, took pity on it, and low-balled a bid which was accepted. Somewhere between making the sale and posting the package, the young oaf dropped it from racking onto the warehouse floor, and that was that. No use crying over split tiles, but it did make me think about the inherent wastage in the construction and distribution process. In the factory, breakages can be recycled, but out in the wild they’re given a summary burial in the nearest landfill.

Another lockdown episode involved the switched spur outlet I ordered from Ebay. It was dispatched via a courier but somewhere between Gloucestershire and Dundee, Hermes either ran over it with a bulldozer or fed it to a troll. It never arrived, and when I enquired I was told that they had destroyed it because it had been “damaged in transit”. On the plus side, I started repainting at home during lockdown, and after experimenting with a few different paints, discovered that Wickes Trade emulsion has more covering power than Little Greene emulsion does, but at one third the cost…

Here’s hoping for a healthier and less destructive 2021.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

This is a longer post than usual, as the subject is vast…

Perhaps uncharacteristically, this week I feel more optimistic about the future than I have for months. It’s only December, so forget New Year resolutions such as losing three stones by Easter, becoming a millionaire by the time you’re 40, or developing the charisma of Cary Grant … but it looks like we may soon have several vaccines which are effective against Covid-19.

Once we get through the pandemic and meet ourselves again on the other side, things will look brighter. After all, growing up in Thatcher-era Britain we became used to problems which could seemingly never find a solution: Cruise missiles, The Troubles, Apartheid, the Berlin Wall, the Poll Tax, Acid Rain and the Ozone Hole. Yet the Wall came down in 1989, the Poll Tax was abolished in 1991, the Americans left Greenham Common in 1992, South Africa was freed from apartheid in 1993 and the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

Even more heartening is proof that we can heal our damaged planet, if we make a collective effort. Lost amongst the pandemic headlines in March 2020 was news that the ozone layer is continuing to shrink and has the potential to fully recover, according to a paper published in Nature, which proves that environmental damage can be reversed by orchestrated global action. Similarly, acid rain was tackled and virtually eradicated in Europe and North America, although you don’t often hear about that very much either.

Unfortunately, all the mass media seem to do is repeat bad news stories about the environment, with Barry McGuire's “Eve of Destruction” playing loudly in the background. Yet unless we have proof that we can make a difference, we’re unlikely to make the effort.


2021 AD
What will a post-Covid world look like? Making predictions and prophecies about the future is a mug’s game, although it seemed to work out for that clairvoyancy cartel – Old Mother Shipton, Nostradamus and the Brahan Seer. Behind Dominic Cummings’ slogans such as “Build Back Better” and “Green Recovery” is lots of humbug. However, extrapolation of the recent past is a good way to tell what might happen in the near future, and current trends may point the way towards what will happen in 2021.

Towards the end of his new book, Investing for Growth, the fund manager Terry Smith points out, “Looking back, it seems that crises, including pandemics, accelerate some existing economic trends.”  He identifies Covid-19 beneficiaries might include Remote working, Home cooking, Telemedicine, Online schooling and Automation. There are a few more themes to consider…


The death of the High Street
Predicting the death of the high street is a popular hobby, and its demise has been announced many times over. The pandemic is just the latest challenge, super·charged by internet shopping. Of course, before the internet, the High Street was under attack in the 2000’s by out-of-town retail, in the 1980’s by shopping malls, in the 1960’s by supermarkets, in the 1940’s by rationing and in the 1920’s by mail order catalogues inspired by Sears Roebuck … it’s always been in flux, under threat and never more so than when their buildings have been sold off and leased back from ground rent REIT's.  They ruin everything they touch, like King Midas in reverse.

The data used to establish the trend of declining activity makes for sober reading. According to the Centre for Retail Research, there were 600,000 stores in the UK in 1950. By 2012, this had fallen to 290,000 and even before Covid it was projected to decline to 220,000 by 2020. At the current rate of growth, the internet will account for 40 per cent of retail sales by 2030, compared to around 17 per cent prior to the pandemic.
High-street banks are becoming something of a rarity, and specialised outlets such as toy shops, book shops and tobacconists have succumbed to internet buying or discount supermarket offers. The pandemic has brought forward the debate on what should be on the High Street. There will always be a need for convenience stores, and after a year or more living under Covid restrictions, most of us will return to socialising with a vengeance, mostly likely returning to bars, restaurants, theatres, galleries and everywhere people come together – but perhaps we could find a better home for the Starbucks, charity shops, estate agents, gyms that open 24/7 and 99p stores.  There may be room for niche outlets such as quality butchers too, but along side them are the dreamy ventures of gentrification: fusion fast food outlets, micro·breweries, the yoga studio that also serves dairy-free yogurt, and the barbershop that only shaves beards.


Future travel: Electric Aircraft
2020 won’t spell the end for air travel, because people enjoy it and the world will continue getting smaller, as it has done since Leif Erikson discovered America. The world’s airlines have already begun switching from Jet A1 (kerosene) to electric and hydrogen power. Over the years, I’ve done some work with three different aviation firms, including a training organisation, a fan blade manufacturer and a turbine maintenance firm.

From chats with them, I gather that several different electric aircraft are already flying, including an Electric Beaver, the Pipistrelle, a Swedish regional airliner, and a Rolls-Royce-powered racing planeIn addition, ZeroAvia, a California and UK-based startup, is currently working on a 20 seater aircraft using hydrogen fuel cells, which it claims will have a range of up to 500 miles, London to Frankfurt. Hybrid Air Vehicles, a UK company, hope to bring back giant airships to replace air freight (though their modern designs use helium, rather than the Hindenburg’s hydrogen).


Hydrogen vehicles
The motoring press think that pure electric vehicles are a stepping stone towards fuel cell vehicles, which are powered by hydrogen.  The latter have the advantage that they have a range similar to a petrol or diesel, 400 or 500 miles, the tank can be filled in a couple of minutes, and we don’t have to worry about “range anxiety”.
Pure electric cars have many drawbacks.  Batteries mean heavier cars, typically 300 or 400kg extra, charging times can be anything from half an hour to eight or ten hours.  Battery performance deteriorates over the years, and the quoted 200 or 300 mile range of an EV is fine in California, but in the Scottish winter with lights, heater, fan blower, heated screens and so forth working combined with a low temperature which has decreased the battery’s capacity, the range may only be half that.  Or less.
There are over 25 million homes in the UK, and 6 million private sector businesses, so you’d imagine that well over 30 million power supplies and charging sockets would be required for EV’s – bearing in mind you may need a couple of chargers at home and one at work too.  On the other hand, we already have a network of around 8500 filling stations, and provided you can replace the petrol tanks with hydrogen tanks, you have a ready solution which doesn’t involve fundamental re-wiring of the entire country.
Most damningly, lithium ion and similar battery technologies require rare earth elements which are typically found in environmentally-sensitive areas.  If we destroy swathes of tundra and the Greenland ice shelf by opencast mining for rare earths, is that any better than chopping down rainforests, or pumping global warming gases into the atmosphere?  There are already hydrogen-powered buses running in Aberdeen, and perhaps fuel cell cars and lorries will overtake electric vehicles in the next few years.


Sustainable Power
The difference we’ve already made by using clean power in Scotland goes back for generations. Since the 1940’s, Scotland has constructed dozens of large and small hydropower plants, and recently, approval was granted to SSE (the successor to the North of Scotland Hydro Board) for the Coire Glas pumped storage scheme, their first big hydro scheme since Glendoe, itself the first major hydro scheme built in Scotland for nearly 30 years. At the same time, SSE are developing the world’s biggest wind farm, on the Dogger Bank.  Our power has been "green" for decades, and at some point in the near future, might even be 100% sustainable.


A grasp of the subtleties of human nature teaches you that when something is taken away, you try to get it back.  At worst that means propping up a lost cause by “throwing good money after bad” or the so-called sunk cost fallacy.  At the moment it means that while activists/ campaigners/ pressure groups are trying to force through radical change under cover of the Covid pandemic, ordinary folk will simply be happy to emerge from 2020 with their health, plus some hope of retaining their job, their home and some shreds of their way of life.

The Russian Revolution was perhaps the most radical attempt at social engineering during the past 100 years.  It succeeded in ridding Russia of its royal family, and eventually delivered Constructivism, space travel, and the military machine which beat Hitler – but it came at a huge cost.  When anyone speaks about “revolutionary” change, think carefully about what that means.  Revolution is called for by those with nothing to lose; for the rest of us, no-one wants to lose what they feel that they’ve worked for.


Anti·bacterial & hypo·allergenic materials
Another side effect of Covid-19 may be a renewed interest in making the environment around us naturally healthy and free from bacteria – without having to resort to face masks, PPE and vaccines. Before we had effective drug treatments for tuberculosis, sanatoria were built in the mountains because the effects of fresh air and ultraviolet light from sunshine were recognised as an effective therapy for some patients. Nowadays healthy buildings might include consideration of innately healthy materials:

Linoleum is naturally anti·bacterial, anti·allergic and anti·static. A few years ago, research carried out by the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute in Holland showed that linoleum can destroy or inhibit the growth of two strains of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus areus - also known as MRSA. Forbo-Nairn Marmoleum is already in use at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, the Sick Kids' in Edinburgh, Queen Margaret Hospital in Dunfermline, and Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy.

Copper & bronze alloys are also very effective at killing superbugs, along with influenza and norovirus – bacteria which mutate so rapidly that our vaccines can’t keep up with them. But copper·based alloys such as bronze kill them within a couple of hours of contact, which means that door hardware, taps, switch plates and other frequently-touched surfaces shouldn’t be made from plastic or stainless steel.

Cedarwood is popular for clothes hangers, wardrobes and chests of drawers for good reason: its aromatic scent comes from thujaplicin, a natural anti·bacterial and anti·fungal agent. Some varieties such as true cedar and Spanish cedar have insect-repellant qualities, and cedar wood’s anti·fungal properties make it very resistant to rot, so it has a long life when used as external cladding. Hence cedar boarding, and cedar shingles, neither of which need poisonous timber preservative treatments.


A letter to the future from Orwell
The future that George Orwell predicted has arrived, but rather than an all-powerful state acting as Big Brother and carrying out surveillance against our will, we’ve invited Big Brother into our houses, and are paying a monthly subscription for the privilege. The Amazon “Alexa” speaker is a fifth columnist in your living room. Google Latitude software on your smartphone is a stalker in your pocket. GPS in your car’s satnav is the spy in the cab. Your smartwatch is an incubus, monitoring every waking and sleeping hour.

As George Soros predicted a couple of years ago, “The owners of the platform giants consider themselves the masters of the universe, but in fact they are slaves to preserving their dominant position. Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered. Regulation and taxation will be their undoing, and EU Competition Commissioner Vestager will be their nemesis.”

So Margarethe Vestager, rather than Winston Smith, may be our salvation. In dealing with the US tech giants from Mountain View in California, she might free us from the overlords who spy on and record every aspect of our lives via smart TV’s, smart phones, smart watches and through the so-called internet of things, perhaps even smart toasters. A warning from history: if you were a fan of Sci-Fi satire Red Dwarf, you may remember what Kryten did to finally silence Talkie Toaster…


Sectoral shifts within property development
More prosaically, some of the changes likely to develop in 2021 began incubating long ago. Rather than abandoning projects years in the making, it seems that developers and landlords may convert half-built offices into serviced apartments and flats. Given the rise of renting in big cities, Build to Rent has become a bigger deal for housing developers than Build to Sell. But the one thing developers aren’t likely to countenance is improving space standards by providing more square footage – even though the way viruses like Covid spread, point to living at lower density being safer.


Optimism is still with us, even after nine months of struggle against the virus. Yet if we start to lose the faith and waiver, it's worth casting our minds back to two of Scotland's greats.  In his rectorial address to Glasgow University in 1972, Jimmy Reid quoted Robert Burns.

In “Why should we idly waste our prime,” Burns writes:,
"The golden age, we’ll then revive, each man shall be a brother,
In harmony we all shall live and till the earth together,
In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,

And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature”.

Jimmy ended his speech by saying - “It’s my belief that all the factors to make a practical reality of such a world are maturing now. I would like to think that our generation took mankind some way along the road towards this goal. It’s a goal worth fighting for.”


By • Galleries: Uncategorized, covid-19

Happy New Year, and Happy New Decade.

You may have come across the term "fifth elevation" – it's what architects sometimes call the roof, although this elevation is rarely seen unless you're high up in a skyscraper in New York or Hong Kong, looking down.  I share the passion of "rooftoppers" who explore the city’s heights, and I've particularly enjoyed getting onto the roof of the occasional tower block, mill or power station at dawn.

From the rooftop, you readily grasp Henri Lefebvre’s idea about being simultaneously within, and outside, the city’s rhythms. At street level, you are still part of the city, but on the roof you place yourself apart from it, watching the currents of traffic and the light rising over the horizon. Patterns emerge in the roofscape, and you wonder idly whether they were intended or not: nonetheless, when viewed from above the city becomes a collective artwork.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

Locked Out.

19/06/19 22:32

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

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, independence

"Skägget i brevlådan – Don’t get caught with your beard in the letterbox," is a Swedish idiom which means that there's work to do, but you're not doing it, and someone catches you red-handed.  Hence you're caught with your beard in the letterbox, which is similar to being caught with your pants down - much as when the Three Stooges attempt to get through a doorway simultaneously and all three get stuck as a result.

When I take photos of buildings, I sometimes feel that if I did have a beard, it would be in danger of getting it caught up.  I’m largely self-taught as a photographer, although I got one or two tutorials when I started at architectural school, but I’m interested in how others have developed their photography in a deliberate systematic way, for example using wide angle lenses to make punchy photos from dynamic viewpoints.

By contrast I’ve been haphazard in some respects, trying different techniques with different camera systems and photographic media, although by accident or design I’ve tended towards the “record photos” approach: usually in colour, not too high contrast as I’m trying to pull out as much detail as possible, and almost always with “correct” or parallel verticals.  I suppose that’s not a surprise, as I’ve consumed books by architectural photographers like Ezra Stoller.

Yet sometimes I feel the need to rebel creatively, and a few months ago I booked myself onto a pinhole camera workshop - partly to try something new, but also because the artist presenting it  spoke about her approach being a bit scattergun when she was at art college, trying everything once, whereas in time as an artist/ photographer she realised you have to develop a way of working, out of which a style or approach generates itself.  That balance between systematic/ thematic and creative/ spontaneous thinking is something I’ve come back to quite often.

Of course, there’s no “right” answer, but I used to consider that the creative choices were solely based on subject matter and composition, whereas the rest seemed simple when I shot film, as Agfa RSX gave me colours and tones which I really liked, with no effort at all and mp need to post-process.  I find myself trying to emulate that aesthetic with digital, but while you can sharpen digital files that’s not quite the same as acutance rendered on film, likewise RSX gives you “neutral” colour rendition but it seems there’s more to that than just manipulating colour temperature on a RAW file.

Or is it perhaps just that I’m old enough to have learned to shoot photos on a SLR with transparency film, and that sticks with you, just like the taste in music you develop in your late teens or early twenties stays with you through life.  So it is that these photos were shot on slide film in the city of Malmo, a Swedish city whose tallest building is the Turning Torso, which was built by Santiago Calatrava a few years ago.

I used a Mamiya medium format camera, and as the darkness came down the exposure times got longer, until I was shooting “bulb” exposures of over 30 seconds.  By the time I took the last shot on the roll, it was completely dark although the sky is rendered in a deep midnight blue.  I left the shutter open then got momentarily distracted by a passing vehicle – by the time I turned back to the camera I realised the exposure was much longer than I’d calculated, so my beard was well and truly caught in the letterbox…

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

Having a public opinion on absolutely everything is no way to live.  This is a particular problem in an era of social media where, sometimes, too much is shared.  “You are not compelled to form any opinion about this matter before you, nor to disturb your peace of mind at all.  Things in themselves have no power to extort a verdict from you,” said Marcus Aurelius, and those are words to live by.

A few months after Dublin, I took a trip to Greece.  Whereas I hadn’t been to Dublin before, my trip to Athens came on the anniversary of my first visit in 1995, which was organised as part of the Erasmus exchange programme.  Erasmus enables you to study in other European cities, for a term, semester or a year; in my case, I went to the National Technical University of Athens.

I flew from Heathrow’s Terminal 4 when it was brand new and still fresh.  The flight took us across Europe at night: the sky was clear and coastal cities shone like strings of bright beads.  We arrived in Athens early in the morning.  The sun was up but it was still cool, and I discovered there was no Metro line to the city centre.  It hadn’t been built yet.  There were no buses, either, because their drivers were on strike.

When I met my fellow students later that day, they were amazed I had walked from Olympikos airport into the city centre: but when the Metro is a construction site and all Athens’ bus drivers are sitting under café parasols smoking tabs, what else would you do?  Certainly not give in to the taxi touts.

As the heat rose, I explored the quarter around the hotel we were staying in.  It was quickly evident that Athens has an Anglophone culture – adverts, TV stations, music, announcements on the Metro.  The architectural coursework was in English, too, and Athens dispelled any notion of difference.  The idioms, accents and details differ but at heart all architecture students are good, bad, indifferent; committed, apathetic, and sleep-deprived.

Athens was where I first realised the goodwill which folk in the wider world feel towards Scotland.  My nationality was greeted with smiles and excitement, and in return I was delighted to feel part of a greater whole.  That, I guess, demonstrates the nuts and bolts of what the Erasmus programme is about.

Too quickly I said goodbye to Kathryn from Ireland, Crista from Finland, Marco from Italy and a dozen or so others – along with the Greek students we worked with – and returned home.  Niki, who was so kind and obliging and Maria, who gave me a lift back to the airport.  She drove an old Volvo 340 with whining variomatic transmission - but she really wanted a big enduro motorbike.  She smoked Camels all the way to Departures, and told me all about motorbikes in a husky voice … my heart could have melted.

I wonder where they all are now, and what they’re doing?

I revisited Athens in 2014, looking at Athens through two lenses.  Firstly weighing the perception of memories from almost two decades ago against the present reality, and secondly how external forces like the 2008 crash has changed Athens.  As with Ireland, the European Project has had an impact on Greece. 

Despite the economic collapse and riots, Athens is still working and still striking too – during my second visit, the rail workers stopped work for a couple of days.  There are three metro lines now, not just the one which was under construction when I studied here in 1995.  Then, one of those stations was a construction site close to Syntagma Square, and a vast hole had been dug with sheet-piled sides perhaps 20 metres deep.  The excavations left a palm tree stranded on a column of soil, like the sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy.

In 2014, the metro line from the new airport carried me through miles of arid exurban land before we hit Athens proper.  At Syntagma I got off the train and walked past the local Phase One dealer’s storefront.  Phase One make medium-format digital cameras and software which professional photographers use – and of course they are priced to suit. 

I checked in to my hotel behind a brash Chinese-American with a broken suitcase, who complained loudly about everything – then went exploring to see what had been changed by the Riots.  They were a moment, as William Hazlitt would have it, “When the heart is kindled and bursting with indignation at the revolting abuses of self-constituted power.”

Around the National Technical University of Athens, walls were still covered in graffiti.  The slogans were political with Antifa and anarchist sentiments; much of the graffiti declaims the “Troika”.  In addition to murals the thousands of posters, stickers and pamphlets say that Athenians care about politics in a way that we had forgotten, at least until our independence referendum of September 2014.  Their violent feelings have left their mark in still-shuttered windows and the remains of arson attacks which years later are still raw wounds.

However, look beyond those and in the quiet streets around the NTUA, where ripe oranges fall to earth in thundery heat, little had changed.  The newspaper vendors in little kiosks, smiling policemen carrying sidearms, scrawny strays and Crazy Frog mopeds were all as I remembered from 1994.  Nearby lay the squats and rancid alleys of Exarchion and dozens of stray dogs laid out flat in the baking sun. 

Across the way, the prehensile arm of a concrete pump was delivering screed to the upper floors of the Acropole Grand Hotel.  As I mentioned before, the spinning drums of truckmixers are a universal measure of how well a country’s economy is doing – and by that measure at least Athens was slowly recovering.

Near the old airport, Olympikos, was the brash suburb of Hellenikon, its avenues lined with car dealers and impex firms.  Before I left for Greece, I read that Calatrava’s nearby buildings for the 2004 Olympics had been abandoned, and were overgrown with weeds.  As I discovered, they aren’t derelict – but are certainly under-used.  I suspect the rumour was black propaganda from our London-biased media, put about to contextualise the similarly under-utilised facilities at Stratford in London’s East End.

As with most other cities, Athens “improves” as you go higher.  The gentrified Kifissia and Kolonaki areas sit above the city’s heat haze and pollution.  The apartments are concrete-framed, clad in stucco and pale stone.  Some have floor-to-ceiling glazing, with sliding timber shutters.  At dusk, the lights come on and for a brief time you can sneak a glance at the lives of Athens’ professionals – but now the white Pentelicon marble-paved lobbies have security doors.

Go further uphill and the buildings give way to vetches, laurels, black pines and cordyline palms.  Finally, you reach the top of one of the many hilltops and from there you can see tier after tier of apartments, the major roads terraced across the hillside and short steep flights of stairs stitching them together.

So what of the things that set Ireland and Western Europe apart from Greece and countries in the southern and eastern Mediterranean?  There’s no difference between the underlying results of their economic trials, when you look beyond language, cuisine, and climate.  Construction is a barometer of each developed country’s economy, whether politicians read Juvenal and adopt his “bread and circuses” approach to government – or let the Lords of Misrule have their way in the financial markets.

No, the things which differentiate Athens and Dublin are long-established patterns of development.  Each is stratified by wealth, dividing the population along income lines.  There’s the Anglo-Saxon culture of buying detached houses, against the southern European habit of renting apartments.  In Athens the derelict buildings are being squatted; in Dublin they’re secured with steel sheeting and CCTV.

So I don’t have an opinion on how Athens and Dublin might be “fixed” – how could I with brief visits to two European capitals, one as a student and the other as a travelling photographer – but on reflection I realised that we sometimes need to stop.  Think a little more deeply and look beyond the instant opinions on the screen.  Speak to people, do some research, digest it, then form a thesis, which doesn’t necessarily have to be shared for re-tweeting…

Thanks for indulging me by reading this.  It’s a journal entry which I chose to share, and I guess the chance of Maria reading this are infinitesimally small: but despite those odds, it would be great to hear that she got her wish and is riding a big Triumph Tiger. :-)

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

The Outsiders

28/06/15 21:44

It’s the battle at the heart of every social science going: the individual against the mass.  The distance between “me” and the rest of the world lies at the very core of the human condition.  Despite the fact that we are social animals, biologically and psychically we're separate and apart from other creatures.  Each of us is essentially alone.  We can’t know what another person feels or thinks, nor can they experience our feelings and thoughts.

This separation has powered several of the great novels, like Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and The Outsider by Albert Camus.  We can change, we can renounce the things we believed in, but we can never leave the human race – at best, we set ourselves apart from other people and try to live outside their society.

Many of us go through a phase of teenage rebellion, but the truest sense of splitting apart from the mass of humanity only comes later in your 20’s or 30’s, once you have experienced many years’ worth of what Anthony Burgess described as the formicating crowds of big cities.  You begin to feel dissociated from the milling strangers, and grow tired of the social codes we live by.  You become disenfranchised by them, and wish for something else. 

Some people – artists, poets, novelists – are able to use this experience to feed their work; others disengage completely and withdraw from the world.  What the French call anomie, the feeling of being tired with and unsatisfied by life, may either cause you to chuck it all in … or grow more determined to find your own way in the world.  Architects try to serve society, so they aim for the latter.

Respect and big props are due to those who plough their own furrow – in this context, the architects who neither teach, lecture or write articles.  Reading the story of the Barbican development in London, I was struck by the fact that Chamberlin, Powell & Bon kept their own counsel – not through lack of self-confidence in their approach or opinions, but perhaps through a recognition of the ugly truth, that a good deal of architectural journalism is blatantly self-promotional, yet pretends to critical objectivity. 

If you take articles written by “big name” designers, they invariably flesh out their thesis using their own work  I guess that it takes a large measure of humility not to do that.  There is also the suspicion that the “big names” seek a column in a journal, or a publishing deal, as an outlet for their ego.  Given that, you could argue that Outside is the safest place to be, since you are forced to think for yourself and evaluate places and situations. 

This piece isn’t intended to be didactic or preaching, but I think this lesson is widely applicable – it ranges from the need to question critical theories in architecture books, to the screaming necessity of avoiding trouble in life.  Why does anyone study architecture?  Not because they foresee that one day they’ll work for Practice X, producing window schedules by rote.  Instead, they have their own hopes and aspirations to pursue.  They want to fulfil their own destiny.  In that, architects differ from most other walks of professional life. 

Setting up your own practice is not only about making more money, or having your name above the door – it’s the ability to build your own designs rather than someone else’s.  The Outsiders are just a more extreme version of this imperative.

I’ve talked in previous pieces about practices such as Shearer and Annand, and Bowen Dann Davies, who didn’t court publicity – but the second type of outsiders are those whose work falls entirely outwith the canon, rather than those who simply adopt a low key approach to practice.  Designers such as Rudolph Steiner (Goetheaneum); Constant (New Babylon), and Frederick Kiesler (Endless House) produced work which falls outwith any critical category.  These are rare examples of architecture which is “ab initio” – thought out from first principles, and without reference to anything else. 

Some of these designers were propagandists, who put forward their own manifestoes – Constant was part of the Situationist International for a time, and his designs were part of a greater scheme to reshape the whole world, changing the way we’re governed, as well as the way we build.  Rudolph Steiner developed educational theories into which he tied in an approach to architecture.  You could call this move to the outside a manifesto in itself, or perhaps an escape from manifesto-waving activists.

Regardless of the “position” they choose to take, it’s a pleasure to be offered a fresh view of the world by these designers – and it contrasts with the conventional histories of modern architecture, where you read about the same buildings and the same architects time and time again.  Those books are really just the products of an intellectual conspiracy, since their authors are academic rivals, who compete with each other, yet quote each others’ work in their own footnotes. 

They are the true insiders, and they work a little like a mutual back-scratching society.  If someone comes along with a completely different set of reference points, then that threatens the world view of their academic gang … and they don’t like it up them, as the saying goes.  For the outsiders, these petty intrigues are irrelevant, because they choose not to play the game.

As Dieter Rams wrote, “A designer … does not need to give impressive lectures about it.  He does not need to formulate explicit theories.  After all, he is a designer and not a sociologist, psychologist, historian or philosopher.”  Alvar Aalto backs him up, “The Creator created paper for drawing on.  Everything else is, at least for my part, to misuse paper.”  Perhaps that has something to do with Aalto’s early life – just before starting his architectural studies, Aalto was a trainee in Toivo Salervo’s office.  Said Salervo to Aalto – “You’ll never be an architect, but aim for a career in journalism”.  Maybe that created a lifelong aversion to written communication …

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon neither lectured, tutored nor wrote articles in the specialist press: that made them appear enigmatic, perhaps, but they were interested in practice and saw that the best way to win work was to get on with it.  New commissions arose from existing ones, and they were able to largely side-step the critical debate about the Barbican which ran in magazines of the time. 

Of course, the flip-side of keeping your own counsel is that others may talk on your behalf – but a waspish review in a magazine will be forgotten within the year, whereas the building will stand for a couple of generations.  In these media-obsessed times, that’s worth remembering.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized