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"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…

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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. :-)

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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.

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The Great Apes

07/06/15 20:31

Architecture students beware – it’s a jungle out there.

In the next few weeks, young monkeys will leave the protective bosom of the troop, and make their way into the jungle.  So far during their sheltered upbringing, they have learned about the world indirectly, and their responses have been carefully conditioned.  They can distinguish “good” from “bad”; they can discern, and they can declaim pastiche … all thanks to the jungle elders who taught them to admire the chest-beating antics of the mighty silverbacks. 

As Rudyard Kipling knew, every jungle has its king, and the particular megafauna in charge of this stretch of upland forest are loud, aggressive characters who like to impose themselves on those further down the food chain.  Sure, there are other threats – sleek silent predators with gleaming teeth, and unspeakable things which lurk in the mangroves – but the bellowing of the Great Apes makes a lasting impression on the young monkeys.  Something with so much presence must be important – right? 

All that chest-beating and branch-shaking must have a purpose.  They make so much noise and fuss, they must be in charge, isn’t that so?  These are the beasts at the top of the tree, after all …

One youngster harboured a desire to work for one of the greatest apes.  The latter’s name was Maximillian.  He was greater than the other apes in many ways – he had his own private jet, for example.  His wife dressed only in Prada.  He rose into the tree canopy using his own private elevator.  The young monkey was hugely impressed when she met Maximillian, overpowered by his musk of charisma and his “presence” – hence she was delighted when she found a place waiting for her after the interview. 

In fact, she found it disarmingly easy to join the troop, and apart from a close circle of confidants around Maxi, the youngster found herself surrounded by young primates just like herself.  All fresh-faced, keen and looking for direction.  So keen in fact, that they approached the Great Ape with deference and worked gratis, or for next to nothing.  Strangely, that earned them his disdain rather than respect.

Once she had her start, the youngster was dismayed to find that Maximillian wasn’t good to be around.  Being alpha male meant that he had to spend part of each day beating his chest, because his life was a constant struggle to maintain status in the jungle hierarchy.  He scanned the papers, earwigged the gossip and tuned in to the jungle telegraph to find out when he was mentioned, and with how much deference, compared to the other silverbacks.  If he appeared to be slipping, he grew tetchy.  For example, the youngster learned that she couldn’t discuss other Great Apes within his earshot: if anyone did, he bared his teeth and roared at the youngsters, occasionally sweeping several of them off a branch in a fit of pique.  They didn’t try to climb back up.

At other times, Maximillian was quiet and sly, creeping around to find out what the monkeys said about him in private, behind his back.  Yet even she knew not to listen to the chimps’ idle chatter.  She had imagined that Maxi would be far too busy, and too thick-skinned, to worry about trivia like this, but apparently not so.  The youngster had hoped that she would benefit from, and be enriched by, working with Maximillian, but it turned out to be a one-way transaction. 

The troop worked on into the night, when everything in the jungle apart from the bats and night-crawlers roosted and slept.  The hiss of carbide lamps, and the circling of great dark moths, grew to be familiar experiences to her.  When the sun came up the next day, they were all shattered, but providing Maximillian was off travelling the continent in his private jet, work ground to a halt and they caught up with sleep.  Everyone knew it wasn’t a good way to operate: it sapped their will as much as their energy, yet it was perpetuated by Maximillian.

The same unreality extended to the detail of the work they did.  Maxi had a licence from his clients to do whatever he liked – the lions, tigers and bears of this world don’t curtail his budget, and never restricted his ability to decide on their behalf what they should have.  So he specified Carrara marble (the most expensive kind) on every surface, and always used lights made by iGibboni (sorry!), the famously expensive makers of mangrove chandeliers. 

This is not a true reflection of how the world works, as all the other monkeys out there are on a budget.  Maximillian seemed to be happy, provided everything specified was suitably expensive, and that drawings and models were ready on time.  Trouble erupted when he jumped off his jet just hours before the next big meeting, and reviewed the work they had produced for it.  If he didn’t like it – and often he picked on something he himself had decided on weeks ago – then there was a chorus of screaming, bellowing and rending.  Pack up your things and go, he roared after whichever CAD monkey took the blame.

This year, more than before, things are tough in the jungle.  For each position, there are countless jostling cybergibbons – all of them prepared to work for peanuts.  Having grown used to peanuts, it may take years for them to raise their sights – even when things improve.  Meantime, Maximillian lives up to his name (he maks a million in fee income alone, nevermind the personal appearances at lectures, and product design endorsements) – whilst letting go of troupes at the edge of his empire.  Hopefully the chattering of macaques will drown out the bad P.R.  Nevertheless, there are fewer beasts at the top of the pyramid prepared to let him crave their indulgence.  Has he changed his approach?  What do you think?

Why does he act the way he does? asked our youngster after a few weeks in Maximillian’s employ.  ”Because he gets away with it,” replied one of the monkeys who had worked for him a little longer.  You see, Maximillian travels the world, courting every other species for work, giving lectures, gaining professorships, honours and other bays – but he doesn’t look after his own. 

The young ones who arrive each summer are part-formed: he was once just like them, but he’s long ago forgotten that.  They rely on him to show them how the jungle really works, to take on a pastoral role while they find their feet and gain confidence, but he shows them only himself.  The strong ones who demonstrate character end up fighting him, and are ejected from the troop.  The weaker ones are cowed, and eventually limp away having lost enthusiasm and motivation.  Yet each time a monkey leaves, it takes a little of the troop with it, and so the collective memory of “how we do things” is lost.  Maximillian chooses to ignore that.

This youngster was smart enough to discover that although she normally lived on the lower branches, she could still climb to the top of the tree occasionally, to see how the primates live.  More importantly, she knew she could climb back down again, leaving them to it.

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Everyone can tell when you have a big project on site, because you start being philosophical about contractors, or Sympathy for the Construction Industry.  We have a main contractor from over the North Channel, and a cladding contracts manager who is the spit of Samuel Beckett - with an aquiline face and glasses pushed up into his shock of grey hair.

So we shot the breeze.  What conclusion did we reach?  Of the many analogies you can draw to illuminate how building contractors operate – a three ring circus; the Muppet Show; or an anarchists’ symposium – the most apt is that of a medieval court.

In reality, whilst they may see themselves as progressive, the Main Board directors of large contractors actually preside over an organisation which is feudal, and at least 500 years out of date.  Many construction firms cling to hierarchies, and confrontational ways of working – they think of themselves as a conquering army, and as a result, a passion for the fight overtakes good business sense.  Perhaps that explains why their profit margins are so low despite their high turnover and huge amounts of capital employed. 

Yet the power of the analogy really lies in what happens on site.  I’ve watched several of the big contractors at close quarters – the stock market-listed leviathans – and they strongly resemble each other in how they do what they do.  Immediately the contract is let, they arrive on site from elsewhere, much like the medieval court which voyaged around Scotland  and set up in the fields around the castle.  In this case, the tented camp takes the form of the site establishments: the huts.

Hut City is a diagram of the contractor’s power structure.  Although the Lords Temporal aren’t here, room has to be made available in the admin offices for the courtiers, including a Darnley figure in the QS’s room.  Visiting statesmen are accommodated in the meeting room, and there’s a retinue of camp followers who are provided with a staff mess to change into their courtly rigger boots.  The men-at-arms are given a wee buckie and tabards marked “Security”.  Then of course there is the baggage train, who deposit their shipping containers around the standard, just like a stockade.

Everything is painted in the house colours, and that livery even extends to clothing and tool boxes.  Whilst that identifies everyone, it also makes it easy for fifth-columnists to merge with the ranks.  It is surprisingly easy for a spy in the court to move freely: all it takes is a hat and tabard matching all the others wandering around on site.  I know this because I’ve done it, and it proves that “security” on sites is illusory.  Why would you climb the stockade of spiky-topped Heras fencing, when you can walk directly over the drawbridge and in through the main gate?  That’s called being hidden in plain sight.

When a small, country-based builder takes on a project, he puts a portable bog and a tool store on site, then each day two or three of his vans turn up, filled with time-served tradesmen.  By contrast, when the Court of the Crimson King comes to town, the resulting site establishment costs are crippling.  By creating Hut City, you create a hiding place for the site management, who are already far removed from the lads on the tools.  The site is by now a muddy plain resembling a battlefield, churned up by modern siege engines running on crawler tracks.

Don’t be fooled, archaeologists of the present, by the laser rangefinders, hydraulic piledrivers, and all-terrain dumpers: the early stages of construction are still dirty, crude and primitive.  They take as their precedent the work of Dark Ages military engineers (the original “engineers”) who undermined city walls, built massive catapults, and rode in Trojan horses.  Modern methods of construction have nothing on this: wall ties lie strewn like crossbow bolts, towers of scaffolding lay siege, and the impression of a mailed fist marks the place where the M&E sub fell out with the ceiling installers. 

Construction is bad neighbour activity, much like pitched battles, because of the noise, filth, and the fog of war.  At 7.30am sharp, a row of excavators and articulated dumptrucks are started up: the air fills with blue smoke, coarse language and the throbbing of many large capacity diesel engines.  All this reassures the contractor that “there’s something gaein on”, even if he’s “jist steerin up the mud.”

So with his warlike attitude, an army of hangers-on, and the paraphenalia of battle, the big contractor needs to take the fight to the enemy.  Or rather, he opens a second front.  On one hand, the conflict continues with the architect over extras and delays; on the other, the sub-contractors endure a second round of tendering.  In this, they are paying tribute a more powerful force.  The royal house is building up a war chest, and imposing payment terms on the vassals is a good way of accomplishing that. 

Anyhow, the analogy of military misadventure could be spun out for entertainment value, but it can be swiftly routed by noting what came after the Dark Ages … Enlightenment.  250 years ago, architects were called the “Masters of Works”.  A client proposed to construct something: the architect liaised with him, then designed, organised and oversaw building work.  The Adam Brothers offered a turnkey service, much as an architect-developer with a direct project management arm would do today. 

The Victorians, by professionalising design, and splitting it from construction, set us back by several centuries.  That lost time has yet to be recovered.  Only by re-uniting the folk who draw buildings, with the folk who make them, will we drag the construction industry out of its Dark Ages.

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ANOTHER POST?  Don't you do anything else with your time?  Don't you have a life?  Yes, and each year my social diary includes the local degree show – this year, Duncan of Jordanstone is local, a couple of years ago it was ECA, and before that, Scott Sutherland.  However, each time I visit a show, I end up ruminating about the whole construct of architectural education, rather than just the drawings on the wall.

The crits are over for another year, and wide-eyed graduates emerge, blinking, into the sunlight.  The best of their work remains on the wall for a few days more, before disappearing forever into a portfolio under the bed in their parents’ spare room.  In a few years’ time, the CAD files will be unreadable by the current version of Autocad, and the platter of the hard drive they’re stored on will stutter and skip, refusing to be read.  If the graduate is lucky, the slightly-dog-eared sheets of Fabriano run through the Designjet will remain as a memento of happier days…

For now, though, those drawings are fresh and the ideas are up for scrutiny.

We have a fascination with the intangible means by which tangible things come into being.   We make vain attempts to get closer to the work, and we struggle to externalise what goes on in other folks’ heads.  Their work is tangible, but the thoughts preceding it are immaterial, so that in the end we focus on the creator, since we can apprehend the person more easily than the process.  It’s easier in the case of architecture students, because the work is unmediated, and students are relieved if anyone takes an interest.

So, what is this architecture thing?  Is it just as much about the architect as his or her creation?  What do this year’s graduates have to look forward to?

We may visualise Scarpa, Lewerentz or Corbusier as a figure in dark, sober clothes: an old man, peering through glasses, thanks to poor eyesight born of decades spent staring at drawings.   He leans forward, engrossed in laying lines onto paper; in front of him, a wall of shelves crammed with books, postcards, architectural models, interesting bits of stone, photographs and boxes of slides. 

His nodding head and shoulders adopt the set of the anglepoise lamp clamped to the drawing board.   His forearms sit on the cant of the board, along with a clutch pencil, a roll of detail paper and a box of aquarelles.   At his elbow is an assistant – perhaps an a trusted associate, more often a recent graduate – someone who is grateful to be there, who may work long hours for little gain, in return for the opportunity to see genius in action. 

The space is large, high-ceilinged, with northlight thrown deep into it by tall windows and diffused by raw, whitewashed walls.   In the corner shadows are black steel planchests set onto a woodblock floor, and hung on the wall is a giant model consisting of layers of balsa and boxwood built up into buildings and contours.   The model represents a whole city block, torn apart and recreated.

Hold on there son, Genius, did you say?

Kurt Vonnegut's novel “Bluebeard”, posits that three unusual and unlikely types of people are needed are needed for any revolution to be successful.  Architecture, I guess, is no different.

“Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening teams with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.  The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

“The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius – a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. "A genius working alone," he says, "is invariably ignored as a lunatic."

“The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. "A person like this working alone," says Slazinger, "can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be."

“The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. "He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting," says Slazinger. "Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey."

“Slazinger, high as a kite, says that every successful revolution, including Abstract Expressionism, the one I took part in, had that cast of characters at the top – Pollock being the genius in our case, Lenin being the one in Russia's, Christ being the one in Christianity's.
He says that if you can't get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.”

If the keen-eyed and keen-eared graduate is lucky, she may have landed on her feet.  She may be in the company of Vonnegut’s first sort, the authentic genius.  In which case, she’ll discover that the design studio is as important a creation as the image of the master himself –  it is neither drawing office nor artist’s workshop, but a hive where the lights burn all night and in that, it replicates architecture school, where work sometimes continues through the wee hours, fuelled by caffeine and desperation.

However, architecture school still looms large in her mind.  She is conflicted.  From whom will she learn best: the professor who teaches, or the godhead who builds?  She has a deep suspicion that the staff at the architecture school look upon the students as being Vonnegut’s third sort, the kind of people who open their mouth during crits and let their belly rumble.  She suspects they view those students as Christmas turkeys.

A young woman – let’s say she’s Danish – pins up the drawings of her final scheme for a crit jury.   After several days with little sleep, she is about to experience the serial inquisition which terrorises architecture students.   She lays off for fifteen minutes about the concepts behind her design, the influences she has paid homage to.  

The prof. sits with smouldering pipe, listening intently, then pronounces – “Aye lass, that’s aa richt and richt enough…” at which point he fixes her with beady eye, and continues with vehement emphasis – “but FAR’S THE LAVVIES?”

This is the knock-out blow, and having worked through the night, her resistance is low and she is quite unprepared for it.  She fights back tears as she tries to engage this giant bearded man, with smoke issuing from his head, about “architecture”.  He, however, is looking for a different thing entirely, confusingly also called ARCHITECTURE.  It’s a practical art: surely you can see that?  The crit is not a success.

Yet it is the image of the master, rather than the prof, which is the lasting one which students fix on.  Having left architecture school, the acolyte takes her opportunity to get as close as possible to the fountainhead.  Most of her time, she exists in a different place, with unstable computers, tins of dead Rotrings, and irate clients who telephone to ask why water is pouring through their light fittings.

Her other time – her “own” time, often late into the evening – is spent hunched over the master’s board, taking a junior role in debate, as sounding board, occasionally devil’s advocate.   She may not contribute positively to the creation, but the master uses her to knock out the negatives (in both senses).   Thus the scales slowly fall away from her eyes…

For my next post … I may actually get to the point, and do a review of the Duncan of Jordanstone Degree Show.  Possibly the Scott Sutherland show, too.

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Frozen in Time

10/03/13 17:21

“Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless, starving wretch to lay him down and die.  Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets, at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.”

If you recognise that quote from Oliver Twist, but don’t think it has any bearing on your life or work, then you’re surely in the wrong profession.

I was down in Edinburgh, and as tea-time approached, I headed towards Waverley from the offices of the firm where I was completing some urban design work.  First, I saw a sheet of cardboard on the ground.  Then I noticed the young woman huddled in a blanket, with her feet drawn up towards her, in the doorway of a tenement on the edge of the New Town.  Her face was a study of inscrutability; she had switched off against the cold.  Passers-by barely registered as they hurried past.

This, remember, is one of Europe’s great cities.  Affluence is relative, but wealth is absolute.  Despite everything which has happened over the past five years, we live in a country which is still one of the richest in the world.  If the will was there, we could virtually eradicate homelessness and the need to beg for money.  The fact that we haven’t done so damns government, churches and charities: but most of all it challenges our moral courage and the good intentions we voice when we see homeless people.

I don’t care how the young woman landed in that tenement doorway in the snow – it’s none of my business, even if she’d wanted to tell me – but it’s an affront to our society that she felt she had no other option.  On reflection, she didn’t need cash, although on the level of human empathy, a couple of quid for a roll and a hot drink would make a huge difference on a winter’s evening.  Yet that would treat the symptoms, but not the disease.

Perhaps the young woman’s problems spiral from the housing shortage, which isn’t down to an absolute lack of buildings, but a result of economics.  Mortgages are too expensive, and there is a lack of starter homes and small flats.  As a result, more people have to rent privately, so rentals increase.  That increase in rental yields drives landlords to buy up more housing stock, so the problem worsens and more people look to social housing. 

However, although there are lots of large houses and executive flats lying empty, unsold for years due to their high cost, there aren’t enough housing association flats or council houses to go around.  More people end up homeless, and end up in temporary accommodation like B&B’s.  Those who fall off the end of that chain, end up sofa surfing or on the streets.  If they’re lucky, they may get a place in a night shelter.

Perhaps she was crouched in a doorway as a result of a drug habit.  Or mental illness, divorce, drink, unemployment, breakdown … It’s a measure of our civilisation that any of these personal tragedies could result in someone ending up without a roof over their head.  Rather than cash, she possibly needed help to quit her habit, to get clean and get away from the people who had dragged into this state, and help to get a roof back over her head.  Our society is wealthy enough to provide an umbrella for those who really need it.

Contrary to what the Tory Party claimed, there is such a thing as society.  We don’t have to provide huge “hand outs”, because putting a roof over everyone’s head isn’t a financial or economic issue - but a practical one.  The property industry is in huge surplus - not financially, but materially.  Drug rehabilitation projects, such as Calton Athletic, and community healthcare practices, need premises.  Think of all the unlet offices, empty flats and derelict buildings: a tiny proportion given over to bedrooms, kitchens, workshops, could provide for folk who’ve ended up on the street.  Some buildings could be adapted very simply, others could be renovated, incidentally creating work for the people they are designed to help.

When I reached Waverley and found a seat on a train heading northwards, I opened my book for the journey - a book about the life and work of Colin Ward.  Following Russian thinkers like Kropotkin and Herzen, Ward was a passionate believer in co-operativism and mutual aid.  He believed that politics should nurture small-scale initiatives like friendly societies, mutuals, credit unions and the like, which in turn would foster self-build housing, allotments, adventure playgrounds and other things which folk can do for themselves to improve their own lives.  Thus a huge range of modest projects would replace the tyranny of giant, centrally-planned policies which governments like to impose on the people who voted for them. 

The current government sees people like the young woman in St Stephen Street as a burden on society.  The mass media presses its telephoto lens into the face of human tragedy – only if that face belongs to celebrity.  To the hungry addict or abused teenager begging on its doorstep, it turns it back.  Collectively, we could help.  In fact, if architecture can’t help those who most need our help, then it has failed.  After reflecting on Colin Ward’s manifesto of gentle anarchism, I recalled one of my friends, whose email address includes the phrase, “compassionate fury”.  Rather than pity, shame or disgust, that is surely what we should feel when we see poverty and suffering on the streets of our cities.

As a parting shot, compassionate fury could also direct the activities of under-employed architects, and graduates who can’t find conventional jobs with architectural practices.  I challenge anyone who has set themselves up recently to provide community engagement, participation sessions and neighbourhood consultations, to demonstrate the social worth of their work when they consider the desperation which is manifest in Scottish cities.

Ah yes, reply the engagers, but homelessness is outwith our terms of reference.  We won’t get grants from the Scottish Government to help those who are homeless (therefore we won’t make any money ourselves!)  In fact, although we can’t admit it openly – if communities were encouraged to go down the Colin Ward route of self-help and mutual aid, there would be no need at all for the community engagement, participation sessions and neighbourhood consultations we provide – and all the effort and money spent on them could be redirected. 

Perhaps that would be no bad thing.  If we can’t help those who are in most desperate need of our help, then we will need to admit that nothing has improved since Dickens’ time, 150 years ago.

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There is an inherent beauty in machines, perhaps because they take on a life of their own, in a way that buildings never could.  They are often mere tools created to overcome the challenges of the world – terrain, gravity, weather – yet we look on them to impose order on a disorderly universe.

As a child of Meccano and Lego, I was always interested in making things.  Sometimes the parts came in kit form, sometimes I rummaged for scrap iron, pulley blocks, angle irons and so forth.  Making a scale model of a crawler crane was one project: I had a single-cylinder Villiers engine from an old Ransomes “Typhoon” mower earmarked as a prime mover, and 56lb. lumps of pig iron set aside as a counterweight.  The kinetics of craning, slewing and winching have fascinated ever since, and I guess there’s always the bonus of some entertainment when things go wrong.

Later, this childhood interest combined with the books I was reading, such as Lebbeus Woods’ “War and Architecture”, and Paul Virilio’s “Unknown Quantity”.  The latter is quite unlike anything else I’ve read: Virilio explores a philosophical approach towards unpredictability and disaster.  Once I’d read it through a couple of times, it clicked – here is a rational response to the seeming chaos of the world, from earthquakes and hurricanes to the smaller scale disorder and disasters of building sites.

Truckmixer in the mud

Having a project on site opens your eyes: the ground opens up while a truckmixer is reversing, the shifting sands swallow an excavator, cranes topple over and have to be rescued, lorries get stuck in muddy fields.  Watching a vehicle being extracted from a morass is always interesting: when the ground doesn’t have sufficient bearing capacity, the wheels sink in, and the vehicle ends up resting on the rails of its chassis.  A massive tractive effort may be required to pull it clear of the bog’s suction, perhaps using a Traxcavator or Cat D12 bulldozer if you happen to have one handy...

A perennial challenge is delivering materials to site without the need for double-handling.  Ideally you want a vehicle which can drive straight off the road onto the site.  Back in the early days of truckmixer, the influence of wartime ingenuity was still felt.  Boughton Engineering are best known today for the big “rollatruck” skips which demolition contractors use; when full, they’re collected by an eight wheeler using a giant hydraulic hook which clasps the skip end and hauls it onto the chassis.  However, they made their name during the 1940’s building all-drive lorry chassis for the Army, and in the peace which followed, they used their experience of all terrain lorries to convert standard Bedfords into 6x6 drive Boughtons with low-ratio gearboxes and diff locks.  The end results were road-going lorries capable of driving through construction sites.

Scammell S24 tank tractor

On the other hand, a “normal” truck stuck in a hole can become a full-blown recovery job, perhaps requiring 50-tonne cranes and an ex-Army Scammell S24 tank tractor.  The exercise begins with baulks of timber, snatch blocks, Tirfor winches, and a silent prayer to the Gods of Unconventional Lifting …  Lorry rescue is a specialist business, and once freed, heavy goods vehicles are never towed on rope or chains.  The two vehicles are connected by an umbilical cord in the form of an air line (since, unless there’s compressed air in the stranded vehicle’s tanks, its brakes will stay applied), but the towing lorry does the braking for both vehicles, with all the retardation transferred through a rigid steel towbar.

Laurel and Hardy made the most of getting stuck, and often ended up lying face down in the mud, with a Model T minus all its bodywork, a great cloud of black smoke, and a braying donkey looking on … I can sympathise.  One day I arrived on site to discover the contractor trying to rescue a cherrypicker which was trapped in the glaur.  A large crowd of workmen looked on as a JCB full-slew attempted to propel the cherrypicker out of its rut by whacking its engine pod using a two cubic metre bucket.  It looked like something from Robot Wars – except there was no sign of a glamorous TV frontwoman wearing leather trousers – and although the excavator eventually won, I’m glad I didn’t have to take the cherrypicker back to the hire shop.

Channel Tunnel TBM

Tunnel Boring Machines or “TBM’s” are another good example of Homo Faber versus world.  A typical shield boring machine, as built by James Howden in Glasgow, may weigh 500 tons, cost £10 million, and can drive a tunnel six metres in diameter at a speed of two revolutions per minute.  The TBM is large and complex, leaving the factory on a train of oversize low-loaders, and taking months to erect in its new underground habitat.  Disaster followed in the case of the Storebaelt tunnel in Denmark a few years ago.  One full year after work began and with only minor progress made, water from the seabed found its way through the TBM head which had been left open by mechanics.  Both 300 metre long tunnel drives were instantly flooded, and the two TBM’s seriously damaged.  They needed a complete rebuild.  The high stakes conform to Virilio’s risk thesis.

Ground conditions have a habit of thwarting us repeatedly.  On another site I attended, a hydraulic excavator scraped away the overburden and began shifting the rock underlying it.  The machine worked all morning, its boom sweeping around balletically, its counterweights sliding like part of a pinball machine.  Soon, men were driving timber profiles shaped like a hangman’s gibbet into the soil.  Then with a loud squeal, an NCK piledriver crawled onto the site, looking rather reptilian.  It moved hard against the rock face, slewed its driving gear into position – then there was a flash of light, and a resounding CRACK!  It turned out there was a high voltage cable in the path of the steel pile: it was wrapped in black tarry stuff like elephant hide, which melted in the flashover.  Thankfully, the driver of the piledriver was saved by his rubber-soled boots.

An unlucky horsebox

The drowned TBM, stranded lorry and zapped piledriver prove that we’re surrounded by entropy.  What we casually dismiss as Murphy’s Law is actually a sign of the fundamental lawlessness of Nature, because the universe is always trying to return to its basis state.  In response, we have to improvise using machines.  Yet entropic chaos has been used by artists, musicians and even architects, such as Lucien Kroll or Elemer Zalotay.  It may seem perverse to consciously design something to appear random, and the result may be a little contrived, like the so-called random number generator on your calculator. 

Yet there is an honesty in the approach of anyone who admits to chaos, rather than forcing order on reluctant materials and as Paul Virilio suggests, we have a morbid fascination with disaster.  If we spot a lorry stuck in a bog, our sympathy for the hapless driver is mixed with a little derision, a sense of the futility of Man’s actions, and perhaps the fecklessness of building contractors.

Rescue is a practical way to deal with trucks which are stuck; Kroll’s aleatoric design method is an intellectual approach to rationalise the seeming randomness of the world and its forces, but there are countless pitfalls to consider, plus some we may not even be aware of (pace Donald Rumsfeld’s rhetoric about “known unknowns and unknown unknowns”).  Instead, we can learn from another American.  Hungry Joe in Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22” collected lists of fatal diseases and arranged them in alphabetical order, so that he could quickly put his finger on the one he most wanted to worry about.

We are in a similar fix, except that there are many more things on a building site which could go wrong...

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I usually write articles, and review books, whilst I’m travelling on trains. Often I scribble in the journal I’ve kept, on and off, over the years since I left architecture school. That’s particularly useful to record an interesting conversation with a stranger, or as an impression strikes you. So to see in the New Year of 2012 (five weeks late … the hangover of a spontaneous trip to Yorkshire, freelance work with raw files, and a squatter of old mills, carried itself through Burns Night into February) here are some anecdotes picked up sur la route.

I - Summer 2005
For a spell in 2005, I travelled up and down the meandering railway from Aberdeen to Inverness each week, working on a project to refurbish a biotechnology firm’s laboratories. It’s true that things subtly change the further north you go, and my eyes were opened by how they do business in the Highlands. The journeys were also thought-provoking, in as much as I had plenty of time to think as the elderly Sprinter train trundled through a landscape of fields slowly enough that you could wave “hello” to the sheep as you passed.

One particular day, with a site pre-start meeting to attend, I boareded in Aberdeen and sat down opposite an older chap who told me he had served a couple of decades on the rigs, and whose time offshore was coming to a close. He was affable enough, and once he established what I did for a living, he expressed an interest in using his savings to buy cranes to hire out to construction firms. Although the memory of the man has begun to fade, the conversation sticks in my mind. 

With the certainty of someone who has convinced himself that all businesses work the same way, he told me all about the beast of an NCK Eiger crawler crane which he would hire out on a tremendous day rate to steel erectors, who were presently extending Inverness upwards. I mentioned that there were already several firms hiring out mobile cranes to contractors, and in fact one in Inverness itself called Weldex with a large fleet of giant crawlers who may well have cornered the market in construction hire.

At that he eyed me a little suspiciously, decided that I didn’t have an entrepreneurial spirit, then changed the subject onto how slowly the train was travelling through the sheep-filled fields. His impression was correct in one sense – over the next couple of years, my reading told me that trouble was coming to the construction industry, because property prices were too high (houses at an all-time high multiple of salaries) and the canny Scottish investment trusts like Alliance and Personal Asset, were already holding more cash.  Now wasn’t the time to spend your life savings on a crane so large it needed three low loaders to move it around between conjectural building sites.

Thoughts of crane haulage fell away during a pre-start meeting where it transpired (to no-one’s surprise but my own) that everyone else knew everyone else, had worked with each other many times, and that circumvented the need for an agenda, rules of engagement or perhaps even the pre-start meeting itself. The return journey was just as interesting: a couple of young lads embarked in Elgin, and set down a carrier bag on the table. At least one had come ashore off a fishing boat in Lossiemouth, and he set to work on the bag’s contents – a bottle of cola and a companion volume of Jack Daniels. 

He measured it out generously, one for his pal, one for himself, then held a plastic cup out towards me. I told him thanks anyway and shook my head.  Despite his penchant for sour malt, he wasn’t a fisherman in the heroic Hemingway mould, but rather a character from Cannery Row. He shucked off his battered leather jacket, rubbed his hand over his arms, eyes and crew cut, then described in vivid detail how run-down the boat he sailed on was. By the time we reached Aberdeen both bottles were empty, and the fisherman looked decidedly derelict, too.

II - Spring 2006
The sun flashed over the wet sand at Lunan Bay, then a few moments later the train slowed for the viaduct over the South Esk, and the train clickety-clacked into the station at Montrose. The tide was out, and the exposed mudflats were pungent. My fellow travellers during that time of terrorism, pandemics and avian influenza were concerned: did contagious wildfowl fly in from Turkey, and did they land in the Montrose Basin, like Violet Jacob’s wild geese decades before?

H5N1 was in the news every day, and each morning I saw Glaxo’s pharmacologists on the train. They surely came from Central Casting – one balding egghead please, with overbearing opinions; plus one mad professor with a fluting voice and ZZ Top beard. Certainly, we have some model release forms right here. Thanks man, they fit the bill. Glaxo had recently been given a Government contract to develop a vaccine against the H5N1 strain, so I assume that was what these two were working on; certainly the big complex near the town’s harbour was slated for closure until GSK won that contract, now it was booming again.

Egg rode a touring bike with giant saddle bags; the Prof rode one of those comical Moulton bikes with little wheels, like Reyner Banham used. They may have known little about it, but could not escape from the tentacles of the construction industry: they talked about the new buildings erected on Cobden Street to house new production processes, and knowingly tapped out messages on the keyboards of their cheap black plastic Thinkpads. Were these secret formulae, DNA strings – or perhaps grumbles about programme delays caused by a shortage of specialist vaccine plant contractors…

I’ll never know, because some time later, Egg and Prof stopped getting that train: perhaps they were laid off when H5N1 became an unfounded scare, rather than a pandemic. Shortly before, it had seemed that it was spreading globally and mankind would succumb, apart perhaps from two pharmacologists who would pedal off into the sunset, with a goose stuffed under each arm.

I wonder what Glaxo are doing with their shiny new buildings now?

III - Autumn 2006
The slab boy, John Byrne, probably travelled undetected by most other passengers – but for several weeks late in 2006, I noticed a tall man with a close resemblance travelling northwards. The train horn honked like a sick goose, then it pulled out of the station: the sun glinted off the metal-sculpted eiders frozen in flight at Montrose on departure. Half an hour on, that same sun illuminated the filth on Aberdeen’s streets.  It may offend native Aberdonians, but the route from the railway station up to the city’s main street is desperate – a strip club, the Triads’ takeaway, a porn monger, and a pavement spattered with vomit after the weekend’s excesses.

By way of contrast, John Patrick Byrne cut an impressive figure – the hawkish profile, the salt-and-pepper moustache, the long legs taking long strides. He wore a green hacking jacket, jeans, Chelsea boots. He had a khaki piece bag slung over his shoulder, and a rollie-up pressed to his lip, once freed from the fag restrictions of train and station. All the while he was the observer rather than observed, perhaps jotting his thoughts into a notebook en route to the stage door.

He went striding up the stinking ravine of Bridge Street in Aberdeen each morning, but we diverged once we came to the top of Bridge Street: he carried on along Union Terrace, past the big bronze of Burns with his hairpiece of seagull shit, towards His Majesty’s. The pieces clicked into place: a production of “Tutti Frutti” was being staged at the theatre, and because Byrne lived at Newport-on-Tay at that time, he had to travel northwards for rehearsals. 

I headed up Union Street, past the run-down charity shops and empty units, wondering what Byrne made of the dirty streets of his destination, against the douce avenues of Newport – often described as Dundee’s Rive Gauche.  A few months later, work began on rebuilding the area around Aberdeen station. Dripping, rusting girder trusses – boiler-plated iron, marked with stalactites of lime and calcite streaming from the stonework; rubbish piled on the broken areas behind the platforms; crazed glass in the pedestrian bridges above the Inverness line.

IV - Winter 2010
Changed days, travelling southwards through the Howe of Fife and beyond. The longest rail journey I’ve made in this country – having traversed Germany on an ICE train a couple of years before – led me from Dundee down to Bristol. The train crossed from east to west, taking the line Carstairs line through unpopulated border country then Carlisle, Oxenholme and Preston. By then, I’d changed onto a Voyager, and my backside was numb, tired of sitting no matter how comfortable the seat. 

We won brief glimpses of canal in the winter sun on the way into Birmingham and its grim cavern at New Street.  Two long hours later, Bristol Temple Meads was a revelation: but not in a positive way. You disembark at Brunel’s grand western terminus and within a couple of minutes, you pass the gaunt, burnt-out shell of the Parcelforce building. Inner city dereliction on this scale, and abandonments which have stayed abandoned this long, seem to be a rarity now in Scotland, but Bristol has its own ecosystem. 

That was reinforced when we came through an underpass where a homeless man was pushing a shopping trolley with all his possessions inside it. It’s a scene familiar from documentaries on the Bronx in the 1970’s, but it was jarring in today’s supposedly Big Society Britain.

Yet … half a mile away is a grand Georgian square, a regenerated harbour front with upmarket shops, and the Arnolfini Gallery. Beyond that lies a monster shopping centre, Cabot Circus, which cost a nine figure sum to build. Head a mile in the opposite direction, though, and a derelict old chocolate factory sits rotting, and streets climb up the hill behind it lined with squats and terraces of peeling stucco, rainbow-painted VW Microbuses pulled into the kerb. The site of an old furniture factory had become a self-builders’ enclave, with all the crazy variety of an urban Findhorn. 

You soon realise this is perhaps the least egalitarian city of all, aside from the Great Wen of London, and that society’s extremes flourish in a cheek-by-jowl way you don’t generally see further north. Bristol is chastening because during my three days there, I gained the impression that the architects, lawyers, environmental charities and so forth who inhabit the docklands are the real ghetto-dwellers, and their efforts haven’t made a real difference to anyone’s lives but their own.

The purpose of travel, they say, is to open your own mind as much as to learn more about the world. It is whatever you take from it… in this case a broadened and lowered perspective of this country… perhaps the last years of Britain, before the country itself regenerates.  The motive is the same as the reason why I take photos of human landscapes.

Speaking of which, the next post will hopefully be a photo essay about one of Scotland’s great old names, and its ultimate fate.

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Can you hear them, gnashing and wailing again that the barbarians are at the gate?  TV and print journalists are uneasy about the rise of the net, and with good reason.  Fifteen years ago, only Steve Jobs, Alvin Toffler and William Gibson guessed that old media would roll over and be replaced by a world-wide web of computers.  It’s taken a couple of decades for the rest of us to catch up. Mind you, the Mancunian prophet Mark E. Smith had its consequences figured out in 1993, on his album “The Infotainment Scan”…

Andrew Marr’s recent attack on internet commentators betrays his unease, which manifested itself in a criticism of so-called weblogs and “bloggers” – as being “socially inadequate, pimpled, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men” – and the so-called citizen journalism as “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.”  Bloggers: an ugly term, but one which has stuck.  Aside from the hypocrisy of Andrew Marr criticising anyone for their appearance (after all, did he get his break on TV thanks to his matinée idol looks … ?) he appears to miss the point.  Writing on the internet sprang up both to embrace an opportunity, and to fill a void.  That there is good and bad on the web is a given; as on television, as in life generally.

The point is that in an era of Rupert Murdoch, whose tentacles extend far beyond the wildest dreams of Beaverbrook or William Randolph Hearst, we lack a broad spectrum of commentary on politics.  Where are the strong dissenting voices – nationalist, ecological, far right, far left, fundamentalist – in the centrist British media?  The context is similar to the arrival of music fanzines in the 1980’s – the advent of cheap xerox machines allowed fans to “do it for themselves” by publishing their own little magazines about the music they liked – music which was often ignored by the mainstream press.  Some of the writing in fanzines wasn’t worth reading, but quite a few writers, editors and illustrators later graduated to the glossy magazines or “inkies” (music papers like the late lamented Melody Maker or Sounds).  The new outlet for music criticism allowed good, bad and ugly to reach the public.  Architecture is similarly under-reported, though for different reasons.

Peter Kelly, writing in this month’s issue of Blueprint, is more objective than Andrew Marr.  He specifically laments the lack of critical writing on architecture on the net.  That’s writing with the rigour of formal criticism (writing about ideas) rather than writing which criticises, per se.  Of course, the Blueprint article is only following the lead of Martin Pawley, whose collection of journalism (published post-humously) was called “The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism”.  So architectural criticism has been given the last rites more than once.

Kelly puts forward print magazines as the champions of architectural criticism, in the same way that Andrew Marr feels broadcast media are the natural home of political commentary.  Architecture magazines certainly did carry pieces of in-depth analytical criticism once – well-argued articles that set out to prove or disprove an idea; that challenged what architects said in the face of what they built; that provoked through polemical writing.  When Architectural Review (AR) and Zodiac were at the zenith of their powers during the 1950’s and 1960’s, ideas were their currency.  What happened to that healthy climate of criticism is a relevant question.

Building Design (BD) prints one piece of analysis per issue, if you’re lucky, and it rarely reviews books about ideas.  Architect’s Journal (AJ) concentrates mainly on building studies and technical pieces; Icon is in thrall to the cult of the Big Name, and in the case of Architectural Design (AD) that extends to the Big Name Guest Editor.  Blueprint itself, and AR, try to balance icons with ideas; as does Urban Realm.  Perhaps all these magazines struggle because architectural culture is increasingly visual, in that books, magazines and websites emphasise photos and CGI renders.  Writing is often little more than an extended caption, or valedictory message by a friend of the designer.   These days, there are few manifesto writers in architecture.

It’s a pity Kelly chooses the “Bad British Architecture” blog to illustrate his thesis – because that blog certainly is writing which criticises, per se.  Ironically, it’s apparently written by a former editor of the AJ called Kieran Long – proving that print and web media do meet somewhere – but its invective, aimed at easy targets, only proves that crap buildings are being designed (we knew that already) and also that he has a bias against Scottish architects, particularly Archial and Keppie.  You can't take anyone seriously as a journalist when their considered opinion is, "Dundee has loads of shit new architecture in it".

Another Kelly example, Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG never set out to provide criticism, rather it’s a cabinet of futuristic curiosities which occasionally picks up on serious writing like Michael Cook’s musings on the power and water infrastructure under our cities.  Equally, though, it’s a platform for Manaugh to get a book publishing deal, although ironically the published book-of-the-website reads like several thematic issues of a magazine bound into one, again proving the bonds between old and new media.  Neither of those blogs proves Peter Kelly's point, because neither attempts to give us architectural criticism; more telling would be blogs which fail to deliver what they promise.

In truth, the terrain is slipping under the feet of traditional journalists: the book and magazine “model” of someone commissioning a feature, a writer producing it, then an editor challenging it, has a competitor.  The net allows an article to be published immediately (rather than waiting for several weeks inside in a computer, then in a RIP attached to a Heidelberg press, then on a pallet inside a distribution lorry, then finally on John Menzies’ shelf…)  The readers can challenge the article’s ideas instantly – an editor may do the writer’s career more good in the long run, but a readership which interacts will do the article’s thesis more good, thanks to the instant call and response of the internet.  By the time readers respond through the letters page of a magazine, weeks have passed and the debate has moved on.  Perhaps that interaction is more important than a writer giving birth to a perfectly-formed article once a month.

Another truth is that the print media are slowly dying – those 1980’s fanzines presaged the closure of all the music “inkies” bar the NME – and when both Icon and BD went from free circulation to paid-for, we realised their light was dying, too.  Larger printer’s bills, smaller advert and subscription revenues bred a vicious circle, where circulation drops as costs go up and content quality declines.  In an effort to stem this, extended pieces of criticism appear to have been ditched from many titles, in favour of courting the “stars” and showing high-impact pics of their icons.  Perhaps the architecture magazines themselves are to blame for the death of criticism, rather than Andrew Marr’s bald, pimply bloggers.

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