Gallery: "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.

 

Revanchism
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
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

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.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

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.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

A while ago, I wrote about the Beech Starship, a business aircraft which looks like an artefact from a future civilisation.  By contrast, the DH103 Hornet fighter appears hopelessly old-fashioned – yet it reached almost 500mph in level flight, which made it the fastest piston-engined aircraft of its day.  It could cruise at the speed of today’s jet airliners, and outran the first jet-powered fighters.  The chances are, if you took a Hornet to the air races at Reno in Nevada today, it would out-run all the souped-up Mustangs and Sea Furies, setting a new absolute speed record.


In many senses, the Hornet was the piston-engined aircraft perfected.

A few weeks ago, the BBC showed a documentary about Eric “Winkle” Brown, the Scots-born test pilot.  As a naval aviator, he set a record for the number of landings on aircraft carriers which has never been beaten, and when in his unassuming way Brown describes the Hornet as the favourite from all the different aircraft he flew, that means something.  Captain Brown has flown more types of aircraft than anyone else in history.


Eric Brown is a top candidate for the Most Interesting Man in the World.  As a schoolboy, he attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and met a WW1 flying ace.  During WW2, he escaped from the wreckage of a torpedoed ship, helped to liberate Belsen and took 2,000 enemy prisoners armed only with a pistol – not to mention a few close calls where he had to abort and promptly GTFO using a parachute.  After the War ended, he interrogated leading Nazis including Hermann Goering, aircraft manufacturer Ernst Heinkel and designer Willie Messerschmitt.  Brown was the first man to fly a jet on and off an aircraft carrier, and he set aviation records that will almost certainly never be broken.

The de Havilland Hornet was his favourite, "For the simple reason it was over-powered.  This is an unusual feature in an aircraft, you could do anything on one engine, almost, that you could do on two.  It was a 'hot rod Mosquito' really, I always described it as like flying a Ferrari in the sky." The Hornet was the fastest twin piston-engined operational combat aircraft in the world while in service, and the first aircraft to demonstrate a cartwheel manoeuvre.




"For aerobatics the Sea Hornet was absolute bliss. The excess of power was such that manoeuvres in the vertical plane can only be described as rocket-like. Even with one propeller feathered the Hornet could loop with the best single-engine fighter. I had felt such absolute confidence that I was mentally relaxed … Indeed, there was something about the Sea Hornet that made me feel that I had total mastery of it.”

"In my book the Sea Hornet ranks second to none for harmony of control, performance characteristics and, perhaps most important, in inspiring confidence in its pilot. For sheer exhilarating flying enjoyment, no aircraft has ever made a deeper impression on me.”

At the root of any aircraft’s design is the equation which resolves power, weight, lift, drag and trim into performance.  In simplistic terms, power makes an aircraft climb whereas attitude varies its speed.  The Hornet’s high rate of climb came thanks to the Rolls-Royce Merlin, arguably the engine of the 20th Century, which in this case developed more than 2000hp from 27 litres of swept volume.  Just like the Mosquito, the Hornet had a pair of Merlins but in this case they were faired into streamlined “power eggs”.



The Hornet’s top speed is partly the function of a low co-efficient of drag arising from a sleek fuselage and a laminar flow wing; this thin wing was made possible by new materials.  The Hornet’s long range came thanks to its light weight; both strength and light weight derived from de Havilland’s early mastery of composite construction.



During the 1930’s, aircraft structures evolved from doped fabric stretched across an ash frame, to the geodesic spaceframe of steel tubes which Barnes Wallis used in the Wellington bomber, and eventually to all-metal stressed skin structures.  De Havillands went their own way, searching for a different method of achieving strength and lightness.  They settled on timber, but rather than a load-bearing timber frame (like a Morgan car or a timber kit house) they developed the first composite monocoque.



Unlike the Beech Starship, a revolutionary aircraft which used carbon composites, the Hornet wasn’t a great leap into the unknown; it’s an evolutionary aircraft, albeit one at the very apex of its line of evolution.  De Havillands had been working on composites for a decade before the first Hornet took flight - although their initial objective was to build stronger, lighter propellers.






In order to cope with more powerful engines, propellers had grown in diameter, gained more blades, and their tip speeds were approaching the sound barrier.  As a result, the centrifugal forces at the propeller hub had increased to the point where there were many catastrophic failures.  De Havilland Propellers worked with Aero Research at Duxford to overcome the drawbacks of laminated timber props, successfully using phenol-formaldehyde resin in the manufacture of propellers.  The attraction of this material was that, with a density of around half that of aluminium alloy, centrifugal forces at the root were greatly reduced.



De Havillands was a rare aircraft company which made everything for itself.  Piston engines were built at Stag Lane in Edgware, then jet engines and later rocket motors plus of course complete aircraft at Hatfield, Leavesden and later Hawarden.  As a result, it was able to cross-fertilise materials research between propellors, wings and fuselage design.



The work on propellers “spun off” into fuselage and wing structures for the (almost) all-timber Mosquito, which the wartime Press christened the Wooden Wonder.  The Mosquito was built from sandwich panels consisting of thin skins of plywood veneer bonded to a core of end-grain balsa wood.  The core functions just like the web of an I-beam while the plywood skins function as the flanges.  The sandwich panel's bending stiffness is proportional to the core thickness, in the same way that an I-beam becomes stiffer as the web deepens.  Doubling the core thickness yields a panel roughly six times stronger and 12 times stiffer.



At a time when other WW2 combatants were desperately trying to smelt cobalt, vanadium and other rare metals into exotic alloys, it seems bizarre that de Havillands were in the market for balsa wood.  You can only assume that German spies put this down to British eccentricity, if they even remarked on it at all, yet Baltek’s sawmills in America struggled to keep up with demand.  Today the technology seems so accessible; hobbyists and model-makers have access to the same plywood veneers, balsa wood and epoxy glues that de Havillands used.


Plywood was a relatively new material, and also a composite, with plies of different thicknesses and orientations providing degrees of strength and stiffness.  As well as de Havilland themselves, the Mosquito was built by Roe, Gloster, Phillips & Powis and even Venesta – the forerunner of Venesta Cubicles which is still in business today.  In 1937 their "Venesta" plywood and "Plymax" metal-faced plywood made them an ideal choice as fabricators of ply composite aircraft such as the Mosquito. 




The Mosquito was built by the furniture industry, which was mostly based around its traditional centre in Buckinghamshire: incidentally, that’s the reason High Wycombe was one of the most heavily-bombed London suburban towns. The industry had a long history (Defoe mentions it) in the town and in the 1940’s there were still many local manufacturers. The Windsor chair was its most famous product, but practically every other sort of furniture was also made. Components for the Mosquito were reportedly produced by Marples and G-Plan, and supplying the materials was a multi-national effort: the frames used Alaskan spruce and British ash, the sandwich used 3-ply Canadian birch plywood and Ecuadorian balsawood.

The DH103 Hornet evolved from the DH98 Mosquito - and as is the way of things, it became lighter, faster, more powerful and stronger. Both aircraft used variations of a pre-formed plywood monocoque shell strengthened with spruce stringers and constructed using high-strength synthetic bonding resins.  This technique had been pioneered on the famous DH.88 Comet racers, and would also be used to great effect on the Dragonfly light twin and the Albatross airliner of 1938.  One step forward from the Mosquito was the way de Havilland built the Hornet’s wing spars, and another was the wing surfaces themselves.



Mosquito wing spars have all-wooden tension and compression booms, but this would have been impossible for the Hornet, because of the large cross-section of wood necessary for the more highly-loaded wing.   The problem was overcome by making the tension booms from aluminium extrusions, and using wood for the spar webs and compression booms.  A layer of veneer was bonded to the aluminium parts then everything was assembled to form a spar of remarkably low weight and high strength. 

Moulded wood veneers of a type that we’d now term cross-laminated timber were combined with more conventional parallel layered glulam to produce spars of amazing accuracy and complex geometry.  Tapered and kinked spars with “L”-shaped sections were formed using this technique, which was originally developed for manufacturing Isokon furniture.  Isokon is well known in architectural circles, thanks to the Lawn Road Flats designed by Wells Coates…




The Hornet’s wings comprised an aerofoil with a composite wood and metal internal structure, with a stressed birch-ply double upper skin and an under surface of reinforced “Alclad”.  This was the first time that aluminium had been bonded to timber in a structural fashion.  Lift acting on the Hornet’s wing meant that the metal skin on the underside of the wing went into tension, and the ply-balsa composite went into compression – so the materials’ inherent qualities were used to best advantage.



The idea of combining skins of ply and aluminium with a lightweight core was a conceptual leap born of on a new generation of synthetic adhesives.  De Havillands’ composite structures relied upon a new epoxy resin developed by Aero Research.  This glue, “Redux 775”, was developed in 1941 as the first modern, synthetic structural adhesive for metals - and it was first used in the Hornet Mk1 which was built at Hatfield.  Hornet construction, like that of the Mosquito before it, used similar techniques as modern fibreglass wet layup.  The positive mould was covered with wax, then strips of thin veneer were laid up in different directions to improve the tensile strength in all directions, just as today you would lay up glass or carbonfibre mats.



The first skin would be covered by a sandwich layer of balsa wood, followed by another layer of veneer.  Metal fittings were embedded in the wooden layers and a low voltage applied to heat the resin electrically, which speeded up curing.  Once everything was dry, the fuselage or wing half would be removed from the mould then after installation of some formers, cables and wiring, glued to the other half.  Finally the fuselage would be covered in another layer of thin wood, covering the glued joint, then covered in aircraft linen, doped and painted to improve aerodynamic smoothness.



In 1948, de Havillands acquired an aircraft factory at Hawarden Airfield near Chester: it was used to build and assemble the Hornet Mk3, while other parts were manufactured at the firm’s factory in nearby Lostock.  Incidentally, Hawarden is now called Broughton, and after de Havilland became part of Hawker Siddeley it developed sophisticated wings for their airliners: today, it builds every wing for every Airbus airliner, and is owned by GKN.  The “N” in GKN stands for Nettlefolds, and when the Hornet was in production they had several huge factories in the Black Country, stamping out millions of cross-head screws an hour.  Today, GKN uses carbon fibre to build composite aero-structures which owe a great deal to the principles that de Havilland developed three quarters of a century ago. 

The Hornet’s fuselage was built in two halves which joined together on the centreline, so called “egg carton” construction using cold moulding to form the curves.  This monocoque structure gave the fuselage a high degree of redundancy which meant that the aircraft could sustain terrible damage yet keep flying.  Many Mosquitos returned home missing large chunks of wings, fins and control surfaces, shot away by enemy cannon fire.  Timber composites also avoided the hidden dangers of metal fatigue, which de Havilland fell foul of with their Comet airliner during the 1950’s.








Without the work of Aero Research and de Havilland Aircraft during the 1930’s and 1940’s, it’s arguable that there would be no plywood composites or structural adhesives, hence the SIP panel and the JJI joist wouldn’t exist, either.  It’s also worth noting that the Beech Starship, which was hailed as revolutionary in form and construction, isn’t as original as I implied.  The Starship was also built in two halves, and epoxy resins were also used to bond its composites together.  Just like de Havillands, forty years before them.


Although it marked the apex of de Havilland’s piston engine development, there’s no sense in which de Havillands developed a Pygmalion-like relationship with the Hornet.  Even as it first flew in 1944, the firm was already building jet-propelled aircraft, so the Hornet’s career was cut short.  After the DH98 Mosquito and DH103 Hornet, De Havilland’s plywood-balsa-plywood sandwich was later used to form the fuselage of the Vampire and Sea Venom jets. 

De Havilland refined the assembly process: steel bands were latched onto heated jigs with quick release toggles, to ensure smooth fuselage cross-sections.  Adhesive curing cycles were carefully instrumented and automated.  Smaller glue-laminated components such as the engine intake ducts used thin timber strips which were cold-formed on jigs to tight radii.  Nonetheless, the Hornet's gift to us all is composite construction, which the designers of racing cars, airliners, yachts, buildings and even fridge freezers take for granted.



The late Martin Pawley was fascinated by these technology transfers, and the crossovers between architecture and other fields.  As a columnist in the AJ, BD and so forth he wrote about the design of tube trains, cars and aircraft – seeing them as complementary to architecture.  He recognised the truisms that racing improves the breed, and war pushes technology forwards faster than peace.  While this bandwagon was passing, I thought I'd jump onto it…



Pawley was in tune with the spirit prevailing during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when Richard Horden built a series of houses using off-the-shelf components from racing yachts, then Rogers and Foster completed a series of buildings which borrowed from the automotive and aerospace industries, such as neoprene gaskets and super-formed metals.  This climate gave birth to a thousand architectural dissertations about Lotus sports cars, Slingsby sailplanes and McLaren's F1 operation. 

Unwittingly, they echoed a pattern from 50 years before, when wartime firms desperately hunted around for peacetime outlets once hostilities ended.  De Havilland were fortunate, as their focus shifted readily from military to civilian aircraft.  Venesta gave up flying and came to specialise in toilet cubicles and IPS systems.  Others were not so lucky.



What about the legacy of Ronald Bishop, who designed the Hornet?  He should be remembered for helping to win the War using pioneering materials: but today it seems that War means rousing musicals, martial style (smart uniforms never go out of fashion) and the cult of the Great Man.  Our superficial treatment of that era ignores Bishop and his counterparts Barnes Wallis, RJ Mitchell and Roy Chadwick who were responsible for the Wellington, Spitfire and Lancaster respectively.  They were complete designers, in the sense that they harnessed materials science, structures, aerodynamics, manufacturing techniques as well as considering damage tolerance and repairability. 

They also had a sense of purpose which is difficult for us to grasp now: they were part of Churchill’s enormous enterprise which stretched from shadow factories making widgets to the invention of operational research. 

The sadness is that no Hornets survive at all today, although there are rumours that an entire squadron was dismantled and buried under an airfield in Malaysia when they became surplus to requirements.  It seems unlikely that anyone will disinter them, but you never know…

Some images used here are courtesy of the Hornet Project website, which has temporarily disappeared from the web.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, technology, specification