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Long long ago, before architecture took up my time, I dabbled in book dealing, buying and selling on a small scale.  In the mid-90’s, before the internet caught on, you relied on books to find other books.  Various firms published guides to bookshops and bookdealers, locating them and providing a rough idea of their stock.  Dog-eared copies of Skoob, Sheppard’s and Drif rumbled around the boot of my car, alongside old banana boxes packed with architecture and design books of various stripes.

If you needed an entertaining but unreliable Cicerone, you picked up Drif.  Occasionally, you come across the kind of book you know will cause trouble: Drif’s Guide to and For the Secondhand Bookshops of Britain was described by one reviewer, the joyless Simon Heffer, as “a scabrous collection of insults, jokes, prejudices and abuses about bookshops and their owners.”  The fact that it was self-published was the key to its existence: a publisher would never release a title which offended so many folk, or a book which revelled in anti-promotion.  Speaking of bookshops, Drif noted – “They are dreadful, you are wasting your money buying this guide.  It will only tell you how dreadful they are in more detail.”  Only someone who loved books as much as Drif could say that.

No-one knew his first name.  His given name was always Drif.  The books were called Drif Field Guides, suggesting that bookshops could be tracked down and ticked off in the field like rare birds, or wild flowers.  The first edition was published in 1984 – In Quest of the Perfect Book: The Antiquarian Bookshop Catalogue & Directory, and its author was already honing his no-holds-barred vitriolic skills.  Mr Driffield achieved notoriety thanks to his Guide.   It is – provided you can find a copy – probably the least objective book you are every likely to read.  Drif badly needed an editor, and the D.I.Y. cut-and-paste graphics improved only a little with each edition.  There are occasional insights into the machinery of the second-hand booktrade, which would be hard-won if you had to figure them all out for yourself: the guides discuss the shibboleths of pricing (calibration, as Drif calls it), condition, haggling, and accurate description.  Yet these are not instructional books for greenhorns; they are as much aimed at the trade as the casual reader. 

Drif characterised his fellow dealers using an enormous stock of pejoratives, including the immortal put-down, “a person who thinks sex is what the Scots carry coal in”.  By turns he is scathing and nostalgic, yet his guides are always shot through with dry wit and variable grammar.   As the years went on, the format of the books changed, and they became more autobiographical – for instance, he recounted his adventures on trains – British Frail – with evident glee.   On one visit to Scotland, he detrained several miles from his destination, retrieved his bike from the guard’s van, then cycled into town.  He turned up just as the bookshop opened, wearing his habitual Aran sweater and tweed plus fours, then parked his transport against the shopfront.   That famous bike featured on one of the book covers, and became his trademark, almost as much as his personal style – a suedehead haircut and bovver boots on one hand, and three-piece suit in green tweed on the other.

Drif marched purposefully into the shop and straight up to the desk – dealers are never tentative when they enter bookshops, unlike casual browsers, who open and close the door gingerly –  then he asked dolefully, “Do you have anything about DEATH?”   Whether or not he had a client who was keen to acquire books about mortality, this opening shot was designed to throw the unsuspecting bookshop owner.   Tales like this gave Drif a disconcerting quality which fed his reputation for eccentricity and bloody-mindedness.   He could be an absolute scourge: albeit the Tyneside dealer who Drif named “the rudest in Britain” found that business boomed after that recommendation.

Scotland fared better, perhaps because Drif enjoyed feeling he was abroad, and he returned time and again with optimism.  From his 1992 book – “Aberdeen is such a different city to anywhere else in Britain; the books are not too great, but it does contain hope.  Hope is the one quality that a secondhand bookshop cannot do without.  It is more important than the actual books.  What you need to visit a bookshop is the belief that there is a possibility that the bookshop may have what you are looking for.  That is why it is that all unvisited bookshops are so tempting; you have not been disappointed by them yet.”

Aberdeen got off lightly, considering that he characterised Glasgow as Gotham City with leprosy; that it smelt like catfood diluted with vintage urine, and sounded like Billy Graham being sodomised.  In fact, he had a weakness for the Far North simply because cheap books were to be had – “bargains known.”  The serious point of the guides was to document all of the secondhand bookshops in Britain, pass comment on them, and perhaps recommend a few where bargains could be had, or where a speciality lay.  As part of his dealing activities, he travelled the length of the country several times a year, so he spoke from experience – and the six editions of the Guide, from 1984 to 1995, chronicled the slow decline of the bookshop.

In 1991, he recounted the story of how he roused the owner of Winrams Bookshop in Rosemount at 10pm on a Sunday evening, and got her to open up the shop for him there and then.  As a non-driver, he was accompanied on that buying trip by a former Israeli tank commander (or so he would have us believe), who drove him through Aberdeen’s streets at 60mph for a couple of hours before they spotted the shop.  This chauffeur – always referred to as Raymond Carver – acted as his Greek chorus throughout the book, “What a toad, have you noticed how he is always keenest on middle-aged females?”  Or the “League of Lady Booksellers”, as Drif fondly referred to them.  By the fourth edition, Drif had mastered the form of the Guidebook and was playing around with Post-modernism.

How the story was told was just as important as the narrative, and that had long ago overtaken the substantive content of the guides.  Drif’s usual style was to employ failed poets as drivers – although the exception was Iain Sinclair who has published several novels about London, and wrote Drif into the first, White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, as a disgruntled fixture of the book trade.  Sinclair noted that as Drif began to believe his own hype, the guides became more anecdotal – which inevitably with Drif means autobiographical – until he came to the notice of the media.  He appeared on Radio 4, discussing the death of the bookshop; later, his manuscript for a novel (described by Sinclair as “strange and driven”) came close to being published.  Although Drif believed the media was interested because he was an example of the Great British Eccentric – he always characterised himself as an outsider – in fact he was an insider, deep in the London booktrade.

One example of that carefully-cultivated eccentricity was the reason why he showed up at Winrams late in the evening – his vegetarian diet.  En route to Aberdeen, he stopped in Perth and attempted in several places to find a “veggie menu” – but only managed to get something to eat when he found a chip shop and ordered “everything vegetarian” from the menu.  Thus he feasted on baked apple, followed by mushy peas with battered mushrooms and onion rings, with a banana fritter as dessert…  Yet read past these amusing asides, and over the course of six books you can see Drif’s heart slowly being broken as the book trade atrophied, destroying the certainties of three decades of dealing.

Drif attributed the decline in bookshops’ quality to the fecklessness of their owners: the decline in bookshop numbers was due, he believed, to the rise of bookfairs, charity shops and the internet.  All three are beneficial for bookhunters, since you don’t need to rely on expensive “booksearch” services (in fact, all they did was to put small wanted ad’s into Bookdealer magazine, and wait for their colleagues to report back with any copies they might have).  Today, you can cut out the middleman, so the arrival of the internet was bad news for Drif.  His main occupation – operating as an arbitrageur in the book trade, spotting bargain first editions in one shop, then punting them elsewhere at a higher price – no longer makes you a living.

He also believed that most bookshop proprietors do not treat book dealing as a business, more as a hobby with cachet.  He was therefore dismayed, but not unsurprised, that the tally of shops run by professional dealers reduced each time he published a new edition of his guide.  He went to war, metaphorically, on the “bookfairies” – dealers who only showed stock at bookfairs, but had no shops; and also the legions of charity shops which have sprung up in the last twenty years.  In fact, Aberdeen was the winner of Drif’s contest in 1995 to find the British town with the most charity shops.  Drif particularly disliked one shop in Rosemount Viaduct – “Oxfam’s Worst Bookshop: you can hear the dogs barking from the railway station” – dogs in this case being books considered unsaleable by the trade.  

The internet helped to kill Drif’s Guides, just as it has helped to kill bookshops.  By offering easy access to all the world’s books, the net has deprived us of the joy of browsing.  Amazon is great if you know exactly what you’re looking for, but hopeless if you enjoy accidentally coming across books whose existence you knew nothing about.  Similarly, the net is full of “bloggers” who voice their opinions about things, without having established their credentials first.  The kind of person who “reviews” bookshops online falls into either of Drif’s first two categories of people who visit bookshops – a Reader or Collector, but never a Dealer.  R and C are amateurs, but it takes a D to provide true insight.  Fifteen years ago, Drif saw what was happening to the trade, and now both Aberdeen and Dundee only have a couple of bookshops.  Even a decade ago, the former had Winram’s in Rosemount; King’s Quair, and the Old Clock Repair Shop in King Street; Bon Accord Books, and the Old Aberdeen Bookshop in Spital, and the Adelphi Bookshop, all selling secondhand stock; plus Bissets in Schoolhill, Dillons, and Waterstones in Union Street, selling new books.  Similarly, ten years ago there was a shop in Perth specialising in secondhand architecture books – today no-one in Scotland fulfils that role.

After publishing the 1995 edition, Drif went AWOL.  One report had him moving to Poland and going native; another dealer I spoke to believed he had gone to ground in North London, and was now fixing computers for a living in Crouch End.  That struck me as strange, considering how he enjoyed being a Luddite, taking the train rather than learning to drive, and calling in favours in order to get someone to type the Guide for him…

Touchingly, the introduction to the 1995 Guide ends with a lament about how transient our place in history is, yet – “It will be through a book that I will survive.”   That is as good an epigram, or perhaps epitaph, as you’ll ever read.

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“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored.  I was always very happy that way.  Being ignored is a great privilege.  That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently.  I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.”

So wrote Saul Leiter, one of the pioneers of “fine art” colour photography.

We live in times with a huge visual appetite.  There has always been a sneaking suspicion that some architects design buildings primarily for the way they look (rather than the way they work) and this has gradually developed into designing buildings which photograph well.  Rather like fashion models have a “good side”, and fashion photographers who use soft lighting plus flattering print film to reveal it  – some buildings offer a “good angle”, which is shot at dawn using vivid film and a polarising filter.  Now, you can get a beautiful blue sky in Arizona with no effort at all, but in Scotland, that sky isn’t representative of reality.

For those architectural photographers working in the 1950’s and 1960’s, such as Henk Snoek, John Donat and Eric de Maré, black and white was the only film to be taken seriously, partly because colour was felt to be fugitive, and partly because it distracted the eye from the tones which describe the building’s form.  By the early 1980’s, Agfa and Fuji had produced colour emulsions good enough for professionals to rely on.  It’s been said more than once that James Stirling’s post modernism – typified by the Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart – is a retinal architecture, with bright dayglow colours conceived for colour reproduction in magazines.  From then on, architecture was envisaged in Technicolor. 

Ironically, the recent death of Kodachrome transparency film – once popular for its warm, fairly saturated colours – underlines not only the onslaught of digital photography, but also the progress of ever-more vivid emulsions such as Fuji’s Velvia and Fortia positive films, and Agfa’s Ultra colour negative film.  Over the past couple of decades, the colours in our world appear to have become more and more vibrant, thanks to these films.  They create unreal, super-saturated images which sing out when they portray the neons of Times Square in New York, or the Ginza district of Tokyo – but lack fidelity when trying to capture subtle light and muted colours in Scotland.  The soft, watery, diffuse light you find in Scotland means that our environment lacks strong contrast, but makes up for that in tonal range.

Yet photographers are led by fashion and believe that there is a style that sells.  Practices feel the same.  What were once sober “record pictures” are now glossy P.R. shots.  To publicity-hungry architects, being ignored is not a privilege: being ignored is the ultimate disaster.  As a result, their images are designed to shout loudly, through dramatic lighting, high contrast and boosted saturation.  We are in competition, so you’d better eat fast otherwise someone else will clear your plate.  The result is a cliché’d style which the majority of architecture magazines adhere to.  Scottish buildings sit under Mediterranean skies; there are usually dusk shots relying on artificial lighting in the buildings to create drama; outside and in, the streets and buildings have been emptied of people. 

However, attempts have been made before to portray a different reality.  Photographers like Donat tried to apply the “reportage” photography approach to architectural subjects.  The results were the Architectural Review’s “Manplan” issues in 1969 and 1970, which posited a humanist view of how we portray buildings, as well as how we design them.  Manplan paid less attention to the formal tectonics and concentrated instead on how people experience and use buildings.  Donat’s contemporary John Szarkowski felt that photographers should abandon large-format photography, and use smaller cameras like the 35mm SLR, coupled with the new fast films which had been developed in 1960’s – since that made it easier to capture the movement of people.  That meant abandoning those cliché images shot at very high resolution on a rising-front camera like an 8 x 10 or 4 x 5inch large format Arca Swiss or Linhof Technika, but which took forever to set up, during which the “decisive moment” passed by and was lost.

Hobby photographers regard those expensive large format beasts, and their digital successors like the Phase One and Leaf digital backs, with awe.  Yet any camera is just a light-tight box with glass on the front, and a gadget which controls the amount of light that strikes the film or sensor behind it.  Equipment is just a means to the end of content, and arguably technique should be invisible too.  You really don’t need to know which camera, which lens, which film, which settings were used … you can enjoy the privilege of ignoring all that.  The only thing that counts is that the person who took the photo was there at the crucial time, and that he or she perceived it as worth taking.  That is the thing which separates the professional from the hobbyist.  The amateur believes a better camera will make him a better photographer; the professional knows that the only thing which counts is catching the decisive moment.

A better camera?  Amateurs always believe it’s their kit rather than their lack of practice, application, or dedication which is at fault.  On my travels around the internet, I came across some exchanges on a Drum & Bass forum where there were dozens of threads about “photography”.  In fact, they were actually threads about upgrading your camera.  "I just bought a new camera," boasted one, and for a bargain price on Ebay.  The replies he received – “I just got a buttered slice of toast, missed out on the Lurpack but got some St Ivel instead.  Its spec is: white bread, St Ivel Gold spread, housed on a standard kitchen plate.  I'm going to use it to fill a toast-sized hole in my stomach and increase the levels of available carbohydrate in my body.”  Also – “I just got a new light bulb, I missed out on the 40w version but bagged a 60w.  Its spec is: 240 volt, pearl white, twist connection.”   “Not bad,” replied Mr Toast, “though I would have gone with bayonet connection.” 

The telling insight I had recently was to spend a wee while with a photographer who shoots fashion, ads, and tackles architectural photography in a different way.  Another architectural photographer I know uses a Phase One back attached to a Sinar front, and shoots tethered to a laptop – whereas the former uses a digital SLR which cost less to buy, but actually delivers images at a higher resolution, and his technique provides a bigger dynamic range.  Plus he can sling it around his neck and move rapidly to catch the beautiful light, something which was never possible with the Mamiya RZ67 he used before (built like an armoured car) far less the Phase One plus Sinar plus laptop which the “architectural photographer” uses.

Architectural photographers have many hang-ups, which is why they take so many cliché shots of an unpeopled world at dusk.  Everything starts to look the same.  There are other ways to photograph buildings.

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Given my recent piece which was ostensibly about Tony Hayward, the (former) captain of industry – I thought it was also worth marking the recent death of Jimmy Reid, the shop steward at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders who became world-famous during the UCS Work-In.  Once a talisman of the Scottish economy, the shipbuilding industry was in dire trouble by the early 1970’s: we’re going through similarly straitened times at the moment, and hundreds of Scottish architects have been paid off.  The effect is as devastating to construction as the Heath government’s proposed cuts would have been to the Clydeside shipyards, had Reid not stepped forwards.

Jimmy Reid, like James Maxton and John McLean before him, was a socialist – in the true sense of that unpopular word.  Too often labelled a “Red Clydesider”, a very localised label, his legacy is perhaps better seen through the lens of his belief in internationalism, and the ability of men to organise themselves and improve their own lot.  Now, while architects have never been “unionised” – the essentially Victorian system of blue collar trades separated from white collar professions means that most architects see themselves like doctors and lawyers do, so tend to join professional associations – the shipyards were true union shops.  The subtle difference lies in how men and women are aligned: professional associations represent their members’ interests, whereas trade unions fight for their members’ livelihoods.

Being a member of a union may not save your job, if the practice you worked for runs out of commissions – but it seems to me that the architectural profession does not have, and has never had, a figure of even a fraction of Reid’s stature.  Who speaks for the construction industry when design jobs are being shed?  Regardless of his politics, Jimmy Reid’s undying contribution to the life of our country was to demonstrate how work can be reorganised by those who carry it out.  When there isn’t enough work to go around, do you try to tackle the causes (as the UCS Work-In did) or do you make “tough decisions” such as paying off junior staff, releasing contract staff, or taking a vertical slice through a practice so that the “pain” is shared?  A recent piece in Building Design acknowledges practices which have done each of the above – but none has saved jobs in the way that the Work-In did.

Rather than redistributing wealth (in society, as the socialists proposed; or within businesses, to the horror of the people who run them), Jimmy Reid’s insight was to organise work in a more equitable way, so that those who want to work, can.  This is truer to the spirit of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations than those supposed “free market” politicians realise.  The Geddes Commission on Shipbuilding and its successors had re-organised shipbuilders under state control – but the experiment failed.  Much of the shipyards’ work was Government-funded or grant-aided; drastic cuts were proposed.  Faced with 8500 men being laid off on the Upper Clyde alone, Jimmy Reid invented something entirely new: rather than a strike, the shipbuilders would take the work available and demonstrate how they could run the yards more effectively than their managers could.  They had no choice if they wanted to save their jobs – and in the end, the efforts of Reid and his compatriots helped to change government policy, and changed the way the world saw Scotland.

Construction is like shipbuilding, in several ways.  When the economy is going well, most of the workload in private practice comes from private sector developers, so it’s probably right to leave the free market to find an equilibrium in the supply of and demand for architects.  Yet when the Government steps in and in effect half our economy becomes a “command economy”, in the sense that public spending is being used as an instrument – then it’s fair to say that the commissioning of work could be organised along different lines.  The market economy works well in booms, but self-evidently it fails on every level during the busts.  Now that the construction industry is bleeding, and much of the remaining work is funded by and commissioned by government agencies – shouldn’t they step in to manage the distribution and retention of design jobs?

Jimmy Reid came to the fore during an era of firebrand politics – but whereas the students of ‘68 (such as the young Jean Nouvel) were militant but unable to organise themselves effectively; the UCS workers of ‘71 proved capable of running things better than the managers.  Reid put steel into the souls of the generation that came before mine, and he was also one of that breed of men you don’t seem to get now: a self-taught intellectual who held real political convictions.  Unlike the careerists we see on our televisions today, he read, thought and wrote for himself: his inaugural speech as rector of the university of Glasgow was carried on the front page of the New York Times.  Which other Scot has achieved international recognition like that, and for his ideas, rather than his personality or wisecracks?  Ideas are everything, after all, in politics just as in a creative industry like architecture.

Perhaps, unlike Jimmy Reid, the architectural profession’s leaders don’t realise that architecture is about buildings, but the architectural profession itself is about people.  If skills aren’t maintained, if jobs are destroyed, then the future looks bleak, and the profession becomes less attractive and eventually it fails to attract the bright and the able.  Jimmy Reid recognised this, and campaigned for decades to modernise Scotland’s economy so that it could provide more and better jobs: he championed high technology projects such as the building of Rolls-Royce’s revolutionary RB211 turbofan in Scotland, and the construction of Oceanspan, a deepwater port on the Lower Clyde which among other things would have made our manufacturing base more competitive.  These schemes would have bettered our lot, by creating and retaining tens of thousands of highly-skilled jobs – which is the aim of politicians of every stripe, isn’t it?

As someone said to me a few days ago, there are people being paid off who shouldn’t be, folk looking for jobs who deserve to be working instead to better our society – their years of prior experience and effort are being wasted.  The UCS Work-In showed the world there was another way.

RIP Jimmy Reid, a world-class man.

Text and drawing treatment © Mark Chalmers, 2010

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The Highland Housing Fair has raised expectations for the rest of Inverness – just as it has brought low energy/ high ecology construction to greater prominence throughout the rest of the country.  It’s commonly held that Inverness suffered from rapid growth, as much as benefiting from it, and the city is often referred to as the fastest-growing in Europe.  Aside from this catchy strap-line, an objective look around Inverness suggests that growth has resulted in homogeneous retail and housing estates on the outskirts: whilst they’re not wonderful architecture, they are no different to what you find in every other Scottish town and city.

Stepford Wives Retail Park at the Inshes

In search of what prompted someone to nominate Inverness for the Carbuncles, you may come to the conclusion that (apart from the architectural zoo of the Housing Fair) the town suffers from a low standard of ordinariness.  The argument has been made that what urbanism – as opposed to architecture – wants are large numbers of good quality but polite buildings, which slot into a masterplan.  In so doing, they will contribute to a district or town enjoying a “high standard of ordinariness” and as a corollary, they might avoid the iconic buildings which can sometimes lift the whole area, or just as easily date quickly and become an eyesore.

Inverness railway station – the gateway to the capital of the Highlands – is rather squat and lacks the generosity you might expect when seeking the Great Highland Welcome – especially in the wake of the Homecoming.  In fact, Perth station feels much more like the gateway to the Highlands, with its many platforms and airy barrel vaults, plus Brief Encounter platform clocks.  As a result, the station at Inverness and neighbouring Falcon Square shopping mall peg your expectations at a low level: beyond them, there are several blocks’ worth of decent Victorian buildings and the inevitable pedestrian precincts which make up your typical, ordinary town centre.  None of it is remarkable, though, and the real character of Inverness only emerges when you go towards the river.

Acres of slabs and bollards.

There is Leakey’s cavernous bookshop, housed in the conversion of a former kirk, with a blazing wood stove in the centre of the nave.  Beyond lies the Ness, with a bouncy footbridge which predates Foster’s Millennium Bridge by a century: it is one of several graceful river crossings, and these differentiate Inverness from the solid masonry arches over the Tay at Perth, or the Wacky Races efforts over the Clyde in Glasgow which appeal to structural gymnasts more than structural rationalists.  Further along the bank of the Ness are a couple of neat conversions from a few years back – the former Art TM gallery, and Pask & Pask’s glass-fronted restaurant.  Apart from the concrete block underneath the castle, there are few real carbuncles in the centre.

Move further out and Inverness continues its dialogue with Perth: where the latter has its “Motor Mile” along Dunkeld Road, Inverness has a monoculture of car showrooms on Harbour Road.  Whilst their contents embody high technology, with the integration of steel, alloy and composites into expressive shapes … the containers are tin sheds dropped from outer space.  If a masterplan had been put in place, the showrooms could have been a series of pavilions in white and silver with a common eaves height, and set on the same building line, each with a colourful totem out front identifying the dealership.  I’ve seen it done in Germany, and it need not have cost any more than the random boxes on Harbour Road today.

The realm of the car, not the person

Elsewhere are stand-out buildings, both relatively bad, relatively ordinary and relatively good: Page & Park’s copper vortex-shaped Maggies Centre in the grounds of Raigmore Hospital; the nearby Gala Bingo hall at the entrance to the Beechwood Medipark; Inverness College’s blank concrete box across the road from the car showrooms; the big, dumb, abandoned sheds of Gray's Sawmill; and the burnt-out hulk of Craig Dunain Asylum, which awaits conversion into flats.  Given Inverness’s growth, and how busy the town appears even during this recession (there were no hire cars to be had mid-week, for example), perhaps investment will sort out the bad in due course, and bring it level with the standard of ordinariness in the rest of the city.  As it is, the Inshes Retail Park shown in the photos is typical of Inverness’s periphery: none of it is terrible, but if you travel even half a mile outwards, the character of the old town centre has been surrendered completely to very ordinary retail sheds and car parks.

 

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Early in the morning, you witness a stream of charity cyclists departing from outside the derelict John o’ Groats Hotel, headed for Land’s End.  After breakfast, day trippers arrive to board the passenger ferry and make a choppy passage to Orkney across the Pentland Firth.  Later in the day, Dutch and German tourists arrive in Mondeos, mouthing – Is this it? – then wheel around in the car park and head back inland, looking for a hotel.  John o’ Groats is a point of departure: it’s a place for leaving Scotland behind, and John o’ Groats has been left behind by Scotland.  There is no sense of arrival here, nor anything to attract anyone other than the abstract notion of the edge of Scotland.

The car park at World's End

John o’ Groats threw away its natural advantages – the sublime sandstone cliffs at Duncansby Head, the rich wildlife, and the dramatic light which rakes Stroma, across the sound.  The area around the village is a low-density rubbish dump, littered with abandoned buses, rusty roadrollers and wrecked cars.  These fields are also dotted with sheep, plus a mixture of small cottar houses and overgrown bungalows: in that respect it’s exactly like the rural south-west of the Irish Republic.  These are scattered communities with no centre, afflicted instead with a rash of executive ranch-style bungalows which the crofters have built.  All of that would mean nothing if this wasn’t John o’ Groats, but this place advertises itself as a great tourist draw, hence moulding peoples’ impressions of Scotland. 

John o' Groats Hotel

The bitterest sight at John o’ Groats is the famous signpost, with fingers which should point to the North Pole, London, New York and so forth.  The pole is concreted into the ground right enough, but should you want your photo taken beside it, you call a phone number.  A while later, a “photographer” will turn up with the fingers, slot them into the pole and charge you £18 for the privilege.  A few days later, he will send you a couple of prints of the occasion – although overseas postage is extra.  That sums up the tawdry feel of John o’ Groats, and must leave a poor impression of Scotland with all those Dutch and German tourists.  It’s an insult to them, treating visitors cynically and making a fool of the Scots in the process.  Rip-off Scotland: so much for our bonhomie.

Derelict for a decade…

The backdrop to the signpost is the John o’ Groats Hotel, which must surely win an award … for being the most northerly derelict building in Scotland.  It’s surrounded by a clutter of timber huts, caravans, portacabins and untended landscaping.  The sad thing about it is that many people would like to think a better John o’ Groats exists.  This place is so much more famous than the other cardinals – Fife Ness, Ardnamurchan Point, Cape Wrath – yet in the past has been left to people like Peter de Savary to fleece visitors without putting anything back in.  A long time ago, there used to be only two buildings at John o’ Groats – the hotel, and the Last House, a neat white-painted cottage which sold a few postcards and souvenirs.  In some respects, that was enough – and rather than rip people off with a demountable signpost, it might be better to go back to that simple model. 

Hotel, and the signpost at the end of the world

Now there are plans to revamp this piece of terminal architecture, but the images released suggest that redevelopment will make things worse.  Although the hotel will be re-opened, the car park will be extended into an even larger tract of windswept tarmac, and the two will be connected with a twee “outlet village” housed in an ersatz “High Street” along the lines of the architectural parasite which clings to Gretna Green.  Robert Adam’s drawings suggest neither modern Scots Baronial (which can work well, as at the House of Bruar) nor proper vernacular (the croft houses or meal mill in the vicinity of John o’ Groats).  Instead, it appears to be the offspring of Andres Duany’s Seaside.  His current influence over the Highlands may yet do real damage to our heritage.

Departure point: the Pentland ferry

Redevelopment could be an opportunity to break down and disperse the parking into pockets, screening each with Caithness flag fences or drystane dykes.  Picnic areas and viewing platforms could be similarly sheltered from the wind, with openings framing views out over the Pentland Firth.  Any new buildings could be clustered to create a point of arrival, a symbol of the start of Scotland, rather than its current dispersed state as the end of the line.  In such an exposed situation, traditional Scots architects built protected courtyards: why not here?  The “High Street” demonstrates ignorance of the site’s character, and the Scottish context – it will funnel the wind from the Firth and blast tourists off their feet. 

Bus graveyard on the road to the End of the World.

For me, John o’ Groats should win the Carbuncles, because not only does it have great natural advantages which nevertheless have been thrown away, but the redevelopment plans may well make things worse, rather than redeeming the signpost at the end of the world.

 

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True fact: the approach to Denny is better than the road into Lochgelly.  What comes next, however, is a Battenburg-coloured eyesore in desperate need of revitalisation.

Lochgelly is accessed via a series of roundabouts from the A92, the West Fife Expressway, and cuts across the miles of no-man’s land which overlooks former pit tips, and the Mossmorran Gas Terminal, near the Ore valley.  Denny is reached along a road which passes through rolling countryside, between stands of mature trees and pastureland in the Carron Valley: once it reaches civilisation, the villas prove that in the past Denny didn’t lack ambition nor the will to invest money in the community.  However, today it feels like Denny has more structural unemployment than its counterpart in Fife, though it also has one major “carbuncle” building at its heart.

Inside the former Carrongrove papermill, now demolished.

Like Lochgelly, the reasons for Denny being nominated as a run-down carbuncle town could be down to pure economics.  The demise of Carrongrove papermill came in 2005: it has now been demolished to make way for a McTaggart Mickel housing development, but the wound is still tender, as we discovered when a former mill worker approached us in the street, to offer his take on the town’s problems.  Carrongrove was one of the earliest, and largest mechanised papermills in Britain.  Ironically, major investment by the Georgia Pacific company in Carrongrove during the 1980’s had transformed it, making a coated card which was profitable even to the end, and worthwhile for Tullis Russell to buy and continue manufacturing themselves.  Denny’s loss was Markinch’s gain.

The folk of Denny were freer and more voluble with their opinions than residents anywhere else we visited; there was universal agreement that the shopping parade on Church Walk and Stirling Street has to come down.  In the 1990’s, a new coat of render with a Battenburg cake colour scheme did nothing to cheer it up – especially because the parapet flashings have failed, and large sheets of render have come away from the blockwork.  Car park, shops and flats are linked with walkways straight out of A Clockwork Orange, their concrete streaming with water leaks.  On a human level, one block of flats was apparently let out to “undesirables”, and not even the MacGuyvering with bedding plants and hanging baskets manages to improve that aspect.  I can’t help feeling they are just a mudflap on the battle tank of Dereliction.

Denny shares a Town Centre Manager with other neighbouring towns, and Falkirk Council have well-developed plans to re-develop the Battenburg, working with Henry Boot as their development partner to demolish the five-storey blocks and build new two storey shopping parades in their place.  The issue of scale is one thing, but another problem which the redevelopment may not solve is that of building lines: set too far back from the street edge, the proposal feels less urban than it might.  The Council plans have been held up by the credit crunch, and meantime Keppie will revise their masterplan to suit.  So far, they have identified that there is no commercial demand for offices, nor is there a will to build flats here again, so the redevelopment will consist almost entirely of small shops with a retail anchor (perhaps an Aldi or Lidl type of supermarket) plus a library.

Inside the former Carrongrove papermill, now demolished.

So Denny’s regeneration has taken on at least two aspects: firstly a housing estate on the site of the cluster of papermills on the Carron at Fankerton, which gradually coalesced into Carrongrove over the course of two centuries.  Its cathedral-like esparto sheds, the mill’s giant power station, and the breathtaking scale of the Twinwire machine have gone, to be replaced with tattie print bungalows.  Secondly – in the town centre, the ill-suited shopping parade will come down, with new buildings and a revised road layout intended to remove traffic from Stirling Street, and focus it instead on pedestrians and shops. 

The need for redevelopment of the shopping area is far more pressing than the need for more spec. bungalows, and perhaps too important to rely on “market forces” delivering it.

 

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The next two towns nominated for the Carbuncles were "company" towns: Lochgelly was a mining town and Denny was a mill town.  The last deep pit in the Fife coalfield shut over two decades ago, but the death of the massive Carrongrove papermill at Denny was comparatively recent, when Inveresk Paper teetered on the brink of failure.  These timelines make an interesting contrast: how long does it take to regenerate a town once its major employer leaves?

We visited both towns on a typical Scots July day.  The light smirr of rain in Glasgow transformed into torrential rain once on the M8 motorway, and although it eased before Lochgelly, the curtain of Fife drizzle soaked into clothes, cameras and folks’ spirits.  The question for the Fife town is whether earlier regeneration efforts have been successful; a couple of handsome tenements have been rejuvenated, the former Miner’s Institute has been revitalised, and the inevitable public realm improvements to the centre of town have created a small public square with a token of public art. 

Arguably the money would have been better spent immediately on improving the town’s former former civic centre, or its former cinema, with an Art Deco tower and large auditorium currently lying empty.  The little square lies at the hinge of the High Street yet offers nothing other than domestic scale bounding walls and a couple of seats.  Despite the expensive paving and International Socialist-style sculpture, it’s a recessive, negative space which might have been better served by building (or retaining?) a major building here, to assert itself as a piece of townscape.  As it is, the Kingdom Housing Association is building a new block to house business starter units just a couple of doors down – so there is economic activity, and despite the dreich weather, the streets were busy.

Lochgelly has a “carbuncle” building close to its heart, the old civic centre, or “Lochgelly Centre”.  The demolition man’s signage, huts and Heras fence surround it now, and its death is imminent.  When it was built; not in the 1950’s, not in the 1960’s, but in 1976, things weren’t so different to today.  There is still a need for a cohesive social centre to the community, and the functions this relatively young building housed – arts, leisure, entertainment – still need a home.  You wonder whether anyone considered adapting, rehabilitating, modernising, applying a new skin with better performance?  Demolishing it for the sake of the look of things is a waste, especially in a community without its own cinema, comprehensive sports facilities, or a community hall of a scale to accommodate the whole community.

What’s also sad is that nothing in the town centre marks the passing of the Ore Valley’s fortune.  Before nationalisation in 1948, the Fife Coal Company had some of the most ambitious pit modernisation plans in Europe.  Many of the big steps forward in coal mining, using automatic coal cutters, hydraulic props and armoured conveyors were pioneered in this part of Scotland.  Perhaps the town has turned its back on the coal industry, due to the back-breaking work and inherent dangers, and incomers don’t realise the place’s qualities.  Andres Duany apparently thought Lochgelly had ample greenbelt land on its outskirts – “This is the most developed part of Scotland and look at the amount of green land… you’re not running out” – but that completely misses the point of the urgent need to regenerate its town centre.  Mining towns still retain Victorian buildings of real quality, such as the Miner’s Institute or the Lochgelly Co-operative, and to condemn a community to a future of yet more peripheral estates with one dismissive aside shows poor faith in the Scots’ ability to regenerate the centres of our own towns.

It feels like money has been spent in Lochgelly, but on the wrong things – such as the public square, the demolition of the civic centre, and also the charette which Duany participated in, offering housebuilders a "get-out" to develop on the outskirts – when civic facilities should have been provided or upgraded instead, to increase the critical mass of the town centre.

 

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A photo essay on East Kilbride, the first of the 2010 Carbuncles nominations – and why it wheeled our expectations around.  Words and photos by Mark Chalmers.

This year, as in previous years, I was invited to get involved with the Carbuncles.  However, I usually demurred, because I was either busy in work, or felt uneasy about the tone of the judging, which was often perceived as picking a New Town then poking it with a sharpened stick.  Locals thought so, and their newspapers usually took up the cudgels and prompted an exchange of views on what was lacking in each community.  Sometimes bad press resulted, with the judges accused of architectural snobbery.  Changed circumstances this year mean I have an opportunity to travel to see these "down towns", to take the time to consider them properly, and perhaps tackle the preconceptions, which are unfailingly negative.

Mention East Kilbride and preconceived notions come to the forefront of folk’s thoughts; in my case the preconceptions are musical rather than architectural.  EK was home to the Jesus & Mary Chain, arguably the best rock & roll band Scotland has produced in the last 50 years.  It also played host to the young Roddy Frame, late of Aztec Camera, whose lyric “from Westwood to Hollywood” alluded to his progress from a suburb in the Lanarkshire town to the music business Mecca of Los Angeles.  Better known than either, though, are Sharleen Spiteri’s group, Texas, who wrote a pop song called “Polo Mint City” … the nickname earned by East Kilbride thanks to its many roundabouts.  Polo Mint City could be EK’s anthem.


There are over 60 roundabouts in the town, according to South Lanarkshire Council, the best known being the Whirlies, with its spherical steel sculptures landed on plinths in its centre.  When we visited, the July sun was beating down on EK, and that cheered the place up from the off, glinting on the Whirly spheres.  It’s easy to attack West Coast towns for being habitually dull, grey and lifeless – when in fact the weather plays a large part in making them dreich.  The town was lifted by sunshine while we were there.  We were lucky, perhaps, but we also saw the town’s greenery at its best: aside from lots of twee hanging baskets which seem hopelessly domestic in the context of the sprawling shopping centre, we also saw how widespread and successful the belts of mature greenery around the New Town are.


Another surprise for everyone present was the former heart of East Kilbride, the “village” which sits next to the Maxwellton conservation area.  In a scene straight out of Gordon Cullen’s book “Townscape”, a curving street of Scots vernacular shops and houses is full of life and commerce, its scale perfect, and its paving immaculate.  Having anticipated dreary system-built flats, junkie-haunted underpasses, and glum hounds tied to lamp-posts, the village High Street really was a delight.  From here onwards, it became clear that although individual buildings may deserve to be called carbuncles, the town as a whole certainly doesn’t.  That was reinforced by a local architect, who we intercepted as he made his way back to his office with a mid-morning piece; he was happy to emphasise that East Kilbride works well as a pedestrian town where you can readily walk to work.  That’s despite all those roundabouts, and the perceived emphasis on the car.


One of East Kilbride’s architectural high points (literally, since the town’s key buildings were consciously sited on hilltops) is St Bride’s Church.  The largest church built by Gillespie Kidd & Coia, seating 800 parishioners, it was completed in 1963, a squat brick cube with a tall brick campanile.  It was nicknamed “Fort Apache” by locals – but that does no justice to the interior, an impressive volume with areas of both sombre and luminous light.  The campanile has been dismantled, but the remainder is in good condition, and the curate emphasised how busy the church is.  We’re used to hearing about Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s architectural failures, but St Bride’s is a success – and it is linked to the rest of the town with a hierarchy of roads, cyclepaths and footpaths.  As in other New Towns (EK was one of the earliest, founded in 1947), those on foot are kept apart from the car.


Round and round in Polo Mint City;
Isn’t it pretty in Polo Mint City?

Beside one of the polo mint roundabouts, beyond Hairmyres Hospital, is the most unlikely building in the town.  A Spanish Revival-style shopping parade, painted canary yellow, looks faintly ridiculous when viewed through architectural goggles.  Perhaps the intended effect was that of a cheerful place with allusions to warmer climes; no-one will knock you for trying to brighten up the dour Scotish winter.  However, architects might suggest it would have been better treated like its neighbour, whose glass, timber and harling sit far more happily in Lanarkshire.  You could make a case for this Hacienda being a Carbuncle – but that doesn’t extend to the rest of the town.  So, the first potential “Carbuncle Town” may turn out to be the exception against which the others are contrasted.

 

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During the summer of 1755, a young Scotsman wandered among the ruins of ancient Rome.  He sketched the baths of Caracalla, picking his way through collapsed arches and fragments of temples, gradually absorbing the essence of Classical architecture.  He was taking part in the Grand Tour, heading to the other side of Europe to explore urban dereliction – always with an eye for its aesthetic qualities.

I mentioned the modern love for ruins in a previous piece, and spoke about its antecedents – Richard Nickell and John Harris are two – but the pursuit of dereliction is a far older preoccupation.  Its lineage stretches far into the past from John Piper, who avidly photographed and painted the bombsites of World War 2, through the pastoral watercolourist Cotman, to Giovanni Piranesi, whose etchings of the Carceri and views of Paestum still ignite the imagination.  That lineage also includes the young Scotsman, a chap by the name of Robert Adam who went on to design a few rickles of his own…

Ironically, modern explorers chide each other for being mere “tourists”, visiting only the most popular sites, such as the Sinteranlage in Duisburg, the Papeteries Darblay outside Paris, Millennium Mills in London’s Docks, the Forges de Clabecq in Belgium, or the Cokerie Zollverein in Essen.  Yet travelling around Europe today to exercise an aesthetic appreciation for ruins is no different to joining the Grand Tour of the 1700’s.  Then, young men of independent means visited a set of prescribed destinations in order to soak up the atmosphere: but where the 18th Century mind was taken up with the ruins of the Classical world, the modern spirit is obsessed with the decline of the Industrial Age.  Beyond that preoccupation, there is little difference in our emotional response to the symbols of a “gone world”: nostalgia, tristesse and even a certain ennui with the way of life which replaced the ruined one.

Many books about modern dereliction have been published in the last few years, and the best include Henk van Rensbergen’s “Abandoned Places”, and Marchand & Meffre’s “The Ruins of Detroit”.  Both feature locations which are well known, such as Clabecq and Du Parc Hosiery in the former, or the Grand Central Terminal and Packard factory in the latter.  There are many similarities between them, and each is essentially a collection of coffee table photography with a brief, valedictory foreword.  They have spawned many imitators, which adopted the same format but cut corners on paper stock, origination or sometimes demonstrated a failure of publishing nerve.  “Kombinat: Industrial Ruins of the Golden Era” which accompanies an exhibition recently hosted by the Romanian Cultural Institute in London, offers something different.

The format of Kombinat is closer to Paul Virilio’s “Unknown Quantity” – an extended photo essay which remains one of my favourite books – than to an exhibition catalogue, which it effectively is.  It tells you much more about the world we live and work in than a conventional architecture book because it both represents, then discusses how things are represented.  Visually, Kombinat uses strong colour and understated graphics to make its point: there are no gimmicks to detract from the photographs.  Likewise the locations in Kombinat are fresh to Western European eyes, and the text is deeper than other titles which have come out recently to cries of “dereliction porn”.  They have too many images of lonely chairs stranded in corridors and moody shots of peeling paint.  By contrast, Serban Bonciocat, the photographer of Kombinat captures the industrial ruins of Romania using a topographic approach.  Rather than isolating details of them, he sets former foundries and chemical works into a derelict landscape, or shows their juxtaposition to the “live” world: not only does that set them into today’s context, it also helps to explain the book’s subtitle, “Industrial Ruins of the Golden Era”.

Both words and pictures discuss the unavoidable politics of the former Eastern Bloc, and one essayist touches on a couple of interesting conflicts – there is a concern that showing the rest of Europe that Romania has some ruined factories will make them think less of the country, perhaps even put people off visiting.  In fact, the hidden history and monumental scale of these places makes it more likely that some will visit especially to seek them out.  The Golden Era referred to was the expansionist phase of the Eastern Bloc countries, both during the Constructivist dawn of Communism, then the Heroes of Industry decades presided over by Stalin.  Over that period, increasing industrial production was the thing, and certain regions became centres of excellence for particular industries.  What remains is still heroic, even in its death throes.

That last point crystallises the other issue: tourism destroys because it introduces a large number of people who may have little understanding or sympathy for the place.  The rare and beautiful – because sometimes small treasures lie amidst the ruins – is corrupted by grinning fools who only want to go home with a souvenir, and a camera full of photos to prove that they visited.  It is, as Mike Harding pointed out in his book “Footloose in the Himalaya”, a Mondo cane approach to the places we visit as tourists.  It may be that an exhibition, with an accompanying catalogue like this, can help.  Yes, it alerts us to these places, but it also explains what they represent, hence offering us a chance to consider rather than merely consuming them visually.  It also marks out Romania as having foresight enough to record these ruins before they disappear, and in doing so, to weigh their worth.

With thanks to Simona Nastac at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London.

“Kombinat: Industrial Ruins of the Golden Era”
Photos by Serban Bonciocat
Essays by Augustin Ioan, Anca Nicoleta Otoiu, Liviu Chelcea, Gabriel Simion – in Romanian with English translations.
Published by Igloo Media, 2007
ISBN – 9789738839809

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Tony Hayward of BP, an American president struggling to assert himself, and a walrus stuck miles from home: the trick is isolating transferable knowledge in amongst all the barracking.

The tone of recent criticism of Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, by the American establishment would be risible if the situation wasn’t so serious.  Rather than voicing concern about how operations to plug the leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico are going, they criticised him for taking his son to yacht races on the Solent.  Before that, they helpfully told him that he would have been fired had he worked for Barack Obama.  But he doesn’t, and thankfully he appears to have some mettle, rather than skulking away like a scolded dog.  Yet the American president’s reaction to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig is an illustration of someone offering only an illusion of control, more interested in his poll ratings than in helping to fix the problem.  There’s a lesson there for us all.

The failure of a blow-out preventer resulted in a massive gas explosion, rupturing the Macondo wellhead on the seabed, and destroying the rig on the sea surface.  Perhaps Obama tacitly accepts that he and his advisors cannot understand the actual problems of plugging the wellhead (rather than understanding the spreading oil slick, which is simple to encompass but merely a symptom).  Maybe they assume that subsea engineering is beyond them, so they make things easier by personalising a complex problem, and attempting to make Tony Hayward into a scapegoat.  Yet a recent issue of New Scientist magazine explained the problem and its solutions in detail, and in such a way that any well-educated lay person could understand.  Clearly Hayward’s sangfroid unsettles the US committees: he has stuck to his line that only an inquiry will reveal what went wrong with the wellhead, hence idle speculation before the results are known wouldn’t be helpful.  Regardless of short-term unpopularity in the popular press, the most important thing is to concentrate on the fix.

In asking whose “ass” he should kick, Obama proved he was performing for the gallery – the provincial American press corps – rather than living up to his supposed reputation as the most cerebral president America has elected since Kennedy.  Looking like you’re trying to fix a problem, especially by demonstrating pressure being applied on other people, appeals in the short term.  It’s rarely as effective than getting the problem fixed for the long term, and bear in mind that BP are operating on the limits of technology, drilling several miles down with the help of their American contractors.  There is a lesson here for architects, and it’s no startling insight, but a simple truth that bears repeating to yourself when you’re in a fix.  Clients always ask for instant results, but having to go back for a fourth or fifth time to say that we think it’s fixed now, after the initial instant fix failed … makes you look worse than taking enough time to do it once, and properly.

The people who live on the Gulf coast have a visceral response to the disaster: it has taken away their livelihoods, ruined their backyards and driven away tourists.  The same was true of the folk who lived near the Exxon Valdez oil tanker’s landfall, and the victims of hundreds of other oil-related disasters such as Piper Alpha or Amoco Cadiz.  Yet people look to their government for leadership and that means applying structured thinking.  BP can’t tell anyone what went wrong until it understands itself what went wrong – and the process of investigation and analysis has been the foundation of rational thought since the Renaissance.  Complex problems don’t yield rapid answers; knee-jerk reactions and intuitive guesses come quickly, but rationalised thought takes time, and needs the fuel of facts to power its engines.  Paradoxically, the more pressing the problem is, the more important that time is taken to make sure the answer is correct.

It’s starting to look like the American government, perhaps in their creeping acceptance of creationism, and media combines which love witch-hunts, have rejected the irrefutability of rational thought.  The modern way of looking at the world was conceived four centuries ago in Europe, and nothing has fundamentally changed about the lens we use to scrutinise the world.  Newton and Kepler helped to shape the process which European children are still taught in science classes at school: gathering facts and data, looking for evidence, analysing it, then coming up with a synthesis which yields the answer, or one possible solution out of many.  That flow chart is still the foundation of the sciences, as well as any kind of design which goes back to fundamentals to seek solutions.  It may be that Obama comes from a different tradition – certainly whoever named the well “Macondo” didn’t think about its symbolism.  Macondo was a cursed town in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel…

Sometimes, as in the Gulf of Mexico, solving a complex problem is an iterative process.  While it isn’t comparable to plugging a ruptured well one mile under the sea, a building I worked on suffered from an intermittent problem with hot and cold spots.  Although the location of the problem and its causes were identified fairly quickly, several solutions were attempted, and in the end a combination of measures began to cure the problem.  No-one has ever attempted what BP is trying to do; similarly at a lower level, the team of consultants and contractors involved with that building had never come together to build one like it before.  The client, or American government, need to understand that in the modern world, people in charge need to have structured minds, or they will fail to grasp the fundamentals required to make decisions.  They may even need to become technocrats.  However, they can’t just say “I want it fixed now!” as a petulant child would – real life can’t produce instant results, and none of us have the power of wish fulfilment.

It’s better to reinforce time and again to an unhappy client that you must understand it properly yourself, and as you make progress towards a solution, he will be kept informed.  Oversimplifying it so that it becomes associated with one person – in this case Tony Hayward – is the wrong move, since its corollary would be, fire that person and everything will fix itself.  No doubt there will be people within the US administration who understand that Obama’s unsophisticated and faux-naive tone is misleading, yet all the outside world sees is a series of press conferences in which the blame is pinned onto one man.  You could construe it as an ugly mixture of anti-British sentiment plus jealousy (BP is apparently bigger than any of the American-owned oil companies).  Yet the more the Americans attack Tony Hayward, the more likely their bullets are to ricochet.

The drilling companies who actually did the damage were American, and they were in ultimate charge of the rig.  The body who approved BP’s licence to drill was … part of the American government.  They approved the method statements, even the mitigation measures to look after any off-course walruses who found their way to the Gulf of Mexico.  Perhaps in a craven attempt to avoid implicating their own countrymen, the US administation vilify a man rather than tackling the underlying issues.  Then again, you may have come across a similar deal at site meetings: if the building turns out not to fit on the site due to setting-out problems, be careful before you point your finger at an engineer or contractor.  Go away and check the drawings, consider all the possible reasons, then check the drawings again, before you respond.  Taking 24 hours to address a crucial query like this is not a luxury.  Otherwise, the engineer or contractor will probably explain in great detail which part of your drawing is wrong, and how it generated the setting-out problem in the first place.

In that regard, a very useful book, now sadly out of print, is Ray Cecil’s “Professional Liability” (published by the Architectural Press in 1984) – it sounds dry, but it offers a lifetime of experience in the kind of things which can go wrong, and more importantly in how to avoid them.  Good for practicing architects to re-read now and again, as well as for Part 3 students, as ideally you want to learn from other folks’ mistakes rather than your own.  As for our hapless walrus: strayed inexplicably from the Alaskan or Canadian oil fields to the Gulf: he is a victim of circumstance, accidentally photocopied from place to place.  He was used by Lewis Carroll as a metaphor for the capitalist urge to acquire, (he collected as many oysters as he could in Carroll’s poem) so it’s perhaps appropriate that he’s cropped up here.  A walrus off the Florida coast is no more unlikely than putting people in charge of things without educating them in how to react rationally when those things go wrong.

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