Gallery: "memory palace"

What is architecture and design really about? Is it as the Grand Old Modernists would have it: the analysis and masterful resolution of form, driven by the articulation of the programme and the opportunities of the site? Is it, as the current generation of students and graduates believe: about social justice, climate activism and carbon neutral design?

Or is it, as we secretly wondered all along but were afraid to admit: just a matter of taste?

We have one man to simultaneously thank, and blame, for that. The recent passing of Terence Conran reminded me that when I first moved into my own flat, I discovered a shortage of stores to buy decent furniture from. At that point, the Habitat in Aberdeen had long since closed – but they still had a store on Shandwick Place in Edinburgh, so I drove down with my Dad riding shotgun to help manoeuvre boxes through the car’s tailgate. We parked on the bomb site at Haymarket and picked up an Anglepoise “90” lamp, a stainless steel bin and a few other perquisites.


In time the flat was furnished from Alastair Jamieson’s bric-a-brac shop on the Perth Road in Dundee, the furniture recyclers in Meadow Mill, the John Lewis store in the St. James Centre in Edinburgh and that Habitat shop. Some of it was cheap, some second hand, some expensive and new. Despite the cost, I was determined to buy a particular design of knives, forks and spoons: a half-set of Alessi cutlery which is out of production now. It will either be forgotten and worthless, or collectable and worth a fortune. Either way it doesn’t matter, I enjoy using it every day and that’s the main thing.

But I realise the matter of design preference is also a demonstration of taste, and that’s what Conran nailed from the very start of Habitat in 1964. His mission was to offer everyone well-designed furniture and homeware, such as the MacLamp and Crayonne storage set.  He didn’t resort to cheap tricks, such as the old ice cream van which used to drive around the Kreuzberg area of Berlin playing the Can song, “I Want More”.  A not-so-subtle encouragement to consume.  Conran was subtler but his mission was clear, and as a 1986 review of one of his books puts it, “Terence just wants everyone to have a better-designed salad bowl”.


Yet modern design, also championed by people like Marion Dorn, Kenneth Grange, Lucienne and Robin Day faced barriers in post-war Britain. As Colin Ward wrote in “New Town, Home Town”, “The older the house you inhabit, the higher your social prestige, and the biggest of the huge imponderables since the 1940’s has been the shift in perception that changed the British from a nation of neophiliacs, welcoming the new post-war society that would sweep away the shameful legacy of poverty and deprivation, mean streets and smoky skies, into a nation of antiquarians, cherishing the past and an imaginary “Heritage”.

Conran challenged that: he was a Modernist. Just like George Davies, who started Next in the late 80’s and changed the way people thought about High Street clothes, Conran was also a tastemaker. Yet it took years for me to realise that Conran did much more than simply run furniture stores, like some hip 1980’s version of Grace Brothers.


For example, when I wrote for another magazine about Bravo, Aberdeen’s brilliantly-conceived but unbuilt Oil Experience Centre, I discovered that the architects were Conran Roche. Same Conran. Looked along my bookshelf, a couple of titles are published by Conran Octopus. Same Conran. The Design Museum and several fancy restaurants in London were started by him – and eventually the Conran Shop, which is a sort of upmarket Habitat Mk2. Same Conran once again.

Conran's publishing projects (he's listed on Amazon as author or co-author of over 30 books) also highlight one solution to an endless problem: that of the supposedly “design elitist” press. When architects and designers write about their work, do they inevitably see themselves as their own audience, using jargon which puts off the casual reader?   Alternatively, does appealing to the lay person mean ‘dumbing down", to use that horrible cliché, rather than condensing complex ideas into clear and straightforward copy, which is what good journalism should achieve.


Terence Conran, as writer and publisher, found a third way.  He saw books in exactly the same way as his Habitat shops: a means to democratise good design (and make money whilst doing so).  If his greatest achievement was to popularise contemporary design in Britain, the second was to expand its audience well beyond a small coterie in London who shop at Heal’s. You can sum up his philosophy from the blurb on one of his many interiors books:
“I have always believed that objects - and surroundings - that are plain, simple and useful are the key to easy living.  By being practical and performing well over time, they are as much the antidote to superficial styling as they are to the shoddy and second-rate. Applied to the home as a whole, this discerning approach results in interiors that are effortlessly stylish, confident and timeless, with plenty of room for the expression of personal taste.”

Similarly, I could say that I’ve long been of the opinion that when Habitat left the High Street, we lost much more than a chain of shops.  Although Habitat was no longer Conran by the time I went to Shandwick Place, the lighting aisle was still a design-led halfway house between Ikea and Artemide. The crockery was a bit rustic, perhaps reminding Terence of holidays in Provence and Tuscany, but making the rest of us feel slightly better about overselves, even as we realised what we were missing out on. And of course the Anglepoise lamp plus the Brabantia swing-top bin, into which ideas in bad taste which never make it to the Urban Realm blog are crumpled into a ball and hurled – was bought from Habitat.

There it is again, the taste factor.


By • Galleries: memory palace

Once upon a time in a universe far, far away it was all about Generation X, named after Douglas Coupland's book, ”Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture”, which was published in 1991. X represented us – people in their teens and twenties during the Tech Boom of the Nineties and early years of the new millennium, people who were tech savvy and keen to embrace progress. This is what progress used to look like:

However, a few years ago Gen X dropped off the radar of the zeitgeist hunters. Look at today's websites and you'll find endless references to the Millennials or Generation Y or better still, “Digital Natives”. For the past decade, marketing folk have given up on X and turned instead to this new cohort. In parallel, a new set of concerns has arisen, including “increasing agency”, “eliminating privilege”, and “co-working”. I’ve deliberately put those in quotation marks, as they’re worthy objectives but described in buzz phrases worthy of David Brent.

The company at the lead of the charge is WeWork. Just as in the days of the late 90’s Tech Boom which Gen X lived through, but the Millennials are too young to remember, it’s an American tech startup which became big and influential very quickly. WeWork's business model involves leasing office buildings, then sub-leasing space to startups and freelancers from the digital native generation. Their modus operandi involves equipping offices with fast wifi and the kind of whimsical interior design which Californians specialise in, focussed on well-being, mindfulness and biophilia.

Yet as the World Wide Web reached its 25th birthday, I heard the term "digital natives" once too often and my toes curled. I went to primary school during the 1980's and from the start we had BBC Micros in the classroom, one of which was equipped with a robotic pen plotter which crawled across a sheet of paper, drawing lines we'd programmed using Basic commands.  At home, many of us had Sinclair ZX series computers, which were built in Dundee and ran computer games such as Manic Miner which loaded painfully slowly from a C90 tape.  I've never known a world without digital computers.

In fact, Dundee has thrived on electronics since the War, when Burndept moved its operations here after its factory at Erith in Kent was bombed. The skill base built up during the 1940’s attracted other companies, some like Ferranti which were already electronics firms, and others like NCR which became so. Long before I was born, folk from my parents’ generation were assembling electronics for radios, televisions, computers and lasers.

Down in Yorkshire, the ballistic missile radar at Fylingdales watched over our childhoods like a weather god, promising a three minute warning and vengeance to follow during tense periods of the Cold War. The radar ran on Elliot 803 mainframes – the sort of computers you see in Dr Strangelove, ranks of cabinets with 1-inch tape drives spinning which now seem hopelessly anachronistic.  Back in the day, BBC, Sinclair and Elliot machines were all built in the UK. All were natively digital.

When I went up to the academy, the computer studies room already had PC's with 286 chips which ran MS-DOS and used Winchester hard disks to store data on.  Technology was evolving rapidly, and by then the future mainly came from America. When I went into O-Grade Art, I became aware of a machine which could create sophisticated graphics and set type like a professional printer would – although we weren’t allowed to use it.  The Apple Macintosh had arrived.

I started using Macs immediately I arrived in architecture school, and the Quadra 700 was unlike anything else I'd come across.  It was a fraction the size of a PC but much, much faster.  The graphics were sharp and vivid, rendered in 16 bit colour.  The Quadra ran software like Photoshop, Quark Xpress, Freehand and StudioPro; much of my university work was created on machines like this, but the Quadra 700 cost around $6000 new, £4000 in Scots pounds, so it was anything but a home computer.

The architecture department at Duncan of Jordanstone also invested in an example of the first Apple digital camera, and these are some of the actual photos I took in 1995 of a sketch model.  After 2000, the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad transformed Apple into a completely different type of firm, and eventually it became the world's largest corporation. It's no longer the niche company of the Eighties and Nineties which created cool computers that made design work so much easier.

I could go on, but you can see where this is heading.  I've been a digital native from the start, and it seems strange to be told that, somehow, I’m not.

Does it matter?  This is where WeWork’s central conceit comes in: it claimed to have reinvented workspace design for millennial workers, as if they were a fresh species of human.  But if we decide to design workspace in a different way, predicated on millennials working differently to everyone else, we need concrete evidence for that, rather than fuzzy buzzwords such as “Digital nomads”.

An article in Nature 547, 380 (27 July 2017) quoted research suggesting that the digital native is a myth: as they put it, “a yeti with a smartphone”.  So we need to interrogate the reasons why so many have seized on the WeWork as the future of workspace design.

Today's tech disruptors aren't just the “FAANG” corporations ie, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, but also the so-called Fintech and Proptech companies, such as WeWork.  WeWork felt they'd found a formula which would work across North America and Europe, and their disruptive business model quickly drew in billions in venture capital funding … for something which is markedly old school.

To give them credit, they learned from a previous grand speculation, the Tech Boom of the late 1990’s, which predictably ended in a Tech Crash. When the going is good, it’s easy to create a prospectus which claims that you’ll harness a wonderful new creative energy to do something new. You aim to make money from it while the going is good, and it's no surprise that California's tech grifters decided to have a shot.

However, the received wisdom of the tech disruptors quickly collided with an opposing view, the so-called first mover advantage.  Just as Tesla discovered how difficult it is to build electric cars in large volumes, the Jaguar Land Rovers, Daimler-Benzes and Volkswagens of this world waited until Tesla helped to create a demand for electric cars, then came in with a better product which was backed up with decades of experience building cars, and crucially in building the infrastructure required to build those cars.

The same is true of WeWork. It has vast amounts of competitors – many of whom already own the buildings and are better capitalised, hence have no need for debt financing or rights issues to raise money, the things which are a drag on WeWork’s profitability.  That's why tech disruptors speak so much about “growing market share and turnover”, rather than actually earning money to pay back borrowed capital and distribute a dividend to their shareholders. Established property firms, on the other hand, are simply just *profitable*.

Perhaps you think it's easy for a cynical member of “Generation X” to write off WeWork as a giant marketing ruse. Last year, WeWork’s valuation reached $47 billion, before it had to be rescued by SoftBank, and its value has continued to fall, down to around $3bn today. That looks very much like a speculative bubble which has burst, and WeWork’s business could suffer even more, now that Covid-19 has made co-working a risky activity. Now that we’ve grown used to the idea of working at home, many firms will reconsider the need for office space altogether.

Ignoring the pandemic, WeWork almost failed not because it was a bad business – but investors saw through the claims made for its “unique” business model.  Renting office buildings and tailoring office space to a particular age group isn't a world-shattering insight. We’ve been creating open plan offices with workstations, chairs, break out areas and so forth since Frank Lloyd Wright invented the type at the Larkin Building in New York. Strangely, they’re suitable for people of all ages.

And as for digital natives? Don't believe the hype. After all, have you ever seen a Yeti with a smartphone?

By • Galleries: memory palace, technology

The Barbican

15/03/19 20:35

Beware the Ides of March: Julius Caesar was assassinated on 15th March in 44 BC, Interserve went into administration on 15th March 2019, and things aren’t going well for Theresa May today, either.  Somewhere in the south of England, a big red bus is careering towards the precipice of a high white cliff.  Better news arrived in the post from the Barbican Centre in London, from which I ordered a copy of “Building the Brutal”, a book of Peter Bloomfield’s photos taken during its construction.

It's a favourite sport among architects to recall what first attracted them to architecture.  We had a family friend who ran his own practice, and he offered sage advice when I put my portfolio together for the entrance interview at Duncan of Jordanstone.  My art teacher similarly encouraged me, introducing me to a local practice with whom I worked after I graduated: I recently met up with him again for the first time since 1990, which prompted me to cast my mind back further.

When I was in second or third year at secondary school, my parents diverted into Aberdeen each time we drove up to visit my grandparents, so that I could spend half an hour or so admiring the architecture books in Waterstone’s on Union Street.  Art and architecture were on a mezzanine floor towards the back of the shop – an area with plush burgundy carpet, black ash shelves and fancy lighting.  I still have the books I bought, usually paid for with book tokens received as birthday and Christmas presents.

As I leafed through the Barbican book, I realised something about it had lodged deeply in a recess of my brain.  It’s the one place I return to every time I visit London, and it dawned on me there might be a reason for that, beyond the fact it’s an impressive megastructure and quite unique in Britain.  “Utopian” is a cliché, and Brutalism has become fashionable nowadays among critics and hipsters - but both applied to the Barbican pretty much from its conception in the late 1950’s through to 1982 when it was completed.

In those days, the Barbican consisted of unfashionable public housing for rent which politicians, trade union leaders and designers lived in.  By the 1990’s it had become fashionable housing for sale, with flats going for £200k or £300k.  You could just about imagine that if you worked hard and got a good job in London, then saved carefully you might be able to live in one. Now the flats are unattainable other than by the very rich or property speculators. I’m reminded of a short story by Will Self in which a drug-crazed City trader gazes out from his penthouse using binoculars, looking down both literally and figuratively on the proles seething along the pavements, several hundred feet below. Of course, nowadays that scene is just as likely to play out at Nine Elms or Canary Wharf than the Barbican.

Going right back into childhood, I still remember sitting in a primary classroom, drawing an outline of the Barbican onto the satin-textured newsprint paper which Dundee’s Education Department provided by the yard.  The pencils were bought from Winter’s in Shore Terrace, a wonderful art supplies shop in a Georgian building.  I remember Winter’s creaky door hinges (maybe they were floor springs…) and a mosaic floor across which the assistants heels click-clacked as they went to and from the back shop.  As with Waterstones in Aberdeen, I got to know the shelves at Winters quite well, and at some point I switched loyalty from blue Staedtler pencils to green Faber pencils, then to Caran D’Ache.

After a lot of casting my mind back, I’ve concluded that I must have been given a magazine or booklet about London, which had been published not long after the Barbican opened in 1982.  Perhaps that was one of the first things which turned me on to architecture, although the unattainable glamour of London may also have had something to do with it.  Unattainable to a child, that is.  Straining my memory further, I seem to recall the same magazine featured the RAF Museum at Hendon with a roof similar to the arcaded vaults on top of the crescents at the Barbican, and perhaps the terraced blocks beside St Katharine’s Dock. 

I have lots of other memories of places visited, but the Barbican has stuck with me.  The three dimensionality of the buildings and the interesting skyline marked London as something different: the vast scale of it only struck me when I visited in person. With the benefit of hindsight, the Barbican also seems like a properly-executed version of Park Hill, Cumbernauld Town Centre or the Siedlung Halen in Switzerland, which arguably helped to kick off the craze for mat buildings and megastructures.

So much for memory lane.  Meantime, many of the photos from Building the Brutal are reproduced on the Barbican’s website, here -

By • Galleries: memory palace

It was late afternoon in November when I was heading back towards Berlin from Saxony, and realised from the signs on the autobahn that I was close to Dessau.  Martin Pawley’s description of Dessau twenty-odd years before, just after the Berlin Wall came down and the East was accessible again, stuck in my mind.

At that time, in the early 1990’s, the Bauhaus was an active design school but hadn’t been made ready for the 21st century.  Pawley’s was a pre-internet Bauhaus, reproduced in monochrome in dozens of books.  East Germany was a black-and-white place, the DDR before re-unification, and Pawley found Dessau strangely desolate, lacking in traffic, investment and hope.  To him, it felt very flat and grey although he chose to express that greyness in Trabants and soot.

Relying only on Google and a Michelin map, I discovered that Dessau’s road system is confusing – it’s a city without a real centre, just a main drag which invariably sends you in the wrong direction each time you come round.  However, the Bauhaus was unmistakable when I eventually found it by setting off down a side road and keeping going in what felt like the “wrong” direction.

I certainly crossed to the wrong side of the railway tracks, into a run-down area with a derelict, Victorian-era brewery crumbling onto the pavement.  The bricks simply seemed to turn to dust, and the windows were glassless hollows.  But only a couple of turns later, Dessau changed again and the road emerged onto a broad avenue of trees with immaculate inter-war blocks of flats behind them on one side, and a 3/4 scale model of a famous building suddenly popped up on the other.

After I parked nearby and walked slowly up to the building.  At first it looked underwhelming, but I guess that’s often the case when you think you know somewhere – yet have only seen heavily-mediated images of it.

I didn’t pay the fee or take a guided tour: I wandered around myself, and once I was done it was enough just to stand on the most famous stairs in Europe and disregard the students and staff filing past.  Rather like meeting a well-known person you’ve seen on TV, or finally acquiring something you’ve lusted after for a long time, the experience was different to what I expected: neither better, nor worse, just different.   So much for preconceptions…

Some of the Bauhaus was as you imagine in your mind’s eye: the beautiful typography, bright corridors and stairs, and planes of sheer glass.  Yet one aspect which surprised me, in a way, were the splashes of bright colour.  So many architectural photos were shot in monochrome, and most architecture books from the birth of the Bauhaus right up to the 1980’s were printed in black-and-white, that you picture it in black and white.

As Mark Twain noted, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice,” and that surely holds true for the Bauhaus.  It’s arguably the wellspring of all Modern architecture, yet it’s so often misunderstood.  After my visit, I realised I had been among the many who misunderstood it.  The Bauhaus isn’t monochromatic.  There are planes of chrome orange and cadmium yellow, bands of bright crimson red, planes of sienna brown linoleum – the old-fashioned battleship lino that DLW still make at Delmenhorst in the north.

Only the exterior is tonal: the interior is a colour exercise which demonstrates how controlled Walter Gropius's grasp of design is, how colour advances and recedes, works with and against tone.  Of course I should have known better, having read Johannes Itten’s colour theories, and bought a book a few years ago about the “ideal house”, written by Bruno Taut around the same time that Itten developed his ideas.  Both go a long way to demonstrate how integral colour was to the Modern Movement – and that’s hopefully clear from my photos.

When I went outside, I was treated to the afterglow of the winter sun hitting the Bauhaus lettering on the building’s gable: and then it was a rush through the back streets of Dessau, across bumpy pavé that takes you past the derelict brewery to find the Way Out.  Even so, it was dark by the time I hit the Berliner Ring, concentrating very hard to make sure I found the turn-off for Genshägen and didn't wind up on my way to Poland…

Happy Christmas. :-)

By • Galleries: memory palace, canon

Son of Jaguar E

22/11/16 21:35

I came across these images while distractedly browsing the net as I listened to a Radio 4 discussion about cuisine from the 1950’s.  A weird convergence.  While the food chat was interesting, the most telling comment was that, “in those days, no-one spoke about food, money, sex, politics or religion.”  No-one in polite society, at least.

However: food, money, sex, politics and religion are some of the things which bring pleasure and meaning to life.  The lady chefs interviewed for the documentary acknowledged that many of those unspokens were unwrapped during the 1960’s – and that’s when this advert, which was commissioned by Jaguar Cars’ American concessionaire, was published.

The E-type was unveiled at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show.  At the time it seemed like a startling artefact from the future, and this one has Old English White bodywork and an oxblood red interior.  The MkII saloon is similarly rakish.  The shape we perceive looked like progress, and since we tend to believe that whatever we think is the right thing to think, the E-Type became shorthand for the future.

Until then, Jaguar’s saloons were suited to stuffy diplomats, smoking cigars and twirling their moustaches.  In the words of Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett: "Splendid!  Excellent!!  First class!!!"  The XK-E, as it was known across the Atlantic, was different.  The car appealed to the Americans, partly because it was fast, partly because it was sleek, and also because it was European.  It emerged from an era when American designers like Paul Rand and Eliot Noyes pursued an aesthetic quite different to their European counterparts such as Dieter Rams.

The ad men of Madison Avenue used the E-Type to reach out to the Commissioning Classes, the 1% of the population who patronised oyster bars and appreciate modern art.  At least some them, represented here by the guy in the dark suit with the Mk2 Jaguar, commissioned the post-war skyscrapers which made New York and Chicago crucibles of Modernism – a functionalist architecture.

There has never been a Functionalist car; even those which claim to enable minimal motoring like a Lada, or with everything superfluous stripped out, like the Lotus Elan, aren't minimal.  The E-Type is an expressionistic design which looks sleek and cuts through the air.  Malcolm Sayer was an aerodynamicist: he designed the car's skin.  Nowadays car makers employ surface designers, a discipline unknown in those days.

Some designs age badly.  Others remain not just ahead of their time, but outside of time, fashion and taste.  Half a century later, the E-type is regarded one of the high points of car design.  There are only a dozen or so cars in this category: the original Mini, Land-Rover and E-Type.  The Fiat 500, VW Beetle and Porsche 911.  The Citroen 2CV and DS, the Ford Model T and the Willys Jeep.

Yet while the E-Type fixed head coupé of 1961 appeared to come from 1971, the folk in the advert seem to come from 1951.  She wears a turtle neck sweater in French grey and leans on the cant rail of the coupé; he stands casually, hands deep in the pockets of his mock-turtle brown tweed suit.  The fashions seem old-fashioned today, but unlike our current horrified, cynical world-view – guys from that generation evidently loved to smoke, drink and swear without giving it any serious thought.  The ladies always appear extremely well turned out.  Or so we’re told.

Radio 4’s chefs make the point that social mores changed quickly in the Sixties – but this incarnation of the Sixties is pre-hippie, pre-Swinging London, yet seems a world away from the restraint and muted off-colours of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s as portrayed in the recent feature film “Carol”.  The difference couldn’t be more marked, and it suggests that you can read interiors, cars, advertising and even fine art by the colours of the period. 

For example, these muted 1950’s colours - Leaf Green, Old Gold, Coral and Flame, Tan and Slate – come from Frank Lloyd Wright’s collection for an American wallpaper manufacturer.  Schumacher's Taliesin Line of Decorative Fabrics and Wallpapers was launched around 1955 by F. Schumacher & Company, who were and still are a New York interiors firm based on Madison Avenue which sells luxury textiles: perhaps the eponymous “Mad Men” furnished their houses from Schmachers’ showroom.

So we can date cars by their colours as well as their styling: strong colours extended to motor cars with the development of cellulose paints in the 1960’s.  Soft greys, celadons and dull umbers come from the 50's, orange and green are the 60's, earth tones from the 70’s and so forth until we reach today’s “Ralph Lauren” colours… which actually hark back to Bauhaus ideas of colour, shape and line.

All that from a car advert…?  Yes, because this ad was perfectly realised, and fifty years later we can read all these things into it, making many cultural associations the ad men intended – plus a few they would rather we didn’t.  And that’s the the genius of the advertising men.

By • Galleries: memory palace

I went to see "Solaris" last night, at the local arts centre's cinema.  It's part of a season of films made by Andrei Tarkovsky which is currently touring Scotland.  Some people are fans of the Russian director because he was an auteur; some due to the rich symbolism of his films; some thanks to the cult which has grown around him since his early passing.  In this case, Tarkovsky's profound feeling for humanity makes Solaris both inspiring and moving.

Tarkovsky is often called a visionary, and for good reason.  Along with the French film-maker Chris Marker, Tarkovsky's work reaches parts of what it means to be human which almost no other art has.  By comparison, Hollywood films seem superficial: they think desire is Sharon Stone without any underwear.  Solaris demonstrates how deeply people can feel for someone or something they've lost, and how far they'll go to reclaim a part of them which, as one of the characters in Solaris puts it, has become their conscience.

Solaris is the most profound film I've ever seen; I’ve never watched a film then thought about it constantly afterwards, gone to bed, then woken the next day with my head still full of images drawn from it and feelings evoked by it.  At a time when all we seem to hear about Russia are Putin’s hardline politics and the “Ultra” football hooligans fighting hooligans from other countries, perhaps we need to be reminded of the achievements of Russian art, literature and film-making.

All of Tarkovsky's films are about the unknowable - something we reach out towards without fully understanding.  His later film Stalker seems like a premonition of Chernobyl - it was shot ten years before the nuclear accident and captures the sense of a world destroyed by Man which has begun regenerating itself.  The strangely mutated plants and insects which grew back in the Zone of Exclusion around the reactors was foreseen by Tarkovsky as the Zona, a temperate jungle of plants into which only stalkers (in the deer stalker, or guide, sense of the word) go.

When the three travellers in Stalker finally reach the Zone, they search for and eventually find the Room - the object of their journey. The Room is a derelict industrial hall with mounds of soda ash or a similar white powder flowing like sand dunes across the floor.  In metaphysical terms, it's a place where your deepest wish can be fulfilled - but at a terrible price.  Solaris similarly tackles things deep inside human nature.

At the core of Solaris is the relationship between Kris Kelvin and his wife Hari.  It isn't a film "about" space travel, or science fiction - it's a film about what it means to be human.  How Hari came to be on the Solaris spacecraft is a piece of pure metaphysics, but what she and Kris go through, and the agonising final scene which explores how Kelvin’s life can never have a simple resolution, peers deeply into the human condition.  Tarkovsky, to use a cliché from the Seventies, was a cosmonaut of inner space.

Of course, along with its script, actors and narrative - the film relies on set and locations for its impact.  The opening sequence, a shot of a pellucid stream with water flowing over weeds, is rich in translucency and colour, with the strands of weed flowing sinuously in the current … and then a copper-coloured aspen leaf floats by, suddenly introducing depth to the image.  Presumably intended as a metaphor for life, a symbol of transience, the leaf in the stream becomes potent once you realise that Kris Kelvin is spending his final day on Earth before going into space.

First thing in the morning, he leaves the dacha or country cottage where he's staying and goes for a walk.  Sunlight slanting through the trees, water meadows, birdsong, a pond full of weed and insect life - to which mankind adds the horse and dog, his familiar companions.  Kris stands on the verandah in a thunderstorm, rivulets of rain coursing down his face: you sense that he needed to experience Earth for one last time before it was lost to him.

One hour in to a two-and-three-quarter-hour long film, you will realise, slightly amazed, this is science fiction which doesn't rely on endless special effects.  As a result, it stands head and shoulders above 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Solaris is pretty much unique in that it defies “genre” classification which critics love; Tarkovsky hunted alone.  If Solaris borrows from anyone, it's the renaissance astronomer Kepler, who dreamt of space flight, trips to the moon and what life might be like on other worlds.

Kelvin arrives at the Solaris space station, which Akira Kurosawa said was the most impressive film set he'd ever seen, somewhere quite unique which is far removed from the usual images of SciFi: Jules Verne, Bladerunner, William Gibson or the relentless hi-tech baroque of Star Wars and Star Trek.  It's an aesthetic which countless directors tried to copy but only Tarkovsky had the budget and skill to make it believable.

Can I suggest you see the film yourself, then judge how its director understood the need for meaning and purpose in our lives, for belief, for intimacy, and even our connection with animals and the rest of the natural world.  Solaris is visually stunning, emotionally moving, and has the moral sense of Pasternak’s masterpiece, Dr Zhivago; it’s also too good to leave to the film snobs, hipsters and other sorts who made up half the screening’s audience.

So why am I writing about it here, on what's ostensibly an architecture magazine's website, rather than doing a quick post on Facebook - Saw Solaris, was gr8, innit bruv. Like.  Well, around the same time I figured out that the best writing is about folk rather than things - because people are fundamentally interested in people - I also realised that, at their core, buildings are about people rather than architecture.

Images copyright - Curzon Artificial Eye -

By • Galleries: memory palace

Happy New Year.  Traditionally, this is a time of year for reflection, and I guess we should be grateful for any stimulus which makes us examine our lives.

I never met Jon-Marc Creaney.  He studied at the Mac, practiced in Lanarkshire and was around my age.  I only became aware of him thanks to the photos, blog and the comments he posted on the net under the nom-de-guerre “Scarpadog”.  It strikes me that he would have been a great guy to strike up a friendship with, as he had many interests and enthusiasms to share with the world.  But I’ll never have the chance to do that, because he passed away in 2011.

The continuing existence of Jon-Marc’s Flickr and his blog provide an insight into his hopes and aspirations, plus his fears and concerns as he came to terms with during his cancer treatment at the Beatson in Glasgow.  I was prompted to think about Scarpadog again by what a close friend is going through at the moment.  All the time you want to help, but you can never be sure if standing back and giving space, or reaching out to give them a hug, is the right thing to do.  Often the “right” thing to do changes from day to day.

Similarly, it’s difficult to write about someone who I never knew in person, and who wasn’t a public figure – but discovering the things which Jon-Marc left behind made me ponder about the nature of the internet and anonymity in the 21st century.  I knew Scarpadog through his work, and a shared interest in contemporary architecture and abandoned places.

It’s comforting to think that we’re known and remembered for life-affirming things: our passions for music, photography, travel and friends as well as the all-encompassing sense of shared humanity which Burns coined so neatly in “A Man’s a Man”.  I’m sure it’s heartening to his friends and family that Jon-Marc Creaney will be remembered for those positive things – and that strangers like me will come along occasionally and still be inspired by him.  The traces of Scarpadog which remain on the net are a tribute to him.

Hopefully some will also take heed of one of the final posts on Scarpadog’s blog, “I recalled lying on the sun-drenched slopes of Gran Paradiso feeling on top of the world, what a change in a year and I would say to everyone to grasp and enjoy these moments you get in life to the fullest – you never know when they can be taken away.” That Jon-Marc wrote this while he was seriously ill says a great deal about his self-awareness.  He was brave to share how he felt at that moment, and in a way because he posted it under the identity “Scarpadog” it somehow made what he said all the more universal.  Prompted by that, I’d like to consider how we communicate through the supposedly anonymous medium of the net.

A couple of years ago, Mark Zuckerberg got into a spat with internet hacktivists about the myriad of anonymous accounts that exist on Facebook.  Zuckerberg felt that folk who post anonymously portray a false and sometimes malicious reality – other figures on the internet such as “Moot” disagreed.  Moot said, “Zuckerberg equated anonymity with a lack of authenticity, almost a cowardice, and I would say that's fully wrong.  I think anonymity is authenticity, it allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way and I think that's something that's extremely valuable." Moot is correct that throughout history, free speech has depended on anonymity.

In a political sense, anonymity acts as a shield from the tyranny of the majority.  As the American First Amendment has it, anonymity can protect unpopular people from retaliation, and their ideas from suppression at the hands of an intolerant mob.  Anonymous speech was used by the likes of Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) to criticise common ignorance, and the Economist Magazine believes that keeping authorship anonymous moves the focus of discussion away from the speaker and on to the subject of the piece – which as it should be.  Sometimes authorship is vital: we like to get credit where it’s due for our work.  Sometimes anonymity is crucial: if that’s the guarantor of free speech and free expression then so be it.

On a personal level, if posting as “Scarpadog” enabled Jon-Marc to be more honest about his life and what he chose to share with the world, then that was the right thing to do.  It’s also in the original spirit of the internet, where we chose exactly what to share and what to keep private but increasingly, the decision on what to make public and what to keep private isn’t even ours to make.  Facebook and other sites manipulate your account and unless you keep checking your “privacy” settings, things are revealed to the world at large (and to their advertisers) which you never intended to share.

Ultimately you can’t guarantee the integrity of anything on the internet, but when folk like Jon-Marc post openly and honestly about themselves, that rings true despite the digital clutter.  We habitually confide in close friends because we trust them; yet occasionally we lay ourselves bare to strangers in the hope that something we thought or felt is transferrable and it may touch them.  That’s what paintings, novels and pieces of music can do – we don’t need to know who made them or why, in order to take something from them.

During the heyday of open architectural competitions in the first half of the 20th century, most entries were made anonymously – but rather than being allotted a number, each entry was identified by a chosen name.  Sometimes the name was a scrap of Latin or Greek, sometimes a nickname known only to the architect and their own circle.  Identifying yourself this way perhaps frees up creativity by allowing you to travel in a fresh direction, or to take a risk which you wouldn’t otherwise have taken for fear of harming your supposed reputation.  Thinking about yourself through an alter ego – whether Ziggy Stardust for our parents’ generation or the many noms-des-plumes which graffiti writers use – can provide a fresh outlet or some critical distance.

Of course we all have curiosity to satisfy and the internet has made it insatiable.  We peer into peoples’ lives through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and nowadays less so Bebo, DeviantArt or Friends Reunited.  Investigative reporters – when they’re not hacking into celebrities’ iPhones – can find out a great deal about folk quite legally using what we post in unguarded moments, even “public” comments on Facebook which we assumed were private.

One of Jon-Marc’s own buildings, at Wellwynd in Airdrie.

So you do have to filter what you post on the net.  You’d like to think that the millennials, as internet entrepreneurs characterise the generation now in their teens and early twenties which followed Douglas Coupland’s so-called Generation X, are more internet and privacy savvy than those of us who grew up with computers, but are old enough to remember when the net began. 

Well, perhaps.  In 2015, internet “content” is a feral thing: as soon as you post something it takes on a life of its own.  You may try to catch it and take it back – but as Mike Donnachie wrote elsewhere, the closest you’ll get is a glimpse of it howling at the moon from a distant mountaintop.  Perhaps that will discourage people from being authentic, and we’ll eventually become so guarded that life will be conducted through avatars and ciphers.

That would be a great loss.  Scarpadog carefully chose what he wanted to share, and that act of consideration was important because the internet has preserved Jon-Marc Creaney’s words and photos – just as a book, painting or piece of music lives on independently of the person who created it.

All photos are Jon-Marc Creaney’s, from his Flickr page -

By • Galleries: memory palace

“Except for a period in the 1980’s when I got sick of the whole business and went to America, riding trains like a Dustbowl hobo, I have been for the last few years an architect in the city.”

Just who is Mr Wolf? Is he an allegory? No: he is, in fact, quite real. I often see his bushy tail disappearing around a corner, a couple of streets ahead of me. Mr Wolf is always ahead.

His grandfather, J. Carruthers Wolf, Esq. got his start in business after the War and quickly found that many companies had a need for his cleverly-designed machinery. Business flourished, and his firm supplied Scotland’s shipyards and factories with equipment. He wasn’t a great believer in advertising, but enjoyed a network of personal recommendation built up as a result of fair dealing and a job well done, or, “Mr Wolf will have what you need”. 

This was a late flowering of the great cities of Empire, when sophisticated technology began to supplant steam power and brute force. Progress meant we could make things faster and better; it also meant fewer of us were needed to make them. There’s a tension between these two ideas – perhaps they’re even antithetical.

Is that because the technology is now so complex that it’s beyond simple analysis, or do we resent the fact that machines even make other machines. Mr Wolf’s particular line of business was multi-axis machine tools. Until recently there were still forms that nothing else could achieve.

  Solid fabrication techniques have changed that, with the advent of stereo-lithography, laser sintering and direct metal laser sintering. The easiest way to explain these is 3D photocopying. Today, computers can tell a laser to trace a cross-section of the component in a vat of liquid photopolymer resin, or in a powder bed, then layer by layer the desired shape will emerge as material is fused by the heat of the laser beam.

However, Wolf’s father developed the predecessors of the 3D photocopier which machined components from a solid lump of aluminium, titanium or stainless steel. Most of his competitors were American firms, many of which grew out of the USA’s enormous military aircraft-building industry. As a result, J. Carruthers Wolf regularly crossed the Pond from Prestwick, selling Scottish machinery to the Americans.

All this industrial enterprise appealed to the junior Wolf, and his fascination with America grew as he learned about it from his grandfather and father. America was the place where much of the late 20th century emerged, and it grew in his mind until it became an obsession: it was music, books, paintings, photos, poems, dreams, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows.

Mr Wolf craved a proper adventure and after years of dreaming, he crossed the East Coast on a Laker DC10. He arrived in Chicago, which his grandfather first visited forty years before. His first impression took in the grid-iron plans of New York, Detroit and Chicago’s downtowns, then screeds of slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, transit sheds and lumber yards. Beyond lay the tract houses which multiply like bacteria in a Petri dish.

That was Mr Wolf’s first discovery about America: the sprawling and organic form which its suburbs took when they were allowed to grow unchecked. The second arose from the novel way he crossed the continent. After the tightly-packed cities of Western Europe – between which you never really enter open countryside, but pass instead through a succession of man-made features like plantations, motorways, canals – here there were hours of wilderness between the “divisions” or wayside towns.

He figured out the practicalities of staying in touch, in the days before cellphones. Sending mail "General Delivery" to a particular city is how you got snail mail back in the day. You addressed your letters with your name, then wrote general delivery as the street, followed by city, state, zipcode. The closest Post Office to the rail yard in every town where there was a crew change was familiar with tramps and forty-milers, who came in to pick up their mail.

He saw America from the open door of a freight train, riding the rails. The trip began with a feeling of incredulity that he was finally here. But there he was, wearing a pair of Levis and a hooded sweat, with a bedroll in his pack and a camera jammed into his pocket. He had a roll of Jacksons stuffed into his sock and shot a few rolls of Kodachrome during his trip.

Precious few images, really, considering the thousands of miles he travelled, but enough to prove he had been there. In fact, whenever he has gone through tough times, he looked through the photos and drew on the strength he gained from hopping freights in America.

But before he could ride, Mr Wolf had to be patient. Trains often sat dead in the yard all day, with no sign of activity. Waiting to catch out at the side of the railroad left him ample time for reading, lying still in the brush beyond the track. His favourite book was “The Bottom of the Harbour”, which collected Joseph Mitchell’s essays from The New Yorker magazine.

Mitchell wrote using precise, spare English with no hype or sentimentality and barely any adjectives. He was Wolf’s hero, although of course Mr Wolf would never admit to holding anyone up as a hero. However, he recognised Mitchell’s genius because so many people have pressed mediocre books on him over the years, and he has slogged through them out of guilt. That kind of reading seldom works out for the best.

In late afternoon, that familiar horn blared out from a nearby locomotive. The brakes began charging up with a characteristic ticking noise; a few minutes later, the units revved up and the train eased out of the switchyard. Each train might have four or five locomotives hauling a rake of boxcars quarter of a mile long. He chose an immense train of loaded autoracks and UPS containers.

Perhaps there is a romance to hopping freights, but it’s dirty and physically-tiring work. Mr Wolf developed the strength required to run alongside the four foot, snatch a grab-iron and pull himself up into a moving train. It’s also dangerous. Each train he hopped was a now-or-never opportunity, and all the time he kept in mind the old Chicago alderman's maxim: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." 

He wedged the toe of his boot onto the step-iron and climbed up into the fourth unit. Manufactured by General Electric, it weighed 391,000 pounds and generated 4,000 horsepower. The lead unit of the train was crewed by flannel-shirted railroaders: a driver (the engineer), a second engineer and a brakeman. Over the cab radio, he could hear the engineer and dispatcher discussing the hardships of railroading.

Mr Wolf travelled in the Fall. In summer, the heat was unbearable. In winter, tramps passed out in the boxcars with their soaking clothes hanging from their bodies and froze to death. Yet even in the Fall, it grew perishingly cold when the train went over a high pass. At night he pulled the bedroll out of his pack and drew his jacket tightly around him, then waited for dawn.

He changed trains and travelled from Laurel, Montana, to Seattle, Washington, along a non-Amtrak six hundred mile route that passed through the filming locations for A River Runs Through It, then crossed the great Beartooth Pass, near the northeast entrance for Yellowstone. In the evening he slept fitfully as the train clattered over the ties at 45 miles an hour.

Eight hours later, the light was up as the train crawled up into the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, a land of steep fir-dotted ridges. The wildlife paraded past: herds of elk, mallards floating down the streams, pheasants surprised by the locomotive.

The Hill. That's what Jack London, A-No. 1, and several generations of other tramps called the Sierra; John Muir termed it the Range of Light. Later, he would traverse the Bitterroot Range and the Cascades. Was this the real West? It certainly felt like it, based on what Mr Wolf knew of America.

The train picked up speed on the downgrade and the sun broke out near milepost 60, dispelling the cool greyness of the Stampede crossing. Mountains give way to sagebrush desert and after he crossed the Great Divide, he was one with the fruit tramps, bums, hobos and vagabonds. His skin was seasoned with the sun and grime and his jeans were fit for the dumpster; Mr Wolf resembled nothing so much as a coyote.

You may not realise that Chuck Jones based his cartoon Wile Coyote on Mark Twain's book Roughing It, in which Twain described the coyote as "A long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton," which is "A living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him and even the flea would desert him for a velocipede.”

There were certainly thin pickings in the wayside towns, and Mr Wolf could see just how Cousin Coyote came to have his ribs sticking out. In fact, he almost expected to see DC Thomson’s Three Bears raiding Hank’s Store for grub. These railroads were built with Dundee money in the last years of the 19th century, using jute profits sunk into US railroad bonds. Railroads opened up the Oregon Trail in the 1880’s and 1890’s, during the Goldrush years. A century and a quarter later, the Scots have disinvested: Warren Buffett now owns America’s biggest railroad firm.

Finally, Mr Wolf reached the west coast. He drew out a couple of bills from his sock for a room in a motel in Ventura. He showered for the first time in two weeks, dropped his trainhopping clothes off at the laundromat, then lay on the bed. The last remnants of sunshine reflected off the windows as storm clouds moved in. He fell asleep listening to an Amtrak train rolling through town as the sun set across the Pacific.

Next morning, he treated himself to a regal spread of coffee, eggs, avocado, salsa, biscuit and a side of blueberry pancakes. Then spent the next few days walking in the footsteps of Steinbeck, from Tortilla Flats to Monterey. The places are much changed, but some of their spirit remains, despite the tourist hell of Cannery Row. Sand Dollar Bay in Big Sur lived up to its name, a stretch of sand and rock pools straight out of “Sea of Cortez”.

Many architectural visitors to California make a pilgrimage to Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute; but first Mr Wolf made a trip far up the coast to Northern California, where he finally saw Halprin's Sea Ranch with his own eyes, wreathed in coastal fog. This is also the land which Pynchon wrote about in “Vineland”. When he reached Arcata, home to the medical marijuana industry, there must have been an epidemic of some kind: the whole town was stoned.  Beyond it lay giant redwoods, fern-filled gorges, pounding surf and "All that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to West Coast, and all that road going."

All told, the journey was quite an adventure – the stuff of blind chance-takers, adventurers, nothing-to-lose optimists. But Mr Wolf’s greatest debt was owed to the railroad tramps he met during his travels. They didn’t know him from Adam, they had nothing to gain, and were absolutely hard up. Yet to a man they offered information about the trains and how to avoid the railroad bulls; they spared him the hardship of figuring everything out for himself. 

The experience left him with a deep feeling for the country and its people, which translated into praise of kind hearts and good times, and down with humbug and hypocrisy.


Postscript: Reply to Mr Wolf

Dear Sir,

I’ve read the adventures of Mr Wolf with enormous interest and enjoyment. I like them for their blunt candour, their devastating common sense and above all for the practical fashion in which they haul down to ground level issues which have been left hanging in the air. However, this piece has nothing to do with architecture, per se. 

It was written to show in an extended metaphor Mr Wolf’s relationship with the world. America (in the days before Trump) was symbolic of progress, whereas Europe is the Old World. I believe the piece serves to emphasise how broadening your experience of the world may make you a more understanding and empathetic person.

Happy Christmas and a fine New Year to you all.

Yours Sincerely,

Maxwell Allison (12), Penicuik

By • Galleries: memory palace

Picture this.  A design journalist, perhaps someone like Marcus Fairs or Naomi Cleaver, is raking through the bargain bin at Habitat.  Like an alien sociologist on a fact-finding mission from Mars, they come across a “Design Classic”.  They pick it up, admire its lines and fondle its contours – then herald it in their newspaper column.

All sorts of things, from the Kalashnikov rifle to Adidas Samba trainers have been cited as Design Classics.  To a certain kind of design journalist, the classicism of the classic aligns with a certain kind of Britishness.  Since we can’t readily own a Supermarine Spitfire or an AEC Routemaster bus, we buy a Dualit toaster, Dyson vacuum and an Anglepoise lamp instead. 

Do we value them for what they are they are – how beautifully made they are and how much utility they have – or for what they signify?  As Grayson Perry said, this is the “emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive.”  Design Classics are charged with social meaning as well as design values: we hunt them down to say something about who we are.

So we head for the Habitat and the flea market, the brocante and the interiors shop.  If we’re lucky, we might score a Hille Supporto task chair, some of Knud Holscher’s D-Line handles, and a run of Vitsoe 606 shelving.  At the end of the search, we collapse onto an Eames chair … and pour some real coffee from a cafetière: Richard Sapper’s “9090”, made by Alessi.

On one level the search for the Classic is the search for making an ideal environment in a world that is not ideal; on another it is about finding out who we are.  Arguably we belong to a “Designer” age which grew up in the 1980’s and became jaded in the 1990’s.  Soon, we found ourselves looking back over our shoulder to rediscover Mid-century design, with its clean lines and fitting use of materials.

That era also retained a residual pride in the Made in Britain tag.  Time was when firms such as English Electric made everything from toasters to locomotives and Lightning jets.  But now British-made white goods are what you see lined up along the kerb, ready to be uplifted by the scaffies – replaced by widgets made in Turkey or the Far East.

Half a century later, design journalism affects scorn at little bijoux and “home accents”, yet delights in things like the Alessi “Firebird”, Starck’s phallic-looking gas lighter.  But Firebird isn’t a Design Classic, not if design means the integration of ergonomics, economics and aesthetics to make something which works well, meets a demand, and whose appearance acknowledges and reinforces its function.

Firebird is a little piece of ornamental sculpture, a bourgeois gew-gaw like china ducks flying up the wall, or a wild boar’s head mounted on a plaque.  The unshaven clown prince of design had a big laugh at our expense with the Firebird, just as he did with the “Juicy Salif”, a lemon squeezer that wouldn’t.  That’s the difference between applied design and decorative art.

It also represents key themes in the 21st century: disposability, wastefulness, and the overwhelming victory of marketing over everything else.

The American approach to product design is marketing-led.  The marketeers define the brief for new products by emphasising consumer research, trend research and style forecasts. Then the designers and engineers would be asked to create products in response - therefore the emphasis became stylistic and short term.  That’s what happened when Braun was taken over by Gilette.

Before that happened, Dieter Rams noted that his approach at Braun was collaborative, bringing marketeers, finance, design and engineers around one table.  This has been likened to the Apple design process under Jonathan Ive, which is perhaps why there are parallels between Rams' Braun products and those from Apple.

I’ve just finished reading Leander Kahney’s excellent biography of Jonathan Ive, in which he makes the point that Apple’s fabulous profits are a direct result of design quality.  "We are really pleased with our revenues but our goal isn't to make money.  It sounds a little flippant, but it's the truth.  Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products.  If we are successful people will like them and if we are operationally competent, we will make money," he said.

Quality also means sustainability – a tag which is casually applied to everything these days.
Dieter Rams drew attention to an “increasing and irreversible shortage of natural resources” in his Design by Vitsoe speech in 1976. “I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk,” he warned.  Of course, mankind knows how to make stuff that lasts; so if stuff doesn't last, it's made that way by choice.

As another of the greats, Kenneth Grange, pointed out, “That’s the force of plain commerce as opposed to manufacturing commerce, which is what happens when money is the biggest single driving force in every damn thing.  You can make more money making something cheaply and selling it expensively than by setting out to make something new.  And to that extent the sort of accountancy temperament that the ingenious villains of the City thrive upon has come to dominate every other branch of commerce.”

In 1968, the Situationists came to the same conclusion with their famous non sequitur: In the décor of the spectacle, the eye meets only things and their prices.

Some think that Design Classics are things which people can aspire to, such as the Eames chair – but by definition, exclusive things work by excluding you from owning them unless you can surmount the high barriers to entry – in other words, their expense.

Others think Design Classics should be objects that everyone can own, like a pair of Converse All-Stars.  Those shoes represent America and rock n’ roll, in the same way that the row of toiletries on the bathroom shelf is a city skyline reduced to a scale we can afford. 

On reflection, I wonder whether Jasper Morrison’s Hannover trams aren’t a far more democratic piece of design, since no-one owns a piece of them.  You can’t buy or sell them; they just are.

By • Galleries: memory palace, canon

In the world of espionage, sources are often revealed not by single events, but rather though patterns which emerge over time.  This view was reinforced when Chaos Theory emerged in the 1980’s, and popular science seized on the analogy of a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world which causes a hurricane at the antipodes.  One of our most predictable patterns of behaviour is the Great Escape, when thousands of cars simultaneously depart the city each summer to head for the sunshine.

Now, bear with me while I put forward a proposition.  The pastime of sitting in stationary cars during summertime is frustrating, and while we think we’re acting on our own volition, perhaps we’re actually the subjects of an experiment carried out by social theorists.  How ironic, they smile, that in order to escape from the confines of the city we climb into a crocodile of cars and travel along the confines of the motorway.  What fun the sociologists will have with that one.

Social learning theory suggests that people learn by observing others, intentionally or otherwise, and that process is known as learning through imitation, or “modelling”.  Our choice of a model is influenced by a variety of factors, such as age, gender, status, and similarity to ourselves.  The congested motorway is an ideal place to observe what others do, and provides plenty models for us.

The French philosopher René Girard thought along similar lines, and developed a theory called “acquisitive mimesis”.  While I’d like to believe that I’m a free agent and that I visit places because I’m inherently interested in them, Girard supposes that I’m heavily influenced by what’s going on around me.  He proposes that human behaviour is learned, and learning is based on imitation.  Basically, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person - the model - for this same object.

Hence he suggests, we’re all sheep, following each other down the motorway towards freedom - and that’s why we all end up trapped in the same traffic jam.

In the new world which emerged after September 11, the efficiency of the plane was reduced by the time and energy wasted in security queues.  In fact, you have to travel more than 800 km for flying to become more efficient than high speed trains – the latter travel from city centre to city centre, rather than landing at outlying airports which require a further journey to reach your destination.  Plus you can take whatever you like with you, and return without having to worry about baggage allowances.

In theory, the car is not much use after 300 km, because the train will always beat you.  Trains also avoid the enormous traffic jams which spring up across the continent during holiday season.  The French have an apt description for traffic congestion which keep starting and stopping.  The cars, they say, are en accordéon, and anyone who travelled down the Rhone Valley last summer on the celebrated A6 – l'Autoroute du Soleil – on a “red” or “black” day will understand perfectly.

Perhaps you can avoid the jam … if you can recognise the emerging pattern.  Whether the source of distraction is a beautiful chateau, a phone call or an accident to gawp at, drivers rarely maintain the same pace.  If they slow down, the cars behind them brake, too.  As with molecular gas flows, all the particles behind back up and then these compression waves propagate, so you end up with a series of concertina-style traffic jams.

According to Girard’s theory, we’re doomed to sit in that jam, or in the security queue at the airport, or trapped on a train speeding through the Rhone, if that’s what our peer group does.  Even the most counter-intuitive thinking will be defeated as we have to battle very hard to overcome our own act of mimesis.  In one sense, that’s depressing and constraining, since it suggests that we lack free agency.  However, sometimes the mimesis is even more literal.

A couple of years ago, Girard contributed to a book, Architects and Mimetic Rivalry, which argues that buildings are shaped by imitating architectural forms, and by imitating the identities of their creators.  The term “mimetic rivalry,” coined by Girard, suggests that we’re in competition for things which are commonly shared and desired.  Although some architects dismiss the idea, Girard argues that their rivalry is not a result of personal or ideological differences, but instead the desire to imitate a master which ultimately becomes the desire to use the same forms, and by association to reach the same status.

That’s a strange and frightening premise.  It suggests that if we can’t separate the person from the work, then we’ll pursue a cult of personality in our attempt to re-create our own version of someone else.  However, as with other walks of life, you can have supremely gifted people with foul, devious personalities - and sweet, kind people with no talent at all.  If you get it wrong, you may end up copying a tyrant’s character traits without isolating his creative spark.

Similarly, there is a real danger that architecture becomes a business of chasing status, rather than creating things.  Girard seems to say, question your motives.  Why did you decide to train as an architect?  Was it something inherent in you, or are you simply copying your fellow travellers?

Girard’s thesis also relies on the splitting down of creative folk into people who “are”, and people who “do”.  For example, performing arts folk “are”, in the sense that they have extrovert personalities and want to show them off.  Visual artists who “do” can happily live in the shadows, content for others to see their work while learning nothing about its creator.  For the rest, perhaps we do behave like sheep some of the time.

In an attempt to avoid accordions, we travelled to Metz overnight at the end of the year.  When we got up the next morning, the winter air was clear and still, the chapel bells rang out, and the dead steelworks of Arcelor at Florange and Gandrange stood like ghosts of progress.  Once he realised we were Scots, the hotel manager quizzed us about Glasgow’s football teams, and in response we offered a Gallic shrug.  Bof… In return, he expressed amazement: no-one comes to Lorraine to take photos of the steel industry, monsieur! 

Perhaps we had succeeded, unwittingly, in confounding Girard’s theory.  We headed south to Belfort and from there it was on up to Geneva, over the impressive fly-overs of Bellegarde and to the Bourg-en-Bresse where, the French will tell you, they rear the best chickens in Europe.  >:^)

Meantime, if you see M. Girard stuck in a traffic jam, give him and all his pals a cheery wave…

By • Galleries: memory palace