Gallery: "memory palace"

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.

urite sport of 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 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 all the books I bought, often paid for with book tokens received as birthday 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.  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. 

Nowadays that scene is more likely 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.  At some point I switched loyalty from blue Staedtler pencils to green Faber pencils, then to Caran D’Ache.  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. 

I left primary school in 1985, so 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 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. 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. 

I have lots of other memories of places visited, but the Barbican has stuck with me, particularly a perfect day I spent there Lou Reed-style a few years ago.  With the benefit of hindsight, the Barbican 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 1990’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 factories, shipyards and gasworks with equipment.  He wasn’t a great believer in advertising, but he 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 more things.  There’s a tension between these two ideas – perhaps they’re even antithetical. 

Is it because the technology is now so complex that it is beyond simple analysis, or do we resent the fact that nowadays, machines even make other machines.  Mr Wolf’s particular line of business was in developing multi-axis machine tools.  Until recently there were still jobs that neither these, nor advanced casting, 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. 

All this industrial machinery appealed to the junior Wolf, and his fascination with America grew as he heard about it from his father.  America was the place where much of the late 20th century emerged.  America 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. 

After years of dreaming, he crossed the East Coast on a Laker DC10.  He arrived in Chicago, which his old man first visited a quarter of a century before.  Despite the grid-iron plans of New York, Detroit and Chicago’s city centres, the form which their suburbs took when they were allowed to grow unchecked was sprawling and organic.  Screeds of slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, transit sheds and lumber yards and beyond them, the tract houses which multiply like bacteria in a Petri dish. 

That was Wolf’s first discovery about America: 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.  Those and much more he saw from the open door of a freight train, riding the rails.

Wolf’s 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.

But before he could ride, Wolf had to be patient.  Waiting to catch out at the side of the railroad left him ample time for reading, lying still in the brush beyond the track.  The trains sat dead in the yard all day, with no sign of activity.  His favourite book was The Bottom of the Harbour, collecting 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 Wolf would never admit to holding anyone 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.  The brakes were charging up with a characteristic ticking noise; a minute 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.

There is a romance to hopping freights, but it’s dirty and physically-tiring work.  Wolf developed the strength required to run alongside the four foot, snatch a grab-iron and pull himself up into a moving train.  All the time, he kept in mind the old Chicago alderman's maxim: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

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

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

He changed trains and travelled from Laurel, Montana, to Seattle, Washington, along a non-Amtrak 623-mile route that passed through the filming locations for A River Runs Through It, and crossed the great Beartooth Pass, near the northeast entrance for Yellowstone.  He slept fitfully as the train clattered over the ties at 45 miles an hour.

Eight hours later, the light was up and 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.  The train picked up speed on the downgrade.  The sun broke out near milepost 60, dispelling the cool greyness of the Stampede crossing: mountains give way to sagebrush desert. 

After a month of travelling, he was one with the fruit tramps, bums, hobos and vagabonds.  His skin was seasoned with the sun and grime and his clothes were fit for the dumpster; Mr Wolf resembled nothing so much as a coyote. 

Chuck Jones based 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.”

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, the Cascades, and the Mojave Desert.  Was this the real American West?  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. 

After he crossed the Great Divide, Wolf expected to see DC Thomson’s 3 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 in the Pacific north-west opened up the Oregon Trail in the 1880’s and 1890’s, the Goldrush years and the epitome of the Wild West.  A century and a quarter later, the Scots have disinvested and Warren Buffett now owns America’s biggest railroad firm.

Finally, he reached the west coast.  Wolf unstuffed his sock and drew out a couple of bills for a room in a motel in Ventura.  He showered then lay on the bed.  The last remnants of sunshine reflected off the windows as storm clouds moved swiftly in.  He lay listening to an Amtrak train rolling through town as the sun set across the Pacific.

Next morning, he treated himself to a regal portion of coffee, eggs, avocado, salsa, biscuit and a side of blueberry pancakes.  Then he spent a 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”, and 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, here 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. 

Wolf’s greatest debt was owed to the railroad tramps.  They would never see him again, had nothing to gain, and were absolutely hard up.  Yet to a man they offered information about 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,

Having read your website and found this article, I discussed it with my fellow intellects. They, as I, have read the points made and have taken these into hand, but believe that you have not fully understood the premise.  We all agree that 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 is symbolic of progress, whereas Europe is the Old World.  We 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

Concepts like materiality and phenomenology are influential when you’re studying architecture.  They tend to have students either tumbling over each other – like bassett hound puppies lolloping after a marrow bone – or alternatively, giving a big Bagpuss yawn before falling asleep.

Both, in their own way, refer to how we experience buildings.  The material one suggests that we apprehend a building’s nature through the stuff it’s made from – although “materiality” has become associated with a particular kind of type of architecture.  The phenomenal one considers how we experience our whole Lebenswelt, the background to our lives: plenty of scope there for endless debate. 

However, student schemes are rarely built, so the discussion is literally academic.  Once in practice, materials rather than abstract materiality become crucial, since you can’t build unless you understand what you’re building with.  Key to that is technical knowledge, and perhaps surprisingly, getting your head around how building fabric performs becomes easier if you’re into outdoors pursuits.

Back in the day, tweeds were the only choice of clothing for outdoors types.  The milled finish of the tweed fabric gave it a close nap which was fairly wind-resistant and surprisingly water-resistant: it was also tough and thorn-proof.  However, the cloth was heavy and once you began to sweat, your cotton semmit and shirt would remain damp for hours.

The obvious analogy is with vernacular building.  Solid stone walls are built with two faces of rubble masonry and filled with “hearting” attempted to hold the building up, retain heat, and repel moisture all at once.  However, they retain dampness, much like sweaty worsted, and are slow to dry out.

By the 1970’s, tweed and dubbined leather were gradually being replaced by new kinds of waterproofs, lightweight boots and windproof fleeces.  Each garment aimed towards an economy of means, extracting higher performance from something smaller and lighter than its predecessor.  Some old-timers scorn Goretex trousers and fibrepile jackets, far less down-filled sleeping bags and Karrimats, but they represented an entirely new philosophy.

Fibrepile jackets emerged around the same time as mountaineers such as Dougal Haston ventured to the Himalayas.  They were one element in a new concept, where climbers dressed in a series of layers each of which did different things, rather than trying to find one material which is simultaneously windproof, rainproof, insulating, breathable and robust.  You split your clothes into three, using different next-to-skin, thermal insulation and weather protection fabrics to provide different qualities. 

For the waterproof “shell” jacket, W.L. Gore developed breathable fabrics like Goretex which repel water, yet wick perspiration and allow your skin to breathe.  Absorbent fabrics soak up water and hold on to it – but wicking fabrics transfer water somewhere else, without absorbing it. 

For the insulating mid-layer, Malden Mills developed “Polarfleece” fabric which by the mid-1990’s had become Polarlite and then Polartec fleece.  Around the same time, DuPont introduced the first Microfibres.  Making use of those advances, “technical” clothing was designed with functionality in mind, so garments might have a hood, windproof panels and gear loops, but lack pockets where a climbing harness would sit. 

Just as traditional cloths like tweed had become proprietary – Harris Tweed being the perfect example – high-tech synthetic fabrics were developed which mimicked traditional heavy woollen or oiled cotton textiles, but were lighter, warmer and avoided the sweatiness of traditional clothes.  Key to the concept was the knowledge that a climber can take off and put on those lightweight layers at will, with the shell as an outer skin.

Similarly, “Rationalised traditional” construction usually consists of a masonry outer skin.  That provides a robust finish which also sheds water, and inside lies a ventilated cavity drains and thermally isolates the external leaf.  The timber kit is structural but also contains the bulk of the wall’s insulation.  In simple terms, several thin layers separated by air gaps are more thermally efficient than one thick layer, and that principle was developed further in rainscreen cladding systems.

The rainscreen is perhaps the closest architectural analogy to the mountaineer’s layers, and entails splitting the external wall into two zones.  The outer leaf sheds the majority of the rain water, while the inner leaf acts as a moisture, air and vapour barrier, provides insulation and is structural.  The outer leaf isn’t waterproof – it actually allows a certain amount of moisture to penetrate – but its progress is controlled either by having a drained and back-ventilated cavity, or a pressure-equalised cavity.

As a result, the rainscreen relies on understanding capillary action and how that drives water through joints.  Goretex fabric is no different, although it harnesses capillary action rather than aiming to defeat it.

A fascinating book called Invisible on Everest, co-written by Mike Parsons who was formerly the driving force behind Karrimor, explains the difference these developments made in terms of the lives they saved in the mountains.  Karrimor was based at Accrington in Lancashire, and before a series of takeovers a few years ago, their clothing and gear were highly regarded.  Their fleeces and rucksacks in particular were unkillable and became a staple of hillwalkers, mountaineers and fell runners. 

During the mid-1990’s, a typical base layer was the Helly Hansen self-wicking top, a thin synthetic t-shirt which allowed sweat to evaporate.  The state-of-the-art mid-layer was the Karrimor “Alpiniste” Elite fleece, made from Polartec 300 fleece: not only was it very insulative, which proved to be really warm under a thin shell, but its close weave meant it was very robust and resistant to wear and tear.  The top layer is the waterproof one, a lightweight shell, which can be packed away in the rucksack if the sky is clear.

Nowadays, a technical fleece may use a mixture of fabrics: “Ultrafleece” is more wind resistant than regular fleece on the torso, and panels of stretchy fleece such as “Powerstretch” can improve articulation at elbows and shoulders.  Arguably, windproof microfleeces are the state-of-the-art right now: they insulate, block the wind and breathe out and wick sweat, too.

In fact, one criticism which present day “gear freaks” make about older fibrepiles and fleeces is that the wind blows straight through them and whilst they remain warm, once wet they stay damp for ages.  Perhaps perversely, they’ve dispensed with the layering system and are searching for a universal fabric which will do everything.  Back to the days of tweed, but using technical textiles?

Similarly, we now use “Brettstapel”, a solid timber construction system fabricated from softwood timber posts connected with timber dowels.  It’s a variation on the massivholz system which is used throughout central Europe.  Prefabricated wall, floor and roof panels made from laminated timber are secured together, then wood fibre board is attached to improve the panels’ U-value.  The timber is structural, it controls humidity by breathing, its fire-resistance is inherent and with a coating of microporous preservative, it became weather-resistant too.

Ideally, timber also becomes an internal and external finish, which keeps the building looking as timbery as possible.  Just as the Brutalists of the 1960’s aimed to cast entire buildings from concrete – floors, columns, beams and wall panels – Brettstapel aims to hold the building up, retain heat, and repel moisture all at once.  As with the outdoor gear freaks, architects sometimes question the need for all those layers which we spent years developing. 

The lesson is that we are still in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone – that one material to rule them all.

By • Galleries: memory palace

The aftermath of the recession is beginning to tell on the quality of new work in the northern half of Britain. However, earlier in the year, I had a chance to visit somewhere worth writing about in an unqualified way. High up on the edge of the moors in County Durham, on the site of a former steelworks, is the most powerful piece of public art in Britain.

A former steelworks: but what a contrast to the former Brymbo Steelworks which I wrote about in 2012. Tony Cragg’s work, Terris Novalis, is protean. While I was still at architecture school, a huge remediation project was coming to an end high up on the skirt of the Pennines at Consett. One of the first acts of Thatcher’s government had been to shut Consett steelworks: in the 1960s it made some of the highest technology steel in the world, but in September 1980, the steelworks was shut down, ending 150 years of iron and steel-making in the Derwent Valley.

Visiting Consett today, it’s tough to find anything which stands as a memorial to the Consett Iron Company. There’s little trace of the huge integrated iron and steel works which once stood on the edge of town. By the early 1990’s, the site had been cleared and a cycle path built alongside the course of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway Line – the earliest commercial railway in Britain – by Sustrans, who have developed a national network of routes along the line of abandoned trackbeds.

Part of this railway remained to be the last working railway serving the steel town of Consett but when the works were closed, the line had little future and it too was closed in 1985.  The route was substantially completed as a cycling and walking route by 1990 with the artworks being added between 1988 and 1998. 

Many of Sustrans’ projects incorporated artwork, and at Consett a sculptor was commissioned to create a lasting memorial to the ironworkers of County Durham. When Tony Cragg visited the site, there was nothing left of the steelworks, so he decided to call the project Terris Novalis – literally “new made land”. Once the sculpture was complete, a photo of it was printed in the Press & Journal, and after I’d marvelled at its originality, I clipped it from the page to keep in my shoebox of interesting things.

Cragg made maquettes of the Terris Novalis sculpture in 1992, cast in mild steel: but for the commission in Consett, he blew them up from two metres high to over seven metres high, and cast using stainless steel. They were installed in 1996, with the help of a massive crane. Fifteen years later, coincidentally producing design work for Sustrans myself, I recalled the giant instruments marching across County Durham on their strange feet. When you see it, in the flesh, Terris Novalis is a phenomenal piece of work.

It operates on many levels, from reflecting the craft of the steelworkers who built it which echoes generations of iron and steel production on the site, to the Brobdingnagian scale of a theodolite and an engineer's level which are 20 times the scale of the originals. They hint at the vast size of the former steelworks, and allude to the instruments which surveyors used both to construct the works, and to clear the site afterwards.

The sculpture’s instrumentality as a symbol of regeneration, is as striking as the mythology which Cragg applied to the armorial supporters – the many birds and animals whose feet support these huge chunks of stainless steel. It suggests a medieval bestiary: Terris Novalis’ closest relatives are the griffons and yales which filled the dreams of William Burges. That is fitting, because TN is an ark, carrying its strange cargo of beasts together with the sum of one and a half centuries of human endeavour in semlting coal, coke, ore and lime together to create iron.

I’ve trailed across Europe looking at lots of post–industrial sites, from Saarland and Volklingen; Zollverein in the Ruhr; the Ghent-Terneuzen corridor in Belgium; to the stalking cranes of Clydeside, and I recognise that each time a derelict iron dinosaur is regenerated, some public art is left to refract what went before. Each regeneration uses the civilising influence of public art in order to demonstrate how enlightened its patrons are. But none have the impact of Terris Novalis.

Not even the “Angel of the North”, which was commissioned a few years later and a few miles up the road, but adopted exactly the opposite approach. Terris Novalis plays games with hierarchies of scale, and keeps on resolving more and more detail the closer you get, whereas the Angel is simply big, in order to be taken in at a glance from the motorway.

Anthony Gormley’s work has become postcard-famous as the symbol of Gateshead, and in so doing he has become one of the best known artists in Britain. Tony Cragg, who works in Germany, has slipped from public notice since his Turner Prize win in 1988. Perhaps that suits the slightly mysterious character of Terris Novalis: there is no plaque, sign or interpretation board to explain what it is, or why it landed in Templetown on the outskirts of Consett.

Terris Novalis tells a complex tale of the relationship between nature, man and technology whereas the Angel merely abstracts the plane which lies above mankind. TN is made from stainless steel, a magical material which resists time, whereas the Angel (as much as I love CorTen steel) is dissolving back into oxides. As a result, TN could be seen to represent man’s mastery over metals through the very processes which went on at Consett.

The Angel was conceived as an icon for the area, and public funds were poured into it, whereas it was brave of Sustrans to commission something so ambitious, given that their main purpose was building bike routes. They had commissioned sculptures before, such as the little runnels of “concrete poetry” on the Tarka Trail in the South-west of England, and cast iron quotation discs inset into the bike paths which criss-cross Bristol.

However, the striding beast of Terris Novalis was the largest and by far the most ambitious artwork they’d tackled. Cast from solid stainless steel, from originals carved by Tony Cragg, the sculpture can be seen from miles away. At the time, it was contentious, because Cragg works in Wuppertal, Germany, so the stainless steel was cast in Düsseldorf – ironic, really, when it found itself landing on the site of a British steelworks.

Nonetheless, Tony Cragg was the right sculptor for the job, as he has an instinctive sympathy for the processes of iron founding and steel casting. As he noted in a lecture he gave in 1990 at UCLA in Los Angeles about his early career, “For one year I did a general course [at the art college], and at the end of that course I had a job working in a foundry near Bristol which made parts for electric motors, casting parts, and this was a really fantastic experience for me because the factory we worked in was a very, very long hall.

“It was about 200-300 metres long, very high and very black. We worked for 10 hours through the night, it was a nightshift job. I remember the way the moulds were prepared in sand and the metal was poured in the moulds, then the moulds were very slowly moved up the hallway, cooling down, and at some point they went over a shaker and the moulds would fall into the ground.

“The red glowing machines came out of the ground on the one side, and the sand came out of the ground on the other, and there was a huge ever-growing cone of black sand. It was a job that I very much liked doing, a very physical job with a lot of excitement about it, somehow, just the process with the materials which I found incredibly exciting.”

The nature of the sculpture’s coming into being reveals the unalloyed truth about what we lost when Consett Works closed.

All photos are copyright Mark Chalmers: please contact me if you’d like to use them.

By • Galleries: memory palace