On photobooks and social media

The enforced sabbatical which Covid-19 gave us could have been an opportunity to think, write and develop ideas into prose which was carefully edited and polished. But by June, lockdown had become oppressive, with worries about work, the health of relatives and a growing unease about the future. It’s difficult to think creatively when you’re distracted by and worried about everyday life.

Rather than trying to speak about one of the many huge, pressing issues which will define the next decade, such as virus pandemics, climate change or equality in all its forms, this is the second half of my previous piece which introduced how photos (architectural or otherwise) reach the Explore page of Flickr or the front page of 500px. In that I discovered what I already knew: online feedback is an anomaly and no substitute for interaction in real life.

Firstly, for architects whose training included studio crits, the biggest issue is that online feedback is often anonymous and disengaged. People offer an opinion, “nice shot”, “well captured”, then move on. Secondly, just as I found, rankings and plaudits on photo sharing websites are affected by how much you comment on other pictures, write about your own pictures, and how often you post the content which those websites rely upon.

Used carefully, Flickr, 500px and the others are a great way to discover people whose work and ideas you wouldn't otherwise come across, but that’s tempered by the fact that there’s a self-inflicted pressure to adhere to a certain style of photo, drawing or painting which attracts praise. It’s easy to become a slave to the faves and likes. There’s also the issue of looking at images on a screen, as opposed to photographic prints or images in a book: not only the colours, but tonal values look very different rendered in ink or silver halide, rather than pixels.

Hence if you’re interested in how architecture is portrayed, instead of relying on likes, faves and comments, if you get the chance it’s worth searching out some of the classic photobooks which you can sit quietly with, look through repeatedly, studying how individual images work and how series of images are put together – and try to learn from them. Plus they might temporarily take you away from the worries of Covid-19 and transport you somewhere else, even for half an hour.

If you’re lucky you might experience what the American photographer Edward Weston called “the shock of recognition”. That’s the feeling when you realise that a photographer has look hard and seen a small part of the world afresh, and thanks to him or her, has enabled us to look and see something brand new. Arguably that's the power of a strong image, to bring us back to something approaching a childlike gaze, which finds wonder in the world then later on draws meaning from it.

In landscape photography for example, you might have come across so-called "vista" photographers, such as Colin Prior, Joe Cornish and Charlie Waite whose high impact and sometimes spectacular images often feature on calendars and postcards. But to my eye, those who photographed "intimate landscapes", in other words more subtle details of rocks, trees and water are more engaging – as with the work of Paul Wakefield and Fay Godwin. They make you look more closely, encouraging you to work out just what it is that the photographer decided was worth capturing and sharing.

Another purpose is to somehow combine reportage or documentary with creative expression or visual poetry, so that the photo has two messages or narratives. One is external and objective, describing what you can see on the surface; the other is internal and subjective, what the photographer was feeling or thinking when they made the shot. If the relationship between the two is successful that makes the image all the stronger and perhaps more likely to strike a chord.

The following photobooks don’t consist exclusively of architectural photos, but they all feature photos of architecture and how it fits into the wider environment. The styles are very different (from New Colour Documentary to pictorial to New Topographic), and I think there’s something to take from each one of them. Hopefully most are available from the larger libraries in cities and universities and colleges, once those reopen in the next few weeks. That’s as opposed to having to buy them from the $1.5tn American online megacorp which in recent years has begun to kill off bricks-and-mortar bookshops across the world.

Monochrome:
Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes, “Remains of Elmet”
Eric de Maré, “Architectural Photography”
Paul Strand, “Tir A’Mhurain - The Outer Hebrides of Scotland”
John Davies, “The British Landscape”
Bill Brandt, “Shadow of Light”

Colour:
Paul Graham, “A1: The Great North Road”
Stephen Shore, “Uncommon Places”
Ezra Stoller, “Modern Architecture: Photographs by Ezra Stoller
Robert Polidori, “Havana”
Edward Burtynsky, “Quarries”

 

By • Galleries: books, photography

A few years ago, I reviewed a little book about a building refurbishment.  I thought the book was interesting, but pointed out that it might be seen as vanity publishing since it didn’t bear a cover price, a publisher’s name, distribution details or even an ISBN number. 
 
The book’s author, an expatriate Scot, took great exception to that, and began a heated correspondence with the editor (not of Urban Realm, in this case).  The review was positive and balanced, so people told me, but its author took “vanity publishing” as an insult, perhaps even a personal sleight, and demanded retractions and clarifications.  I hate to think how he’d react to a negative review.

As for the book itself, it consisted of two texts bound together, back-to-back, so that the edition had two front covers. You finish reading the first book (which ends in the middle of the volume), close it then flip through 180 degrees, Janus-like, to begin the second book.

That is a book designer’s gimmick called the tête-bêche binding, and readers may find it either playful or tiresome. Like a 7 inch single with a double A-side, tête-bêche books often bind together two themes which have a loose relationship, yet each is too slight to stand on its own. A more skilled editor might have resolved the books’ themes more effectively, and perhaps a better-developed version of either could have stood alone; together they sit awkwardly on the bookshelf.

Meantime, the book in my hand still lacked a price, publisher or ISBN. It’s a fact that every commercially-published book must list its publisher’s details and ISBN number on the title page or colophon, otherwise neither Amazon nor bricks-and-mortar booksellers like Waterstones will stock it. Nor will it even legally count as a Book, in terms of the National Library of Scotland on George IVth Bridge in Edinburgh, which is a legal deposit library which holds a copy of every single thing published commercially in this country.  Without those details, it’s a Non-Book.
 
Thousands of non-books are published in Scotland each year, and some of them disappear without trace.  Others have merit, and in time a few of them even become valuable.  Architectural practice brochures from 50 years ago, or sales catalogues from well-known companies which have since disappeared, are invaluable to researchers and students – but strictly speaking none of them are a Book. 

On the other hand, vanity publishing, or self-publishing as it’s sometimes known, has a long tradition in architecture, and has played its part in developing quite a few reputations. For architects, the most obvious thing to do is publish about your work, and often that takes the form of a monograph, a book about a single architect or artist.

Architectural monographs come in at least four distinct types. The first comprises books about already-famous architects from the past such as Mackintosh and Le Corbusier, which are generally commissioned by editors at firms which specialise in Art publishing, such as Lund Humphries, Phaidon and Thames & Hudson.  They’re written by authors with an art historical background and published on a commercial basis: provided the architect is well-enough known, the book will sell in the thousands and make back its money with no bother.
 
The second category are books about less well-known subjects, which are often published to accompany exhibitions.  They have a short print run and may sell a few hundred copies to the people who attend the exhibition. Afterwards, they may become the definitive (sometimes the only) record of the architect’s work - a good example is the book which The Lighthouse published about Gillespie Kidd & Coia, which is sometimes offered for sale at ridiculous money - https://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1873190581/ref=nosim/1557

A third type are books about active practices which are commissioned by the practices themselves, and written by architectural journalists who they have a good relationship with.  Often the practice approaches a commercial publisher with a strong Architecture list, such as Artifice Books used to have, and ask them to put the book together.  Usually the practice makes a contribution to the book’s costs, because they recognise it won’t be a big seller, but can be used as a handy marketing tool. Best known are Jim Stirling’s “White Book” and “Black Book”, and the series of volumes which Watermark produced over the years to document Norman Foster’s output.
 
The fourth category are vanity projects, books written by people with a harmless obsession or a private theory they’d like to share. Perhaps they've been hawked around all the publishers and gained a rejection slip from each one. Possibly the author is determined to make an art project, without a commercial publisher’s backing, and might create a wonderful experiment in print making. Just occasionally, though, something in this category has real merit, saying something that no-one else has. Digital publishing platforms such as Blurb have made this process easier.

When I was researching the crossovers between the street art, urban exploration and train-hopping scenes, self-published magazines or “zines” in the fourth category were crucial.  They’re pretty much the only lasting documentary evidence of sub-cultures which flourished on private internet forums and bulletin boards, then as years passed, faded away. I have a little collection of Not Guilty magazine, Section 61 and UE Magazines, Railroad Semantics and There’s Something About a Train. All of them were put together by amateur publishers, and without them, the scenes from which they grew might have passed unrecorded.
 
There have been lots of books published about street art and graffiti, fewer about urban exploration, and only a handful about train-hopping. Most of them concentrate on making striking images, but they only touch on what the zines do best – recording the day-to-day experience of people involved with the scene, the incidental stuff which gives us some context and records some details about how a complicated mess came together into a thing.

So vanity publishing gives you something that commercial titles usually don’t. Self-publishing also gives you control over everything: content, layout, copy, editing, production and the choice of paper stock. So to our expatriate friend, attacking the idea of vanity publishing actually betrays a lack of understanding about how publishing works.  There are lots of reasons why we create – but publishing, exhibiting or uploading our work does involve a little vanity, otherwise we’d do it all anonymously, wouldn’t we? A vanity project isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, almost everything we offer to the world involves some vanity; even this blog.

By • Galleries: books

For the past decade and a bit, I’ve dabbled in social media. Like most of us, I’m increasingly suspicious of it but at the same time it’s difficult to ignore. However, while “influencers” and commercial companies feel compelled to promote themselves on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, asking us to *like, comment and share*, individuals can make up their own minds.

So my Facebook account is totally locked down. Unless you know me in real life, you won’t be able to find my Facebook page. I don’t share much information on it, because Facebook is mostly a useful way to keep in touch with people, using the Messenger function like an email account. MySpace died about a decade ago, but I wasn’t any more active on that, and I recall deleting the account some time a few years ago.

I liked the idea of sharing personal artwork and photos much better, so I investigated a few websites. I’ve never really got along with Instagram, but I had a brief flirtation with Ipernity then I tried 500px for a while, before realising that it’s a popularity contest driven by uploading a certain type of image – dynamic wide angle shots with super-saturated colour or high contrast monochrome in the case of architectural photography; dramatic mountain sunrises or coastlines with silky smooth seas in the case of landscape photos. The Lee “Big Stopper” has a lot to answer for.

More successful is Flickr, where I’ve posted photos for around 14 years. I just use the free version, uploading photos occasionally to share with friends and acquaintances. I don’t have an online cloud storage account with thousands of images, nor a portfolio website, and the Flickr account is anonymous, in the sense that it’s not under my real name.

I’ve uploaded a couple of images every month, sometimes things that appeal only to me, sometimes experiments that went wrong, or shots that will jog my memory but mean nothing to anyone else, and occasionally images I think might appeal to other people. There’s no set pattern, although quite a few were shot on film because I like experimenting with analogue; whereas most of my images which magazines have published were shot on digital cameras.

Gradually, as I’ve followed some people whose photos I like and some have followed me in return, some of the Flickr images gained a few favourites and some comments. Usually just a few, although very occasionally one gets ten or even twenty “faves”. I’m quite blasé about that. I’m pleased that other people like the photo, although it wouldn’t bother me if no-one did. In that sense, the Flickr account is a personal journal and anything else is a curious bonus.

Since the lockdown began, I’ve been working from home and tried to post something to Flickr every other day, to keep my eye in. It’s interesting to look through your old photos, remind yourself of places you visited and people you met. Occasionally re-scanning a transparency or reprocessing a RAW file, then I’ll upload it, add a few tags and add it to a few Flickr groups. One or two people I know leave a comment, and perhaps next time I log in there’s a little pink star denoting that a few folk have “faved” it.

But today a strange thing happened. When I logged in to upload a photo, I noticed that the Notifications bell was pink. When I clicked on it, the message said “Ansel Adams, David Bailey and 45 others have faved your photo” (Names have been changed to protect the innocent). In the space of a day, this photo has achieved what none of the others have: it’s been picked for “Explore”, which is Flickr’s front page gallery, and the faves have rolled in.

As I type this, more than 100 people have favourited the photo, if “to favourite” is a verb. I felt slightly chuffed for a minute, enjoyed a little dopamine hit, although I realise that I’ve fallen into the trap which Flickr set for me when I joined. Social media runs on a lifeblood of likes, shares, views, favourites, and comments, and today I may have accidentally figured out one aspect of the Flickr algorithm.

Reaching Flickr’s Explore page for the first time in 14 years is probably a reward for me engaging much more with Flickr than I have done before. Due to Covid-19, I log in every other day rather than every other week, and at the moment I’m posting many more photos than usual. Instagram, Ipernity, 500px and other photo or image sharing websites work in much the same way, with you providing the “media”, and other users providing the “social” aspect. The more you interact, the more feedback they provide.

Of course, before long you’ve become a “content provider”, under pressure to post your images, to share them across several social media platforms so that your army of “followers” can see. That nagging pressure to keep up, and the corollary that if you don’t post something, anything, people will forget about you. Before long you’re uploading YouTube videos with clickbait titles, and formulaic photos accompanied by literary quotes or pseudo-philosophical titles designed to make yourself look smarter than the average bear.

I’m sure of one thing, though. While I like the composition and colours in the photo, it certainly didn’t reach Explore thanks to being an artistic masterwork. As photos go, it’s OK, but definitely no more than an average bear.

ps. Please be sure to like, comment and share this article on your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… ;-)

By • Galleries: covid-19, photography

I wondered about using this blog as a “Covid diary” for the duration of the lockdown, perhaps posting much more frequently, as I've done in the past during the Carbuncles judging process. I soon realised I would only be posting much the same stuff as everyone else.  Skype, VPN's, the demands of working from home, furlough. 

It's difficult to find an honest response to the virus when it's so new, there are many unknowns and the risks are so high.  Everyday existence is strange now, although losing some liberty is nothing to losing your life. So instead I'll pick up with some thoughts on urban planning, and how a good view ultimately provides better public health.
 
The city climbs up from its dirty old port through tight-knit streets of shops, factories and tenements.  Beyond them lie the whaling captains’ houses, then Georgian terraces and Victorian feus, and finally post-war estates - but the pattern breaks when you get near the top of the hill.  Circled by stone dykes twelve feet high is an estate once owned by an industrialist.
 
Over the past few months, shares in the company he founded a century-and-a-half ago have dropped by 90%.  The chief executive – someone from a faraway country, because the firm has few links to the city where it grew up – has been fired, but there’s little the board can do.  The company is a hostage to fortune in the American-Chinese trade war.  Yet the wealth it made here generations ago was invested in land and property, and that provides more than financial value.

Space is ideological.  Some people – many of whom are young, poor and urban, plus hipster academics who’ve read Walter Benjamin – advocate living at high density and sharing communal spaces.  We nod and agree that’s a pragmatic way to build cities where land is expensive and good sites command a premium.  Pragmatic, but the evidence points in the opposite direction when people are offered a choice. 

Once they acquire some money, they no longer make a virtue out of the necessity of living in cramped flats in the inner city. Instead, they move up the hill to get cleaner air, longer views and the extra space that money buys.  They climb the property ladder to more rooms, larger rooms, space for their children to run around, and separation from other peoples’ children. Most of all, they buy themselves some Private Realm: space for yourself and its corollary, privacy from other people.

Urbanists often speak about that in negative terms, yet psychologists tell us that the psyche yearns for a sense of agency over our own lives and living space.  Space to live as we wish to: peace to reflect on our good fortune, or a licence to party without bothering anyone else. The chance to live surrounded by PLU or “People Like Us” – and a rapid identification that this is the kind of place you’ll like, if you like this kind of place.

This is difficult territory for planners, politicians and anyone else with a God complex. There are the obvious factors of money, status and self image all of which correlate strongly with the place we live. Some suburbs stigmatise people, others associate you instantly with snobbery. Underlying that, though, are ramifications for how we live and even for how long we’ll live.

The Victorians shaped our cities in a deliberate way: since the prevailing wind in Scotland is south-westerly, factories were built in the East End so that their smoke blew in the opposite direction to houses in the West End. Inner cities may have been mixed use, with workers living close to mills and foundries and shipyards, but the captains of industry kept themselves apart. For good reason – air pollution and TB caused countless premature deaths. Smog, pea-soupers and acid rain were literally death from above.

For the most part, urban planning in the Victorian city was a kind of social engineering, the sort done with money rather than a social or political manifesto which levels things out. It bred resentment, an implicit feeling that money doesn’t only buy you a nice house, but a better standard of living which stretches into a longer, healthier life. The air really is fresher the higher up the hill you go – smoke sits in low-lying areas, temperature inversions hold pollution in hollows, and katabatic winds push smoke down the valley floor.

As you go upwards, there are lots of cues. Roads marked Private, which have never been adopted. High walls, broken only by electrically-powered gates. No Trespassing signs. CCTV cameras fixed to gateposts. But there’s only so much land, and the hill only has one top.

Overflying the hill with a drone, you’ll see that some modern houses are Frank Lloyd Wright transposed to Scotland a century on. Prairie-style bungalows with lots of glass and shallow pitched roofs with sweeping hips clad in blue slates.  They sit on terraces and patios and pools.  Elsewhere is a rambling Victorian mansion with half-timbered gables and rosemary-tiled roof; its grand coach house even has its own gatelodge…

In 1987, the author Frank White coined the term “Overview Effect” to describe how peoples’ perspective changes when they view the Earth from space. Having listened to a number of astronauts, he concluded that observing our planet from a distance changed them: as well as the expected feeling of awe, it fostered a sense of responsibility for the environment and some insight into the interconnectedness of everything.

I wonder if the top of the hill, seen from a helicopter, would make folk feel the same today.

Right now, with coronavirus having forced us to lock down the entire country, population density is a real issue. When we’re out in public we have to stay two metres apart – and if someone sneezes, we should probably be further apart than that. Although the Government mantra is that we’re all in this together, that’s a metaphor for how we could think about getting through Covid-19.

In reality, we’re all living slightly apart. If the pandemic gets worse, we’re likely to edge another couple of steps further away, searching for fresher air and the reassurance of space around us. #seeyouontheotherside is trending on Twitter today. As it turns out, the "other side" probably lies just a bit further up the hill.

By • Galleries: covid-19

The classic image of Sea Ranch captures a series of timber-clad gables breaking like saw teeth through a sea of wild grass. The architecture is defined by its landscape: not the heat haze and pollution of L.A.'s sprawl, but the cold, wild coast of northern California which lies three hours beyond San Francisco.

Sea Ranch was influenced by two social themes: the optimism of post-War California and a burgeoning sense of environmental consciousness during the Sixties. You might say it began with a few well-heeled creatives who designed weekend retreats for themselves, far from the noise and hustle of the Bay Area, but it embodied wider changes in society.

The project was orchestrated by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who selected a site on the ocean’s edge and drew up the masterplan in 1965. At that point, Sea Ranch consisted of rough grazing which had never been developed. Houses are clustered around shared open spaces, set back from the sea cliff’s edge, each of them clad in redwood and no higher than 16 feet. There are no streetlights, no lawns, and cars are deliberately hidden away.

The community has its own shop, sports club, open-air swimming pool and even a 3000 foot airstrip. While private flying is popular in the US, the home of Cessna, Piper and Beechcraft, it's still the preserve of a fortunate 1%. That underlines Sea Ranch's exclusivity: these are not cheap holiday lodges, and even today there are only a few hundred permanent residents spread over several thousand acres.

Driving from the centre of San Francisco to Sea Ranch up Route 1 takes around three hours; a flight from SFO (San Francisco International) to CA51 (Sea Ranch airfield) takes around 40 minutes in a Beech Bonanza, and I’m sure would be a pleasant way to get there.

Sea Ranch is also defined by what it isn't. It’s not tract housing, nor a gated community of McMansions, nor anything like Disney's town of Celebration. Halprin's strict design code, emphasis on shared space and credo of living harmoniously with Nature attracted a particular kind of person: to begin with, many were Arts graduates from the University of California. According to Becker and Fletcher’s book, many of them still live in the houses they built decades ago.

Several books have been published about Sea Ranch over the years, but this is the best overview I've seen. It's illustrated with a mixture of archive and contemporary photographs along with Halprin's design sketches. The site analysis diagrams, brought to life by coloured pencil rendering, explain the landscape concept very effectively. The text is in-depth, and the project's participants speak at length about the project's gestation and discuss its successes and failures.

As a result, The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism, includes the human interest, personal reminiscence and well-informed retrospective analysis needed to bring its subject matter alive. We learn something about the personalities – many of them most colourful characters – who have directed the Sea Ranch’s course for the past half-century.

Prestel has a broad architecture list, and The Sea Ranch was published in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It's a quality piece of book production, a quarto hardback printed onto heavy art stock with glazed covers and a cloth spine. Graphically it captures the Modern spirit in which Sea Ranch was created.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch. Half a century later, Sea Ranch doesn’t quite look like Utopia. Halprin’s masterplan succeeded, but more slowly than he hoped. Sea Ranch is a rare 1960’s example of environmentally-conscious architecture, yet as an archetype for community creation, it failed. Like Siedlung Halen in Switzerland, it’s a unique experiment admired by architects – but difficult to replicate anywhere else, so you are left with the sense that The Sea Ranch was a beautiful anomaly when it was begun, and is even more so today in Trump's America.

The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism
Joseph Becker, Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher
Prestel
ISBN: 978-3-7913-5784-3 (Hardcover)
£45.00

By • Galleries: books

Happy New Year, and Happy New Decade.

You may have come across the term "fifth elevation" – it's what architects sometimes call the roof, although this elevation is rarely seen unless you're high up in a skyscraper in New York or Hong Kong, looking down.  I share the passion of "rooftoppers" who explore the city’s heights, and I've particularly enjoyed getting onto the roof of the occasional tower block, mill or power station at dawn.

From the rooftop, you readily grasp Henri Lefebvre’s idea about being simultaneously within, and outside, the city’s rhythms. At street level, you are still part of the city, but on the roof you place yourself apart from it, watching the currents of traffic and the light rising over the horizon. Patterns emerge in the roofscape, and you wonder idly whether they were intended or not: nonetheless, when viewed from above the city becomes a collective artwork.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

We often disdain teenagers, glued to their smartphones and instantly reacting to events via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. But having got back home from today’s RIAS Convention in Edinburgh, I reflected on what I saw and heard there. For me, Amin Taha was the highlight, thanks to his architectural insights and well-paced delivery.

Taha’s career so far has produced a number of well-resolved buildings which have brought him increasingly larger and higher profile commissions around London. Each one builds on his serial investigation of materials, so far exploring the nature and possibilities of non-loadbearing brick, of load-bearing stone, and now embarking on a journey to discover the possibilities of sheet brass and bronze.

Taha presented his take on the Etymology of Architecture, starting with a potted history of art and architectural history. Giorgio Vasari was arguably the first art/ architectural historian with his encyclopedia of artistic biographies, “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”. It anecdotally recorded the process of creating art. Two centuries later came Johann Winckelmann with his “History of the Art of Antiquity” and its follow-up volume, which additionally offered some opinions about the work. Perhaps that was the birth of naive architectural criticism.

Taha’s reflections on those books sets his own work into a context: he’s conscious of the Art Historical Industry and aware of the labels it coins. Perhaps there’s a Post-Modern (or post-Venturi) knowingness to his buildings. That said, the remaining half hour covered the evolution of his work, through housing at Barrett’s Grove, Bayswater Road and Upper Street – all of which explored in different ways how CLT (massive timber) construction could provide a more economic structure than concrete or steel frame. In cities like London, most of the development cost actually pays for land, not the building which sits on it.

Most of Taha’s insights came in the form of asides about technique and building economics, such as the housing development at Upper Street in London where the client initially approached Daniel Libeskind, but found him too expensive. The building was completed for around £3000 sq.m., whereas Libeskind was hoping for a budget of at least double that. Shades of the supermodel who wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning for less than £10,000…

Next Taha touched on a Metro station in Sofia, before going into detail about Clerkenwell Close, his home and the office of his practice, Groupwork. The initial concept involved creating a bronze exoskeletal frame, but it was eventually built using trabeated Portland stone. The natural face of the stone is expressed where many would saw it to form a veneer, then dress or flame finish its face. The result is both startling and obvious, although the local Planners evidently hated it so much they fought in the courts to have it demolished.

In a world where we’re rightly pre-occupied with climate change, social and political issues, it was nevertheless good to hear someone speak with clarity about architectural language and materiality. To paraphrase Amin Taha's sign-off at the end, “Let the materials drive the architecture”. I’m glad the RIAS invited him to Edinburgh, where he studied architecture years many ago, and I hope he eventually gets the chance to build in Scotland, too.

By • Galleries: canon

Soon after I moved to Aberdeen, I bought a cheap Kodak digital camera. As I recall, the first building I took a photo of was Marischal College. At that point in the early 2000’s, the college was an under-used part of the University, but it dominated Broad Street like a mescaline-laced wedding cake. I particularly liked it on dull days after rain, when the grey granite took on a sheen, although my photos didn’t do it justice.

Later, I returned with a better camera to take a shot of the pinnacles. I zoomed in to look at detail which seemed almost fractal, which kept on increasing as you looked more closely. If you don’t wonder at how many tens of thousands of hours were spent carving the granite, you’re not looking at all.

A year or two later I began contributing to a magazine called “Leopard”, which was published in Aberdeenshire. Over the course of the next few years I wrote about the life and work of many architects who built in the North East, including Pirie & Clyne, Robert Matthew, Leo Durnin and Michael Shewan. Eventually Leopard was sold, and publication ended before I managed to complete my article about Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, the architect of Marischal College.

I know intuitively that Mackenzie had presence. If you think Mackintosh dressed like a dandified fop, photos show the young Mackenzie as a Victorian psychobilly with a pimp moustache, little quiff and giant sideburns. Something like Wayne Coyne, but sent half a century back in time from the Flaming Lips to the place where John Byrne’s Slab Boys grew up.

The hairstyle fixes Mackenzie in time, in same way that his wide-lapelled tweed jacket does; yet fashions in clothing come around again in a way that architecture doesn’t. The Bauhaus was founded exactly a century ago, but just a few years beforehand, in 1906, Mackenzie completed the final wing of Marischal College. It was built in a strange and driven version of High Perpendicular Gothic which has never come back into vogue.

The college is perhaps the ultimate building in Kemnay Grey, the best-known Aberdeenshire granite. Marsichal College will hopefully stand for all time as a memorial to Mackenzie, and to the granite industry my grandfather worked in, which has all but gone. In the 1950’s when my grandfather began working at Kemnay, dimensional stone was still being cut, but by the time he retired in the 1970’s, that had finished.

There was a brief flash of hope when a face at Kemnay’s No.2 Quarry was reopened to win stone for the parliament at Holyrood, but that proved to be the very end. Yet the mercurial silver stone built so much of Aberdeen: His Majesty’s, the Town House, Holburn Viaduct, the Citadel, the General Post Office, Queens Cross Kirk, the old Palace Hotel, most of Union Terrace … and the icing sugar filigree of Marischal College, mostly erected during the 1890’s but continuing past the turn of the century.

Kemnay Grey was later used in the former Scottish Amicable and C&A buildings on Union Street, the Majestic Cinema, the Cowdray Hall, Hilton Kirk, King George IV bridge, and finally as a cladding on Norman Foster’s Faculty of Management at Garthdee. Further afield, it clad the upper storeys of the Royal Liver Building on Liverpool’s Pierhead, it paved Electric Avenue in Brixton, it built Albert Richardson’s Tormore Distillery, it lined the waterways of both Loch Katrine Waterworks and the Lochaber Hydro-power scheme, and Kemnay granite also founded the Tay and Forth Rail Bridges.

In London alone, the Tower, Blackfriars, Southwark, Vauxhall, Kew, Chelsea and Putney Bridges, plus the Thames Embankment, are all Kemnay stone. As it happens, Mackenzie also worked in London, and may have won lots of commissions both before and afterwards – but never built anything like Marischal College again. And neither has anyone else.

It’s post-modern, but eighty years before its time, caught somewhere between William Burgess’s neo-medieval Castell Coch and Philip Johnson’s Pittsburgh Glass headquarters. Those who came before as architecture writers in the North East, such as Douglas Simpson, had their own thoughts about Marischal College. Carving its spirelets, crockets and archlets, “involved a tormenting of granite in a way to which the hard crystalline stone is basically unsuited”, yet Simpson felt that the building with, “a great glistening front, with the deep shadows cast by the bold buttresses, is nothing short of magnificent.”

The closest I came to discovering what Mackenzie’s contemporaries thought was a fusty book dug out in a bookshop in a one-horse town way up Deeside. Briefly excited I drew it from the shelf, but soon calmed down when I saw its condition (mildewed covers and foxed pages), the content (more about dignitaries than architect) and the book dealer’s optimistic pricing. It may still be there on the shelf, gathering dust.

Meantime, in a city where the grey granite provides a kind of visual unity, the college still does its best to stand out. Marischal College’s conversion into council offices a few years ago hasn’t done much for it; the interior was gutted and the facade retention and stone cleaning has left something that looks like synthetic stone.

Everything changes: “Leopard” is extinct now. It was swallowed by Scottish Field and disappeared completely with last month’s issue; but if you’re interested in Aberdeenshire’s granite industry, seek out a copy of Jim Fiddes’s book “The Granite Men”. It’s the first book in seventy years to attempt to cover that ground, since William Diack’s “Rise and Progress of the Granite Industry of Aberdeen”.

Considering the enormous publication gap, it’s almost like Aberdeen is simultaneously proud and ashamed of the very stuff it’s built from…

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A few years ago, I did some consultancy work for an environmental charity. After a few months, I realised that they hadn’t quite grasped what an architect does. Too late, it dawned on them I could think and draw in 3D as well as looking at procurement and public engagement.

We did have some interesting debates, though. Many of them saw road use as a polar issue. Two wheels good, four wheels bad, eighteen wheels worst of all. Cars were a menace but lorries were the work of the devil. They were all for sustainability, but when I pointed out that we could all learn about sustainability from the clever engineering of firms like sports cars manufacturer TVR, they shouted me down.

Peter Wheeler was a chemical engineer before he bought TVR Engineering and transformed it. History rhymes, and following the news in recent months about Project Grenadier, does it seem so strange that Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos is also going into the car business, to build his own 4x4?

As co-founder, with Mimo Berardelli, of ETA Process Plant, Peter Wheeler built a world-class chemical engineering business from scratch. He identified a need to reduce the dissolved oxygen content of water re-injected into oilfields, and thus reduce its corrosiveness. Using Wheeler’s engineering flair and commercial nous, ETA supplied de-aerators to oilfields in the North Sea and far beyond.

Berardelli and Wheeler sold the business in 1982, providing the latter with the funds to buy TVR. The first of his Rover V8-engined TVRs was introduced the following year: brash cars with high performance and garish paint schemes. Yet the real achievement of TVR was the skill it developed in design engineering.

At its peak, the firm employed approaching 1000 people in a factory at Bristol Avenue in Blackpool which once made kitchen equipment. Among them was a small team of designers and engineers who thrived on ingenuity. Two examples are the golfball door release in the TVR Chimaera, which is housed in the pillar rather than in the door, and the car’s brilliantly simple hard top mechanism.

Another was TVR’s second engine to be designed from a clean sheet of paper, the Tuscan Speed Six engine or AJP-6. TVR Engineering selected an Austempered Ductile Iron (ADI) crankshaft for its combination of low cost, low weight and high torsional strength. As far as I’m aware it’s still the only production application of an ADI crankshaft.

Peter Wheeler’s belief that cars didn’t need ABS or airbags went against conventional thinking. Yet thanks to its roll cage, a TVR could withstand a high speed accident and protect driver and passenger better than almost anything else on the road. “The advantage of basing the chassis on that of TVR's one-make race series car is that there is probably no chassis anywhere in the world that has been so often and so comprehensively crash-tested.”

The car’s structure was a double-deck ladder frame made from large diameter tubes, with outriggers onto which a lightweight composite body was mounted. TVR’s expertise with glassfibre and carbon fibre mats and resins, combined with the triangulated space frame, provided the cars with high torsional stiffness, and huge energy absorption in the event of a crash.

Design was one thing, translating it into production was quite another. As TVR said in one of its press releases, “The very latest high technology has been used, not in the styling but in the design engineering, to enable one of the largest British-owned car manufacturers to produce simple and elegant solutions to the problems of how to hand-build such sophisticated cars in such small volumes.”

Around then TVR developed a system of “low part count” manufacturing – which sounds simple in principle, but wasn’t something I’d heard of before. However, as is often the way, once you’re aware of it being a “thing”, you recognise it the next time you come across it. The next time was reading about a single-engined trainer aircraft, the SAH-1, which was developed in Cornwall during the 1980’s.

The SAH-1 (named after Sydney Arthur Holloway, in the same way that TVR’s AJP-6 engine was named for Al Melling, John Ravenscroft and Peter Wheeler) was flight tested by Pilot magazine in 1984. “Only one radius is used throughout the fuselage so the same forming tools can be used to make all the frames. There are very few individual parts in the fuselage, but heavy gauge light alloy skins are used and these feel firm to the touch.”

Colin Chapman of Lotus is reputed to have said, “Simplify, then add lightness,” in a similar vein to Dieter Ram’s aphorism, “Less but better”. Low part count manufacturing helps to address both. In material terms, a single-piece moulded, forged or cast component is better than an assembled or fabricated part for lots of reasons: simplifying the design helps to reduce manufacturing complexity, so quality improves, there’s less waste, assembly is faster, labour is reduced, costs are lower. CNC milling from the solid or 3D printing can also assist in simplifying things.

Think about that, as you detail a building. The problems almost always happen at junctions and are usually worst where dissimilar materials meet. The more complexity, the more expensive it is to build. Conversely, a lower part count can mean fewer raw materials and less embodied energy, too. For that reason, the future of intelligent design lies in low part count manufacturing. Simpler to construct, more resource-efficient, with less embodied energy, and as a bonus hopefully a visually elegant solution – and we have a sports car manufacturer to thank for that.

The TVR Griffith’s body design and low-part-count manufacturing system were the work of John Ravenscroft, who was in direct competition with Peter Wheeler and his dog, who were in the process of designing the TVR Chimaera at the same time. The often-repeated urban myth is that Ned the dog bit a chunk out of the Chimaera mock-up’s front air dam, and that became a “design feature”…

Both cars were designed in 3D and sculpted from one foam styling buck which was half-Griffith, half-Chimaera. The designs were so well received that TVR built both, and the Griffith went on to win a Design Council award in 1993: “British Design Award 1993, Presented to TVR Engineering Limited on 27 January 1993 at the Design Council to mark the selection of the Griffith, designed by Peter Wheeler, John Ravenscroft, Neill Anderson, Ian Hopley.”

Later, TVR’s Sagaris used lightweight cross-woven Vinylester bodywork, which saved 60kg over comparable glassfibre bodywork which the firm had used up to then, and the Typhon (literally and metaphorically the ultimate TVR) had a steel chassis which was originally designed for 24 hour racing at Le Mans, its rigidity increased by a tubular rollcage plus a lightweight aluminium honeycomb and carbonfibre floorpan.

In fact for sports cars, lightness is one of the most important design parameters, because it improves handling. It’s why the wheels on my own car (which isn’t a TVR…) are forged rather than cast aluminium, saving several kilograms of unsprung weight per corner. Press-forging minimises waste metal compared to machining, and by re-aligning the metal’s internal crystalline structure along natural lines of stress, results in much stronger parts than casting would produce.

As for TVR today? Wheeler sold the company in 2006 to a Russian oligarch, but just like Bristol Cars without its figurehead Tony Crook, the firm soon lost its way. There is a new car which has supposedly been in development for several years, but it doesn’t have TVR’s brashness nor its proportions, especially the Coke bottle waistline. Sadly, with little progress reported over the past couple of years it seems doomed, like the well-meaning attempt to revive Jensen Cars in the late 1990’s…

Yet that shouldn’t detract from TVR’s greatest achievement, pioneering Low Part Count manufacturing which by now should have found countless outlets across many different industries, including construction.

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Locked Out.

19/06/19 22:32

This morning I headed into the city to survey a long-empty shop unit and the basement underneath it.
 
I like to make sure that someone else is with me on a survey – one Stooge fires the Disto and shouts out numbers, the other Stooge notes them on the plan – but today it didn’t work out. I was on my own for most of the morning. Likewise, I’m always careful to look out for rotten floors, asbestos and live electrics. Yet for the first time I can remember, I nearly got trapped in the building I was surveying.
 
It started off innocently enough: I pulled up the roller shutter, unlocked the front door and checked the power and the alarm were off, then walked around to get a feel for the place. Enough of the suspended ceiling was trashed that I got a few glimpses of ornate Victorian plasterwork, but the rest of the ground floor was under attack by dry rot and rising damp, probably caused by rainwater leaking in from the abutment with a flat-roofed extension to the rear.
 
I switched the torch on and headed downstairs. The basement was a labyrinth and split up by lots of cheap 1960’s flush ply doors with Georgian-wired vision panels. Up until that point all the pass doors had been unlocked, but I turned left and went through a pair of narrow leaves fitted with old-fashioned panic bars, took a step forward and they slammed behind me.
 
I spun around in half a second, but it was already too late. I discovered I was stuck in an internal pend with various locked leading into it, including the pair I was trapped on the wrong side of. It was dark, apart from faint daylight leaking through a fanlight around the corner: the pend was right-angled and at the end were some steps up to a doorway. I kept the torch on and tried a few switches until a bulb overhead came on.
 
The doors I’d come through opened in the direction I’d just come, so there was no point in trying to kick them in – I’d be kicking against the stops. Another two doors in the pend were also outward-opening and appeared to be screwed shut. So the only way forward appeared to be up the steps to a pair of what I assumed were fire exit doors.
 
The doors had a panic latch, plus two steel tubes barring them shut.  Presumably the building had suffered burglaries in the past, but pity help anyone caught here in a fire. I pulled the rusty bars out of the way, then pushed the panic latch. At first it didn’t budge, but I gave it a big shove and that sprung the doors open. I was outside at least, in another pend, but this time open to the sky and giving onto the street. Relief. But my bag and survey gear were still inside, locked in the building – and I’d left the front door keys in the front door lock.  I also knew there weren’t any spare keys…
 
After standing vacantly for a minute, I headed back to the car, rooted through the boot and found a big screwdriver. I hurried back to the pend. The lippings on the meeting stiles of the locked doors were already slightly chewed, so I rammed the screwdriver in and pulled against it.  The door leaf bowed outwards. After a few attempts, using all my weight to lever against it, I managed to slide the screwdriver shank in at an angle then pull it towards me so that it acted on the panic bar.
 
After a few attempts to jiggle the panic bar with the screwdriver, the doors swung open quietly and without effort as if to say, what’s the problem? I jammed them open against the uneven stone slabs in the pend then stared: they weren’t fitted with floorsprings, overhead closers or Perkomatics.  I’m not even sure why they slammed. Perhaps rising butt hinges, yet once wedged open they didn’t strain to close again. 
 
The rest of the survey was an anti-climax after that excitement, but now I know what I always suspected – it isn’t difficult to break into old buildings, if you really need to. Flush ply doors are pretty useless at keeping people out. I’m also reminded of Henk van Rensbergen, the Belgian photographer who explores derelict buildings. After almost getting trapped in a cell inside a long-abandoned barracks after a door slammed, then discovering there was no handle on the inside, he always takes a lever handle and spindle with him on his expeditions.
 
Ultimately I wouldn’t have been stuck in that pend forever, because I had a mobile phone, a torch, someone knew where I was and would eventually have come looking for me. If they couldn’t help, an emergency locksmith or even the Fire Brigade would. But it does make you think. If circumstances were different, and I was in a remote place, perhaps with no phone reception or a flat battery, a door bolted shut rather than barred…
 
As one of my colleagues often says (with apologies to Hill Street Blues) – “Let’s be careful out there”.  If you’re going to survey in an unfamiliar building, please think about taking a phone, torch and a big screwdriver or one or two other tools, just in case. As this episode hit home, it can happen to anyone.

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