An acquaintance tells laypeople that architects learn something new every day – and it’s true, sometimes we do.  There’s no upward limit to the knowledge available about all the buildings for all the purposes built during all the periods of history. Conversely, there comes a point in your career when you realise the enormous extent of what you don’t know.

Sometimes we’re confronted with a single problem that seems to consume everything else. In a way that makes the world simple, for a little while, and it’s almost comforting. In a working lifetime you might develop an expertise in a specialism – but even that only helps you to map the extent of all the things you don’t know in more detail. Eventually you’ll realise that your knowledge will only ever be fragmentary.

Of all the subconscious traits our little ape-descended brains exhibit, one of the most telling is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Soon after I left architecture school and began work, I recall an offhand comment from someone much older that architectural graduates embody a dangerous mix of ignorance and arrogance.  If that sounds cheeky and judgemental, it's underlain by research which shows that people with a lack of experience sometimes overestimate their ability and knowledge. 

That's the Dunning-Kruger effect, and put simply it states that you need to know a reasonable amount before you understand how much you *don't* know.  We tend to learn by designing buildings, taking lessons directly from the process, discovering significance as we go along.  Perhaps that’s the best way to learn – a gradual accumulation of knowledge and expertise. 

At the time of hearing that comment, I would have argued that other attributes make up for a lack of experience.  Perhaps that proves Dunning and Kruger’s thesis.  However, two or three years later I did begin to acknowledge the extent of just how much I didn't know.  I've written about that epiphany before, and the dangerous implications of a special type of ignorance: while a lack of knowledge can be fixed by learning, denying the need to learn is a special kind of ignorance. 

So I have a soft spot for Dunning and Kruger.  Their work, like that of many other sociologists and behavioural psychologists, seems to be the preserve of stock investors, psychometric analysts and management consultants, but it should really be at the heart of everyone's self-knowledge, especially when we embark on learning something new, such as BIM, Passivhaus design or the like.

Mere technical knowledge takes time to accumulate, but give it a few years and a few projects, and it happens. Much more difficult are finding strategies to deal with people. Particularly those well practiced in trying to get one over everyone else – such as politicians. For example, somewhere in Spencer Walpole’s History of England he mentions a government minister – it may have been Palmerston – who justified his passive approach to a foreign crisis by characterising it as one of “masterly inactivity”.

That phrase was originally coined by Sir James Mackintosh, who apparently did much of the research for Macaulay’s similarly titled History of England, and used it to describe parliament’s traditional stance. Soon masterly inactivity became a catchphrase, rather like “economical with the truth” has more recently. Amusingly for the people who wrote History of England, Macaulay had Scots parents and wrote for the Edinburgh Review, and Mackintosh was a Scot, full stop. It seems the masterly inactivity of English writers in those days prevented them from writing their own book for themselves…

In practice, masterly inactivity can be helpful, especially on occasions when angry emails arrive from contractors or clients, usually late in the afternoon when you’re starting to think about dinner. It’s dangerous to react instantly and provoke a whipsaw of actions and reactions, culminating in furious back-and-forth accusations. Instead it’s better to stop and draw breath, and preferably sleep on it before replying calmly the next morning.

So masterly inactivity has potential, especially when paired with fait accompli. You know the script, when architects tussle over a detail with contractors. Sorry mate, too late - it’s already been built! Both sides know that un-building the detail is likely to be impossible given cost and time pressures, and the sly look on the contractor’s face tells you that he thinks he’s won. But just occasionally you can condemn the work, and that may utterly change the relationship – paradoxically, sometimes for the better.

Another ploy was spotted a while back on a political blog. “I recently heard a story about an architect who would feature massive stone lions in the atrium of whichever building he was designing, knowing that the client would focus on getting rid of them from the plans, distracting them from asking for other changes.”

That’s called a diversionary tactic, and I suspect the lion architect was Edwin Lutyens. Its effect is much the same as presenting a “strategic” scheme at the PAN stage of a project, knowing that the number of houses or parking spaces will be negotiated down by the Planners. If you want 60, ask for 100: in the end, you might be able to split the difference.

Masterly inactivity, fait accompli and diversionary tactic aren’t terms I'd normally use here, but they form three sides of a Rhinehartian decision-making dice (along with pwned, fluke and chance). That ingenious device helps us work out what the pro’s would do, when faced with the same situations.

In the cult novel The Dice Man, the narrator Luke Rhinehart decides to hand his life over to randomness. His biggest decisions will be made by the dice. In one episode, he leads a mass escape from a secure mental hospital. In another, he tucks his young son into bed and then, after consulting the dice, leaves his wife and family for ever. It’s an unsettling book, and Rhinehart is an exemplary anti-hero whose behaviour leads to his ruin.

Sometimes rational thinking doesn’t come up with the goods. So where did I put that dice…

By • Galleries: politics

During a recent trip to an archive north of the Highland Line, I began to ponder the evolution of colour conventions. I watched the archivist unload cardboard boxes from the filing trolley, then untie the little cotton ribbons to release rolls of tracing linens and dyelines. The Victorian and Edwardian working drawings had brightly-coloured walls, roofs and founds which peeked out from the curve of the sheets.

Architectural drawings from the Italian Renaissance were usually monochrome, but I’ve read that the French military engineer Sébastien de Vauban was the first to introduce colour to his sectional drawings. Eighteenth century architects in France and the Low Counties appear to have adopted de Vauban’s idea of shading the cuts on cross sections with a pink wash. I assume the habit spread across Europe thanks to foreign architects who trained at l'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris then returned to their home countries.

 


 

From there, a set of conventions developed, and most Dean of Guild and contract drawings from the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century use the same set of colours to denote materials. The best of them have ruled Indian ink lines and vivid washes of colour on stout cartridge paper that’s stayed white – rather than the dull, fugitive watercolours of the early 19th century on cheap paper which by and by has faded and foxed.

In the Georgian era, two centuries beforehand, the drawing began with pencil guidelines, then the architect drew over the pencil sketch using a ruling pen with india or bistre ink. Typically thinner lines or diluted ink were used to outline more distant forms; heavier darker lines outlined the structures in the foreground. Unlike today, human figures, dogs and cars weren’t added to anchor the architectural scale. Finally, the drawing was brushed with diluted washes of colour.

The consensus seems to be:
Yellow for wrot timber
Pale orange for unwrot timber
Brown for masonry
Red for brickwork
Dark blue for iron and steel
Turquoise or green for concrete
Bright orange for copper
Purple for insulation and also render or roughcast
Pale blue for glazing

 


 

So two hundred years ago, the architect and artist used exactly the same techniques and materials. You only have to look at the work of Francis Towne, the “Lone Star of Watercolour Painting” as Adrian Bury’s book called him, to see how he influenced the architectural perspectivists working even a century later, and their line and wash techniques were also used for orthogonal drawings.

Speaking to a recently-retired colleague, he recalls that colouring-up drawings for Warrant was an absolute requirement back in the day. It had to be done for all drawings whether new build or extension, although latterly the requirement was only to colour the extended area.  Colouring started to fall by the wayside as printing methods changed. For example, architects used to make copies on linen sheets, but those were supplanted by plastic sheet copies, which he recalled were terrible things to crayon on …

I entered practice towards the end of the tradition, so only had a few years of sending Building Control “two papers and one plastic” (some older officers even referred to them as, “two papers and one linen”) before the Portal appeared and the chore of printing and folding then the Post Office run, was replaced by the chore of uploading PDF files. Even so, a few Building Standards departments such as Midlothian still request a drawing in what they refer to as "traditional" colours…

Until then, I coloured up a print occasionally, but it was usually with coloured pencil on a plain paper copy by that time – or maybe the last of the dyeline prints, during holiday jobs while I was still at architecture school. The death knell for hand colouring drawings would have been accelerated as CAD came more to the forefront and practices started invested in colour-capable printers which allowed the drawings to be more realistically rendered by computer.

 


 

Downtakings are still dotted red, which is a convention that survives – even though the multi-coloured sections and details haven’t lasted into the CAD era. But coloured pencil or CAD both compare unfavourably to the pleasurable but exacting task of using coloured wash. The archive drawings were originals drafted on heavyweight cartridge paper, and were effectively pen and ink manual copies of the original drawings made for tender, contract or record purposes.

Plan copiers were rare beasts at the turn of the 20th century, and while big city practices like Keppies had access to a heliostat or velograph machine at the time when Mackintosh was working on the Glasgow School of Art, it took several decades for diazo (dyeline) copying to emerge as a universal method. Until then, you worked on originals, and copies were manually made on tracing linen.

As my retired colleague noted, “I’m not sure at which stage junior staff would have been entrusted with colouring up and potentially ruining expensive, hand-drawn proposals. Pretty far down the line, I expect.” Running a wash and getting it badly wrong would be a game of jeopardy which the apprentice just couldn’t afford to get wrong. There’s no Ctrl-Z command in watercolour painting.

Meantime, a side effect of spending time in the archives was the need to buy an Imperial scale rule to measure the archive drawings with. All I’ve ever used is metric, whereas this is the realm of 1/12, 1/24, 1/48 and 1/96 scale. So off to Ebay we go…

Nevertheless, it could be worse. They said of the Vikings “Once you’ve paid the Danegeld, you’ll never get rid of the Dane” and CAD software firms learned that lesson at the start of the CAD era in the late 1980’s. Once you’ve bought CAD licences, you’re trapped – the software libraries and proprietary filetypes are embedded in ways that would be painful to unpick. So you have to keep stumping up licence fees. CAD software firms are the classic rentier capitalists.

I’d be very interested to read more about the evolution of colour conventions from years gone by: I searched books and hunted for research papers, but didn’t find much at all. Like the Giant Rat of Sumatra in the Sherlock Holmes books, the story will probably never be told. As Conan Doyle explained, it may even be a story for which the world is not yet prepared…

It’s also a demonstration of the tacit knowledge an older worker holds in his head that a younger colleague can access by picking his brains. From experience, some graduates thinks you can learn about most things online, with little need for guidance or mentoring. Here’s a small lesson in just how wrong-headed that notion is.

So please get in touch if you have anything to add, as it seems this tradition has more or less died out. That’s a pity, because colour makes drawings more legible, and can lift them from mere working drawings into architectural artwork.

By • Galleries: ghosts, canon

I’ve just seen an advert on TV for mail order food boxes: the soundtrack in the background is the song Enola Gay by OMD. The jaunty electronic pop tune is a tribute to, and lamentation over, the aircraft which dropped the first atomic bomb in anger. A strange choice for an advertisement, it’s almost as dissonant as the “advert” for itself which the BBC has been playing recently.

The climax of This Is Our BBC is a clip of Jimmy Reid explaining that “This is something for all of us.” Superficially, that’s what the BBC’s credo is, something for everyone in the UK. Yet I wonder whether the people who montaged all the video clips together have an inkling of what Jimmy Reid symbolises to folk north of the border. Reid took on the British Establishment, the System, the political machine, and won.

Some would argue that the BBC is the Establishment’s state broadcaster, and a po-faced one with an undeveloped sense of irony at that. So it would be rather amazing if the BBC imagined that *it* is a Jimmy Reid figure, swapping sides in 2022 to take on the Establishment in the form of a political elite which it has helped to prop up for the past century.

Meantime, I’m currently finishing off a project and yesterday was taken up with the laborious process of collating and uploading all the certificates needed for the CCNP, or “Construction Compliance and Notification Plan”. That includes an Emergency Lighting Installation Certificate, Electrical Installation Certificate, Fire Alarm Certificates, Air Testing Certificate, and CE marking on steel.

The biggest surprise came as I read the steelwork certificates. As I brought them together into one Acrobat file, I paused to read where all the steel originated. It was supplied by local stockholder, Brown & Tawse, whose HQ is just along the road at West Pitkerro, although they sourced it from much further away:

• Advance UCS’s from British Steel in Scunthorpe, a company now owned by the Chinese
• PFC’s from Celsa Steel in Cardiff
• CHS’s from Tata Steel in Corby, the plant which once belonged to Stewarts & Lloyds of Glasgow
• RSA’s from Liberty Merchant bar in Scunthorpe
• Smaller steel flats from Lamines Marchands Européens in Trith-Saint-Léger, France
• 152 x 152 UCS’s from Stahlwerk Thuringen in Unterwellenborn, Germany
• 254 x 254 UCS’s from ArcelorMittal Steel at Olaberria-Bergara in Spain
• Larger steel flats from Stahl Gerlafingen in Germany
• Rebar from Megasa Siderurgia Nacional in Maia, Portugal
• Handrail tubing from Çınar Boru in Turkey
• And finally, hot rolled steel plate from Hyundai Steel in South Korea

So despite Brexit, despite the Suez Canal incident last year, and despite calls to de-globalise, some of the steel has travelled several thousand miles. This matters, because imports cost money in fuel, import duty, and indirectly may end up funding people who we’d rather not support. No sign of Russia’s biggest steel producers such as Severstal, Evraz Group or Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works – but can you ever really know?

 

 

Of course, we used to make steel here in Scotland. The hot blast furnace was even invented here. But Corus has gone, and its predecessors too. Ravenscraig was an integrated iron and steel plant with the biggest hot strip mill in Europe. It was built by Colvilles, and if you work on older buildings, you’ll still notice that the webs of the beams are stamped Lanarkshire Steel Co. which was one of Colvilles’ subsidiaries.  The steel which Brown & Tawse used to supply was made a couple of hours down the road.

We used to make steel here in Scotland, but the Scottish steel industry didn’t have a Jimmy Reid to fight for it. So most of it was destroyed by Thatcher's henchman Ian MacGregor, and what remained, including the mills at Clydebridge and Dalzell were sold off to the lowest bidder. Now when we complete our CCNP, the certificates resemble the entries in a Eurovision Steel Contest.

Scotland, null points.

 

By • Galleries: ghosts, specification

I recall wandering through the New Town a few months back, putting off time ahead of a meeting with a consultant whose offices are spread across a couple of townhouses in a grand terrace.  I tried not to be nosy, but couldn't help noticing that many of the living rooms I passed had heaving book shelves on show through their undrawn curtains.

It reminded me of the antique dealers who sell "Books by the Yard" to stately homes and upmarket hotels.  These fine bindings aren’t so much for reading as to signal how learned the owners are.  Arguably, at least some of that show is a display of virtue.

Reading the manifesto of the Future Architects Front gave me the same feeling.  “Future Architects Front is a grassroots organisation of architectural workers and students. FAF campaigns to end the exploitative practices that have come to define the world of architecture. We work both within and without existing institutions, we collaborate with unions and collectives, and we act as the loud abrasive voice of those at the bottom of the professional hierarchy.”

The FAF is a pressure group largely made up of Part 1 and 2 students, architectural assistants and young architects, who are currently trying to get a representative voted onto RIBA Council.  “Front” in this context has a strangely para-military, passive aggressive ring to it, and it's been reported that the RIBA have changed their voting rules and that may hinder the FAF's social justice objectives.

I've never been an RIBA member – as a student, they were singularly unhelpful when I tried to use the RIBA Library whilst researching my dissertation, although I later met someone who worked there, and she was the complete opposite.  Likewise I have no connection to the FAF and wouldn't even have been aware of them without the AJ headline which led me to their website.

There's an age-old problem in every profession where graduates spend years climbing an academic ladder with their peers, finally reach the top, collect their degree and take up employment – then find themselves at the bottom of the pile again.  Only this time, within a hierarchy of people ranging from their 20's to their 60's, and some of the greybeards have vast amounts more experience and wisdom, which equates to earning power.

This transition from top dog to bottom dog is swift and brutal and hurts the ego.  It also results in confounded expectations regarding self worth when it’s measured using a starting salary.  Every profession from law to medicine to veterinary science seems to be the same, and young professionals tend to have a keen sense of being short-changed.

Arguably the only thing that's changed is the banner of social justice to march behind and the trumpet of social media to toot.  But as I read through the open letter which the Future Architects Front wrote to the RIBA, I reckoned that around 95% of the contributors’ citations concentrated on low salaries and unpaid overtime, while very few mentioned gender and racial discrimination.  The sense of financial injustice is amplified in an era when student loans are almost inevitable, and students south of the border also shoulder five years’ worth of tuition fees – and some cited in the letter feel that architectural assistants are debt slaves trapped in menial jobs.

The main issues appear to be low salaries relative to the high cost of living in London, and the expectation of some big name practices that unpaid internships are an acceptable way to treat students and graduates. But … by conflating a legal right (for everyone to be treated equally regardless of sex, gender, race, creed and so on) with a discretionary quantum (where people are generally paid according to experience and qualifications), the message sounds like an appeal to self interest. Then again, where money is concerned, everyone has a degree of self interest.

Who decides how much architects are paid? Is the RIBA Salary Survey a useful guide or a waste of time? Professional associations like the RIBA and RIAS have never been like trade unions, and trying to use them to improve graduate salaries is unlikely to work.  The best they’ve achieved in recent years was to require RIBA Chartered Practices in the UK to pay at least the Living Wage, as defined by the Living Wage Foundation, to all staff, including freelancers and students. Not every practice is RIBA Chartered, though.

The RIBA and other professional associations don’t have the power to set industry-wide salary levels, far less to set the fee scales which could pay for them; Thatcher took those away decades ago, and that arguably sent architects’ salaries on a downward spiral. A better way might be for junior architects to join a union, as local authority architects generally do, since they can deploy collective bargaining. Or to join a practice which is employee-owned and has a different ethos to the big names of the “star system”.

So far, so pre-rehearsed. However, at the very end of the FAF’s open letter to the RIBA is a powerful quote from Whitney Young Jr., who was a Civil Rights campaigner in the US and addressed the American Institute of Architects at their 1968 conference in Portland, Oregon. “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights … You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence.”

It seems slightly out of place here.  If the FAF’s primary concern is salary levels, why is the quote there at all?  Does “social justice” really boil down to paying folk a bit more during the first few years of practice?  Alternatively, if the FAF’s purpose is to make society as a whole more just, Young’s words should be a statement of intent at the very start.

As it is, Young’s quote seems like an attempt to buttress the reasonable argument that young architects should be paid a bit more for their efforts, which practice bosses won't find particularly compelling, with the righteous fire of someone who fought alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960’s to end racial segregation in America's southern states. No-one can argue against a cause for which millions of people fought for decades, and many died in the process, including Dr King himself.

Perhaps the best thing that the FAF have achieved so far is to draw Whitney Young to the attention of Europeans; whether Young felt he was fighting on the same side as predominantly white, middle-class professionals-in-the-making who feel they should earn larger salaries is a different question.

By • Galleries: politics

“Graff”

05/05/22 21:33

I never tire of seeing graffiti. When you see the same tag all over the city, it makes you wonder about who wrote it, and why? I like the fact that you never really know the answer.


For a while, the tag BF (Brain Freeze) was ubiquitous in Dundee. It takes guts, cheek and cunning to tag up a whole city, but also a special kind of cleverness to reach the inaccessible gable ends, retaining walls, gas holders and advertising placards. Another one is Shite – who self-deprecatingly spray-painted his tag "Shite" everywhere in Glasgow. He may be shite, but you have to respect the drive, and that on its own makes him an artist.


Graffiti of one sort or another has been with us since the days of the Picts, but the line between art and vandalism remains a matter of taste. Kids will always tag, it’s one of the few ways they can (to use the current jargon) gain “agency” over their environment and feel “empowered”. Tagging, when executed well, is in essence calligraphy with an aerosol can.


As Banksy pointed out, corporations are allowed to give their message anywhere they can afford. Big business and politics pollute the city with banners, slogans and images which aim to brainwash the public into consumerist oblivion. It’s intimidating and depressing. Bill Hicks had a great take on that: “I’m just trying to rid the world of all these fevered egos that are tainting our collective unconscious and making us pay a higher psychic price than we can imagine.”


As individuals we’re not supposed to put our own message up in response but some try. Of course, what gets Banksy off the hook is that someone influential decided his work is art, then developed a celebrity following and carries a political message and is deemed artistic. That people turned this into an art movement was an interesting development, then the movement was co-opted by the Art Establishment. Tough luck for anyone who doesn't fall under that banner. You're just a vandal.


As Sverre Fehn said in 1997, “In the suburbs, people have developed an animal rationality. That’s why they hang themselves about with chains, dress in leather and put rings in their noses. And they start getting tattoos. Even the buildings are tattooed, by graffiti. The buildings give no answer, offer no resistance, they have no face. So people have to put a face on them.”


Graffiti writers make their mark on buildings in an attempt to make their mark on the city as a whole, and perhaps also to humanise it – yet graffiti’s critics think that tagging de-humanises it. That’s a serious philosophical divide.


Graffiti artists fall into two camps. There are those like Futura 2000 who cultivate their creativity and those like Tox who crave ubiquity. Just like the OG (original gangster) graffiti writers in New York in the late 70’s, Tox aimed to get his name up as much as he could, and go “All City”. He achieved that by bombing the Tube trains and tracks in London, before the BTP caught up with him…  Futura on the other hand, developed his craft on New York’s subways and eventually ended up with his work being shown in galleries and also on record sleeves, like UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction. His cone-headed aliens are instantly recognisable, just like Rammellzee’s panzer calligraphy.


In recent years, graff writers have had to simplify their work on tracks and trains because the security is tighter and the yards are patrolled regularly by security staff. It's still possible to produce interesting work at high speed, which is probably why Banksy and others switched to stencils. The idea reportedly came to him while hiding from the 5-0 after being interrupted painting a massive mural…


In another reaction to law enforcement, in recent years graff has gone legit. The Open/Close street art trail in Dundee, like the NuArt project in Aberdeen and City Centre Mural Trail in Glasgow, has commissioned fine artists and graffiti writers to create artworks on blank walls. Yet ten years ago Glasgow City Council commissioned Smug to paint murals over all the walls that used to be legal. Fellow graffiti writers felt this was a step in the wrong direction since there were six well-known legal walls at that point. Now there are none…

Maybe that's part of the high psychic price which Bill Hicks had in mind.


By • Galleries: ghosts, scotland

Whilst in between adventures, Mr Wolf took a job with an architecture magazine. You might in fact say he was a cub reporter.

It was a start-up title, bankrolled by a media company which wanted to move into the glossy, controlled circulation titles which are aimed at “professionals” … little realising that there’s less money to be had in design of any sort than in the legal, advertising or medical professions.

Mr Wolf had already established a minor reputation for himself as a commentator. He was occasionally phoned up by Radio Scotland when they wanted an opinion on a tower block going up, or a well-known landmark burning down. As he put it on his years-out-of-date personal website, he was a “go to” voice for radio debates. Really? Can you even say that about yourself without blushing?

Ultimately he fancied an Arts slot on TV, sifting culture on the leather-upholstered settee with Kirsty Wark – but he had to make do with sixty seconds chatting to Janice Forsyth on Radio Scotland’s graveyard slot, or an occasional quote in the papers. After all, he wasn’t Scotland’s Most Famous Living Architect.

Nonetheless, a minor reputation got his loafer-clad foot in the metaphorical door, and he snagged a commission to write the manuscript for what became FOUL AIR, a fast-paced thriller which explores the invention of the air admittance valve. It was heady stuff, an intellectual battle of wits between the Andersson family’s Durgo company which created their first AAV in 1970, and Sture Ericson who designed the Bjare Valve in 1973. (True story, kids). The book was one of Scottish Architectural Publishing’s better sellers that year.


Popular opinion has it that journalists never fully commit to an opinion, so most articles offer both sides of the debate in order to let the readers decide (and to avoid alienating half of the readership). Regardless, Mr Wolf was happy to offer strong opinions and divisive comment, on demand, wherever he could find an outlet.

Despite that profligacy, it was difficult.  Not long ago there were several magazines which published long-form journalism: intelligent pieces which took time to research and write and edit. But not today’s popular press.  The tabloids offer a steady diet of affirmation, focussing on simple topics which require little research or background. They hype and they hector, but rarely force you to think.

Sometimes the architectural press isn’t much better. One former favourite weekly used to be 100 pages long and printed on decent stock; they employed subs to fact-check and make squiggly marks all over the proofs. Now it’s all soft proofed on PDF, and we know from bitter experience that screaming typo’s never show up on screen.

Nonetheless, the magazine format is still important. Edwin Heathcote, architectural critic of the Financial Times thought that, "Architects are like novelists. They regard the most important thing in their careers as being published. Buildings are all very well but the are somehow only truly complete when they have appeared in a glossy mag.” (Is It All About Image?: How PR Works in Architecture).

So Mr Wolf made contacts. That was easy. Early on, someone explained that architects are complete tarts for journalists or anyone involved with the media, because they think they have useful contacts that they can exploit on their own behalf. The other side thinks exactly the same, so you have everything required for a mutual exploitation society.

Once he got into his stride Mr Wolf was, by a long way, the most unscrupulous writer I ever came across. He wrote headlines first then retro-fitted the story. He made things up. He lifted snippets from back issues of other magazines, hoping that nobody would notice, since architects are only interested in seeing photos of their completed buildings and don’t bother reading the words which interrupt the images. Or so they say…

He even invented an inventor, who used to pop up now and then with some new, radical building material when there was a gap to fill in the News pages. It was Fake News before that term was popularised by Donald Trump, but had more sinister roots. As Joseph Goebbels once said: "If you tell a lie often enough, eventually people will start to believe it."

So Mr Wolf told stories, and when he lied, he made sure the lie was good and repeated often. For example, when he reviewed a monograph about a dour Edwardian architect with a walrus moustache, he puffed that it was “Uplifting, tender, brilliant, insightful and compelling.” It was the sort of dull book that he traded in at a secondhand bookshop on Great Western Road, five minutes after he’d finished skimming it.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.  He came across that phrase first in a book about the architectural illustrator Gordon Cullen, and he added it to his notebook of cribs for future use. Years later he discovered that Cullen had stolen it from Thoreau and when Mr Wolf was caught out, he recited, “Talent borrows, genius steals” – ironically without giving any credit to Oscar Wilde.

That’s what Mr Wolf’s life is like. A morality tale for all the family.


Just in case you’re still trying to keep up, some previous instalments in Mr Wolf’s story are here:

Merry Christmas Mr Wolf

Setting the Wolf amongst the pigeons

The irresistible rise of Mr Wolf

Immortality Projects

Mr Wolf rides the rails

This is the Ice Age

By • Galleries: books, mr wolf

A while ago I posted some thoughts about architectural photography, critiquing the approach which some practitioners take to achieve their own “style”. Image-makers, like architects, are sometimes caught in the trap of delivering what’s expected and the vogue for the past couple of decades has been photo-realistic CGI (computer-generated images).

Several folk from my year at architecture school went on to work for computer games companies, building virtual environments which players navigate through. Yet the way these imaginary spaces link together – despite their visual sophistication – lacks the imaginative or even metaphorical structure of even early multi-media such as Chris Marker’s “Immemory”.

Rather than writing full-blooded critiques on this blog, I try to briefly mention things which I find inspiring, then try to explore the things which in turn inspired *them*. One of those is Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker”. As time goes on, it seems more relevant than ever – Chris Marker acknowledged Tarkovsky as one of the greatest film directors – and dozens of computer games have picked up reference points from the film.

While its title it may sound like a Hitchcock thriller – with tension building up as the heroine is stalked by a maniac – Stalker in this context is like the highland guide who shepherds a group of hunters into the wilds in a John Buchan novel. Stalker is simultaneously truer and far more difficult than any film made in Hollywood, because it’s about ideas, which the visuals support rather than offering a spectacle.

Stalker has been labelled with all sorts of badges: science fiction, existential, art-house … but if you are interested in ideas, you should search out a copy. Stalker captures the atmosphere that hundreds of computer games tried to copy in the years following; it foreshadows the most terrible environmental disaster of our era – Chernobyl; I went into a bit more detail in my piece about Chernbyl in the magazine.

For years Andrei Tarkovsky was better known for his earlier film, Solaris, which is the prototype of the modern science-fiction film, and among film-makers is probably more influential than Stanley Kubrick’s “2001”. Having successfully transported us to a space station in Solaris, Tarkovsky sought an other-worldly environment for Stalker. While the steppe of Tadjikistan was considered early on, Stalker was eventually shot in an industrial wasteland in Estonia on the Baltic.

Stalker revolves around “the Zone”, a super-natural territory, but by the account of Tarkovsky himself doesn’t symbolise anything in particular. “The zone is a zone, it’s life, and as he makes his way across it man may break down or he may come through. Whether he comes through or not depends on his own self-respect, and his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing.”

Tarkovsky battled against the Soviet apparatchiks to get his films made – and sadly it seems that creative people in today’s Russia will end up as dissidents again, given the horror unfolding in Ukraine and the tightening of Putin’s grip on the Russian state and its media.

Meantime to lighten the dark mood, I’ll mention Georgia Daskalakis’s book, Stalking Detroit, which looked at the non-places and terrains vague left in the city of Detroit at the start of the 21st century. The photos and text make the case that the ruins of Detroit form somewhere with the same atmosphere as Tarkovsky’s film, although the Zone is in visitors’ minds as much as on the ground.

I bought a copy of Stalking Detroit over the phone, in a fraught transaction with Triangle Bookshop in London. They’re no longer in business, but whoever picked up the phone when I called seemed incredulous that someone had called from Dundee, and was interested in buying an architecture book. Send it to where? But that would require packing and posting! Yes, but I’m happy to pay? There was a long disgruntled sigh at the other end of the line.

It looks like I was lucky. It’s yet another interesting short-run architecture book which Amazon’s algorithm has hiked up to $300, when it should be available second hand for a far more reasonable price.

Perhaps civilisation really does end at Watford Gap, and architecture books too.

By • Galleries: ghosts, photography

I noticed with interest recently that Drum Property have made moves to wash their hands of Drum Income Plus real estate investment trust, which rejoiced under the code of DRIP. Drum is a property development group based in Edinburgh and in theory, the real estate investment trust or REIT was a good way to raise money on capital markets from institutional and private investors, by selling shares in a company which holds property. 

If the property is fully let, you make money from that, and from the appreciating value of your shares in the investment trust too. It may be that the banks won't lend you money on good enough terms, or that you think you can make more money from the investment trust than you would solely from the property itself, in this case by using the rental income and value realised by selling property to generate a dividend yield...

The successful REIT's may grow to hundreds of millions or even a billion pounds in value - for example Tritax Big Box REIT has been a success particularly in the past couple of years, thanks to the demand for warehousing. But stock markets are often driven by fear and greed. Time and again, poor results cause fear and investors flee. The resulting buying opportunity will sometimes cause greed and the price will recover … or the stock falls flat.

REIT's are just one example of the financial engineering used to promote and back property development – there are others. Scotland, and in particular Dundee, was a breeding ground for investment trusts, on the back of the jute boom which generated such huge profits that the mill owners began searching for new places to invest them. That’s why so many trusts have Dundee names, such as Mid Wynd International and Fleming (now JP Morgan) Claverhouse.

In 1873, Dundee businessman Robert Fleming launched the Scottish American Investment Trust (now called Dunedin Income Growth) to finance the building of the American trans-continental railway network.  Alliance Trust, launched in Dundee in 1888, was originally founded as a mortgage bank, raising capital from Scottish investors and lending it to pioneer farmers in the north-western United States.  

Nowadays the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust has nothing to do with property mortgages, preferring instead to invest in companies like Tesla, but it began to offer mortgages to Malaysian rubber plantation owners in 1909. So the real estate investment trust goes back to its Victorian roots when it invests in land and property.

DRIP, which was launched in 2015, had persistently traded at a significant discount to net asset value (NAV), having not reached a scale that makes its shares attractive to a wider group of investors. That means the value of the company was actually less than the market value of the property, so in theory you could buy it up at a discount.

According to financial analyst Quoted Data, Drum gave up on DRIP when their board realised that there were no short or medium term prospects that the company would be able to grow organically. It probably didn't help that DRIP was partly invested in retail property. 

Having given up on schemes like the REIT, there are ever more esoteric ways to raise money, the most infamous of which was the Tontine.  I wrote at length about tontines in Leopard Magazine a few years ago, and was amazed when they made a reappearance in the US recently.  One more sign, beside cryptocurrencies, that the financial markets have begun overheating in the early years of the 2020's.

The Wall Street hedge fund manager Bill Ackman launched a 21st century tontine, Pershing Square Tontine Holdings, as a "special purpose" vehicle to raise money to buy shares in an another company.  Although his potential deal unwound itself, according to the financial press, it goes to show that there literally is nothing new under the sun.

Traditionally, investors who subscribed in something like a special purpose vehicle received shares and options in return (the Americans call it a SPAC, but the principle is the same).  They could redeem their shares once the target had been acquired, and hold onto the options meantime.  If the shares perform well in the public markets, the sponsors could convert the options into shares and make even more profit.  If the share price did badly, they had already redeemed their shares, so had pocketed some profit.

Pershing Square’s Tontine was structured differently.  Sponsors can still sell the shares upon acquisition of a target company.  However, if they exercise the put option as it’s called, they forfeit two-thirds of the options they were given, so those who redeem shares have a smaller opportunity than those who hold onto their shares.

The “tontine” part of the structure derives from the fact that the forfeited warrants are re-allocated to those who kept their shares.  This is similar to how a classic tontine life insurance policy works: interest in the pooled fund is re-allocated to the surviving policyholders every time one of them dies, until the last one standing runs off with all the spoils.

The fact that tontine owners benefit when one of their cohort dies is why tontines have traditionally been so controversial. It encourages them to behave like characters in an Agatha Christie novel, who dream up subtle ways of bumping each other off.  For that reason, tontine life insurance was outlawed in many countries, although there are still quite a few Tontine Inns and Tontine Hotels dotted around Scotland which were paid for by subscriptions to tontine schemes.

While Drum Property's DRIP is nowhere near as complex as Bill Ackman's tontine, it does demonstrate that bricks and mortar investments aren't necessarily as "safe as houses" to quote that old cliche from the financial pages of the Mail and the Express.  Commercial property deals have countless more moving parts than buying a house on a mortgage, and employ some complex financial engineering.

However, some investments never escape the steady drip drip drip of bad news.

By • Galleries: scotland

A brief excursion from architecture for everyone who loves poetry, and also for ilka body that loves their haggis. Of course, Burns Night is also a chance to reflect on what’s changed and what remains. 
 
Forget myth and legend, the traditional Scots ballad is laced with food and drink.  Alongside the Skye Boat Song (I remember a mournful version from primary school for all the wrong reasons), Aiken Drum was much more upbeat.  Its lyrics were a cheerful rendition of what we had for our tea three centuries ago: cream cheese, roast beef, penny loaves and bawbee baps, crust pies and haggis.
 
Underlying that is a link to the ’15 and the ’45.  The version of Aiken Drum we sang had bairn-like lyrics which appealed to wee folk through their stomachs.  But the original lyrics referred to blood and glory on the battlefield of Sheriffmuir in 1715, just as the Skye Boat Song relates to the prince’s escape after the Second Rising faltered at Culloden.  These are links to the old country, and they cut through the generations.
 
Burns is another strong connection to that time.  His best known songs such as Auld Lang Syne, My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose and Ye Banks and Braes are wistful and sentimental but with an edge.  Burns saw that the country was changing, and the rate of change has accelerated since then by orders of magnitude, yet the times he lived in have startling parallels with our own. 
 
The devaluation of the Scots pound after the speculation at Darien is exactly the same as the current unwinding of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.  As I write, they’ve halved in value over the past few weeks.  Yet there’s been currency speculation for as long as we’ve had gold, silver and promissory notes, with folk talking up new assets even as they quietly sell out on the uptrend created as others buy in.
 
Burns’ generation also went through a climate crisis, and his was totally outwith Man’s control (as the current one may prove to be, too, regardless of whose fault it was).  The poet complained frequently about the cold weather, and the period from 1550 to 1850 is sometimes called “The Little Ice Age”. In Burns’ day, the winters of the 1780’s were especially severe.

To make things worse, in 1783 the Icelandic volcano known as Laki spewed up 15 cubic kilometres of lava, the third biggest lava eruption since the end of the last Ice Age. It engulfed 600 square miles, releasing eight million tonnes of fluorine gas and 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, which reacted with atmospheric water to form a continental-sized sulphuric acid cloud. Acid rain was the result, and a haze which covered a quarter of the planet's surface. Parallels with the volcano called Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, except Laki is easier to pronounce.
 
As Aiken Drum proves, we all like a good feed and Burns underlines that we like a good drink, too, with none of that Dry January stuff either.  The 25th is breaking point for many New Year Resolutions, and a good dram toasts their hellward trajectory along with crash diets, attempts to quit the baccy and other self-denials.
 
It’s always been difficult to make a living out of writing, unless you’re Walter Scott or Ian Rankin.  Burns, perennially hard up, would probably be writing on Substack now rather than Blackwoods magazine.  He wouldn’t be impressed to have Dominic Cummings as a fellow author, but his subject matter – how you figure out how to live in the world and get along with your fellow travellers – would be just the same.
 
Other things will stand forever.  Human nature, the landscape and of course architecture.  The medieval hearts of our towns and cities would still be recognisable to Burns; the faces of the people on the streets, too.  Take away our smartphones, strip off our Levi cords, Puffa jackets and Adidas trainers, and in essence we’re the same people we were centuries ago and will be in a few centuries’ time. That’s why the toast to Robbie Burns is called “The Immortal Memory”.
 
I never had much interest in history at high school: I couldn’t see its relevance.  It took architecture school, where we began to study precedents for what we were designing, for the penny to drop.  Now I realise it’s not the dry subject I took it for, but a catalogue of things we can learn from – plus a few crumbs of wisdom from folk who’ve already been there and lived to tell the tale.
 
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his walie nieve a blade,

He'll make it whissle…
 
Happy Burns Night, and thank you Mr MacSween.

By • Galleries: scotland

The end of this year, more than others before, feels like the weary denouement of a John Ford Western.  Picture the worn-down gunslinger, half-asleep on the deep-shadowed veranda of his shack.  A Winchester carbine slung into the dust and an empty bottle of rotgut rolling on the ground beside him.  The air is dead calm and the only movement is a wisp of smoke from a roll-up between his Virginia-stained fingers.
 
Why all the talk of drink, firearms and baccy?  That’s where those Western types find solace, but couldn’t be further from the “ESG” values currently sweeping across society …
 
But first, consider that there’s always been a tension between magazine articles which tackle the social aspects of architecture such as the client’s brief, the user’s experience the public’s reaction to it – and those which discuss the architectonic aspects of a building such as the concept, parti, aesthetics, materials and detailing.  Somewhere between 1500 and 2500 words isn’t enough to do justice to one aspect of a building, far less all of them.

Critical analysis should cover how it works, how it looks, how it was put together, the story of the client, of the architect and the users too – yet the current climate places an emphasis on the moral and ethical side of architecture. That's a welcome change from the days of the icon and the "starchitect", but taken to the extreme, it could grow into a rejection of architectural values and an attempt to react to the obsessions of the wider world.

Environmental, social and governance issues – the ESG acronym at the start of the piece – aren’t in themselves architecture, yet because they have a powerful impact on society, we can’t ignore them. They exist in architecture as reactions with (or against) which individuals work. Following that to its logical conclusion, it would be easy to draw up a blacklist of projects you wouldn’t work on.  Perhaps some of us have done so already.
 
“Sin stocks” is a catch-all term for stock market companies which process tobacco, organise gambling and manufacture firearms.  Those corporations are occupied doing things of questionable morality which make them large profits. You could easily extend Sin stocks to include alcohol, and thus rule yourself out from working on distilleries and breweries.  Although in so doing, you’d be ignoring a field which has a long tradition in Scottish architecture and in which we've led the world from the era of Charles Doig who introduced the "pagoda" or cupola ventilator, to the new crop of 21st century distilleries.
 
There are endless Left Wing/ Right Wing debates about the provision of private healthcare and private education. Arguably it’s a personal matter but one with public implications. Keir Starmer spoke about this recently on Radio 4’s Political Thinking podcast, and briefly touched on the tension between universal provision and personal choice. While your own political affiliations and voting intentions are one thing, should those spill over into your job and affect the projects you work on?  In practical terms there isn't much difference designing clinics and hospitals for the public or private sector, since they'll all have to meet the HTM's (Health Technical Memoranda) and ultimately be signed off by HIS (Healthcare Improvement Scotland), but the client's motive is very different.
 
Politics, as Donald Trump put it, is a swamp.  There’s a real risk in getting involved in politically-sponsored projects. I saw it on the small scale in an urban regeneration scheme ten years ago where the councillors weren’t at all interested – until grant funding appeared on the table. After that, the “elected members” were all over it, keen to take credit for something they’d had little to do with. On another project, we worked with a government department and made good progress on a pilot project until one day, with no warning, the minister in charge cancelled it.  Having politicians for clients – even local politicians – is dangerous.

Money is another of the things which we shouldn’t speak about in polite society. Recently someone suggested that the Edinburgh investment partnership Baillie Gifford should be hit with additional taxes, over and above what they already pay.  That seems fine, if you’re suspicious of capitalism – but Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust was one of the biggest investors in Tesla. Hence the counter-argument is that profit is a pay-off for doing the right thing environmentally.  There are two sides to every coin.

On the flip-side, coal and oil companies have become hugely unpopular in recent years, but having worked in Aberdeen I saw that subsea technology firms engineer jackets for wind turbines as well as for oil production platforms, and the energy giants like BP are interested in solar cells as well as natural gas. “Just transition” is the popular term, yet green-leaning architects might avoid working there altogether, hence missing out on the chance to speed the very changes along that they want to see happen.  Life can be contradicatory, paradoxical, sometimes even perverse.

So what does that leave? Public services, such as health and social care, plus social enterprises, housing associations and community groups. Is everything else morally questionable? Living in a state of constant outrage is tiring, but do you have to make a pact with the Devil before you go into practice?  Should you set your principles aside?  Before you become disillusioned, wretched even, about the monsters which have come to live in your soul, there’s another way to look at the morals and ethics of architecture.

The central thesis of Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" is that our individual need to fulfil self-interest should result in social benefit.  The projects we work on, and the clients we work with, enable us to build and also to earn ourselves a living.  It could be said that we should act with enlightened self-interest, which is a much bigger philosophical bargain than simply abiding by the ARB Code.

Over time attitudes change and people change, too. In the documentary “From The Sky Down”, Bono declared that U2 started off as 16 year old punks after seeing The Clash play in Dublin. A couple of decades later, there came a time when he and his bandmates realised that they had become the enemy. The same happened over the years to the tobacco firms, arms dealers, gambling companies and bankers – all of whom were fairly respectable in John Ford’s time.  Maybe it happens to us all, eventually.

But let's be positive, since it's the start of a new year. Things can only get better, in the immortal words of Prof. Brian Cox's song.  So we live in hope that Chuck D becomes the next American president, rather than Donald Trump. The less said about the British prime minister, the better.  All the best for 2022…

By • Galleries: covid-19