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


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


06/12/21 21:27

The past twenty months have given us time for reflection – too much time. In an attempt to steer clear of the 24 hour social media newsquake which is drowning out architectural discourse, I’ve begun to jot down aspects of practice which have changed in the couple of decades since I graduated.

Some are elements of architectural culture from not so long ago which have been lost along the way during the pandemic. Others were obliterated by practice in the 21st century, which is increasingly taken up by people describing themselves as facilitators, change agents or tactical urbanists…

Reprographics is a good example. At my first summer holiday job I was introduced to a beast of a dyeline printer which reeked of ammonia. I was warned to be careful when operating the UV lamp since it was so easy to blow and very expensive to replace. I treated the lamp with great respect, handling the switch tentatively as someone might approach a religious icon. Fortunately I never had to change the ammonia bottles.

Although the practice I worked for owned its own Ozalid machine, many smaller practices relied on farming out prints to one of several repro firms in the city such as Sime Malloch, Prontaprint, TechArt and Burns & Harris. The latter were a commercial printer, and at the front of their Marketgait Printworks was an architectural repro centre with several giant Océ dyeline machines. As I recall, you had the choice of blueline or blackline paper, copy negs onto plastic film, or a heavier presentation paper with a warmer tone and a reddish-brown line.

Next came large format Xerox plain paper machines, which enabled you to paste up drawings onto A1 sheets, add lettering using Transtext, then make a clean copy onto trace. This “internegative” could either by dyelined, xeroxed again, or just hung against a sheet of coloured backing paper.

Figuring out how to harness these possibilities took experimentation across our first and second years. Then I got more a bit more ambitious. During the summer holidays before fourth year, I stayed with my cousin who lived in Uxbridge at the time. I explored London using the Tube system and began discovering interesting bookshops along the Charing Cross Road, plus the exotic places advertised in the back pages of the AJ.

Sarkpoint was one of those: it was the premier repro firm in London and its premises were in the Euston area, from memory along William Road, a long walk from the nearest Tube station. At that point, the reception was downstairs and the repro equipment lived upstairs, latterly in a room taken over by computer monitors. It seems the wrong way round, given the weight of some of those Océ dyeline machines, top of the range, along with various Xerox and Canon printers and plotters.

The name Sarkpoint, like for example Wintermute or Seventyholds, is a portmanteau word of the kind people use when setting up shell companies without anything literal-sounding in mind, such as Scottish Ashtray Industries Ltd.  It maybe meant something to the person who coined it, but to the rest of us it seems like a poetic-sounding conjunction of two otherwise unrelated things.

In 1997, Sarkpoint was bought over by UDO, their largest competitor in the lucrative London architectural market, and later they relocated next door to Richard Rogers at Rainville Road in Hammersmith. They knew their market well. Around the same time, the Scottish repro firm Sime Malloch was also absorbed. Later all of them were swallowed up by Service Point.

I still have a beautifully-produced brochure from UDO, an oversize folio which illustrates all the different printing techniques they offered. It must have cost a small fortune to produce, and I hung onto it for its own sake since it’s an attractive thing. By then, Sime Malloch’s premises at the far end of Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow had a Canon bubblejet printer, which made full colour flatbed copies up to A1 size, or you could reduce A1 drawings down to A3 for your portfolio.

During the short period when digital was coming in, when we still drew some things by hand, that made everything possible. I joined a queue of students from the Mac with drawings rolled up in telescopic plastic tubes, or the unwieldy A1 portfolio cases which were always on the verge of taking off if you walked up the road in a storm.

A couple of decades later we have wonderful things like inkjet plotters which can print banner-sized drawings at 1200dpi, and the Océ Arizona flatbed printer which will print anything onto pretty much any medium. Even cladding panels. But what you don’t have is the good old/ bad old dyeline machine, reeking of ammonia.

In a fit of nostalgia I tried to find someone who still has a working diazo machine, so that I could run off a print of a favourite drawing for old times’ sake. I still have the tracing paper negative rolled up in a tube in the loft. Some intensive Googling turned up a copy shop in a Manchester suburb with an out-of-date website which still advertised dyeline printing. Sadly, though, I discovered they’d disposed of their dyeline printer a few years ago.

So the dyeline printer has gone the way of the gas streetlamp or the valve-powered radio, and perhaps predictably there’s a name for that. The “Montgomery Burns Effect”, after Homer Simpson’s boss in the TV cartoon series. Mr Burns invested in booming companies when he was a young man, then held on to the shares for decades, so even now he’s a stockholder in Transatlantic Zeppelin, Confederated Slaveholdings and the Baltimore Opera Hat Company.

A point made for comic effect actually reveals a serious insight from the US futurist Ray Amara in the 1960s: “We overestimate the impact of technology in the short term, and underestimate the effect in the long run.” That’s as true of reprographics as it is of air travel, pharmaceuticals and quantum computing.

Perhaps all isn’t lost. Maybe, like film photography and vinyl records, the dyeline machine will be discovered by hipsters and suddenly become fashionable again… just don’t ask me to operate the ultraviolet lamp or change the ammonia bottles…

By • Galleries: ghosts

A few years ago, a self-proclaimed speculative architect called Liam Young advocated that we should forget the nametag “architect”, because an architect’s skills are wasted on buildings.

In an interview with Tank Magazine (The City Limits Issue, Autumn 2014) he claimed that was a good thing: “It means that the profession can find traction in other fields: the architect as a strategist, as politician … as activist or storyteller. Finding ways to operate in other disciplines just gives us more agency.”

Tank is one of the sharpest cultural magazines around, and it publishes some challenging journalism.  So I read the article carefully. It's an opinion piece by an intelligent man, yet ultimately he's just a guy with an opinion which matches his worldview. What he wrote didn't resonate with me, and I disagree with him. In fact, as I re-read it, I realised that Liam Young couldn't be more wrong.

Young’s article came back to me recently as I read through one of the London-based journals and heard a faint echo of his position in a story about young activists. Architecture certainly teaches multi-faceted skills such as creative problem-solving – yet the same applies in most fields of study.

If Young’s idea of “activism” advocates giving up architectural practice, it ignores the fact that most of us studied architecture in order to build. It’s also an abdication of the implied contract we sign up to when we go to architecture school.  Society invests in our education and enables us to chase our aspirations; in return we give back to society through design.

Rather than squander seven years' training by encouraging the brightest graduates to leave the profession, we need skilled architects because there’s still so much to do.  Perhaps even more than during the 1960’s, or after World War Two. Is there any greater social purpose than helping to provide safe schools, humane hospitals and care facilities, and above all decent housing for people who live in unsuitable, too small, too damp, energy-inefficient, houses and flats?

We won’t always be able to improve things, though. After all:
Most start-up businesses fail.
Over 40% of marriages end in divorce.
Many athletes don't become professionals.
Things might not work out – but that doesn't mean no-one should try.

Lots of us naturally leave the profession, becoming tutors or photographers, project managers or academics in architecture-related fields. On principle, I don’t speak in detail about what I’ve designed because the chance to write for architecture magazines shouldn’t be treated as a platform for self-promotion, but I'm proud to have helped to create buildings which hopefully improved the lives of other people. I’m sure many folk reading this will feel the same.

On the other hand, further through the interview in Tank is a telling quote from Young: "I worked for Zaha Hadid, designing science-museum-opera-art gallery-China-Dubai projects. All of which, in the context of making and shaping cities right now, is utterly fucking irrelevant." (sic). This neatly sums up what's wrong with Liam Young's world view, and why.

The Riverside Museum in Glasgow is the clearest Scottish example of a building designed with contempt for its brief. Its crazy roof betrays an ignorance of the rational engineering which Clydeside was famous for. Its cramped floorplates mask the exhibits. It makes visitors uncomfortable trying and failing to see what they came here for. It betrays a disregard for its context, and says nothing about the Clyde, Glasgow, or Scotland – but everything about its designers.

Young still thinks and writes from the perspective of ten years ago, when graduates were desperate to join the star system, building these capricious "icons" with no social value.  Arguably Hadid, Gehry and their ilk didn't create architecture: instead they produced elaborate, resource-intensive building-sized sculptures.

They also poisoned the expectations of a generation of people like Liam Young, graduates who have gone on to become tutors and lecturers at architecture schools and developed a deep cynicism about architecture’s inherent purpose. Yet that sour disappointment about their own experience working for what Rem Koolhaas sniffily called “author architects” shouldn’t put graduates off from becoming architects.

By • Galleries: canon

The King’s Quair was only open for a year or two. I wish now that I’d taken a photo to remember it by. Its bare timber floor, walls of matchboard and raw plaster lined with shelves, plus a table in the middle of the floor loaded with cheap books. Towards the rear of the shop, beside the bookseller’s desk was a large trapdoor. Through it he periodically disappeared down a flight of steep stairs into the basement.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the Quair was a secondhand bookshop in King Street in Aberdeen. King Street, with the Brig of Don at the top end, cheap student flats near Pittodrie in the middle, and social clubs, cleaning supplies store and tobacco blenders towards the Castlegait end, close to its knuckle with Union Street.

The bookshop was presumably named after the poem written by King James I about his dream vision – but I never discovered whether the owner was a medievalist, or an antiquarian who just happened to run a secondhand bookshop on a run-down street in Aberdeen. In 2005 it was still feasible, just, to make a living by selling old books from a physical shop, but a few years later Amazon shut down that possibility and Bezos replaced charity shops as the enemy of second hand book dealers.

The King’s Quair disappeared a year or two later. Next door is now a Halal food store, with a Turkish barber and a Thai massage parlour further along, and a Polish shop one street across. King Street is multi-cultural but heading downmarket, and who knows what goes on in the flats above the massage parlour.

The Quair wasn’t alone. I don’t ever recall going into the Old Clock Repair Shop, which was diagonally opposite across King Street – despite its name it was another bookshop, but may not have been open on Saturday mornings when I parked in the Safeway car park on the site of Hendersons’ crane works. Further out of town was the Old Aberdeen Bookshop, and during my lunchtime walks through the week I sometimes spotted its owner mooching around the Union Street charity shops. That was evidently how he bought his stock.

Down the narrow gulch of the Adelphi, just off Union Street, were some shelves of “roast beef” titles in an antiques store, and nearby were the knackered ex-shops on Marischal Street, an off-the-main-drag street which you felt would be ideal for a tired second-hand bookshop, yet no-one seemed to take up the invitation. It would be grand if you wanted a quiet life, sitting alone in a bookshop all day with nothing to do but read – or perhaps you could become as grumpy as Bernard Black used to be in the Black Books television series.

The philosopher John Locke didn’t think much of book dealers. “Books seem to me to be pestilent things, and infect all the trade in them with something perverse and brutal. Printers, binders, sellers and other that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not confirmed to the good of society and that general fairness which cements mankind.”

There’s a good chance Locke got ripped off in the type of antiquarian bookshop I've got in mind, where the proprietor looks like Peter Cushing. You enter the shabby storefront through a creaky door and catch a whiff of the interior – dusty, archaic and funereal. Whatever your poison is – antique toys, stamps, coins, duck decoys, flint tools, ethnographica, enamel advertising signs or books about the Jacobites and Covenanters – fustiness is a given. And as this is in Aberdeen it likely has a magnificent, century-old “fooshtieness”.

However, the purpose of this piece is to celebrate what we missed during 2020 and 2021, rather than lament what’s gone wrong with the High Street, or whether things will return to the way they were prior to Covid. Hopefully we’re browsing and rummaging as a means to pick up reading material, and just like when I was a kid and had a birthday, I have a book token to spend. :-)

There is a serious side to the decline of architectural bookselling. There are few specialist shops in Britain selling architecture titles nowadays. Triangle was one, in a space sub-let from the AA in Bedford Square in London. Leslie Fraser had a decent selection in the Perth Bookshop; I believe he’d once been architecture correspondent on The Scotsman. Janette Ray is another, with a bijou little shop in the centre of York. But things change.

In the early 1990’s, at the start of the Great Acceleration, it was predicted that we’d see the End of the Book. Printed matter would join vinyl records in the dustbin of history.  At that point, we had CD-ROM’s and it was assumed that you’d fit thousands of books onto a disk, just as you can fit an hour’s music onto a disk.  As it turns out, we don’t enjoy reading large amounts of text from a screen – whether a tiny smartphone screen, a Kindle or the huge smart TV’s which takes up an entire wall in some people’s living rooms.
Nevertheless, although the physical book had been with us for four centuries, space was increasingly an issue.  In 1945 Fremont Rider predicted that library capacity would need to double every 16 years or so, due to the number of books being published each year.  Rider was an American librarian with a penchant for spiritualism and was a proponent of “One World Government” – a favourite topic of conspiracy theorists everywhere, including those suspicious of the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar and so forth.
His suggested solution was to use microfilm, so that each page could be reduced to the size of a postage stamp then enlarged again and printed out on demand.  That happened to a certain extent with newspaper archives and public records, and even now I can hear the accelerating zoom of the Bell & Howell machines in the Central Library, followed by the fluttering noise when they reach the end of the spool of film.  But Rider couldn’t have foreseen that microfilm would be overtaken by the CD-ROM, then the internet.
When searching the API (Architectural Periodicals Index) and the Avery Index (its American equivalent) whilst writing my architectural school dissertation, we had to borrow the appropriate CR-ROM each time – that was much faster than searching microfilm or even worse, a card index.  But the internet made all of those obsolete.

For a time, there was a parallel stream to bookshops. Until the 2000’s, many architecture booksellers sold by catalogue, such as Inch’s Books from York or Richard Sidwell at Monmouth House Books in the Welsh marches. Now every bookshop struggles in the face of Amazon, yet nothing beats visiting a physical store. For example, GT Coventry, at the eastern end of the long High Street in Kirkcaldy was a strange and unique blend of tobacconist and bookseller. When I drove down to have a poke around redundant buildings left behind by the linoleum industry, I always stopped for a chat with McLean Dorward.

Leakey’s in Inverness (above, courtesy Idavoll) is arguably Scotland's largest secondhand bookshop with 100,000 books … the nave of the old Gaelic Kirk is filled with shelves and a wood-fired stove. It’s a Scots version of Barter Books in Alnwick, but with fewer tourists and more accurately calibrated prices. If you’re through in Glasgow, Caledonia Books on the Great Western Road in Glasgow is a local institution with a cavernous store and one of the biggest general stocks in Scotland. By contrast, the nearby Voltaire & Rousseau is madly disorganised.

To end on a recommendation, the Book Room in Melrose is a small country town bookshop of the sort there used to be all over Scotland. There are fewer of them nowadays, but this one has the bonus that it’s within striking distance of several Peter Womersley buildings… an ideal constituent of a weekend jaunt with Modernist concrete sightseeing and lunch in a country pub, if you like that kind of thing. But post-Covid, it’s always worth checking that shops are still in business, and open when you plan to visit.

By • Galleries: books