Happy New Year.

This is the sorry tale of a broken tile. It had survived for many decades, laid on the floor of someone’s hallway, walked over, washed and polished many times, then salvaged for future use elsewhere: but it ended up in a bin down south after a young oaf dropped and broke it.

Cement encaustic tiles have roots stretching back to biblical times. Encaustic painting with wax was mentioned by Homer in 800 B.C., when he noted the waxed hulls of the painted warships sailing into Troy. Encaustic tiles became popular in the mid-Victorian era and became known for their durability, but only when laid horizontally on the floor. Rather than a fired clay base with a glazed surface, in the case of encaustic tiles a fine sand and marble powder top layer is impressed into a Portland cement base, then dried to form a monolithic whole.

But they don’t bounce well.

Shame, it was a beautiful tile with an unusual pattern, and it was made in Stoke-on-Trent by Minton Hollins. The rose, blue and grey colour combination is subtly evocative of ancient Egyptian art, rather than the usual Victorian burgundy and beige drab. Minton, Hollins & Co. were one of the most famous and prolific tile makers of the Victorian era, and its tiles were used in the Houses of Parliament, US Capitol building (which as I write is being stormed by Donald Trump’s supporters), the Victoria & Albert Museum and many other high profile buildings.

There were several different Minton companies around Stoke, but Minton Hollins was the best known and it was bought by Johnsons in 1968 who still use the name.

I spotted the solitary tile for sale on Ebay a few months ago, took pity on it, and low-balled a bid which was accepted. Somewhere between making the sale and posting the package, the young oaf dropped it from racking onto the warehouse floor, and that was that. No use crying over split tiles, but it did make me think about the inherent wastage in the construction and distribution process. In the factory, breakages can be recycled, but out in the wild they’re given a summary burial in the nearest landfill.

Another lockdown episode involved the switched spur outlet I ordered from Ebay. It was dispatched via a courier but somewhere between Gloucestershire and Dundee, Hermes either ran over it with a bulldozer or fed it to a troll. It never arrived, and when I enquired I was told that they had destroyed it because it had been “damaged in transit”. On the plus side, I started repainting at home during lockdown, and after experimenting with a few different paints, discovered that Wickes Trade emulsion has more covering power than Little Greene emulsion does, but at one third the cost…

Here’s hoping for a healthier and less destructive 2021.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

This is a longer post than usual, as the subject is vast…

Perhaps uncharacteristically, this week I feel more optimistic about the future than I have for months. It’s only December, so forget New Year resolutions such as losing three stones by Easter, becoming a millionaire by the time you’re 40, or developing the charisma of Cary Grant … but it looks like we may soon have several vaccines which are effective against Covid-19.

Once we get through the pandemic and meet ourselves again on the other side, things will look brighter. After all, growing up in Thatcher-era Britain we became used to problems which could seemingly never find a solution: Cruise missiles, The Troubles, Apartheid, the Berlin Wall, the Poll Tax, Acid Rain and the Ozone Hole. Yet the Wall came down in 1989, the Poll Tax was abolished in 1991, the Americans left Greenham Common in 1992, South Africa was freed from apartheid in 1993 and the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

Even more heartening is proof that we can heal our damaged planet, if we make a collective effort. Lost amongst the pandemic headlines in March 2020 was news that the ozone layer is continuing to shrink and has the potential to fully recover, according to a paper published in Nature, which proves that environmental damage can be reversed by orchestrated global action. Similarly, acid rain was tackled and virtually eradicated in Europe and North America, although you don’t often hear about that very much either.

Unfortunately, all the mass media seem to do is repeat bad news stories about the environment, with Barry McGuire's “Eve of Destruction” playing loudly in the background. Yet unless we have proof that we can make a difference, we’re unlikely to make the effort.

 

2021 AD
What will a post-Covid world look like? Making predictions and prophecies about the future is a mug’s game, although it seemed to work out for that clairvoyancy cartel – Old Mother Shipton, Nostradamus and the Brahan Seer. Behind Dominic Cummings’ slogans such as “Build Back Better” and “Green Recovery” is lots of humbug. However, extrapolation of the recent past is a good way to tell what might happen in the near future, and current trends may point the way towards what will happen in 2021.

Towards the end of his new book, Investing for Growth, the fund manager Terry Smith points out, “Looking back, it seems that crises, including pandemics, accelerate some existing economic trends.”  He identifies Covid-19 beneficiaries might include Remote working, Home cooking, Telemedicine, Online schooling and Automation. There are a few more themes to consider…

 

The death of the High Street
Predicting the death of the high street is a popular hobby, and its demise has been announced many times over. The pandemic is just the latest challenge, super·charged by internet shopping. Of course, before the internet, the High Street was under attack in the 2000’s by out-of-town retail, in the 1980’s by shopping malls, in the 1960’s by supermarkets, in the 1940’s by rationing and in the 1920’s by mail order catalogues inspired by Sears Roebuck … it’s always been in flux, under threat and never more so than when their buildings have been sold off and leased back from ground rent REIT's.  They ruin everything they touch, like King Midas in reverse.

The data used to establish the trend of declining activity makes for sober reading. According to the Centre for Retail Research, there were 600,000 stores in the UK in 1950. By 2012, this had fallen to 290,000 and even before Covid it was projected to decline to 220,000 by 2020. At the current rate of growth, the internet will account for 40 per cent of retail sales by 2030, compared to around 17 per cent prior to the pandemic.
 
High-street banks are becoming something of a rarity, and specialised outlets such as toy shops, book shops and tobacconists have succumbed to internet buying or discount supermarket offers. The pandemic has brought forward the debate on what should be on the High Street. There will always be a need for convenience stores, and after a year or more living under Covid restrictions, most of us will return to socialising with a vengeance, mostly likely returning to bars, restaurants, theatres, galleries and everywhere people come together – but perhaps we could find a better home for the Starbucks, charity shops, estate agents, gyms that open 24/7 and 99p stores.  There may be room for niche outlets such as quality butchers too, but along side them are the dreamy ventures of gentrification: fusion fast food outlets, micro·breweries, the yoga studio that also serves dairy-free yogurt, and the barbershop that only shaves beards.

 

Future travel: Electric Aircraft
2020 won’t spell the end for air travel, because people enjoy it and the world will continue getting smaller, as it has done since Leif Erikson discovered America. The world’s airlines have already begun switching from Jet A1 (kerosene) to electric and hydrogen power. Over the years, I’ve done some work with three different aviation firms, including a training organisation, a fan blade manufacturer and a turbine maintenance firm.

From chats with them, I gather that several different electric aircraft are already flying, including an Electric Beaver, the Pipistrelle, a Swedish regional airliner, and a Rolls-Royce-powered racing planeIn addition, ZeroAvia, a California and UK-based startup, is currently working on a 20 seater aircraft using hydrogen fuel cells, which it claims will have a range of up to 500 miles, London to Frankfurt. Hybrid Air Vehicles, a UK company, hope to bring back giant airships to replace air freight (though their modern designs use helium, rather than the Hindenburg’s hydrogen).

 

Hydrogen vehicles
The motoring press think that pure electric vehicles are a stepping stone towards fuel cell vehicles, which are powered by hydrogen.  The latter have the advantage that they have a range similar to a petrol or diesel, 400 or 500 miles, the tank can be filled in a couple of minutes, and we don’t have to worry about “range anxiety”.
 
Pure electric cars have many drawbacks.  Batteries mean heavier cars, typically 300 or 400kg extra, charging times can be anything from half an hour to eight or ten hours.  Battery performance deteriorates over the years, and the quoted 200 or 300 mile range of an EV is fine in California, but in the Scottish winter with lights, heater, fan blower, heated screens and so forth working combined with a low temperature which has decreased the battery’s capacity, the range may only be half that.  Or less.
 
There are over 25 million homes in the UK, and 6 million private sector businesses, so you’d imagine that well over 30 million power supplies and charging sockets would be required for EV’s – bearing in mind you may need a couple of chargers at home and one at work too.  On the other hand, we already have a network of around 8500 filling stations, and provided you can replace the petrol tanks with hydrogen tanks, you have a ready solution which doesn’t involve fundamental re-wiring of the entire country.
 
Most damningly, lithium ion and similar battery technologies require rare earth elements which are typically found in environmentally-sensitive areas.  If we destroy swathes of tundra and the Greenland ice shelf by opencast mining for rare earths, is that any better than chopping down rainforests, or pumping global warming gases into the atmosphere?  There are already hydrogen-powered buses running in Aberdeen, and perhaps fuel cell cars and lorries will overtake electric vehicles in the next few years.

 

Sustainable Power
The difference we’ve already made by using clean power in Scotland goes back for generations. Since the 1940’s, Scotland has constructed dozens of large and small hydropower plants, and recently, approval was granted to SSE (the successor to the North of Scotland Hydro Board) for the Coire Glas pumped storage scheme, their first big hydro scheme since Glendoe, itself the first major hydro scheme built in Scotland for nearly 30 years. At the same time, SSE are developing the world’s biggest wind farm, on the Dogger Bank.  Our power has been "green" for decades, and at some point in the near future, might even be 100% sustainable.

 

Revanchism
A grasp of the subtleties of human nature teaches you that when something is taken away, you try to get it back.  At worst that means propping up a lost cause by “throwing good money after bad” or the so-called sunk cost fallacy.  At the moment it means that while activists/ campaigners/ pressure groups are trying to force through radical change under cover of the Covid pandemic, ordinary folk will simply be happy to emerge from 2020 with their health, plus some hope of retaining their job, their home and some shreds of their way of life.

The Russian Revolution was perhaps the most radical attempt at social engineering during the past 100 years.  It succeeded in ridding Russia of its royal family, and eventually delivered Constructivism, space travel, and the military machine which beat Hitler – but it came at a huge cost.  When anyone speaks about “revolutionary” change, think carefully about what that means.  Revolution is called for by those with nothing to lose; for the rest of us, no-one wants to lose what they feel that they’ve worked for.

 

Anti·bacterial & hypo·allergenic materials
Another side effect of Covid-19 may be a renewed interest in making the environment around us naturally healthy and free from bacteria – without having to resort to face masks, PPE and vaccines. Before we had effective drug treatments for tuberculosis, sanatoria were built in the mountains because the effects of fresh air and ultraviolet light from sunshine were recognised as an effective therapy for some patients. Nowadays healthy buildings might include consideration of innately healthy materials:

Linoleum is naturally anti·bacterial, anti·allergic and anti·static. A few years ago, research carried out by the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute in Holland showed that linoleum can destroy or inhibit the growth of two strains of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus areus - also known as MRSA. Forbo-Nairn Marmoleum is already in use at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, the Sick Kids' in Edinburgh, Queen Margaret Hospital in Dunfermline, and Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy.

Copper & bronze alloys are also very effective at killing superbugs, along with influenza and norovirus – bacteria which mutate so rapidly that our vaccines can’t keep up with them. But copper·based alloys such as bronze kill them within a couple of hours of contact, which means that door hardware, taps, switch plates and other frequently-touched surfaces shouldn’t be made from plastic or stainless steel.

Cedarwood is popular for clothes hangers, wardrobes and chests of drawers for good reason: its aromatic scent comes from thujaplicin, a natural anti·bacterial and anti·fungal agent. Some varieties such as true cedar and Spanish cedar have insect-repellant qualities, and cedar wood’s anti·fungal properties make it very resistant to rot, so it has a long life when used as external cladding. Hence cedar boarding, and cedar shingles, neither of which need poisonous timber preservative treatments.

 

A letter to the future from Orwell
The future that George Orwell predicted has arrived, but rather than an all-powerful state acting as Big Brother and carrying out surveillance against our will, we’ve invited Big Brother into our houses, and are paying a monthly subscription for the privilege. The Amazon “Alexa” speaker is a fifth columnist in your living room. Google Latitude software on your smartphone is a stalker in your pocket. GPS in your car’s satnav is the spy in the cab. Your smartwatch is an incubus, monitoring every waking and sleeping hour.

As George Soros predicted a couple of years ago, “The owners of the platform giants consider themselves the masters of the universe, but in fact they are slaves to preserving their dominant position. Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered. Regulation and taxation will be their undoing, and EU Competition Commissioner Vestager will be their nemesis.”

So Margarethe Vestager, rather than Winston Smith, may be our salvation. In dealing with the US tech giants from Mountain View in California, she might free us from the overlords who spy on and record every aspect of our lives via smart TV’s, smart phones, smart watches and through the so-called internet of things, perhaps even smart toasters. A warning from history: if you were a fan of Sci-Fi satire Red Dwarf, you may remember what Kryten did to finally silence Talkie Toaster…

 

Sectoral shifts within property development
More prosaically, some of the changes likely to develop in 2021 began incubating long ago. Rather than abandoning projects years in the making, it seems that developers and landlords may convert half-built offices into serviced apartments and flats. Given the rise of renting in big cities, Build to Rent has become a bigger deal for housing developers than Build to Sell. But the one thing developers aren’t likely to countenance is improving space standards by providing more square footage – even though the way viruses like Covid spread, point to living at lower density being safer.

 

Optimism
Optimism is still with us, even after nine months of struggle against the virus. Yet if we start to lose the faith and waiver, it's worth casting our minds back to two of Scotland's greats.  In his rectorial address to Glasgow University in 1972, Jimmy Reid quoted Robert Burns.

In “Why should we idly waste our prime,” Burns writes:,
"The golden age, we’ll then revive, each man shall be a brother,
In harmony we all shall live and till the earth together,
In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,

And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature”.

Jimmy ended his speech by saying - “It’s my belief that all the factors to make a practical reality of such a world are maturing now. I would like to think that our generation took mankind some way along the road towards this goal. It’s a goal worth fighting for.”

 

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, covid-19

I began writing a blog for The Lighthouse in 2006, and after a brief break when the lights went out on Mitchell Street, I picked up again on Urban Realm in 2010. Since then I've contributed this blog to accompany the pieces I write in the print edition of the magazine.  Much has changed in cyberspace over the past 14 years.

 

Wordpress and Blogspot are still going, but they're old news.  Tecnorati has gone.  Lots of fellow travellers who began their blogs in the mid-2000’s have gone too.  Social media has taken over the world, and it’s a full time job. Creating “content” and sending it out into the world on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, and on Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, and on Pinterest, Medium and Lyst…  Phew.  We’re secretly glad that Google+ has fallen by the wayside. 

Yet those sites are only the gatekeepers. Two more fundamental issues are how much of our lives we put on the internet, and how that content is paid for.

During the last couple of months, we were able to travel around the country a bit more, in between lockdowns. I took a trip to the Devil’s Pulpit in Finnich Glen a few weeks ago, to see what all the fuss was about. I kept seeing shots of the moss-curtained sandstone gorge and peaty water, and dozens of comments asking “where is this?” and “how do I get here?” On a typical weekend, the country roads around Croftamie were choked with cars, abandoned on verges and anywhere else their owners could find.

Bell Ingram recently designed a visitor centre which is intended to cash in on the interest generated by the TV series Outlander. Over the past few weeks Finnich Glen has attracted huge crowds; arguably they were spurred on by the power of television and social media. Finnich Glen is interesting, but currently it’s no tourist attraction. The paths through the woods are muddy, the broken flight of stone steps was slippery after the rain, and I had to use a climbing rope that someone had tied to a tree stump to pull myself back up the flight of steps.

The Devil’s Pulpit has become a victim of its own success, in this case aided by the access details which Facebook provides for scenic locations. You can find them on the countless oxymoronic pages with names like “Secret Scotland”, “Unseen Scotland”, “Hidden Scotland” and “Undiscovered Scotland”. Their authors don’t care that the places are no longer any of these things once they’ve been broadcast over the net.

There’s a reason why fishermen keep good pools to themselves, hillwalkers keep quiet about secret bothies, and aficionados of dereliction don’t broadcast the locations of photogenic ruins. As any graffiti writer knows, "blowing up the spot" is a cardinal sin. The ironclad rule is not to attract unwanted attention to it, otherwise you’ll lose the place where you return repeatedly to paint.  Finnich Glen is a classic example of “over-sharing”, and as I drove away from the lay-by, a crew of Council line painters was busy lining double yellows on all its approach roads, as if to underline that fact.

A few weeks later, I drove to the area where my Dad grew up. In springtime, century-old rhododendrons in the American Gardens make a vivid show, and in October trees carpet the grass with birch, plane and chestnut leaves. The picnic benches are covered in moss and many of the paths are rarely-used nowadays. There was no-one else around; perhaps because the American Gardens aren’t mentioned by name on the net. They may not be “secret”, but I hope no-one “discovers” them and blurts their location all over Facebook.

 

The second aspect of Web 2.0 is financial. In the past, some bloggers and website owners used banners, affiliate links to Amazon or Google ads to pay for the cost of web hosting and registering a URL. Making money from a blog that way is more difficult now.  So much so in fact, that you'll either have to treat it as a self-financed labour of love, or use it to supplement the living that you make elsewhere. Sooner or later you’ll realise that you're working for and simultaneously against the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen – Apple, Alphabet (Google) and Amazon.  

So it is that some design websites have edged into the territory of lifestyle blogs, run by so-called influencers who have close links to commerce.  They work hand-in-hand with PR's and marketing folk, running sponsored posts which are the equivalent of advertorials in a print magazine.  Some of the content consists of rehashed press releases, and other features are simply a way to make money from a design-led readership, from which you receive a small commission each time someone clicks through to buy a watch, scarf or pot of marmalade.

 

Lifestyle blogs appear to be a sweet way to earn cash.  With weekends away in boutique hotels, cook schools with TV chefs and supercar driving days indulged in under the auspices of reviews, they've essentially become a marketing channel. Yet with that, the bloggers have lost their neutrality and any sense of critical voice or distance from the subject matter.  Measured criticism is the keystone of integrity, but when you see “Sponsored Post” on the header of a blog entry, do you read it regardless or move on swiftly?

It's true that a freedom from commercial constraint allows you to be candid, so you can tell the whole truth when something seems utterly dire – and as a corollary you can rave about the excellence of something in a genuine way. It's not so different to the floor coverings and furniture companies which cultivate interior designers by taking them on expenses-paid trips to a design fair or factory on the Continent, including a stay in a nice hotel and slap-up dinner into the bargain.  Building good relationships … or bribes and inducements?  Not everyone in the design industry is bound by the ARB Code; perhaps that should change.

 

Meanwhile, still trying to make living from your blog?  You'd better become a one-person brand.  With that comes the pressure to sell your spin-off book, cultivate your fan-base, plug your literary cronies, troll for viral hits, and drum up support for your walking tour. Others use Patreon, where followers or “patrons” pay directly for access to your latest blog posts and newsletters.  But you'd better have a regular stream of "content" to post daily, and that's quite a commitment. 

So this is Web 2.0.  Where it sometimes seems that authorial voice matters less than global megacorp making money. It’s just a new aspect of the age-old battle between Art and Commerce, but what’s next?  I suspect it’s going to be Web 3.0, or even what Bruce Sterling has referred to as Post-Internet, but how that will affect writing about architecture and design is anyone’s guess.

By • Galleries: technology

Sometimes publication of a book traps an entire world in amber.  In this case, The Information Book isn't Martin Amis's novel of a similar name, but a glimpse into Scottish architectural practice during the 1930's.

John Burnet trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts during 1870’s.  Afterwards, he joined his father's practice Burnet Son & Campbell, and later established his own in Glasgow with a second office in London set up in 1905, after Burnet won a commission to design the Edward VII galleries at the British Museum.


One of Burnet's key assistants on the project later became a partner: Thomas Tait studied at Glasgow School of Art under the Beaux Arts teacher Eugene Bourdon (after whom the ugly brown brick building on Garnethill is named).  By 1910, Tait was a leading member of Burnet's staff, and played an important part in the design of the Kodak Building in London, considered to be among the first examples of modern architecture in the UK.  

Tait worked for a time in New York and was a highly skilled perspectivist, but is best remembered nowadays for Tait's Tower at Bellahouston Park, part of the 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition. Other notable works include St. Andrews House on Calton Hill in Edinburgh and Hawkhead Hospital in Paisley, along with many projects in London. 

The third leg of the partnership was Francis Lorne, who was by all accounts a skilled manager and also became the spokesman for the practice, arguing that Modern architecture required “a change of heart … only by getting back to architecture as a practical building problem for our own country, our own people, our own climate and conditions of life, can we produce an architecture that will mean something.”


The firm became Burnet, Tait & Lorne in 1930, and the expat Scots working from Glasgow and London grew into the leading British architectural practice during the 1930's, in a way that wasn't repeated until RMJM's glory days of the 1960's.  Big cities are full of opportunity if you're in a position to seize it, which Burnet, Tait & Lorne were able to do during the inter-war period.

It was Francis Lorne who wrote the book “Architectural Office Administration” in 1921, then a decade later pulled together The Information Book of Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne, which should be better known as it's the prototype for the New Metric Handbook, The Architect's Pocket Book and pretty much every other guide to design practice which followed.

Today The Information Book is the best work of reference for 1930’s and 40’s era buildings in Scotland, and the rest of the UK. It’s coloured by the dual influence of North American practice in steel-framed medium-rise office blocks which was particularly influential in Glasgow, plus the Art Deco and Moderne buildings erected in London between the wars which prefigured full-blown Modernism.


Its genesis is described in Christian Barman in the book’s Foreword (for greatest effect, read out loud in your best imitation of Miles Cholmondley-Warner):

“The need for a great compendium of information first impressed itself on me some five or six years ago, when I had not long taken over the Editorship of Architects’ Journal.  The more the task was studied, however, the more difficult it seemed. … The thing was just about as much as a commercially produced periodical, however well intentioned, could ever dare to consider.
 
“Then, one day, good luck brought a sudden and, I feel, a most happy solution.  Chancing to be at the house where my friends Thomas Tait and Francis Lorne maintain their finely staffed office in partnership with Sir John Burnet, RA, I saw a draughtsman coolly turning the pages of the book of my dreams. … It did not need a close scrutiny of the Information Book to convince me that it was a very superior specimen of the kind of thing I had myself been trying to bring about.”
 
First published in 1933 by the Architectural Press, in the days when that was run by the splendidly-named Hubert de Cronin Hastings, The Information Book begins with a couple of chapters on the Secretarial Department and Draughting Department.  These describe what we’d now call practice management, and are followed by a series of 147 Information Sheets which cover everything from construction details, brick and board sizes, terminology and electrical symbols to extracts from the Building Regulations. 


 
It may have begun as an in-house guide to Burnet Tait & Lorne’s office standards and procedures, but The Information Book became universally useful, and Lorne wasn’t the only one to think that a book like this could be handy.  In 1932, “Architectural Graphic Standards” appeared in the US, and twelve editions later it’s still in print and has developed into a doorstop-sized handbook of typologies, ergonomics and design data.  Similarly, Architects' Data, universally known as “Neufert”, was first published in Germany in 1936, and after many German editions it was translated into English in 1970 and published by Lockwoods.
 
The simultaneous emergence of these three books demonstrates that the 1930’s was an inflection point, where the Modern Movement and its modern methods of construction became properly mainstream.  Structural steel and concrete frames were being widely adopted, so our day-to-day knowledge had to extend beyond traditional building techniques.  As Barman says in his introduction to The Information Book, “It only seems the other day that the main facts about building science could still be got between the covers of a book of average size”.  No longer. 
 
Neither Neufert nor the later New Metric Handbook tries to cover as much ground, from practice management to design data, as The Information Book ­- but during the intervening forty years so much extra information has come into the world that an architectural “book of everything” would be a massive tome.  As it is, Neufert weighs 2kg.


 
Reference works such as The Information Book and its cousins were essential in the pre-internet world.  I entered practice at the changeover, when CD-ROM’s and early webpages had begun to supplant technical books.  But we still hung on to brochures and supplements which included priceless information, like the Corus steel sections booklet or Pilkington’s glass guide.  They provided a safety blanket of reassurance, even if you rarely needed to consult them.
 
Today, Burnet Tait & Lorne’s Information Book is a reminder of two things: firstly that the state of the art eventually becomes a quaint curiosity lurking in an antiquarian’s back room; yet the book also retains some usefulness. It’s one of the few places where you can see how buildings from the 1930’s and 40’s – of which there are hundreds of thousands still standing – were put together, and how we went about achieving that.

ps. Note to book dealers researching their catalogues - please credit me and link to Urban Realm if you find the information in this piece useful. :-)

By • Galleries: books, specification

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Habitat was no longer Conran by the time I went to Shandwick Place, but the lighting was still a design-led halfway house between Ikea and Artemide. The crockery was a bit rustic, perhaps reminding Terence of holidays in Provence and Tuscany but making the rest of us feel slightly diminished as we realised what we were missing out on. And of course the Anglepoise lamp plus the Brabantia swing-top bin, into which ideas in bad taste which never make it to the Urban Realm blog are crumpled into a ball and hurled – was bought from Habitat.

There it is again, the taste factor.

 

By • Galleries: memory palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: memory palace, technology

On photobooks and social media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By • Galleries: books, photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: covid-19, photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: covid-19