When I went for a walk over Ark Hill in the Sidlaws a few weeks ago, I realised that wind power is sometimes the stuff of hot air: tabloid headlines, emotive soundbites, kneejerk reactions. One way to set it into context is to explore the considerable back story of renewable energy in Scotland.

Ark Hill from Craigowl

It always takes something to spark a child’s imagination in a subject, and in my case it was the discovery that my grandfather’s cousin, Douglas Neilands, was secretary to the North of Scotland Hydro Board in its glory days, before it became SSE. The Hydro was created in 1943 by an act of Churchill’s wartime coalition government. It was driven by Tom Johnston, whose name is largely forgotten today, but his efforts to modernise Scotland stemmed from strong social convictions.

Johnston was a socialist, a great patriot, and acknowledged to be the greatest Scottish Secretary of the century. Like Winston Churchill, he represented Dundee in Parliament: one of a long line of history makers such as Ned Scrymgeour and Gordon Wilson who also took their seat here on the banks of the Tay. You may not realise it, but Churchill arranged his trysts at an unmarked house in Laurel Bank.

The aim of the Hydro Board was to provide electricity for all in the northern half of Scotland, and its creation anticipated a great reconstruction effort after the war, and began forward planning on the great hydro-electric power schemes at Loch Sloy, Loch Tummel and many others.

As a by-product, the Hydro Board commissioned some truly Scottish architecture, from the austere Edwardian neo-classical of Tarbolton, to the modern baronial of Shearer & Annand, and finally the Scots Modernism of RMJM. The hydro schemes they built are still generating power 60 years on – and more importantly, supporting jobs, providing renewable energy, and preventing floods downstream of their dams.

As with wind farms today, there was political opposition from several sides: the gentry were opposed to Hydro schemes as they impinged on grouse moors, and the far right were ideologically opposed to the socialist notion of public utilities. Ironically, opposition also came from the earliest throes of the environmental movement. Yet hydro power used existing watercourses to feed reservoirs which were often no more than existing lochs whose levels were raised.

It begs the question, is there an “ideal” source of power? Nuclear is hugely expensive and potentially dangerous when things go wrong; however, it doesn’t create CO2. Coal is polluting and carbon-intensive – unless elaborate flue gas scrubbing and carbon capture equipment is fitted. Oil is equally bad, perhaps worse, and the raw material is more expensive than coal. Natural gas is cleaner, and more plentiful for the moment, but isn’t renewable and will eventually run out.

Of the renewables, wind marks the landscape with turbines and isn’t reliable enough to use as base-load. Solar photovoltaics are hugely expensive, and perhaps better suited to countries closer to the equator where the sun is stronger. Wave power was pioneered in Scotland, but remains in the early stages of commercialisation and certainly isn’t invisible. Biomass energy is renewable, and waste incinerators seem like a good way to get rid of rubbish while generating “free” heat and power, yet worries remain over the pollution they can create and of course they still generate CO2.

The cleanest and most renewable power source of all is nuclear fusion: but the physics required to make it work lie beyond our reach, and a fusion-powered generating station would cost tens of billions of pounds to construct. Choose your power source carefully, and bear in mind that government subsidies are fugitive things, and politicians develop great enthusiasms which are quickly dropped. The people who draw up those policies are lonely re-arrangers of things and anxious malcontents.

One of the Michelin turbines in Dundee

A few years ago, an interesting short TV series called The Trap ran on BBC2. The Trap discussed the theories of Freidrich von Hayek, principally that folk act out of self-interest, and that to create social order, you have to rely on their competing selfish impulses being balanced out. That idea was applied during the Cold War (by the Rand Corporation), to create the nuclear "Balance of Terror" through mutually-assured destruction.

The Trap's thesis is that the same principle was then applied to the NHS by the Thatcher government in the 1980's. Thus we have the "internal market", which spawned PFI hospitals ... and where from there? Perhaps Global Warming will be the next application of von Hayek's theory. It's certainly true that in the pursuit of freedom (freedom of choice in where to live, and freedom to drive and fly where we will) we're being constrained or trapped both by Climate Change, and the measures to tackle Climate Change.

Over a decade ago, the Government announced it would force us to cut carbon consumption by 60%, reducing carbon emissions to the same level as in the 1870's and Government policies in the past twenty years such as the fuel duty escalator, carbon taxes, road pricing and carbon-neutral buildings have largely positive benefits.

Most measures to combat Climate Change aren't retrogressive: using public transport, finding alternatives to coal and oil, reducing pollution of various sorts, making buildings and vehicles more energy efficient are worthwhile in themselves – but conspiracy theorists will separately argue that the West is using Climate Change as a means to check the economic power of China and India.

Von Hayek would make the point that someone else always benefits, even as our energy costs increase: for example, the Seven Sisters (oil majors) are using Climate Change as a means to corner government funding for research into alternatives to oil, when they're quite capable of developing alternatives themselves.

Another alternative was the Hydro Board’s own development programme, which ended in the 1970’s: Foyers was the last pumped-storage scheme, and Craigroyston on Loch Lomond was later shelved. However, NoSHEB also pioneered wind turbines, working with the Howden company and eventually building a prototype of today’s monster turbines, at Burgar Hill in Orkney.

While 3 or 4MW turbines are over 100 metres tall, many turbines in the countryside are only 20 or 30m, no more than the height of trees in the shelter belts planted around farm steadings. They’re not particularly powerful nor intrusive, and they follow a century-long tradition of harnessing the wind: “Climax” water pumps, which raised water from boreholes for irrigation, then in the 1930’s, Lucas “Freelite” windmill dynamos, which provided a 12 volt supply before farms had mains electricity.

So, to come back to the Sidlaw Hills, the turbines on Ark Hill aren’t the largest in Angus: they’re smaller than those built at Michelin in Dundee, and little more than half the height of those proposed in Glen Isla, fourteen 135m turbines at Cormaud and eighteen 135m turbines at Macritch Hill, both close to the Backwater Reservoir.

The Michelin wind turbines are actually a positive feature on the skyline telling you that industry is working here, just like chimneys or cranes used to be signifiers. In fact, if you stand on Craigowl you can see both the Michelin and Ark Hill, and it’s worth making that contrast. In the early days of economic forestry, Sitka plantations were set out with hard, geometric edges but now, they follow the natural contours and lie of the land and sit much more happily.

Another of the Michelin turbines

Similarly, we need to site the turbines more intelligently, retaining a sense of wilderness and countryside. It’s a good idea to keep wind turbines away from houses, airfields, nature reserves and wild places. It also makes sense to build them close to where the power is needed, or out at sea in arrays where they can achieve a greater power density – so perhaps the turbines at Michelin are urban pioneers.

By • Galleries: technology

This is a brief post about an old flour mill in France which looks like a Flemish palace, and about a far older book … a book so old that it’s close to being classed as incunabula, which sadly puts it far beyond the reach of most folk who’re interested in old architectural books.

A few years ago, I stayed overnight in Lille and went out in the evening to have a poke around the neighbourhood.  I was aware of the husk of the Grand Moulins de Paris mill, in the Marquette-Lez-Lille commune (despite its name, it’s nowhere near Paris).

Photos of Les Moulins in 2012

It was late in the year and evening had fallen quickly, but the ruined buildings were still clearly visible behind a barricade of precast concrete panels.  It was far from pitch dark: the glow of Lille was a dull orange which extended almost to the zenith.  And the place seemed to breathe in the dark, the wild shrubs swayed and whipped in the breeze.

The building loomed up vast and louring in its wilderness.  There were no day trippers, no chattering troupes of hipsters with cameras.  Some might have a feeling of unease here, and the strangeness of it might frighten a casual passer-by.  And why not?  For this is one of the last remaining members of a dying race.

Several millers from Lille joined forces after the Great War, and this imposing 25,000 m² mill was the result.  Designed by the architect Vuagnaux in a neo-Flemish style and built between 1920 and 1923, it opened as Les Moulins Hardy-Lebégue and ground over 600 tons of wheat per day, against 1,000 tonnes in the Grands Moulins de Paris, a competitor which bought it over in 1928.

Like the Victorians, the Edwardians were addicted to architectural ambition, and they applied a style to a function in order to make industrial processes impressive.  Later, the Modern Movement drove the development of reinforced concrete industrial buildings, stripping away any concessions to grandeur.  Most of these old mills have been overtaken by progress, and only a few remain as a memory of what the industrial world once was.

Historic postcards

The collapse of the flour market in the early 1980s, with the arrival of a new tariff policy in the United States (sounds familiar?) had serious consequences for Les Grands Moulins de Paris.  Flour milling ceased in 1989 and the last 57 employees were laid off.  Then the building became a spectacular shell which looms above the Canal de la Deûle. 

The site was bought in 1995 by SCI Diane de la Provenchère, and sold on a couple of times but a huge fire gutted the main building in 2001 and it sat derelict and ignored for the next decade.  Meantime the mill, with a façade 140 metres long and a belfry tower 40 metres high, was listed in the Inventory of Historical Monuments in May 2001.  That didn’t really help; the scheme’s complexity and disputes with the site’s owner held up progress.

The building lies at the heart of a regeneration masterplan of 65 hectares called the "Rhodia Enlarged Site" which includes the Bouverne industrial zone, the Marquette Archaeological Park, the Rhodia site at Saint-André.  But the proximity of the former Rhodia chemical plant, and arguments about the costs of remediation (the mill’s basements were contaminated with pyralene which spilled from electrical transformers following a copper theft) complicated matters.

Marquette’s mayor Jean Delebarre promoted a new scheme in 2012, designed by Lille architect Hubert Maes. That included loft apartments, restaurants, a hotel and underground parking.  Disagreements about the bill for remediation, building permits and other planning issues carried on in the background.  Financière Vauban bought an option on the site in 2014, but the building permit was only applied for in November ‘17, after which they finally took possession and installed security guards.

Some CGI’s of Maes’ scheme

In all, between 400 and 500 apartments and houses are planned, with around 250 units in the historical part, 95 in a building next door plus some newbuild housing.  The concrete silos will be retained, and a triplex apartment with "a view to Belgium", will be created in the campanile.  On the ground floor at the foot of the silo will be a parade of shops, a nursery, offices… so it’s a mixed use scheme in the tradition of 21st century development across Europe.

Despite its ruinous appearance, the building’s frame is still in good condition, since it consists of massive reinforced concrete columns and beams which carried the heavy milling machinery.  All that concrete was hidden behind the decorative brickwork,  of course.  A sign on the fence said “Peril Imminent” and this is quoted for truth; if you went inside you’d discover enormous holes in the floors, and ten storey high stairwells without their balustrades.

So what prompted me to write about Les Grands Moulins, several years later?

I came across a four hundred year old book called “Des Fortifications et Artifices, Architecture et Perspective”, written by Jacques Perret de Chambery, who was engineer and architect to Henri IV.  The engraved title page depicts a classical portal crowned by an equestrian portrait of Henri; at the foot of the title page is a bird's eye view of the city of Paris and the legend: "Par le grand Roy Henri IIII. Le vingt deuxieme de Mars 1594."

Perret’s images from Des Fortifications et Artifices

Perret’s imaginary fortifications and city plans from over four centuries ago must make this the very first book of “visionary” architecture.  A French architectural historian wrote that Perret’s baroque tower block, a 12-storey tower complete with rooftop sculptures, urns and fountains, prefigures the modern urban skyscraper.  This folio also includes a series of models for cities and citadels with geometrical designs, mostly drawn from a bird’s eye perspective.

Comparing the engravings in Des Fortifications et Artifices with the derelict mill, I reckon Vuagnaux, the original architect of Les Moulins Hardy-Lebégue, must have admired the work of Jacques Perret.  Perhaps he even earned enough fees through designing flour mills to be able to afford to buy a copy of the book which was, in those days, merely three centuries old… hence much more affordable than it is today…

Happy New Year. :-)

Images of the proposed scheme courtesy Cabinet Maes - http://www.maes-architectes-urbanistes.fr/portfolio/grands-moulins/

By • Galleries: ghosts

Long before “Black Friday” became an internet shopping frenzy, Steely Dan released a song about its precursor – the original Black Friday.  On Friday 24th September 1869, a failed ploy to beat the banks left many wealthy investors broke.  They’d attempted to corner the market in gold, buying as much as they could in order to drive up the price - but when the US government found out, it released $4 million worth of gold into the market.  That drove the price back down, wiping out the investors.

Just over a century later, a pair of cynical sophisticates from upstate New York wrote “When Black Friday Comes”, which saw their protagonist fleeing the States to escape financial meltdown.  He is described later, feeding the kangaroos in Muswellbrook, a hamlet in the Australian outback.  It’s a curious tale accompanied by jazz guitars.
Sometime in the 1970’s, just after the song was released, Black Friday’s meaning turned around.  From then on, the Americans took it as the day close to Thanksgiving when stores were "in the black” thanks to a frenzy of Christmas gift buying.  This Black Friday’s importation into Britain is more recent, during the last ten years or so when Amazon imposed it on us.

I’m currently reading a book which explains the flaw in our nature which enabled the original Black Friday to come about.   “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, was written by Charles Mackay in the mid 1800’s.  Mackay was a Scots journalist and leader writer for the Glasgow Argus, and although his book says very little about investment best practice, it’s become a become a standard work of reference for investors and bankers.

Instead, it gives detailed explanations of how people delude themselves – especially where money or emotions are concerned.  As the publisher’s blurb on a modern edition puts it, “Learn why intelligent people do amazingly stupid things when caught up in speculation”.  Mackay predicted the regular occurrence of events like Black Friday, which he classed as popular delusions – his examples include Railway Mania of the 1840’s, Tulipmania in Holland, and the South Sea Bubble. 

Today’s equivalent is the boom in the value of Bitcoin, which is almost certainly headed for disaster.  Crypto-currencies aren’t investments; at best, they’re gambles and at worst, they’re Ponzi schemes.  As someone said, the value of an object is often dictated by impulses from our subconscious – including flaws of character, such as vanity, lust and greed.  Greed, in particular.

Mackay maintains that, “The subject of speculation is capable of inspiring as much interest as even a novelist can desire.  Is there no warmth in the despair of a plundered people? No life and animation in the picture which might be drawn of the woes of hundreds of impoverished and ruined families?  Of the wealthy of yesterday become the beggars of today?  Of the powerful and influential changed into exiles and outcasts, and the voice of self-reproach and imprecation resounding from every corner of the land?

There’s your warning, right there.  Anyhow, it’s the Madness of Crowds section of Mackay’s book which I’d like to pick up, because this year, on Black Friday, I attended a lecture given by a couple of architects from Page/Park, which reminded me that that we practice in an era with no stylistic rule book to follow.  In some respects, today is similar to the “Battle of the Styles” during Victorian times. 

Enric Miralles chose upturned boats in Northumberland to inspire the Scottish Parliament’s roofs; Kengo Kuma chose the sea cliffs at Arbroath to inspire the walls of Dundee’s V&A.  This Design by Analogy is a strange kind of popular delusion, started by the Venturis when they separated architecture into the Decorated Shed and the Duck.

The decorated shed is a plain building, which is ornamented using architectural themes.  The Duck was designed in a literal-minded way, like something from folk art: the Venturis’ example was a kiosk which sold shotgun cartridges to duck hunters.  The building was an unmistakeable advert for the business, because it was shaped like a giant duck…

Meantime, the Page\Park lecture was interesting and well delivered, but I left with the same feeling I had when I listened to David Page speaking ten years ago about his Maggie’s Centre in Inverness.  There, he chose the metastasising cell which causes cancer, as the generator of the plan.  At the time, I thought it was inexplicable and gauche to shape a building into the thing which is killing the people which the building cares for.  Yet this is Design by Analogy at work.

Of course, perhaps it’s part of a sophisticated intellectual game where the building is a gestalt which embodies both the disease and the cure, but even then the resulting form is a helix, which looks dynamic but must feel disorienting if you’re seriously ill.

A similar scenario repeated the other week, with the first scheme presented by Page\Park being a newly-completed building in Paisley, the Hawkhead Centre for the Scottish War Blinded.  It’s a well-considered building with generous spaces and quality materials, yet the young architect opened by describing the building sitting like, “an alien form, like a stealth bomber.” 

Surely the building’s users, who may have lost their sight when they were attacked from the air by bombers, wouldn’t appreciate that allusion?  There are other, less “loaded” things to use as generators of form – for example with hawk’s wing which someone literal-minded drew from the place-name, Hawkhead.

Happily, the second scheme presented by Page\Park on Black Friday was the rejuvenation of St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, whose forms and decoration were inspired by musical instruments displayed in the building.  So the outcome of the lecture was positive, but I left with a deep reserve about Page\Park’s blindness to the symbolic value of architecture, and whether the worth of Design by Analogy is actually just a delusion.

Happy Christmas, when it arrives … and it’s not too late to grab a copy of “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” as a present for an architect you know …

By • Galleries: canon

In medieval times, people felt helpless in the face of life’s harshness.  They cowered under a huge sky which was home to spirits and gods, so they needed something to believe in.  They sought solace in the ideals of chivalry – even though they knew deep down that the world was a cynical, nasty place, pace Hobbes’ Leviathan.

During the Renaissance, we began to dream of places beyond the horizon.  Using telescopes, we looked into the heavens and wondered what life would be like on other worlds.  Gradually we began to discern the stars and planets, then two centuries after the Industrial Revolution began, we developed many of the technologies we use today.

We can transmit signals around the world and bounce them back from the moon.  We build radio telescopes to plot nebulae hundreds of millions of light years away.  We design electronic computers which operate at phenomenal speeds, solving in milli-seconds problems which would occupy the lifetimes of thousands of human brains.  The twentieth century might have changed everything.

The year 1900 was predicted to be a turning point for humanity: Jules Verne, HG Wells and many others looked forward to the infinite promise of the 20th century.  However, its first four decades brought war and suffering.  Today 1900 is not only ancient history, but it’s also a prosaic lie which computer systems tell about our age.  117 years ago is 1900, which is the "big bang" for many computers.

In the year 2000, we got worked up about the Millennium Bug and its effect on Windows PC’s, but in the Unix epoch, Time 0 = Jan 1st, 1900, so if someone online appears to be 117 years old, that may just be the default value for "no age entered".  Neither 1900 nor 2000 turned out to be a turning point; in fact they were nothing more than big, round numbers.

Yet perhaps we still believe – like Hari Seldon, the hero of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Series” – that given enough information and computing power, we’ll eventually be able to predict the fall of every sparrow.  After all, our industrial future seems to lie in frontier science, bio-photonics, remote sensing, spectroscopy, genetic engineering and so forth.  At the same time, we’ve abandoned most of the old industries – like coal mining, iron making and ship-building.  Somewhere along the line, something crucial was mislaid.

At Cornell University they have a piece of scientific kit known as the Tunnelling Electron Microscope.  This microscope is so powerful that by firing electrons you can actually see images of individual atoms.  We can observe the structure of an elemental particle so infinitesimal that billions are contained in one grain of sand.  Yet if I used that microscope right now, I still wouldn't be able to put my finger on exactly what was lost.

This is where Franco Berardi's idea of the cancellation of the future comes in.  It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, nor does it mean an end to trivial developments in science and technology.  What it means is that the promise of an unchecked future, the promise of a better life for all which was so much a part of popular thinking and culture until the 1970’s, has been unofficially abandoned.

Conversely and paradoxically, hope flourished during wartime, when things were at their darkest.  Folk had a determination to continue with their lives, keeping up standards and sticking to their little routines in the face of adversity.  Maybe it’s more difficult to promote hopefulness after 70 years of peace and relatively easy living in the West. 

I’ve always been interested in the side effects of war, at least since I read Martin Pawleys’ many articles about the technology that wartime research spawned, but one thing Pawley didn’t touch on was a barrel of chemicals left outside in the baking sunshine of a small French town.

Most of the grand French perfume houses are in Paris, but the firms which supply their ingredients are located around Grasse, a small town in Provence surrounded by fields of lavender.  The barrel in question was simply known as Fut Cinque or "Barrel 5”, and it contained what’s known as a reaction accord, a base chemical called Prunol which had reacted as it sat broiling in the sunshine in a corner of the DeLaire company’s yard.

DeLaire supplied base chemicals to many perfumers, including Edmond Roudnitska, who was running short of raw materials while France was occupied in the early 1940’s.  “Let me tell you, I created Femme de Rochas in 1943 in Paris during the worst days of the war in a building that had a rubbish dump on one side and paint factory on the other,” he remarked. 

According to the wisdom of the internet, Femme smells of ripe summer plums, thanks to a combination of castoreum, oakmoss, cuminic aldehyde, heliotropin, musk, lactonic aldehydes and methyl ionone.  In particular, its dark, indolic scent comes from methyl ionones, which smell like woody violets – but the secret ingredient was the Prunol Extra, an accidental discovery in a rusty barrel.

Why choose perfume as a symbol for wartime?  If you sell everyday commodity products such as baked beans, toilet roll and mousetraps you end up making a very low margin, because folk buy them grudgingly, and just want them swiftly and as cheaply as possible.

On the other hand, if you deal in luxury goods, you’re selling an idea to folk who have disposable income to spend on something which gives them pleasure.   You sell an abstraction – such as a way of life, or a sense of adventure – rather than merely a physical object.  People see it as a mark of culture and sophistication, of maintaining standards – and that counts for a lot during wartime.

However, that all changed after VE Day.  The post-War notion of luxury is summed up in a passage from Bill Bryson's, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid:
"By the closing years of the 1950s most people – certainly most middle-class people – had pretty much everything they had ever dreamed of, so increasingly there was nothing much to do with their wealth but buy more and bigger versions of things they didn't truly require: second cars, lawn tractors, double-width fridges, hi-fis with bigger speakers and more knobs to twiddle, extra phones and televisions, room intercoms, gas grills, kitchen gadgets, snowblowers, you name it.”

This is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in practice: once you satisfy the basic necessities of life, in other words survival, then the rest is “living”.  To people in Occupied France during the early ‘40’s, wearing perfume helped them to retain something of their humanity which the soldiers could never take away.  It carried with it the promise of an unchecked future, the promise of a better life after the armistice, which was in turn reflected in everything from food, fashion and literature, to post-War architecture.

All of those hopes were enshrined in Modernism – our belief in relentless progress.  But the Modernist project is incomplete.  It was a false dawn and according to Franco Berardi, the future was cancelled sometime in the 1970’s.  The social democratic, left-of-centre governments which revolutionised our healthcare, education and housing in the first three decades after the War are history, and the White Heat of Technology which promised high tech jobs has cooled down.

Now we’re in the 21st century.  After we partied like it was 1999, thanks to Prince (RIP), the year 2000 turned out to be a damp squib.  The Millennium Bug was a non-event – partly because the computers which really matter either ran Unix and were “born” in 1900 or Apple’s System 7, which was born in 1984, Steve Jobs’s Orwellian joke.  The computers kept churning on, quickly bringing us a world wide web which is mostly geared to providing information as a commodity.

As for the future which Berardi considered, who knows what it will bring?  When Modernism lapsed, architecture parted company with 21st century frontier science, bio-photonics, spectroscopy, genetic engineering and remote sensing … because many of these functions are housed in plain steel-clad sheds which say nothing about what goes on within.

No one builds High Tech architecture anymore; who has built a modern version of Richard Rogers’ INMOS microchip building?  It certainly isn’t Norman Foster, whose Death Star doughnut will become Apple’s new HQ, nor the people who designed the Googleplex with its labyrinth of multi-coloured cooling water pipes – photos of which are doing the rounds on the internet.

Perhaps we need to look into the sky again, to see where our futures lie. 

If you look up tonight, the summer night sky has little of interest compared to the winter night sky, but you may see the constellation of Lyra.  The brightest star in Lyra is Vega, which is the second brightest in the Northern Hemisphere.  Right now, people lost in deserts use Polaris (the North Star) to locate north.  But in a few thousand years’ time the North Star will no longer point northwards, due to the earth’s axial precession.  Around the year 13700 AD, Vega will become the new North Star.

Remember that, just in case you become immortal and get lost in space sometime in the distant future.

By • Galleries: technology

I was down in London a few days ago, wandering around and taking photos during the heatwave.  I arrived at Stansted the day after the tower block at Grenfell Tower caught fire, picking up snippets of news as its awful consequences began to unfold.

I stayed near Hogarth’s House in Chiswick, an antiquarian remnant which sits hard against the A4 dual carriageway.  William Hogarth died 250 years ago: just along from his former house is a huge roundabout named in his honour.  The house is cloistered within a little walled garden; the traffic roars past it day and night.  These are the contrasts you find in every city, but in London they’re magnified.  An 18th century Hawksmoor church sits in the shadow of a 60-storey glass cheesegrater; a Tudor cottage lies under the flightpath for Heathrow.  Social housing in London also throws up marked contrasts.

One day, I visited the post-war schemes at Lillington Gardens, Alexandra Road and the Barbican, each of which dates from the same era as Grenfell Tower.  The Barbican is always impressively well-maintained, while Lillington Gardens is covered in scaffolding at the moment while refurbishment takes place.  Lillington Gardens and Alexandra Road are medium rise, and they pack in a reasonably high density while still feeling generous.  The Barbican consists of every housing typology you could imagine, including three tower blocks.  Architecturally, it’s still the most impressive housing scheme in Britain.

The fire at Grenfell Tower is the flip-side of that.  It seems like an echo of Ronan Point, another London tower block which suffered a catastrophic accident almost 50 years ago.  At Ronan Point, a gas cooker blew up in someone’s kitchen, and the explosion broke out, causing the large precast panels which made up the tower’s structure to cascade like dominoes.  A few years ago, in a different magazine, I wrote about George Fairweather, the Dundee-born architect who predicted in the late 1960’s that something would go disastrously wrong with a system-built tower block.

Fairweather was chosen in 1962 to chair the committee which would draw up a new Fire Code to govern the safety of tower blocks, which had stretched up beyond the reach of the Fire Brigade’s turntable ladders.  Six years after Fairweather wrote the code, a student working for him went to see a block of system-built flats in Greenwich.  As he discussed the construction with her, it became apparent that when the concrete panels didn’t fit, a labourer attacked them with a sledgehammer until they did.

“Mark my words,” said George, “one day one of these bloody things will fall down just like the Tay Bridge.” His words turned out to be prophetic.  Ronan Point, and dozens of other blocks built using the Anglian system, didn’t comply with the Fire Code which Fairweather had drafted.  It seems likely that the fire regulations for high rise buildings will have to be re-thought again, after Grenfell Tower.

The Building Regulations in England differ in detail from the Technical Standards in Scotland, but the principles are similar.  Both sets of fire regulations cover means of escape, building separation, internal compartmentation and also the structure and cladding of buildings.  While the Building Research Establishment is “working around the clock” testing samples of cladding taken from tower blocks across the country, Eddie Mair on Radio 4 struggled to translate what they’re testing - surface spread of flame, core flammability, and so forth - into lay peoples’ terms.

The comprehensibility of cladding fire resistance is a bit like the difficulty the popular press has had with the Edinburgh Schools investigation.  The wall ties which link an outer leaf of blockwork to the structure behind it are just bendy bits of metal.  The job they do is self-explanatory – they tie the wall together – but if you walked onto a building site, they would be the last thing you would spot, bundled on the scaffolding or poking out of the coursing.  A cartoon drawing of a wall, and a reporter holding a piece of metal would simply and quickly explain what’s allegedly missing from dozens of buildings.

Similarly, everyone knows about fire, we have a prehistoric attachment to it … but without an architectural background, it’s not easy to conceive how fire spreads nor how you make buildings fireproof.  Many tower blocks were built using precast concrete systems, similar to Ronan Point.  In Scotland quite a few were built using reinforced concrete frames and masonry cladding, both of which are inherently fire-resistant.  Others, like the Red Road flats in Glasgow, were steel-framed and clad in various types of panel.  Some panels are fireproof, others are sheathed in rockwool insulation or layers of mineral board.  All of the different types were designed to meet the contemporary Building Regulations.

Intuitively, Radio 4 listeners may think that brick and concrete will protect you from fire better than thin composite panels could – yet a few years ago I visited a gas research station with a stair tower clad in 9.5mm thick Cape “Durasteel” panels – which provided 4 hour fire resistance.  Thickness is no guarantee of fire-proof-ness.  Similarly, when is 30 minute fire resistance not 30 minute fire resistance?  If you read the small print of a fire test certificate, you’ll notice the caution that a half-hour fire door may not last for 30 minutes in a particularly large, hot fire – although it may last long enough to protect someone escaping from a flat.

At first, the fierceness of the flames at Grenfell Tower and the speed with which they spread suggested that a rising gas main had caught fire.  Hydrocarbon fires have far more energy than cellulosic fires, and the burning rates of gas, petrol or chemicals are much higher than wood, paper and textiles.  Looking at the European standards for fire testing, the fire curve of a cellulosic fire reaches 500°C within five minutes and rises to 945°C over time.  A hydrocarbon fire is fuelled by oil or gas and reaches a flame temperature to 1000°C almost instantaneously after ignition.  The difference between an instant and five minutes may be the time it takes to escape from the building.

It quickly became clear that something at Grenfell Tower was releasing huge amounts of energy, which in turn caused the fire to spread rapidly across the building, but at first no-one guessed that the cladding was feeding the fire.  After all, the Building Regulations stipulate the flammability of building materials; section 2.6.4 of the Technical Standards is the appropriate place to look if you want to see what’s acceptable in Scotland.  Yet even a major fire in the building fabric is survivable, if you can get people out of the building quickly enough, and ensure they don’t breathe in any toxic smoke.

Just how far the regulations have progressed since tower blocks were built in the 1960’s and 1970’s is underlined by the difference between Grenfell Tower and high rise buildings constructed in the past few years.  London’s older residential towers appear to have only a single means of escape – one central stairwell – and apparently many of the internal doors aren’t fire-rated, either.  New tower blocks usually have two or more means of escape, the front doors of the flats are 60 minute fire-rated to form a smoke lobby between the flat and the escape stair, smoke ventilation is provided in the fire escape route, and the flats themselves are fitted with sprinklers and smoke detectors.

Most of these provisions kick in when a building exceeds a certain height: the cut-offs for enhanced fire measures are 7.5 and 18 metres.  The topmost storey of low rise buildings is less than 7.5m above ground level, medium rise buildings are between 7.5 and 18m, and high rise are 18m or more.  Those heights are based on the maximum height a fire tender’s ladders could reach (7.5m), and the maximum reach of an old-fashioned turntable-ladder appliance (18m).  These are thirty or forty years out of date: the fire service now has hydraulic platforms which can go up twice that height.

Usually, modern high rise buildings also have a fire-fighting lift.  When the alarm goes off, the passenger lifts are programmed to return to the ground floor and park with their doors open, so that residents don’t try to use them to escape.  However, one lift within the bank is a specially reinforced, fireproof lift which the fire brigade can use to head upwards and fight the fire.  Coupled with a dry riser or wet riser which they can plug hoses into, it means they don’t have to pull a charged hose up fifteen flights of stairs.

Although the inquiry into the fire hasn’t even begun, we know the implications of Grenfell Tower will be far-reaching.

Yesterday, the company which makes the “Reynobond PE” panels used to clad the block decided to stop selling them for high-rise applications.  A spokesman for Arconic (which was formerly Alcoa, the Aluminum Company of America) said, “We believe this is the right decision because of the inconsistency of building codes across the world and issues that have arisen in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy regarding code compliance of cladding systems in the context of buildings’ overall designs.”

Arconic’s factory in Merxheim, France, manufactures several types of Reynobond for the European market: Reynobond PE consists of polyethylene sandwiched between two aluminium skins, but other variants include a fire-resistant version known as Reynobond FR.  In the aftermath of Grenfell Tower, it’s likely that all sandwich panels will be scrutinised closely.  In particular, the use of low-flammability cores, as opposed to cores which are completely inert or fire-resistant, will be questioned.  Local authorities have already begun evacuating some tower blocks, and stripping the cladding from others.

The apparent lack of smoke lobbies between the escape stair and the front doors of flats may be another factor which inhibited people trying to escape from the fire, as smoke rose up through the only means of escape.  It may be that tens of thousands of internal doors need to be upgraded, and smoke ventilation installed.  Similarly, old tower blocks lack the automatic fire suppression systems (sprinkers) which new high rise residential buildings are fitted with as standard, and critically, many older buildings don’t have automatic fire detection systems which sound an alarm throughout the building if a fire is detected in one part of it.

One final point is that the Fire Officer can carry out an inspection then demand that fire precautions are improved, but one of the tenets of the Building Regulations is that they can’t be applied retrospectively to existing buildings.  Maybe that will change, in the aftermath of Grenfell Tower.

By • Galleries: technology

Somewhere in our past, a lone kilted figure looks out over a herd of Highland cattle, knee deep in heather and thistles. Through the mist, the pipes skirl, a towerhouse glowers and a burn tumbles, brown with peaty water running off the moors. This is the heritage which Walter Scott invented for us in the 1820’s, and which the Victorians assiduously set to work, marketing their engineering might by pretending that its forges and steel mills were in Brigadoon, not Bridgeton. Which, I guess, is why the spring clips we use to clamp paper to a board are stamped “WAVERLEY”.

The bulldog clip is a seemingly simple gadget of tempered spring steel. It comes in many varieties, yet all consist of a barrel spring with two lever-shaped handles. Every home has several, tucked away in the back of a drawer. I first relied on it when I was a schoolboy: several clips clamped a large sheet of Fabriano paper to a board, and that allowed me to go outside to sketch. Through its life, the bulldog clip evolved, and its highest evolution is the Waverley Clip.

The bulldog clip was reputedly invented at the end of the 19th Century in Birmingham, where metallurgists developed spring steel, and where the British stationery industry grew up, centred on dip pen nib manufacturing. The technology quickly spread. MacNiven & Cameron was a firm of printers and stationers, originally founded as Nisbet MacNiven, a paper maker in 1770 at Balerno. They developed as a stationery wholesaler after moving into Edinburgh in 1788, and for many years they had a printing works at 23 Blair Street in the heart of the Old Town. The brothers John and Donald Cameron became involved in 1840, and the firm’s name changed to MacNiven & Cameron in 1845.

Duncan Cameron, another brother, invented the Waverley nib: its narrow waist, with an upturned point rather than a convex point, took the extreme point of the pen off the paper and made writing smoother. It was first manufactured for the company by Gillott in 1864, and later by others. In 1881, the company diversified and the Oban Times newspaper was acquired then run for a time by Duncan, then his son Waverley Cameron – the boy being named after the pen, rather than vice versa!

As their business grew, MacNiven & Cameron expanded their “Waverley” brand to include the Waverley Clip. Premier Grip, which has been in production for a century, claims to be “the original bulldog clip”, but Myers make their Foldback clip, Rexel their Boston clip, and Perry their Victoria clip… all of which are variations on the same theme, yet the Waverley clip is perhaps the highest evolution. It bears no ornamentation, nor decorative tooling, just a simple fluting of the handles for strength. Its name, in chunky moderne lettering, is pressed into the steel lips of the clip. It’s appealing simply because it’s the ultimate in unregarded objects.

The clip’s trade name and trade dress recalls the powerful reach of Walter Scott, author of the famous “Waverley novels”, the first of which was published in 1814; his portrait was combined with the McNiven & Cameron’s slogan on product packaging: “They come as a Boon and a Blessing to men: The Pickwick, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen”. Scott is shown complete with bangs of flowing hair and a high collar, but he didn’t endorse the nib or the clip, because he died long before they went into production.

Brands like Waverley are strong simply because we know that their reputation grew from quality and longevity, and they emerged before the onset of corporatism and the relentless cost-cutting which is really the destruction of value. If the clip was launched today, it would be injection moulded from plastic in a sweatshop, then packaged to sell on price rather than quality.

Eventually MacNiven & Cameron bought a factory at Watery Lane, Bordesley, Birmingham and manufactured clips, nibs and other things for themselves, from 1900 to 1964.  By the 1960’s, the stock-in-trade of their factory was the barrel spring-type paper clip, although some nib manufacturing continued to the end, mainly for the Indian market. After that, the company moved to the Waverley Works in Edinburgh: thus, earlier Waverley Clips are stamped “Made in England”, and later ones “Made in Scotland”.

More recently the remnants of the company relocated again, still making stationery under the Waverley Cameron name, to Dunkeld Road in Blairgowrie. That too became the Waverley Works, which is where the Waverley clip ended its days.

MacNiven & Cameron’s progress follows a familiar trend: a slow decline from Victorian times, firstly they closed an old factory in the Black Country, then their offices in the heart of Edinburgh were shut because the buildings were worth more than the business they contained. Finally they moved to a modern industrial unit in a small provincial town, always moving further north, to lower overheads and the margins of the industrial belt. The business shrank, Walter Scott fell spectacularly out of fashion, but the Waverley Clips are still going strong.

Image from Maynard's Wine Gums advert – copyright Aardman Animation, used with permission.

By • Galleries: independence

Beyond Ben Alder, deep inside the lonely grey mountains which lie to the west of Loch Ericht, there is a singular place.   Persistent rumours tell of a cavern higher than the greatest Gothic cathedral, with a nave double the span and several times as long.  Just like Clunie's Cage on the slopes of Alder, it's well hidden and rarely talked of.  Existence is conferred by more than simply an appearance in magazines or books, but in the case of the Monadhliath 2 powerhouse, it is an absence.  It doesn’t “exist”.  Not officially, at least.  Instead, it seems to have become something mythical, a cavern into which Lewis Carroll might have peered.

It was built during the era of Cold War paranoia, the 1980's, as a power station which would be called upon after Zero Hour, after much of the country’s generating capacity had been destroyed by an exchange of nuclear missiles.  Whereas many power stations are built on the surface, and offer easy targets, hydro generation can be hidden.  In this case, the intakes lie deep underwater in a remote hill loch: the giant penstocks and the powerhouse are carved out of the heart of the Grey Mountains.  

Monadhliath exists rather like the Norse myth about the great wolf Fenrir, who the gods believed would bring about the world's destruction.  They caught the wolf and locked him in a cage, but he broke free of every iron chain they shackled him with.  Eventually, they trapped him, and he was chained to a rock a mile underground where he awaits the end of the world.  When the End arrives, he will break free from this prison, too, and devour the sun.

The Monadhliath hydro scheme was first proposed in the 1960’s, when the Mackenzie Committee reported on future prospects for hydropower in Scotland. The odds of Monadhliath being constructed grew longer as time went on.  After the Cruachan scheme’s completion in 1965,  the North of Scotland Hydro Board’s great Development Plan appeared to grind to a halt.  Opposition to future hydro-power came from landowners who resented the people of Scotland benefitting from our own mountains.  Yet work at Monadhliath carried on, and a myth slowly grew around it.

The powerhouse is a mighty place, on a scale unparalleled by anything else in Scotland.  Yet it was the first man-made thing on these mountains: before the dam, the top reservoir was just a lochan of shallow, peaty water, overshadowed by mountains.  Few humans had been here.  The area around it is a jumbled mass of rocks, studded with moss and lichen, crossed by foaming burns. 

The powerhouse was hewn from solid grey gneiss, lined with concrete and enamelled steel panels, a mystery hidden at the head of a remote stalker's track.  Larger than its predecessor at Ben Cruachan, larger than Dinorwic in Wales, larger than any of the Snowy Mountains power stations in Australia, Monadhliath is a modern wonder.  Ben Cruachan was a pumped storage scheme which utilises cheap night-time power to drive water back into the head reservoir after it has flowed through the turbines at peak time, as opposed to a conventional one which uses the water only once.  Monadhliath develops that principle further.

Monadhliath, according to the Mackenzie Report of 1961, was to be a scheme of two stages, the first of which would total 150MW output but in the event, it's supposed that the output is much higher, since this station would be used over a short timespan, perhaps just a few hours, as a last resort.   At Monadhliath 2, six turbines of perhaps 500MW each run at far higher power, but a far lower load factor, than originally anticipated by the 1960's era Hydro Board.  

The size of Loch Ericht, almost 20 miles long, and the fact that other hydro schemes control both its inflow and outflow means that large fluctuations in level due to the secret power station can be absorbed, un-noticed.  It is likely that the controls are all thermionic valve-powered: rather than being a step backwards from microprocessors, these robust old-fashioned electronics would survive a nuclear explosion when our TV’s and cellphones had all fried in the flashover. 

But is there any evidence for what Monadhliath actually is?  Its existence is alluded to in Duncan Campbell’s "War Plan UK", which predicts the fate of atomic power stations, and coal-fired giants like Drax, during a war.  Peter Payne’s "The Hydro" summarises the Mackenzie Report’s findings, going into some detail with Monadhliath 1 and 2, even locating them on its endpaper maps.  

Yet the clinching proof is an image taken from an obscure Swiss journal on hydropower*, which confirms the scale of the turbine hall, and that the sets were manufactured for the Swiss-Swedish firm ABB, most likely by a Clydeside shipyard, the only fabricators capable of dealing with the scale of the turbines' high-tensile steel blades and casings.

Monadhliath is more than I've suggested, though.  Designed by the Property Services Agency, who were responsible for all government works during that era, there is a clandestine air about Monadhliath which doesn't only arise from its purpose.  After all, Ben Alder is one of the remotest tops this side of Knoydart – far out of the way, and bleaker than any other Munro – so who would care what went on there?

Perhaps Monadhliath is still held in strategic reserve.  Just don't ask Scottish & Southern Energy, or the Scottish Government, or Westminster, to confirm the rumours about this place.  They'll deny its existence, just as they have done for the last 30 or more years.

*Zeitschrift fur Hydro-technik, published by Kirschner Verlag in Berne.

By • Galleries: technology

There’s a special kind of nihilism at work in Barrhead, on the south side of Glasgow.  The vandals have returned time and again to smash up somewhere that’s already been utterly destroyed.

In the 1980’s, the town had a thriving Nestlé factory, a Volvo bus and truck import centre, and a large sanitaryware factory which belonged to Shanks of Barrhead.  Today the town is living through an industrial death – Nestlé, Volvo and Shanks have all gone.  In a world where the remediation of old industrial sites is often swift – to preclude ongoing business rates, and clear land for lucrative housing – Shanks’ former site became a black eye for the local council. 

25 years after its bosses down south shut the Shanks pottery and foundries, there’s finally a hint of renewal.  A few years ago, some buildings had been cleared, others had fallen to the bottom of the value chain, taken over by car repairers and second hand furniture men.  Still other parts had their plumbing (ironically) and wiring stripped out for copper, their roofs lost their lead, walls covered in graffiti, then burned out, random parts demolished, and the shells filled with rubbish.

Beyond the works lay mountains of broken pottery: smashed seconds, crocks, kiln furniture, firebricks, chipped enamel ware.  Everything had been bulldozed into hills ten metres high – a tessellation of crazed white vitreous china plus the arctic blue, blush pink and avocado glazes of 1970’s bathroom suites.  Below them lay an industrial blight, with piles of burnt-out tyres, broken pallets, and rubbish strewn across the nearby railway embankments.

Shanks of Barrhead was started by Paisley plumber, John Shanks, around 1851.  In 1865, he invented an under-waterline closet for use in ships, and in 1868 he opened a foundry in Barrhead to make brassware.  It was many years later before he developed the bath and lavatory fittings which made the firm famous.  Shanks supplied all the sanitaryware for the ocean liners RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth, as well as many humbler ships.

The firm was incorporated around 1875, and in 1904 the firm moved from the centre of Barrhead to a much larger site on Blackbyres Road alongside the railway, and began to manufacture their own sanitaryware.  Shanks’ Tubal Works and Victoria Pottery were built on the site during the first couple of decades of the 20th century, at their peak employing over a thousand people. 

After World War Two, Shanks recognised that the future lay in vitreous china, rather than the earthenware which many Scottish industrial potteries produced.  During the 1950’s and 1960’s Shanks took over its Scottish competitors such as Howies of Kilmarnock and Southhook Pottery, eventually becoming the largest and finally last of the Scottish sanitary ware firms.

Shanks of Barrhead remained independent until it merged with Armitage Ware in 1969.  The English firm was founded in 1817 by Thomas Bond in Armitage, Staffordshire – the new company became Armitage Shanks – and by the 1970's it was the only company left in Scotland manufacturing sanitary ware.  The new firm closed subsidiaries in Kilmarnock during the 1970’s, but the Tubal Works to the west and neighbouring Victorian Pottery to the east remained at the heart of Shanks.

In 1980 another takeover resulted in the company becoming part of the Blue Circle Industries: the company experienced difficulties during the 1980s, and in 1989 the decision was taken to close the Tubal Works, marking the end of brassware production at Barrhead.  Despite concerted protests, the announcement was made shortly afterwards that the Ceramic Works would close, too: the successor to the Victoria Pottery shut completely in April 1991, with 345 people losing their jobs.  After a period as a distribution centre, the site was abandoned.

A group of Shanks’ former workers came together to resurrect the business as a cooperative called Barrhead Sanitaryware, claiming it was the spiritual descendant of the famous Shanks of Barrhead.  They hoped to employ up to 100 people.  Barrhead was founded in August 1992 and took a factory on the Hillington industrial estate in Glasgow. 

In February 1995, it became part of the Baxi Heating group, and by the 2000’s, Barrhead was the only independently British owned vitreous china manufacturer, but it was sold to Utopia Bathroom Group and shut down a few years ago.  The factory’s pottery machinery was put up for sale in 2010.  That just left Carron Phoenix  – the grandchild of the great Carron Foundry – making sinks and so forth in Scotland, and their parent company recently announced that will soon shut down, too.

Meantime, when I visited Barrhead in 2012, the sad remains of Shanks’ pottery and foundry made up one of the most devastated landscapes I’ve seen: much already demolished, other buildings remaining but clearly not maintained since Shanks gave them up, and still others burned out by arsonists.

To the east lay those huge mountains of broken crockery.  From the 1930’s, you could choose from a wide spectrum of colours – lilac, pink, yellow, ivory, avocado green and baby blue – whereas today Armitage Shanks only offer white, Chablis (cream) and Honeymoon (ivory), “fired to a glass-hard finish and guaranteed permanent and fadeless”.  Smashed fragments of them all remained in giant mounds on the site, which was known as the Shanks Industrial Park. 

Rumour has it that site clearance began at the end of 2012, which seems sadly in synch with everything else that happened to the Scots fireclay industry that year, when the brickworks at Manuel, Etna, Mayfield and the museum at Birkhill were also demolished.  I’ve already written here about the death of the Scottish brickmaking industry…

Other places feel melancholy, because when a small corner of a bustling city falls derelict, the sadness is tinged with the knowledge that it will be regenerated.  Barrhead had a hard edge to it: yet the folk remain, the same folk who we first met in Edwin Muir’s “Scottish Journey”, and James Campbell’s “Invisible Country”. 

A teenage lad in a Tacchini tracksuit, picking over the wasteland as he walks with his collie cross.  A young woman who gives me an awkward smile as she hands on an open gate – wearing a fashion jacket and long black boots – “Pendulum” spilled out as an earphone bud fell from her ear.  Both probably wondered why I was bothering to take photos of this coup, a shooting of rubbish in an abandoned corner of Scotland.

They are the same folk who our various governments have failed for the last quarter century, deprived of the chance to hope for something better, because Shanks’ works was left to rot.  For years they were governed from a place that felt so far away that it may as well have been on Saturn.  So the recent PAN (Pre-Application Notice) lodged for a “major residential development” at Shanks Park is a step forward: with the site cleared, the optimists have something to hope for, and the nihilists are left with nothing.

Postscript: If you’re interested in the firm’s history, I recommend seeking out a copy of “Shanks: The First Hundred Years 1851-1951” by Gilbert M. Shanks

By • Galleries: ghosts

This online journal has reached its 101st post – or more accurately, its 151st.

I wrote for the print edition of Urban Realm’s predecessor, Prospect, for a few years then began contributing to The Lighthouse’s website ten years ago, in December 2006.  The last piece I uploaded there was dated August 2009, more or less when The Lighthouse was extinguished.  As it happens, that was the 50th article I’d written for them.

I picked up the online journal again, for Urban Realm, in February 2010 and it’s taken six years to reach 101 posts here.  Taking into account what I wrote for The Lighthouse, that’s 151 posts in more or less ten years.  Not that anyone’s counting…

Each piece takes a few hours to write, although those hours can be spread over several months.  The object has always been to share inspirations – buildings, places, images, writing, people, things – and speak critically but positively about them.  After all, there’s already plenty of banal architecture out there, along with crap music, unpalatable food and unflattering clothes – and they don’t need any more coverage than they already get.

Nonetheless someone occasionally takes umbrage, and they ask self-righteously what qualifies you to criticise – or even to form an opinion on the subject.  That happened when Urban Realm visited Nairn five years ago and an anonymous voice wondered why we had the temerity to voice an opinion on a town we didn’t live in.

As the German playwright Gotthold Lessing once said: “You do not have to be an egg-laying hen to know when an egg is foul!”  Except that in this case, we were nothing but positive about Nairn, although the town had been put forward for the Carbuncles by a disgruntled resident with an ulterior motive.  To extend Gotthold Lessing’s analogy, just because you haven’t designed a theatre, it doesn’t mean that you can’t form an opinion about theatres in general.

So much for the separation of criticism and authorship.

Being “critical” isn’t synonymous with being “negative”, but some believe that criticism consists solely of making negative judgments about things we don’t like.   Often they back up their argument with what passes for common knowledge, but starting a sentence with “everyone knows”, “many believe…” or even “some people think…” could be regarded as an ad populum argument – a cheap and lazy way to score points.

If you save the populist soundbites for “short form” journalism, then cultural journalism – the kind that architecture magazines usually print – tends to be “long form”, in order that it can explore the issues in detail.  That’s what this piece tries to do, too.

The real test of anything we build is not aesthetic, practical nor even economic – but what happens in an emergency.  In extremis, after a serious fire or explosion, the structure must hold together long enough to allow people to escape.  However, whether they get out safely is down to human nature as much as building design … vehicle design … or indeed aircraft design.

In order to “type certify” a new airliner, trial evacuations are carried out - the photo above shows a Boeing 747 "Jumbo Jet" as it was about to go into service in 1970.  The testing of the Airbus A380 – the "SuperJumbo" – was the most recent, during which an airframe parked inside a hangar at Hamburg was fully loaded with people.  In this case, 853 passengers plus cabin crew.  When the command to evacuate was given, the aircraft was emptied in an astonishingly fast 78 seconds.  For the purposes of the test, a regular Lufthansa crew was in charge; some smoke and loose objects had been introduced into the cabin; it was dark (although the emergency lights were working); and some exits had been blocked off.

The speed of the passengers’ egress wasn’t down to Teutonic efficiency alone, though – the guinea pigs were well briefed beforehand, and had time to consider the best way to escape.  Tellingly, they co-operated with each other because they knew they weren’t in mortal danger.  Most people treat all alarms as false alarms, until proven otherwise – just watch any building site once it’s near to completion.  Each time Kidde, Minerva or ADT set off the alarms, workmen come sidling out long after the sirens first began to sound.

Yet once people believe they really are in peril, the alarm instills panic into their behaviour.  Sounding the tocsin goes back to prehistory, when the great war horns sounded a warning.  In medieval times, the pealing of the cathedral’s bells warned the city: Fear Fire Foes.  That led to the banshee screaming of the air raid siren during modern wars, then the klaxons alerting RAF crews to scramble in the ‘60’s when the Three Minute Warning sounded.  Very early in our lives, a connection is made between alarms and danger: self-preservation is a deep instinct and ultimately it over-rides everything else. 

The difference between our responses to a practice run, and the real thing, are almost impossible to replicate.  That’s where evacuation tests on aircraft and the fire drills we all experienced at school fall down.  They can’t represent the terror of a real emergency because the mind isn’t adept at self-deception.  It operates in a unified way, so if the higher rationalising part knows this is just a drill, then the primitive, instinctual response will be subdued. 

Words are inadequate to describe what happens when you do have to flee a building.  Instinct kicks in and the brain suspends any functions which aren’t critical to escaping.  Adrenaline takes over.  The advice about walking calmly towards an exit means nothing when danger is close at hand.  You move as fast as you physically can, and afterwards you can’t recall any detail of that 30 seconds, which subjectively felt like a lifetime.  The routines hard-wired into us succeeded – we survived to tell the tale.  Yet sometimes things turn out differently.

After the 1985 accident at Manchester when a British Airtours Boeing 737 suffered an engine fire on take-off and 55 people died in the resulting crash, Cranfield University made a detailed study of aircraft evacuation.  Critically, it took five-and-a-half minutes for the last passenger to emerge from the burning 737 at Manchester Ringway; the aim of the research was to find out why.  The researchers used a retired Hawker Siddeley Trident and some cash-strapped volunteers.  Uniquely, most of the participants were students who were paid £10 to turn up with the promise of another fiver each time they succeeded in being among the first few to escape from the plane. 

The cash was handed over as soon as they reached terra firma, and the professor conducting the experiment judged that the mixture of the students’ natural competitiveness and the promise of hard cash would prove “as compelling an incentive to escape as life itself”.  You can imagine the reaction when the stewards called on the passengers to evacuate – “The desperation to escape quickly was quite alarming as volunteers battled to be the first through the exits,” wrote Max Kingsley-Jones in the magazine Flight International.  People were carried along in a throng, crushed under seats, wedged in the aisles and caught against bulkheads.

While the Airbus trial achieved a rapid evacuation thanks to the passengers co-operating with each other and escaping in an orderly manner, women and children first, the Trident trial was a closer reflection of reality.  Although it was carried out in the late 1980’s and has never been repeated, the trial was closely examined by the Civil Aviation Authority.  The fact that the Germans carried out the A380 trial as they did suggests that they weren’t paying attention: they didn’t come across panic, or the other extreme, abject resignation to your fate.

Sometimes people just give up and huddle in a corner to await their fate.  It’s well known in mountain rescue attempts that climbers suffering from hypothermia gradually cease to fight as their core temperature drops.  Eventually they just give up, psychologically.  Both panic and resignation are illustrated by Dad’s Army, that popular TV re-enactment of World War 2: when trouble came along, Fraser resignedly exclaimed, “We’re aa doo–oomed!”, whereas Jones cried out, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”  We are two sides of that same coin.

One way around panic and resignation is methodical training.  Although occasional fire drills don’t prepare us to face disaster, over-familiarity with crisis situations does seem to work for firefighters and airline pilots.  A large proportion of a pilot’s training is devoted to preparing for emergencies, in order to make his responses as automatic as possible.  Several hours are spent on the simulator every month, practicing stall recovery, flame-outs and forced landings: the intention is that the pilot “over-learns” the skills needed, because the shock when it actually happens may diminish his ability.

Over-learned responses and realistic situations give the pilot confidence to stay calm: but however realistic the simulator, that shock factor is still missing.  Psychologists have understood for decades that the brain doesn’t function well when overloaded with stimuli, and the tragic illustration of this is a passenger trapped in the blazing wreckage of an aircraft who continues to struggle with an unyielding emergency exit, yet ignores the gaping hole in the fuselage close by.  The brain fixates on one thing to the exclusion of all else.

More recently, both aeronautical and architectural fire engineers have begun to use software modelling to replicate evacuations.  For a project I ran a few years ago, a computer model representing 12,000 sq.m. of floorplate and 1150 people was created by SAFE Fire Engineering in Glasgow.  The evacuation sequence looks like an L.S. Lowry painting brought to life: but the matchstick people behave differently each time, as computer algorithms try to take account of the randomness of human behaviour – panic, confusion, our reactions to other peoples’ irrationality and the heat, smoke and toxic gases.  The software’s ability to run evacuation scenarios over and over again generates an “envelope” of performance, rather than a single datum, hence a truer representation of reality.

Software has the advantage over full-scale aircraft certification trials that the latter cost £1million a time and volunteers are sometimes accidentally injured, or worse.  However, it does rely on the programme's code being suitably nuanced that it can predict how fickle humans will react, and that’s the real skill.  Fire engineering is a specialist field, and only a small proportion of buildings benefit from it.  For the rest, architects rely on the prescriptions of the Technical Standards to guide them on how the building should assist people to escape from a fire. 

Are we, or the people who write the Standards, any closer to understanding why people react the way they do?  That peculiar mixture of crowd psychology, brain chemistry and self-preservation: how will that turn out, when the VESDA sensors sniff out smoke, then the sounders are activated, zone by zone, and the alarms grow louder and louder?  The corridor smoke doors swing shut, the power goes off and the emergency lights glow on.  It’s not a drill this time.  It’s for real. 

How will you react…?

By • Galleries: technology

It was late afternoon in November when I was heading back towards Berlin from Saxony, and realised from the signs on the autobahn that I was close to Dessau.  Martin Pawley’s description of Dessau twenty-odd years before, just after the Berlin Wall came down and the East was accessible again, stuck in my mind.

At that time, in the early 1990’s, the Bauhaus was an active design school but hadn’t been made ready for the 21st century.  Pawley’s was a pre-internet Bauhaus, reproduced in monochrome in dozens of books.  East Germany was a black-and-white place, the DDR before re-unification, and Pawley found Dessau strangely desolate, lacking in traffic, investment and hope.  To him, it felt very flat and grey although he chose to express that greyness in Trabants and soot.

Relying only on Google and a Michelin map, I discovered that Dessau’s road system is confusing – it’s a city without a real centre, just a main drag which invariably sends you in the wrong direction each time you come round.  However, the Bauhaus was unmistakable when I eventually found it by setting off down a side road and keeping going in what felt like the “wrong” direction.

I certainly crossed to the wrong side of the railway tracks, into a run-down area with a derelict, Victorian-era brewery crumbling onto the pavement.  The bricks simply seemed to turn to dust, and the windows were glassless hollows.  But only a couple of turns later, Dessau changed again and the road emerged onto a broad avenue of trees with immaculate inter-war blocks of flats behind them on one side, and a 3/4 scale model of a famous building suddenly popped up on the other.

After I parked nearby and walked slowly up to the building.  At first it looked underwhelming, but I guess that’s often the case when you think you know somewhere – yet have only seen heavily-mediated images of it.

I didn’t pay the fee or take a guided tour: I wandered around myself, and once I was done it was enough just to stand on the most famous stairs in Europe and disregard the students and staff filing past.  Rather like meeting a well-known person you’ve seen on TV, or finally acquiring something you’ve lusted after for a long time, the experience was different to what I expected: neither better, nor worse, just different.   So much for preconceptions…

Some of the Bauhaus was as you imagine in your mind’s eye: the beautiful typography, bright corridors and stairs, and planes of sheer glass.  Yet one aspect which surprised me, in a way, were the splashes of bright colour.  So many architectural photos were shot in monochrome, and most architecture books from the birth of the Bauhaus right up to the 1980’s were printed in black-and-white, that you picture it in black and white.

As Mark Twain noted, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice,” and that surely holds true for the Bauhaus.  It’s arguably the wellspring of all Modern architecture, yet it’s so often misunderstood.  After my visit, I realised I had been among the many who misunderstood it.  The Bauhaus isn’t monochromatic.  There are planes of chrome orange and cadmium yellow, bands of bright crimson red, planes of sienna brown linoleum – the old-fashioned battleship lino that DLW still make at Delmenhorst in the north.

Only the exterior is tonal: the interior is a colour exercise which demonstrates how controlled Walter Gropius's grasp of design is, how colour advances and recedes, works with and against tone.  Of course I should have known better, having read Johannes Itten’s colour theories, and bought a book a few years ago about the “ideal house”, written by Bruno Taut around the same time that Itten developed his ideas.  Both go a long way to demonstrate how integral colour was to the Modern Movement – and that’s hopefully clear from my photos.

When I went outside, I was treated to the afterglow of the winter sun hitting the Bauhaus lettering on the building’s gable: and then it was a rush through the back streets of Dessau, across bumpy pavé that takes you past the derelict brewery to find the Way Out.  Even so, it was dark by the time I hit the Berliner Ring, concentrating very hard to make sure I found the turn-off for Genshägen and didn't wind up on my way to Poland…

Happy Christmas. :-)

By • Galleries: memory palace, canon