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

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

Clap in his walie nieve a blade,

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

By • Galleries: scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: covid-19


06/12/21 21:27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: canon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: books

What went wrong with the Scottish Government’s flagship Spaces for People programme?
It was billed as a “community-led” initiative, to create space in towns and cities so that people could move around safely during the time of Covid. The logic was that since road travel was heavily restricted from March 2020 onwards, the roads were empty, so pedestrians and cyclists could spill out onto unused streets and maintain a safe distance.

Spaces for People is part of a growing trend of Tactical Urbanism which, just like New Urbanism, is a concept imported from the US.  New Urbanism failed (see my article about Knockroon) because it gave people something they didn’t want, and didn’t offer any alternative – yet the Scottish Government backed the charette process through the good offices of A&DS because it offered a chimera of public consultation.
Tactical Urbanism is the same. “Cities around the world are using flexible and short-term projects to advance long-term goals related to street safety, public space, and more. Tactical Urbanism is all about action. Also known as DIY Urbanism, Planning-by-Doing, Urban Acupuncture, or Urban Prototyping, this approach refers to a city, organisational, and/or citizen-led approach to neighbourhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions to catalyse long-term change.”

But under cover of offering public consultation (rather than true public involvement or public empowerment) Tactical Urbanism pushes through a pre-agreed agenda.  People quickly recognised that offering them the chance to leave comments and feedback, isn’t the same as giving them the right to object and demand meaningful change, so Spaces for People has become a PR disaster for councils.
What were specifically billed as “community-led” projects were carried out hurriedly with no public consultation beforehand. There was no mechanism to impel councils to reverse unpopular, ineffective or even dangerous measures. Hence the open outcry, petitions putting pressure on councillors and ultimately the threat of court action. So much for democratic change and people power.
The first Spaces for People measures were imposed on communities using Temporary Traffic Regulation Orders (TTRO’s) which council officers say were used to reduce “specific risks” to the public – in this case the transmission of the coronavirus.  These powers allowed the council to install measures without prior consultation for up to 18 months. 

Once that period was up, the councils added another 18 month “temporary” period by switching to Experimental Traffic Regulation Orders (ETRO’s), rather than the usual legal process during which formal objections can be lodged by residents. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that the Spaces for People projects were sneaked through during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the mechanism of TTRO’s was used to prevent people from having any say or influence over their own community.

18 months later, the inquest has begun on whether that was fair, or even legal. Edinburgh Evening news reported on 10th August that -
“City of Edinburgh Council's internal audit report did not pull any punches when it stated that the specific measures were based on suggestions from ‘a relatively small group of officers and external stakeholders’ and most were initially prioritised by six project team members ‘with limited justification available to support prioritisation outcomes’.” 

“So, as many people have long suspected, the proposals were hastily drawn up by a small group of people and rubber-stamped by Coalition councillors with ‘limited justification available’ and then imposed on the Edinburgh public.  No meaningful consultation or engagement with local residents or community groups before implementation, just a ‘we know what’s best for you’ attitude.”
The impact on disabled people wasn’t considered, either.  The Edinburgh Access Panel, RNIB and the National Federation of the Blind were belatedly consulted by City of Edinburgh Council.  The EAP raised concerns about the risk of people with mobility difficulties being injured in collisions with cyclists where they have to cross a cycle lane to reach their bus.  The panel’s other major concern is that access and parking for Edinburgh’s 6500 disabled blue badge holders is being made much more difficult because blue badge parking is prohibited on the new “temporary” cycle lanes.  For many blue badge users their only option for getting about is to use their car.

It looks like the proponents of Spaces for People have a very narrow view of urbanism – presumably they are young, able-bodied and fit – and take no account of anyone else.  I guess they don’t have elderly parents or grandparents, or know anyone who uses a wheelchair or zimmer frame to get around, or who has impaired vision or hearing.  So Spaces for People has pitted the able-bodied against the disabled which is unfathomable and deeply discriminatory.

Perhaps they should have asked architects to get involved, because our training and the regulatory framework of the Technical Standards mean we have to consider accessibility for all at every stage of a project. The losers are everyone. Cyclists who are targeted by enraged drivers. Pedestrians who fear being knocked flying by aggressive cyclists. Disabled people who can no longer reach shops and offices. Bus passengers who struggle to reach “floating” bus stops. Emergency services whose response times have increased. And of course faith in local democracy.
Spaces for People misses the point. Studies have repeatedly shown that Scotland needs multi-modal transport, so the Spaces for People cash should have been spent on things like better park and ride facilities, commuter trains on which bikes are allowed, and electrifying all the railways in Scotland to make them swifter and greener. After that, perhaps providing public transport in rural areas which have been systematically stripped of bus and train services during the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s would be a wise move.

But the biggest lesson from Spaces for People is that Tactical Urbanism isn’t “community-led”.  It has taken urban design out of the realm of professional designers who consider users’ needs as paramount, and handed it to a coterie of special interest groups vying for government funding, and politicians desperate to be seen to “do something”. Spaces for People demonstrates that the champions of Tactical Urbanism pay no attention to what people actually want and need.

By • Galleries: carbuncles

The publisher’s blurb suggests that Scotch Baronial is the right book at the right time: an examination of political identity in our architecture, at a point when Scottish independence is back on the agenda. May 2021, the most venomous Scottish elections for a long time, which come at a turning point in the progress of Scotland, Britain and Europe too.

The book builds on the work of Charles McKean and Michael Davis, discerning a line from castles built during the Wars of Independence through to the country house builders of the early 20th century. It covers the usual suspects – Inverary Castle, Holyrood Palace, Balmoral Castle – with many others along the way.



The First Castle Age created everything from defensible mansion houses to out-and-out war machines. The former are McKean’s Scots châteaux, such as Craigievar, Castle Fraser and Fyvie, which couldn’t have been built anything other than here. Their outlines with pepperpot turrets and crowsteps are characteristic. The latter, curtain-walled fortresses like Caerlaverock and Tantallon, were assertions of political and military defiance.

The authors analyse the ever-shifting relationship between old-fashioned defensive concerns, classical symmetry, the scenographic arrangement of massing, the relationship between materiality and setting, and the brutal practicality of these castles, which often hides behind a rich tapestry of myth, folklore, tartan and “Hoots Mon” nationalism.

But politics were not the only thing driving Baronial architecture: the clan system and feudal land ownership were critical, as were raw materials such as stone and slate, rather than brick and timber used over the border. Also crucial was cultural interchange through the Auld Alliance, William Wallace’s efforts to make connections with the Hanseatic League, and more prosaic aspects like the trade between Scotland and the Low Countries, a side effect of which was the importation into Fife of pantiles.

The subject area would reward further poking around into the cultural, material and mercantile as well as the political, and the authors turn up one genuinely fascinating parallel: that with Germany’s own search for a representative style, which helps to emphasise Scotland’s role as a pioneer in the expression of nationalism, which seems ironic for a country which lost its statehood three centuries ago.

This first age passed after the Union of the Crowns, but a few decades later Scotland unexpectedly had a Second Castle Age – the Baronial Revival – which was sparked by Walter Scott and his house, Abbotsford. The second age ran from the 1820’s to the years before the Great War, and the authors argue it represents unionist nationalism, an assertion of Scottishness within Britain.

Architecturally at least that was a success, with a vivid re-imagining of the themes, proportions and details of Scots castles in the work of the Adam brothers, the Playfairs, David Bryce and William Burn. They trawled the castles of medieval Scotland for inspiration,

Baronial Revival buildings are like haggis pakora: a good one balances elements from different cultures and reminds us that internationalism is a productive pursuit.  Revival details and materials are Scottish but the massing, parti and outline might pinch from French chateaux, German schlossen and Venetian palazzi.  In fact, rather than falling back on the hackneyed deep-fried Mars Bar in order to slight Scots cuisine – we should celebrate the haggis pakora, which is one of the great inventions of fusion food.   

We should be very grateful to the folks who first came up with the idea, and incidentally it also proves that Indo-Scots cultural appropriation is a Good Thing. Both parties gain – and making a serious point, our identity shouldn’t be copyrighted in the sense that I somehow need permission, or am not allowed to write about people who are different from me.

To do so is what Toni Morrison called cultural apartheid. If only certain people are allowed to write or think about certain things based on their gender, ethnicity, and so forth it would be a terrible loss to the culture of the world as a whole. We would lose sympathy for people from a different background, because they’ve excluded us from their world, and we’d also lose the wonderful cross-pollinations which come about as a side effect.

The Baronial Revival ended with Lorimer and Matthew's powerful Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle and what came next was less sure of itself. Similarly, the book’s final chapter covering the 20th century is less convincing, including an attempt to thirl Mackintosh to the Baronial Revival, despite Mackintosh protesting that the Hill House, “…Is not an Italian Villa, an English Mansion House, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House.” The authors also touch on Scottishness in the work of Robert Matthew, Basil Spence and James Shearer, but while their work speaks heavily-inflected Scots, it’s not Baronial.

Critically, Glendinning and Mackechnie fail to distinguish between pasticheurs like Ian Begg, who used Baronial wallpaper for the Scandic Crown Hotel’s façades, and architects such as Mackintosh and MacLaren who transcended their influences to create a heartfelt Scottishness that pervaded the whole building. Their work, along with that of Robert Lorimer, arguably marks the end of Scots Baronial’s authentic influence. However, the focus on figures like Patrick Geddes – who latter reimagined Edinburgh using the Outlook Tower and Ramsay Gardens to combine elements of Scots tradition with twentieth-century aspirations – helps to broaden the discussion beyond merely a “Scottish style”.

A brief vignette of Scots politics covers the creation of the new Scottish Parliament, where Scotch Baronial heads completely off piste. Glendinning and Mackechnie state, “ It is a paradox that the proud talk of a national rebirth – coincides with an underlying reality of international homogenisation and commercialisation.” Historians aren’t always best placed to discern what’s going on in present times, and we’re still working out what Holyrood actually represents both architecturally and politically, as May’s elections will likely demonstrate once more. As such this book is a polite architectural historiography rather than a passionate political manifesto.

Scotch Baronial was originally published in hardback during 2019 and has just been issued as a paperback. The illustrations – small, flat and monochrome – deserve full colour litho printing, but that doesn’t detract too much from this thorough and balanced introduction to eight centuries of Scots Baronial architecture, which should appeal to nationalist and unionist alike.

[This is an expanded version of a review I wrote elsewhere].

Scotch Baronial: Architecture and National Identity in Scotland
Miles Glendinning and Aonghus Mackechnie
Bloomsbury Visual Arts
ISBN: 9781474283472
Hardback £65; Paperback £24.99

By • Galleries: books, independence

I hadn’t intended to write about Covid ever again, but just at the moment I received my second vaccination, the World Health Organisation announced that six Scottish health boards were among the top 10 worst-hit regions in Europe. NHS Tayside has the highest rate, with 1,146 cases per 100,000 people.

The BBC reported Jason Leitch (Scotland’s national clinical director) explaining that a lack of "natural immunity" in the population has led to Scotland having the highest Covid rates in Europe. A few months ago, we were doing well… not so now. For the next few days, Dundee will probably be the most infectious place in Europe yet when I go down to the city centre there are blithe people walking around, seemingly tourists, who are strangely oblivious.

I received my blue envelope then had my inoculation a few days later in the Caird Hall.  More so than the enormity of NHS Tayside’s task, the thing that struck me was being in a huge concert hall filled with hundreds of vaccination stations spaced out geometrically across the stalls floor – oddly it reminded me of the Central Services Office in Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil”. A lateral flow kit was thrust into my hand as I left the hall and emerged blinking into the sunshine on Crichton Street.

Bad news, like Dundee’s current infection rate, travels fast – but you rarely hear about the gene technology labs in the city, the cluster of biomedical companies, or the research success of Ninewells Hospital, which was the largest new teaching hospital in Europe when it opened in the 70’s. Or indeed Murray Royal in Perth, which was redeveloped in 2012 as the largest new mental healthcare hospital in the UK, replacing an impressive asylum designed in the 1780’s by William Burn which is the prototype for many that came after.

Because mostly, healthcare and its architecture is a good news story. That prompted me to think about the “capital versus revenue” issue which I’ve heard several times from clients, when the door creaks open a fraction and you get a glimpse into their professional life. Sometimes the frustrations spill out, such as when someone senior at a subsea engineering firm came off the phone after an exasperating negotiation and looked at me: “We’re not selling a commodity product! The things we make aren’t like cans of baked beans!!”

The first time I came across the short term/ long term funding argument was when I worked on a theatre project which won a Lottery-funded capital grant to redevelop on a grand scale. After a long gestation and many battles, they ended up with a much-loved venue – which went bust a decade later. One of the reasons, according to the Press, was a cut in their Scottish Arts Council revenue funding support.

The other side of the capital/ revenue debate was illustrated last month when I went to Perth Royal Infirmary as a visitor. A Canon Medical Imaging lorry trailer was parked in a courtyard, its thick umbilical slinking into the building. This is a mobile CT scanner, brought in to supplement the capacity of hospitals in Dundee, Perth and Brechin.

Having had some experience doing clinical planning, I know that Computerised Tomography suites are complex beasts with large footprints, lots of servicing and if they serve an interventional radiography role, they need air handling units as large as a single decker bus. Short term, it makes sense to use revenue to pay for hiring in scanners to reduce waiting lists, while developing capital projects at Ninewells to permanently increase the scanner “fleet”.

So reading the self-serving Op-Ed pieces in various architecture magazines about how architects can somehow make a difference in healthcare provision, made me consider a fundamental point. What can architecture and design do to improve the natural immunity of Scots – can we build our way out of infection? Or is there only so much buildings can do, and after that it’s down to a lottery of birth with your genetics, background, diet, and so forth dictating your health?

I think the answer may lie with another client I worked for, a few years after the theatre. He was a GP on the verge of retiring from practice, and had spent his final few years developing his idea for a Healthy Living Centre. Conceptually it was somewhere you go in order to stay well – rather than a Medical Centre you attend after you’ve fallen ill. The former Chief Medical Officer, Harry Burns, had similar ideas but sadly the project I worked on didn’t happen. Perhaps the idea will catch on one day.

Hopefully next time I add something to this blog, Covid will be receding in the rear view mirror and we’ll be able reflect on the aesthetics of what you might call “pure” architecture, rather than the everyday necessities of “applied” architecture.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, covid-19

Reading through the readers’ comments posted below-the-line in response to an article about graduate salaries on the AJ website, I found some thought-provoking issues. Paul Finch attempted to have a sensible debate with an anonymous commenter who continually tried to bait and troll him – it struck me that the real issue wasn’t the level of “compensation”, it was London itself.

Our capital-obsessed government, financiers and developers seemingly can’t look beyond an endless cycle of feeding a city which is resource-hogging and disproportionate in scale to the rest of the country. No other country in Europe has such a disparity in population and status between its capital, and its second and third largest cities: it isn't by chance that so much of the UK's most valuable land and around half the UK's architects are concentrated in and around London.

Given the ever-growing imbalance, it's unlikely that we'll ever see a "provincial" practice take a leading role again, although Ian Simpson's success with high rise blocks in Manchester, and Glenn Howells’ in Birmingham hint at the possibilities, as did RMJM’s prominence during the 1970’s and 80’s. That also goes to underplay other the UK’s other conurbations – the West Midlands, Greater Glasgow, Tyneside, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.

As a result, there’s a tradition, which continues today, that some of the best Scottish graduates go down south, drawn to the bright lights and opportunities. Once there were alternatives. During the 80’s there was Hong Kong prior to its handover to China, in the 90’s there was Berlin after reunification but before Brexit – but since then the draw of London has been hard to fight. Some Scots stay forever and become expatriates, others return with a halo of glamour on their CV.
Today, the UK is a small country with an imperial-sized capital. It lost its role as the administrative centre for a quarter of the world’s population long ago, yet London is still a magnet for people and money, and in the language of today’s social justice warriors, that makes it over-favoured and especially privileged. The pulsing of currency and capital (both sorts) are palpable in Leadenhall Street and Canary Wharf; their vast glossy surfaces reflect each other and the mid-Atlantic accent which The Square Mile has developed since the Big Bang in 1987. 

If you catch the breakfast service at a Square Mile restaurant such as The Mercer in Threadneedle Street, you might even overhear some tips about where the smart money is going, from the men in sharp pinstripes and Church’s Oxfords shone to a high polish.  Edinburgh, by comparison, is more discreet. Sir Fred Badloss may have broken the Royal Bank, but an incomer would never guess that hundreds of billions of pounds are managed behind the douce facades of Georgian townhouses.

Meantime, under the present government at Westminster, the Edwardian chimera of the Imperial City lives on. At one point twenty years ago, Richard Rogers looked like he would become Baron Haussmann to Tony Blair’s Napoleon III; but for now Boris is in charge and acting out his destiny as the Great Self-Memorialist. Aside from all this other chronic flaws (egotism, dishonesty, and greed) the current prime minister is a man suffering from chronic folie de grandeur who is obsessed by his built legacy.

He has already spawned the bridge that never was, the airport that could never be, the bus nobody wanted and the cable car no-one uses. Perhaps he’ll eventually manage to build a mega-bridge (or tunnel) across Beaufort’s Dyke between Stranraer and Larne – and if he does, he’ll also need to re-construct 50 miles of dismantled railway and create a motorway to link Stranraer to the rest of Scotland via the M74 and WCML, then on to HS2 which will finally connect to … London.

Meantime, to the disaffected troll who took a pop at Paul Finch, the explanations for why graduate salaries don’t cover the cost of living could be either that salaries are too low, or the cost of living is too high.  The reason why graduate salaries are “too low” is easy to debate but far more difficult to solve, because it’s rooted in the changing role of architects.

Some of the theories advanced are: in order to maximise the grants they receive from the Scottish Government, the architecture schools turn out too many graduates, and that suppresses wages; lots of experienced architects have come into the country from the EU and further afield, and that suppresses wages; thanks to the Architects Act and the ARB, architects have a protected title but not a protected function – which means technicians and “plan drawers” can also do their work, and that suppresses wages; Thatcher’s obsession with ending monopolistic practices resulted in statutory fee scales being axed, and that suppresses wages; some graduates are prepared to do unpaid internships with big name practices, and that suppresses wages…

Lots to disagree over.

But the reason the cost of living is “too high” is much simpler to grasp, and for the benefit of the AJ’s anonymous provocateur – it’s London. Everything about the modern mega-city is expensive, including an exorbitant cost of living. Before they arrive in the Great Wen, prospective students might imagine living there is like a stage show turned inside out onto the pavements of Shaftesbury Avenue, where the people are haughty and over-privileged but essentially harmless, like poodles somehow transmogrified into human form.

Instead, they learn that it’s a grimy rat-race where people hustle, elbow and pick your pocket in the shadow of skyscrapers occupied by kleptocrats. During the 1990’s, I remember exploring London by experimentally taking the Tube south of the river. Inspired by the Carter USM song, I got off at New Cross – but quickly fled back onto the train. It felt Gangster even in the days before Grime. Nowadays in the East End you also have the “Shoreditch rough”, consisting of a character with a top knot and hipster pants plus a can of paint and a stencil, who imagines he’s a graff king…

The crux of high living costs is that they make life much tougher. With good qualifications and some experience, we’d hope to earn a decent salary which allows us to live a well-rounded life. With somewhere of our own to stay, whether bought or rented; the freedom to choose a car, motorbike, cycle or train as transport; the chance to take trips abroad occasionally; and the opportunity to save money for a rainy day and into a pension – but if you’re an architecture graduate on a starting salary, London removes those possibilities.

Yet the issues thrown up by London aren’t solely financial. Big cities in general, but London in particular, are also part of the problem with Covid. For someone on a low salary, living in a densely-packed area, London is bad for your health as well as your pocket. When you concentrate several million people together, you create economic growth and lots of jobs – but along with those come long commutes, gridlocked roads, over-packed trains, crowded streets and corridors, queues and lifts packed with people.

Just as capitalism thrives when you bring companies and people into close proximity with each other, you create social opportunities if you concentrate health and education infrastructure in one place, but you also form a high human density environment for a virus such as Covid, which likes people to rub shoulders.

Perhaps Covid will prove to everyone that the big city with its pollution, resource-intensiveness and ruinously expensive property is part of the problem. Another example: a big city like London or Paris for that matter, is a heat island.  On 30C+ days in recent years, you had the choice of either living outside on patios and terraces and broiling like a piece of bacon on a griddle – or staying inside and boiling like a lobster in a pot.  You could easily argue that in a temperate country like this, aircon is expensive, energy hungry and even obscene, yet in inner London it’s become commonplace.

On reflection, when siren voices whisper that Covid is a chance to rethink our lives, reset how we work and embed a set of changes, perhaps we should ask whether mankind's greatest invention, the city, isn't the underlying problem. Maybe we should dismantle London, as the radical planners proposed after the War, and disperse investment, jobs and people across the country. That could begin to shift us away from an entrenched system that many agree is unjust, but which is too dense and dangerously overgrown to change. For one thing, politicians like Boris have too much to lose on a personal level.

Failing that, perhaps graduates should consider so-called “provincial” cities or even practice in smaller towns as options, rather than automatically assuming that London is the only worthwhile destination for their talent. Perhaps their efforts and enthusiasm could even make the increasingly dis-United Kingdom a more equal place to live. As a parting shot, perhaps quality of life is a better reason than pure capitalism as to why Edinburgh is now Europe’s sixth biggest financial centre, and rising fast. Discuss…

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

A small village on the Somerset Levels … a large hill in Armagh … or perhaps an American photographer? In fact, things aren't what they seem.  Mountweazels are apocryphal places which were conceived to be misleading – as opposed to potentially real things that were never built, such as the Edinburgh Opera House, or simply fictitious places such as Brigadoon.

Some are copyright traps set by cartographers so that plagiarists are caught out: these include trap streets which don’t exist, real streets with deliberately mis-spelt names, and even towns that never were. Best known was the town of Argleton, which either Google Maps or Tele Atlas created around 15 years ago – in reality its location is a series of grass fields between Aughton and Ormskirk. Journalists reckoned it was a copyright trap, and in due course it was deleted from Google’s maps.

Another was the aptly-named Lye Close, a small cul-de-sac which appeared in an A-Z street map of Bristol. This cartographic easter egg was designed to catch out the map publisher’s competitors – the kind of people who don’t want to wear out their shoe leather when they can pinch someone else’s research instead.

As well as artifice, cartographers are also guilt of sins of omission. Until recently, the former Royal Ordnance Factory at Bishopton, west of Glasgow, wasn’t shown on maps. Comprising several square miles of buildings which made the explosives for artillery shells and propellants for rocket motors, the factory is no longer active, and remains fenced off. There’s a faint irony in the fact that Ordnance Survey deliberately missed a huge ordnance factory from their survey…

Conversely, biking campaigners are sometimes responsible for creating lengths of phantom cycle path. I used to overlook a pocket park with some handsome trees, a square of dogshit grass, and a through road which had been stopped up decades before. A few years ago, I noticed the 150 metre stretch of dead street had been designated on maps as a cycle path – despite being blocked by kerbs, bollards, and hillocks of rotting leaves.

Other mountweazels are false trails, deliberate confusions, and even grand deceits. During World War II, Jasper Maskelyne built a mockup of the night-lights of Alexandria in a bay three miles away with fake buildings, lighthouse, and anti-aircraft batteries. Effectively he created a fake city, intended to conceal with real Alexandria and the Suez Canal from German bomber raids.

One well known confusion tactic came at the start of the War, when the authorities removed road signs to hinder German paratroops if they landed in rural Scotland and tried to navigate through the countryside. Of course, fake road signs have been a popular prank through time. Around ten years ago there was a fake road sign project in Lyons, France, in which "105 street signs, realised by 47 worldwide artists, and just similar enough to real traffic signs to give one pause, have been attached to street-side poles around the french city of Lyon."

All of these art pranks, honesty tests and metaphorical elephant traps seem to ring that much truer today, in an era of alternative facts and fake news. Perhaps I should also mention their patron saint, Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, the “fountain designer and mailbox photographer” who haunted the pages of the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, excerpted below…

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