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…

By • Galleries: ghosts

We react to industrial buildings in different ways. Some people are indifferent, some overlook them, but industry creates its own aesthetic and the mechanistic forms of factories, power plants and steelworks have their own, particular appeal. One powerful response to the machine age was excitement; there is a long tradition of celebrating machines and their capabilities.


Marinetti, for instance, describes a power station in 1914 as follows ~

“Nothing is more beautiful than a great humming power-station, holding back the hydraulic pressures of a whole mountain range, and the electric power for a whole landscape, synthesised in control-panels bristling with levers and gleaming commutators.”


Hopefully during the last thirteen months of Covid lockdown, stress and fear, some of us have found a release valve in picking up a sketchbook again and taking the chance to draw. Doodling and scribbling can help you to develop a personal language – and long afterwards, flicking through the pages often demonstrates how we return to our signature shapes and forms, time and time again.


In my case, the results are mechanistic, including aerofoils, cranked arrows, hoods and wings.  Many of them stem from creating imaginary industrial landscapes, which I guess are born of years spent trudging around post-industrial cities and rusting wastelands with a camera, peering over walls to see what the furnace or factory looks like up close.


Sometimes the drawings spring from intuitive sketching, at other times inspired by the “readymades” you come across in everyday life.  Above is a sketch by Hugh Chevins who visited de Havilland's factory at Hatfield in the early 1960's to record all the shapes and forms produced by ICI Metals (panels, skins, castings, forgings) which went into the Comet 4 airliner.  Collecting those pre-made forms and applying them to new purposes isn’t a new idea, but Jasper Morrison summed it up well a few years ago in his book “Everything but the Walls” (Lars Müller Publishers, 2006):

“Following the “ready-mades” and the adaptation of basic, recognisable object types to make new objects, I had come to believe that it was not the designer’s job to invent form, just to apply it in the right places at the right time and for good enough reasons.

“I had a catalogue from a company in the East End of London called W. H. Clark Ltd. who supplied equipment for trade vehicles, motorised, horse or human powered, and looking through it one day I found the direction for the door handle in the form of what was described as a coach handle. I followed up this discovery by using the form of a light bulb for the door knob, and a wing nut for the door lock.

“This process of not trying to invent anything while being open to outside influence was similar to the idea of adapting objects for new purposes, but more sophisticated, and somehow the economy of recycling a form seemed more rigorous than trying to invent one.”


Of course, a few years later Morrison also said, “People don’t trust design – they think it’s shit”, during an interview with Icon Magazine in 2009. But that’s a whole different story.


Meantime, have some super-heavy engineering…


By • Galleries: technology, covid-19

We live in a world that’s habitually overflowing with “stuff” and simultaneously suffers from shortages. Usually there’s an abundance of the things we don’t like, such as taxation and Brussels sprouts, and not enough of the things that we do.

I ordered a couple of jars of jam a wee while ago and was advised that there was a national shortage in boysenberries “so we will not have any for a month”. Happily the jam arrived the other day, so the jam makers must have tracked some down on the black (berry) market.

I’ve written before about the Great British Brick Shortage, and also the potential impact of Brexit on contracts. There have been three cost increases for structural steel in the past few months, and that has an impact on what’s reaching the sites. Elsewhere, furniture made in the EU is slower to reach Scotland due to lorries backing up at the ports and extra customs checks.

Plus of course what’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind, pharma companies are ramping up production of Covid-19 vaccine, but so far there isn’t enough to inoculate everyone everywhere, although progress is encouraging. However, I made another unwelcome discovery when a lightbulb blew and I realised I needed to buy some more. Not only can you no longer buy old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, but halogen bulbs are being phased out, and compact fluorescent bulbs are pretty much unobtainable as well … so it's LED bulbs or nothing. 

The original idea was to ban old fashioned lightbulbs since they use more power to produce less light, as they’re around 1% efficient in terms of converting electrical energy into light. They also have a limited life, because a tungsten element heated to red heat lasts almost indefinitely (as in a thermionic valve), but raise it to white heat so that it emits life, and its life shortens considerably as the filament burns off tungsten which slowly coats the inside of the glass in a dull grey film.

However, compact fluorescents have a mercury coating which is toxic, so they aren't really any more environmentally friendly because they’re more tricky and expensive to recycle so folk sometimes don’t bother and fling them into the bin instead.

With an architect’s eye, the quality of light produced by the cheaper LED bulbs isn't great, and they don't last as long as they're supposed to. I don't believe that typical LED bulbs will last for “50,000 hours”.  In that case, you'd buy a bulb and never have to replace it in your lifetime.  The best now state “15,000 hours” in the small print, presumably after having been chased by the EU over misrepresentation, and it’s likely they'll be engineered to fail after a shorter period than that, so the manufacturer can sell more bulbs. 

I guess the driver circuits overheat, just as cheap ballasts in compact fluorescents go "phut" after a while. And don’t forget Jevon’s paradox: because LED bulbs use less electricity, people perversely buy more lights and put them in places that serve little purpose, using them in less efficient ways because it doesn’t cost them any more than what they were paying before.

Unlike certain political parties, I don't normally fall for conspiracy theories, but in this case the engineered-in obsolescence is probably true, because it happened before. Just have a search for “The Phoebus Cartel”, which sounds like a Frederick Forsyth thriller or an indie rock band from Michigan, but was actually an international carve-up designed to ensure that incandescent bulbs ran slightly brighter than necessary, and that caused them to have considerably shorter lives.

Even in those days, firms knew how to make lamps which would effectively last forever – neon discharge lamps, for example. If you can afford to buy an expensive light source that lasts for a long time (avoiding ten minute wonders like the xenophot capsule lamp), in the long run it will work out cheaper in terms of capital and running costs than a cheapo LED from the Pound Shop. Plus it will be better for the environment on three scores – made from more sustainable materials, will use less power over its lifetime, and won’t have to be thrown away so frequently. In the words of Homer Simpson, “Win Win Win”.

Apart from apprehending the truth of how we’ve all been royally hoodwinked by consumerism, there’s another way to look at this.  Rather than arguing about which type of artificial lighting to use, why not try maximising natural light using more and larger windows, rooflights and sunpipes, so you rarely need artificial light during the daytime.  Likewise, rather than arguing about replacing oil and coal and gas fired boilers with biomass or hydrogen fired boilers, why not super-insulate the building fabric and perhaps you won’t need a traditional boiler at all?

Rather than arguing about which energy to use, use as little as possible. Perhaps that's the ultimate light bulb moment…

By • Galleries: technology

Although it sounds like a mix by DJ Tiesto, it's actually a description of the reflex hinge (sometimes called a "friction stay") fitted to most of today's top-hung and reversible windows.  Low stack refers to the depth of the hinge arms, Sinidex is a trade name and the Eurogroove is a standardised 18mm wide rebate in the jamb of the window frame. If the terminology means nothing to you, perhaps window specification is a more complex business than you realised...

At architecture school, I developed a hit-and-miss knowledge of windows from reading journals and occasionally picking up brochures and adverts from the trade press. In my first project at my first job after graduation, composite timber/ aluminium double-glazed windows were specified, and that was the starting point for a journey which gradually taught me about window technology.

Having previously specified NorDan, Velfac and Rationel windows on projects, a few years ago I spent a while collecting information then tried to compare the performance of all the composite window systems that were available in Scotland.  Recently I revisited the exercise for a new project, and some changes are obvious.  We've moved on from double glazing with low-E glass, and are on the brink of triple glazing becoming the standard.

Trying to find the perfect window? Sadly, it's like punching smoke. But unlike the DIY’ers, self-builders and internet wiseacres – architects have the advantage that we specify again and again, so we have some idea of how to measure success and failure. Plus we have access to proper technical resources such as BRE digests and TRADA research.  That's important, because the modern window is a high tech enterprise and in order to specify well, you need to know a bit about building science.

For example, the window frame sections consist of many-times-machined timber and complex extrusions, with drips, anti-capillary grooves and fixings for gaskets machined in. The angles of components, the gaps between them, and the geometry of the labyrinth which prevents rain being driven towards the interior, are carefully calculated.

During the 1950’s, the English Joinery Manufacturers Association developed the EJMA “Stormproof” window, where the casement is outward-opening and sits proud of and overlaps the frame. This standardised design with its “weather check” replaced the various styles of flush casement windows common until that point, and for the next 30 years or so house builders had a simple choice: timber frames of standard quality, eg, Magnet & Southerns “M4”, or timber frames of slightly better quality, eg, John Carr/ Boulton & Paul.

The stormproof window was adopted in Scotland, but Scotland is and always has been different to the south.  The lower temperatures and much higher exposure to wind-driven rain make our climate much more like Norway than Surrey.  We've fitted windows into rebated jambs and set them back further in the opening for hundreds of years, whereas the English Reg's still allow you to fit windows flush against the ingo of the outer leaf or brick skin.

When double glazing started to come in, partly driven by the Technical Standards and partly by replacement window firms such as Everest, the EJMA Stormproof window frame sections had to be beefed up in order to compete. The first Scandinavian windows I came across were in the timber clad, timber kit Moelven houses that Aberdeenshire Council built across the field from my grandfather's farmhouse in Kemnay.

A single-glazed window (as originally fitted to buildings in 1960’s) gave you an overall U-value (Uw) ~ 4.8 W/m2K, but a typical PVC-U double-glazed window from the 1980’s (4*12*4 with air space between glass) gave you Uw ~ 2.8 W/m2K. Almost twice as good. In a country where it feels like the last big innovation was the duplex sash and case window, that was big news. Of course, with traditional sash windows, effective sealing is always in conflict with the operation of the window. This means a traditional sash window is either airtight and hard to slide open, or easy to open but draughty.

Scotland and Scandinavia can be very windy, so their casement windows have traditionally opened outwards and they developed effective drainage profiles and sealants because wind and weather proofing is important. As I discovered during my research, Scandinavian expertise lies in top-hung reversible windows (using "H"-type or Spilka) gear, with double-glazing and noble-gas filled cavity to give Uw ~ 1.3-1.4 W/m²K, improving to 1.1-1.2 W/m²K with low-E glazing.

By contrast, windows from Austria and Germany are often inward-opening, but they do get extremely cold winters, so good U-values are judged more important and they pioneered thermally-broken frames and “warm edge” spacers to improve them. Austrian practice is to use tilt & turn rather than reversible gear, with an insulated laminated timber frame and insulated glazing bead, plus triple-glazing and noble-gas filled or vacuum cavity; even in the late 2000’s, they could achieve Uw ~ 0.65-0.7 W/m²K.

What’s state of the art now? 92 mm window frames, now with 48mm triple glazing (4*18*4*18*4), which provides Uw ~ 0.8 W/m²K. That’s the level set for new build Passivhaus buildings, along with EnerPHit renovations in the cold climate zone, ie. northern Scotland. To achieve that, windows and doors are fitted into reveals with all edges taped using flexible foil tape, and the reveals sealed with Compriband externally and silicone internally

If you think glazing units are like razor blades, where manufacturers keep adding more and more blades to the cutting head … you’re right. While researching this, I discovered that the Scottish company Enviro make Uw = 0.35 W/m²K quadruple glazing. As far as I’m aware they’re the first in the UK, no doubt others will follow. Meantime I’ll end with a series of cutaway images showing some of the different frame profiles available on the market today.

In some respects it’s surprising that they’re so varied, and that makes specification more difficult since you’re not able to compare Coxes with Mac Reds, but the main two types are Alu-clad timber windows where the aluminium acts only as an external finish (almost like a rain screen cladding) and Composite timber windows where both the timber and aluminium parts are structural.

Alu-clad timber windows:

Rationel Auraplus, Uw = 0.79 W/m²K and lifespan of 80+ years with 4*20*4*20*4 (made in Denmark)


NorDan NTech One, Uw = 0.8 W/m²K and lifespan of 60+ years with 4*12*4*12*4


Optiwin Resista Modern, Uw = 0.64 W/m²K


Allan Brothers Horizont/ Alu Clad, Uw = approx. 0.9 W/m²K


Broxwood Alu-clad Timber Tilt & Turn, Uw = 0.7 W/m²K (made by Arbo in Latvia)


Katzbeck Combina Passiv, Uw = 0.71 W/m²K (made in Austria)


Norrsken P41A


HON Quadrat Studio FB, Uw = 0.85 W/m²K (made in Czech Republic)


Viking SW14 Uw = up to 0.60 W/m²K (made in Estonia)


Composite timber/ aluminium windows:

Velfac 200 Energy, Uw = 0.82 W/m²K and lifespan of 60 years (with 48mm glazing) 4*18*4*18*3, Uw = 1.06


IdealCombi Futura+, Uw = 0.74 W/m²K (made in Denmark); 4*13*3*14*4, Uw = 1.04


Gaulhofer Fusionline 108, Uw = 0.65 W/m²K


Internorm HF310, Uw = 0.62 W/m²K


Silber Fenster Passive, Uw = 0.71 W/m²K

Neuffer Eco Idealu, Uw = 0.78 W/m²K


Green Building Store “Ecocontract Ultra” (made in UK); 4*18*4*18*4, Uw = up to 0.68 W/m²K

Footnote - As with my piece a couple of years ago about electrical accessories, this is written from my own personal experience, and neither I nor Urban Realm have links to any of the manufacturers. Copyright in all images rests with the respective manufacturers.

By • Galleries: technology, specification

Happy New Year.

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

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

But they don’t bounce well.

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

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

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

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

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

By • Galleries: Uncategorized