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Bizarre Juxtaposition
Crane assembly of a modular prefabricated house in Manchester photo: Ilke Homes

Crane assembly of a modular prefabricated house in Manchester photo: Ilke Homes

This photo first caught my attention when I thought for a moment that I saw Charing Cross Mansions in the background. Charing Cross Mansions is considered by many to be the grandest of the red sandstone tenements in Glasgow. It comprises flats over shops – a mixed use building type which is all the rage today. It was designed by JJ Burnett in the Beaux-Arts classicist style and built between 1889 and 1891. It is a super building in many ways. It is a powerful piece of urban design, curving to define the street edge and the whole neighbourhood and seeming like it was always there and always will be. It is a wonderful piece of architecture and art and a great example of sustainable design in that it is still performing its original purpose after 130 years with every prospect of at least the same again to come. However I was mistaken as the building in the background is in fact the equally impressive Midland Hotel in Manchester designed by Charles Trubshaw which opened in 1903.

Charing Cross Mansions, Glasgow

Charing Cross Mansions, Glasgow

The second thing that caught my attention in the photo is the bizarre juxtaposition of the old and the new. What a miserable little shoe box of a house in the foreground. It could be anywhere or nowhere. This article claims houses like these can be built in just 36 hours and this article suggests 65,000 of them could go into production. So what if they can be craned in and built in 36 hours? That’s hardly the point which is that the Victorians could do more with relatively primitive means. Of course there is a massive housing need but surely we can do better than this? This ‘solution’ is part of a broader malaise. We don’t value good design enough and we don’t invest enough of the national ‘cake’ in the basics – traditionally food, clothing and shelter.

I suppose this is in many ways a false comparison since when Victorian buildings such as Charing Cross Mansions were built many people were living in slum conditions and a shoe box would have been welcome. But it does beg the question of what is meant by ‘progress’.

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The Great Stone Shortage

‘Gather round boys and girls and listen

To the tale of the giant stone eater

and how the earth was ravaged

during the years of the great stone shortage…’

The opening lines of the song ‘The Tale of the Giant Stone Eater’ by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (aka SAHB).  SAHB was one of the most unconventional rock bands of the 1970s. I saw them live in their home town of Glasgow at the height of their fame. The music ranged from avant garde progressive rock to experimental jazz. The lyrics from this song sound as if they were lifted from a book of Edward Lear’s nonsense verse – ‘a giant stone eater’ and ‘a great stone shortage’.

Wind forward to the present day and the words seem less fantastical. Worldwide increase in population and urbanisation is indeed bringing about a great stone shortage. There is a long term decline in the permitted reserves of land based sand, gravel and crushed rock and the use of marine sand and gravel together with recycled materials and industrial and mineral waste as aggregates has increased. There is even a black market in it.

Many of us think of supplies of sand, and its larger cousin gravel, as infinite making it hard to believe that something as commonplace could be valuable but like everything else – water, oil, minerals etc we are going to have to start thinking about it.

One partial solution is the use of recycled plastic as a building material which would help us establish a more circular economy and clean up the plastic waste strewn about the planet. But no new plastic please – for the sake of the climate hydrocarbons should be left in the ground.

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Photo: burj-al-babas facebook 1

Photo: burj-al-babas facebook 1

An awful lot of what is going on in the world at the moment seems to make little sense. This is Burj Al Babas a development of 732 identical chateau-style villas in the picturesque mountains of northern Turkey which has reportedly gone bankrupt with $27 million of debt. The project was targeted at customers from Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These photos, with their large OMG factor, ask more questions than they answer. What is the point of this unsustainable eyesore? Visitors from the Gulf are supposed to fly in and relax in a development of identical Disneyesque houses, crammed together with no regard to context. It doesn’t work architecturally, ecologically or even financially. Is the world of the very rich a theme park?

Photo: burj-al-babas facebook 2

Photo: burj-al-babas facebook 2

I don’t do any work for the ‘volume’ housebuilders here in the UK.  For the most part they use ‘standard’ house types which are ‘tweaked’ in terms of the external materials to provide a bit of regional character (brick, stone, render walling / clay tile or slate roofing etc). They are site specific in terms of the mix of house types and the estate layout. But at least they serve their market and provide ‘real’ homes.

I do one off houses and house extensions, usually to character homes, where context is all important. Set in its dramatic mountain forest landscape the Burj al Babas development could have been an exemplary sustainable development referencing the local Ottoman tradition of wood frame construction.

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Myths and Legends

Edward Burne-Jones 'The Golden Stairs' Tate Britain, London

Edward Burne-Jones ‘The Golden Stairs’ Tate Britain, London

‘Victorian’ art, which fell suddenly out of fashion after it was created, has gradually returned to fashion over the last 50 years.  This is especially true of the work of the ‘Pre-Raphaelites’ who sought a return to the detail, colours and complex compositions of the 15th century Italian art that existed before the time of Raphael and Michaelangelo.

Edward Burne-Jones 'The Beguiling of Merlin' Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Edward Burne-Jones ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Edward Burne-Jones (1833 – 98) was one of the last ‘Pre-Raphaelites’ as well as one of the pioneers of the arts and crafts movement.  His rejection of the industrial world and embrace of traditional craftsmanship speaks to our own time where resource depletion and the need for human dignity suggests a more hand-made world. His romantic world of myths and legends, medieval, religious and folk themes is echoed in the escapism of modern myth based films and computer games.

For anyone even remotely interested in the Pre-Raphaelites or the Arts and Crafts movement or the decorative arts in general the Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain is not to be missed as it brings so much together in one place including two series of paintings – ‘Persius’ and ‘The Legend of the Briar Rose’ – reassembled for the exhibition.  Seen together his work leaves a powerful impression in terms of its quality, imagination and originality of composition but mostly its basic weirdness. It took us a short while to return to everyday reality from this fantasy world after we came out.

Edward Burne-Jones 'The Briar Wood' Buscot Park, Oxfordshire

Edward Burne-Jones ‘The Briar Wood’ Buscot Park, Oxfordshire

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Is Anyone There?

A newly built radio telescope operated by a Canadian team of astronomers has detected a second repeating source of radio waves known as fast radio bursts (FRB) that travel at the speed of light. FRB 180814, as they have called it, appears to originate about 1.5 billion light-years away. FRB’s were thought to be one offs but now that two repeating sources have been discovered the hunt is on not just for more but for a theory of what they are and why they are repeating. Who knows what it is, but I know what it isn’t. It isn’t the extraterrestrial life or alien spaceships that are already being talked about. I’m pretty sure if extraterrestrials wanted to be in touch they’d have been in touch by now in a more obvious way. But there is something so human and imaginative in the belief that we are not alone, we are not all there is and there is something bigger out there.

Gregory Peck in the film version of Nevil Shute's 'On the Beach'

Gregory Peck in the film version of Nevil Shute’s ‘On the Beach’

The classic post-apocalyptic novel, ‘On the Beach’ (1957) by Nevil Shute is set in Australia where a group of characters await their certain end with the arrival of deadly radiation spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere following a nuclear war. All human life in the northern hemisphere has been wiped out but a glimmer of hope emerges when a faint morse code signal is detected coming from an abandoned navy communications school in Seattle. The submarine USS Scorpion is dispatched to sail from Melbourne to establish who is sending the signal and how they survived. Upon arrival Lieutenant Sunderstrom is sent ashore with a protective suit and oxygen tank. He finds that the mysterious radio signal is the result of a broken window frame swinging in the breeze and occasionally hitting a transmitting key.

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A Country Scene

The Queen's Window at Westminster Abbey by David Hockney photo Westminster Abbey

The Queen’s Window at Westminster Abbey by David Hockney photo Westminster Abbey

Was David Hockney having a laugh with his iPad design for the recently unveiled Queen’s Window at Westminster Abbey depicting a ‘country scene’ to commemorate the reign of Queen Elizabeth II? I mean it has garish colours and is totally out of scale and out of context with the gothic stone window frame, the north transept and the Abbey itself. It’s not in tune with the ‘spirit of place’.

He probably wasn’t having a laugh. This is what he does and I get it – the whole point is that it is out of scale and context and the colours are intended to scream out like a neon sign.

What I can’t decide is whether the choice of Hockney rather than a leading contemporary stained glass artist was dumb or inspired? Was this a totally bonkers choice and process where, like in the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, nobody felt able to state the obvious given that the Dean of Westminster and the Queen were involved or am I totally out of touch with the role of contemporary art in historic settings?

Once the novelty wears off etc……

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Mais quelle deception!

Whereas early golf courses were laid out to follow the ‘lie of the land’ modern golf courses have ‘architects’. Large sums of money are spent to manipulate the topography of the landscape and introduce trees and water features.

Take the venue of this year’s Ryder Cup – the ‘L’Albatros’ course at ‘Le Golf National’ in Paris designed by architects Hubert Chesneau and Robert Von Hagge in collaboration with Pierre Thevenin. What started out as a flat wheat field was transformed using material from demolition and excavation sites in the Paris area. Over the course of three years in the late 1980’s, 400 trucks per day imported 1,600,000 m3 of material which was combined with 600,000 m3 of soil excavated on site to create a completely new landscape. The course was further modified and improved in advance of the Ryder Cup and then manicured to within an inch of its life for the big event itself.

Ryder Cup 2018 Le Golf National Paris Photo Franck Biton

Ryder Cup 2018 Le Golf National Paris Photo Franck Biton

Part of the skill of a golf course ‘architect’ is creating drama with the best hole often being the final hole. At the ‘L’Albatros’ the 18th hole is a stunner with water on the left, pot bunkers on the right and a semi-island green. Mais quelle deception! – the Ryder Cup is match play golf not stroke play golf meaning that matches often end before all the holes have been played. On this occasion only six of the twenty eight Ryder Cup matches actually played the final hole. Still it looked pretty in the photographs even if it hardly featured in the golf.

Many moons ago I crewed on an ocean racing yacht during Clyde week that had been designed for, and competed in, the three-quarter ton cup in Norway. It was specifically designed for the anticipated wind and sea conditions. I asked the skipper how it had fared. ‘Not well’ was the reply. The wind and sea conditions turned out to be completely different from what was anticipated when the racing took place. As Robert Burns put it in 1786 ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’men/ Gang aft a-gley’.

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Race Bank - the fifth biggest wind farm in the world opened 13 June 2018 off the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coast with 91 turbines such as these Photograph SteKrueBe

Race Bank – the fifth biggest wind farm in the world opened 13 June 2018 off the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coast with 91 turbines such as these Photograph SteKrueBe

It has been predicted that the coming scarcity of fossil fuels will cause significant problems for transportation, power and the production of food and manufactured items. But this recent study in Nature Climate Change suggests that the accelerating spread of renewable energy together with energy efficiency and climate policy may be substantially reducing demand to the point where a global financial crisis could be triggered not by a lack of fossil fuels but by a global wealth loss of US$1–4 trillion in oil related assets left ‘stranded’ by reducing global demand for fossil fuels as the ‘carbon bubble’ bursts sometime in the next 15 – 20 years. And this study in Nature Energy  projects that by 2050 global energy demand will be around 40% lower than today – despite rises in population and income and growing global economic activity.

So potentially no return to horse drawn carts and manual farm labour and a real hope for a clean energy future. It’s all moving very fast with renewables but not fast enough to deter the fracking industry which remains intent on making a final fast buck at huge environmental cost before everyone finally wakes up. Cuadrilla (known in these parts for their involvement at Balcombe) have applied for final consent to frack (not just test drill) at Preston New Road in Lancashire. The economics of shale oil don’t add up – leveraging cheap debt to make money in the short term for insiders at the expense of losses for long term investors. It would be tempting to think that the investors had it coming except that it’s all of us one way or another through our pension funds etc.

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The Architect of Windrush

Labour has called Theresa May the ‘architect’ of Windrush. She must be a naval architect because Windrush was a ship. She joins a new generation of ‘architects’ that includes Vladimir Putin the ‘architect’ of Kremlin policy in the Ukraine and General Jon Pyong-Ho the ‘architect’ of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes. Also good to know that ‘Rose McGowan will not be silenced as the ‘architect’ of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall’.

Empire Windrush. London Docks

Empire Windrush. London Docks

There seem to be ‘architects’ everywhere at the moment – in the sense of people who create and implement a plan. The architectural profession could take it as a compliment were in not that there seems to be an implied fiendish or sinister ‘too clever by half’ quality in many cases. The architect as Bond villain (in fact Ian Fleming got the name Goldfinger from the architect Erno Goldfinger). Search online and you can read about the ‘architects’ of global jihad and the holocaust.

In terms of building design the title ‘architect’ is protected in the UK under Section 20 of the Architects Act 1997. The title can only be used by someone who is registered with the Architects Registration Board. This is deemed to be in the public interest through the protection of public health, safety and welfare, consistency of standards and quality of service.

Pity the poor architects who simply design buildings who see the appropriation of their hard earned title. Or maybe the comprehensive solutions of the megalomaniac tendency within the profession have created the fiendish connection in the minds of the public. To that extent we are the ‘architects’ of our own misfortune.

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Happy Ending Needed

You couldn’t make it up (unless it’s a fake painting)!  The Terrus Museum in Elne near Perpignan in Southern France has discovered that more than half of its collection of paintings attributed to local Catalan painter Étienne Terrus (1857-1922) are fakes.

Étienne Terrus - Collioure in the Pyrenees (authentic)

Étienne Terrus – Collioure in the Pyrenees (authentic)

82 fakes have been identified and only 52 paintings have been authenticated. If they don’t know what a Terrus painting looks like in his home town what are visitors supposed to think?

It sounds like the plot for a French farce or a sequel to Gabriel Chevallier’s classic comedy ‘Clochmerle’ and what a great addition to the French comedy tradition a book or film based on the story would be.

Clochmerle originally published 1934 Penguin edition

Clochmerle originally published 1934 Penguin edition

The basic outline (all true) would be:  The town spends an estimated £140,000 over 20 years acquiring the works. Local community groups raise funds and take donations, municipal funds are provided and some works are bequeathed by a private collector.  £265,000 is spent on refurbishing the museum which is due to reopen. Before the opening guest curator Eric Forcada raises doubts about the authenticity of the paintings so a commission of experts is appointed who conclude that more than half the museum’s collection is fake including paintings that depict buildings that didn’t actually exist in Terrus’ lifetime and others where the signature is readily wiped off. Yves Barniol, the mayor says “a catastrophe …it’s intolerable and I hope we find those responsible”. Marthe-Marie Coderc, president of the local association Friends of the Terrus Museum, says “Maybe we were a little naive”.

One good thing is that the museum with its 52 authentic works in now ‘on the map’.  In my imaginary book or film version the writer would add a comeuppance for the fakers and a happy ending featuring a big street party with flags and a brass band etc.