The claim by the designer of the Soviet Union’s RBMK nuclear reactors that they were ‘safe enough to be installed on Red Square’ was believed. That was until reactor 4 (RBMK type) at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine literally exploded into the night sky at 1.23am on 26 April 1986 in the world’s worst ever nuclear disaster.
Serhii Plokhy’s award winning book ‘Chernobyl’ explores the context of communism, militarism and a rush for economic growth, through new technologies such as nuclear energy, that led up to the disaster, the disaster as it unfolded and the immediate and long term aftermath. It is a tale of the catastrophic coming together of a flawed and failing political system and an inherently dangerous nuclear industry.
A Soviet army helicopter above Chernobyl reactor 4 shortly after the explosion. Sandbags were dropped in a desperate attempt to put out the fire.
Anyone involved in construction will recognise the pattern of impossibly optimistic targets, design and construction flaws, violations of rules and procedures and rank deceit and incompetence at all levels. Anyone interested in politics and history will be drawn into a tale of how after the event everyone lied to everyone else to protect their skin. The plant managers lied to local officials who lied to Ukrainian officials who lied to Soviet officials who lied to the Soviet politburo who lied to the international community about the nature and scale of the disaster and the risks involved. Earlier warnings would have saved countless lives. The numbers who have died or will die will never be known as so many deaths are not immediately attributable. There were 2 immediate deaths and a further 29 deaths within 3 months from acute radiation sickness (plant operators, firemen and helicopter pilots etc) but the United Nations estimate a further 4,000 cancer related deaths – a figure that Greenpeace puts at 90,000. The area around Chernobyl will not be safe for human habitation for 20,000 years. The half-life of plutonium-239, traces of which were found as far away as Sweden, is 24,000 years.
I remember a primary school trip to ‘Hunterston A’ nuclear power station and seeing the goldfish swimming in the cooling water in outside ponds to demonstrate its safety. I knew instinctively even then that the only science I needed to understand was Murphy’s Law. Right now reactor 3 at ‘Hunterston B’ has been shut down after the discovery of over 370 hairline cracks in the graphite bricks that make up the reactor’s core. Meanwhile the construction of the nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point C in Somerset continues despite it being unnecessary, too expensive and of an unproven design with no working example of the proposed reactor type anywhere in the world.
‘Futurology – The new home in 2050’ published by the NHBC Foundation takes a look at how we could be living 30 years from now and as such is a good starting point for anyone planning a new home – be it in an urban or rural location. The ‘drivers’ for change will be the changes in demographics, advances in technology and reduced availability of land that we see all around us. The watchwords for the new home as we head towards 2050 will be accessibility, health and comfort, technology and adaptability.
The guide anticipates that increased life expectancy will lead to multi generational living with the need for flexible and adaptable family homes with shared and family spaces, home working spaces and self contained suites of rooms. Third age, single person and ‘micro’ apartment living are all expected to increase. New homes will be ‘smarter’ with low energy use and building and communications technology. The guide is not prescriptive and describes both age appropriate homes suitable for a particular stage of life (with the inference that the occupant moves on in due course) and homes that are flexible and adaptable enough to be suitable for most, if not all, of life’s journey.
Closer than we think – gravity in reverse
The problem with this semi-scientific approach to the home as a well designed and laid out tool / machine for living in is that most people don’t see homes in this way. We might change our car as our needs and circumstances change but not our home. Our home is part of our self-definition and we don’t always act ‘rationally’ in terms of how we live and use space. Changing home could mean leaving a community of friends and family behind. It could mean leaving a much loved street or place. In many cases the family home is the single biggest repository of family wealth.
‘Futurology – The new home in 2050’ is definitely a good primer for the future but it does have the feel of those sci-fi tv shows from years ago that predicted how we were supposed to be living now – but aren’t.
Skilled craftspeople of all kinds will be needed to restore Notre Dame cathedral in Paris following the fire that destroyed the gothic oak frame and roof, the spire and most of the interiors. Master carpenters and stonemasons will be needed to get roof and the walls back together and then a raft of specialists to reinstate the interiors. Cathedral grade skills like these are in such short supply nowadays that it could determine how quickly the work proceeds. The astoundingly complex oak frame and roof, known as ‘the forest’, were held to be one of the greatest masterpieces of Middle Age design and construction.
This assumes that the intention is to faithfully restore Notre Dame. In the world of architectural conservation there are various philosophical responses to fires such as this. ‘Ruinists’ say leave the building as a ruin – a romantic ghost, ‘modernists’ say replace with something that speaks for its time, ‘replicationists’ say what was there must be restored. The ‘replicationists’ will surely prevail at Notre Dame but what does ‘replication’ mean? Does it mean an authentic reconstruction of the whole thing using the original materials and techniques even where hidden from view or does it allow the use of equivalent modern means to achieve the same effect?
Sagrada Familia aerial view
Sagrada Familia Exterior view
After the fire that destroyed parts of Windsor Castle in 1992 it was decided that, with the exception of the areas that were redesigned such as St George’s Hall, the work would use whatever modern materials and techniques were necessary to recreate the interiors that were destroyed by the fire. This is in contrast to the reconstruction of the roof of York Minister cathedral which was exactly replicated in oak after the fire in 1984.
Sagrada Familia interior view
The fate of Notre Dame makes me think of another great European cathedral – the as yet unfinished Sagrada Família in Barcelona – started in 1882 and now 70% complete. Heaven forbid but how would you ever approach an ‘authentic’ restoration of a hybrid building like this. Antoni Gaudí‘s early work was in traditional carved stonework but from 1998 whole parts of the building have been prefabricated and craned into place. Large steel reinforced precast concrete elements, modern high-strength concrete, stainless steel, engineered wood, glass and light metal elements have all been used to speed up construction, increase safety and reduce cost. As well as this 3-D computer aided design has been extensively employed. The result is spectacular but certainly one to have the philosophers scratching their heads over what is meant by ‘authentic’ restoration.
Claire in Dundee
Here is our daughter Claire visiting the Scottish Design Museum at the V&A Dundee which opened last Autumn. She is in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed art nouveau oak tearoom interior. It was originally designed in 1907 and located at Ingram Street in Glasgow before being salvaged in an act of great foresight prior to the demolition of the host building in 1971. Now 50 years later it has been reassembled in Dundee. Strange to think that all four of Claire’s grandparents might have visited this popular tearoom when it was in Glasgow. Whilst it’s the actual interior it’s not really the same ‘place’ as it no longer occupies the particular position in space and time that it once did. Still it’s wonderful to think that the design can be experienced again.
Mackintosh is a big draw on the cultural tourism circuit nowadays and like his reputation his built body of work is expanding not contracting. His 1901 entry into a competition set by German design magazine ‘Zeitschrift Fur Innendekoration’ for the design a ‘Haus Eines Kunstfreundes’ or ‘Art Lovers House’ was realised in Glasgow the best part of a century after it was designed and now acts as a popular gallery and exhibition space, events venue, café, artists studios and visitor attraction.
House for an Art Lover – Mackintosh drawing
House for an Art Lover – As built 1996
Then there is his best known building, the Glasgow School of Art, which was severely damaged by a second catastrophic fire in June 2018. Here the plan is to faithfully rebuild Mackintosh’s original design. This is surely the right approach because so much information exists about the building that a more or less exact reconstruction is possible. In construction, many contractors and specialist subcontractors are considered for work but only one team can actually carry it out when many could have done. In the case of the school of art a new team can now reconstruct the original design idea just as the original team did over 100 years ago. Many blogs ago, when the issue was the rebuilding of the school of art library destroyed by the first fire in 2014, I suggested that because the library was a stand-alone design fitted into a simple box-like ‘shell’ within the building, more than one could be produced. I still think this would be a viable idea and perhaps one of them could head north east to join the tearoom in Dundee.
Wealden District Council’s ‘Wealden Local Plan’ continues on its way to adoption. It has now been submitted to the Secretary of State who has duly appointed an inspector to determine whether it is ‘sound’ and legally compliant. It’s probably already out of date. The survey that underpins the assessment of Forest Row certainly appears to be. The plans states (para 25.48) ‘The survey found that Forest Row is a relatively attractive, healthy and viable centre, and is performing well against many of the health check key performance criteria. For example, vacancy levels in the centre are low, which is a positive sign of the performance of existing shops and services and the good demand for space where vacancies do occur.’
A few days ago I counted, with the local barber, ten empty, or soon to be empty, shops. Maybe they all have prospective tenants – hopefully not more coffee shops as the number of places where it is possible to purchase a coffee in the village is also in double figures. There could be a vacancy for a nail bar though I won’t be using it. Hair attended to I crossed the road to the ironmongers which is having a closing down sale to see if I could get a circular sanding disc attachment for a drill. They didn’t have it so I went to Homebase in East Grinstead who had the sandpaper discs but not the disc attachment – which is an odd way of doing business. So I came home and bought it online and it was delivered free delivery the following morning. The problem in a nutshell. The solution might take something bigger.
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
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’.
‘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.
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
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.
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 (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
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’
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.