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A Hand Crafted World
 

Pugin Cover

I’ve just finished Rosemary Hill’s epic biography of Augustus Pugin ‘God’s Architect – Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain’. It reads a bit like a prequel to Fiona MacCarthy’s definitive biography of William Morris ‘William Morris – A Life for Our Time’ which I half finished some time ago and finally finished last year. Two absolutely marvelous books that bring two design giants of the Victorian era to life. Though they had much in common, and Morris was heavily influenced by Pugin, their paths never crossed. Morris (1834-96) was entering Oxford when Pugin (1812 – 52) died aged 40.

Barry and Pugin House of Lords

Barry and Pugin House of Lords

Pugin was an artist, writer, critic and designer who pioneered the Gothic revival and packed more into his short life than most do into a long life. He was hardly out of childhood when he started his architectural career in his father’s architectural drawing school. The school travelled to measure and draw gothic architecture in France for publication in volumes of architectural drawings. So Pugin was completely immersed in the glories of late medieval gothic even before his architectural career began. He matured from the authentic copying of gothic archetypes (pointed or ‘Christian’ architecture as he called it) to a completely original free use of gothic elements applicable to all building types. As well the design of buildings he designed interiors, furniture, stained glass, metalwork, textiles and jewellery. When I think of gothic architecture I think of cold, dark, damp gothic churches but Hill’s book brings to life the splendours of high vaults, buttresses, rose windows, towers, spires and pinnacles. Along with many fine buildings of his own Pugin is known for his work with Sir Charles Barry on the interiors for the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) and the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben).

Morris Cover_Morris was an artist, writer, poet, designer, craftsman, publisher and socialist. Artistically he was associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and the arts and crafts movement which grew out of concerns over the effects of industrialisation on traditional skills. For Morris the arts and crafts movement was about the politics of living and working not about style. MacCarthy’s book pulls the multiple strands of his life together and shows how they led to his role as one of the founders of the socialist movement. Like Pugin, Morris was a pioneer who owed much of his success to his vision, determination and sheer hard work.

Webb and Morris Red House Bexleyheath photo David Kemp

Webb and Morris Red House Bexleyheath photo David Kemp

Amazingly there is much here for the practicing architect of today especially for those of us who believe that the current way of doing things is in the process of a slow disintegration that will lead to a more hand crafted world. The championing by Pugin and Morris of the practical role of the skilled artist-craftsman in terms of creativity, inventiveness and problem-solving is especially relevant to these changing times. As the realisation dawns that the current economic model, based on debt that cannot be repaid and the impossibility of an infinite supply of cheap energy and natural resources, is broken, we will see a gradual re-setting of how things get done – towards a more local, sustainable and hand crafted model. Such a model might even be recognisable to Pugin and Morris.

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Nucléaire? Non merci
 

Good news that EDF (Électricité de France) could scrap its plan to build the £18 billion Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset if the company fails to receive further funding from the French government. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/03/11/edf-could-axe-hinkley-point-unless-france-increases-funding/. Hopefully it will be cancelled allowing the both the French and British governments and consumers to save a lot of money. It is too big, too expensive and of an unproven design with no working example anywhere in the world of the proposed reactor type. Nuclear power should be consigned to the dustbin of history where it seemed to be heading after the decommissioning costs and the risks became apparent (Chernobyl and Fukushima – fifth anniversary and no solution http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/11/fukushima-daiichi-nuclear-reactors-decommission-cleanup-japan-tsunami-meltdown. Then there are all the other problems such as the safe disposal of radioactive waste (which is not a very nice gift to leave future generations), the effects of low level radiation and the risk of nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorists etc. The only ‘science’ that we need to understand about nuclear power is Murphy’s law. Even the ‘baseload’ argument used to support nuclear power is questionable. This article in the ecologist illustrates how a flexible renewables-based approach could make conventional ‘baseload’ power stations unnecessary http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987376/dispelling_the_nuclear_baseload_myth_nothing_renewables_cant_do_better.html

Project Update Spring 2016

Project Update Spring 2016

Good news too on the sustainable energy front. In Surrey the biggest floating solar farm in Europe, which is being constructed on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir near Walton-on-Thames, will be completed by the end of the month. More than 23,000 solar photovoltaic panels will generate the electricity equivalent to the annual consumption of about 1,800 homes http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-35705345. In the Pentland Firth, Phase 1a of the world’s largest offshore tidal stream turbine project is now well underway. Eventually the full project will supply 398MW of clean and renewable electricity to the national grid. The spring 2016 project update is available here http://www.meygen.com/. The missing piece of the jigsaw is renewable energy storage. The Renewable Energy Association published its report ‘Energy Storage in the UK’ at the end of last year which provides an overview of the emerging technologies http://www.r-e-a.net/member/uk-energy-storage. Energy storage will come to the fore as renewables begin to meet an increasing part of the nation’s energy demand.

Let’s hope that last December’s Paris climate deal, which signalled the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era, also signalled the beginning of the ‘clean’ energy revolution – not the continuation or return of ‘dirty’ nuclear power.

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Mackintosh or ‘Mockintosh’?
 

When I was asked by ‘Wealden Times’ to name a building that has been a particular inspiration and explain the choice in 150 words I had no hesitation in choosing the Glasgow School of Art (completed in 1909) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for personal as well as architectural reasons.

I first visited the building in the early 1960’s as a small child with my father who taught drawing and painting there. It sits on a steep hill and I remember us standing looking over the city below from the glazed loggia at roof level. I returned in the mid 1970’s as an architecture student at the Mackintosh School of Architecture and spent all my architectural education in and around it.

It is a building of contrasts – simplicity versus decoration, large versus small spaces and dark spaces versus light airy spaces. It is both a landmark of early modern architecture and rich in traditional Scottish and art nouveau detail. Mackintosh used the skills of the various tradesmen and craftsmen to add a level of decorative detail to a rational design making it a fine example of what can be achieved on a limited budget through imagination, the skills of all involved and the true nature of the materials used.

Glasgow School of Art Library

Glasgow School of Art Library

The highlight for me is (was?) the Japanese inspired library with its intricate detail and exciting use of space, natural light and colour. Sadly when fire ravaged the building a couple of years ago the library was completely destroyed with only the masonry ‘shell’ into which it had been inserted remaining http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13162087.Lost_in_the_fire__Mackintosh_library_has_gone/. After much debate the decision has been taken to rebuild the library exactly to Mackintosh’s original plans. Some think that this will constitute a ‘Mockintosh’ copy and that the school should instead install a contemporary design that reflects the present time. But it seems to me that since there will be sufficient detail to create an exact copy this is the right course of action to return this little gem to the city. On any project detailed drawings are produced and then one of multiple potential building / craftsmen teams is selected to build it. Here we will have a second team going through the process again from full information just over a century after the original construction. In fact, since the library was inserted into a masonry ‘shell’, couldn’t multiple versions be created for insertion into suitable ‘shells’ in art galleries or libraries throughout the world? If licenced, these could help cover the cost at the Glasgow School of Art and allow more visitors to enjoy this unique space.

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The Burrell Formula
 

The Burrell Collection Gallery in Glasgow’s Pollock Country Park http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/burrell-collection/Pages/default.aspx was designed by Barry Gasson and Brit Andresen. It opened in 1983 and houses one of the greatest art collections ever created by one person – a unique collection of over 8,000 objects gifted to Glasgow in 1944 by Sir William Burrell.

The Burrell Collection Gallery, Pollock Country Park, Glasgow 1983 by Barry Gasson and Brit Andresen

The Burrell Collection Gallery, Pollock Country Park, Glasgow 1983 by Barry Gasson and Brit Andresen

William Burrell was a passionate art collector who made his fortune in shipping. In the book ‘The Burrell Collection’ (pub: Collins 1983) Richard Marks explains how the fortune of William and his brother George was made:

‘The formula was quite simple. In times of depression they would order a large number of ships at rock bottom prices, calculating that the vessels would be coming off the stocks when the slump was reaching an end. Burrell and Son was then in a position to attract cargoes because it had ships available and could undercut its rivals. Then, after several years of highly profitable trading, the brothers would sell the fleet in a boom period and lie low until the cycle would begin again. It sounds easy, and Burrell himself described it as making money like slate-stones, but none of the firm’s competitors was bold enough to take such risks. The operation was repeated twice on a large scale’

I have seen the construction equivalent of this. During the 1989 – 1993 recession, I was part of the architectural team that built the Glaxo pharmaceuticals research campus in Stevenage at a cost of around £500 million. It was generally held that this figure could have been around £100 million more had the work not coincided with the bottom of the cycle. I have seen the opposite as well – inflated construction costs – especially during the final months of 1999 leading up to the Millennium celebrations (remember the Millennium dome and it’s various themed zones?) when clients were obliged to pay ‘silly money’ to get things completed.

Right now the market for construction work in the south east is patchy. Whilst there is plenty of work in London, where there are some skills shortages, in the wider south east prices have recovered since the ‘bargain basement’ prices that resulted from the ‘great recession’ that started in 2008 but there is still spare capacity. If the upturn in prices continues to roll out from London this year the pent up cost pressures in construction caused by years of cost freeze / cost reductions will continue to be released – though it remains to be seen at what speed prices will harden. Thankfully, from my point of view, there have been a few ‘Burrells’ about taking advantage of current prices.

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50 years of Complexity and Contradiction
 

‘I like complexity and contradiction in architecture’. The opening sentence of Robert Venturi’s timeless masterpiece is the most liberating sentence on the subject of architecture that I ever read because up until then I thought part of my job was to eliminate it. ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’ was first published in the USA 50 years ago in 1966 but it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that the influence of the ideas that it contained had spread to the point where I felt compelled to invest a £4.75 of my student grant in my own paperback copy. Up until around this time my year group, and most of the architectural profession, expected to design in the pure white modernist ‘international style’ even though it should have been fairly apparent that it had run out of ideas and become a pale imitation of what it originally stood for. I remember doing a project for a white cubist yacht club at Gourock on the Firth of Clyde which was believable and almost contextual enough in a nautical kind of way but that was the last time I designed in that idiom.  ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’ was the start of the ‘postmodern’ rebellion against modernism and for most of us it was a liberation from what was effectively a modernist design ‘straightjacket’.

Complexity

Being such a talented writer it’s best just to let Venturi’s own words speak for themselves: Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like elements that are hybrid rather than ‘pure’, compromising rather than ‘clean’, distorted rather than ‘straightforward’, ambiguous rather than ‘articulated’, perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as ‘interesting’, conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or’, black and white, and sometimes grey, to black or white.’

The above quotes are all from the first page – Venturi’s point of view being that architecture becomes interesting when complexity and contradiction are introduced. His arguments are developed throughout the book with the aid of three hundred and fifty architectural photographs which serve both as historical comparisons and to illustrate the act of creating and experiencing architecture.

Whilst ‘postmodernism’ – the style that followed in the 1970’s and 80’s – came and went, corrupted itself by its often corporate paymasters and a lack of rigour (just as modernism was), later versions of ‘modernism’ were never the same. Today’s ‘contextual modernism’ (or whatever it’s currently called) owes a great debt to Venturi’s book. I re-read it and it has as much to say now after 50 years about resisting the easy orthodoxy as it had to say when it was first published.

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Beyond Reach (for now)
 

I watched Sharon White, communications watchdog Ofcom’s chief executive, on yesterday’s news which reported that, despite alleged underinvestment and poor access for rivals, Ofcom has stopped short of requiring the complete splitting off of Openreach from BT. Instead Openreach is to provide improved access to its infrastructure for rivals to lay their own fibre cables with the threat of a possible future break up if matters do not improve.

Despite her reasonable explanations the part of her review of the telecoms industry that allows Openreach to remain with BT just sounds conceptually wrong to me. The replacement of the existing network of copper wires with ultrafast fibre optics is too important to be left in the hands of a single monopoly supplier however opened – up, regulated and reported upon it may be. This technology is key to the economic future of the country, it is needed urgently and we are falling behind. As much innovation and, crucially, investment as can be found is needed and the idea that it is to be funnelled through Openreach is not brave enough. Ultrafast fibre optics will affect how we live, work, shop, travel around, form ourselves into communities etc. We need to get on with it and open it up within a regulatory framework – not use such a framework to limit competition. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35657210

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‘Green crap’
 

The concepts of ‘peak oil’ and ‘sustainability’ are closely related but with the cost of crude oil at the lowest level since 2004 http://www.cnbc.com/2016/02/19/ ‘peak oil’ is not so much on the mainstream agenda these days (even though there is obviously less of it). But what of ‘sustainability’ and the ‘green agenda’?

Something similar has happened there too. After last year’s general election the ‘greenest government ever’ decided to cut ‘the green crap’. In July 2015 the ‘Zero Carbon Homes’ policy was scrapped along with tighter energy efficiency standards which would have come into force this year. Government funding for the ‘Green Deal’ has now been pulled and feed in tariffs for electricity-generating renewable energy technologies have been steadily reduced with talk of larger contributions towards the cost of grid infrastructure.

My take on it is that ‘sustainability’ is simply now assimilated into mainstream practice. Photovoltaics and heat pumps are now commonplace and a reduction in government support was inevitable. As the government steps back the future of the ‘sustainability’ agenda now has to be in the hands of the construction industry and building owners and users. It has to offer a return on investment.

I’ve seen plenty of new ideas which were originally much talked about ‘fringe’ activities become part of mainstream practice – key performance indicators (KPI’s), benchmarking, off-site prefabrication (the site as ‘assembly yard’), cost risk management and allocation, life cycle costing, zero defects, partnering, framework agreements, building information modelling (BIM) and so on. ‘Sustainability’ is another of these.  The reduction in the ‘noise’ associated with it recently is an indication that it has become part of the mainstream and not an indication of its demise.

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Crisis? What crisis?
 

Reports such as this one http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/09/housing-crisis-tenants-shelter-private-rent on the housing crisis appear with alarming regularity. It is a complicated and highly political issue but it seems to me that it is more a matter of national priorities than of government action or inaction. We simply don’t put enough emphasis on the supply of affordable housing and the standard of living of those who are in need of it. At both the national and personal levels what do we want to spend our money on – basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter or other ‘needs’ such as nuclear missiles, foreign holidays, flash cars, Sky TV?

The government gets blamed but ‘in a democracy people get the government they deserve’ (Alexis de Toqueville 19th century French  political thinker). Any ‘visitor from outer space’ would have to conclude that we are an odd lot.

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People in Glass Houses
 

‘Modernism’ in architecture emerged in the early part of the twentieth century.  It has developed many strands but the common themes are functionality, rationality, man made materials, factory made components and a lack of ornamentation. In Britain it has always been met with an ambivalent, even suspicious, attitude – similar to the attitude held by many nowadays towards the European Union – a fraudulent foreign intellectual exercise!

Whilst the latest iteration of ‘modernist’ architecture is just about acceptable nowadays for certain buildings such as schools and hospitals it is still rare to see it used for privately owned houses.  It is even rarer to see that sub-species of the ‘modernist’ house – the ‘glass house’.

Other designed objects such as ‘Concorde’, sports cars, laptop computers, fashion etc can all be totally ‘modern’ but when it comes to ‘home sweet home’ the response is generally a polite ‘no thank you’.  This is probably for a complex set of reasons that include our national traditions and character, our insularity as an island nation and the fact that privately owned houses are the main asset that many families possess so need to be ‘marketable’ (ie ‘traditional’).

I reflected on this when I read of the death of the London ‘modernist’ architect John Winter.  He is best known for the Cor-Ten steel (a ‘rusty’ carbon steel) and glass house that he built in Highgate in 1967-69.  This was one of a celebrated group of steel and glass houses built in this mature part of north London which included Michael Hopkin’s house in Hampstead (1976) and Spence and Webster’s pair of courtyard houses in Belsize Park (1978).  I was lucky enough to work for Spence and Webster in one of the Belsize Park houses when I came to London in 1985 – 86 when they used it as an office.

Left: John Winter Cor-Ten House, Highgate, London 1967-69 Centre: Michael Hopkins Hopkins House, Hampstead, London 1976 Right: Spence and Webster, Courtyard Houses, Belsize Park, London 1978

Left: John Winter Cor-Ten House, Highgate, London 1967-69 Centre: Michael Hopkins Hopkins House, Hampstead, London 1976 Right: Spence and Webster, Courtyard Houses, Belsize Park, London 1978

These houses were ‘tolerated’ by being almost invisible (the Spence and Webster houses are hidden behind a tall wall) or neutral (the Hopkins House is see through / reflective as if it somehow isn’t really there).  Contrast this with America where the ‘glass house’ is a celebrated cultural phenomenon dating back to the ‘granddaddy’ of all ‘glass houses’ – the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe (1945-51).  This famous line runs through the Eames House (1949), Philip Johnson’s ‘Glass House’ (1949) and, my favourite, the Stahl House by Pierre Koenig (1959) which sits in the Hollywood Hills with a commanding view of Los Angeles below.

Top Left: Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois 1945-51 Top Centre: Philip Johnson, Glass House, New Canaan, Conneticut 1949 Top Right: Charles and Ray Eames, Eames House, Corona del Mar, California 1949 Bottom Left and Right: Pierre Koenig, Stahl House, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California 1959

Top Left: Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois 1945-51 Top Centre: Philip Johnson, Glass House, New Canaan, Conneticut 1949 Top Right: Charles and Ray Eames, Eames House, Corona del Mar, California 1949 Bottom Left and Right: Pierre Koenig, Stahl House, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California 1959

What does the future hold for people who want to live in ‘glass houses’?  There is certainly no technical impediment since glass technology has kept one step ahead of the demands of the Building Regulations for low carbon design through triple glazing with argon / krypton / xenon gas filled cavities and warm edge spacer bars, solar control and low emissivity coatings.  Flat roofing technology, insulation materials and steel coatings are vastly superior to what they were in the days of the early ‘modernists’.  The main impediment to building a ‘glass house’ is confidence and desire and the commissioning of a high quality design that will obtain planning permission.

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Your Paintings
 

In another example of the wonders of the information age, the UK’s national collection of 212,000 oil paintings is now online at ‘Your Paintings’ – a joint initiative between the Public Catalogue Foundation http://www.thepcf.org.uk/ and the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/. The ‘Your Paintings’ website can be searched by artist, subject, style etc.

Whilst there is no substitute for seeing the real thing it is still wonderful to be able to view high quality photographs of the national collection without having to travel the length and breadth of the country to do so. In any case at any one time 80% of the national collection is not on view.

My father, John Miller RSA PPRSW (1911 – 1975) was a Scottish artist who studied at the Glasgow School of Art and taught there from 1944 – 1974. He was influenced by French impressionism and known for his still life and landscape paintings. I knew several of his works are in public collections but not how many, which paintings or where they are. Through ‘Your Paintings’ I discovered that there are fourteen of his paintings in public collections – some of which I had never seen.

Another of his paintings, which I can’t remember but would love to see, was an oil portrait of me as a child which was sold at exhibition to a private collector. Perhaps private collections will be added to ‘Your Paintings’ or something similar will be set up in due course for privately held paintings which will allow it to re-emerge after all these years.

John Miller Fading Poppies, Rhu Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture Collection

John Miller Fading Poppies, Rhu   Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture Collection

John Miller Showery Weather, St Andrews Glasgow Museums Collection

John Miller Showery Weather, St Andrews    Glasgow Museums Collection