Whenever I visit one of the major exhibitions at the Royal Academy it never ceases to amaze me the punishment that must have been meted out to the ‘base’ building as part of the installation and then covered up as if it never happened.
Antony Gormley Matrix III 2019
The current exhibition of sculpture by Anthony Gormley is a good case in point. Whilst the galleries look in pristine condition, as if untouched from the previous exhibition, they must have been torn apart and rebuilt in the weeks leading up to the opening like a giant construction and engineering site.
Take for example the piece ‘Matrix III’ which is a vast cloud of steel reinforcing mesh in a three dimensional grid suspended almost invisibly from the neoclassical lantern over the main gallery. This enormous tonnage of steel must be carried by deep steel roof beams above whose load has to be taken down to ground somewhere. ‘Lost Horizon I’ includes solid larger than life cast iron figures casually projecting out of the walls as if held by a few rawlplugs. Other figures dangle from the glass ceiling as if supported by hooks. In reality the weight of these pieces and the pull-out loads on the walls must have meant they were rebuilt in steel frames and steel plates before being resurfaced, plastered and painted. What goes unseen really is most impressive and almost as impressive as the work.
Antony Gormley Lost Horizon I 2008
Gormley has been a favourite of mine since I visited his amazing outdoor exhibition ‘Human’ at the Forte di Belvedere in Florence in 2015. He turns everything (quite literally sometimes) on its head. ‘I want to use sculpture to throw us back into the world, to provide this place where magic, the subtlety, the extraordinary nature of our first-hand experience is celebrated, enhanced, made more present’.
I purchased a couple of exceptional examples of product design recently. The first was an ‘Uppababy Vista’ pushchair and carrycot and the second was a ‘Clicgear 3.5+’ golf trolley. They are similar in some ways – both are functional and attractive and both fold down to impossibly small bundles. The big difference was the price with the pushchair and carrycot costing five times the cost of the golf trolley. Obviously there is more to the pushchair but not five times more. I mean with a bit of modification you could almost push a baby around in the golf trolley. However the market knows best and both are market leaders.
‘Uppababy Vista’ pushchair and carry cot
‘Clicgear 3.5+’ golf trolley
It got me thinking again about what ‘stuff’ costs. ‘Stuff’ starts as a raw material, say clay in the case of a brick or iron ore in the case of a steel beam, and then all along the way costs are added. These include materials, labour, management, marketing and selling, operating costs, borrowing, research and development, return on capital, setting aside for future expansion and replacement etc. etc. A degree in economics is needed to make sense of the likes of fixed cost, variable cost, marginal cost, opportunity cost. The more you think about it the more complicated it becomes as it often depends on the route to market which is why in most cases it is left to the market to decide.
I am regularly asked what my designs will cost to build and I can, and do, provide an estimate on a m2 basis. A more detailed estimate can be provided by a quantity surveyor on an elemental basis or a contractor can give a ‘budget’ cost. If cost is looking like it could be a problem we can look at things like the size and complexity of the design, the method of construction, the specification level and the procurement approach. Do we use named products or generic equivalents or a performance specification? When all is said and done, competitive tendering remains the best route to determining price as the only price that ultimately matters is the market price which is the price at which a reputable contractor is prepared to sign a contract for the work.
Funchal, Madeirra photo Bengt Nyman
What better way to extend the summer than an Autumn fortnight In Madeira the ‘floating garden in the Atlantic’ which boasts a sub tropical climate, year round summer weather, stunning scenery and unique flora and fauna. The architecture is a mix of the modern and classical European styles from colonial times often featuring the characteristic black local stonework and white render. Tourism is the mainstay of the local economy with adventure holidays for the young in the mountains supplementing the traditional ‘old guard’. There appears to be plenty of construction activity – I tend to count the cranes on the skyline as a crude measure.
Baroque, twin towered facade of Our Lady of Monte Church, Madeira (1818) featuring black local stonework and white render
A positive narrative then but like so much nowadays there is a competing narrative which is the chronic lack of sustainability. Madeira’s year round population is nearly 300,000 with five times as many tourists visiting annually. Most arrive by air which we all know is not a sustainable form of travel and not likely to become one. Add to that the food and everything else that has to come in by air and we have an island whose steady development must be at risk. So for that reason I wouldn’t buy a property there or invest in development even if I could afford to. The smart money is apparently on Scotland (water and energy).
When teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered a stinging rebuke to world leaders at the United Nations Climate Summit a few weeks ago over a lack of action on the climate emergency she would have had the likes of Madeira’s air miles count in mind (3,100 miles round trip from London). The charming old fashioned idea of Madeira may one day include the idea of not visiting at all.
Flat drafting in the office of Charles and Ray Eames, 1970
Universal height adjustable table by Knoll
‘Architect’s back’ – the occupational injury endured by generations of architects who bent over architectural drawing boards in the days of set squares, tee squares, technical pens and tracing paper – died away with the advent of computer aided design. Ergonomically designed computer work stations help prevent back strain by allowing architects to sit upright with the ears directly above the shoulders which in turn are over the hips. Drafting chairs have a pneumatic gas lift for height adjustment, tilt adjustment, a foot ring to promote leg circulation and a curved back for lumbar support. As well as this freestanding height-adjustable tables also play an increasingly important role in preventing back strain by giving users the choice to sit or stand throughout the day.
Unfortunately some of the newest generation of architectural start ups (and lots of other tech start ups) including that of my son Simon are not working like this at all. They are working on laptops in coffee shops, shared workspaces, clubs, lounges etc . Because the keyboard and monitor are combined in a laptop they can’t be positioned independently for typing and viewing which means incorrect neck and shoulder posture and inevitably ‘architect’s back’ which I think is beginning to afflict Simon. There is a solution which is the use of a docking station that links the laptop to another monitor and keyboard or to a stand that raises the screen to a higher level.
Strange to have come full circle. Time to go ‘back to the drawing board’ (metaphorically speaking) and rethink this one.
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.
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.