Tuesday, June 30, 2020


A year flashing past.  My youngest son has turned 33.  In a couple of years he will be half my age.  My last-post-but-one reflected on work I did a couple of years before he was born.  Let’s Build Zimbabwe, Module B.  Since then I have re-assembled that booklet, remaining close to the original. I re-typed all the text, & cleaned up the drawings one-by-one.

That was a tedious process in some ways, but spending the time examining them closely was a positive experience.  I’m probably not the only person reflecting on my past life during these strange lock down times, but for me it is turning into a remarkably positive exercise.

I have been motivated to create new drawings of this type: drawing on my ipad, using long lost sketches as an underlay and emulating the crisp Rotring technique that I developed all those years ago.  The aim was to capture the activity of building, the processes, sequences of events in time.   You can do this with video clips now, and I think this is a wonderful addition to our arsenal of educational weapons, but there is a level of clarity in a well though-out-drawing that video capture can never hope to achieve.

The Slack group for Project Notre Dame is a useful sounding board for me, especially in the age of social distance.  It always helps to explain your intentions and methods to someone else.  Teachers often learn more from their lessons than their students, and that’s not a bad thing.  

Module B was the last of the 3 books we had printed and distributed to schools.  (We started with C for historical reasons, then flipped back to the beginning of the series.  D & E never went beyond an outline and some rough sketches) B is the one that crystallized our ideas about how to structure the books.  We came up with a series of ideas for training rigs that would give pupils a hands-on glimpse of different building activities.  One of these emulates a simple timber roof structure, built at ground level so that it is accessible without scaffolding and attendant risk.

When I started on this “restoration project” I was using my phone to capture the images from faded newsprint pages.  It’s fast, and yields images of remarkable quality which sync to One Drive (and my laptop) automatically.  As I moved on to Module A, I was also doing some “spring cleaning” of my flat and rescued an old A4 scanner from one tangled corner.  This had never been set up on my current laptop, but that was easy enough.

The images are still grey and discoloured at the edges, but at least they are nice and square on the page. I have been isolating the drawings in preparation for retyping the text.  It would be wonderful to assemble the entire 5 booklet series.  Task completed, 35 years later?  That would be typical of my life and many of the projects I have embarked upon.  Better at starting than finishing.

I began looking at the “Let’s Build Zimbabwe” series in preparation for a talk I was to give for the Volterra Reality Capture group.  I wanted to give some context to my life-journey, leading up to Project Notre Dame.  The main body of that presentation was a live session of Revit, and I started by looking at the clerestory windows of the nave, which were enlarged about a century into the construction process.  

In preparation for that, I set up a sheet, with a perspective view in the middle and small callouts of the two end conditions, stacked up at the sides.  Judicious use of colour over-rides helps to link the higher portions of roof that pop up at the ends, to the callout views which explain what is going on inside the spaces.

Another couple of days was spent setting up “Window Schedule” sheets, assigning codes to the different types, and organizing them in a logical sequence.  The families are still a work in progress.  Francois is the active member for this domain, with previous input by myself, Alfredo and Daniel.  Looking forward to seeing further progress, including more “stained glass” texture maps.

As you can see, some of the windows are still represented by the plain “placeholder” family that I created right at the beginning of this project.  Probably we need to balance modelling work and sheet setup as we move forward.  Important to make the model accessible to the outside world.  Although incomplete, I think it has reached a stage where it is a very valuable resource for students and researchers in various disciplines.

Saturday, June 27, 2020


The past is another country.  

I remembered that phrase because it’s the title of a book that I haven’t read, a history of Zimbabwe.  I thought it was also a quote by someone famous, but that turns out to be “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”  We could do with some of that wry wisdom amongst the current hysteria, but that’s not really my topic today.  The "famous person" turned out to be L.P Hartley, an oddly unfamiliar name.  First sentence of "The Go Between", his 1953 novel, made into a film in 1971, the year before he died.  Screenplay by Harold Pinter.

1973.  Find it on a map.  I was transitioning from “long haired student” to … something else, a leap in the dark.  I had decided during the course of my 3 year degree in … well it was architecture really but they decided to “broaden” the field, which is a bit like flattening the curve I suppose. So it was a flexi-degree at the School of Environmental Studies, aka the Bartlett School of Architecture.

Anyway. I chose London because … well, London.  I had grown up in a coal-mining town “up north” and just wanted to go to the big smoke, where all the ground-breaking stuff was happening.  I had read some Le Corbusier, was aware of Archigram and had also stumbled across Jane Jacobs (The Life and Death of Great American Cities)  I was a quiet, somewhat intense teenager who had lived a sheltered existence in a religious household, but the mood of the sixties had deeply affected most of “My Generation” and I was beginning to see architecture as a mission to solve social problems.  

Where today’s youth might decide to change the world “one tweet at a time”, I aspired to design totally new kinds of cities that would unleash fairness and creativity upon our species.

During my third year I had already decided to veer away from the expected career path.  Instead of designing a school, I set off on an exploration of the “free school movement”.  I saw myself as living out the dream of “self-directed, life-long learning”.  It sounds incredibly naïve in retrospect, but in a sense, I’m still doing that (in between paying my way and raising a family etc.)  So there was no clear transition from being a student to … not being a student.  I carried on going in to the architecture department fairly regularly and stirring up dissent.  I was living within walking distance and living on a shoestring, so why not?  

All that year I had made a point of getting involved in real-world activities.  This included going to a “School Without Walls” conference in Scotland and volunteering at an adventure playground called “The Tufnell Park Playhouse”.  There was also a lot of guitar playing and drawing.  So it was important to me that the formal end date of my studies would be meaningless.  I was already “doing my thing” and wasn’t yet desperate to earn money.  

Rebellion feeds on affluence and free time … perhaps.

I had been living in a tiny box room in a basement apartment in North Gower Street, with a young family that had more-or-less adopted me.  Two young boys with whom I spent a lot of time: drawing, rough-housing, talking nonsense.  I had also run into a group of teenagers from North London who wanted to publish a subversive magazine called “Y-front”.  The theme was to be Anti-School and pro “learning by discovery”.  I new someone who had started something called “The Islington Free Press”, a printing press operating from a squatted corner shop.  One of the highlights of my last two years at grammar school was doing layout and illustrations for a new-style school magazine.

In my final year at university (UCL) I had been drawing cartoons and producing little subversive broadsheets.  When you are young and free of responsibilities, it’s very easy to believe that you can create a new and better world from scratch.  What could possibly go wrong?

There was an idea floating around that change would come from an alliance between students and workers.  Some people said that had started to happen in Paris in 1968.  I began to wonder if I needed to head back to the north of England, to rediscover my “working-class roots”.  It was a romantic notion, but it took root in my imagination and was expressed in notebooks that I kept at the time.

My squatting experience was a “dry run” at striking off in a new direction.  It was a bridge, a connecting ligament between my student experience in London, and the life of my 20s, working in the building trades in Sheffield.  It came about accidentally, but I already knew several people who lived in squats.  Why not give it a go?  There was plenty of empty property in Central London.  

Redevelopment projects typically took several years to mature.  Developers would slowly buy up a city block, often boarding up empty houses and letting the area deteriorate so that it would be easier to obtain a demolition order.  We felt that we were doing something noble in putting these empty properties to use.  We saw the developers as “evil capitalists” and relished the opportunity to establish zones of freedom where we could create alternative social structures.  

Looking through the old notebooks that I started to keep around this time, I was more interested in learning practical skills than fomenting revolution.  It was more of an internal awakening for me.  Healer, heal thyself, perhaps.  

Self-reliance was a big item.  Learn to cook & sew. And of course, the life-long compulsion to play guitar and to draw.  It's all there in those little dog-eared pocket books.

One day, a friend of mine from the university came up with a proposal.  She needed to move out of the place where she was living and had spotted a boarded-up shop around the corner from where I lived.  In the event, four of us banded together and broke into this old cobbler’s business one night.  

It was a terrible choice in practical terms.  We thought we would be able to turn on the electricity and water.  Most squats did this.  There were printed sheets explaining how to go about it.  It didn’t work out, but by then we had fallen in love with the place, the romance of the shuttered shopfront and the atmosphere of bygone days.  We could walk to the public toilets in Euston Station, or take a bath in the basement flat where I had been staying.  Our squat was a bout half way between the two, and also very close to University College, where my friend was still a student.

My plan to move north had taken shape.  I would move to Sheffield with two friends, one of whom had the money to buy a house, an old brick terrace.  We would do building work to earn a basic income.  I had neither skills nor experience, but my friends had both and seemed willing to help me to learn on the job.  

Moving in to the “Quality New & Second-Hand Shoe Store” helped to acclimatize me to this idea of jumping in at the deep end, ditching my aspiring middle-class future and diving back into the working class seas out of which my father had crawled, (by way of the Second World War).  My parents were mystified of course, horrified probably, but we found each other again eventually.

During those few months, preparing to move, I decided to earn some money. There was something of a building boom going on, and lots of work in architects’ offices. I started by going to an agency who farmed me out to the Telephone Exchanges section of the Ministry of Works.  I wonder how my life might have worked out if I had stayed on there.  

The architect in charge took me under his wing and I think he was very disappointed when I moved on after just a few weeks.  One of the tutors in the architecture department had heard what I was doing and offered me a better opportunity with the practice where he was a partner.  But here again I was just biding time and saving money.  The arrogance of youth.  In retrospect I realise that several sympathetic adults tried to save me from a catastrophic decision.  And they were right to do so ... I think.  But strangely enough it all worked out for the best.  

Some deep instinct inside of me realised that I was not ready to spend my youth sitting in architects' offices.  I needed to take a few lessons in the school of hard knocks first.

The area where I was squatting contained a decaying urban composition called Tolmers Square.  In the middle of the square was a church which had been converted into a cinema.  This had still been operating during my first year at university.  It was demolished.  

Later on, after I moved to Sheffield, Tolmers Square became the focus for a vibrant community of squatters and tenants, including several Indian restaurants and shops.  This had been my locale for a couple of years already before I started squatting.  Not long before I moved "up north", we became aware that there were other squats in the area.  

After I left the whole thing blossomed and we came down to visit a few times.  I still had several friends there, including Harry, an old guy from Manchester who had been sleeping on the streets and moved into the Shoe Shop with us for a while.

I think squatting was some kind of “rite of passage” for me, something I had to pass through to begin my journey to adult-hood.  It was a time when a maelstrom of ideas was swirling around in my brain, many of them wildly unrealistic.  Fortunately I was inclined to look inwards, and although I imagined society becoming transformed (via some kind of permanent revolution) into a utopia of creative anarchy … I thought in terms of building new things, rather than tearing down old ones.  

It seemed to me that if we could build a better world in microcosm, the old “broken” one would gradually fade away.  As I approach 70 years old, I can only smile and shake my head at some of the notions I entertained in the enthusiasm of youth.  

Thankfully, after crossing the bridge of squatting, I embarked on the ship of craft skills, learning to lay bricks and spending most of my 20s working with my hands.  This in turn provided the platform that allowed me to go to Zimbabwe as a building teacher.  But that chapter of my past is another continent altogether.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


Half a lifetime ago I was enjoying my dream job, writing text books about Building for school students in Zimbabwe. It may seem strange that Building is a subject on the timetable, alongside Mathematics and History, but that’s the way things are in Southern Africa ... and why not?
In my view, Building Studies provided a perfect vehicle for integrating concepts from other school subjects and helping students to apply their knowledge to real-life situations.  

This post looks at a booklet I wrote and illustrated long ago.  I should acknowledge Malcom Davis who was my colleague and collaborator.  We had a very productive partnership with complementary skills and ideas.  Unfortunately, he had a serious car accident around this time, and we never quite recovered that early magic again before I moved on to another role, teaching at the university. 

We planned a series of five booklets, but only completed three.  This was the last one to go out of the door, and the first one where we used a computer to generate the text.  Bye bye Tippex :)  We had access to a BBC Micro with a tiny little screen and an external floppy drive.  You needed 3 floppy disks to store a megabyte of data!  The text was printed out on a “daisy wheel” printer.  I think we had the choice of two fonts.  

The layout was done using “cut and paste” in the original, literal sense of steel rule, scalpel, and cow gum.  I don’t have the original art work.  The booklets were printed on news print and my copies are brown at the edges by now.  I have tried my best to clean them up, adding colour here and there to emphasize our attempts to present the course as a series of activities and discussions.  In some cases I have recreated the panels using more modern software tools.

Module A was called First Steps and introduced basic skills like handling a bricklayer's trowel, safety on site, drawing … as well as thinking about buildings more broadly.  Why are houses built differently in different countries and climates?  Module B begins to take the students sequentially through the process of building a small house.  The first few pages introduce the idea of a Building Site.  We try to make links to Maths, Science & Language with activities of various kinds.  

By the time this book came back from the printers I had the idea of formalizing the different activity types in the book and creating a graphic symbol to represent each of them.  Little Icons to highlight the idea of creating a varied sequence of experiences.  Group discussions were one of these activity types.  How do you go about choosing a good site for a building?  The drawing is based on my experience of Rural Zimbabwe, an inspiring landscape for me at the time.  All done with a set pf Rotring pens, my trusty little tool box.  

Waves of nostalgia as I try to remember the process of thinking up a drawing like this.  Clearly some effort went in to making each house slightly different, but also believable as the kinds of structure you would see out in the rural areas.  Some strong hints about the advantages and disadvantages of different locations.  I wonder how many teachers tried to do this exercise?  We were conscious that rote learning was the norm in most schools, so the idea of pupils sitting in small groups and talking to each other was quite edgy.

The next activity was more physical and outdoor, but still rather different from the formulaic approach many teachers would have been used to.  We were trying to blur the boundaries with other subjects like science and geography. What is in soil?  How does it change as you go deeper? Why would you want to move away the organic material in the top layer?  The traditional approach would be to give answers to all these questions, (wisdom from above) and perhaps have the students copy down notes in their exercise books.  Then follow up with a test a few weeks later.

I first learned about setting out around 1975 when I was re-training as a bricklayer, having abandoned the idea of becoming an architect.  I found it really exciting, a link between my academic childhood and the practical world of building trades that I was determined to master.  We devised a set of exercises that could be done in groups with very basic equipment (a few short lengths of steel bar, some fishing line and a tape measure, plus a hammer.)  We did these a couple of times with groups of trainee teachers and they seemed to work well.  What's that saying?  "I listen and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand."  Something like that.

The idea of a straight line seems very trivial, but in evolutionary terms it is a relatively recent feature of human experience.  The three techniques illustrated in the next drawing are archetypal really.  The laser beam is new perhaps, but it’s a beam of light like the boning rods example shown below.  “A good eye” is an expression you will often hear artisans using.  As David Hockney likes to say “you have to look, really look.”  I have spent so much of my life looking at buildings and trying to understand them.  But who knows when I will be able to travel to a historic city again?  

From simple techniques like stretching a piece of string, to the abstraction of regular polygons and Pythagoras theorem.  “Learning by doing” sums up our existence in many ways.  I was enthused with the idea of conveying the processes and activities involved in building a house.  Regular textbooks seemed to be too static.  You see the end product, but the excitement of how it is conjured into being … that’s much harder to convey.  In these days of smart phones and video clips I guess it’s much easier.  But maybe there is still something to be said for the simplicity of a line drawing, the clarity of a well composed page.

The traditional course that we were trying to develop into something more exciting was basically about training young boys to become bricklayers.  Take those who are not academically inclined and get them used to the discipline of manual work.  I’m not sure that our good intentions were always well directed.  We were naïve young westerners excited by the chance to show off.  But the next group of pages includes our attempts to integrate the old bricklaying core back into a new, more ambitious and open-ended course of study.  We saw the subject as something with value to offer to students of different ability levels.  Some would become artisans, some engineers or architects, some entrepreneurs perhaps.

I was trying to combine my drawing ability with a decade of practical building experience.  My head was full of ideas.  A few years later I would get excited about Desktop Publishing … the promise of virtual layout tools.  Sadly the ability to draw directly into the computer lagged behind by a couple of decades. In practical terms at least.  I tried several devices over the years but it's only been in the past 2 or 3 years that drawing directly into my phone or tablet has come to rival pencil and paper, as a medium for visual thinking.

There is so much to talk about here.  I was very proud of “The Story of Mr Thick & Mr Thin”  Perhaps you have to have gone through the pain of trying to keep all four corners of a building going up at the same rate to fully grasp the poignancy of that tale.  Drawing has always been such an important part of my life and I was consumed by the idea of using everyday objects to explain the idea of orthographic views.

How do you teach problem-solving skills?  That was much on our minds.  How to present “technical drawing” as a series of games and puzzles.  You can do the same kind of thing with bonding patterns in brickwork.  Old Mr Cox, who taught me to lay bricks at the government re-training centre in Sheffield, used to throw bonding problems at us whenever we had spare bits of time left over.  I used to love those challenges.

On it goes.  Dig the trenches, pour the concrete, watch the little house coming into being.  And at each step, pause to consider some interesting skill or principle that underpins the work of creating a home for a family.  How many batches of concrete or bricklaying mortar did I mix by hand in my youth?  Such a simple pleasure.  I don’t think my back would allow me to do that now.  Standing upright is a wonderful thing, but there are always trade-offs to consider.  Our body-plan is a recipe for lower-back pain in old age.

Next comes another discussion panel that gave me a great deal of satisfaction at the time.  We toyed with the idea of coordinating the syllabus of various subjects so that, for example, pressure could be dealt with jointly in building and science.  I'm not sure this was a workable idea.  Foundations come early in a building course for sequential reasons.  Pressure may well fit into the science curriculum much later.  Better to think in terms of cycles of learning perhaps.  A concept like pressure matures in our minds over a period of years as we encounter it in different contexts.  Is it better to learn the theory first and then back it up with practical examples, or the other way around?

Maybe it’s even messier than that.  Our minds are not systematically ordered like a Wikipedia database. Perhaps that’s the secret to our flashes of inspiration and creativity.  Stuff just happens.  Go with the flow.

The last section of the book is devoted to a series of exercises. Some of them are simulations of physical site activities, some involve drawing, others are written tests.  They are intended as preparation for the public exams that took place half-way through secondary school at that time.  I don’t know what the current situation is.  

I acted as chief examiner for this subject for a couple of years including going out to remote schools to mark small pieces of brickwork and moderate the work of marking teams.  It was all very exciting and I fully expected to remain in education for many years … but life has its own agenda.  I moved on to working at the university for a couple of years, then faced another inflection point and decided to give architecture another shot.

The clarity and simplicity of the original line drawings fills me with nostalgia.  Will I ever recapture that level of fluency? Photographs are great, but there is something about a line drawing.  You can focus attention on the things that matter.  Photorealism precludes that.  Too much information.

These images are captured using my Samsung Note 8 and cleaned up in photoshop.  It is quite time consuming to paint out the grainy grey background.  You can enhance the contrast to some extent but the paper is so faded that you can’t make the background white without losing detail in the pen strokes.  I have started to experiment with ways of using this effect to my advantage, resulting in an effect of grey-tone washes that highlight the 3 dimensional form or indicate differences of material.

Having done a quick mock-up for this post, I decided to set about a more serious reconstruction of module B using modern page layout software.  I think I have reached about half way with this exercise, completely retyping the text and cleaning up the images one-by-one.  I always intended to come back and complete the whole 5 booklet set in a consistent format, based on Module B.  More than 30 years later Covid19 may be giving me the opportunity.  

It’s a daunting task, but who knows?  I would try to maintain the pedagogic style as it was in 1986.  For sure my ideas have moved on in 34 years, but I am also quite remote from the Zimbabwe school system, and to rethink the whole thing for a different target group would just be like starting from scratch really.  I need to restrict my ambitions to have any chance of completing the task.

Let’s see how things go.  So many projects lying around in a half-completed state across my hybrid memory banks. (eye roll)