Monday, February 8, 2016


Right at the end of Project Soane, (Take 1) I got this idea about Soane's 45 year epic tour of duty lying at a fundamental turning point in our history as a species.  There are lots of graphs floating around that show a massive swing from almost horizontal to almost vertical taking place at that very point in time.

I decided to draw my own version of this, in a Revit drafting view.  You can graph almost anything: population, urbanisation, energy use and the results come out much the same.  Several people have invented combined indices of "Social Development" or some such similar idea.  Don't get the wrong idea, higher numbers don't have to mean "better".  Lots of societies in the past achieved high numbers on the back of slave labour and warfare.  Here's an overview.

The basic story is of painfully slow rising levels.  At this scale you can't see the ups and downs in the early part, but there were lots.  Civilisations rose and fell: ecological collapse, plagues, civil unrest and all that good stuff that comes with cramming ourselves into cities.  But there is a visible hump that coincides with the Mediterranean boom of the Greeks & Romans (don't forget the Phoenicians)  In fact the levels of industrial production, mining etc that the Roman Empire generated were not to be equalled again until around the time that Soane was growing up.

The bar chart in orange and blue shows book publishing in Western Europe.  It's on a logarithmic scale so you get a fairly straight line, but if it was plotted normally there would be an elbow bend in that one too.  Maybe the upturn would start a bit earlier, but the mid-point of the turn would still be in a similar place.  Why?  You can give complicated explanations if you want, but the simplest answer is fossil fuels.  For whatever reasons, Western Europe succeeded in shifting to a predominantly fossil fuel powered economy around that time.  In my view, a whole range of factors happened to come together at the right time, motive and opportunity if you like (capital, skills, markets, knowledge ...) England was at the heart of this, but the interaction with other European states was also crucial.

So my idea was to make an abstraction of the bank in plan, and use it to represent that hinge point.  Part of the inspiration is the way shape formed where the NW extension (Tivoli Corner etc) meets the rest of the bank.  The curve of Princes Street, before it was straightened is just about right for that dramatic change of direction.  In a way, abstraction and the LOD issue ask the same question.  What level of simplification is appropriate to my current purpose?  Rationalising the angle at Tivoli to 60 was a no brainer and leads to a triangular grid. How many divisions though ?  Splitting Threadneedle into 2 halves seems too crude.  I settled on fifths.  You get a narrow slice in the middle for Sampson's original courtyard block, with pink and blue squares to left and right for Taylor's contribution.  I tried a curve where the green meets the orange and pink, but that was distracting.  Better to limit the curves to the perimeter.  All this is old-school drawing, but done in Revit.

Nothing wrong with that.  Visual thinking goes way back: 30k ya in caves where Spain and France were to meet up in more recent times.  That's 2d abstractions on stone surfaces: the beginnings of reality capture perhaps.  Then 9/10 of the way to year zero (and Rome) we get 1d, captured on clay with wedge shaped sticks.  That's the roots of digital I guess (mark or no mark) a single stream of linear meaning representing abstract ideas (food, life, five ... me Tarzan, you Jane)  Actually the me Tarzan thing is spoken language which goes back a bit further (or maybe much, much further)  But let's stick to the 1d, 2d, 3d idea: visual thinking and abstraction are the current topics.  We could choose to pinpoint 3d as coming of age in the Renaissance with Brunelleschi and the theory of perspective.  Soane used those 3 modes of abstraction habitually: orthographic views drawn to scale (2d) written annotations (1d) and watercolour sketches (3d perspective)  BIM just links those 3 modes together so that they talk to each other.  Back to my diagram

Perspective kicks in shortly before Guttenberg.  Portugal discovers Madiera around that time and starts growing sugar to further undercut Venice's monopoly on trade with the East (they also grew sugar on Cyprus)  That got Palladio building villas for Venetian gentry going back to the land as the bottom dropped out of their merchant adventuring. He and others started to use Guttenberg's technology to immortalise their achievements (Serlio, Scamozzi, Vasari)  Columbus found another good place for growing sugar (Carribean)  Portugal already had a good place to buy the slaves that you needed to make sugar plantations viable (Europeans couldn't hack it in the heat) So the graph is climbing, people are making money (and babies) right across western europe, but especially on the Atlantic rim as open sea sailing started to pay off big time.

Zooming in a bit (and using the mouse-driven pen on the windows snipping tool to make my red worm nice and wiggly)  we can see some of the spin-offs.  England used up most of their forests building ships, which pushed them into coal mining.  This came in handy around the time Soane was born when demand for iron and steel was driving that technology forward (Benjamin Huntsman, Abraham Darby etc)  Indian cotton imports had been making big profits for the London merchants who ploughed some of this back into financing warfare with their French and Dutch rivals.  That's the birth of the BoE, crudely pinpointed above ... with the six main phases of its building programme shown below as a series of abstract snapshots, like a video editing timeline.  One thing that strikes me about this "Hinge Point" period is that people had hardly built something before they were knocking it down.  Soane's retirement is closer to Baker's demolition than it is to Sampson's foundation stone.

This chronic addiction to change is still with us of course, and I am pointing the finger at fossil fuels as the critical enabling mechanism.  But the switch to fossil fuels was driven by the cotton industry.  That's what the blue line is trying to say (which is just my invention, no hard numbers to back it up)  The India trade makes lots of cash.  Wool merchants in London get miffed about the competition, persuade parliament to pass the Calico Acts (Calicut Trade) cotton profits drop, English weavers grasp the opportunity, artisan inventors like John Kay clear away choke points ...  Now you have capital available, a proven market for cotton textiles, a labour pool, coal mining & steel production already growing steadily. 

Richard Arkwright just had to light the fuse by proving that he could make a fortune almost overnight with the first mechanised cotton spinning mill in Cromford, Derbyshire.  And Bolton & Watt just happened to be on hand to offer Steam for sale when the water power maxed out.  The blue worm is saying that the India trade outstripped average growth, triggering restrictive regulations.  Blue worm dips below red, opportunity knocks and invention boosts the output of English weavers.  Greedy eyes make greedy hands get to work, the wig maker (Arkwright) borrows an idea and turns it into a reality, England sells cotton to the rest of the world in unheard of quantities and the blue line is now driving development.  Cotton mills become the market that Steam power needs to fund its R&D.  Without that roller-coaster ride of happy coincidences we might still be trundling along at a modest rate of development.  Fossil fuels might not be running out.  Population levels might be a fraction of what they now are.  Pollution, industrial waste, rain forest devastation ... maybe that would be better.  But slavery might not have been abolished, higher death rates, less democracy ... we just don't know.

All I'm saying is that Soane's Bank of England sits at a hinge point of History, it's a fascinating topic, and Project Soane really helped me to dive into it.  Speaking of which ...  Sean Young from HP, one of the major sponsors behind Project Soane, sent us a link to some interesting photos from the Bank's archives.  You can see them here.

I had seen some of them before, but at lower resolution.  Looking closer I started to make some interEsting observations, so I've done some markups to share with you here.  (done in Revit of course)

I'm guessing that the first one is early C20 Looks like the street lighting is still gas powered.  That's a technology that started to come in during Soane's era.  Seems hopelessly quaint to us, but what a huge impact it must have had.  You can also see that the urban transport situation is still in the balance.  Horses are a renewable resource, oil is a fossil fuel.  Steam powered railways would have transformed inter-city transport by then, but getting around in central London was still a mixed bag.  The first cut and cover, steam-powered underground would have been in place (metropolitan and circle line) but not the electric powered deep tube lines.  Buses of both types are visible.  Also notice the lighter colour of the upper portion of the screen wall.  That was a panic response to chartist riots which made a serious mess of Soane's carefully considered parapet details.  Proportions all to cock and seriously crude detailing at the back.

The next one is from almos the same place, but a decade or two later and looking to the left.  The railings have gone, melted down in the first world war I guess.  Lamps have changed.  New tops on the old poles I think.  That would be electric lighting replacing gas.  It must be early 1930s now and Herbert Baker is well into phase 2 of his reconstruction programme.  Interesting to see that the stone cladding is all hung off a steel frame.  So Herbert's work has something in common with Sir John's.  He had to work in phases, within spaces surrounded by existing structures, and he had to keep the weight down to minimise disturbance to adjacent foundations.  This photo is great for final confirmation of Soane's screen wall elevations by the way.  It would be wonderful if they were even sharper, but this is very valuable input.

Now we get to the guys in flat caps and waistcoats demolishing the rotunda dome.  No safety helmets or harnesses.  Pretty much the way things still are on many African building sites.  The decorative treatment of the rotunda interior is shown more clearly here than any other photos I've seen.  Typical Soane incised lines and geometrical patterns based on ancient Greek precedent.  But the most interesting part for me is the insight into the haphazard accretions that have colonised Soane's "battlements"  All along the watchtower, strange carbuncles grew.  I suppose this is a reflection of the chronic need for more square feet to accommodate the bank's activities: basically the pressures that led to the destruction of Soane's masterpiece.

Moving on, we have a caryatid being lowered from the lantern above the rotunda.  So this must be a couple of weeks earlier than the previous shot.  You can still see those caryatids by the way, if you visit the museum inside the current bank.  The other half of the picture is looking towards Bartholomew Lane from where the Dividend Office used to be.  You can see the last little bit of the Stock Office not quite full demolished.  The entrance to the Bartholomew Vestibule is a bit of a surprise.  It seems to have a half-round fanlight, which was unexpected.  I have never come across a drawing or a photograph that shows the treatment of this doorway clearly.  So maybe it was more similar to the two gateways along Lothbury than I had previously imagined.

And finally to the dividend office itself.  This is from a different source.  Clearly Baker reconstructed that space in almost the same place.  A homage to Soane I guess.  There are some changes.  The top part of the lantern is omitted, and the whole back wall opens up to the space beyond.  Not sure if this is part of Baker's scheme or from a later conversion to "open plan" office arrangements. Old questions answered and new ones posed.

These may seem strange uses of Revit to some, but I would rather do my quick 2d sketching in the same software as my full-on BIM work whenever possible.  It opens up the possibility of better continuity.  Personally I would really like to be able to hand sketch directly into a Revit drafting view using a touch screen device.  Hand sketching is still the fastest way to explore certain kinds of idea, to link together hand, eye and brain in an intuitive feedback loop.  That human capability should be better integrated into BIM workflows. 

If we are going to link BIM directly to robot arms, surely we should also link it directly to human hands, thinking visually as they have been doing for tens of thousands of years.  Don't you think ?

1 comment:

I've been getting a lot of spam so had to tighten up comments permissions. Sorry for any inconvenience. I do like to hear from real people