Sunday, February 5, 2017

CURRENT EVENTS


Too many ideas in my head. Too many half written blog posts. Too many long gaps between posts. This one dates back to New Year, the 2 weeks as 2016 faded into 2017. (Remember those numbers, "16 going on 17")

Week one was Christmas in England with family. We rented a flat in Swanage on the south coast .  Corfe Castle, steam train ride, chalk cliffs & lighthouses. Cold, clear days & cold grey seas rolling onto damp, sandy beaches, not a deck chair or swimming costume in sight. Thinking about history, trade, warfare, buildings.


On Christmas eve we picked Tom up at Wareham Station, coming from Singapore via London.  It was a surprise to learn that Wareham was a major town in Saxon times, possibly the third largest in Wessex, thanks to its status as a port, up-river from what is now Poole Harbour. The earth ramparts can still be seen and it has the classic early town form of a crossroads superimposed on a rounded square.  We picked up some vegetables in an open market next to the river and set off home via Corfe Castle.


Again it was a surprise to find out how important this castle was in Norman times.  It seems such a backwater now, but it's a natural defensive location on a very steep hill, with an excellent view of Wareham in the distance.  You could easily watch ships coming and going from the keep.  It was completely trashed by Cromwell's army after resisting two sieges.  Interesting times.  The tail end of absolute monarchy in England and a bumpy road towards a partnership between the landed aristocracy and the rising commercial classes.  Society in transition, the beginnings of parliamentary democracy, a flawed system, but arguably the best we have. This is also the period leading up to the establishment of the Bank of England, which has been much on my mind this past 18 months, thanks to Project Soane.


I'm old enough to remember steam trains in the UK.  I also rode on them in Zimbabwe as late as the 1980s.  There is a heritage railway operating out of Swanage along the branch line from Wareham which was closed to regular commercial traffic in 1972. We took a ride on this to Corfe Castle one afternoon, which rolled back the years for me.  The attention to detail on the station is quite impressive, well worth booking a ride if you get the chance.  Yet another connection to steam power, the industrial revolution, fossil fuels.


I spent the first week of the new year at home in Dubai.  Revit, Project Soane, Reading, Thinking.  2017 is supposed to be the year where I find a better balance in my life, consolidating the health gains of the past 2 years, taking more regular exercise, bringing music back into my daily routine.  Let's hope so.

Many people view 2016 as a disaster but to me it had its ups and downs like any other. Trump and Brexit were disappointing to me, but so what?. The Republicans were going to get another go at running the show sooner or later.  I find that I'm not altogether comfortable with the constant displays of "resistance" that some of my friends are "sharing".  Let's put it this way.  I thought is was wrong when people questioned Obama's credentials and indulged in all kinds of sneers and insults towards their president.  So is it now right to do the same towards a Trump just because I disagree with everything he stands for?  I have little respect for the man, but a very large number of Americans did vote for him.  Do I really want to see a nation split down the middle, polarised, vindictive?  Perhaps we should all be looking inside ourselves and reflecting.  How can we better communicate with those who have such vastly different views of the world from ourselves?


On the plane back from Heathrow to Dubai, I watched the documentary "Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World".  It's well worth following this up by watching a few of Werner Herzog's documentaries on YouTube.  This one resonated with my own ambivalence towards digital technologies.  BIM is hugely important to me.  I have always been a visual thinker, using drawing as a tool for understanding the world.  Digital tools have added super-powers to my visual thinking, which is great but I do miss the intuitive, tactile side. There is a danger of technology worship blinding us to the virtues of a simpler more directly physical past.  Werner Herzog has a knack for catching this, well worth a watch.

Recently I have been working on the Director's Parlours: an area at the junction between Taylor's Court Suite, and Soane's NW Extension.  Historically the Court Suite represents the emergence of the Bank of England as Britain's dominant financial institution, whereas the NW Extension heralded the spreading of paper money to a much broader public.  Here were the printing works and accounting offices responsible for the first 5 pound, 2 pound and 1 pound notes.


The Director's Parlours are a remarkable, complex series of spaces, woven together by Soane, building on Taylor's earlier work and connecting through to Sampson's original Pay Hall via the spaces behind it which had been the original home for these functions:  meetings of the Governing Board, sub-committees, private interviews with important clients, and so on. 

I have been toying with the idea that the Bank of England played a key role in preparing England to host the Industrial Revolution.  Is this justified?  Placing the management of the national debt into corporate hands set up a four way exchange between King, Parliament, Landed Gentry and Corporate Finance.  Of course there is an overlap between these groups, but you get a sense of the emergence of checks and balances, trade-offs, managing risk, trust and suspicion.  I'm not looking for a simplistic, single explanation here, but I do think that the emergence of this kind of "social contract" could have helped to make England into fertile ground for industrialisation to take root. 


These are my own ideas but they owe a great deal to my reading of Daniel Abrahamson's book "Building the Bank of England".  So let's return to the "16 going on 17" theme.

As the late 1600s faded into the early 1700s, a remarkable new institution was founded.  A group of merchants on the fringes of the financial elite managed to form a Joint Stock Company for the purpose of raising a government loan.  Joint Stock Companies were a relatively new Dutch invention, previously used very successfully to finance long distance commerce.  They were a major factor behind early Dutch dominance of the East India trade.  The governors of the Bank of England were mostly Whigs and nonconformists, many of them from immigrant families, Huguenots for example.  Interesting parallels perhaps to the liberal, democrat bankers so hated by the "Alt Right"

I watched part of a YouTube interview last week and read quite a number of the comments below which pitched Trump as the hero who will slay the dragon (aka the Military Industrial Complex, which is claimed to be controlled by a conspiracy of democrats)  It intrigues my that ideas I would normally associate with the likes of Noam Chomsky have been hijacked and inverted by "rednecks & racists".  The big takeaway for me is the danger of a simplistic "goodies and baddies" worldview.  It's so easy to react badly and hurl insults back at people with views like this, but once again, I don't think that helps.  I'm suggesting that the Bank of England succeeded by careful groundwork, building trust, staying the course.  Classic English compromise ?



Soane's role in all of this is quite interesting.  He rose from quite a humble background and his early clients were landed gentry.  He aspired to be accepted into this society of hereditary wealth and power, dreaming of setting up a dynasty.  Unfortunately his two sons were to disappoint him in different ways, something which he felt also contributed to the early death of his beloved wife.  In later life he made a transition that can be compared to the changes occurring in society at large.  His legacy was to be passed on to society at large: his museum collection, his teaching at the Royal Academy, his efforts to establish the foundations of the modern profession of Architecture.  In all of this he learned a good deal from the measured way that the bank did business.  Perhaps this was once again a mutual interchange, Soane and the Directors learning from each other.



So is the Digital Revolution a progress trap? I love my digital tools, but technology worship frightens me.  Technology companies chasing the bottom line, widening the gap between rich and poor, eating what is left of the world's resources. We need to be aware of the dangers.  It's easy to be swept along by the excitement of it all and it's probably already too late to go back.  What happens if/when a solar flare takes the internet down for two weeks?  What kind of social upheaval will we see in Bangladesh when robots have taken all their jobs? Do we have any idea how to manage wealth in a more equitable way? Is it even possible to run an economy that is not based on continuous growth?


John Soane lived through a period of profound social and technical change.  The Bank of England helped to manage these transitions with corporate processes that balanced innovation with caution.  Soane himself laid the foundations for a new kind of profession: academically trained, impartial, balancing public and private interests.  But perhaps the Industrial Revolution simply delayed the inevitable, bought us another 200 years by burning up our fossil fuels.


Is this another hinge point of history?  Can robots dig us out of the hole we dug for ourselves using fossil fuels?  Can the Banks win back our trust?  Do we have the patience to use technology sensibly and to give disadvantaged parts of the world a fair chance?  Back to Werner Herzog I guess.  Meanwhile I will continue with my model of a fascinating institution.

A few comments on the images shown here.  I am trying to set the model up with placeholder families that others can adopt and complete.  Some of these are very basic, others have been taken at least half way to completion.  Some of them may need to be revisited two or three times, adding layers of detail progressively. I'm looking for people to start adding these layers of detail and I have a couple of volunteers already.  Would you like to lend a hand?
 

I'm fascinated by Soane's seemingly endless variations on the vault & dome theme and have enjoyed practicing my ability to model these.  I've enjoyed developing parametric versions, but for the last few I've taken a more direct approach, so I can move more quickly and build up an understanding of the different geometries.  The waiting rooms for example use a hybrid between vault and dome that creates a four pointed star on the ceiling.
 
I've spent quite a lot of time adjusting dimensions and alignments.  This is tedious work and the result will never be an exact replication of the building as it was 200 years ago, but it is important to permit meaningful dimensioning and to make the model manageable.  We need to be able to understand it, to stand back and assess changes that should be made to capture the spirit of the original.

A striking example arose last week.  I don't know why, but I had previously missed the fact that Taylor's Court Suite was aligned precisely on the axis of the rooms behind the Pay Hall.  Since reading Abrahamson's book I have discovered that this was in fact the original location of these spaces, in effect the Director's Parlours.


This prompted me to make a simple block model of Sampson's bank, colour coded to show the location of the various functions.  Starting to see the bank as a set of activities gradually expanding into a growing shell, a bit like a hermit crab perhaps.

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