Saturday, December 2, 2023



1982. Volunteer building teacher in Zimbabwe. It was a challenging experience. The only Murungu (white guy) in a community of 1000 souls whose first language was Shona. I was bubbling with ideas but also frustrated with my headmaster and a legacy of rote learning. Trademark white boiler suit, standing next to my my bed, two mattresses on a cement floor. Classroom "in the trenches" Trying to integrate learning and production.




I dedicated one school break to using my previous experience of layout and illustration to create a "workbook" It was a mish-mash of ideas, a statement of intent, using an electric typewriter, a Rotring pen and a small can of cowgum. Zimfep the umbrella organisation for six experimental schools, including Rusununguko where I was based, ran off a bunch of copies.



That was another pivotal moment in my journey. No hint of the digital onslaught here. I had been projected back in time to a world with limited access to electricity, but it was coming and this little project pulled would pull me into head office, the curriculum development unit and my first encounter with the BBC micro.


The workbook I produced with Zimfep was instrumental in my recruitment to the Curriculum Development Unit in Harare, where I stayed for three years. This was such a positive period of my life. I had enjoyed teaching "out in the bush" but there were also many frustrations. Living conditions were challenging and the headmaster's leadership style rubbed me up the wrong way.


The practical teaching experience was invaluable as I threw myself into the business of creating teaching materials. Now I could get my teeth into some serious layout and illustration, with no shortage of ideas for the content, structure and didactic approach.

At first it was all done by hand, manual cut and paste. Oddly enough the most tedious element was the text. Getting it to fit the allocated space, reviewing the phrasing for clarity and age appropriateness. Careless typos.



My coworker Malcolm was typing up the galleys and he was also an avid networker. He soft talked the science team into letting us borrow one of their "BBC micro" computers. I was an instant convert to word-processing and spreadsheet software, crude as they were at that time, with a tiny green-screen monitor and 360k floppy as the only storage.

Almost 40 years ago, my digital journey was beginning.





This was the cover of my grammar school magazine. It would be impossible to convey what a radical break with tradition it represented.

My last two years at school were quite bizarre. I wonder how much that influenced my trajectory in life. In theory my time was devoted to "double maths and art" in part because physics, maths and art didn't fit the constraints of the timetable.

In practice I encountered Mr Wood, a maths teacher with a difference. There were four of us, I think, doing the double. He had come through a rough school in Sheffield as I remember and embraced a radical approach to education of his own devising. The class who took roll call in his room were allowed to rearrange their desks!!!

Anyway, we covered the syllabus of maths and further maths in about three hectic weeks. Thereafter it was up to us to set our agendas and ask for his help where we needed it. The result was that I spent most of the next two years in the art studio, painting.

We also did photography and a couple of us were introduced to magazine layout (cut and paste in the original, literal sense)

Page layout stayed with me as a side interest and motivated my early adoption of digital methods. But that will be another post. In 1968, I had no idea what the digital transition was going to do to my life and to the human story. I was a precocious teenager, soaking up the visual arts and exploring the palpable spirit of freedom that was in the air.


Schoolboy pranks are generally harmless. I was a pretty quiet kid, but towards the end of my school career that morphed into "quietly rebellious" Blame Spike Milligan and John Lennon if you like.

So, as one of the main layout artists for the new style school magazine, I was able to slip in a fictitious member into the team credits. This was Brian Butchinson, an obscure in-joke. It got me into trouble, as did the decision of two of us to walk around the cross country course in protest. (Most boys ran the first and last hundred yards, in a show of conformity) We walked the whole thing.

You could call it "late onset teenage rebellion" perhaps. I opted to study architecture in London because that's where all the exciting new ideas seemed to germinate, grew my hair long and generally started to believe that we were creating a new and better social order. Make love, not war, all that kind of thing.

The magazine layout experience came out in various ways. One of them a publication called ACDC (amateur cake decorators chronicle) which lampooned architecture as little more than icing to disguise the property developer's nefarious agenda.

The technology used was a spirit duplicator (Banda machine) It was a bit like making carbon copies but using waxed paper and highly concentrated inks. You could run off fifty or so multi-coloured copies.


I hung around in London after my first degree, even though I had opted out of the next part of my "training" When did I tell my parents that I had abandoned the professional track in favour of some vague revolutionary zeal? Our world views had drifted apart with remarkable rapidity, with me doing all the heavy drifting.

The small scale printing and publishing theme continued to crop up. David Gestetner was a Hungarian Jew who set up shop in Victorian London with a breakthrough technology for office duplication. Faster than hand copying, simpler and cheaper than sending it out to the local typesetter and printer. In the sixties, Xerox copiers emerged, but by 1972, were not yet viable for larger runs.

The technology that caught my attention was the electrostencil. You put a paper original and a Gestetner stencil side by side on the drum and it produced a distinctive, slightly grainy stencil with both text and images. This is what we used for a subversive "coarse guide" handed out to new students entering the Bartlett.

The message is naive in retrospect, but I'm still quite proud of the drawings and layout.


During my "subversive year out" I got to know Roger, who was squatting in Islington and set up a small offset litho operation in the basement, branded as a "free press"

I was also exploring "free school" and "deschooling" ideas. I bumped into a group of teenagers who wanted to publish a magazine and decided to work with them. So this was another iteration of my layout /illustration/ ideological journey.

My views on the school system have oscillated over the years and I'm not sure there is a simple answer, or a one size fits all answer to education. For my own children I was happy for them to go to a government school with a fairly traditional approach, because there was a lot of positive energy, a diverse population and high standards. This was in Zimbabwe, and I wanted them to be prepared to deal with the realities of life there.

I have some concerns about ideological capture of schools in the west in recent years. Hopefully my grandchildren will not be too impacted, but I am conscious that my generation laid the foundation for some of the craziness that is taking place now.

But that's another story 🤔



After the school magazine in 1968 (and a few subversive student pamphlets) my next big venture into the world of page layout came in 1980, when Nick Wates and Caroline Lwin invited me to illustrate a book about squatting. We had all been students at the Bartlett school of architecture (school of environmental studies) and had squatted in the Tolmers Square area.


I just loved to draw. Fundamentally that's been a core motivation for almost 70 years now. The tools have changed, but the appeal of taking a blank sheet and letting my instincts go at it, that's been there since before my first day at school.



While working on "Squatting, the Real Story" from their home-office in Limehouse, I became aware of the looming digital incursion into the world of page layouts, newspapers, magazines and books. I had no access to computers yet, but I had done enough painstaking manual rework to understand the potential.

Strange to look back on those days of innocence...



Tuesday, November 21, 2023



My first few months in Dubai were oddly unlike the rest of my stay (almost two decades now) More like the preceding 12 years in Zimbabwe in some ways.

I was responsible for this small building from concept design to completion, and my toolkit was the Sketchup and Autocad I brought along on my laptop, along with Photoshop. I had heard of Revit, (recently purchased by Autodesk) but not yet had the chance to use it.

In a rapidly expanding practice the design role slipped away as I gradually became a "production specialist" and increasingly "the Revit guy" So Jebel Ali Spa burns brightly in my memory. The short, intense, concept design period, adapting to the differences of climate and construction practice, then the long weekly drives to site, and the tedium of minutes to be written up.

Seems like yesterday. Seems like a lifetime ago.


My second project with GAJ was another spa. This time I was inheriting a concept design and developing it into a tender package. Strictly 2D CAD and feeling a bit out of my depth without the specialist operator input of my previous outing.

I don't know if this was ever built. It was taken out of our hands in my first exposure to the cut-throat world of business here. I do remember agonising over how to maintain the thermal properties of the arches and recesses that interrupted the cavity wall construction that was our standard practice.

I had learned about cavity walls as a bricklayer in the UK, but everything is inside out here. Hot, moist air outside: cool and dry within. Memories of heated discussions about the folly of ventilating cavities in these conditions. People cling to old habits.


15 years ago we had a busy branch office in Sharjah, and most of the Revit users were moved over there. I moved back and forth to some extent and tried to argue against what I saw as a way for the main office to avoid facing the realities of a transition to BIM.

This project hails from that period. It never moved beyond concept stage, which was handled in the Dubai office (not in Revit) Fortunately, my boss Brian Johnson allowed me the freedom to shadow the design development using Revit (for this and other projects) in an attempt to demonstrate the vision of a BIM cycle (from inception to occupation and beyond)

This remains an uphill struggle even though it is increasingly obvious that clients and contractors are demanding BIM. To be fair I think it's understandable that architects led the charge but now lag behind. We are notoriously open-ended in our thinking and resistant to rigid formulas.

We like to be pioneers, but the nature of our role, early on, demands keeping multiple options open and using "smoke and mirrors" to tease out the possibilities in a brief. It's a kind of juggling, and I am yet to see a BIM application that handles this well while dominating the market for production stage work.

We are all familiar with the fact that refusing to use the dominant software in any sphere puts you at an immediate disadvantage. For my part, I continue to pursue the goal of "sketching with Revit", if only because it has given me so much pleasure for the past seventeen years.


Conversations across the generations. What a pleasant evening I had with Karam Baki at my local Syrian restaurant. Great food as always, and a pleasure to finally meet in person, this young man with his boundless energy and positivity.

It's a great thing that a passion for BIM can form such rich connections between people of quite different backgrounds, cultures, ages and characters. We talked and ate and walked and talked, thanks to the onset of cooler evenings in Dubai.

An idea is brewing in the recesses of my brain. How great would it be to meet up with more and more of my "BIM buddies" across the world, young and enthusiastic, eager to ask questions of a grey haired warrior, still fighting for the BIM cause in my own little way.

Technology is great, but only in so far as it enhances the human condition. Great to spend time together Karam.


Orthographic view, shaded view, composite render. There are many ways to view the model. This small project came out of our UK office, and I was asked to do some updates, including visual presentation.

Brian Johnson has been a pivotal figure in my life. He took me on as a refugee from Zimbabwe. He supported us when we formed the office band, "GAJ rocks". He embraced the BIM vision instinctively. And he has placed a lot of trust in me, allowing me to evolve from project architect to a more free-floating role as BIM guru and all-round Revit trouble shooter.

Periodically he threw these "challenge if you choose to accept it" curved-balls at me. Of course I couldn't refuse but he has been a good judge of what I could handle and where I could make a telling contribution.

We are both now stepping back a little, passing on the baton. I miss his constant presence in the office. But then again, I am also working remotely much of the time. It's a privilege to work for GAJ and to be allowed to fade away, ever so slowly. 😎