Sunday, May 12, 2024

SCAN AND BURN

 Memories of six years ago. I honestly thought I would be back in Volterra with this group of friends but stuff happens. First it was covid, then my cancer diagnosis and now the business of setting up my "exit strategy" for when the time comes to leave Dubai.

I hate the term "reality capture". It sounds like we are putting life itself in prison. But that fortnight in 2018 absorbing the sights and sounds of a Tuscan hill town that has been continuously occupied for 3000 years, that was truly magical.

Thank you to Mark Dietrick, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP and Paul Aubin for enticing me into that experience. Bottom left is inside San Giusto using the Matterport to capture the interior. Top right is my Revit model of that "rustic baroque" church which has been developed further since. Churches and temples offer such a fascinating topic for comparative history.

Kudos to David Dreffs, Tristan Randall, LEED AP BD-C Young guys (to me) so comfortable with the hardware and software, able to liberate rather than capture. "keeping it real"... language is so slippery, a complex web of neural connections. Real time render. Is there a false time render? Virtual falsity?

Volterra 2018. Special time.

 

 

Deja Vu all over again. A historic spire shrouded in scaffolding goes up in flames. Renovation project turns to tragedy.

I visited Copenhagen in 2017 on my way to a conference. Took several photos of the 17th century bourse, or stock exchange, a long low red-brick building with elaborate gables and a very unusual spire. Dragons with their entwined tails pointed to the sky.

There is a statue of Neptune at the entrance. Symbol I suppose of Denmark's wealth from shipping, (herring fishing, rivalry with the hanseatic league, union with Sweden.)

 




It's a wonderful city. I have done a BIM-pencil study of the Klint churches and learned a lot. Would love to go again but there are dozens of cities I would like to visit and to be honest my ability to travel is beginning to push against limits.

Let's hope the restoration project generates as many fascinating images as Notre Dame de Paris. It's truly fascinating to see traditional craftsmanship proceeding trade by trade. Copenhagen will rise to the challenge. A sad moment but also an opportunity to show strength and resilience.

 



 

My response to the Volterra experience. I used Revit and digital painting in equal measure to process my ideas and emotions, to understand the structure of the town better, to probe the technical details that caught my attention.

This process is reflected in several posts on my blog for those who want to hunt it down. For me I just enjoy looking back at that burst of energy and the special memories it invokes.

I thought nothing of extracting contours from a jumble of GIS files, stitching them together, simplifying, and generating a toposurface for the entire locality. For no other reason than my own curiosity. Accuracy be damned, I needed to produce something that would allow my brain to sift through all the diverse information and sensory overload to move forward, express my own ideas and ask penetrating questions.

This is the kind activity I live for, BIM dynosaur that I am. 🤣🤣🤣

 



 

Just to be clear, neither the original BBC extract nor the spoof report represents my own opinion. I am simply 'noting lack of nuance' and 'experimenting with a counter-factual approach'.

However strongly you may hold to "one side" of a particular debate, it seems to me to be important to acknowledge that other people take a very different view for quite genuine reasons.

I don't find it helpful to represent opinions as fact, to moralise or to ridicule. Yes there is a gentle irony in this juxtaposition, but I have friends and family who align closely with the BBC position.

I respect their views. I hope they would respect my opinion that the argument is over-stated.

I support long term climate action with a priority given to Nuclear Power. I have no problem with wind and solar but they lack energy density. With the best will in the world, a major energy transition is going to take a century or more to reach maturity on a global scale. We need abundant cheap energy to allow Africa to develop. "Ban-Regulate-Demonise" is not a balanced approach.

Those are my opinions, not facts. I'm not trying to convert anyone. I'm not on "a mission from God" I continue to read, watch and listen. I may change my mind again. But I am very suspicious of ideologically driven stories dressed up as news.

 


 

GREY AREAS

 Brixton. Not the London one, this is in Joburg. I used to have a friend there, and it was walking distance from my room in Vrededorp.

For some reason I went looking around on street view and remembering what the neighbourhood is like. I saved a bunch of snapshots and then decided to do rapid sketch overs.

It's not a deep study. Just trying to get a feel and resurface my memories to a level where they can mingle with other experiences of "the way we build" in different places, eras, climates, whatever.

It's kind of slightly gentrified, but still very patchy and security conscious, edgy I suppose. Lots of corrugated iron roofs to indicate a depth of history. I don't remember the church but I kind of like it. A certain clarity of form.

So that's it. Let's not get bogged down. Just a quick exercise. Partly aimed at developing my sketching skills on the Microsoft Surface by the way. You have to practice. No other way.

 



 

I really enjoyed being a mature student at Wits and completing the last two years of my architecture studies after a long detour, as a bricklayer in Sheffield and then a teacher in Zimbabwe.

These sketches are from a history project. I chose to locate it in Vrededorp where I was staying. It's a fanciful piece of urban design but I entered into the spirit of the exercise with gusto. My first degree in London was a period of youthful rebellion and exploring the freedom of living in that wonderful city as the sixties merged into the seventies.

 


 

Approaching 40 with a young family to support I took the opportunity to study extremely seriously. Living on a low budget in a strange city and a society in transition. All the incentives were aligned for me to work hard and plumb the depths of my abilities.

 




Camilo Sitte was an interesting guy. Look him up. There have been times when I imagined myself updating his approach for the digital age, travelling around cities of the world with a laptop and executing quick urban studies using Revit. The idea of a BIM sketch is very appealing to me, but it's hard to pull off. It would be easy to blame the software, but that's not my style.

Never give up.

 


 

"A sense of place" is a term I first encountered in the late 80s when I started to re-engage with architects after a 15 year detour. I never really liked the term. What's wrong with "character" and "atmosphere" for example. Perfectly good words that ordinary people understand.

People like Ian Nairn and Gordon Cullen realised that town planners and self-conscious attempts to control "the way we build" had mostly resulted in a loss of character. In my teens I was heavily influenced by the dark and brooding Victorian built heritage which was being demolished at across Britain.

These images my own, recorded on black and white film, with fairly primitive cameras. I have retained an affection for somewhat run-down neighbourhoods, where housing and industry intermingle and the streets teem with the life of working people. Such was the Barnsley I grew up in.

I'm not arguing in favour of economic hardship. Just saying that designers should try to set aside their egos, open up to the spirit of the place they are building in and aim to enhance this with their own small contributions. Clients likewise.

Call it place-making if you must. I call it respect, humility and a light touch.

 



Saturday, April 27, 2024

ZIMFEP WORKBOOK

 

Probably my number one musical hero, John Lee Hooker. I discovered him in my first year at university and was simply blown away. These are scans of second hand LPs I bought back then and were sitting in my house in Zimbabwe for the past 20 years. After some agonising I decided against trying to ship them. I have mp3s and you can stream them if you want. For the most part, as I get older, I prefer the versions that play in my head. Bottled music, like bottled fruit, loses a lot in translation. So I just have images, complete with my signature on the back. Partly a product of living in communal houses.

His technique was deceptively simple and quite often he would play through a whole song in one chord. This confused backing musicians at times, who would try to go through the twelve bar changes based on his vocals. The result can be quirky, but sets up a tension that is much more effective than everyone just following a script.

He could make a single note shake you to your core, and the tone of his voice... To die for. I always felt slightly embarrassed singing his songs, but I had to try.

It's all about tone, both guitar and voice (not to mention foot tapping) He could unleash a flurry of notes at speed, syncopate the rhythm, lots of little tricks. But in the end it was tone. Raw emotion. We all fall for virtuosity at times, especially when we're young, but ultimately music was born out of deep emotional bonding, around a camp fire, somewhere in Africa tens of thousands of years ago.

He could harness that power. In spades.

 



In 1983 I was 32 years old and I had been in Zimbabwe for a year and a half, teaching building at Rusununguko Secondary School. The long holidays were coming up and I had this idea to write a little building workbook to express my ideas about injecting a bit more creativity into the subject.

It had been conceived before independence as an option for the less intelligent black students, preparing them for the idea of working in the construction industry, or at least acquiring some skills that they could use in the rural areas.

I don't want to be too hard on this. Given the realities of the time it was an attempt by educators to offer something useful to teenagers who had little chance of getting a desk job or going to university. But the mood after independence was a bit different.

 


 


Certainly in my mind I wanted Building to be a viable subject choice for students of all ability levels. That's who I had in my classes and I taught that there are many different options within the building sector to suit your abilities and interests. Also, whatever the future held for you, a building course was a great way to learn to apply book learning to practical situations. It could be Maths and Science, English, problem solving, group collaboration. I thought it was a great integrative subject, and of course I loved building.

Rusununguko was a Zimfep school. In theory at least they aimed to give a balanced education with a mix of academic and practical work. I took my draft booklet to the Zimfep head office in Harare and they decided to run off a number of copies to distribute to schools.

I don't think they saw much use in the classroom, but the idea was to stimulate thought and discussion among teachers at these schools.

 


More pages from the building workbook I wrote in 1983 after 18 months of hands-on teaching at an experimental school on a farm in Zimbabwe. I was the only white face in that community which inevitably gave me time to think about how I could weld together my drawing skills, my time in UK laying bricks, and the teaching experience.

There was no such thing as YouTube of course, nowhere to go to see a visualisation of trowel skills for example. So I thought I was doing something quite ground-breaking.

When I was doing my crash course in bricklaying in Sheffield with Mr Cox he would give us little dry bonding problems out on the practice ground. I just used to love this. Have you grasped the basic principles well enough to figure out how to handle a new and unexpected situation?

 



In Zimbabwe 7 or 8 years later, involved in an educational experiment and totally immersed in a new and challenging experience, I wanted to share the excitement of this hands-on problem solving with eager young African teenagers with a real hunger to learn.

It's so interesting to read something I wrote half a lifetime ago, paired with a cheeky little illustration to convey the ideal of Education With Production. Also the cover of a book I was using in my attempts to learn Shona. Comrade Andrew is the name I was known by at Rusununguko during my first two years in Zimbabwe.

 


 

Photographs from 1982 when we were still trying to maintain the illusion that the students could build their own school. I was a volunteer building teacher at Rusununguko, struggling with class sizes of 80 at times.

Twenty minutes walking down to the "new site." A mad scramble to grab the few tools available. 40 minutes of chaotic work. Wash the tools. Walk back to the "old site" Zero chance to develop skills in a systematic way.

After one term like this I fought hard to bring class sizes down and involve the whole class in a learning experience. Adult teams were brought in to build most of the buildings and some kind of sanity was restored.

 




Having said all that, it was an amazing experience for me to be immersed in a community of returned refugees, to be stretched to the limits of my own abilities and to figure out how to ride the daily roller-coaster.

Natural beauty of sunsets with the radio mast on a distant ridge. Babysitting while working on a classroom block. My trademark white boiler suit and the mattress on the floor which was my sleeping space for the first year. Telltale overage students given a chance to complete secondary school on retuning so Zimbabwe from camps in Mozambique.