Tuesday, May 26, 2020

LET’S BUILD ZIMBABWE (1986)

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)




Monday, May 18, 2020

BIM WITCHERY BY ARCIMBOLDO (2012)

In October 2012, I set out upon my second pumpkin adventure.  The first post announced that I would be making lots of vegetables and introduced my version of the “scalable rectangular rig”.  This device delivers scalability and organic variation in one hit.  I really should go back and try to apply these ideas more directly to the world of buildings.  But maybe the irregularity we find in an old cottage is rather different from the organic variation on display in a bowl of fruit.



https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/you-say-tomato.html







The next post begins with one of my polemics about “the way we build”… my attempts to “look into the soul of Homo Sapiens through the lens of our construction activity.” Then I declare my intent to record a journey whose destination is still uncertain.  Was “live streaming” a thing in those days?  Similar idea: capture the spontaneity of the moment.


I also introduced the idea of inverting the process.  Instead of carving a head out of a single pumpkin I would assemble a head from a motley collection of different vegetables.  Pushing the envelope or breaking the rules?  This post also included hand-drawn cartoons from my thesis project of 1992, having returned to university at the age of 40.


Architecture as the mirror of our collective soul.  At the time I had a very strong sense that so-called “post-modern” architecture reflected a loss of confidence and purpose in contemporary society … “anything goes” or “let’s just make fun of our heritage, rather than make the effort to try to understand it”



https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/open-house.html







The doric pumpkin evolved from an idea for a “profile” that could morph between a fluted column shaft and a lobed vegetable.  The next post begins to explore variations on this theme.  What if I connect the reference points in different combinations?  


Host the results in rectangular rigs and you get sweet potatoes, capsicum, okra … all scalable and easily varied in proportions / curvature.  Early days but I was clearly on a roll.  How far could I take this theme?







https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/vegetable-soup.html







Think of a vegetable. How can you make it using the idea of “mass profiles” and a “scalable rectangular rig”?  Beads on a string, profile like an eye, five copies of different size and proportion … that’s a hand made of broad beans.  


The avocado took me into the realm of revolves.  “Create Form” sometimes gives you options : do you want an extrusion or would you prefer a revolve?  I’m playing with material textures here also. It’s all about pushing the right buttons in our memory machine. The subconscious is more than capable of doing the rest.





https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/mr-bean-shows-his-hand.html








Eggplants elicit more variations on the profile theme, and an interesting challenge to create the stalk. By now my regular posts had set up a dialogue with Paul Aubin which has since blossomed into a true friendship, one of several across the continents in the world of BIM enthusiasts that have become very important to me, especially in these crazy days of “shelter at home”.





https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/egged-on.html








Bananas seem quite straightforward at first, but I’m interested in the fact that they come in bunches.  I used to have banana trees in my garden in Zimbabwe.  Getting into the realm of repeaters now.  Quite a long post this one, and finally I get around to assembling vegetables into a head.  Time to reveal my sources of inspiration also (archimboldo and snow white)

First attempts at a render and it is looking very empty and clunky.  Was I getting nervous?  Cold feet?  Can’t remember to be honest, but I had to keep going and hope for the best.  Just keep making more vegetables and throw them into the gaps perhaps.





https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/banana-boat.html







The next post was called “putting on the style” and turned out to be a spam magnet … thousands of hits … so I changed the title to “no robots please”  The positives and negatives of our “viral age”  Not putting the genie back in the bottle now I think.  But I do hope we can outlive the rabid polarisation and politicisation that digital interconnection seems to have spawned.


I was actually thinking about “stylisation”, meaning the process of simplifying forms down to an essence that sticks in the brain.  “Archetype” is a related concept. How do you capture “just enough” random variation to make something appear naturally organic?


The last part of the post sees me trying to feed these ideas back into the world of architecture.  I settle on a door handle by Victor Horta.  Very much a stylised version, but it made me think about a different sort of rig, based on a tetrahedron.



https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/putting-on-style.html








What a journey this was.  Just kept on going.  Now comes the post that became a “Vasari talk” later on.  Green Onions and Wig Hat are two musical references sparked off by my decision to use Spring Onions as a substitute for strands of hair. 


Looking back the analogy between biological evolution and the gradual unfolding of design ideas is very strong.  Take something that was developed for one purpose, duplicate it and adapt it to a new use.  Over time this produces a surprisingly rich complexity of forms.

The render still looks empty, but a bit less clunky.



https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/green-onions-wig-hat.html








This is supposed to be a Halloween picture, so “scary” is the operative word.  Let’s add teeth and a grasping hand.  Each new challenge is an opportunity to explore a slightly different take on the techniques previously developed.


Happy to see the use of orthographic views to understand the relationship of the different parts. For me it’s a big part of the BIM advantage.  We always go on about data, and of course that is important, but the integration of orthographic and 3d views into a single package generates an extra layer of understanding that is often undervalued.







https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/jack-tomato-stalk.html







Populating divided surfaces with pattern-based panels and applying randomised values to instance parameters.  The maize cob was intentional, the pine cone a happy accident.  Life is usually a mixture of both, if only we can get the balance right.  Artists are very familiar with this balancing act.  Someone like Jackson Pollock took it to an extreme perhaps, arguably a bit of a dead end because of that.  But any artist who observes the play of light and shade in the real world, or interprets the natural shapes of acanthus leave in a stylised way is engaged in balancing accident and intentionality.

Often this is done at a subconscious level of course.  Arguably many of the best accidents occur inside our pre-conscious brains.  Isn’t this what we mean by “inspiration”?  Surely it doesn’t refer to a carefully calculated, predefined process.



https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/amaizing-grace.html






12 posts in one month!  How on earth did I manage that.  Oh to be 60 again.  Time was running out though and I needed to throw a lot more stuff into the picture frame (including a couple of picture frames, of course)  Relying on my subconscious sense of composition here, those teenage years spent painting whenever I got the chance.  


“What is this thing called BIM … does it have a soul, can it touch my heart?”

Right at the end there was a frantic effort to systematise and catalogue the stuff I had created during my journey, especially the “profiles”.  Putting these on sheets was partly a justification for doing things “the BIM way” as opposed to say Max & Photoshop.  But it’s also a really valuable resource for me, 7 or 8 years later, reflecting on what I achieved and how it might contribute to future work.



https://grevity.blogspot.com/2012/10/rapid-fire.html








So the last image is not a blog post, it’s just the folder with the “deliverables” that constituted my submission for the Parametric Pumpkin Competition.  Thanks once more to Zach Kron for unleashing the hidden demons inside of me.  This was number two in a series of four adventures that I undertook using his annual Halloween event as an excuse.  In many ways they were the precursors to Project Soane & Project Notre Dame.  I’m not sure they would have developed as they did without the Pumpkin series.  So it’s appropriate that this retrospective post began with a reference to “the way we build”
  


Thursday, May 14, 2020

RESEARCH BY ANY OTHER NAME


There are many ways of being an architect.  I’ve always been a bit of a jack-of-all-trades: dabbling a bit in concept design, often tasked with construction packages, always concerned with visual presentation.  You sometimes see adverts for “BIM architect” or even “Revit architect”.  I prefer to see myself as an architect who just happens to be a BIM addict also.





What is Project Notre Dame?  I see it as an approach to research.  It’s not the “dry, academic” kind of research, although there is some overlap into that sphere.  Indeed, we are attempting to blur the boundaries between the “closed world” of academia and the sphere of enthusiastic amateurs.  The core of our work entails hands-on modelling, but behind the scenes there is much collecting of information, watching videos, sifting through images, interacting with other groups.  Indeed, there are group members who focus more on this type of activity.

Nader Boutros joined us a while ago, and has dug up lots of interesting material.  He found a web site with links to a great many historical images kept in the museums and libraries of Paris.  One image seems to match closely with a plaster model that he also found.  It seems to record the state of the cathedral just before Viollet LeDuc began his work.  Was it commissioned by LeDuc and Lassus at that time? Or is it a later reconstruction?  I am fascinated by the little “cabin” perched high up on the side of the South Bell Tower.  What on earth could this have been for?






The previous post described incremental work in the transept zone, and to the West Front/ Bell Towers.  Whenever you visit a gothic cathedral, keep an eye out for vertical slit windows.  They are easily overlooked, but they usually mark circulation routes within the thickness of the walls.  These may be spiral stairs, in which case there will probably be a projection of thickening to accommodate them.  Sometimes though they mark horizontal passages, probably connected to spiral stairs.  I think this is how the terraces above the gallery of kings are accessed.  There is also a passage below these terraces, directly behind the statues of the kings.  You can stand there, in the shadow of a giant effigy of an old testament king or prophet and look out over the parvis (the plaza in front of the cathedral)
  
You can see this in certain YouTube videos.  





I’m still searching for the best cutaway views to explain the complexity of circulation routes that serve the West End of Notre Dame.  Lots still to do of course.  The eight-part vaults are square at present, and both the same size, whereas they need to be rectangular and the northern one about a metre wider than the south side.  Let’s see if Alfredo finds the time to come back to this.






In the previous post, I described installing a single element at the base of the clustered ribs of the main pillars at the East side of the crossing.  I have now completed the same exercise for the similar columns that frame the high archway between organ and Nave.  Once again this involved revisiting the setting out and inevitably the adjacent, lower arches had to be adjusted also.  Lots of checking measurements using the Leica TruView site that hosts the point cloud created by Andrew Tallon.  






I should mention the belfry.  The lower belfry has an eight-part vault like the ground floor below it.  Was this the bell-ringers chamber?  If so, how do the ropes get down?  There is a single circular opening in one of the vault segments, but no signs of ropes in the images I have seen. The upper belfry actually houses the bells, suspended in a huge wooden framework which rests on a ledge in the stone walls.  Once again, these frameworks are out of date.  They need to be enlarged to fit the ledge that has been formed on all four sides in recent weeks.  The frame should lean in a little so that it is well clear of the walls and able to sway freely under the enormous loads imposed by the swinging of the bells.





All the time, when doing this work, modelling is interleaved with research and review.  Many members of the team have contributed to our collection of reference material stored in the cloud where we can all access it.  In my case it is synced to my laptop hard drive, so I can reorganize the folders and add new material in the usual way, knowing it will synchronize in the background.






Screen shots from drone footage after the fire reveal further differences in the bell towers. Both towers have rear facing windows lighting the lower belfry, but the smaller tower has a much larger window.  A fascinating set of drawings pick up the passage behind the gallery of kings.  The drone footage also shows the three doors that connect the “sky-terrace” between the towers with the roof void, or what used to be a roof void.  The side doors lead to the external walkways, running along the eaves, via a few wooden steps and a doorway. The central door would have led to a wooden “gang plank” which travelled all the way down the centre of the nave … the roof void above the nave actually, and slightly off-centre.





Talking about “off-centre” … the entire cathedral is full of slight shifts and irregularities.  We haven’t tried to reproduce all of these exactly.  We don’t have the information to do that, and I imagine it would take 3 or 4 times as long to achieve it. Our approach has been to start with a completely symmetrical and regular building, then gradually introduce the irregularities that we think are most significant and interesting.  Here and there it is necessary to introduce skewed lines to accommodate shifts in axes, but for the most part we have kept everything orthogonal.  Maybe that will change at some point, but there are much more urgent tasks to tackle.





A while ago I watched YouTube footage of Assassin’s Creed gameplay … a fascinating model, especially if you know the building well.  There are steps over the roofs at the ends of the transepts that bear no relation to reality, but it IS a computer game, and they have been quite open about making inventive changes that enhance gameplay.  Looking at the model and noticing discrepancies or other oddities has helped me to dig much deeper into the design.


I’ll finish this post with a different approach to the cutaway views of the towers. Maybe it needs animation.