Thursday, November 30, 2017


I've been involved in a couple of events here in Dubai in the past month.  The second was a round table discussion organised by a local media house.  The article just came out and you can view it here.

It was actually quite a fun discussion. I've been thinking quite a lot recently about how fundamentally our world will change when we are able to automate construction as completely as spinning and weaving were automated at the tipping point of the industrial revolution.  Could be that we see another huge expansion of education.  The mechanisation of cloth making in the North of England in the late 1700s had a snowball effect, fast-tracking the improvement of steam power and creating the initial economic motivation for railways in the 1830s.  Demand for steel rose, driving further innovation in places like Sheffield where I lived in the 1970s as that industry was being hollowed out.  Factory production based on fossil fuel power spread rapidly across the manufacturing sector, transforming the economies of Europe and North America.

In 1803, John Soane was 50 and at the height of his powers.  He was fascinated by the new technologies that were appearing, using Argand lamps in his own house and at the Bank of England.  In the 1830s he installed steam heating systems designed by an American inventor called Perkins, once again at both the Bank and in Lincoln's Inn Fields.  But during his lifetime he needed a small army of domestic servants to maintain the lifestyle of a prominent architect.  I doubt that he would have imagined the virtual disappearance of domestic service and agricultural labour over the next century or so.  But I'm sure he would have approved of the enormous expansion of education that replaced the long hours of manual toil for children of the poor in Europe.

Imagine how a city like Dubai will change when it no longer needs to import huge numbers of semi-skilled workers man the construction, retail,  and transport sectors.  Will those human resources shift to education and leisure? Will the driving engine of our economy be a cross between a theme park and a university perhaps, I wonder.  Perhaps using BIM to explore history will be much more of a mainstream activity when we no longer need hundreds of people roaming around our building sites and when the combination of AI and robotics slims down consultancy sector also.  I touched on this topic at the BIM summit here on 1st of November during a panel discussion.

There are two current trends currently which may offer clues to the future.  Firstly the design-build-operate paradigm, and secondly the whole "theme park" phenomenon which is blossoming in the UAE.  If construction goes the way of say agriculture, we may need a fraction of the workforce to design and construct buildings of the future.  Will the big construction companies waste away? Perhaps, but maybe they will transform themselves into entities which handle the whole lifecycle of enterprises (design-build-operate)  Maybe future careers will be much more flexible.  Instead of a boring old architect, the "me of the future" might be a designer/researcher/performer. 

Those large workforces could be maintained if the mega-contractors of the future employ everyone involved in running a facility that I have called a cross between a theme park and a university.  A career trajectory could start as a tour guide, progress to a part-time involvement in facilities management, include significant time spent on education and research, move on to designing the exhibits and experiences of the future and culminate in long-term strategic planning, including the decommissioning of obsolete activities and structures.

I am reminded of "The Desert Pumpkin" scenario that I dreamed up in 2014 for Zach Kron's last Parametric Pumpkin competition.  At the time it was conceived as a tongue-in-cheek parody of Dubai's mega-project obsession, but I am starting to wonder if it might not be more prescient than I had imagined.  Think of the life story of the English working class in Soane's day: back-breaking manual work from the age of 12 or 13, perhaps 70 hours a week. Now young people commonly continue education through to their early 20s, work in office environments performing digitally enhanced tasks, and can spend roughly half of those 70 hours pursuing personal goals and interests.

Extrapolate the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Revolution.  In a world of autonomous vehicles, on-line shopping, and automated construction where robots build from a BIM model with minimal human supervision, we might spend most of our lives doing things that we would regard today as educational and recreational activities.  What will be the role of BIM in such a world?  Right now the BIM discussion is dominated by "business speak".  It's all about Return on Investment, competitive edge, Disruptive Technologies, career progression, etc. 

I have always found this really boring.  I've been trying to promote a more expressive and exploratory, personal approach to BIM for several years now.  The response has been mixed.  Sometimes people are inspired, but sometimes I get a "this is not relevant to my job" reaction.  More recently. the topics I am proposing for overseas conferences are being declined as "too niche" or "not relevant to the regional market".  I'm not complaining.  Conference organisers are also running a business and "competitive edge" topics sell an event better than the oddball topics I am likely to propose, just because it's an area I would like to explore.  To be honest I am starting to think it's time to move on.  RTC (now BiLT) is a great community and I've really enjoyed the conferences, especially the people I've got to know, but the work I've been doing on Project Soane is starting to talk to a much broader audience. 

I love BIM geeks, but I want my "BIM pencil" to communicate to anyone who likes buildings, wants to understand them better, is fascinated by the history and culture that informs architecture.  I guess I am saying that the BIM community has become too obsessed with itself, too introspective, talking its own arcane language, losing touch with the world of designers and artists, falling in love with technology for its own sake.  Perhaps I'm just jealous of the younger generation who live for "coding" and computational complexity.

Saturday, November 25, 2017


Perspective views were an essential part of John Soane's design process.  Most of my analysis of Soane's architecture involves hard-edged, digital modelling, parametric components, typing into dialogue boxes.  Sometimes it's nice to step back and sketch by hand, see things from a different viewpoint.  This is also a quick way of examining alternative designs that he rejected along the way.  Here is a scheme for what is now known as Tivoli Corner, but based on a triumphal arch rather than the round temple at Tivoli.

Does the act of tracing over, approximating and stylising, lead to deeper insights than just studying the original drawing very carefully?  I like to think that engaging in a more physically 
active way affects how my brain processes what it is seeing.  But how about all the formal considerations that crop up, looking for a balance of light and shade, softening or intensifying the image for visual effect?  Could it be that while my conscious brain is off doing this other stuff, which really has nothing to do with Soane's design, subconscious processes are kicking in.  Is this the equivalent of Archimedes taking a bath or Einstein going for a walk in the park.  Take a break from the deliberate search for an answer, and suddenly ideas start popping into your head as if from nowhere.

This next one is the same triumphal arch but with a decorative niche replacing the functional gate.  I'm using a slightly different shading technique this time which emphasizes the separation of the freestanding columns from their background.


And here's a different version of the attic storey.  I rather like this, with a flat dome instead of the double scroll. Doesn't seem to have gone anywhere though. He reverted to the double scroll later when the triumphal arch gave way to the circular temple idea.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Walworth is in London, south of the river.  I'm still getting to know St Peter (my favourite of Soane's three London churches) by means of a BIM model.  This is where I got to last weekend.  Three major areas of progress: Planning, Interior & Context

I received a link to a floor plan from Kamran Subhan, an old friend and long-time Revit user.  He had come across a nice little cache of information about the church on the Survey of London website.  Based on this plan, I re-adjusted the spacing of the windows, pulling the central row of 5 closer together and confirming various aspects of the general planning.  Ultimately I realised that this plan is not quite accurate either, based on photographic evidence and my own visit a couple of years ago.  As usual, with Soane's work, the drawings are very interesting, but none of them necessarily represents the definitive version of what was actually built.

I came to realise during this process that all three of his churches follow a common planning structure.  I'll describe St Peter, but the other two are variations on the same theme.  There are square volumes at each corner which carry the vertical circulation.  Connecting these in pairs is a lobby or loggia comprising a procession of arches.  I was aware of this structure in the one at the back, because it is open to the elements, but I hadn't realised that the entrance lobby was a variation on the same theme. 

This idea of progressing through a sequence of round arches is one of Soane's favoured devices.  You see it in the long passage at the Bank of England and in the main corridor of the Board of Trade.  At the heart of the plan is the nave of course, where the congregation sits, but between these and the linked stair towers are buffer zones. one for the organ, one for the altar.  The inner corners at the ends of the aisles puzzled me at first, until I realised that they contained box-pews where prominent families could sit together with a degree of privacy. 

I created a diagram in a drafting view to clarify my understanding of this basic planning concept.

The planning phase progressed quite naturally into more detailed development of the interior.  I built out the organ gallery with a rough massing for the organ itself and enhanced the arch families that separate the side aisles from the nave.  These are reminiscent of the arches he used in his last two transfer halls at the Bank, with splayed edges running smoothly down into octagonal columns, which are really quite slender.  I did quite a lot of family editor work in the end: a line-based array for the wooden balustrading, and a fascinating support beam for the tiered galleries above the aisles (shallow arched soffit with a bracket where it meets the wall.)

There has to be a bell-ringing chamber above the arched lobby at the main entrance and I decided this was accessed via the tiered seating at the sides of the organ, then going behind the organ to access a door via a few more steps.  I don't know if the bells still work, but I did find out that the church was damaged in the second world war and restored afterwards.  It seems to me that both the organ and the altar piece are original Soane designs.

As you can see, I am making regular use of Enscape images now. The interior comes across nicely with a hint of black line edges and some fog to bring out the sunlight through the arched windows.  Shame these don't have coloured glass in them yet.  Soane loved the effect of light through coloured glass.  You can see the box pews though and the shallow coffers in the ceiling with typical Soane rosettes.

Soane was not a big fan of organised religion and his church designs represent the culmination of the "rational classical" phase of Anglican Church Architecture.  Soon after his death, the fashion would swing back towards a more "high-church" Gothic Revival approach.  I don't think he would have approved, but he did quite enjoy bringing something of the Gothic strutural expression into his taught and spare classical designs.  You can see it here in the "crossing" with its pierced roundels.

So, almost three weekends into this "BIM pencil" research project, I have quite a good feel for the overall planning and the detailing is also shaping up quite well.  He's working to a tight budget, and he himself is a Deist at best (This project predates Darwin's voyage on HMS Beagle by a decade) so the stripped-down version of his classical style is on display here.

The third phase of activity last weekend involved adding trees and site context to give some background to the external views.  Spent my last half hour moving around in Enscape and grabbing a whole bunch of views to record the current state of the model.  Here's a high-level view from the rear.

All three of his churches feature axial approaches, although this has been obscured for the other two by later road and rail developments.  At Walworth the original approach is intact and made quite an impression on me two years ago on my first tour of Soane projects.  The image below is a little misleading because the entrance gates and railings are missing.

Those railings enclose a calm green space in a quiet residential square, just a stone's throw from a busy cosmopolitan high street.  It's rich in history too.  At one time there were live monkeys in the garden to the north where the graveyard was.  Today the gravestones are stacked up against the wall and there's been some creative landscaping plus a ramp down to a community centre in the vaults of the converted crypt.  Sadly this was closed when I visited, but I plan to go and have a coffee in the cafe down there next time I'm in London.

Hands-on modelling using Revit has pulled me in to the life and history of this Church which remains a dynamic part of the community of Walworth to this day, almost 200 years after Soane designed it.  I'd love to meet some of the people who continue to bring it to life in the 21st century.  This weekend I discovered that there is a bell-ringing society who include it in their rounds (a lighter set of bells was installed after the post-war restoration)

I have always thought that Soane's work is a bit of an acquired taste.  I took to the exterior of this church almost immediately, but when I found photos of the interior I was a bit disappointed.  It seemed rather dull, to be honest.  But during the course of modelling it though, my opinion has changed.  It's a very carefully constructed space, eminently practical and fairly plain, but with just enough of his signature classical detailing to soften the effect.

Thanks to Enscape3d I have an embarrassment of rich imagery to share.  Lots to talk about too, but running out of time to write it down so here's a little collection to wet your appetite.

The way he handles the various arches, which are structural of course, hints at the expressiveness of gothic, while remaining within the classical idiom.  I'm on my third weekends now, and so far this has been a perfect demonstration of the value of Revit as a research tool.  I've been in problem-solving mode throughout, and built up an understanding of the design and construction of this church that would have been impossible by any other method.

This weekend, I intended to progress the modelling further (the crypt, louvres and clock on the tower, curved internal corners of the stairs, better representation of the stairs and railings ... lots still to do.  But instead I found that the modelling had posed questions that I needed to answer by collecting more data.  Analysis of that data will have to wait another week, but I can hint that it involved comparisons of all three church designs.  Here is a quick massing model that I built along the way.