Monday, March 19, 2018


Next month I head for Italy for a reality capture workshop and another serious think about European cities past and present.  I've been trying to record some ideas about my particular area of interest to share with the rest of the group.  One them that has long fascinated me is the way urban streets vary from city to city.  Take for example the Newari house.

I visited Kathmandu in 2006 and have had a couple of stabs at capturing the typical shop-houses form that enchanted me then.  Very vertical, jammed together with carved hardwood doors and windows, red clay bricks and tiles; propped, overhanging eaves.

The only Italian house-form I have attempted is the Trullo.  Shamelessly copied from Paul Oliver's books this presented an interesting challenge for a fledgling Revit user 10 years ago.  I used this as part of the introduction to one of my sessions at RTC Chicago: an example of trying to capture "organic" form using "clunky" Revit.

Another half-finished experiment arount the same period was my "African Hut", hommage to my 23 years spent living in that continent.  Again this was an interesting technical challenge at the time, but I never took it far enough to describe a way of life convincingly: kitchen, bedrooms, granary, household utensils, etc.  My life seems full of incomplete intentions.

The same criticism applies to my Dogon hut, also based on images from books and mostly about demonstrating tricks for emulating lumpy-bumpy materials like mud and thatch.  All the same it kept alive a dream that has been floating around my head for around 25 years now: a book called "The Way We Build" which explores responses to climate and culture alongside the nitty gritty of bricklaying techniques and eaves details.

In my day job I have had the opportunity to apply Revit to the business of recreating an urban tradition here in the Arabian Gulf: wind towers and courtyards, narrow winding streets, rhythmic rows of recesses.

My role on this project was to create a library of Revit families that could be used in different permutations and combinations to compose and entire urban district.  This is what I have in mind for Volterra also.  If we can capture a variety of typical elements: windows, doors, eaves, chimneys ... then recreate them as parametric families ... maybe students of Architecture could use these to study typical urban groupings. 

But this weekend I was drawn into another urban study that I began in 2007 when I visited a friend of mine in Saltaire.  Titus Salt was an industrialist who made a fortune by spotting an opportunity to convert a neglected raw material into a luxury product.  He took over his father's business in 1833, the year that Soane retired as architect to the Bank of England, and over the next twenty years built a huge business based around "Alpaca".

Saltaire is the urban village he built around his new mill on the outskirts of Bradford: an attempt to create a healthier environment for his workers, within walking distance of open countryside.  The design of the housing units was also substantially above the norm in terms of both form and function.  There was a serious attempt to find a balance between privacy of the family unit and communal facilities for the benefit of the community.

Oddly enough the architecture is inspired by northern Italy, but filtered through the mindset of Victorian England.  The tedium of rows of small terraced houses is relieved by creating 3 storey pavilions at the corners and adding simple decorative flourishes.  Round headed windows, sometimes grouped into threes, add just a hint of Italianate style.

The standard worker's house of the era was the back-to-back terrace, but these houses are more generous with small backyards offering a private outside WC and coal storage.  Full depth houses also provide better cross-ventilation of course.

I intended to just do a quick spruce up, then export a few images, but it turned into a whole weekend.  Quite revealing how far my ideas have progressed when it comes to making complex door and window families for example.  I enjoyed adapting my current modular system to round-headed versions.  This is all based on nested components with standardised names and linked parameter sets.

I previously developed a "Trim" profile for Project Soane which uses a simple "equalised grid" to scale a complex shape parametrically.  This proved very easy to adapt to the simpler mould used in Saltaire.  Didn't have to be parametric, but now that it is I can use it elsewhere with different proportions.

This modular "mix and match" system that have been developing (for doors, windows and classical columns at present) is an ongoing project.  I think the Volterra workshop will be a good opportunity to extend it further.  There are always new challenges when tackling components from a historical context.  Hopefully we can build up a useful "public library" of consistently modelled parametric families with interchangeable nested components.

I spent my childhood living in a terraced house in the north of England.  I think it's called "row housing" in the US.  There are very many variations on this theme and I have long wanted to create an in-depth "BIM pencil" study that explores the construction, functional arrangements and social context a representative selection.  Here is the ground floor plan of four units from a typical Saltaire row.  As you can see, the end pavilion comprised two dwellings (although they were altered in modern times and condensed into one)

That's about it for now.  I'm finishing this off at the office having arrived long before "opening time" to beat the traffic.  My last image uses "cutaway" views.  This was always one of my favourite features of Revit, so exciting a dozen years ago when I was still a novice.  Revisiting projects like this one has a special magic because of the "flashbacks" that occur in the recesses of my brain, remembering what it felt like to take those first faltering steps on my BIM journey.

One question here.  Not quite sure why there is coal storage in the cellar and also in the back yards.  Does it mean that some houses don't have cellars?  I have strong childhood memories of the coal man arriving and tipping sacks down a round hole in the pavement, cast iron covers with an internal chain as an anti-theft device.  So many little details of a bygone era that I would like to capture and share.

Monday, March 5, 2018


In my mind, the Grocer's will always be a small shop in 1960s England which sells just about everything, wrapped in brown paper bags.  Some things were even sold by the gross, a dozen dozens.  Today of course, "gross" means the opposite of "awesome" or "cool".  In the sixties we had "fab" and "grotty".

150 years earlier, Soane was completing his North-West extension at the Bank of England: the green bit in our colour-coded time sequence.  This entailed taking land from the Grocers' Hall garden and straightening Princes Street.  In the photo above I was standing at the edge of Princes Street, and in the middle of what used to be the garden of the Worshipful Company of Grocers ... one time landlords to the fledgling Bank of England.

  Last weekend I discovered drawings, previously glossed over for a lobby connecting the new Discount Office to the Long Passage.  This junction-point in the passage is marked by a skylight that belongs to the floor above, visible through an oval hole in the ceiling with railings around it (not yet added)

This is typical Soane: bringing light in from above and creating surprising visual links between different spaces.  The lobby itself is coming along quite nicely, but I'm setting it aside for now, waiting for my collaborators to work on various partially finished Revit families.

I intended to spend the weekend fleshing out the Long Passage, starting with this junction point. Made pretty good progress. spicing up the shallow arched recess above the Ionic columns with some mouldings; adding a variation on the same them to the opposite side of the passage; populating the wall/ceiling junction with scroll brackets; moving on to coffers in the next bay to the south.

We are having to piece together the clues from oblique shots in photographs and hints on floor plans, but bit-by-bit it's shaping up.  There's a deep coffered arch disguising the location of a door that leads down to the cellars and a tall round arch revealing the upward flight of stairs.  There's quite a bit of rustication, I've begun a panel beneath a lunette window giving borrowed light to the coffee room.  The door to the Directors Parlours in its broad shallow niche was built some time ago.

The Directors Parlours themselves are a reworking of spaces built by Taylor, and that part of the Long Passage belongs to Sampson's original double-courtyard block.  I think it began as an arcade, open to the weather on one side, along the West side of the inner courtyard.  But the rest of the North-West extension was new, and made possible by diverting Princes Street and stealing land from the Grocer's Hall.  The Grocers were merchants, as were the Mercers.  "Gross" and "Grocer" have the same derivation, implying "big-time" trading.  These were the Medieval Guilds, which fell on hard times with the rise of a new kind of commerce.  They rented their Hall to the Bank to make ends meet.

In the old days the big money was in Wool, traded overseas to Antwerp and Florence, but the new traders were importing cotton from India and making a killing.  The resulting rivalries led to the Calico Acts, various riots, and ultimately the industrialisation of cloth making (which happened during Soane's lifetime)

Soane used an element of trickery with the Grocers when buying up property on behalf of the Bank.  He presented a scheme to the authorities that allowed them to keep their garden, but it was a weak design and once he had a foot in the door it was easy enough to press the case for a bolder scheme. 

And so the Bank swept aside their former landlords.  Financial innovation had incubated itself, nestled under the wings of the old guild system.  Now, like a cuckoo it was pushing its adopted parents aside.  The evils of capitalism ?  Maybe so, but the more I look into the history of the bank, the more I see capitalism as a series of mechanisms that evolved over time: double-entry book-keeping in Florence, joint stock companies in Holland, tradable government stocks at the Bank of England.  Neither good nor bad in themselves ... it's a question of what you do with them, where the journey leads.

Sampson's inner court was three storeys high, built to accommodate the Bank's expanding business which had outgrown the Grocer's Hall.  I'm struggling to reconcile the storey heights here.  The groin vault leading into Taylor's Entrance Hall is too high. 

I had cut the floor back, but this won't do I think.  So I decided to cheat a bit and lower the columns and cornice slightly. Then by thinning the floor down to bare floorboards, I managed to clear the vault. 

Moving North, the Long Passage passes by the Chief Cashier's office built by Soane a decade or so earlier.  That's the orange bit, the North-East extension, with Lothbury Court at it's heart.  Now we are having to work with ambiguous hints, to become more adventurous and speculative, like the Bank when they first broke free of the Grocers.  There is a railing in one corner of a photo labelled "view from gallery" and looking down into the Cashier's office.  There is no gallery in the original drawings.  Perhaps it was added when the North-West extension broke of the western edge of that space.  Maybe it dates from later, (after Soane) but I quite like the idea of a view from the upper corridor.

So I have pieced together a sketch of the original west elevation with an interpretation of the gallery, using information from a floor plan to interpret the central opening as a blind recess.  By now the weekend has taken a different turn.  I'm ranging around more widely than I planned, touching here and there, trying to make sense of the upper stories, adjusting the massing.

What is the role of speculation in this kind of work?  Am I a historian? an artist? ... a biased political commentator?  Why am I trying to understand this building in the context of Soane's London and think about implications for how we live our lives today? What is the role of speculation in our economy?  Is it an evil monster?  Is it something to be worshipped ... (aka disruptive technology) ? 

Well I have to make a decision so I've gone with an interpretation of the west end of the Chief Cashier's office, assuming it was modified by Soane around 1805.  The assumption is that there is a layer of circulation above the Long Passage that links the Printing Court and Residence Court with the older upper levels of Sampson's original Bullion Court.

Some of this is based on clues, bits of drawings that I had not noticed before.  I decided that the Bullion Route should be expressed in the roof form.  This is a tunnel cutting through at an angle from Lothbury Court to the old Bullion Court.  It seems there may have been a higher section in the middle, possibly vaulted.  Could it have been side-lit?  It's the kind of thing Soane would have done, so I'm going to risk it for now.  What had been a large expanse of flat orange roof is becoming articulated: much more Soane-like.  This is exactly what has been happening with the Directors Parlours, but in that case with rather more definite evidence to back up my interpretation. 

Just a reminder: Red is Sampson's original block, Pink is Taylor's Court Suite.  Sampson's Court Room was on the upper floor behind the Pay Hall, and overlooking the Bullion Court.  Taylor squeezed it out to the West and let it drop down to the ground floor, looking back the other way over the former graveyard of St Christopher's.  Orange and Green are Soane's two big expansions, doubling the area of the Bank towards the North in two phases.  

As these successive expansions rolled out, the nature of the Bank evolved.  It began tentatively, went through a bold and assertive phase, but gradually retreated into a more aloof posture, overseeing the national economy with a gentle touch.  In a way, this is mirrored in the architecture and even the personalities of the three designers.

It may be speculative, but I rather like the taller middle section of the bullion tunnel.  I'm going to try adding a groin vault when I get around to it.  There is some evidence for this at one side of a sketch section through the Chief Cashier's Office.  This sketch shows a much shallower dome over the office than later photos suggest.  Did he change his mind?  Is this just an early scheme?  Was the dome rebuilt to a steeper pitch during the North-West extension?

I've also taken the liberty of adding a lantern over this dome.  No direct evidence for this, but the room would be poorly lit without it, and most of his domes do have lanterns. So, a bit of poetic license creeping in to my work perhaps.  Soane himself spoke of the poetry of architecture of course.  And perhaps it was time to spend a couple of days jumping around again, after several weeks of systematically upgrading spaces one by one.  It certainly feels good to add more definition to the upper storeys.  I only wish I had better reference material for these.

Editing sessions are usually interspersed with short bursts of Enscape navigation, and I found myself climbing up to review the complexity of the roofscape.  It really amazes me how this has gradually unfolded over the past couple of years as I kept re-working the model. 
I have started to wonder whether some of these back-of-house areas were faced with stock brick.  That was Soane's usual approach to what we now call "value engineering".  

Certainly the drawings for the Printing Court show use of face brick.  So I transferred Revit materials from St Peter, Walworth and applied the brick here.  I wonder if I can get away with using his corbelled brick parapet treatment?  Better check the drawings first.  In a way the Printing Court heralds the democratisation of capitalism.  Bank Notes used to be solely for the rich, but now paper money is being issued in denominations that allow it to become a convenient alternative to coins.  Perhaps this is an indication of the increasing buying power of the man in the street with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

And finally I added a couple of trees in the Garden Court.  Feels like there should be some grass also, and what about the grave stones?  Photographs show a lot of paving, plus odd little ponds and cherubs.  I think that must be Victorian or Edwardian in origin.  Of course this was all a capitalist plot ... the board of directors appropriating the graveyard to give themselves a nice view.  I Need to spend a day upgrading Garden Court some time soon.

So I spent a weekend roaming across several areas of the building, adjusting the massing, speculating a bit, reflecting on capitalism ... and generally having fun at the Grocers' expense.

Here's a peek at my speculative recreation of the Chief Cashier's office.  I think the recesses should have round arched heads, but will have to come back to that some other time.  At least it's in much better shape than it was a week ago ... starting to feel like a real space.

Chief Cashier panorama.enscape3d