Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Travelling without my laptop, so what to do with a few hours to spare? Let’s see what I can do with my phone.

Six London churches by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Previous analysis from 2014.
This time I visited them all in a single day, mostly for the second or third time. Fresh in my memory. Let’s combine the floor plans into a single image (Pixlr) and do another type of analysis (Autodesk SketchBook Pro on a Samsung Note 8)


Red is the Altar (East) blue = galleries (servant class) Yellow = stairs to those galleries. Green = main entrance, cyan = servant access point. How do you get your head around the different world that people lived in 300 years ago? What can it teach us about the fundamental changes that are happening around us today?

Same six churches in same order. Capitals. Mostly from the entrance portico. Tuscan with Triglyph. (Greenwich) Limehouse is quirky: composite with no scrolls + bulging upside-down a Acanthus frieze. Spitalfields = bold & overscaled Tuscan. Wapping (St George in the East) understated Ionic, St Mary’s Woolnoth (Bank) an outrageous fat and banded... Tuscan? Finishing with a conventional composite (Bloomsbury: rear Facade, upper tier)

Take each church in turn. What diversity of material and style? Greenwich has wood and stone. Simple robust, Tuscan on the outside, contrasts with an inventive take on the Corinthian order internally.

Limehouse : plasterer’s Composite order, wood-carvers Ionic and a couple of inventions by the stonemasons. I will call them “scroll-free composite“ and “egg&dart Tuscan“ Hawksmoor being simultaneously bold, cost-conscious and perversely Baroque. Dare to be different.

Christchurch, Spitalfields. The master plasterers take on the Composite order is here again. Was it the same artisan? A clearer image here of the delicate detail. No rubber moulds in those days so all the more impressive the way the leaves come to life. And in rich dark wood, the Roman Doric. Not 100% sure this is Hawksmoor, but once again I am enjoying the contrast of style and material.

In Wapping he almost dispenses with classical columns entirely. Just hinting at Tuscan with mouldings wrapped around square piers. Then, tucked away in the shadows of the side entrances... a strange hybrid, part Doric triglyph, part inventive capital. What was it like to have a mind like Nicholas Hawksmoor, 300 years ago? I guess that will always be an open question.

St Mary Woolnoth, close to the Bank of England. This church would have been built while the Bank was still in rented rooms at the Grocer’s Hall. This time the Composite order is in stone, which makes the modelling a bit stiffer. Also, just a single row of Acanthus leaves in this version. Also in stone, a niche with Ionic columns and Hawksmoor showing off his Baroque chops. Inside the plasterers have been assigned a luxuriant Corinthian, and the carpenters who built the gallery seating have incorporated the quirky Corinthian goblet that we saw in Greenwich. Only this time there are 8 leaves and 8 lauliculi, as opposed to the more unusual 4 from St Alfege.

The galleries were removed from most of these churches, probably with declining attendance and the virtual disappearance of domestic servants. Modern restorations have restored them, but not here. This explains the floating “suicide door” floating high up on a splayed wall in the corner. The spiral stairs behind must continue up to give access to the Bell Tower.

Bloomsbury. Upper middle class from day one. This is the most inventive of Hawksmoor’s plans, and too radical apparently even for the artistic minds who gravitated to this chic suburb. They rebelled, moved his altar to the North, (opposite the entrance) and demolished the gallery in that zone. His version has been restored now and again we see the Corinthian plaster, & wooden goblet, very much as used at the Bank. More Corinthian outside, and finely modelled too. Perhaps a different stone carver?

Will I ever get around to developing full-blown Revit models of these 6 churches? My previous exploration used highly simplified geometry to represent them in urban context, each one a generic family. .

Perhaps someone else will step in, who knows ?  But I enjoyed this little comparitve study done on my mobile phone while staying with my cousin.

Keep looking, keep asking questions, arranging images, sharing, looking again, reconsidering. Always something new to learn.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


  An addendum to my London trip. The day after Pitzhanger I visited two Soane churches to try to get inside.

St Peter’s Walworth. It was great to be shown around by the vicar, see some of the details close up and listen to stories of people and events. This shows the access stairs to the galleries where the servant class would sit, with typical Soane railings & yellow tinted glass.

At Bethnal Green the vicar was on holiday so I could only get into the crypt. There was a poster for classes in stained glass and stone carving. Didn’t spot the acroterion on the S. E. Corner last time. Typical Soane, stripped down classicism. The brackets and Anthemion frieze are from Walworth.

I spotted the wonderful egg-shaped archway amidst the groin vaults in the crypt of Bethnal Green. The receding arches and swirling rosette are Walworth. The card in my hand shows a rosette from Pitzhanger and was given to me by the guys at London Stone Carving who I visited after Walworth.

We talked through the process of modelling in clay from sketches, then using a pointing machine to check “xyz coordinates” as the carving proceeds.

Pointing machine images from the Internet. Waiting for lunch at Soane’s kitchen. An atmospheric photo of St George in the East represents the sense of stepping back in time that accompanied this trip.

Just talking to a group of stone carvers for a couple of hours made the process more real in my minds eye and walking around the city next day I was overwhelmed by both the quantity and quality of hand carved detail on view at every turn.

Thousands upon thousands of person-hours spent bringing architects sketches to life, contributing to the personality of the buildings in ways that rarely happen today. It’s not that today’s artisans are lacking in dexterity, experience, creativity. It’s just that the nature of the contribution they are required to make, tends to preclude artistic expression.

Last morning, and I planned a walking route to pick up as many city churches as I could that I haven’t visited before. St Botolph is the patronsaint of travellers and has a church at 4 of the city gates. I started with the one at Aldgate. By Dance the elder, the father of Soane’s mentor, a man whose career overlapped that of Hawksmoor. It’s great to start to feel the continuity of successive generations as I learn more about these buildings

An exhausting walk, topped off by a vegan Ethiopian platter and a train ride back to Basingstoke. A mixed bag of impressions swirling round my head as I watched my grandsons in the playground that evening.

In the image below: One of the pictures Jack drew on my phone using Autodesk SketchBook. The locked doors of St Peters Cornhill, one of many I couldn’t enter this time round. And three of my progeny playing football. Next week I head north.

That was going to be the end of the post, but on Sunday we went to Winchester. We visited before, in freezing weather, and I was inspired to do a massing model of the cathedral when I got back to Dubai. Soon after that, Notre Dame caught fire and I had the confidence to try another Gothic exploration. So I feel that I have come full circle, and see things afresh after investigating Gothic cathedrals with my BIM pencil.

I’m noticing the access routes. When I climbed the spiral stair at St Anne’s Limehouse I didn’t really know where I was. Just going round in circles. So I looked back at earlier photos and spotted the vertical slots, with a round window at the top. Rufus made me admire the view of the river, although I was feeling a little giddy by then.

Similar slots in several places around Winchester Cathedral betray the locations of similar stairs.

Along the west front there are access galleries with stone balustrades, similar to Notre Dame. I didn’t spot these last time. We tend to see what we are looking for.

There is an arch through the buttress to connect these galleries and there must be a few steps inside the archway to handle the difference in levels. I haven’t seen this but I’m sure it’s there.

Another snippet from Limehouse showing Hawksmoor’s bold inventiveness. A capital with Acanthus leaves but no scrolls, just an egg & dart mould. Don’t know what to call it, not really Corinthian or composite.

But the frieze above is even more unusual. Upside down Acanthus in a continuous band. His use of carved ornament is sparse but daring. I like it!

Sunday finished with a splendid meal in the garden of a village pub, with my grandsons playing boisterously on the grass around us. The word idyllic comes to mind

Saturday, August 31, 2019


Week one of my expedition to the UK. A family barbecue and the most nerve biting cricket match in history. Then up and about my travels on Monday morning.

I met up with Lee Saunders in Salisbury and had a great chat about anything and everything, but especially the “Heritage Business” and the danger that the people with the trade skills and experience to do the physical work and more importantly perhaps to pass that knowledge and wisdom on to coming generations… (long sentence) the danger that they get sidelined.

Walking through Salisbury Cathedral with a keener eye, now that I’ve studied a Gothic building with my BIM pencil. What is that Grey stone, used for free-standing colonettes? Admiring the carving of the crocket capitals. The lancet windows and less compact massing of Early English compared to Notre Dame. Salisbury Museum is a domestic building, dating back to medieval times with exhibits stretching back much further into deep history. 

Train to London. Wake up next morning and walk across to St George in the East. I did a BIM study of the 6 Hawksmoor London churches in 2014. 

First time inside St George. The insertion of a 60s concrete frame within a bombed-out baroque shell is more successful than you might expect. Just me standing below the tower in this pic. DLR to Greenwich. First time inside St Alfege also. Freehand plaster scrolls: to a common theme, but all different. The recessed East end seems a perfect solution next to a busy road, but was that a factor in 1720?  Wood carving by Grinling Gibbons? Didn’t photograph well in the dim light, so the Corinthian here is from Bloomsbury Different material but similar delicacy.

DLR to Bank, the updated displays in the museum were slightly disappointing but that’s a post on its own. Walk across to St Mary Woolnoth. Hadn’t planned to go in, but it was worth it. 

That distinctive wooden version of Corinthian I saw at St Alphege is here again, but still too dark to focus properly. The plaster rose is from Bloomsbury I think. He must have used a superb artisan for the fibrous plaster there. The wood carving on the pulpit does pick up nicely. What material is used for the keystone scrolls and the Corinthian capitals I wonder. Is it lime plaster? Doesn’t look like gypsum to me, but what do I know? 

Central line to Bloomsbury and I’m starting to realise that I can fit in all 6 churches today. Spiral handrail termination, and here’s that wooden Corinthian vase motif again. Finally a picture worth sharing. Both capital and shafts are highly original to my eye. Did Hawksmoor invent this, or was there another source? The plaster running ornament here takes me back to my Revit explorations earlier this year, before Notre Dame took over my life. Managed to get inside the back yard and take some shots from new angles.

Liverpool Street then walk to Christchurch Spitalfields. The last frame shows the Composite capitals of the interior. How many different takes on the Acanthus leaf did I see during this week? Define infinity. 

And finally on to my 6pm meeting at St Anne’s Limehouse. Rufus Frampton was the perfect host. His commitment to stabilising the condition of this neglected church is quite humbling. Another fantastic conversation as we climbed the spiral stair into the roof void, then beyond to watch the pendulum clock trigger the chimes for 7pm. Sadly I was too gobsmacked to record a video. Bonding of the quoins of the groin vaults in the crypt caught my eye. Some running ornament and the timber suports to the half-dome above the portico (lead-covered ). Rufus thinks this shows the marks of ships carpenters which sounds plausible for the location.

Next morning, walking out past old warehouses and through St Katherine’s Docks. A running garland carved into the curved stone corbel below an oriel window on the corner of Leman Street. The shard sprouting from the parapets of “the Tower”. And the copper spire of All Hallows, Tower Hill. Superb 

Gothic and classical intertwined. Wren’s mock-gothic spire survived the bombs, but the medieval church was gutted. The skeleton embraces a picturesque grotto /garden that would have delighted Soane. A quick peek inside the Pattern makers guild church, classical Wren box with a medieval style spire. Then on to the main event of the day. 

Pitzhanger Manor, Soane’s Country House and Gardens. Recently reopened. yellow light from above reminds me of Dulwich. Triumphal arch themed façade seems to echo Lothbury Court, while the conservatory at the rear reminds me of the projecting porch of his townhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. On the corner of the parapet above, a leaf vase which reinterprets the motif in wood that I struggled to photograph the day before. 

Materials, coarse and fine. Physicality. Fired clay. A fragment of Roman pavement, tile hanging, Flemish Bond and yet another version of Soane’s simple brick soldiers that evoke the distilled essence of a doric freize. But the dominant materials on my mind are stone, wood and plaster.  The stone of the Banker Mason, providing the structural mass and the weathering surface that has stood for 300 years  The carved stone detail in all its variety, both gothic and classical, but so often inspired by foliage.  The carved delicacy of wood, its warmth and suitability for wall linings and doors.  And the wonderful adaptability of plasterwork, whether lime or gypsum based.  

These trades contributed so much to buildings over the centuries.  Not just labour, but also detail, practical know-how and artisitic invention. If the architect was a conductor, they were musicians of the old school who could improvise on a theme.  I fear we have lost most of that with our hundreds of sheets of contract drawings, the litigation and the "value engineering"

So many impressions, sometimes disjointed, sometimes intertwined. What a start to my journey..

Saturday, August 24, 2019


I am down to give a talk at a conference with the theme “Open BIM & industry 4.0 “  As usual I have my own take on these topics.

Let’s start with BIM. There is a sense in which this term repeats the same word three times. To model is to shape, to give form. To inform is to shape ideas, to build a picture in our minds. And building is also a process of forming. You could almost translate BIM as “Form Information Forming”

I first realised this while questioning the pedants who wanted to ban the term “BIM model” Language is supremely malleable. It is constantly “shape-shifting” even as we use it. It turns out that “BIM” is distilled from 3 words that probably originate in one of our earliest trades: pottery. The act of shaping clay with our bare hands became a rich source of metaphor.

A Potter takes a shapeless lump and transforms it into an object with beauty and purpose. The Hand-Eye-Brain feedback loop operating for thousands of hours during the career of a Potter gives rise to deep embodied learning : knowledge wisdom, competence. Drawing and painting tap into the same process. So does, sculpture, stone masonry, wood carving, carpentry.

You can use an abacus to manipulate numbers, giving shape to abstract concepts that underpin the very real world of trade and commerce. Today our financial models are digital, databases in the cloud, but still we use the same hand-eye-brain loop to interrogate them on our mobile devices.

We talk of Intelligent Models and Information Management. Those 3 letters from the alphabet can generate infinite shades of meaning. The world of BIM has absorbed a myriad of spin-off technologies. AR, VR, laser scanning, Drones, digital twins linked to real world sensors, online rendering, issue tracking, structural analysis, thermal modelling,

I regard BIM as shorthand for “Digital Tools and Processes related to Construction” Their purpose is to transform the “Way We Build.”  Ultimately BIM sets out to realise the long-standing dream of automating construction. Hence the infatuation with robotics and generative design in recent years. 250 years ago Richard Arkwright kick started a process that transformed age-old cottage industries into factories churning out textiles. Productivity gains were so huge that a chain reaction ensued. Steam Power, Railways, Steel, Machine Tools.

So let’s talk about Industry 4.0  Well maybe that’s another blog post. I take a longer view of history. I also take a broader view of Open BIM. What is the “Future of Work” for us, when robots and algorithms do to building what Richard Arkwright did to hand loom weavers? In the short term, lots of jobs for BIM nerds (factory hands) In the long term a fundamental shift in work-life patterns.

My work on Project Soane led me into a much deeper understanding of the Industrial Revolution period. The Bank of England certainly played a role. Paper money took over from coinage as the economy exploded. Soane employed half a dozen domestic servants to maintain his upper middle class lifestyle. He started work age 15. Child labour was commonplace.

My sons were still attending university at the age of 25. The knowledge industry has become a major employer in its own right. People earn a living in entertainment, sport, tourism. Art galleries and Museums have mushroomed incredibly in my lifetime. Activities that were considered hobbies 50 years ago can be lucrative careers. You can be a YouTuber, a public intellectual, an online trainer, a bitcoin trader. Now kinds of income generation have begun to emerge via apps like Uber, Air BnB, kickstarter,  Patreon etc. Why do we assume that construction projects will continue to be the primary employer of BIM specialists? If we truly believe in disruption, and in the automation of our industry, surely we can imagine a world where education and collaborative research become the dominant activities.

I started with a few comments about language as metaphor. Here are a couple of mine. The BIM pencil promotes the idea that BIM tools and processes continue a long tradition of visual thinking and learning by doing. We are tapping into that hand-eye-brain feedback loop that has served our species so well for millennia. Why can’t BIM be intuitive and fluid? Why can’t it be as versatile as pencil and paper?

The Business Blinkers metaphor refers to a refusal to see this broader perspective, an insistence on framing BIM within the building industry as it is today. But this restriction did not apply to hand drawing. Why would we see digital tools as more limiting than manual processes? Some examples.

Vitruvius wrote one of the first known text books for architects and builders. Where is the BIM edition of Vitruvius. McKay is another classic example. Technical drawings that condense the knowledge of traditional building methods and Transmit them to future generations.  Bannister Fletcher still stands alone as a visual encyclopedia of our built heritage.  The analogy with BIM is inavoidable: plans, sections, elevations and perspective views, densely intertwined with dimensions and annotations.  These are not “just” drawings, they are packed with information and insight.

Another genre is the polemic.  The Townscape series by Gordon Cullen, applying the techniques of the design team to broader issues of concern about how we are shaping our cities.  Standing back and reviewing the direction our society is taking, using the tools of a design architect to tell a story.  Why can’t we do that with BIM?  If it’s such a significant leap forward in the way we think about buildings, why are we limiting it to the narrow confines of our day jobs?  What about the grand visions of Le Corbusier.  You may feel that he was misguided (or not) but he could certainly frame an argument by juxtaposing language and images (geometry and data)  In the past I have attempted a BIM version of his “Four Points” translating his 2d sketch into a Revit model.  OK so this is “borderline BIM” but don’t just dismiss it.  Take that idea further into the realm of “full on BIM”  Why not?

And what about Nolli’s map of Rome, Piranesi’s marvellous architectural fantasies, Camillo Sitte’s incisive analyses of how civic spaces function in the grand old cities of Europe.  Is this kind of work too insightful and imaginative to fall within the purview of BIM. Why?  Surely it was underpinned by the cutting edge technology of its day.  Etchings brought superpowers to the architects of that era, just as BIM is doing for us today.

It’s not that we don’t have equivalents to McKay or Vitruvius that use Digital tools and media. There are YouTube channels and blogs. Authors that leverage 3d software. But, crucially, this is not seen as part of the BIM endeavour. We teach about BIM, but we don’t use BIM to teach about building or design or history.

BIM is not a thing. It’s a process, an attitude, a method. BIM is the digital enhancement of the Hand-Eye-Brain feedback loop.  We should be applying the “BIM pencil” to a much broader range of activities.  It seems to me that the “Business Blinkers” are constraining our vision to the narrow confines of conventional building contracts, and thereby creating an artificial wall between the world of BIM and the world of everyday life.

One last example.  There have been many “Design Manuals” that have guided and informed the work of architects and builders over the centuries, from Serlio to Neufert, the AJ Metric Handbook the inspirational drawings of Francis Ching.  Surely this is an obvious genre where BIM could make a dramatic contribution.  I have made one or two sallies along these lines in this blog.  My study of Sliding Sash Windows for example, a technology that fascinated me as a young builder in the 1970s.  The field is wide open, in my view, and it can only be a matter of time before the “Knowledge Economy” transforms the way we organise and share this kind of information and distilled collective experience.

Sunday, August 18, 2019


I’m about to go on vacation. Weekends will be spent with my grandsons, but on weekdays I will be wearing my “The Way We Build” hat. From 26-30 August I will be in London, looking at buildings and meeting people. The following week I will be based in South Yorkshire and from 9-13 Sept, somewhere between Hastings and Basingstoke. I am particularly interested in meeting people involved in Heritage Work and stone masonry.

I want to connect with people who can contribute practical insights into our work, which applies Building Information Modelling to the study of historic architecture. We are an international team of enthusiasts, using digital tools to ask probing questions about structures like Notre Dame de Paris.

How were the zigzag vaults around the ambulatory built? Why do the spiral stairs at the four corners of the Transepts terminate are different levels?   We intend to embed information in the model and to make it accessible online. Input from people with deep knowledge of traditional building crafts will be crucial. 

BIM is all about collaboration: bringing together multi-disciplinary teams and integrating their contributions. We are applying this approach to study how societies have chosen to build, in different times and places. 

Prior to starting Project Notre Dame, we spent 4 years piecing together a Revit model of the Bank of England, as it was when John Soane retired almost 200 years ago. 

I’ve always been a visual thinker. From as young as I can remember, drawing was my favourite way of analysing the world. I still use hand sketching as a way to gain fresh insights.  The fluid and intuitive nature of this hand-eye-brain process makes it a wonderful complement to the more constrained and systematic work of building a BIM model.


I love using the power of my “BIM pencil” to think about buildings. It forces you to think about function, structure and sequence in a way that simple mesh modelling (digital cardboard) fails to do. This is what we are doing on Project Notre Dame: taking lessons learned on Project Soane & using BIM to explore the “Way We Build”.


The term BIM is a catch-all label for digital tools and processes that facilitate collaborative thinking about buildings.  BIM uses data-rich models, to integrate contributions from multiple participants in a central location, where conflicts and queries can be discussed and resolved. We can create arresting visuals & VR experiences from the same data set we use to generate measured drawings, spreadsheets and analytics.

BIM is normally confined to commercial building contracts, but we believe that it has enormous potential for collaborative studies.  Almost everyone is fascinated by the way different human civilisations around the world have built towns and cities over the centuries. Increasingly people are applying BIM tools and processes to heritage work, archeology, art history, interpretative studies aimed at the general public.

BIM models have the potential to integrate contributions from a wide range of participants interested in understanding how buildings work, why they were built that way, what meaning they can convey to us today. This is the approach we aim to pioneer, drawing on the knowledge and experience of people across the world with a diverse range of skills and interests.

Our team of enthusiasts is spread across 4 continents, connected by cloud technologies. We learn by doing, by debating, by studying history. Mostly we are BIM addicts, but why not expand the circle?

If you have a different perspective to offer please contact me here on my blog, or through LinkedIn. Maybe we can meet in the UK and talk about buildings. What could be better? 

Kudos to Paul, Alfredo, Daniel, Marcel, Francois, Russell, Eugene and everyone else who has contributed work, images, ideas that are reflected in this post.