Sunday, July 28, 2019


We are going to shift focus from Medieval Europe to late 20th century Africa, from a tentative study of remote history to a more autobiographical mode.

This item appeared on the BBC news app a couple of days ago. I shared it with a friend back in Zimbabwe knowing they were experiencing this lamentable situation first hand. The elation of finally seeing the back of “Uncle Bob” has gradually given way to the realisation that not much has actually changed. A far cry from the situation 20 years ago when I was project architect for the refurbishment of the Victoria Falls Hotel.

In those days Vic Falls was a tourism Gold Mine, and my boss Mike Clinton well placed as the first choice architect for Zimbabwe Sun Hotels. The terrace front shown above had been horrendously modernised in 1950s style plate glass modern. We restored the verandah based on old photographs, extended the terrace and added side pavilions as suggested by the interior design consultant.

He also proposed a new thatched restaurant called Jungle Junction on virgin land at the back of the hotel with stunning views of the spray and the downstream gorges. My role in all this was detailed design and documentation using Autocad. Construction was compressed into a very tight window to minimise revenue loss, and we flew up weekly to resolve issues directly with the contractor. No contractual nonsense : discuss, agree, shake hands, move on. 

I didn’t know much about classical architecture in those days, but I managed to hack it by observing the existing building. Back in Harare, I designed a two storey office block attached to a themed shopping mall which followed a kind of Spanish colonial style. From memory I only had a couple of weeks to throw this together and I was just borrowing ideas from here and there, but somehow it came off fairly well. 

In retrospect this was my heyday as a design architect. It continued for another 4 ot 5 years before the economy of Zimbabwe imploded and I jumped ship to Dubai. Here my role gradually shifted to BIM specialist and production drawings. Concept design is handled by a different team.  There is a certain logic to this but I miss the simplicity of those African days when I could see a project from concept to completion almost single handed.

Looking back, I am amazed by the opportunities I have had in life. When I arrived in Zimbabwe I never imagined that I would return to architecture. In the 1980s I was fully ensconced in the dream of a socialist Zimbabwe, working in Education and interacting with rural communities. The next picture shows me replacing the roof on my mother-in-law's bedroom. Leaky thatch giving way to a corrugated iron. Hot but less prone to rodents. As a bedroom it would cool fairly rapidly after sunset in any case.

A couple of years later I partnered with my brother in law to build a five room house, to plans I drew by hand and included in one of the textbooks I was writing in my role within the CDU. This shot is taken from the Blair toilet I built with my own hands, looking back at the main house constructed by a local builder. I took on the hanging of the doors and glazing of the windows based on observation that these trades were often poorly understood by rural builders. 

There's a little story behind this picture.  The teenage lads that were supposed to be labouring for me sloped off and got drunk.  After a while my father-in-law came up quietly and started supplying bricks and mortar from time to time.  He wasn't young and we shared perhaps a dozen words of common language, but there was a connection between us, and we got the job done.

It was a beautiful setting but quite remote in those days.  About an hour's walk in the evening to the "bottle store".  No electricity at all.  Parafin fridges and beer by candlelight.  The music must have run on a battery.  Radio, I guess ... gaps in memory but I'm sure there was music.

I’m forever grateful that I experienced these simple practicalities of building work while I was young and fit. I keep mentioning embodied learning in these posts because it seems to me a crucial concept. Spending several years working with your hands is bound to affect the way you think. I suspect it hindered my ability to be a fully committed “Design Architect” but it helps me in my current role. I can “think like a builder” as I model with my BIM pencil. 

But all through my years as a builder and educator I maintained my enthusiasm for a real pencil. Here is a sketch of the interior of that rural house, or perhaps an imaginary similar one, with a brick-built wood stove in the corner. I did build something similar. It was inspired by Intermediate Technology literature of the time. It was hopelessly inefficient in practice, but an interesting learning experience.

I think it’s worth sharing this hand-drawn construction detail which is really a work-in-progress design sketch. Maybe this has some relevance to the Gothic builders we have been thinking about of late. I made this sketch as a bricklayer trying to figure out how to tackle the job. There is no drawing of what I actually built. Just a trial run on paper that reveals some of the difficulties, then straight into building it and thinking on the fly.

These images are from a folder on my hard drive called "Life's Work". Rummaging through I came across an old CV, possibly prepared for my move to Dubai. Here is a portion including Vic Falls Hotel and three commercial office projects. The last of these, in Blantyre, was done using a combination of Autocad and Sketchup. This was long before Google bought Sketchup, and probably before Autodesk acquired Revit. It was a transitional stage for me. I had dabbled with Archicad but at that stage elevations and sections were not live views. 

Back to that Rural Homestead. Having realised that clever new inventions often look better in books than in real life, we reverted to the traditional solution of a round thatched kitchen. Clearly this plays a cultural role as well as having practical advantages. Thatch works for a kitchen. It let’s smoke out and the smoke discourages vermin. Square rooms with modern roofing materials work for bedrooms and formal sitting rooms with armchairs. 

If you observe the compromises between modern and traditional that prevail in a given setting, that’s probably going to be better than some cleverly designed solution by an external expert. Of course those experiments are worth trying and from time to time something will catch on and be incorporated into current wisdom. I guess it’s loosely analogous to natural selection. Usually superior to intelligent design. 

Three generations of African women. My daughter with her grandma and her aunt, meeting for the first time in many years. This was shortly before my move to Dubai: a road trip I managed to fit in before it was too late. That 5-room house forms a backdrop.  I did make a Revit model of the house a few years later as part of a talk I gave to industry professionals when BIM was still a relatively new concept in Dubai. 

Next is another page from that CV. The one and only Tower Block I designed in Africa. And bottom right, a couple of images exported from Archicad. That was probably version 4 point something. I got as far as 6.5, all Pirate copies I’m afraid. 

I did a few developments in this kind of colonial cottage style. Architectural purists will wince perhaps but people enjoy it recognisable mode. It’s fine for one building in a hundred to be a ground breaking original but parts of Dubai attest to the futility of a whole neighbourhood of originals. 

To conclude, a tree, an anthill and a toilet. (ventilated pit latrine) This may be my purest architectural composition.  It matters little.  I make no claims to be a great designer.  I just rejoice in the variety of experiences I have stumbled into over the past 50 years since I left home. Half of these were spent in Africa and I had a blast. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019


 Usually I compose a blog post here, then echo it to LinkedIn.  Just for a change I’m taking a short LinkedIn snip and expanding it into blog post.  Here goes

“Sometimes I think with my BIM pencil, and sometimes I let my old-school pencil lead the way. Some of our volunteers are having difficulty modelling without a set of dimensioned drawings to lead the way.

That's fine, but we are just exploring. We learn by our mistakes. I'm not embarrassed by the fact that this drawing is a bit messy. I was letting my subconscious mind run ahead of itself, searching for a level of abstraction and simplification, intuitively.

We don't think with our brains. We think by letting our bodies interact with the world. Our brains just encode that experience into memories that influence future adventures.

Project Notre Dame is an adventure. If you let it take you on a journey, perhaps you will find places inside yourself that you didn't know about.”

Clearly there are some interesting places inside him, and children are not afraid to strike out into the unknown, take a risk, make bold guesses, leaps of imagination.  You may object that Project Notre Dame is trying to “capture reality”, so what role is there for imagination?  My grandson was trying to capture the idea of a lion, explore what it means to him.  Project Notre Dame is a voyage of discovery for me.  What do cathedrals mean to me, what do they have to say about our history? How did Gothic Architecture image from the dark ages and dissolve into the Renaissance? Why did it resurface during the industrial revolution to be championed by the likes of Viollet Leduc?

My LinkedIn network has been exploding since I started posting about PND. Recently I stumbled across the son of two old friends.  I last visited them 8 years ago, the same year that I first entered the Parametric Pumpkin competition.  I had my 60th birthday in Cape Town with my three children, a city we had visited some 20 years earlier when we still lived in Zimbabwe.    I played the first of several annual gigs in England with friends I knew at school, so many decades ago.  And I attempted a Revit model of another, very different Notre Dame: the chapel in Ronchamp by LeCorbusier.

I was in the grip of unhealthy eating habits, horrendously overweight, and my mum was slipping away in a nursing home in Birmingham.  The trip to Scotland to see Adam’s mum & dad was a last minute addition to my itinerary, a fascinating glimpse into a different world.  Simon gave me a tour of current projects, zero-carbon modern architecture set in stunning open landscapes: a far cry from the desert resorts & hotels of my day job.

I’m not sure why I decided to process two of the images from that visit.  Even less sure of how I chose the combination of effects. I guess the exterior shot emphasises the starkness, the muted colours of a misty landscape. But that’s a post-rationalisation.  I was letting my instincts take the lead.  What is the balance between reason and emotions?  How do we weave them together to create meaning in our lives?  Why am I obsessed by buildings?  Is it because they mark the break with our hunter-gatherer origins?  

That house in its bleak open setting epitomises that break in many ways. Such a perfectly ordered and controlled environment sitting in a wild and natural setting. 

More image processing to create an image for BiLT NA in Seattle.  Strange to send our model out there on its own, with none of the core team attending.  Such is the network effect of digital media, creating connections in real time across the continents, allowing one idea to spark another and disparate groups to play their part in bringing VR experiences to conference attendees at ridiculously short notice.

Here’s a shot from the Revizto version.  Their trademark 2D view superimposed on a 3D section.  In a way this is like a filter, overlaying pencil textures on an image to enhance the experience.  So many ways to create an image, but all of them involve looking, and looking again, and again.  Seeing something you hadn't noticed before.  Embodied cognition.  Learning by doing.  Actively manipulating images is a compulsion for me, constantly shaping the world anew.

And let’s finish with an Enscape image, raw, no effects.  Is this “more real” than the hand-drawn sketch I started with … more honest?  Or do we see less, precisely because it looks so real?  Why do diagrams and infographics seem to be telling us so much more than the raw data from which they are distilled?  

The collage from 2011 is distilled slice of my past.  It is possible because of the digital revolution that has dominated the second half of that lifetime.  I was probably on my second or third digital camera by then, smart-phone images still a rarity.  Visual thinking has always played a prominent role in my attempts to make sense of the world.  In my twenties and thirties I carried a pocket notebook and pencil around, scribbling ideas and images that seemed important to me in the moment.  Today a Samsung Note 8 plays a similar role, but it also gives me constant access to all those notebooks via digital copies in cloud storage.  Much of my image processing and compilation is done on my phone these days.  

Extended cognition is a daily reality, but let’s not forget the core from which it extends.  We need to keep in touch with the old school pencil, the simple and direct learning processes that link us back to our childhood years.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


I wonder if I will walk along the eaves of Notre Dame one day.

The ground floor windows that illuminate the many side chapels are represented by simple placeholder families right now. In reality, many of them have a triangular “gable” I think this is a nineteenth century addition. For some reason the windows on the North side of the nave don’t have this feature. Maybe they ran out of money, and the side that is visible from across the river took priority.

What is it about the spire?  Primeval symbol ?  or just a landmark, visible above the rooftops? Certainly, it manages to balance a tower-heavy mass and to offset the solidity of masonry with a sinuous spikiness. I wonder what the medieval spire was like before its state of dishevelment justified Viollet le Duc’s redesign.  So far I haven’t come across a drawing that shows this.

Marcel’s modelling is shaping up pretty well now, lego men stepping up the roof valleys where it straddles the crossing and crockets arrayed up eight ridges of the “witches hat”  Lots of detail that could be added, but it’s compatible with the rest of the model fat the moment.

Two of the South East window bays are actually portals connecting the chancel to the sacristy. So I decided it was time to rough out this addition which was also an innovation of Viollet le Duc. In contrast to the overall symmetry of the cathedral it is an irregular form. But what do I make of an annexe for storing relics which has evolved into a tourist exhibit.

Religion has deep roots. Hunter gatherer bands lack the rigid dominance hierarchies of our primate relatives. This seems to have been achieved by shunting alpha and beta males to the realms of fantasy.  This reduced the hostility between groups creating a positive selection pressure. Groups that told stories about common ancestors and kept skulls in niches survived famines by collaborating.

But if the sacristy is a remnant of our origins on the African savanna, does that make tourism the modern equivalent of a pilgrimage? Is that how we now relate to our ancestors, by traipsing around museum exhibits?  For my part, I prefer the “active learning” approach we are pursuing with Project Notre Dame.  So maybe the Revit model is our “sacristy,” the sacred relic that we are preserving for the benefit of the human tribe.

Be that as it may, buildings require maintenance, and access routes above ground need safety rails. And rails need posts for stability.  So I set about dividing the railings around the various eaves levels into bays and placing simple rectangular blocks on the grid lines to stand in for the more elaborately sculpted posts that exist in reality.  There are some alignment issues where these sit on top of pilasters that are part of the flying buttress families, but we will sort that out later on.

In the corner where the South Triforium gallery meets the Bell Tower, I stumbled across another surprise.  The roof pops up to a higher level.  This is reminiscent of the junction with the Transepts where it also pops up as it turns the corner.  It's kind of hidden under the flying buttresses and I only spotted it in one grainy black and white photo.

I think there are probably unanswered questions here, but for the moment let's just take note of the vault over this bay, which is much higher on the outside than the inside, allowing for an extra tall window.  When you know what to look for this taller window is evident in one of the panoramas on the TruView free site, but I had looked at this several times before without realising what I was seeing.

There's a great little sketch by Viollet le Duc which shows what's going on in section.  Actually that's another revelation, discovering the depth of his scholarship and talent.  I learnt such a lot when I was working on Project Soane: a new deep insight almost every weekend .. and Project Notre Dame is headed in the same direction.

As an offshoot to discussions around “how to get hold of a point cloud” we came across a fascinating website called Mapping Gothic. This has a lot of useful information about a huge number of cathedrals across both France and England, including some splendid 360 panoramas of Notre Dame de Paris.  Highly recommended.  University Art History departments are doing some splendid work, all we need to do know is introduce them to the benefits of BIM 😊

Since the last post we have received a huge influx of offers to assist in various ways.  I am truly humbled by this response and we have started to devise systems for enabling a “content creation” role in parallel to, an in support of the live work on BIM360.  I think we will also need to have a couple of people who focus on setting up views and sheets, annotating, developing and enforcing naming standards, etc.  

This project has developed very rapidly in an almost “accidental” fashion and we are pretty much making it up as we go along.  If you come across our VR experiences at the BiLT conference in Seattle, please realise that this is very much a “Work in Progress” and we are fully aware of the many shortcomings and inconsistencies.  

As for the “Content Creation” role, we have set up a cloud storage are on the Mega NZ platform.  If you get an invite, please accept it, install MegaSync for Windows and synchronise the Incoming Share you received to a folder on your local drive.  That way, you will get updates and reorganisations that will inevitably take place over the coming weeks.

So that's it.  The model is moving forward on several fronts, and the community we are building around the collaborative process is growing rapidly.  Alfredo & I have been accepted as speakers at AU in November.  We have started to explore the VR potential.  Living in pretty interesting times.

Monday, July 8, 2019


The model as it was at the beginning of this post 

There is a network of maintenance access routes that we are just beginning to understand. The next image was posted on LinkedIn just over a week ago and has had more than 26,000 views. It shows a semi-concealed viewing platform between the two towers, directly above the organ loft. Inside the towers on either side are massive wooden frames to support the church bells. Organ music and the peals of bells: the sounds of medieval Christianity. I digress. 

From here you can pass briefly through the corners of the roof void to emerge at eaves level high above the nave on either the North or the South side. With the steep roof on one side, and a stone balustrade on the other, you can walk along a gutter / access gallery, all the way to the junction with the Transepts 

At this point the route gets complicated, and an element of guesswork creeps in. It’s quite clear that the Triforium Gallery (1) is connected to the access gutter (2) by a spiral stair (3) From here it seems likely that there are short passages within the thickness of the wall leading to galleries that cross below the rose windows (North and South) The interior galleries surely have a door at each end, but I am yet to spot the access to the balustraded ledge across the outside. A hinged panel in the glazing perhaps?  

In the last couple of weeks Paul Aubin has done some more work on the flying buttresses. The ones that support the vaults over the nave are now looking really splendid and clearly show the fascinating, steeply sloping channels that funnel water from the high eaves, through cute little pavilions into projecting gargoyles.  

I spent a day or so taking mesh-modelled statues, sourced and processed by Russell Fuller Hill, and inserting them into my placeholder families along the West Front. Two angels either side of a Madonna and child stand on a balcony at the base of the Rose window. Further out to the sides are two more figures also on tall bases.  

One level down is a continuous row of figures with crowns on their heads, standing within an arcade, between slender columns. There are about 30 figures, all different, but although the mesh models are much closer in spirit to the stone originals, they are far from being an exact match. So we are moving from identicallego-man” placeholders to an impression of carved statues in historic dress with variety as you move along the row. But in fact there are just three different versions alternating. 

First pass at the eaves detail had been a plain wall standing on an in-place sweep. To take this to the next level I placed a thin floor on top of the sweep and used this to host a railing. For now, the railings are continuous and I’m using a railing I developed for the West Front.  Eventually there should be at least 4 different patterns of stone balustrading in the model. We are just feeling our way gradually towards a more accurate representation. 

Alfredo has done a great job of modelling the North and South rose windows and in the process tackling the important issue of maintaining clarity at different view scales.  At a glance these windows seem to be the same, but on closer inspection they are completely different: number of segments, whether there is a pane of glass or a mullion in the vertical centre position, etc

He followed up this work with a very well constructed blog post. I’m using some screen grabs from that here, and you have to say we are starting to get some nice crisp documentation from the model now. Check out the post at this link.  

I set up a series of sheets several weeks ago. and the model is taller now than it was then.  This is partly because the bell towers are taller than my original guess, but mostly because Marcel has added the spire.   Those sheets are looking very crowded now, and the top of the spire is chopped off.  I’m starting to think that we need to double the number of sheets and give the individual views a lot more air.  

I would really like to add some annotations soon also, but that requires a bit of thought. This is BIM and I don’t want to use text. We need to decide which elements to use and which parameters can host historical information in a structured way.  

Or maybe I will just start doing it, and learn from my mistakes. It seems that my role on the project is to be the guy who rushes ahead and doesn’t mind making mistakes. Paul and Alfredo, on the other hand are carefully selecting elements that they can develop in a more systematic manner. Marcel I think is somewhere between these two extremes in his work on the roof trusses and the spire.  

Russell, so far is playing the role of back office support, feeding us with content to use in the model. I think we will need more people doing that kind of work.  

So that’s where we are right now after recent work on  
  1. Statues 
  2. Access galleries  
  3. Buttresses 
  4. Rose Windows 
  5. The Spire