Saturday, September 21, 2019


Week two of my quest to connect the BIM pencil to skilled trades. Riding North by train to Barnsley, the town I grew up in. Staying with my cousin. Pictures of the BBCS, Edwardian Baroque? Grade 2 listed. Memories of the restaurant on the top floor where my grandma waited on tables when I was very young.

A trip to Burnley to visit Karl Claydon, master plasterer. Posing with my cousin in his workshop, Karl at the door saying farewell. An ornate ceiling rose in process of assembly on his bench.

Some examples of his artistry along well worn classical themes

Three versions of Acanthus leaf. Two palmettes, reminiscent of the anthemion motif, beloved by John Soane. A bucket of lime putty which I learnt improves with age like wine or whisky. Indeed you can buy “mature lime putty” which actually feels different between thumb and finger!

How many young plasterers can improvise on the Acanthus leaf theme today I wonder? Why have we drawn a line between dexterity and design, placing them in separate boxes?

Another afternoon, another plasterer’s  workshop. Keith Langton in Horbury. A pink silicone “squeeze” taken from an existing cornice. Sometimes the new materials are clearly better. Some would argue a case for lime against cement, (if you have the patience to allow it to cure properly). But would anyone prefer gelatine moulds to silicone?

Countless profiles lying in racks and the running mould that produces them. French or English, forwards or backwards? It will take time for my brain to process all these new snippets of information. Lath and plaster practice panel. I guess that was cutting edge technology at one time, compared to the old ‘wattle and daub’ tradition.

The next day was York. Stone Mason’s setting out marks on a smooth gypsum floor. Templates in wood and metal. The first photo is by Matt Thompson, an online friend from the days of Project Soane, who I met in person for the first time, walking around York together.

I am trying to compare the classical approach to plant forms with the Gothic. A row of Corinthian columns would be identical. Hawksmoor might make changes from building to building, but within any one row on the same building, consistency would be the rule. A series of crocket capitals on the other hand are typically all unique: endless variations on the curled up leaf/bud motif.

York Minster. A six part vault, but instead of the window walls being on opposite sides they are wrapped around one corner, which also means that the narrow segments vary in width. Fat Norman columns in the crypt. Memories of an earlier, smaller building.

Occasional use of the dark, polished stone I noticed at Salisbury and I found out it’s Purbeck Marble, not a true marble (metamorphic) just a dense sandstone that takes a polish. Suddenly I remember that we saw old mining shafts for Purbeck stone during a family Xmas, not quite 3 years ago.

And the sturdy timbers of the chapter house roof: a steep octagonal cone, covered in cast lead sheet with a suspended lath and plaster vault below. These are the original timbers from more than 700 years ago.

Before catching the train back to Barnsley, I had a quick look around the Merchant Adventurers Hall. Fantastic oak framing again, but this time a secular building.

 Connections to the Bank of England, in that they started out in rented premises with the same function (Mercers Hall and Grocers Hall) These were venture capitalists, banding together to promote long distance trade, dominated by woollen cloth. The wealth of York was founded on the sheep grazing fields of Yorkshire.

Connections are constantly forming between the rich experiences I encounter on my travels. Connections restructuring themselves in my neural networks.  The guild Hall reminds me of the long traditions of plaster work, passed down the generations, and still kept alive by people like Karl and Keith. Back in Dubai I pressed some modelling clay into a hand carved Boxwood mould, rescued from a rubbish heap and passed on to me by Keith. How did these guys produce such effortlessly graceful foliage while carving ‘inside out’?

These experiences and reflections will help to enrich our BIM pencil work over the next few months. Notre Dame will be the primary focus, isolated to some extent on its own little island (Isle de France) but part of a bigger story, the ebb and flow of human enterprise: tools, clothing, buildings, trade, culture, language, religion.

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