Thursday, February 29, 2024


 Somewhere roughly over Mogadishu. On my way back to Zimbabwe for what could perhaps be the last time. I hope not, but given how long it's been and all the different kinds of water that have flowed under myriad bridges... You never know.

I lost my citizenship during the pandemic. I had always intended to go back to Harare to retire. My hand was forced, but then I realised it no longer made any sense. That troubled country still clutches at my heart. It will be an emotional trip, I'm selling my house. Shipping a few things and letting go of the rest.

Almost 20 years now since I moved to Dubai. Economic necessity with university fees looming. I was working as hard as ever, but most of the projects never got off the ground. It was fun in a way, doing concept after concept. I think I imagined that we would bounce back in a year or two. Exploring an integrated 2D /3D approach but I didn't really have the tools yet.

I watched a podcast recently with the guy who started @last software. They knew that people were using it for free, but he didn't care. He reasoned that if the community grew big enough and people loved the experience, profitability would come in time. Interesting guy.

I was hoping to get my hands on Architectural Desktop but nobody had a broken version. Those were interesting times. Queueing all day for petrol. Buying groceries in bulk because they held their value better than paper money. Then suddenly I was on a plane to Dubai, little realising I would stay for twenty years.

But now the sands are starting to shift beneath my feet again.

These two buildings in Zimbabwe have something in common. They were designed by the same person. Apart from that, they are worlds apart, symbols perhaps of the enormous gap between rich and poor.

One is in the capital, also a city of contrasts, with its leafy northern suburbs, and dusty townships. The other is deep in the rural areas, where land tenure operates along traditional lines. I offer no judgement. Are modern ways better? By some standards yes. By others perhaps not.

Either way, resistance is futile. You can retreat into the simple physicality of a life on the land, but sooner or later the tentacles of modernity will seek you out.

I designed both these buildings and this week I saw them again after almost two decades. Time spent in that desert fantasy called Dubai, also a city of contrasts. Like so many Zimbabweans I went overseas in search of money, for the betterment of my family.

There have been ups and downs, but ultimately no regrets. And likewise, I remain proud of these two buildings, equally so, in fact. Though for different reasons.

It's great to be back.

Sam Levy's Village where life seems good. Could all of Zimbabwe have seen prosperity like this by now, almost 45 years after independence?

By way of contrast, here is Chivu, where we turned left, on our journey down "kumusha." Life goes on, in its own dusty way. There is a deeper history here. The post office echoes the government style of the 1930s. A small and simple building, but given dignity by just a hint of the classical spirit.

The hotel no longer operates, I think. Not a beautiful building perhaps, but redolent of the Dutch colonial style that once held sway in Southern Africa.

Finally, the retail traders of Indian origin who were willing in the 50s and 60s to invest in shops that served the needs of the majority population. A pragmatic approach to building but it has a character all the same, a recognisable ambience. It speaks the truth about itself.

"The Way We Build" is a never ending story of human life, of materials, climate and culture.

While at Rusununguko I started working on a children's alphabet book. As a project, it didn't go very far, but this was one of the early studies.

I was relatively fresh from the UK and a period of my life when I flirted with the idea of becoming an illustrator and visual story teller. I was fascinated by the challenge of using my freehand Rotring pen drawing style to depict the very different landscape and culture I found myself in.

On reflection, I decided that a simpler style would be good for young children learning to read, so I came up with this character called "hari" (sounding like a Christian name in English and the Shona word for a clay pot)

I thought all this work was lost. I didn't even remember very clearly what I had done, but while sorting through the remnants my papers in Zimbabwe, I came across these drawings.

A mixture of emotions. The excitement of discovery. Pride in the creativity of my younger self. Disappointment at how many projects I have started but never finished.



Patan Durbar in Kathmandu. That was an inspiring visit. One of my first trips after moving to Dubai. It was such a novelty to be able to travel like that after years in Zimbabwe where travel was an expensive luxury, although I did get a few business trips, and one holiday in Mauritius before hyperinflation kicked in.

This historic centre was walking distance from where my cousin lived at the time so I was able to take quite a few digital photos and also picked up a book with a number of hand drawn plans and Sections.

What I see in the plan view is an irregular clearing in the "forest" that is the dense street network. Running north to south, a group of palace buildings in a straight line dividing the public domain from a larger private royal garden. Dotted around the public square are Buddhist stupas and hindu pavilions. Between these, intensive activity, buying and selling, socialising, just passing through.

And of course the water spouts and ponds, rectangular, stepping down in terraces. Ancient but still functioning. And everywhere the density of symbols, carved in wood or stone, cast in bronze. Is there anything in our modern culture to hold a candle to this exuberance?

I hope I am granted the time to take this study further, because I have barely scratched the surface.


"The Way We Build" was going to be a book title. That was my idea 25 years ago, when l was still in Zimbabwe and before I started using Revit or blogging. I had dabbled in the world of publishing, sporadically and had one foot planted firmly in the digital realm.

Human beings have built for thousands of years, using different techniques and materials, for different purposes, adapting to different climates and cultural settings. As a former bricklayer, building teacher and now finally an architect I thought I could weave stories about the human condition in words and pictures that explored our rich history as builders.

Fast forward to 2012. Visiting my daughter in New Jersey and attending my first Revit conference in Atlanta. Experimenting with digital sketching tools. Fascinated by the evolution of different electrical systems, the reason for travel adapters, or just for confusion trying to use the bedside light.

Even my surname had morphed into a different spelling in the New World as it branched off and developed its own norms, habits, solutions. Human groups have been diversifying for hundreds of thousands of years, spreading out of Africa and facing fresh challenges.

It puts our current hopes, fears and obsessions in perspective.


How to get the spontaneity of hand sketching into the digital world and back again, seamlessly? I have tried various solutions over the years. The inkling allowed the natural feel of pen on paper to be captured and offered wonderful control.

But it was a one-way trip and a bit of a bumpy ride at that. These days I mostly use my phone. Always on hand, always connected, seamless flow between software packages. Cloud storage providing the link to other devices, bigger screens, more oomph.

But the inkling tapped into the pen and paper experience much more faithfully. Is it just me? Because I grew up that way? Any tool influences the way we work, the texture of the end product. Do you want your building to be slick and machine finished?

Or would you prefer the imperfections of hand-made. We have both in abundance today. But do we know how to wield that power? How to balance emotion and efficiency in our daily lives?

PS it's not repetition. Yesterday's image was a photograph of the ink-on-paper drawing created while the device records the movements. Today's is the digital file transferred from the little clip on box to my laptop.

Thursday, February 15, 2024


It's an amazing thing that I can wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking about the past, reach out one hand, and enter this time-tunnel. Currently this consists of about 700gb of data stored in "the cloud" wherever that is. Multiple synchronised locations I guess.

Certainly I have several local wormholes with different form factors. One at least is a fairly complete clone, but the one in my hand as I thumb-type this is just an index, full of "on-demand" hyperlinks. Such things were unimaginable in 1980, when I was illustrating a book called "Squatting : the real story"

One of my illustrations depicted a terrace of derelict houses in South London which had been occupied by a group of mostly young people who went about adapting it to their various needs. Living a fantasy life on a shoestring budget. Such things were not uncommon in the 70s in many cities across Europe.

I'm still pretty proud of this drawing. I think I did a first draft in pencil, then overlaid a sheet of tracing to draw the finished artwork with a Rotring pen. Altogether probably a week's worth of effort. Then photo-reduced to paste into the page layout, which Caroline did by hand.

Magical memories without any doubt. Days spent in their Limehouse studio, taking a break from bricklaying in Sheffield and letting my visual imagination run free. Forever grateful that Nick and Caroline invited me on that journey.


Another illustration for the squatting book. I just drew a globe, then Caroline pasted it into a layout with various news clippings. Letrafilm gave it the grey tone used on all the main section pages.

We didn't have Internet, not even a personal computer. I don't know what I used as my reference for the world map. Probably Nick had something. Maybe I even did it from memory.

My major interest was in the hatching technique and the representation of cloud cover. All that was certainly coming directly from my imagination. I was fascinated by the challenge of just putting pen to paper and trusting that it would work out.

There was some scope for a little scratching out with a razor blade, but this could also ruin the freshness of the whole image if you weren't careful.

Why did this kind of illustration not become my day job? I guess it could have happened. I was open to the possibility. Ready for a change. As it turned out that change was volunteer teaching in Africa. Just popped up and I went for it. Never looked back.


I guess you could subtitle this image pair "the arrogance of the architect". It was conceived by three young people who rebelled against the profession way back in the early seventies, and each found our own diverse paths through life.

Caroline sadly left us. Nick and I soldier on. Our views have matured, but I think we both still stand behind the premise on display here. The Victorian street pattern in London was based on hundreds of years of experience. Changing gradually, sometimes expanding rapidly, but maintaining continuity of form and intent.

I personally have great affection for some branches of Modernism. But there are vast swathes that disrupted human community and tradition for no good reason except for the vanity of ideologically driven experts.

It would be nice to think that we have learnt our lesson, but I have my doubts. The inanity of the games people are playing with chatGPT and its siblings, "just because they can" is depressing enough. But read the comments. "so cool" "awesome" "let's do the Taj Mahal in the style of Zaha Hadid"

I digress.

I love the terraced house typology in all it's myriad variants. So wonderfully adaptive to future changes of use. So effective at nurturing street life (cars permitting) It's not the only way. There are other very successful traditions.

But that's the point. Build on the local tradition. Play around with it by all means, but don't just toss it aside in a fit of hubris.



The Heineken slogan was written in 1973 and remained a staple of their advertising for more than 20 years. The idea of adapting this for a section page of the Squatting book was developed by Nick and Caroline. They gave me quite a detailed word-picture of what they had in mind and off I went.

My first few illustrations for the book had been done in a Rotring pen style that offers clarity and crisp transfer to an offset lytho printing process. But I was itching to spread my wings a bit and the dingy background in this image gave me an opportunity to try some much looser pencil work.

I do hope I can find my way to doing something similar again. It could provide an interesting foil to the work I've been doing with Revit under the "Way We Build" rubric. Just need to find a way in.



Caroline sent me out with a camera, capturing boarded-up houses of various types in East London. These were peiced together to form a kind of framing device for a story, disguised as a comic strip.

Perhaps this is what worries me most about the AI driven style game. It's like all the other style games architects have played for the last couple of hundred years. It forgets that buildings are brought to life by people.

Architects are not brought into this world to showcase their mastery of style and form. They exist to create places that people can inhabit.


The story is a classic. The people fight back against a corrupt, oppressive system. They face many setbacks, but they also achieve some notable victories. The struggle goes on. "A luta continua."

These days I would take a more nuanced view of these kinds of "activism" Not surprising really given that I'm almost 45 years older. But we need stories, and stories tend to have heroes and villains, plus a variety of other characters. All the same, a really good story avoids moralising.

Once upon a time I could draw these human characters at will. Can I reclaim that fluency?


Friday, February 9, 2024



So this is a tiny portion of the view from my living room, the phone - cam simulating our natural ability to focus attention on a small portion of the field of view. What it doesn't simulate is the brain's ability to subconsciously scan the periphery at low resolution so we don't miss something important while concentrating on a demanding task. But that's another story. (Ask Iain McGilchrist)

My point today is about the messy world of ordinary people who inhabit buildings and try their best to adapt them to their needs. The square mesh is part of my ongoing struggles with pigeon poop. That grid is echoed in the larger grid of the building facade, engaged in its own struggle to impose order on our laundry habits.



Coming out of the corner shop I came across 4 young guys enjoying the night air. Two Egyptians, one Jordanian, one Palestinian. I asked them if it was a private club. Long story short I ended up sitting with them out there in the street and chatting for maybe half an hour.

Maybe I am out here on my own, getting old in the desert, but l do like living in this heterodox area among the hoi polloi. And it does seem that there are ways of finding human connection.

Maybe it's just a state of mind.




True story. Last week, coming out of the supermarket I met this Chinese guy. He said to me "where do you live?" I said, "Here, in International City" So he said why do you want to live here? It's all Chinese people "

"What's wrong with Chinese people? " says I, but I think he missed the subtle irony. Anyway there are so many other nationalities and ethnicities jumbled together in this concrete paradise. But maybe it's indicative of the Chinese community here being inward looking. What do I know?

When I was younger. I was so socially awkward. Why did it take more than 60 years for me to learn the trick? Maybe these things come to us when we are ready for them. Or maybe everyone is curious about this old white guy with a pigtail. "WTF is going on here?" 🤣🤣🤣



Needless to say I pride myself on being a misfit, but finally a misfit who gets along with just about anybody. For a while at least. Let's be real. I still spend 90% of my time on my own thinking about buildings, drawing, painting, playing guitar. Hermit stuff.

Can't ignore people altogether though. 🤔