Saturday, April 27, 2024



Probably my number one musical hero, John Lee Hooker. I discovered him in my first year at university and was simply blown away. These are scans of second hand LPs I bought back then and were sitting in my house in Zimbabwe for the past 20 years. After some agonising I decided against trying to ship them. I have mp3s and you can stream them if you want. For the most part, as I get older, I prefer the versions that play in my head. Bottled music, like bottled fruit, loses a lot in translation. So I just have images, complete with my signature on the back. Partly a product of living in communal houses.

His technique was deceptively simple and quite often he would play through a whole song in one chord. This confused backing musicians at times, who would try to go through the twelve bar changes based on his vocals. The result can be quirky, but sets up a tension that is much more effective than everyone just following a script.

He could make a single note shake you to your core, and the tone of his voice... To die for. I always felt slightly embarrassed singing his songs, but I had to try.

It's all about tone, both guitar and voice (not to mention foot tapping) He could unleash a flurry of notes at speed, syncopate the rhythm, lots of little tricks. But in the end it was tone. Raw emotion. We all fall for virtuosity at times, especially when we're young, but ultimately music was born out of deep emotional bonding, around a camp fire, somewhere in Africa tens of thousands of years ago.

He could harness that power. In spades.


In 1983 I was 32 years old and I had been in Zimbabwe for a year and a half, teaching building at Rusununguko Secondary School. The long holidays were coming up and I had this idea to write a little building workbook to express my ideas about injecting a bit more creativity into the subject.

It had been conceived before independence as an option for the less intelligent black students, preparing them for the idea of working in the construction industry, or at least acquiring some skills that they could use in the rural areas.

I don't want to be too hard on this. Given the realities of the time it was an attempt by educators to offer something useful to teenagers who had little chance of getting a desk job or going to university. But the mood after independence was a bit different.



Certainly in my mind I wanted Building to be a viable subject choice for students of all ability levels. That's who I had in my classes and I taught that there are many different options within the building sector to suit your abilities and interests. Also, whatever the future held for you, a building course was a great way to learn to apply book learning to practical situations. It could be Maths and Science, English, problem solving, group collaboration. I thought it was a great integrative subject, and of course I loved building.

Rusununguko was a Zimfep school. In theory at least they aimed to give a balanced education with a mix of academic and practical work. I took my draft booklet to the Zimfep head office in Harare and they decided to run off a number of copies to distribute to schools.

I don't think they saw much use in the classroom, but the idea was to stimulate thought and discussion among teachers at these schools.


More pages from the building workbook I wrote in 1983 after 18 months of hands-on teaching at an experimental school on a farm in Zimbabwe. I was the only white face in that community which inevitably gave me time to think about how I could weld together my drawing skills, my time in UK laying bricks, and the teaching experience.

There was no such thing as YouTube of course, nowhere to go to see a visualisation of trowel skills for example. So I thought I was doing something quite ground-breaking.

When I was doing my crash course in bricklaying in Sheffield with Mr Cox he would give us little dry bonding problems out on the practice ground. I just used to love this. Have you grasped the basic principles well enough to figure out how to handle a new and unexpected situation?


In Zimbabwe 7 or 8 years later, involved in an educational experiment and totally immersed in a new and challenging experience, I wanted to share the excitement of this hands-on problem solving with eager young African teenagers with a real hunger to learn.

It's so interesting to read something I wrote half a lifetime ago, paired with a cheeky little illustration to convey the ideal of Education With Production. Also the cover of a book I was using in my attempts to learn Shona. Comrade Andrew is the name I was known by at Rusununguko during my first two years in Zimbabwe.



Photographs from 1982 when we were still trying to maintain the illusion that the students could build their own school. I was a volunteer building teacher at Rusununguko, struggling with class sizes of 80 at times.

Twenty minutes walking down to the "new site." A mad scramble to grab the few tools available. 40 minutes of chaotic work. Wash the tools. Walk back to the "old site" Zero chance to develop skills in a systematic way.

After one term like this I fought hard to bring class sizes down and involve the whole class in a learning experience. Adult teams were brought in to build most of the buildings and some kind of sanity was restored.


Having said all that, it was an amazing experience for me to be immersed in a community of returned refugees, to be stretched to the limits of my own abilities and to figure out how to ride the daily roller-coaster.

Natural beauty of sunsets with the radio mast on a distant ridge. Babysitting while working on a classroom block. My trademark white boiler suit and the mattress on the floor which was my sleeping space for the first year. Telltale overage students given a chance to complete secondary school on retuning so Zimbabwe from camps in Mozambique.


Sunday, April 14, 2024



By some strange quirk of fate, I spent almost two years living in a place called Vrededorp. This is a run-down suburb of central Johannesburg a short walk from Wits (University of the Witwatersrand)

I had been searching for a room to rent as a mature student and stumbled across this one. It was a strange area, historically restricted to poor whites, it had become a "grey area" where the apartheid rules were not enforced. If Google Earth is any guide it hasn't come up in the world in the 30+ years that have elapsed since then.

I was rather shocked to see such poverty and degradation among whites, something you never saw in Zimbabwe at the time. There were while alcoholics sleeping rough in the park. One froze to death while I was there. South Africa has long been a country of deep contrasts, complexities and contradictions.

There were small shacks with corrugated iron walls. I couldn't find these on street view. At least they seem to have been "upgraded" in some ad-hoc way.



I did find snapshots to remind me of the journey to campus, on foot at first, then later using a second hand bicycle. The "Red Jesus" church whose raucous Afrikaans hymns drifted into my room every Sunday. The atrium of the students union where I picked up that card for Vrededorp lodgings. The ramshackle shops at the traffic lights where I turned into "coolie town" as it was labelled on some old maps. I always admired the old red school building with its hints at classicism. That was a marker that I was almost home.

My fellow students were nearly all white and there were only a couple who didn't have cars. I was living on a very strict budget. Strange to be so closely allied to poverty while I had a comfortable home with a swimming pool and three young children back in Zimbabwe. We wrote almost every week, and visited three times a year. How I longed for those visits.

How ironic that Zimbabwe felt like heaven and South Africa a deeply broken country in those distant times. Joburg has become a refuge for so many young Zimbabweans, just as Dubai has been for me. Sadly I think South Africa has still to pass through its "Zimbabwe moment" I don't think I will live to see the brighter days that southern Africa surely deserves.

But I do see bright glimmers of hope. Physical poverty is one thing. Poverty of the soul another.


I wonder if anyone has ever done a study of Dutch Reformed Church buildings in Southern Africa. I was always impressed by the architectural quality of the ones I stumbled across when I was living in that part of the world.

I lived in Harare for twenty years during the optimistic period of independence. This little church on Samora Machel Avenue, tucked in behind an office building, is a real gem. I was able to take shots from unusual angles while supervising construction of Century Towers. Sadly I never went inside. You could say that this was "Cape Dutch" I suppose, but to me it branches out into more original territory.

The proportions are pushed to the limit, but in a good way and the three dimensional plasticity of the form reminds me a little of Bavarian baroque, which I studied a little many years ago.


The second example is in Vrededorp, where I stayed for almost two years, more than 30 years ago. The location is very dramatic, perched on a cliff edge. These shots are from Google Earth. No smart phones or digital cameras in those days. More conventional Cape Dutch styling here, but still a very adventurous and confident massing.

I would love to know more about the architects involved and the various strands of design development within the church, regionally. I'm sure there will be examples in Namibia, possibly Botswana also, certainly several in Zimbabwe and potentially dozens across South Africa. Are there parallel traditions in Holland? Does anyone still work in this tradition? Are they protected in any way?

Lots of questions. Maybe the church struggles with its apartheid demons. But the buildings are part of our heritage, and a very positive contribution to the public domain in my view.



I have lived close to gasworks and /or gasometers several times in my life and they always held a certain fascination. Quite extraordinary structures, especially the ones with dark Victorian overtones. And they move.

There were two large storage drums close by when I lived in Wincobank in Sheffield, close to the Tinsley viaduct. At one time I tried to keep a record of their movements, rising and falling in response to supply and demand. These days I guess you could do a time-lapse video. Imagine cars, people and clouds scuttering madly about while the giant cylinders float serenely up and down.


The pencil sketch is from my pocket notebook of the Wincobank era. The painting below is my dad's. He was an art teacher, former policeman, loved to paint industrial landscapes. That was inspiration to me of course. The enlightenment romantics had a notion of the sublime. Beauty that borders on terror.

The other gasworks is just down the hill from my old room in Vrededorp. I had forgotten about it. I'm impressed that they haven't demolished all the older structures with their dramatic scale and geometry. Must be a heritage thing. I can't imagine that they are all still functional.


Thursday, April 11, 2024



 These posts from LinkedIn deal with Zimbabwe architecture before independence, the UDI period, 1970s. I arrived about a year after independence, so although I got to know Frank Lincoln for example, I didn't really witness this period.  As usual my comments are just ad-libbing on thoughts that come to mind as I reflect on the 23 years I spent living in this beautiful but troubled country.


I have forgotten where some of these places are. At least, my memory is a bit scrambled. Vivid in parts and vague in others. Looking through my database for the Kopje area, I found two interesting buildings.

One was the headquarters of Harvey Bufe, designed long before Vernon Mwamuka came along. The other is Zimbank West End, originally Pallet & Price, extended by Frank Lincoln when he was still working under the "Driver-Jowitt & Lincoln" brand. Frank loved his decorative patterns, maybe because of his Mauritian background.


I have some scanned pages from old Architect & Builder magazines that belonged to Mike Clinton. The April 1979 edition featured Harvey Bufe's office building. Eventually I found this on Google Earth.

It's barely visible behind the advertising hoardings, but appropriately enough, Vernon's Kopje Plaza (Net One) is popping up in the background.

I also have partially scanned drawings for Zimbank. We were called in to propose some alterations I think. Dated as 1969, so a decade earlier. The wonderful free form design of the precast panels is badly faded and blurred on the drawing scans, but fortunately I have digital photos. Fortunate because I think they have gone now.

Both these buildings should have been subject to preservation orders in my opinion. I'm not against alterations but this is significant heritage that could have been treated with more respect.

Just a little trip down memory lane.



Snapshots from a Bulawayo walkabout with my newly acquired digital camera.

The ease with which sculpture was integrated into what was essentially a modernist design is most impressive. Could anyone do that with a straight face today.

And the Bauhaus clock. Very stylish although missing a couple of the 5 minute markers. Time was in the public domain in those days, a tradition that had been going along for several hundred years. What's the point of a public clock today. Bit of an empty gesture.

Those missing markers are emblematic of the general condition of the building. Sad really. I remember when we started to work in Blantyre around 2000 being shocked at how run down the town centre was. I fear that Zimbabwe is "catching up"

Nevertheless it's a strong enough design to maintain its dignity. Photos from 2002 when I went down to NUST to teach a short module on setting out to the architecture students.

That was a fun week. For me at least 🤣🤣🤣

Does anyone have more information on this building?004



More examples of bold and confident precast from my 2002 drive down to Bulawayo for a week of guest teaching at NUST.

The abstract /cubist pattern screen is from Beverly Building Society. I don't know the architect but it's reminiscent of Frank Lincoln's work to my eye. Compare his work for Zimbank in Harare in my previous post.



The bulging rectangle motif is from Sagit House design by W. E. Alexander and completed in 1973, the year that I left London and moved back up to Yorkshire, giving up Architecture in disgust to be a bricklayer and wannabe musician on the Sheffield pub scene, rubbing shoulders with bands as diverse as Human League and Deff Leppard.

The pen and ink sketch is by Alex Jack from his book "Bulawayo's Changing Skyline" I lost so many books. Some of them I had partially digitised, but not this one. So it feels good to have hauled it back to Dubai where I can digitise at my leisure and with much improved technology.



Two buildings in Bulawayo from the early 70s, the height of UDI and sanctions. Obviously the economy was holding up fairly well despite the fighting in the rural areas. Ultimately it was unsustainable as we now know.

If Smith hadn't been so pig-headed, could things have been different. To me prospects seemed very rosy in the 1980s when I was working in the education sector in Zimbabwe but I think I misjudged the pent up resentment among senior ZanuPF figures which later translated to refusal to hand over power.

I digress. Old Mutual Centre is by Balfour Chandler. Pioneer house, by Harvey, Bufe and Partners. This is confident modern architecture before the rot set in and the self-indulgences of Post-Modernism came into vogue. You get the feeling that everyone is working with a common language. It's not spectacular, but do we really want every new office development to shout out its uniqueness?

Perhaps my naive optimism is showing through again but wouldn't it be nice to rediscover the magic that cities once had where buildings seemed to respect each other, to work within a tradition, reserving the spectacular surprises for a few special moments?