Monday, October 28, 2019

The Embodiment of Architectural Space

In my architectural work, I am aware of a number of private ‘instincts’ that I repeatedly draw upon in reaching design decisions. This has been true for some time and I have never given it much thought.

Recently however, I found myself pondering on what these ‘instincts’ amount to and whether there is a way of thinking about them. A key indicator was the simple fact that successful designs are frequently those in which people are presented with spaces that are rounded.

This led me to a speculative model based on the idea that, when interacting with our physical environment, our minds continually construct a hope or expectation that is fulfilled to a greater or lesser extent by our real world surroundings.

The fruits of these speculations are contained in a longish essay: The Embodiment of Architectural Space which I have just published on Medium.

I consider the ideas I explore to be fairly radical – though naturally, you will ultimately be the judge of that.

If you have 20 minutes to spare you can read it here:

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Snippets from America - a different kind of car

On the subject of cars, this is an Oldsmobile, Dynamic 88 convertible, spotted at the Olmsted Point pull-in overlooking Yosemite Valley. It is possible the late afternoon light had something to do with it but it was simply one of the most beautiful artefacts I have ever seen - a relic from a time long gone.

For those interested in details, you might note that it is graced with a fine set of furry dice.

Snippets from America - road manners

Once we get back home from our holiday in the US I can see that we will need to watch our step on the roads - both as pedestrians and drivers - as we have grown accustomed over the past month to American road manners. 

Of course most people, at different times, are both drivers and pedestrians, though to observe people’s behaviour on UK roads you’d never think it. In the UK it’s as if the category of road user you just don’t happen to be right now, suddenly becomes a figure to be feared or despised. When in the pedestrian mode, for example, we loathe drivers who lurch threateningly forwards the instant the lights have changed whilst, as drivers, we become enraged by pedestrians who have the misfortune to get in our way. 

In the US the situation appears to be entirely different. It’s as if the contract between motorists and pedestrians has been rewritten. In towns, cars travel slowly and sedately along wide streets. Pedestrians don’t stray across the road, people wait for the ‘walk’ sign at crossings and in return motorists give way whenever it appears there is any doubt as to the right of way. It’s refreshing, civilised and (I imagine) safer.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Snippets from America - the last of the dinosaurs

As we travel across the American West (and much to Mrs. Wormwood’s embarrassment) I have taken to asking owners of giant cars if I can pose in front of their magnificent vehicles. They are invariably flattered and turn out to be the sweetest of people. 

For those keen on technical facts, the black car above is a 6.7 litre Ford Superduty 350 pickup (fitted with the excursion modification). The elderly owner of this monster was quite small in stature and had some difficulty climbing in and out of the cab. 

Snippets from America - learning from Las Vegas

Learning from Las Vegas is the title of a book published in 1972 by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. The three were teachers and research students at the Yale School of Art And Architecture and their book proved to be highly influential in defining architectural Postmodernism. 

The position they took in analysing the Las Vegas is an interesting one. On the one hand, they appeared to be in agreement with everyone else that Las Vegas is the very epitome of artificiality, materialism and bad tasteand yet there was the accompanying view that, in the right hands,and with a generous measure of sophisticated irony the same superficiality and stylistic eclecticism might serve as the inspiration for a new architecture. 

In time, the book came to bear architectural fruit not so much in Las Vegas itself but in the business centres of New York and the City of London. Architects were encouraged to consider crass environments like the Las Vegas Strip, and to distill from them both elements and methodologies that they would go on to apply in entirely different contexts. For an extreme example of this kind of transplantation there is probably no better example than the MI6 headquarters building on the south bank of the Thames. 

During our own short trip to Las Vegas I was impressed by something quite different and that was the degree to which the various hotel-casinos along the strip - each of them representing some fabulous past culture or fantasy: Caesar’s Palace, the Luxor (ancient Egypt), the Venetian, Mandalay, Treasure Island - how, despite the crassness of these representation (where else could you see the Venice campanile, cheek by jowl with Florence’s Rialto Bridge?) how despite all of this, they genuinely succeed in creating an environment in which masses of people seem to enjoy something of the same ‘bread and circuses’ escapism enjoyed by the citizens of Ancient Rome. 

So, for me, I am inclined to take Las Vegas on it’s own terms - or preferably not at all. We were there for less than 24 hours and, though it was an unforgettable experience, it was more than enough. 

Monday, September 09, 2019

Snippets from America - National Forest typeface

We’re travelling in the USA and I was intending to write a number of blogs along I the way but there is something wrong with the blogger interface on the iPad which means you can’t see more than one page of text, so, rather than beat my head against a brick wall I have decided to keep my posts short. This will no doubt come as good news all round. 

One of the first things I noticed on our travels was a simple typeface used on signs in the National Parks. When I saw this sign in the Sequoia National Forest it gave rise to a whole flood of memories and impressions. The style of lettering seems so familiar, old-fashioned and oddly reassuring and yet where do these memories originate? Could it have been in old, secondhand copies of the National Geographic magazine, pored over in dentists’ waiting rooms? Or was it in an old film from the 50s? Whatever the answer, it is one that is coloured in hues of Kodachrome. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

A Halloween premonition

There are two sorts of Brexiteer: the Idealists, as found in UKIP and the deeper recesses of the ERG, and the Opportunists - the ones who are currently occupying 10 Downing St. It’s the second lot who worry me most.

The Idealists are fixated on a significant point in time: the moment when Britain casts off the shackles of EU membership and bravely embraces the dawn of a new Golden Age. There will be difficulties, they admit, but having boldly stepped across the threshold, we can all confidently look forward to a glorious future.    

For the Opportunists, on the other hand, Brexit is merely a small piece in a much larger plan. While the Idealists may be genuinely convinced that post-Brexit Britain will be a better place, the Opportunists have bigger fish to fry. They secretly see the disruption and hardship of a No Deal Brexit not as a threat but rather as a softening-up exercise on the path to a wider goal. It is no good trying to persuade such people that crashing out of the EU will result in empty supermarket shelves, queues on the motorways and power cuts. They already know this and, what is more, they welcome it. 

Picture this: November 1st and Boris Johnson is still Prime Minister - Labour having stymied hopes of a Government of National Unity. The UK has crashed out of the EU and everyone is beginning to feel nervous. Within days problems begin to arise - many of them resulting from a pervasive sense of uncertainty which, in turn, gives rise to defensive behaviours, panic buying etc. There’s an increase in the number of public order incidents, blame being directed at remainers who — it is rumoured — are deliberately sabotaging the  process of transition. In turn the remainers cry “I told you so” while quietly hoping for the best. Within a week or two gaps begin to appear on supermarket shelves. At first it amounts to little more than a narrowing of choice but it quickly moves to the point where the supply of essentials appears threatened. As the days grow shorter, power-cuts become more frequent. Most people begin to suffer a sense of unease; others are genuinely fearful. 

Then one morning, just when things are starting to look really bad, Boris Johnson, with Liz Truss at his elbow, appears on the media to announce that Britain has concluded a comprehensive trade deal with the US and that the sunlit uplands are finally within sight. It’s incredible; it’s almost as if it was all planned in advance. A week later, supermarket shelves are replenished; and while choice is a little more restricted, it’s so cheap! 

Everyone is happy and relieved. It was just like they said it would be: “An unavoidable short period of adjustment, followed by the long-awaited rewards”. Waitrose shoppers might be a bit grumpy about having to pay more for their French Wine but then, as we all know, the appreciation of fine wine is about far more than mere affordability. 

In the general election, held after long delays and constitutional shenanigans, The Tories, under Johnson, are swept to power with an unassailable majority. The opposition parties don’t know what hit them.  

Game over — or at least that particular one. In reality it is just the start.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Dominic Cummings - Boris Johnson's Éminence Grise

An Ă©minence grise or grey eminence is a powerful decision-maker or adviser who operates behind the scenes or in a non-public or unofficial capacity

Having watched the Channel 4 Drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, I feel I know Dominic Cummings rather well. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Cummings was so convincing that I am happy to accept it as as the real thing. I’d go so far as to say that I honestly can’t imagine Cummings doing himself any better.

This is made all the more persuasive by the fact that Cumberbatch is identified in the public imagination with Sherlock Holmes. So the character we all saw leaning against a door frame in 10 Downing Street on the first day of Boris Johnson’s premiership was none other than the legendary resident of 221b Baker Street, invited to apply his powerful intellect and sharp eye for detail to the task of getting Brexit done. The illusion is one colluded in by the media, admiring colleagues and quite possibly by Cummings himself - Benedict Cumberbatch being — it has to be said — a very attractive and impressive individual. 

You might view all this this as little more than whimsy, but it is worth noting that Dominic Cummings is already being referred to as a genius - and not only by his political associates. 
What is undoubtedly true is that the genius stereotype, namely that of an individual blessed (or cursed) with great insights while simultaneously  lonely, self-conscious and socially inhibited, appears to hold a fascination for many people and Cummings clearly fits the bill.

Of course the aura of genius surrounding Cummings was greatly strengthened when, against all the odds, he engineered the British electorate into voting to leave the EU - an outcome that left even the politicians fronting the Vote Leave campaign shocked and disoriented. If such a mind could be persuaded to apply itself to the mundane matter of delivering Brexit — so the thinking goes — we might hope to put the whole nightmare behind us.

For those wishing to find out more about what Dominic Cummings thinks, he has conveniently published a blog and a long paper: Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities in which he explores many of the ideas that interest him. The first thing that has to be said about this material is that there is an awful lot of it. The paper, written in 2013, incomplete and running to 237 pages, reads like a mash-up of current trends in scientific, technological and sociological thinking. The range of topics is huge - the following being a partial list: pure mathematics, the standard model of particle physics, complexity, emergence, self-organisation, chaos theory, synthetic biology, energy policies, game theory, space exploration, computer science, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, digital fabrication, modeling and simulation, genetics, biological engineering, education, virtual reality, augmented reality, economics, politics, psychology and philosophy.  He has clearly done an immense amount of reading across a vast expanse of contemporary theory and the end result is something resembling a trophy cabinet, calculated both to impress and intimidate. This is not to denigrate Cummings’ understanding of these topics. I have ventured into this jungle on a number of occasions and it is a rich source of ideas, some of which I am already familiar with - others that are new and intriguing. At the same time, there is something faintly disconcerting about the sheer magnitude of material and the unstructured manner of its presentation. 

Reading Cummings brings to mind a cinematic trope frequently encountered in thrillers: you know, the one where the protagonist discovers the lair of the serial killer (who incidentally is never at home) only to find the walls covered from floor to ceiling with mysterious photographs, diagrams, calculations etc. and marking the moment when the true, horrifying extent of the other’s insanity becomes suddenly and undeniably apparent. Now I am not suggesting for a moment that Dominic Cummings is an evil genius any more than I am ready to acknowledge him as a genius plain and simple. All the same, David Cameron’s characterisation of Cummings as a ‘career psychopath’ has a peculiar resonance.

There is a serious point however and it is this: amongst all Cummings’ exposition of ideas, technologies etc. there is no trace of a guiding ethic, no acknowledged beliefs or principles. His thoughts are almost exclusively confined to the applicability of sophisticated mathematical models, visualisation techniques and computational tools to problems of government. In a very real sense, Cummings has weaponised the fruits of his researches and appears willing to put them at the disposal of interests whose aims are only too explicit. For his part, he demands only two things:

1. That the stated goal is deemed susceptible to an engineering approach and
2. That he is given sufficient scope and freedom of action to promise a successful outcome.

There is an unspoken assumption behind his thinking however, namely that problems in the social domain: education, politics, the economy and so on are, in essence, no different from the more complex areas of the physical sciences such as weather-forecasting and the modeling of turbulent flow; and that while the available formal models might be somewhat limited, there is nothing in the social domain that need be impervious to successful manipulation by a sufficiently sophisticated intelligence. The ends justify the means so the saying goes, but in Cummings’ case one suspects it is the other way round, namely that The effectiveness of the means, validates the end.

Nevertheless, when it comes to his recent appointment, Cummings' stated mission is to deliver Brexit by any means necessary. Given the undoubted challenge that this represents it should come as no surprise that one of the conditions of his acceptance is that he should have a veto over the appointment of ministerial aides. Never having been a member of a political party himself, he makes no secret of his disdain for politicians, describing former Brexit secretary, David Davis as ’Thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus’, Ian Duncan Smith as ‘incompetent’ and ERG members as ‘useful idiots’. It seems likely that he will control ministers (on Boris Johnson’s behalf) with ruthless efficiency - transforming the principle of collective responsibility into something more like cowed obedience. One has the sense that there is no way back for ministers now. If they want to keep their jobs they have no alternative but to drink the Kool-Aid and try to come up to speed on at least a few of the funky new topics that make up the Cummings currency.

Both Dominic Cummings and his master, Boris Johnson could be accurately described as exceptional - neither is cut from the common cloth. The extent to which their very different characters intermesh suggests a game plan in which Boris works parliament, the media and the crowd whilst Cummings runs the back room operation. Boris, it is fair to say, is a self-assured communicator with a significant capacity for charm and buffoonery calculated to win support in the most unlikely quarters. However, as is tacitly acknowledged on all sides, beneath the bumbling there is a complete lack of substance and no trace of belief, moral or political principle. Not that this matters much, as there are others with perfectly clear agendas of their own whom he is prepared to serve, in exchange for the trappings of power.

The thing I am not fully  convinced about however is the importance of the Brexit project itself.  It is more likely, I imagine, that the real mission to which Dominic Cummings has been invited to apply himself is to ensure Boris Johnson enjoys a long premiership, during which he can make his mark on history alongside Churchill or Margaret Thatcher.

As far as Cummings himself is concerned, I have come to the conclusion that, while his interest in mathematics, science and technology is undoubtedly fascinating, to attempt to criticise him with reference to these ideas would be pointless. It is not a matter of debating truth or falsehood but of confronting a closed, self-referential system. It would be like trying to have a sensible discussion with someone who believes that shape-shifting lizards are taking over the earth — you’re never going to win.

No — in assessing Cummings’ contribution to the future of our country I prefer to adopt an altogether older, time-hallowed principle: by their fruits you will know them.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Dreams beyond your wildest dreams

Recently I have been working on creating a website where I hope to gather together all my thoughts, schemes (both half and fully-baked), stories, designs and inventions. I plan to have it go live before the end of the year.

In the meantime I have been mining the rich seam of past items from Horsley's Over the Wall magazine and am happy to share one of my personal favourites. 

Hope you enjoy the show (as Melvyn would say).

Are you tired of having second-rate dreams? Do your dreams amount to no more than a slightly weird version of your normal working day?  Do you pretend to have forgotten your dreams for fear you might be thought shallow and boring?

If this describes your dream life, then we have good news for you. For a modest outlay we can supply you with the dreams you never dared believe could be yours. Here is just a small sample of the products we have on offer: 

Fly like an Eagle: Starting out in a treetop or at the top of a high building, you experience a fleeting moment of terror as you lose your balance only to discover that you can fly. We offer individual flight (eagle, heron, buzzard) as well as our highly-popular formation options (swift, starling etc).

King of the World: Rising from your bed on what at first appears to be an ordinary morning, you discover that you have won/inherited 10 million pounds. The rest of the dream is spent in excited anticipation of all the things that are suddenly possible. This is an unsophisticated yet highly effective product offered at a budget price. Customers are strongly recommended to follow it up with a second purchase such as Fly like an Eagle or Opium Eater,  as otherwise the come-down on waking-up to the reality of your drab and uninteresting life can be quite severe.

Dirty weekend: An almost unlimited choice of partners and locations (campervan, beach-hut, country cottage, luxury hotel) will permit you to create a unique and utterly unforgettable experience. For our male customers we can offer Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Monica Bellucci and many, many more. For the ladies there's George Clooney (10% surcharge), Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen. Reductions available if opting for one's real-life partner.

The Real Thing (our premium product): Usually purchased as a romantic prelude to Dirty Weekend, this will allow you to enjoy the experience of falling in love in all its delightful and intoxicating intensity. For example, you are at Stroud Farmers market when you suddenly find yourself chatting to Miss Scarlett Johansson and it is immediately apparent that you are both irresistibly attracted to one another. Over coffee at a street-corner cafe, you discover there is so much more you want to share …

Opium Eater: Transported by flying carpet to the palaces of the Orient, you feast your eyes on jewelled elephants, elaborate architecture and veiled dancing girls to the accompaniment of melodious gongs. In common with many of our products the sense of wellbeing persists long after waking. For this reason we recommend Opium Eater as a follow-up dream to King of the World, The Real Thing etc.

Rock Star: To the strains of 'Anthem for the Common Man' you find yourself taking to the stage in front of a crowd of 500,000 adoring fans. Customers should not confuse this with inferior products from rival companies in which stage-fright or the sudden realisation that you are stark naked can transform the whole experience into a nightmare. Be assured, this is the real thing.

All major credit cards accepted. Full catalogue available on request. Please note that product descriptions are provided for illustrative purposes only. Accuracy of dreams cannot be guaranteed. Proof of age required for certain products. We regret we cannot offer refunds in the event that the transition from The Real Thing to Dirty Weekend is interrupted by the intrusion of drinking buddies, sudden compulsion to explore your childhood home, streets turning into an ever-expanding maze of tiny alleyways and so on.

Monday, June 04, 2018

The English Language

As everyone knows, William Shakespeare was a one for the words. In fact he is considered something of a specialist in that particular department — having reputedly had a vocabulary of some 17,677 separate words at his disposal.
Now the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes, £750, Oxford University Press) contains 218,632 different words and this has got me thinking: imagine getting 12 Elizabethan playwrights together in a room. You could share out all the words in the dictionary between them and they'd each end up with more than enough to produce a decent lifetime's work. And here's the best bit: not one of them would be able to understand a single word written by any of the others. 
All of which gives me an idea: namely to frame this otherwhile evagation with such fienden cautel, meandriform tortuosity and wanhopely intertanglements that even keenly philologues won’t have the faintest clue as to what I'm on about. 

And while the most pertinatious might be forgiven for renouncing exigent or otherwise usitative obligements only to prove susceptive to pococurantish musardry — especially late at night, after a glass of wine or two — the rorty ribaldise that later survenes when, having thumbled the hirpled visure of semblesse, they eagerly forsake the embrace of Morpheous for the sweeter allures of Venus — well it doesn't bear thinking about.