Sunday, December 14, 2014


About 9 months ago while working on my Urban Design presentation for RTC chicago I did a study of the Dessau Bauhaus in context.  Just a simple massing model of the famous building itself, and lots of schematic mapping out of the surrounding landscape.

For some reason my BIM pencil seems to like drawing maps.  Who am I to argue ?  But what an intense piece of history lurks beneath this landscape.  All these avant-garde artists and social dreamers cooking up their recipes while Adolf and his cronies sneak their way into power, perfecting propaganda as an art form along the way.

I'm not going to go any further into that right now, but while doing the research I stumbled across a Bauhaus Chess Set which struck me as a wonderfull little exercise in Vanilla parametrics.

I love the way this chess set is abstracted down to the simplest of geometric forms.  Classic Bauhaus design: break things apart, analyse them, rebuild from first principles.

My initial analysis suggested that I needed 3 families to cover all the pieces.  The Knight and the Bishop are basically one-offs.  They don't have to be, but I wanted to keep things fairly simple.  The other 4 pieces are covered by a family with 4 types and some visibility controls.

The plan is to make everything fully scalable.  Mostly this is done by equalisation constraints and simple formulae linking everything back to a module (usually the width parameter) For example in the Bishop family the thickness of the cross (T) is expressed as Width/3.

The knight is a big solid cube with two half-sized void cubes biting away diagonally opposite corners.  I guess this is an abstraction of the dog-leg manner in which knights move across the chess board.

The multi-purpose chess piece is very simple.  Notice the use of root 2 for the diagonally placed crown, and of course the visibility controls that I mentioned before.  And that completes the chess pieces.

Let's go ahead and place them on a board.  Lots of equality constraints here to make our 8x8 grid.  We need 4 material parameters: 2 for the board and 2 for the pieces.  Also 2 parameters will suffice to control all the pieces: one for the pawns, the other for all the rest.  Everything is now expressed as a fraction of the board width.

So of course the whole thing scales endlessly.  Well not quite.  We still have Revit's built in aversion for the extremely small and the ridiculously large.  It's optimised for buildings, stop complaining.  But I do feel able to complain about the lack of intelligent symbols for North Points and Scale Bars.  I once came up with a workaround for scale bars that uses ordinate dimensions referencing a detail component.  Maybe the logic is that drawing sheets will become obsolete so why waste the energy ?  I like drawings (you probably know that)  Whether we print them or not is another issue, but orthographic views arranged on sheets are very powerful means of communication.  You can't figure out how a building works just by doing a walkabout.

We have to get past this illusion that BIM is about making everything realistic.  The tension between realism and abstraction is as old as the hills and will be with us until we drive ourselves extinct.  The paradox of visualising reality on 2 dimensional surfaces has informed art for 30 thousand years.  Let's not fool ourselves with this nonsense about the end of history.  The end of history is armageddon.  Trust me, you don't want to go there.

So I'm happy to shift in and out of 1d/2d/3d space, exploring ideas, shuffling data, imagining impossible worlds.  Piet Mondrian took a journey around the time that the Bauhaus was built that has always blown my mind.  He started out with still lifes and landscapes that were partially abstracted, a bit like Cezanne.  Then he just went on flattening out and abstracting, form-finding in a way ... endless variations until all that remained was shape and colour.

Bauhaus students were also encouraged to simplify and abstract, but the logic now was to create forms that reflected the realities of industrial production.  These seem like trivial ideas now, but 90 years ago they were much more revolutionary than all the little consumer toys we label as "disruptive technology" today.  For that matter, the minimalism that Mr Jobs tried to copyright was really plagiarised from people like Mondriaan, Picasso, Gropius, Mies.  (It's OK I'm just being provocatively naughty)

But be careful what you wish for.  The 1920s and 1930s were stirring times.  Everything seemed to be changing.  Technology was something to love or hate, worship or despise.  Bauhaus masters like Johannes Itten reacted by immersing themselves in meditation and the mystical pull of ancient religions.  Dear old Adolf had a different plan in mind.   Technical solutions and aesthetic movements are wonderful in their way but hard economic realities and political turbulence have a knack for sweeping all that away overnight.  The Bauhaus was closed down.  Many creative minds fled Germany.  I have experienced hyper-inflation first hand.  It changes everything.  It drove me into the desert in search of gold.

Just a few reflections on History, Art, Politics ... and of course the game of chess.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Church no 5.  Now we dive right into the heart of the city.  St Mary Woolnoth is close by the Royal Exchange an open cloister where business deals had been made since tudor times.  Like most of the city, it had been rebuilt 40 years previously following the great fire of London.  The previous church had also been patched up (by Wren) but  by 1711 was deemed unsafe and demolished.  Apparently the name does not derive from the wood trade, which by now was dominated by the London merchants.  All the same there was an open market close by, called The Wool Church Market, which would soon make way for the Mansion House, home of the Lord Mayor of London.  The closely packed streets and alleys behind the church were packed with coffee houses, all the rage now as places to meet and make deals.

So this is a different kind of site, and Hawsksmoor designed a very compact church, a cubic volume with a rather unusual rectangular tower ending in two square turrents.  The church is twisted off axis, clockwise by about 30 degrees.  The circulation is very simple, as befits such a small church.  One entrance and two small spiral stairs buried in the splay of the front corners giving access to the galleries (sadly removed in the C19).

Finally we come to St George Bloomsbury.  The site is in the newly fashionable "West End" amongst streets of townhouses, developed on Land owned by aristocrats like the Duke of Devonshire.  At this stage they still maintained their own large mansions, but they would soon move further out and demolish their grand houses to make way for more streets and houses for the nouveau riche.  London was on its way up, rising on a tide of business deals made in the city, financial institutions such as the Bank of England, and joint stock companies like the East India Company (EIC) which had been importing ever increasing volumes of Calicos (printed cotton) from India over the previous century.

The wool merchants in the city, and silk weavers of Spitalfields were not amused.  Cheap, lightweight printed textiles threatened to undercut their markets.  They lobbied parliament and a series of Calico acts followed, around the time that Hawksmoor was building his churches.  The import of printed cloth was banned.  People imported plain cloth and printed it in England.  Then plain cloth was banned leading to the import of cotton thread in large quantities and stimulating the growth of a substantial cotton weaving industry. 

The lesson: trade restrictions have unintended consequences, in this case (ultimately) the Industrial Revolution.  First of all there was a very lucrative business spinning, weaving and printing raw cotton.  The weavers couldn't keep up.  Kay's flying shuttle fixed this around 1740.  Now the spinners were under pressure. 

Fortunately England had been fertile soil for artisans and entrepreneurs for several generations (witness the silk weavers).  Many minds set to work and ultimately Mr Arkwright, a former wig salesman from Lancashire, came up with his Water Frame in the 1760s and pioneered the idea of a Cotton Mill (His first mill was in Cromford, Derbyshire).  It caught on big and initiated the chain reaction we now call the Industrial Revolution.  All because people living and working in areas where churches 4 & 5 were going up, lobbied against the cotton trade.  Well, partly because.

Back to church 6.  Here we have a challenging site.  Twisted about 30 degrees counter-clockwise and hemmed in tightly to east and west.  Hawksmoor's solution is deceptively simple.  Tower to the west, apse to the East, grand portico converts the south transept into an imposing entrance with no less than 5 sets of double doors.

Vertical circulation is by open, geometric wooden stairs, spiralling up to the balconies.  These were removed, but have been restored.  In real estate, location is everything.  St George Bloomsbury has been lavishly restored, where St George in the East makes do with a small concrete framed, modern enclosure within its bombed-out shell.  

Hawksmoor's solution to an awkward site (whose purchase he had negotiated) was clever, but apparently did not impress the fashionable parishioners who took down the north gallery in 1781 and moved the altar to the north wall (north-west) this gave them a conventional layout, more like Spitalfields, with a tower to one side and an apsaidal transept to the other.

Now that the church is as much an architectural museum as church, the original scheme has been restored, along with the writhing mythical beasts clinging to the corners of the steeple. 

Six fascinating churches, giving us a glimpse into six different locations in London, with a shared history dating back to 1700 and beyond.  England was on the edge of a transformation that would shake the world, but looking back at the two images of the technology involved (hand weaving and the water frame) it struck me how similar they are in general construction.  It may have set off the industrial revolution, but the water frame is basically bits of hardwood joined together with mortice and tenon joints plus a few smaller metallic moving parts. 

It's not that it's a huge conceptual breakthrough.  Arkwright saw a challenge and used existing knowledge to turn it into an opportunity.  At that moment the cherries on the slot machine happened to line up.  The market for cotton cloth had already been primed, the Calico Acts had built up pressure in the system, London had financial systems, a thriving port and a growing middle class, James Watt and Matthew Boulton had semi-effective steam engines largely confined to mining but as it turned out capable of meeting the challenge when the rivers and streams of Derbyshire maxed out.

And so the explosion of fossil fuel usage began and the London that Hawksmoor knew was unrecongnisable within a hundred years.  Soane was busy expanding the Bank of England, deep water docks were being constructed on the Isle of Dogs, at Shadwell and Wapping.  The primary engine of this growth was Cottonopolis (otherwise known as Manchester)  In 1800 Liverpool was the busiest port in the world, handling more than a third of global trade, primarily raw cotton heading into Manchester, and finished cloth coming out.  The canal system couldn't handle it.  Neither rail tracks, nor steam engines were new technologies but the race to put them together in a cost-effective manner now had a motivation.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


We are continuing where we left off last time.  Six London churches from the early 1700s, all designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor using his very personal vision of the English Baroque.  We started in Greenwich and have been moving inland.  Last stop was Limehouse.

Moving further west we arrive at Shadwell & Wapping.  Around 1720 there would have been wharves & warehouses all along the river front, with open ground behind, some of it devoted to gardens.  A little further inland was the main road heading towards Limehouse (Ratcliff Highway) which hosted a ribbon of residential development.  Here Hawksmoor built St George in the East.

The site was the interior of a large residential block, with houses backing on to it most of the way around.  Some of this housing was flattened during the blitz and the south side has been left open.  Once again the site pushes the orientation slight off an ideal E/W alignment and the circulation strategy changes once again.

This time we have four entrances at the four corners of the main mass. The vertical circulation is by spiral stairs placed just inboard of these entrances and expressed as towers with pepper pot domes aloft.  These stairs also have doors at ground level, so that galleries and nave seating have separate but interconnected circulation routes. 

Was Hawksmoor dissatisfied with his previous circulation schemes, and looking for ways to get people in and out of the building more fluently ?  Or is he just playing games, ringing the changes ?

By now I am developing a version of the massing model that stands up to closer inspection.  Not yet ready to switch to project mode, but I do want my family to support a more detailed study of the building's composition.  For plan views at a finer scale I am using an embedded detail component.  Not BIM, do you say ?  I beg to differ.  For urban design studies this is an entirely appropriate lightweight method for representing signature buildings within a broader scheme.

The tower is a compromise between the two previous schemes: partially separated from the building but still supported with side buttressing. In the next image you can also see the detailed model side by side with the simpler version.

If St George is due East from the City, Spitalfields is North East, and slightly closer in.  This is a suburb based on textiles, which were the mainstay of the English economy right through the middle ages and into the first half of the Industrial Revolution. 

Once again we touch upon the antagonism between Catholic/Absolutist France and Protestant/Parliamentary England.  Spitalfields was home to thousands of Huguenot silk weavers: refugees fleeing from sectarian violence (sound familiar?)  France's loss was England's gain.  Traditionally England had specialised in coarser textiles: wool and linen.  The Spitalfields weavers added a finer product to the portfolio, often decorated with fancy needlework: a luxury product.

The site is different once again: a corner plot diagonally opposite a large open market square that was covered over in the nineteenth century and still flourishes today.  It has to be a long thin church and luckily the west end is towards the square, so nice opportunity for a grand entrance frontage.  But was it luck ?  Were the sites predetermined or could Hawksmoor/and or the commission negotiate.  I've no idea, let's stick with the notion that the buildings were designed to suit a given site.

This time there are no galleries.  The church is very directional, rows of columns striding down the nave.  There are 2 doors tucked away at the back corners, but the main circulation routes are clearly at the front end: 3 doors entered via a grand portico.

To my eyes, the tower and portico are decidedly odd: something about the proportions perhaps.  Once again there are side buttresses to the tower.  I get the impression that they started as pillars like St George, then got wider to allow for a grand portico and created an opportunity for a concave, linking sweep.  To crown it all is a pyramid, which ends up being more of a gothic spire.