Archive for November, 2005

Letters on meditation

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

Dear Reader,

I enclose some letters between Matt Webb and I that we both feel are worth sharing. Topics include: meditation, breathing, Arthur Dent, puffing sacks, giving form to that which you know intuitively, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and the gentle hum of radiators.

In a wonderfully self-fulfilling way, writing this has itself given a form to something I only knew through intuition until yesterday.

And yes, I’m sticking to the word letters because somehow the truth (e-mails) seems depressingly cold for a topic such as this. They deserved a typewriter with an old ribbon, a failing key or two and reassuringly thick paper. Diagrams in the margin drawn with a fountain pen.

On 24 Nov 2005, at 23.50, Rob Annable wrote:

Dear Matt,

Great entry on meditation. I too find myself unable to put aside the short chunks of time meditation deserves, but you’ve encouraged me to try harder.

Some advice that I’ve read elsewhere that you may find useful….

Concentrate on your breathing by imagining the point on your body at which the air enters and leaves – the tip of your nose. By focusing on a specific thing you can push all other things/distractions out of your mind. Count each breath but give yourself a system to structure your counting better – only go from 1 to 10 and then start over, make yourself start again if your mind wanders.

Then soon the tip of your nose will become forgotten as you concentrate on your breath. Then, perhaps, your breath will become forgotten as you concentrate on your trajectory, as you call it. A gap appears between you and your body. You realise that the body is perfectly capable of breathing on your own while you go off and do other things. Try not to laugh with delight. Once it becomes automatic, etc, etc.

Arthur Dent learns to fly by forgetting to hit the ground. It’s a bit like that. Perhaps the dressing gown is important.

I may have a book somewhere, what’s your address?



On 25 Nov 2005 at 12:07:54 Matt Webb wrote:

Hi Rob,

It’s a curious thing. The more I talk to new friends, the more of them I find have been meditating daily for many years.

I tried for 10 minutes this morning, taking the advice you mention. The first paragraph is the easy bit.. I didn’t even get close to the second. It seems like that experience of suddenly seeing will be the way it happens, though.

I would be interested in a book, if you find it, thanks! If not, I can look it up if you remember the title.


On 29 Nov 2005, at 0.54, Rob Annable wrote:

‘…My body is a bellows, an automatically moving, rhythmically puffing sack…’

That’s it. You’ve nailed it. I’ve never read such a fitting description.

Sorry if my previous description of the counting/breathing process was a little tricksy.

I’ve returned to practice myself and it’s no surprise to find that I’m completely out of touch with the process. I shall have to start again.

Your comment about the puffing sack got me thinking about new ways to look at the problem. I think it’s got something to do with distance and the new found perspective this gives. Counting your breaths gives the process a formal structure. A topography that you can observe objectively. By observing it you step away from it.

It reminds me of something I once stuck on when I used to mooch about there a little (before I had a blog to bore everyone with):

‘In my experience, the moments of greatest clarity come when you read or are told something you already knew intuitively. Something that you’ve never had either the experience or need to formalize in your mind before. By being shown old words in a new order, you’re intuition takes shape and becomes recognisable as a form that you can hold up against others like it.’

We’re formalizing the breathing process in order to put it aside. We can pigeon-hole it now that we know what it is. It’s become a thing whose form we could hold up against other things in order to categorise it. In your case, a puffing sack.

I used to find it quite useful to try meditating in front of an open fire. Not because of some hippyesque notion of the power of fire, rather as a subtle way of locating myself in the room during the process. It’s about simple stages: I allow the feeling of heat and the quiet sounds of the fire to help me picture, categorise and then put aside my actual physical position; I count my breaths to allow me to distance my mind from my body; I empty my mind in a way that Dan Ackroyd must have wished he was capable of when he accidently conjured up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.


The fireplace and the breathing are simple tools to help me reduce the topography of the room and my body to something more manageable that I can pack away.

The book I was thinking of is a book on Buddhism. I was confusing it with a web page on meditation I read some years ago which I no longer have the address for. It’s a good book though and you’re welcome to it if you want it – Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor.

I don’t think I’d be too worried about recording your thoughts on this journey. Like you, I’ve never been keen to have a teacher for meditation, but perhaps you could look upon your blog as somewhere in between. Writing this has certainly been useful for me. If you don’t mind I may blog some of our correspondence myself.

Apologies for using two sci-fi comedy references in as many e-mails.



p.s – I’m pleased to see Peter has been able to help, he and I were talking a little about Buddhism a few weeks ago and promised to pick it up again soon. You’ve reminded me to do so.

On 29 Nov 2005, at 18:29:28 Matt Webb wrote:

Your point about formal structure is completely it. I was thinking the same thing yesterday, but didn’t write it up last night because I wasn’t sure how to express it.

Please do write this up on your weblog (and feel free to quote from any of our emails) because I’d like to point to it :)

This morning, there was a gap in my mind apart from the counting and the breathing, and it was being filled with random thoughts. I filled it with the hum of the radiator, and that did the job. Hardly your open fire, but near enough.


ps. cheers for the book recommendation. I’ll look it up I think, but thanks for the offer!

walter segal

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

Continuing in the no, 2 self tradition of archiving architectural wisdom fom the printed page of years gone by, I’ve started a set of images taken from Walter Segal’s 1953 book, Home and Environment.


I’ve been working with a lot of projects lately that need an understanding of housing in post war Britain. Like a squirrel, I’m storing for the winter.

Coming up: Paul Ritter’s Planning for Man and Motor. Which is nuts.

deposit of fat

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

Depositing notes from mind and pockets; climbing confluences from the last few weeks.


A new indoor climbing wall has recently opened in Wolverhampton. £6 registration and the £5 peak / £4 off peak. Visited for a brief look last week – still some construction going on but looks like there are some promising routes. Due for a re-grade as some are too easy for the stated grade. Price of entry may suffer from similar problem as (the now closed) Rock Face in Birmingham – needs a smaller price bracket for guys like me who want to get in and out quickly having blitzed the bouldering wall.

Reading: Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, chapter entitled Iron

Sandro climbed the rocks more by instinct than technique, trusting the strength of his hands and saluting ironically, in the projecting rock to which he clung, the silicon, calcium, and magnesium he had learned to recognise in the course on mineralogy. He seemed to feel that he had wasted a day if he had not in some way gotten to the bottom of his reserve of energy, and then even his eyes became brighter and he explained to me that, with a sedantary life, a deposit of fat forms behind the eyes, which is not healthy; by working hard the fat is consumed and the eyes sink back into their sockets and become keener.

Training: climbtherock

A short review of the Climb The Rock training machine, to formalise my thoughts so that my approach to it might be more focused next time I use one. I found one lying dormant in a gym and had fun covering its virgin holds with chalk.

  • Focus on the centre of the wall as the conveyor is about 6 inches too short for someone with my reach – too distracted by worrying about catching the sensors at the top or running out of room at the bottom.
  • 2 most useful options: a) aggressively overhung, steady pace, to focus on getting stronger or b) vertical at high speed to work on technique only.
  • Unexpected benefit of conveyor: it removes the need to process any thoughts about planning the route itself, delivering the holds to you while you focus on technique. Climbing as meditation? Reminds me of discussion with Matt Webb regarding meditation techniques that help you to create mental freedom by introducing a gap between you and your body.

Related entries: diagramming, crimping and cranking and foot where?

farewell my friend

Thursday, November 24th, 2005

It’s been a year and a half since we met and since then we’ve been together everyday; inseperable, living in each other’s pockets.

We’ve seen so much together. Shared so many sights.

I remember it all as if it was yesterday.

The highlights, the low lights, the traffic lights, the tea lights.

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We’ve had our head in the clouds but kept our feet on the ground. There were mood swings, there were head spins.

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We’ve been underground, overground, wombling, free.

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Off like a rocket and back to earth with a splash. Took time to reflect. Let off some steam.

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We’ve reached the summit, hit the tarmac but remembered to roll with it. 1

But despite all that, or perhaps even because of all that, I’ve decided to move on. I’ve been seeing someone else. I can’t help it, I’m seduced by her promise to show me the world more clearly and widen my horizon.


And her digital zoom.

Farewell, Nokia 6230.2

Hello, Ericsson k750i

1.quicktime movies
2.For the full, gory details of our relationship, view our diary of the past year and half on

mad scientists

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

Separated at birth?

Architect, Greg Lynn:


Greg Lynn will present some projects that … are chosen for their flexibility and adaptability. To initiate transformation and mutation, external constraints are exerted on these internally regulated prototypes. The result of this interaction between a generalized flexible organization and particular external constraints is a design process that has an undecidable outcome.

Hippy scientist, Professor Denzil Dexter of the University of Southern California:


Professor Dexter’s experiments are in turn pointless and dangerous. They seem to stem from a combination of optimism and an uncertain grasp of reality.

Related entry: teeth on plastic

Denzil Greg image source:

augmented architecture

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

My e-mail inbox keeps on delivering the goods this week. Just received from Tom Barker at the RCA:

Seminar at the Architectural Association 24+25 November 2005:

Surface Intelligence: Ambient and Augmented Architectures.

Please join us if you are able for the Imperial/RCA/AA/EPSRC CultureNetwork seminar at the Architectural Association, London

All the best,

– Tom Barker

Professor IDE RCA // Smartslab // AA-DRL // b consultants

Tom was the guy who helped me with the Quake modelling I mentioned a while back. Bound to be an interesting event.

Stephen Heppell

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

3 e-mails just tumbled into my inbox from my friend and fellow architect Rob Hopkins. He has some links to share:


i spent a day with stephen heppell yesterday at the RIBA.

seriously inspiring guy to work with (when you have the cash to pay for him!)


And then,

should have mentioned, he worked here for about 20 years

And then,

he set up Notschool which was a really interesting idea

Thanks Rob! I’ve had a brief look and there’s a blog and podcast to be found on the first link.

creative reaction

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

For Rod McLaren and his How We Work series.

Fernand Léger, painter (1881-1955) by Siegfried Giedion

Léger rebuilt his country place in the Chevreuse Valley without an architect. He thought it would serve him for a long time.

Here he invited his friends. A table was pushed into the studio and spread in the midst of the paintings. One ate here with delight, with all the necessary reverence a good meal deserves, for Léger was a first-class cook. He was also, in contrast to many great men, a most excellent companion. Some female creature was always around the place, but he never paraded this before the world. For him the problems of his work rested on a completely different level.

On his period in New York, 1942-1945:

His studio in New York was near Fifth Avenue on 40th Street. Skyscrapers overshadowed it. Fernand Léger was working then on his great series of ‘Divers’ which posed the problem of depicting with a simple black outline hovering, falling, interlocking and transparent figures in weightless space. As he often did, Léger superimposed wide bands of clear colours. I stood in the studio with Moholy-Nagy and asked, “Why have red and blue patches been laid over the lineal structure of the bathers?” I knew that this was related to the play of contrasts that Léger always emphasized, but Moholy-Nagy gave the anser: “Don’t you see that Léger must get even with those things out there?” – and he pointed to the skyscrapers. Defense by creative reaction.

All taken from a wonderful book that I found on the bottom shelf of the architecture section in my local second-hand bookshop* – Architecture, You and Me: The diary of a development by Siegfried Giedion. Expect more quotes over the next few weeks.

* I’m not going to tell you exactly which bookshop because I have tried to hide another book by Lewis Mumford so that it’s there when I next return with more money in my pocket.

in celebration of the ordinary

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

At the MoDA:

In Search of Suburbia: 11 October 2005 – 26 March 2006

We are all familiar with the suburbs. The majority of the UK’s population lives there.

We all know what we mean by suburbia. For many of us it is summed up by the 1930s semi-detached family house with front and back gardens. And many of us have strong feelings about it, whether positive, quiet, safe, leafy, and family-oriented or -negative- think Mike Leigh snobbery and Desperate Housewives undercurrents.

But in fact the suburbs are incredibly varied, both in date and in the type of homes provided. So why do we have such a strong tendency to homogenise this vast diversity?

Is there really such a place as suburbia or are there many different and changing suburbias?

MoDA’s exhibition goes in search of suburbia by looking at a number of different developments in the vicinity of the museum: the red-brick villas of Edwardian Palmers Green; 1920s and 30s social and private housing in Oakwood; the sparklingly bright modern homes of the 1950s; the large-scale mixed planning of the late 60s Grahame Park Estate in Barnet; and a small 1990s development.

Also – a reading list to accompany the exhibition: Suburbia reading list (PDF link)

boring response

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

Lifted from the comments (I nearly missed it due to spam shenanigins) – Icon editor responds to my entry on ‘Boring’ article:

Of course we would have printed your letter Robert. Trouble is, most of the letters we get are from sycophantic groupies lining up outside our dressing room to say ‘I love you’. If people actually got worked up enough to send us the type of letter you’re talking about, we’d be delighted. Which is partly why we did the ‘boring’ piece in the first place… Marcus, editor, icon

Your mission, should you choose to accept it … get worked up enough!