Archive for the 'places' Category

flickr + google maps + birmingham

Wednesday, July 6th, 2005

Chris Heathcote over at has put together a neat little hack between Google maps and Flickr. Photos tagged with gps info are located and previewed over a map or satellite image.

He’s published the perl so I couldn’t resist the temptation to try a page for myself. Here’s the city where I work and (occasionally) play:

I’m an architect first and a geek much later, so there are still plenty of teething problems with it. I haven’t really worked out how to do a proper job yet but I’ve sent Chris a message so I’m hoping he’ll be able to help. It’s a static page at the moment that I’ve manually renamed as I haven’t managed to get it to spit out the file with a suffix that a browser will render. I think it’s supposed to work on the fly rather than with a cron job. I’m also short of a way to distinguish Birmingham in the UK with other Birminghams around the world; some of the links take you off around the planet.

The other teething problem is the rather frustrating discovery that the satellite imagery for the UK’s second city isn’t up to scratch yet. The higher res stuff ends just at the edge of the city centre. Perhaps by the time I’ve worked it out there will have been time for the satellite to make a few more passes…

For Pat

Thursday, April 21st, 2005

We’d journey, seemingly forever, from the town to the country. Darkness would fall, the headlights of the car only just winning the battle against the rural pitch black. Sleep. Breakfast in a farmhouse kitchen. Tea towels draped over the handles of the range. Spot, the farmhouse dog whose name is all that’s necessary to describe his appearance, darts frantically around at your feet. A Jack Russell’s demeanour never seems to change.

Out to the yard to fetch the sheepdog, between the barns there’s a mist trying hard to be fog. In the back of a Land Rover dog and I climb, I perch on the wheel arch, this is his space not mine. He eyes me suspiciously, I’m not his master; he suspects I am quick but he knows he is faster. The four by four vehicle forces dirt tracks to yield. Supermarket? School run? No. Sheep in a field. He’s given the order and carefully slinks. Slowly at first then a whistle says FLY! Surgical precision. Away. COME BY! I fill pockets with stones that I find on the field. There are millions, they’re worthless, I’m told it’s called flint. They can make sparks and fires – now that’s worth a mint.

My memory grows hazy, it’s a new time of year. I climb on a tractor – a Ford? A John Deere? Lambs I would later be able to eat – so cute, so cuddly – now my favourite meat. Some fed on bottles, I feel no remorse, knowing little of gravy, spuds or mint sauce.

Here comes the harvest, a barn full of grain, protected from splashes of autumnal rain. I ride on the trailer towed by the tractor; it’s bumpy, hilarious, dangerous even – but all thoughts of accidents don’t seem to factor. Marks from the tractor scribed on the mud, straight lines and arcs, circles round trees, I’d repeat their perfection with a pen if I could.

Back at the farmhouse a pheasant’s our feed. Shot by the farmer, he carves it in tweed.

A pipe. Pipe cleaners. The smell of tobacco.

Spot jumps. We go home.

I learnt last night that my Mother’s best friend – whose husband was my Father’s best man at their wedding and whose daughter was born on the same day as me – died this week of a heart attack. As a child I would visit their farm and, unsurprisingly, images of the place began to return when I heard the news. Tainted by the passing of time, some may be idealised fabrications; most are as vivid as if they were only days old. The slightly bouncy rhythm I’m going to blame on the fact that I was recalling a time when everything was a form of play.

Every child deserves to have the opportunity to see the life blood of all of us – the products of working the earth – nutured and harvested. Yet I doubt I’ll even be able to provide that experience for my own kids today. How many of you know someone who works with the land?

Not many of you I’ll wager.

as early as you please

Tuesday, April 19th, 2005

An article I was reading about the current exhibition at the V&A in London reminded me of a book I have by John Ruskin, which, in turn, reminded me of some photos I took during a trip to Tuscany. Returning to the 101 year old book and the 3 year old digital photos, it seemed only fair to bring them together and share them with you.

Here’s a brief excerpt to wet your appetite. If you ever travel to Florence, let me know and I’ll lend you the book.

Mornings in Florence by John Ruskin (1904)

Today, as early as you please, and at all events before doing anything else, let us go to Giotto’s own parish-church, Santa Maria Novella. If, walking from the Strozzi Palace, you look on your right for the ‘Way of the Beautiful Ladies,’ it will take you quickly there.


Do not let anything get in the way of acquaintance, sacristan, or chance sight, stop you in doing what I tell you. Walk straight up to the church, into the apse of it; – (you may let your eyes rest, as you walk, on the glow of its glass, only mind the step, half way;) – and lift the curtain; and go in behind the grand marble altar, giving anybody who follows you anything they want, to hold their tongues or go away.


You know, most probably, already, that the frescoes on each side of you are Ghirlandajo’s. You have been told they are fine, and if you know anything of painting, you know the portraits in them are so. Nevertheless, somehow, you don’t really enjoy these frescoes, nor come here often do you?

The reason of which is, that if you are a nice person, they are not nice enough for you; and if you are a vulgar person, not vulgar enough.

Well, now you must ask for the Sacristan, who is civil and nice enough; and get him to let you into the green cloister, and then into the less cloister opening out of it on the right, as you go down the steps; and you must ask for the tomb of the Marchesa Strozzi Rifoldi; and in the recess behind the Marchesa’s tomb – very close to the ground, and in excellent light, if the day is fine, – you will see two small frescos, only about four feet wide each, in odd-shaped bits of wall – quarters of circles; representing – that on the left, the Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate; and on the right, the Birth of the Virgin1.

No flourish of trumpets here, at any rate, you think! No gold on the gate; and, for the birth of the Virgin – is this all! Goodness! – nothing to be seen , whatever of bas-reliefs, nor fine dresses, nor graceful pourings out of water, nor processions of visitors?

No. But there’s one thing you can see, here, which you didn’t in Ghirlandajo’s fresco, unless you were very clever and looked hard for it – the Baby! And you are never likely to see a more true piece of Giotto’s work in this world.

If, however, you no longer have a single romantic bone in your body and you have no interest in holding the slightly yellowed pages of the original in your hand – unable to turn the pages due to the blisters on your mouse finger – you could simply download the whole thing from the Gutenberg project.

1. this image doesn’t appear to be the one Ruskin is describing as the details are slightly different, the general theme is the same though and it’s all I’ve been able to find so far – I’ll have to go back again!

uneven territory

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

I just got back from a weekend in York. Spoils from the trip include a copy of Ted HughesHawk in the Rain (which I first encountered on a previous trip to York whilst dining in The Tasting Room) and some sneaky phonecam photos of the inside of Fairfax House.

hall chippendale detail bureau main stair rear stair annes bureau

It’s a beautifully restored 18th century townhouse with a mind blowing collection of Georgian furniture and clocks. One of which was apparently worth £750,000 when valued some years ago. Every piece had at least three different functions and numerous secret compartments – a vital requirement back in the days before password protected zip files and .htaccess controlled folders were available.

Take the time to visit if you are ever near York. One word of advice though; avoid visiting Fairfax House, the medieval Clifford’s Tower and the nearby Cafe 31 in the same morning. All three are suffering from settlement and movement to some degree and there isn’t a perfect right angle to be found anywhere. Result: dizzyness and mild nausea until you find some flat ground again.

cave man?

Friday, December 24th, 2004

Are you still trying decide what to buy this Christmas for that friend who has everything? Time’s running out, so here’s a suggestion; how about a cave house in Spain?

My good friend, regular inspiration and fellow architect, Tom Booker (who you may remember from the entry about the key to the MI5 tea cupboard) and his partner Claire Johnson recently teamed up with some friends to buy and renovate a cave cut into the limestone of the hills of Andalusia. The first of two is now complete and available to buy, full details are at

We paid them a visit just over a year ago during the construction and the transformation is startling. Here’s a picture of Tom shortly after the completion of one of the fire places.


Here’s the plan of the house. In some primal, long forgotten memory of our prehistoric ancestors, the layout of the rooms and passages is so seductive that it seems you could sell it on the strength of this drawing alone.


The front of property, rebuilt after the interior has been cut into the hillside, looks like this:


You can click on all the images to see them at full size.

From what I saw mid-construction and from what I know of Tom and Claire (who’s also an architect), the finished product will be beautiful. Find an architect with good design skills who’s also prepared to get his hands dirty and craft it himself and you’re on to a winner.

Of course if you do buy it as a gift this Christmas, you may need some help from Christo when it comes to wrapping it.

Merry Christmas to you all, I’ll be back next week. I’ve got to go and buy a tree before it’s too late.


Monday, December 20th, 2004

Link to an image of Tschumi’s constructivist follies: courtesy of Dave Morris’ flickr photostream.

Fantasy Architecture, Fantastic Architecture

Monday, November 22nd, 2004

Tonight’s offering is mostly photos, apologies to all on a dial up connection. As promised in my previous entry, I visited the Fantasy Architecture exhibition at Walsall Art Gallery on Sunday.

We arrived with only hours to spare, Sunday was the last day of the exhibition, if you haven’t been yet you’ve missed it. The tight deadline didn’t worry me as I’d brought the whole family and I knew this would only be a cursory glance at best. Taking your kids to a gallery can be both a burden and a joy, depending on your luck/mood. Our most successful visit yet being a trip to the Tate Modern, during which our son decided he would turn himself into an installation to demonstrate the acoustic qualities of each room – screaming and laughing at everything. The faces of the other visitors was itself a picture that deserved framing.

I managed to get a few moments peace this weekend thanks to a model by the artist Nils Norman entitled Let the Blood of the Property Developers Run Freely in the Streets of Hackney. Josh and Josie were captivated by the detail (on the left).

nils norman

It was a much more extensive collection than I’d expected since it has sifted through the archive of the RIBA library and produced work from over 150 years of architectural drawing. One of the most striking realisations to come from this diversity was how pathetic many of the contemporary computer generated illustrations looked against the hand crafted work.

Here’s the FAT project I mentioned in the previous entry, against a drawing of the design for the Imperial Monumental Halls and Tower by John Pollard Seddon and Edward Beckitt Lamb.


And I’m not just talking about whether bigger is better. An MVRDV image of their Pig City project suffered from the same problem against a Paulo Soleri sketch of equal dimensions.

The Fourth Grace – the latest dream from Will Alsop to prove itself beyond the imagination of the people who have to fund it – was looking somewhat less than graceful.

forth grace

A model of Foster’s Twin Towers proposal was also on show. It’s better than Libeskind’s.

kissing towers

Regardless of contents of the exhibition, a trip to Walsall gallery is always a delight. It’s one of the best pieces of contemporary architecture in the Midlands. It’s rigorous, inviting, intriguing, warm, dark where it should be dark and light where it should be light. The coffee is quite good too.

The foyer is a knockout.

walsall foyer

It’s a lesson in how to make an entrance to a public building.

walsall stairs

I’ve trained my daughter to do a little jig whenever she’s within 20 metres of good architecture.

walsall entrance

It passes the test with flying colours. Go see for yourself.

crimping and cranking

Sunday, August 15th, 2004

In an effort to wash away the rage that was building inside me after too many car journeys to work, I paid a visit to the climbing wall at Aston University last week. I really need to start getting on the tram again. Hatred for your fellow motorist hops from car to car like headlice in a school assembly and you quickly become infected. Last week I leant on the horn and hurled abuse at someone only to realise a few minutes later that they had been completely in the right and I, and my horn, had been wrong.

Something had to be done and one of the best ways I know to empty your mind and relax is to potter about on a bouldering wall. Climbing is one of the most laid back sports I’ve ever done, both mentally and socially – getting uptight about a move is the best way to guarantee you’ll fall off and I’ve never met anything but warmth and friendliness from a fellow climber. Once, during a 3 month stay in Santa Cruz in California, I tried to learn how to surf. You know, that easy going, not-a-care-in-the-world, life’s a beach, kinda sport. Rubbish. I met nothing but aggression. On one occasion I got told to f**! off before I’d even got in the water. Aside from that, a ten foot wall of water bearing down on you like a freight train is significantly more frightening than slipping from a rock and sailing gracefully and silently through the air. More dangerous too; I have the dislocated clavicle to prove it, but that’s another story.

I’ve mentioned an indoor wall in Stourbridge in a previous entry; this time I had only my lunch break to fit in a session on the rock resin. If you’re going to climb indoors in Birmingham, there are a couple of choices. You could choose to go and tackle the 70 foot high walls at The Rock Face, but you’ll not have time to tackle many of those feet during your lunch hour and it’s quite expensive unless you put aside a whole day. The alternative is to spend £2.50 and practice your crimping 1 at the wall in the Gem Sports Hall at Aston University. It’s small but quite well formed – technically challenging in some places, all muscle in others. A few minutes cranking hard 2 whilst listening to the haunting soundscapes of the group I mentioned in the linklog a few days ago and I was soon forgetting about both car and horn. I’m not quite in the shape I used to be when I was climbing 10 years ago, but then, who is?

If anybody is looking for a climbing buddy in Birmingham and can deal with the fact that I’ll be in and out again in no more than about 25 minutes, before dashing back to the office, let me know.

Tomorrow I shall be embarking on my first outing with the skateboard I’ve just finished building. It’s been 15 years since I last got on a board, you may expect stories that involve both broken limbs and broken pride. I wonder if they have WiFi at the hospital?

  1. come with me one lunch break and I’ll explain what that means.
  2. Ibid.

For Al, Joseph and Nikos

Monday, August 9th, 2004

My friend Al just got back from a weekend in Paris but he didn’t have time to visit Parc de la Villete; Joseph Clarke of That Brutal Joint is in Paris this week and has just posted his thoughts on Parc de la Villette; and for all I know Nikos Salingaros may even be in Parc de la Villete right now. Even if this isn’t the case I thought he might like to know a little bit about how a text he believes can only convey messages of violence resulted in such an enjoyable park. Also, since, according to Salingaros, my previous entry on Tschumi ‘…unwittingly gave us a poignant cinematic characterization…’ and nothing more, I thought it best to flesh out the whole dead/alive zombie thing (pun completely intended).

In other words, Al, this is what you didn’t see; Joseph, here’s a little more about what you did see; Nikos, here’s a little something that I wish you could see.

So, disassembled and reassembled from some past writing, I give you…

Parc de la Villette

Situated in north-east Paris in the 19ème arrondissement, Parc de la Villette was built during the 1980’s to redevelop an area of the city once used as an abattoir. As a collaboration between architect and philosopher, it was one of the first examples of a genre that would influence both architectural education and cutting edge practice throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

To achieve architecture without resorting to design is an ambition often in the minds of those who go through the incredible effort of putting together buildings. Behind this objective is the desire to achieve the obvious clarity of the inevitable; a structure in which the concept becomes architecture itself. In this approach there is no need to design ‘new’ abstract shapes or historically grounded forms…according to ones ideological allegiance. Here the idea or concept would result in all the architectural, social, or urbanistic effects one could dream of without reliance on proportion, style, or aesthetics. Instead of designing seductive shapes or forms, one would posit an axiom or principle from which everything would derive.

This statement by French architect Bernard Tschumi, is both the essence of his architectural quest, and a bridge between present day contemporary theory and its predecessor – poststructuralism. We’ll begin by examining the essence of his ideology and then look at how this became the design rational behind one of Paris’ grande projet.

architecture without resorting to design…

A singular obsession can be read between the lines of Bernard Tschumi’s work since the publication of ‘The Manhattan Transcripts’ and the later ‘Architecture and Disjunction’. His search for the almost indefinable ‘in-between’ or interstitial existence was the beginning of architecture’s intellectual cross fertilisation with poststructuralist philosophy.

The previous structuralist manifesto of a world consisting of signs and its concept of ‘signifier’ / ‘signified’, was accused of being too rigid and ignorant of time or place. In poststructuralism the notion of these binary oppositions – such as up/down, male/female or alive/dead – are challenged in an attempt to break down accepted hierarchies.

One of the most important figures in this movement was Jaques Derrida. His written disassembly of structuralist work, such as that by Claude Levi-Strauss, became known as ‘deconstruction’. Here his connection with Tschumi begins in their work together for Parc de la Villette.

Our aims were to displace the traditional opposition between program and architecture, and to extend questioning of other architectural conventions through operations of superimposition, permutation, and substitution to achieve “a reversal of the classical oppositions and a general displacement of the system,” as Jaques Derrida has written, in another context, in ‘Marges’.1

Parc de la Villette consisted of the collision/superimposition of three separate programs – ‘system of points’, ‘system of lines’ and ‘system of surfaces’. Their pre-collision exclusivity is an expression of the notion of working ‘within’ a preconceived order and the production of a flat hierarchy. The superimposition is then administered arbitrarily and any form of controlled composition is avoided. The Parc expresses two vital parts of the Tschumi/Derrida technique or ‘pharmakon‘: That of the creation of an unpredictable ‘event’ at the point of superimposition, derived from the critique/construction occurring ‘in between’ the texts/programs; and (as already seen in the opening quote) the desire for complete objectivity during the creative act.

Although each is determined by the architect as ‘subject’, when one system is superimposed on another, the subject – the architect – is erased.2

Two further Tschumi projects demonstrate his desire to erase his subjective persona from his architecture. The glass video gallery at Groningen in the Netherlands, and Le Fresnoy, the Centre for Art and Media at Tourcoing in France 3. Le Fresnoy, a re-inhabitation of an old school building, is perhaps the complete distillation of all Tschumi’s desires into one project. The combination of the old and new programs producing the most physical manifestation of his quest for ‘interstitial’ or ‘event’ space. The placing of the roof plane over the existing buildings generates a new circulation space between the two.

How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone’s ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person! Style, taste, individual philosophy, subjectivity, cultural background, real experience, psychology, talent, tricks of the trade: all the elements that make what I write recognizable as mine seem to me a cage that restricts my possibilities. If I were only a hand, a severed hand that grasps a pen and writes… 4

visiting Parc de la Villette…

Get there by taking the metro to Porte de Pantin or Porte de Villette. If you’re in Paris during the summer, all the better, the park comes to life when the sun is shining. The structure of surfaces, lines and points laid out by Tschumi is inhabited by numerous spaces designed with different themes. Look for the bamboo garden for some sensory delight and try not to be too disappointed by the discovery that the aural treats are just recordings.

Other things to look for include the chairs by Phillipe Starck and the huge pop art sculptures by Claes Oldenburg.


  1. Tschumi, Bernard (1996) Architecture and Disjunction , MIT Press.
  2. Ibid.
  3. see the projects section of
  4. Calvino, Italo. (1981) If on a winter’s night a traveller , Minerva. (see previous post also)

Venturi, Scott-Brown and Walt

Tuesday, March 30th, 2004

A sample from the excellent article in Metropolis Magazine by Robert Venturi, discussing Disney’s Pop Century resort. The full article is here.

But let us remember that throughout the history of architecture and urbanism, iconography has always dominated the scene, instructing and persuading us with its religious and civic content in ways no different from today?s vigorous (and despised) commercial iconography. Let us acknowledge the validity of those signs as a flourishing element within that vital, generic American scene, as well as within the great tradition of architecture and urbanism! Let us today transfer the murals from the inside to the outside of the buildings! Let us not be limited by the intimidations of taste and a Modernist revival that promotes decadent/dramatique abstract expressionism and industrial rocaille for the postindustrial age. Let us be stimulated by the vigor of iconography appropriate for our information/electronic age!