Monday, August 19, 2013


Grand Designs: Kevin McCloud presented the little house and studio complex on the Isle of Skye. The promotion, that carries the same hype as the programme, had told how this was the best house McCloud had ever experienced. Now that was some claim! It was a modest home and studio project with a final cost of 130,000 pounds. The ladies had saved for years to get the place after paying 40,000 for their small block of land. The design was simple 'modern', displaying a typical Gio Ponti lozenge form in plan that had a gable turned across its length. The accommodation was appropriately unassuming too: two bedrooms; two ensuites; living, kitchen, and dining spaces; plus a separate small studio. These folk were artists, but one was the local bus driver too. Both buildings were clad in vertical larch that was left to gray gently under a turf roof – some eighteen tonnes heavy. It was a simple form. The subtle resolutions and proportions of the openings, even the juxtaposition of the masses that echo each other, and their sensible location in the landscape, made this a 'grand' but not grandiose scheme with humility and power: little wonder that McCloud thought so highly of it.

Everything worked to allow this small place to settle nicely into its environment. McCloud emphasized this in his usual hype - see - that makes everything overly dramatic, even this modest build; but the cameras clearly showed how the colours of the roof and landscape matched perfectly, and how the forms looked strangely gentle in their location: obviously new and different, but subtle and careful. It was indeed a lovely project. One was left vaguely guessing about the systems for air supply and heating, but this is the norm for McCloud’s GD; and no one ever said anything about the overhanging end that dramatically narrowed as it sailed above a void to perch on a solid masonry wall. Was this a carport? What on earth fitted into this narrowing end of this cottage that was held high? It seemed a self-conscious extravagance in the whole simplicity of things with its commitment to an ideal, but the gesture was interesting in this sensitive project.

Or so it appeared to be: yes, sensitive maybe, but was it an environmentally responsible house? Was this a 'natural' house? One is reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright’s book of this title that is now seen as an historic relic. Was this Skye-build a good example of environmental care? It seemed so and Kevin said it was, dramatically as usual: but . . There are buts involved. All of the timber came from Scandinavia. The high tech windows and doors likewise all came from Scandinavia. The ‘environmental’ roof had soil that came from Inverness. Inverness soil had been carried across Scotland and the waters into Skye. Is this environmental? The turf was transported from England! Have we gone mad in our understanding of things sensitive and environmental? We seem to have a serious problem here. The cost and impacts of distance are getting buried in our enthusiasm for the promotion of ideas: a new modern place for Skye. This positive newness and its benefits were all presented to us with a gentle scoffing critique on the traditional little white local places with slate roofs that were scattered across the landscape: hoo haa! Just look at this ordinary stuff! Kevin blazed away with a raw arrogance at this conservative approach, declaring that he would prefer the new and different any day: and so the argument seemed to be a good one.

The question now remains: how can one build on Skye with Skye parts and minimal transport? What forms might such an approach generate? What materials might be chosen? Surely if we are to be concerned with the environment and its sense of place and being, then this is the matter that we need to addresses rather than remaining happy with transporting anything willy-nilly, whatever from wherever, to achieve an ‘environmental’ outcome: whatever it takes? One can easily do this today, but let's not pretend that we have no impact, or low impact, with this new idealism that seems blind to criticism, and uses the ‘care and concern’ for things environmental against any critic.

If left on Skye with no transport, truck or aeroplane, what would one build? How would one build? It has been done in the past. If accepting that some trucking is needed, what might one use and what forms might one generate if the rule becomes absolute minimal transport? It seems that it is not only in building that transport is becoming a concealed cost. What pressures does this movement of things place on our world that we seek to be so gentle with; that we seek to use to boast about our concerns and cleverness? Just look at the supermarket and see the food we import while local manufacturers are closing down and growers are pulling out trees and ploughing in crops.

Why can a bottle of Australian wine made in South Australia that markets for ten dollars or a little more in Australia be sold in Lerwick for five pounds? Why does Australia import fruit while local growers are destroying their produce? If we are to be serious about our place in this world, then we need to do more with things 'local' - well, regional: see  The pressures on international trade seem to have other goals beyond caring for the environment. Politics and economics are involved; and profit making too. Look at what Australia - the world - gets made in China. Just being happy with whatever is cheap, or whatever can be imported for our environmental boasting is not good enough. We need regional living that reaches out only once everything is resolved locally first. Is this concept too parochial or just responsibly sensible?

Do I hear: “What about the poor - aid and aids?” Matters are not simple, but it does seem silly to be boasting about a simple little environmental place on Skye, even if it is beautiful, when it has been assembled with pieces, parts, soil and turf from afar. In order to get a real understanding of the role transport plays in our brave new world, we should have everything marked with a miles/kilometers identification in the same manner as food contents are placed on labels. Then we might be better informed and able to make responsible choices. Just buzzing around saying how lovely life is, and how gentle we have been when we have carted dirt across land and sea to create the roof that had been the dream of a young girl for years seems shallow, irresponsible and indulgent. Has Skye no roofing turf? The Faroes have these roofs: are they imported? Seyðisfjörður in Iceland- see - has Norwegian pre-fabricated houses imported in the 1920s. They are beautiful. The question is: if we are importing everything from Scandinavia for our enclosures, why not the whole home as happens in Shetland? Of course this raises more questions about style and place, but it is worth considering. Would this be more environmental? Probably not.

After having considered what one might build in Unst, Shetland, and asking these questions of the locals, it was pointed out to me that there is a company on Skye that is producing its own local prefab designs that have a local inspiration and reference. Why do we go elsewhere for our things? If we are so poor at producing good products ourselves, isn't the answer improvement rather than transport? Is there something snobbish lingering here, where the thing from overseas is different, better because it is from elsewhere and highlights ‘me, me!’? Is this an ‘us, us!’ from these ladies who were waiting for their art to materialize? This is another matter. Inspiration does not relate to time; maybe place. That is why we need to concentrate on what we have next to us, near us, for our shelter and life support systems, and our food and clothing too can enhance our connection to place. The concern is that today we seem more interested in appearing bespoke, owning things from another place that no one else has, or can afford!

We know how what was called the ‘International’ style has failed us. Internationalism is doing likewise, but more subtly and intrusively. Importing solutions has only had undesirable and unpredictable repercussions: look at the cane toad in Australia, imported from South America as the ‘solution’ to the cane beetle problem in northern Queensland. It is now a pest that is creeping across the whole of the continent. Why do we never seem to learn?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.