Monday 23 January 2012


 New books are nicely impressive – a glossy, grand, perfection of the latest printers’ art; but old, second hand ones have a different charm. Their markings can suggest intriguing histories.

Hélène Fouré’s little blue book titled The French Cathedrals Their Symbolic Significance, published by Bruce Humphries Inc. in Boston in 1931, arrived in the post. The patina on the spine, the haze on the pasted title label, the slightly worn ends, and the faded library numbers were the only external signs that showed that there was some age to this small publication. Internally, a distinctive sweet smell of bookshop bookshelves permeated the pages that were interspersed with crude black and white photographs, confirming the age of the item.

Opening the front hard cover revealed a nameplate that declared boldly in the present tense that ‘This book belongs to Agnes Dureau.’ The lettering was surrounded by a brown, monochrome graphic of the rays of a glowing candle beside a drawing of an open book. On the opposite page was a note in sepia ink from the author to: ‘A Mademoiselle A. Dureau, Affectueux Hommage,’ signed ‘Hélène Fouré,’ all, it seems, in her own hand. Below this, in a different hand, in a bolder and more floridly grandiose script in blue ink is the name: David H. Novak. Where are these folk now?

Enigmatically, on the inside of the rear cover is a library envelope glued to the board, with the number ‘726.5 F82’ typed on it in classic Courier, inked-ribbon text. Stamped above the pocket is ‘WITHDRAWN,’ boldly skewed across the upper portion of the envelope as if to emphasise the certainty of this message.

Fingering through the front pages, one finds another stamp under the publisher’s name: COLLEGE LIBRARY, BORROMEO SEMINARY, WICKLIFFE, OHIO.

Why did the library no longer require this book? It is only a small item. It would not take up too much shelf space. Did Agnes donate it to the library? Did David own the book before or after its being withdrawn? Whatever the sequence of events, Hélène’s loving tribute to Agnes seems to have started a journey that took this small study well beyond the intent of this first giving.

One wonders if the subject of this book has similarly had such an interesting ride? Is no one now interested in the symbolic significance of French cathedrals? Why? Fashion? Surely the subject matter has not dated? I wonder what Agnes would think? Hélène? Still, in spite of the subject, if I had to choose, I’d have the old books any day. In this case, I selected the book from the bookshop list on the basis of the subject, and it has already given me much satisfaction just pondering the inside covers. I can’t wait to read the remainder of the book. No new book could do this. One is only left with disappointments with new publications if they fail to live up to expectations. Old books only get better. Do they carry the love and care in them? It is strange that such sentiments are not acknowledged by the seminary.

Thursday 19 January 2012


We have come to almost carelessly accept the general classification of the changes in architecture at the beginning of the last century and earlier, looslely as 'The International Style' - well, its beginnings. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson gave this title to a book on the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1932, and it has stuck as a broad reference for this new work. But the title says very little about the modern movement other than it was international. Charles Rennie Macintosh, in one of his communications to his colleagues in Vienna, wrote more articulately about the stirirngs of this ‘modern movement’ and its aims.

In our racy world that spends so much time on getting away from itself to reach its new future – without ever knowing what, where or why – it is useful to reflect, from time to time or even more regularly, on where we have come from, where we might be going; why we are what we are, and on what we might be. Without this understanding we remain floating in a world of vague ambition, with no guide other than whims that are randomly personal, fashionable or otherwise: or all of these together.

Macintosh’s letter to Vienna, (circa 1902), gives a clear understanding of the aims behind the changes he was interested in. He has been linked with the Art Nouveau movement, but his daughter has made it very clear that he rejected the ambitions of these decorative ‘margarine flow’ lines: Mary Sturrock is very positive on this issue. 'My parents didn't like art nouveau' she `says 'and Macintosh didn't like art nouveau. He fought azgainst it with these straight lines against these things you can see for yourself are like melted margarine. . . ' (Howarth, p. xxxi).
Macintosh seemed to have very clear ambitions for his future that was not so much about himself as others, as the letter reveals.

Portion of letter from Macintosh to Josef Hoffmann:

I have the greatest possible sympathy for your latest idea {this was to create a guild of handcraft in Vienna} and consider it absolutely brilliant. Moser is perfectly right in his plans to produce for the time being only items that have been ordered. If your programme is to achieve artistic success (and artistic success must be your first aim), then every object you produce must have a strong mark of individuality, beauty and outstanding workmanship. Your aim from the beginning must be that every object is created for a specific purpose and a specific place. Later on, when the high quality of your work and financial success have strengthened your hand and your position, you can walk boldly in the full light of the world, complete with commercial production on its own ground and achieve the greatest accomplishment that can be achieved in this century; namely the production of all objects for everyday use in beautiful form and at a price that is in within the reach of the poorest, and in such quantities that the ordinary man on the street is forced to buy them because there is nothing else available and because soon he will not want to buy anything else. But until that time many years of hard, earnest, honest work by the leaders of the modern movement will be required before all obstacles will be removed either totally or partially. For a beginning the ‘artistic’ (excuse the term) [sic] detractors must be subdued and those who allow themselves to be influenced by them must be convinced through continuous effort and through the gradual success of the modern movement that the movement is no silly hobby of a few who try to achieve fame comfortably through their eccentricity, but that the modern movement is something living, something good, the only possible art for all, the highest achievement of our time.

Thomas Howarth, Charles Rennie Macintosh and the Modern Movement, Routledge Ltd., London, reprinted 1990, (first published 1952), p.p. xxxviii - xxxix

Today’s ‘me-my’ makes the words ‘hard, earnest, honest work by the leaders’ appear naive, just as the words ‘no silly hobby of a few who try to achieve fame comfortably through their eccentricity’ carry a particular sting if one chooses to consider them. But bold self-promotion is the order of our times rather than self-criticism, so matters such as these are easily ignored - glossed over.

As for the concept that products can be made ‘at a price that is in within the reach of the poorest, and in such quantities that the ordinary man on the street is forced to buy them,’ this outcome is now achieved through cheap imports of low quality items rather than through any concentrated effort to achieve beauty or craftsmanship in our country through our efforts and commitments. One is left wondering; just what does our society stand for? What might the contents of a letter be today? It would surely be much shorter. Could it be: I have a great design that will revolutionise the world. I will get it produced in the third world so that I can maximise my profits?

What are we missing out on?

ZEN ophobia?

What is happening with our world when ‘Zen’ is taken over as the name of a detective in a new television drama on ABC1 TV (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)  based on books by Michael Dibdin? It seems to be the same silliness that uses names for cars: Jaguar; Liberty; Outback; etc. Think about it: does this claiming and reclassifying of the references of words change us? Does all of this devalue our experience of the world? Are we demeaned by this game that seeks to gain our attention and form our preferences by self-consciously manipulating feelings and concepts? Or is this just all too xenophobic – being afraid of things strange and different? While cars may not have much of an impact on their subjected namings and their origins, when it comes to Zen things become different. Here something complex and subtle is being tossed around willy-nilly to become a new ‘character’ in our world of entertainment. Scrooge would say “Humbug!” It is an old word meaning hoax or jest, but this is much more serious. It has more to do with negative feelings about this manipulative abuse of language for commercial gain.
Consider the icecream cone called 'Enigma' and the moble phone company simply called '3.' The icy treat is certainly an enigma. As for '3,' well the little book on the French cathedrals highlights the difference between smart brand and :meaning:
Numbers are also symbolic: three is the symbol of the Trinity, and for that reason is the symbol of the soul and of all spiritual things. There are three theological virtures: faith, hope, and charity.
Hélène Fouré, The French Cathedrals, Their Symbolic Significance, bruce Humphries, Boston, 1931, p. 31.
One wonders, given this context, if there is any virtue in '3' the brand.
Symbols are not mere intrellectual items to be toyed with at whim. They have - had - an integral role in life. Take, for example, the number  eight. Fouré explains:
Eight is the number of the new life. After the first life, represented by seven, is over, life begins again; it is the symbol of resurrection. That is why out of ninety baptismal fonts kept from the Middle Ages, we find sixty-seven having the form of an octagon. The sinner being baptised leaves behind his first life in order to follow the law of God; eight is the symbol of regeneration. (ibid, p.32)
The symbol is the reality - well, one aspect of it. The brand is a clever, attractive label designed to entice.


The hoo haa over Glasgow’s new Riverside Museum is a bit of a ‘carry on,’ not about its shaping and making or cost - well, not only about these, but also about it its interior colouring. The local media seems to have created a stir, or thinks it is worth stirring about. Most of the surfaces of the interior spaces are painted a pale lime green. It sounds an odd choice for a Transport Museum, but, strangely, it does look and work well. The space is given an aura of a fresh haze that does enliven the twisting folded planes that shape it.

Lime seems to be the newly fashionable colour, as the graphics for this building also use a lime green in a brighter, more pure colour as dots. The graphics are pretty, but are also pretty hard to read at times, as both lime and dots do not do much for legibility or comprehension, especially with background colours varying from anything between, and including, black and white. These graphics confuse with their dazzling, dancing dottiness: but they look flash and smart. Perhaps this is all that is being asked of them – and the building?

Fashion and colour are truly interesting. One lady involved internationally in the clothing industry – handcrafted woollens – told me how she subscribed to a company each year to be told the new colours that were going to be fashionable in the next season, next year. It might all sound very strange, as though colours and fashions are being dictated to us by folk promoting colours to those seeking guidance, making the common use of the same colours acceptable by the masses as the new wonder. Fashion, it seems, is not generated by the masses. Rather number appears to create its own acceptance by mere – well, number, on the basis that if everyone is doing it, it must be good – and the masses accept this as the new idea: ‘theirs.’ It all appears to happen backwards. Indeed, this lady did produce her garments using the colours that were identified for her – and they sold.

Is this same process happening in architecture? We are seeing lime tables and chairs; lime signs; lime walls; lime fabrics becoming more common. Is it just because such items are available, made in accordance with the new colour guides? It is interesting to note that the new Android systems use lime as a highlighting colour for all of their functions. Did Google seek guidance from the same source? Lime again! It is not an obvious colour for catching the eye. Danger or road signs use no lime. With Android, though, colour has a subtler role in its own promotion – less obviously fashionable, or so it appears, as it does seem to work well – well, satisfactorily. Perhaps the typical danger yellow is going to give way to the new look-at-me lime? Maybe it is this characteristic of lime that makes it so acceptable today - so representative of our times - reflecting today’s ‘look-at-me’ generation as it flicks over its pods and pads in solitary public place where eyes fail to meet and others never exist: just ‘me’ and ‘my.’

Wednesday 18 January 2012


It’s the care that stands out – a rigour in the precision of the framing for perception. Architects can learn a lot from Susan Kare’s wonderful icons. Indeed, we all know these but have been unaware of their maker – or even that there was a maker. As in all good art, (and architecture), the identity of the maker is irrelevant. The work stands alone with its relationship to the body, intertwining and engaging effortlessly, mindless of who did it. Knowledge of the maker only interferes with true understanding. It distorts perception with other layers of distracting, irrelevant references and facts.

These icons become a part of us before we even know them. It is their scale that intrigues. Kare’s book, simply ICONS, has a large-scaled image on the right-hand page, and a miniature one on the lower left-hand page opposite. The careful, very deliberate articulation of simple squares – each a pixel – into a self-conscious patterned arrangement intrigues. What is it? Then a glimpse to the left reveals the identity clearly. Here, angles become curves; flat, two-dimensional patterns gain depth; and colours fade into unexpected formal contexts. Everything is in its right place – the only place where it must and can be. The work is surprising.

Two of the most astonishing images are the portraits of Steve Jobs. One was done in 1983 during one sitting, the other in 2011. These images display, truly graphically, the power of Kare’s art and its skill. Here just a few, articulate black squares become, not just a face, but a young Steve Jobs and an older Steve Jobs – clearly identifiable in every subtlety; not as caricatures. So much with so little: truly, less here is more than more – and its structure, the mystery of its making, can all be carefully analysed and revealed without destroying its power.

Any one who was introduced to computers through the first Macintosh will know the friendly icons that made the computer accessible. The coded texts of glowing green blocks called letters on a dark screen that were totally unforgiving made other computers items of abuse. They frustrated. One had to know every detail coded step, or hours of effort could be aborted, with the operator being sent back to start the process all over again. Kare’s icons, layered over the Mac operating system, made understanding simple and participation a joy. They delighted. They still do. Think of the command symbol; the trash can; the sound symbol; the watch; the bomb; the paint can for fill; the pencil for line, and the spotted dog and the hare. These are memories to cherish - all on a white screen.

The range of the work is as astonishing as the change in technology that has allowed new, truly sophisticated images where pixels fade and meld into a different reality. The happy Mac box image is miles – well, terabytes – away from the images of the penguins, the mirror ball and the kiss. Times really have changed. I recall my first Mac costing me $4800.00 and the printer, that used paper with tear-off holes on each side, costing $1500.00 – back in the early eighties. Still, I am very grateful for this little Mac that stayed with me right up to 2000. Its capacity – what it was able to achieve – was simply astonishing. It was an inclusive, forgiving, maleable tool that really assisted in achieving an outcome by participating in the process creatively.

Kare first designed the alphabets for this Mac, using proportionally spaced letters that looked right on the screen and the page. From here she moved into the icons and has never stopped. Her work carries a determination that baffles one with its grace and humour that is revealed in a strange understanding of the physicality of its perception – its becoming: the reading of its making and its sensing by the body. It is not the 'less is more' that architects need to recognise, but how details, relationships, colours and juxtapositions can be so critical – so essential; so necessary – for such simple, ordinary, easy understanding. It makes the inspiration of crumpled paper truly look just cleverly sloppy and lazy, and the smart self-promotion and personal hype appear as mere grandiose boasting - simply foolish.

It’s the humility that glows in parallel, as one, with these stunning, iconic creations that makes them so beautiful - so endearing; so charming.

Monday 9 January 2012


The stroll from the centre of Glasgow takes one out over a major motorway, along streets framed with old and new tenements until the railway blocks the path. A bridge with steep ramped appraoches takes one up and over the rail track, and down to a walking trail on the other side. This roughly formed strip of dirt and bitumen edged with pools of muddy water leads to Glasgow's newest museum - the Riverside Museum, Scotland’s Museum of Transport and Travel. The track follows a chain wire fence, passing an occasional signboard that promises a different future for the now derelict precinct. Eventually the random void turns into a newly organised, cleaner one. The museum car park is reached. The approach to the museum is ad hoc, passing over some small strip gardens, across marked pavements, and around bollards and light poles. Eventually one is confronted by the dark glass beneath the scribble, hoping that there is a door in this reflective wall for entrance. It is all rather pedestrian. Perhaps one is expected to use some form of transport to travel to this location, as some kind of performance art? It is, after all, a museum of transport and travel. Walking there offers very little joy. Still, one does see one aspect of the context of the Zaha Hadid building that will rarely - if ever - be publicised or discussed anywhere else. What is of further interest is that, from this unusual aspect, the wedge-form alignment of the squiggled mass becomes evident. The question remains: how does the rain water run off from those valleys? Is there an entrance waterfall on occasions?