Wednesday 28 August 2013



It was discovered in the schedule of DOCUMENTS in MS Word. This review sat neglected under the simple title of ‘Fiddler.doc’. It was a piece that had been jotted down some time ago when the Shetland group called Fiddlers’ Bid played in Brisbane for the first time. It is published here because it is an example of music that is intimately related to place. It is a circumstance that architects can learn from as they make and shape place in various regions of our world. There are many subtle matters involved in this task that is more than music and memory; but these make and shape a good example of what ‘place’ means. Feelings are involved. Our architecture needs to rediscover its roots in the integrity of emotion rather than in the self-conscious drama of things unusual, different, distorted and bespoke.

The Shetland Islands lie well above Australia in the usual reading of the globe. Indeed, they sit above Scotland, north, beyond the Orkney Islands, but frequently suffer from the cartographer’s graphic necessities that relocate these tiny islands in their own boxed inset, like a postage stamp, anywhere within the frame of the page that might illustrate Scotland or the whole of the United Kingdom at whatever scale might be chosen. Shetland never seems to fit. Little wonder that the islands are sometimes confused with the more familiar western isles of Scotland. They are Britain’s most northerly islands. They have been treated as trinkets to form part of marriage agreements and trophies, and have been linked to Denmark, as well as Scotland and Norway. The gene pool of the people is almost an equal mix descending from the Vikings and the Picts.

. . . . . . .

Word came from above that Fiddlers’ Bid was coming to town via Tasmania. A little research indicated that Tuesday 10th at the Brisbane Powerhouse was indeed the time and place for the one and only Brisbane performance. One wondered: why Brisbane? The tickets were ordered and the weeks rolled by. How long was the band to be in sunny Brisbane? Might we meet up with the group and show it more of the city?

Word again came that the band had left Shetland and was in Melbourne on its way to Tasmania where it was to play before its two performances in Brisbane. Two? - 9th and 10th? Was this correct? We thought that we had seats in the one and only performance. On checking the web site, it became clear. Tuesday 'SOLD OUT' - 400 seats filled! The second performance was to be held on Monday. Having the second event prior to the first was unusual, but the message was clear: Shetland fiddle music was not unknown in this remote part of the world.

The evening arrived for the first performance after reports that the second had gone well - nearly sold out too! The Powerhouse is an old coal-fired powerhouse building that once generated electricity for Brisbane. It is now transformed into a performing arts centre on the Brisbane River next to the New Farm Park. Such conversions are fashionable. Sydney has its Powerhouse too that was redeveloped well before Brisbane’s. The early arrival at the Powerhouse on the mild autumn evening proved futile. The theatre did not open its doors until a quarter of an hour prior to the performance, and then it was a matter of grabbing your own seat, wherever, however.

A couple of scotches filled in the time and set the scene for a Shetland evening downunder. We waited in the huge brick volumes once filled with turbines as gymnasts rehearsed behind tall, dark shrouds, appearing periodically in the gaps spinning around the floor or on trapezes in the glaring dazzle of the lights above. Smarty, ‘arty’ neons winked on the walls and smiled in Skye blue and Irish green as the graffiti of old and new eras was illuminated in a quirky gleam of shadows. The shell of the building has been left in tact, complete with the original graffiti, grime and grit, with the new work separated as internal solids, just as the Burra Charter, the bible for restoration of historic buildings, proposed. Then the time came: the theatre doors opened.

After being put through the styles as sheep in a caaing, being subjected to pushing, pulling and shoving as folk fought like beasts for the opportunity to claim the best seating location, the theatre patrons settled down into their seats and waited.

The group Fiddlers’ Bid was announced, the lights faded into stage brilliance and the group strolled into the glow without fanfare, to their allotted spots on stage marked by the fiddles, harp, bass, piano and guitar. The surprise was the stubby of beer that each member carried. I had forgotten the need for each musician to always have a drink nearby. I was in Shetland again!

The first story was told to set the scene, the accent transforming the sense of place and releasing the tensions heightened by the lack of the allocation of seating; and the music started. The energy and intensity of the evening grew as time passed. Finesse and fury filled the theatre as one felt the seating structure swaying with the foot beats, leg movements, head nodding and hand clapping intensifying with each tune. It was enlivening and transforming. What might the structural engineers think of this? Even stayed bodies eventually swayed. Shetland’s fiddle music is after all basically dance music.

The music was punctuated with stories that were a pleasure to hear beyond their narrative. The Shetland dialect is another form of music to the ear that, in Australia, is more used to a dry, laconic drawl than the sweet, rhythmic tones of yarn, humour and irony. Some in the audience were moved to dance in the impossibly tiny spaces available. It was a rare sight for Australians who make good queues and generally do as they are told. Is this a relic of the convict past?

Each member of the group was introduced with a nice subtlety that revealed the instruments and the individual characters without undue ceremony or fuss. It was a pleasure not to have to endure any hype or pretence in this performance. There was no fancy garb here!

In all, it was a wondrous evening during which one could believe one was in the Baltasound Hall again, if careful, self-conscious awareness was allowed to drift and dream. The sound of the fiddle held the landscape before the eyes too, just as the rhythms of the voices recalled the presence of friends and relatives. 'He sounds just like …' was the repeated comment; then more complex memories and associations arose.

Yet the evening was never just nostalgic. It placed tradition firmly in the present, alive with a new energy that revealed the true vitality of persons anywhere and everywhere when real music reaches beyond noise and relates to places and persons beyond parochial and egocentric idiosyncrasies.

And why Brisbane? Fiddlers’ Bid said that Aly Bain had played here. It was an intuitive guess that the Brisbane folk included numerous homesick Shetlanders, and relatives and friends who knew the intimacy and magic of the islands, and who yearned for a good fiddle evening. They were right. We hope to see Fiddlers’ Bid again soon, either here or there - above or below.

. . . . . . .

Time has passed quickly since this event. Thankfully we have again experienced both - Fiddlers’ Bid in the Shetlands and in Brisbane. It was their second time in Brisbane when I invited a friend who played the guitar and sang in his own 1960’s revival group to come to the show. It was with some trepidation that he agreed to attend a fiddle evening. He seemed to have been exposed to some teasing by the other band members. He left the Powerhouse transformed! Such is the Shetland fiddle that grasps both landscape and character in its power.

For more on Fiddlers’ Bid, see


Tuesday 20 August 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?


 Oxford Boathouse

It was Kevin McCloud introducing his Grand Designs on ABC TV 30 June 2013, (see - ), with his usual generalisations, exaggeration and hype: “A piece of ‘non-architecture’ is going to make way for something grander.” He was referring to a comfortable 1920s riverside cottage that looked fine to me and to all of the neighbours. Apparently there had been a three-and-a-half year argument with the locals who fought the planning approval that was eventually given for a modern home to replace this modest building. But why was it called ‘non-architecture’? The statement makes clear that there is a specific understanding of what architecture might be. It seems that an ordinary house can never be ‘architecture.’ Something more has to be involved - something grander?

Thames House

Nikolaus Pevsner once wrote that a cathedral was architecture but a bicycle shed was not; it was just a building. He seemed to take this clue from Ruskin who argued similarly that architecture was more than some ordinary structure. A building had to have something extraordinary about it to be ‘architecture.’ Little wonder then that ordinary folk consider architects to be a waste of time and money with what seems to be their commitment to always search for the extraordinary approach. The owners of the old cottage ended up with a few boxes stacked one upon the other, appropriately offset to appear ‘interesting’, all clad in expensive German ceramic panels, with the curvaceous interior surfaces matching the roof, all painted pure white. The budget was in excess of one million pounds. The aim was to create something that required no maintenance; something that would look just as schmick, smart and stylish in twenty year’s time. This ambition alone seemed to be the stimulus for the demolition of the old ‘character’ place that had, as might be expected, some obvious wear and tear. It seemed that there was going to be no natural deterioration allowed here. Even the floorboards on the new exterior deck were ‘plastic’ wood, and the ‘grass’ on the lower roof was artificial turf. Apparently one could not risk natural, organic growth and change. Does the use of these synthetic materials display a naïve faith in ‘futuristic’ things, or just a lack of empathy with life itself?

Why does architecture seek to define itself only as things special, grand and different? The ABC TV ten-minute infill programme, Dream Build, played on 23 June 2013 in the time slot just before Grand Designs, its prelude, had the owner sitting for the photo shoot outside his home that was inspired by camping: the architect liked camping. There was no statement confirming that the client liked camping; indeed, the whole thing seemed like a new experience for the family. Sipping his cup of coffee in full view of the neighbours who all lived in this street with its array of traditional brick homes with tiled hip roofs, the owner said, as if by way of apologetic explanation for the extremes of the stark alternative: “You don’t go to an architect if you don’t want something different.” Oh! Well, this family certainly got something different - a house open to the street and its internal courtyard with rooms that had a maximum of only three walls.

The great irony here was that the house was attempting to replicate the joys of camping; while, when camping, every effort seems to be put into making something temporary look and feel as cosy as a permanent home! There seemed to be no thought given to the nasty and uncomfortable sides of camping: the lack of security; the lack of privacy; possums; rats; snakes; cyclones; wind; storms; insects; cold; damp - we all have experienced or know about these matters. The thing that appeared to be the core issue was that this place was different; and it came with a story too - a rationale. So we are back to the definition: architecture is something grand and different.

The concern is that if we are unable to be content with ordinary things done well, then we are relegating art and architecture - the art of architecture - not only to an elitist role, but we are also forcing it into a territory where every effort has to be made to make things uniquely different, bespoke - just for me, by me - before they can be considered worthy enough to be categorised as art or architecture. Indeed, the owner of the house on the river argued that she liked the house that expressed her ambitions and ideals, so everyone else could, well, “go jump,” as the cliché goes. It seemed that everyone else was wrong, or had no say in how ‘I’ should act, even though they were the ones who had to look at this place. Context was irrelevant. The three-and-a-half year battle with the river community proved this. It appears that the planners eventually relented: see

That we seem unable to show any interest in capturing quality and spirit in ordinary things appears to display not only a disregard for such matters, but also a carelessness and a laziness. It becomes too easy to argue that something ad hoc and random has quality just because it is so different and extreme; and any story can be put in place to explain the uniquely special properties even when the ‘work’ is obviously silly or stupidly irrelevant, even trash. The rule here seems to be: the more extreme, the better the work.


Tradition holds many examples of ordinary and simple things being special. Indeed, the philosophy was that if art did not comply with the rules, then the work could never be beautiful. It saw individual ‘creativity’ as an idiosyncrasy. If one reflects on this, it becomes obvious. Why should any personal dysfunction be hailed as some grand invention to be desired and admired by all? If I choose to express myself with a natural stammer or lisp, does this make my speech better, more desirable? It will certainly be different. We already see something like this selectivity of and preference for difference in television programmes where presenters with quirky accents are chosen to front shows, any show, be it medical, geographical, for tourists, or nature-based. In Australia, we have yet to see the newsreader who stutters, even though the world bleats on about equality for those with a disability. It will come.

So is architecture just grand? No. If we are so determined to define architecture, then we should approach it in the same way we do everything else: identify the ‘pecking order’ or the ‘chain of command’, as it were: the variation of parts and their roles. Art has hierarchies, categories, as do most things in life. We have child’s art; monkey art; elephant art; commercial art; graphic art; oil painting; sculpture; watercolour; etc. The options are endless, and each has its own sub-hierarchy too. Why is architecture only claiming to be ‘high art’ and nothing else? If we are unable to accommodate all building into some identification of architecture, its scope, then we are not only limiting our own vision, but we are also curtailing any likelihood of achieving a true expression of spirit in the rich baseness of the everyday that becomes merely a discard. Our lives will be as theatre, we as actors, if architecture is seen only as things grandly different: see  Architecture becomes a performance art seeking out our indulgent and self-satisfying participation that degrades basic daily life.

We need an architecture that can enrich us in our ordinary existence and partaking of life: our wellbeing needs it. We should not have to step aside into another world or vision in order to know architecture or art. Seeking things grand will only create division and promote our discontent. We need ways to let contentment flourish, in a beautiful world that is the ordinary and everyday rather than the bespoke and special that is concerned only with, and is all about ME. “Aren’t we lucky,” was the lady’s refrain on Grand Designs. We need an environment that can express US: our world; our society; ourselves as a community; our completeness and coherence rather than our fragmentation. This strategy does suggest something that ‘averages’ things out, but it will be a sad day when our ordinary living has to be seen as average, mean, because it cannot be labelled ‘grand.’

Have we forgotten how to be meek? Have we devalued this understanding with our crass commercialisation and its hyped, promotional enterprises? Sadly there seems to be profit only in division and discontent, and the eternal stimulation of desire that ennobles grandly exclusive, ‘impossible’ dreams.

On planning, see and


New England National Park

Australia has some beautiful bushland that simply astonishes, but there still lingers a doubt and distaste, a fear and hatred, for these native places. Their awe seems to generate much the same response as mountains did in Victorian times. It took Ruskin’s writing and enthusiasm to transform perceptions. Does Australia need a Ruskin?

There remains a distinct aggression displayed towards bushland, an attitude that sees the solution in cutting and clearing. There is little love here. Is this a relic of our colonial past? Does this dislike of natural wonder that sees only threat come from our convict past? – see


 The sign at Ulmarra in New South Wales tells the story. The path the public toilet is signed with a warning that trees are dangerous. Appropriately, the trees nearby have been trimmed. This attitude towards nature envisages only risk. Perhaps it is this same attitude that has shaped this public building too?

We need to learn from nature, not disregard it or treat it so brutally. It can change our thinking, and our architecture too. There is little doubt that this small Ulmarra dunny might have benefitted form leaving the trees to disguise its bland presence.


New England National Park
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