Wednesday 25 February 2015


The treeless Shetland landscape offers unique picturesque vistas of sculptured landmasses defined by sky and water. The fragmentation of the various pieces of terra firma that make the Shetland Islands provides an unusual, interlaced illusion on a grand scale, with rolling hills layering into gradations of distance, interspersed with voes and lochs. It is a symphony of land, sea and sky that has the appearance and wonder of a large, partially immersed Henry Moore sculpture. It is the light that unites these elements, not only with the graded haze of multiple horizons, but also with the shadows of clouds moving over land; the skies gleaming with glimpses of sunlight; and the waters a-blaze with astonishing brilliances that form this firmament. Its beauty turns every tourist into a photographer who tries to capture the primordial light that illuminates this incredible postcard wonder, especially at sunsets that are irresistible to anyone holding a camera even though the marvel has been seen and photographed so many times before that it has become a cliché: but it never is, such is its power.

Indeed, Shetland has a history of photographers who have travelled the islands to capture its spectacular landscape, its amazing wild life, its ordinary, everyday events as well as its special occasions. Rattar comes to mind as a skilled practitioner of the art, and a prolific one too. His stunning black and white images illustrate the land and its life with a raw, crisp, honest beauty that sets the standard for today’s travellers seeking to record the special qualities of this place. It is in his images that we can see the landscape and its light and life, pure and simple, uncluttered, in its native innocence.

Today, every photographer has experienced the struggle to cut the power pole and its lines out of the frame, and to conceal the fretted array of fencing posts, all in an effort to regain the Rattar romance – the original sense of place; that vibrant, organic feeling for land, light and life. Alas, only too frequently does one make these cunningly careful moves to discover at a later time, the unexpected feint sweep of a power line across the captured image, or a stray pole or post protruding unexpectedly from the hills. Everyone knows the disappointment that this interference causes. There is a loss of innocence, of original sense of place with this rude interference of base, basic technology. These occasions become the disappointment of all photographers, especially the tourists who have travelled across the world to experience what is truly unique about the Shetland Islands. Locals can easily revisit the place and try again with a different scheming, but tourists live with their failures forever: if only . . . Tourists do not travel to distant places in order to experience the clutter of nearly every city and town in the world; and ‘photoshopping’ does not solve the emotional need for recorded truth.

So it was with some sad astonishment that the pockmarking of the map was viewed in The Shetland Times. An array of red dots joined with a maze of lines stretched across the drawing of central Mainland on contours that defined the hills. This was described as the proposal for the wind farm that filled the girth of the land around Weisdale, a place with its own wonder and special history and mystery that opens to the surprising western edge of southern Mainland. This was the place that everyone admires for its most grand vistas that stretch for kilometres into an amazement of hazed beauty along folds in between hills. This was to be the place for the turbines to be mounted on the perimeter of crests. Power poles and fences fretted in silhouettes against the sky will be as nothing when compared to the turbines – their scale, noise, feel and general imposition. These will only be able to be photoshopped out, such is their scale. No reframing will disguise these monsters or their impacts.

While the general effect on health of these huge pieces of equipment remains a debate - but not for those who have them nearby and have not been blinded by the dollars - this impact is compounded by the impact on place and feeling, the healthy interaction of subtle matters that include our involvement with land and its scope. Our love of place lies at the core of mental health, of coming to terms with our world. In Shetland this is highlighted more than ever – treelessness critically opens the purity of the landmass to the bright rawness of the sky and the reflective certainty of water. The bold towers of wind turbines grasp the highest land profiles for their own benefit irrespective of place and circumstance. They carry an inherent insult in their being that cares little for those who love this land and live this love. Theirs is not only a point pockmark. Towers demand servicing that requires a network of roads crisscrossing the hills.

Roger Scruton has noted that beauty is a moral matter. In this sense wind farms intrude into matters ethical. Their values can be debated as their functional and economic efficiencies, but it is their impact on feeling and place – feeling for place – that holds the greatest threat, the one most difficult to articulate or evaluate. The matter is clearly seen in the photographers’ nightmare of poles, posts and other paraphernalia. These will be as nothing compared with the visual impact of the turbines. One only has to see the turbines on the hills beside Lake George outside Canberra in Australia to understand the impact of turbine towers irrespective of their number.

View of wind farm from Federal Highway over Lake George

If Shetland is serious about encouraging tourism and caring for its much-loved places, then it needs to be fully aware of what turbines do. The situation is a little like developing mines in a place where landscape is so important and so limited; where place is critical. Mining the winds seems to be the best analogy, for this technology has the same brutal impact on land. Just look at the mine at Clibberswick on Unst. Sadly raw beauty is turned into a mighty mess just too easily. It is fragile, like feelings, and needs care and attention for survival.

We might be interested in how we plan our houses, our settlements, our towns; but how we plan and care for our landscape is just as critical if we are to develop and maintain a place and its wonder. Planning means knowing and controlling for a prescribed outcome. Beauty needs thought and attention just as any functional necessity. We should not allow ourselves to be distracted by dreams of dollars, for tourism is all about dreams and dollars too - dollars based on a desire to see a place of one’s dreams, a place so special and different as Shetland. One can travel to other places to see wind turbines. Why turn Shetland into a place just like any other? When we all know the impact of poles and posts on the landscape, why leap into the hope of towers?

The astonishing stupidity in endorsing this wind farm is that Shetland is a place that promotes its unique, natural beauty as a tourist destination. It is difficult enough to get to Shetland now, what with the high costs of travel on what is an uncompetitive route. People will think twice about visiting a place that is determined to fill its beautiful horizons with silhouettes of towers. Why would anyone wreck its core attraction with any turbines, even silent ones if they exist, let alone a number in excess of one hundred, when it is trying hard to promote its special country as an attractive destination? Would Northern Island allow the erection of wind turbines on top of the cliffs around the Giant’s Causeway? Considering the almost excessive care and detail that has been given to the beautiful visitors’ centre at this location, one can see that turbines, no matter how advantageous the position might be for efficient energy production, would never be approved here  - see: 

Shetland has to put a value onto its tourism if it is to truly see the losses that turbines will bring. Folk will not visit a stark, iconic landscape that has had its wonder littered with a scattering of raging, reverberating towers. It is this brashness that they are escaping. It is simply unbelievable that anyone could give a second thought to approving any wind farm on Shetland, even with the sums of cash and jobs that calculations might promise. There will be more losses than gains here. The immeasurable qualities of this world have more power for tourists than any surplus of cheap energy might have for Shetland.

Will Shetland's promotional logo have to be changed?

One remains gobsmacked at the possibility that the heart of the Mainland might become a display of spiked hills. It does not augur well for the health of the landscape, let alone the health of local residents and visitors, for we do gain strength from our land, the spirit of place.

Loung Ung talks about his land and its abuses:
Land-mine mutilation is the second most painful injury, burns being the first. Psychologically, physically, it’s very destructive to human beings. Socially, culturally, economically, and religiously, it’s disrupted the whole society. We’re Buddhist people so our deities tend to be based in the rivers and the earth. Now that the land is mined, where do you go to find spiritual sanctuary?
Surviving the Peace: An Interview with Loung Ung in
In the Shadow of Angkor Contemporary Writing from Cambodia  Frank Stewart; Sharon May Editors  Silkworm Books 2004  University of Hawai’i Press  p.54

Thomas Lynch writes of his return to Ireland as:
a return to the traditions of exile and contemplative life within a community made global by technology - men and women for whom the quiet and the distant and the darkness allow for visions they might otherwise have never had, who are nonetheless ‘connected’ to the wider world of faith by broadband and modem and common quest.
Booking Passage We Irish & Americans  Thomas Lynch  Johnathon Cape London 2005  page 143-144    

What visions might remain when ‘the quiet and the distant and the darkness’ are permeated with towers?
We might get an understanding of the brutality of the impacts from our own culture with texts inspired by the Pslams:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my power,
My electricity cometh from the turbines, twixt heaven and earth.
(after Psalm 121)

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; and the wind turbines -
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? 
What is man doing?
(after Psalm 8:3-4)
Now that the sky is mined, where will we gain our strength?

For a recent study and debate on wind farms see:

One is left pondering why Shetland spends so much time, effort and money on trying to attract tourists when it seems to do so much to dissuade them. Some years ago the ship, Norrona, that provided a direct link between the Sheltand Islands and Norway, Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, stopped calling into Lerwick on its weekly run. This was the route the Vikings took. It appeared that no one in Shetland could care less. Nothing was done to make sure that this service was kept available for locals and visitors. It was merely dismissed, leaving the Shetland Islands isolated from its neighbours.

Now we have the wind farm to be constructed on the beautiful landscape of central Shetland, ironically named Viking. If Shetland is really interested in encouraging tourism, then it might have done more to ensure that its connections to the Viking world were more than a label for a project that will scar the landscape for years to come, making it more like the rest of the developed world – a place avoided by those who seek out nature’s quiet beauty and wonder.

Monday 23 February 2015


During the years after the era in which Modernism was discredited, various theories of place - ‘place not space’(Aldo van Eyck in Team 10 Primer) - identified the street as having an importance that required recognition in design, in architecture, in urban planning and in town planning. The ‘feeling in the air’ pervaded all areas involved in design and planning. Publications across all these fields reflected a core concern with the street as public place. The concept of these areas as being ‘a location for community’ and ‘defensible space’ were two of the catchcries of this period. Various matters relating to the street, from its general appearance, scale and character, to personal security were all highlighted as something to be carefully considered in all design. Context gained a new significance in Regionalism that mocked the arrogant, careless but stylish individuality of Modernism. It was argued that the street must be respected as a place in its own right rather than merely being some functional driveway or a useful interconnection.

These theories, that have the sense of a fashion in thought with their rise into popularity and equally dramatic fall from grace - or was it merely the neglect of distraction? - led to other specific considerations in design that went right down to the detail with questions that asked whether places should have fences or balustrades, and what style and materials might be best used for these enclosures. Thinking on this scale of community/personal interaction in any design appears to have been passed over for other matters that have their roots in the more intimate considerations of technological possibilities and designers’ egos that attend to larger scale identities of form. But did the theory on the street hold any substance other than some interesting concerns that concentrated research and academic debate for a couple of years? Was it merely a fad?

When working on a small public housing project some years ago, the client’s urban planner adviser insisted on the detailing of the front courtyard walls and the balustrades being changed. Both had been made solid to screen private spaces: the front walls were constructed from concrete block; the balustrades were built from insitu concrete. Being located on a very narrow, densely developed old street, the idea for this small, multi-storied block was to provide some privacy for each one-bedroom unit both at ground level and above. One too often sees the ad hoc, shantytown attempts at creating some seclusion where glass balustrades and open fencing have been used in a design that opens up the private living areas and balcony spaces for all to see. Public supervision of intimate lives is never popular unless it is a television show.

The edict came: these elements had to be changed to provide some relationship to the street. This was the current theory. The argument for simple, personal privacy for each unit was put, but was pushed aside as being irrelevant. The current theory demanded that ‘the street’ be addressed. So holes were opened up in the block walls, and the concrete balustrades were replaced with steel frames fabricated from angles in order to give some visual screening for passersby and occupants. This solution was accepted by the urban planner who gave no thought to how anyone might choose to live simply and comfortably in these tiny spaces.

On another project many years ago, I had been asked to design a new enclosure for a large educational site in order to define its limits, its identity, in the midst of various sundry commercial developments, and to provide some security for the whole precinct. The brief was that the site had to be able to be locked up after hours. So an enclosure was themed and detailed to relate to each portion of the precinct. New bold directional graphics were designed to mark the entrances. Some years later, the urban planner, (the same one), criticised this enclosure, arguing that it separated the site from the public. Indeed, this was exactly the brief; but theories had changed. Educational sites were now seen as open, ‘friendly’ community places that encouraged folk to enter, to participate. They were now considered a part of the civic space of a city. The urban planner could not understand the original brief and merely noted the project as a misguided example of architectural design, a failure in planning.

Some years later the fence and its graphics were all removed. The site now stands as an amorphous development in amongst the commercial blurb of this area without any clarity of location or entrance. One has to guess the limits of the precinct and the ways into the smart new buildings that stand in open grassland space, areas that were once intimate enclosed open community areas surrounded by the lower, older buildings. The change in planning philosophies came with a change in the concept of making places for people. The greater importance was now centred on establishing a place, a foreground for looking at MY slick buildings rather than in the provision of a pleasant, open recreational area for students.

What role might the street play today? Have ideas about this space become just parts of an old theory that has been surpassed by more advanced critical thinking? Or have fashions changed? How is the street viewed today? The arguments for the importance of context in Regionalsim still linger, and are used when one is seeking an excuse to achieve something quaint and different; but it holds little significance as a driving force in any field. The street is the last thing anyone appears to be concerned about. Even town planners seem happy to look at the broad issues of a project and listen to the arguments of others seeking certain outcomes for their development, with a favourable and adaptable attitude. The street is whatever it becomes. It is the leftover space for others to look after. Project budgets, it seems, are best spent on buildings, not streets. So does anyone design the street as a place for people? It appears not, because traffic engineers design thoroughfares for vehicles to their road standards and in strict accordance with their manuals of typical details irrespective of location. Pedestrians are objectified as numbers of ‘peds’ rather than thinking, feeling individuals. Between the designs for buildings and the prescribed designs for the thoroughfares, people get what’s left. Generally this is the meagre concrete footpath cluttered with signs, trash and poles propping wires and poor lighting.

Is the street really that important? Surely our era must have understood that it had moved on from the ‘old’ thinking into something more critical and significant; more inclusive? Or has it just moved on thoughtlessly? Surely not! The street is an interesting concept. We all like to believe that we are dwelling on earth in a certain country and in a particular city, town or village, in a small, private portion of this settlement. We hold nationality with some degree of pride. We are frequently said to ‘love our country.’ A whole range of clichés has arisen to include our experience of a homeland in our literature and stories. We go to war for our country. But how do we relate to our place of birth or adoption? How do we dwell in place; move about it? What is our home, our homeland? What is this experience?

A location and an intimacy can be envisaged and recollected in complete detail as a home, when it is the place that one lives in. Beyond that we appear to project our experience of ‘home’ onto all other place and places that grow to include the whole country – our ‘home’ land. But how can I experience this land and landscape? Am I really free to be able to ‘dwell’ in it as the nationalistic songs suggest? I own or rent personal space in a country and am free within the rules of a country to do what I like whenever, however in this location. When I open my front door, I step out over a threshold or onto a front path into the street. From this street I am free, within the rules of general access and behaviour, to move along any other dedicated, connected street, lane, public path or track to go wherever these paths might lead. I learn these routes and discover others from time to time, but I am limited to the ‘street.’ Here I am using ‘the street’ as the general term to reference all public ways. If I choose to drive, I can do likewise: I get into my car and drive along the roads designated for vehicular traffic. I am free, within the rules of the road, to go wherever these connected driveways can take me. So it is that satellite navigation systems are able to plan trips for me by plotting particular routes out of a nationwide network of possibilities. It becomes a mathematical problem with clearly defined solutions. This is where I can go – anywhere on the system of roads of varying scales. I have no rights to access 'private roads.'

But where does one go, whether one be on a street either walking or driving, or indeed on public transport? One is always locked into the system of paths. The choices to go off these are extremely limited. Our country, our homeland, our much-loved place for dwelling, is merely a network of access. Beyond that one is not free to go anywhere other than onto places designated as being for public access, with specific rules for this access; places that exist to do business or commerce with the public and encourage the public to browse, beg or borrow; and places that one can enter by paying, by special agreement, or by invitation. Otherwise one is limited by rules of privacy and trespass to the street marked by defined boundaries. Our sense of open freedom is a fantasy; a hopeful vision that we have been sold. Our mobility and access are extremely limited. The street is all we have – its access and its appearance. We know place by streets: see –  Our country is a street. Our landscape is available to us only from the street as it passes through; our cities are as seen from streets, experienced as streets. We have street vision only.

When exploring the Mappy site seeking directions in Europe, I decided to test it by asking for directions from one place in the south of a remote island to a location in the north of this same small island that measures about six by twelve miles. The response came back quickly and clearly: ‘Same road.’ On a larger scale we can say that any country is one street; well, one network of streets: the same road everywhere. We do have choices in our movements around the country, but these are limited to ‘the street,’ whether we are walking, driving or enjoying public transport, be this within the city or between them. It is really not an open choice, just options within the confines of a system, like parlour games are. Ours is a linear living with rules, like Snakes and Ladders, that not only keep us on the narrow road, but also manage how we can move along these lines: ‘the streets.’ It is our egocentricity that allows us to indulge ourselves with perceptions of things being otherwise. We envisage a rich and varied experience by reaching out from these streets to include everything beyond the street as a part of ourselves: but we stay street-framed; street-limited. In the same way as we like to transpose feeling into the ‘character’ of, say, a door, as one of its inherent properties, instead of claiming any private, individual perception/reference to a particular individual’s experience of the door, we rationalise matters relating to place by transposing our general experience into a broad vision of being, a myth – that of being free, at home in our homeland, our country, where we locate meaning.

When thinking about streets and old theories on these thoroughfares, one comes to the understanding of a new importance of street as place in the experience of everywhere. If ‘streets,’ to use a generic name for paths, lanes, highways, etc., are all we have to experience the whole of a country, then we need to give them much more attention. They can be seen to be the threads of community as well as the screens for the experience of place – country, city, town, village and home. Our home and those other places that we are allowed to access are as aneurisms in a biological being – swellings that allow one to move off the narrow path into somewhere else and to pause. These all have a unique hierarchy with differences that change our perception of being and offer us the diversity that we consider to be ourselves: our experiences make us. Entering a courthouse is different to entering a cinema; entering a narrow lane is different to walking on a beach or in a park. The hub of existence is spun with threads that intermesh and connect, as beads, gems and knots on a string web that allows us to act; to achieve our ambitions; or just do nothing: to be. Streets are critical for our being. So how should we consider these places, this network?

The concern is that if streets are all we have, then we can be limited by them and their presence: their design. What is a street? This element can be seen in two ways: as a space designed for thoroughfare and as a precinct made by the structures around it. The coming together of these two aspects of its identity creates the tensions in how we think about streets. The traffic engineer has one view, but it is the passersby who take with them the immediacy of its appearance and character: it is the place I am in. Visit a new city, town or village and it is the street that remains the primary and singular image of place, how it is first sensed, experienced, assessed. We learn through streets. This is the street’s importance. Likewise, any countryside is seen from the street and is likewise recalled from this aspect. We are street people: we know street place. The street is a critical issue in any design; any plan; any understanding of possibility, for it is from the street that one knows everything. We are introduced to the world from streets. Home is a street.

So what is our responsibility for the street? It is indeed paramount. Every consideration given to any project needs to give thought to the street. Buildings make streets just as streets make buildings. If we continue to consider nothing but the our own design and its unique integrity to itself and its special expressive intention, then the street will become a concrete thoroughfare slicing through a series of ‘masterpieces’ each declaring its own identity in its own language, making private, but exclamatory claims for supremacy. This is today’s city, town and village. Once streets, whether by chance or thoughtful planning, were formed organically by the making of the road and the designing and placement of the buildings. The streets in the small town of Gulgong in New South Wales, Australia come to mind. These meander beautifully to an intersection that is defined by buildings that reach around corners with manners and respect for each other. Once beyond this old centre, the street disintegrates into an ill-defined, scattered strip that fades away to a speedy ribbon traversing the countryside.


Gulgong, New South Wales

If there is one issue that can be isolated, it is the lack of manners in today’s architecture, the lack of concern for any neighbour or user. Trystan Edwards wrote about architectural manners in Good and Bad Manners in Architecture, a book published by J. Tiranti, Ltd., London, in 1944. It is a publication that is now considered laughably quaint, irrelevant. Little does the profession realise how critical this notion is. How, like the issues raised Howard Robertson’s book, The Principles of Architectural Composition, published by The Architectural Press, London, in 1924, issues like proportion, scale, etc. are matters that remain important even though we consider the publication and its contents ‘just so-o-o-o old fashioned,’ merely out-of-date rubbish to be ignored. If we are to understand how streets need to be formed and how they can be rich and vital parts of our cities, towns and villages, then we need to swallow our arrogant pride and learn about these ‘old’ things. Then we might have an architecture, urban planning and town planning that are not at loggerheads, capable of co-operating to create a vibrant place that can live rather than remain a connecting no-man’s-land conduit full of pollution, smells and noise.

This is our challenge: to rediscover how to design streets when we design everything else; how to create public place organically, interactively, whether these places be highways - we must never forget the primacy of landscape in our work - streets, lanes, or paths. Then, with this more responsive and responsible approach to our environment, a less competitive situation where difference is not the defining ambition of everyone involved, (see - - that struggle to create a signature effort to win awards – we will hopefully also come to understand how we can bring the same approach to everything we do: where we care for all and everyone, and every detail, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, for this is how great streets are made. Streets are our home. We are all street people and need to remember this in everything we do. We specialise and centralise our expertise and forget the street at our own risk. We all need to become street designers. We should remember that streets are buildings; and buildings are streets. Selfies will always only remain selfies cluttered around a disregarded void, no matter how ‘new,’ smart or clever these indulgences might be. It is a situation that we can see everywhere we go today. We need better than this if we are to create enriching environments that we can truly love.

Christopher Alexander’s writings are interesting in this search for a broader responsibility and understanding in architecture and planning:
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford, 1977.
The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Center for Environmental Structure, 2003- 2004.


We are literally 'streets apart.'

23 December 2016

Patterns of public spaces, the streets of our cities and their waterways:
see -

see also:
New map reveals shattering effect of roads on nature -
25 January 2020
Listening to ABC Radio, RN, AM programme at 7:26am today, there was a report on one family’s inability to pay rent. In response to the landlord’s brutal threat to come over and throw everything out of the window if the rent was not paid, the occupant said with much despair: “Where can I go? On the street?”
There is only the street: we need to realise this. It needs much more of our attention and care. The street is not just a vehicular thoroughfare: it is our place in the world, the only public destination freely available to us.

The following report generated some challenging thoughts. It told of how Shakespeare was being translated into an Australian Aboriginal language in an effort to assist with the survival of the language, not Shakespeare. One wondered about this Englishness having any sense in a different context, especially one so specialised. It could only be hoped that Shakespeare’s humanity might translate into a shared understanding of being, if the richness of tongue did not. It is a humanity that the street needs.