Friday 30 October 2015


One had to go to Waterford, the legendary home of reputedly the world's best crystal glass. Such is its iconic standing, the name refers first to the crystalware rather than to the city in Ireland, the fifth most populous and the oldest. Driving into town was a simple pleasure: easy, straightforward, with no confusing detours, unexpected one-way streets or other unusual civic redirections. The place could be read as a typical waterfront settlement: water, wharf, street, shops, with the main street tucked in behind, and with housing beyond, just like Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. It was a simple, transparent pattern established by the ordinary growth of everyday, working riverside necessity over time. River trade starts and develops; warehouses are built; shops and traders move in to service the needs of the visitors; people gather nearby to share in the spoils or to get work, both the wealthy and those who act for them in a hierarchy of tasks. Time demands growth as business and trade increases, so a new layer of more sophisticated commerce is developed behind the ordinary working riverfront wharves, street, shops, warehouses and pubs. The High Street is formalised away from the 'industrial' waterside activity of the 'workers'; palaces and cathedrals get built too as wealth increases and classes divide more clearly: greater numbers of people are attracted to this hubbub of activity, so more housing is erected around the core of the new commercial and civic expansion. In this way Waterford has developed from a rudimentary settlement, to a town, to the small city we know today. It is a pattern seen repeated time and time again in waterfront trading locations across the world.


Old Lerwick town where the rule was that all buildings had to be end on to the harbour

Old Lerwick showing the harbour settlement and the fort

Lerwick today

The old wharf areas now service the High Street and provide a river promenade for the city

On the first sighting, Waterford presented as a colourfully patched cluster of buildings stretched along a river and dominated by the cathedral spire. We had guessed the layout to be typically traditional, though perhaps a little more complex than a smaller town might be. We drove across the bridge and turned left into the area that we thought might be close to the city centre, parked at the wharf, and walked. We could not have selected a better spot if we had known the place intimately and pre-planned our stopover. The pocket tourist map had been perused prior to arrival, but it had very little useful detail that could inform. The bold, schematic diagram of the city seemed to play a secondary role to the more important surplus of surrounding advertisements. Any specific, detailed locational information about a 'place of interest' related to the advertisements. The icon that had been noticed in the spaghetti maze of thick red lines that were illustrated wildly out of scale, as if to fill in the gaps and avoid any commitment to detail, was the zone named the 'Viking Triangle.' It seemed an interesting, certainly memorable notion that apparently identified an historic part of town shaped by the acute turn in the main road running through Waterford. The 'triangle' title resonated with the haunting mystery of places like the Bermuda triangle.

The Viking Triangle dominates the plan of the city

Triangles are important as symbols. Physically they are an inherently stable arrangement, like the tetrahedron, a solid with four isosceles triangle faces, and three-legged furniture. Why do cafes still use four-legged tables? Owners should all be told that if they insist on four feet, then only one has to be adjustable: three will always find stability. Triangles stand out in our rectilinear world. They are unique in their compactness, their completeness, and are eye-catching. Warning signs are triangular: the 'GIVE WAY' sign is shaped in this manner. The triangle was used successfully as the shape of the 'NO DAMS' graphic sticker in Tasmania years ago to protest against the damming of the Franklin River; and now it is being used again to try to stop the coal seam gas extraction on farm lands: 'LOCK THE GATE.' On the map, the patterns were such that one could instinctively sense the geographic location of the Waterford triangle in relation to the broader organisation of places in the city. The 'Viking Triangle' had been immediately noted, remembered as a positional reference in the east near the bend in the river. Its positioning was readily recalled: it is 'there,' in that direction – one knew and could nod or point to it. Once identified, the tower became the marker. It was a brilliant promotion, a natural anchor, a pivot point for Waterford that held inherent sense as well as an impressive marketing identity because the zone was indeed uniquely, natively triangular, specifically located as an arrowhead return in the main street layout; and the area did contain some of the oldest structures in town: the cathedral; the museum; the Bishops Palace; the tower that one soon learned was called Reginald's Tower, all in an area that was once enclosed by a 1000 year old Viking wall. Adjacent to this landmark shape on the map was a large white asterisk that identified the position of Waterford Crystal, statistically Ireland's most popular tourist destination: number '1' on the list of tourist attractions being promoted.

Waterford pivots on Reginald's Tower in the Viking Triangle

The busy waterfront street was crossed, and we headed for what we thought must be the main, the high street, up a lane typically at right angles to and rising from the water's edge. The use of the linear water frontage of the town, the old wharves, for parking worked nicely, as it distributed the density vehicles evenly along the accessible length of the commercial core of the town while still allowing easy pedestrian access for folk to enjoy the pleasant promenade along the River Suir. It seemed that the water had lost its transport and trade uses that must have been significant in other eras. Now it appeared to be a purely recreational part of the cityscape. Relics of heavy equipment from other times littered the car parking areas. On the other side of the road, the elevations of the waterfront shops and pubs were typical of the frontages of old town, traditional street design. The facades of the shopfronts were single-storied with the signs above aligning as a strip of panels forming the fascia of the street, capping the glass display windows. Usually there was a centre door recess with patterned patchwork tiling for each premises, unless the shop had been refurbished. The glazing of the shop frequently stood slightly proud of the main wall of the apartment dwellings or offices above. The display windows were topped by the signs that were completed with sculptured detailing to articulate edges, corners and ends. The arrangement was very satisfactory. It highlighted the street, shaped its presence, dressed it as it were: addressed it. The concept established the scale and identity of the street modestly, without any of the competitive fanfare one might see in newer business districts, a clutter best illustrated in the extreme by the street signs of Hong Kong.

We soon found ourselves in the busy commercial street that was lined both sides with more of the typical, coloured shop facades. It was not only the shop fronts that attracted, but their junctions, the zones between the shops. These ad hoc collisions of forms, alignments, services and colours caught the eye and urged the camera to frame them, to compose these random juxtapositions of colliding patterned pieces into images that incorporated a very pretty interplay of colours and graphics, all conforming to the strict formula of shopfront detailing requirements. There had to be rules to get such controlled co-operation. Good rules that are respected and can be enforced give good town planning outcomes like this, and create admirable places: see - The problem Australian cities have is that their town plans are left open to interpretation, haggling and deals that generate the unpredictability of chaos and disorder. One recent example on the Gold Coast in Queensland had the mayor announcing the approval of a 'supertower' without any Councillor knowing, not even the Chairman of the Planning Committee: see -


These shop frontages lined a stone street paved with neatly detailed flagstones and dressed stone spoon drains, and where necessary, clever concealed strip drains that collected water into grated gullies. It was a pleasure to see so much precise attention being given to the public pavement that, in Australia, certainly in Brisbane, is more usually black bitumen or cheap concrete pavers that heave and crack within a few years with heat and wear-and-tear, with no one caring at all for this crude civic mess that becomes a greater shambles with random repairs. Unfortunately, the concrete pavers have allowed town designers to 'creatively' use different colours. Alarmingly, this has resulted in a white dotted centre line on the footpath, making it a narrow mock street where passing 'peds' appear to be directed to keep left and right, as traffic flows are. Alternatively, some more 'enterprising' designers try dividing the footpath into panels using what are perceived to be clever, arty, repetitive, rectangular patterns with contrasting frames that bear no relationship at all to any other piece of street paraphernalia, furniture or facade detailing that is usually just as randomly ad hoc, and as carelessly self-interested as the footpath patterning itself. This is Australian town detailing as it really is, not as the city might like to promote it. There is little to be proud of. It is only occasionally that one can find a beautifully detailed public space; these are few, and far between: parts of Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart come to mind.

Pavement details

So Waterford was a revelation to admire. That so much effort, care, thought and money might go into detailing a pedestrian space is surprising to one used too cheap and lazy neglect, where 'near enough' is 'good enough'! Brisbane needs to do much better, but local Councils have Councillors who generally hold architects and designers in contempt, seeing them as a waste of time and money. Australia has many TV home renovation shows that 'prove' to everyone that the ordinary person can do anything better than a professional, so why bother with them? Brisbane does not even have a city architect. The State Government is little better. It has a government architect, but this role is more ceremonial and political than anything else. The position holds no power or authority to ensure quality outcomes on any level, not even by way of example. This is the Australian way: the anti-intellectual attitude that abhors everything that is good design, rooting its interests in beer and sport: the 'g'day mate' ethic; 'she'll be right.' After the recent NFL final, (rugby league football), nearly all of the evening news was football. The 'news' was endless replays and hagiographical interviews asking “How did it feel?” time and time again, with a doting reporter pleased with herself that she has been given the task of being close to the sweating, breathless body of her hero. This is our national broadcaster – the ABC!#

One likes to meander up a high street not to do any shopping, or browsing of shop contents, but just to stroll nonchalantly, “Doing Nothing,” as Christopher told Pooh Bear. (Pooh asked, “How do you do Nothing?” “ . . you go and do it,”+ was Christopher Robin's response.) It is the feeling of place that is best revealed here in the central strip of town where public activity is concentrated in the aggregation of commerce. This experience becomes the base reference for the understanding of a town or village, a city too, as one's explorations stretch out to the edges of the town centre, and further into the sprawling fringes of the town/city itself that deteriorate in quality, as all places seem to do today. Just why the planning rigour seen in the centre of town is not able to be implemented on its outskirts is an enigma. Is it because planners have no models for the future; no visions? - see:

Waterford's 'universal' shopping mall

We did need to shop at Waterford for a couple essentials: a new camera battery and a conversion plug for battery charging. Batteries usually fail at the most inconvenient of times, and the complications of plug conversions easily cause confusion - what goes where, how, when, into what, and in which order is easily muddled? So our wanderings were a matter of both shopping and looking, seeing, sensing and feeling. Camera shops appear to have disappeared these days when every mobile phone is also a camera that can match the performance of most quality single-purpose photographic devices, or so we are led to believe. Perhaps it is just convenience that makes them 'better'? After a search and some questions, with a few false leads, the items were found. We then detoured off through the typical shopping centre complex that bigger towns and cities think they need, back to the street. These 'malled' (mauled) spaces really are all the same, as the cliché goes. We walked out of the centre into the 'Viking Triangle,' to the cathedral, the museum, the Bishop's Palace and the tower. We knew we were there by remembering the diagram on the plan and its place in the town. The zone held a density of interesting buildings. We strolled into the museum, a new award-winning building, and browsed. It was too late in the day to spend time there, so we decided to return the next morning. We looked around the shop at the usual tourist kitsch and some nice local craft work.

Medieval Museum foyer/entrance

There was a glass worker at his workstation in the foyer, an engraver. His work was on exhibition, for sale. It looked as though he had set up for a temporary display. He said that he didn't mind folk looking as he carried on with his detailed work, so I watched, and asked. It was a delicate process that he said was based somewhat on guesswork. I had asked about this because I couldn't understand how his markings could be seen under the flush of opaque grinding fluid. One might better explain this as a feeling for line, texture and glass, as the exercise of skill, rather than anything randomly hopeful and ad hoc, such was his expertise and experience. As we walked out of the museum, we found ourselves following an old wall to new stairs that wrapped down and through an old arched opening in the stacked stones. The stairway, obviously only recently constructed, was nicely integrated into the old infrastructure, as Scarpa might have done it in his Castelvehiccio Museum with the precise articulation of separation. It was indeed admirable work: subtle, unpretentious, careful and modest, as well as being respectful and effectively efficient. It led us to a lower street level into another public place.

New museum stair in old wall

As the space in font if the Bishops Palace opened up, the slick presence of Waterford Crystal opposite became evident by way of stark contrast with the character of the 'Viking Triangle,' historic Waterford. A smart, glistening glass box building that was obviously the shop display, stood dominant beside a more modest adjacent enclosure - maybe the workshop? This was the core of Waterford the city, its international reputation, indeed, its name. Of course, the building had to be glass. We would go there tomorrow if we had time. Meanwhile, we needed to get accommodation for the night. We thought of walking to a hotel, but tired bodies and aching legs and the uncertainty of scaled distance prevailed. Our map was more a rough sketch than anything else: could it be relied upon? We returned to the car and drove, hoping that our feeling for place would reveal a hotel; but no. We turned into what was found to be a dead end street, so we paused, then parked. The nearby corner hotel was chosen to ask about accommodation. “No, we have none. There is a big hotel in town.” “Thanks” - but no thanks. We had seen this hotel on our journey to this lane. It was very classy, posh and pretentious, complete with a red carpet. It was not for us. We walked off away from the hotel, only to be surprised by the barman who intercepted us as we passed the secondary service door. He had forgotten that there was a hotel just up the road. “Thanks.” We knew immediately on entering this corner pub that it had no accommodation. Externally it appeared to be a two storey building, and it was; but the space around the central island bar was double-height with a surrounding mezzanine floor detailed as an open gallery. There were no upper rooms. It was an impressive interior, a grand relic of another era when such gestures were never seen as 'just a waste of space and money' as they are today.

The Three Shippes Inn with double height bar space

Only one hundred metres away was the hotel that we were seeking. We booked in, and returned to the corner pub for a “Thank you” Guinness. The next morning we rose early, had breakfast, checked out and drove into an empty Waterford Saturday morning. The streets were bare. It seemed nothing opened until 10am, not even the museum. As we strolled away from the 'CLOSED' sign, we noticed that the Waterford Crystal centre was opened. We sauntered across the vacant road, entered, and, as we approached the counter, were asked if we might be interested in a tour of the workshop - to leave in ten minutes. “OK. Why not?” We had time.

We browsed the smart, glistening display of crystal as we meandered around in the glare of slick, sharp, silver light sparkling against matt black backgrounds. The place seemed to be in need of somebody skilled in design, as kitsch piece after kitsch piece of crystal was passed with an awkward cringe. Why did people make such gawky, weird things? Sadly they must sell. Soon the announcement was made - the tour was ready to go: we had to return to the desk. Having prepared ourselves for the typical bus-load-of-tourists crowd, we were surprised when no one arrived apart from the tour guide: we were the only ones on this tour. Ah, it was good to be free of the stress of clichè performances and questions. On tours like this there always seems to be one loud mouth, one know-all, and one fool who asks the question that has just been answered. We were to be free of this effort to be polite, tolerant. The guide introduced himself, Fergus, and likewise seemed pleased with his more personal task. He chatted on with his standard introduction, its less formal form, adding stories and happily responding to questions that interrupted his flow. I asked if any crystal was made in Ireland as I had read that Waterford had closed down its production in Ireland in 2013 He said that most of the crystal was now made in eastern Europe, with about 35 percent being made here. He said that he was once a glass cutter, one of over three thousand workers at Waterford Crystal who lost their jobs. His seemed a sad task: the once proud, skilled cutter was now the tour guide. We moved off from the transparent, architectural display box building and entered a dim glazed octagonal space that was immediately transformed from a rather grim dark void with the sudden startling appearance of bright, flashing lights and a few large images of cut crystal glass all accompanied with loud noises, that could at best be called 'fanfare' music. It all looked strangely over-dramatic, but meaningless. What was it supposed go be? Was it a 'teaser'? After a few minutes of exposure to the hype of this fireworks-like display, the guide materialised from a secret glass panel, as if from Aladdin’s lamp, and we moved into the factory. It seemed as though we had been successfully indoctrinated.

The factory appeared more like a performance museum than a factory. It was a defined linear walkway that passed the mould making area – tiny; the glass blowers – three; the finishers – one; the cutters – six; the specialist designer – one; the apprentice - one lady; and the workstation of a fine decorator, detailer – one, not there today. This was the production line of Waterford in Ireland making 50,000 pieces a year? It seemed that all of the pieces lying around looking like work in progress were permanent exhibits that just stayed there for decorative tourism purposes. Cynically, one guessed that the cutters only performed when a group was arriving, and passing by, as they were all seen stopping work as we left the work area. It was sad to think that three thousand had become twenty. This was nothing like a production line that could produce tens of thousands of pieces of specialist crystal. The lady at the entrance desk said that 50,000 pieces were made in Ireland; Fergus had said 35% of all Waterford pieces. Mmm: at 300 work days a year, (we were there on a Saturday), that is about 165 pieces produced every day, complete: that is, with an eight hour day, about 20 pieces an hour have to be finished, every hour of every day; that is about three minutes a piece. The quantities of crystal said to be made at Waterford sounded highly unlikely. The blowers might be able to make a piece very three minutes, but the marking and cutting and finishing all have to work with a concurrent three minute schedule for every piece in order to achieve the 50,000 per annum: yes, extremely improbable.

Digital drawing of crystalware

Pens mark pattern set out for cutting

Still, in spite of the charade, it was interesting to see the process, the workers, the remnants of the specialist skills that created the name 'Waterford' as the word for quality crystal; some workers have been there for over forty years. It was impressive to see the tasks being performed, and to have had the whole process explained personally by one who was once an intimate part of the production line. Along the way on the stroll through the factory, the guide paused to show us the drawings that were prepared for the planned pieces of crystal, complete with the patterns; and he explained the system for the marking out of the patterns to be cut on the blown blanks. What looked intuitive was not. CAD drawings defined each piece and every mark precisely. The drawings had every dimension for the markers identified in a library of reverence books that itemised the exact specifications, right down to the thicknesses of the glass. Apparently the cutters relied on the skill of the glass blowers to provide the specified requirements. We were shown these documents. It was extremely interesting, but somewhat concerning. Once defined in CAD, any work could be completed by a robot. Indeed, one robot was on display cutting a large vase. There must be more. This factory was merely a museum piece, an anachronism, a relic of the past times when manual labour and trained specialists produced everything crystal in Waterford. Those were the days! Did the Waterford Council pay to keep this pantomime going in order to perpetuate the Waterford Crystal name? It seemed likely, as Waterford Crystal topped every tourist guide in Ireland. Could Waterford afford to lose this connection when it really had? What might Waterford become without the crystal?

It was wonderful to have the process revealed, even if only schematically, diagrammatically. There was real skill here, best revealed in the one-off design trophies. Those decorative presentation pieces designed specifically for: cricket - the Ashes; the Pope; Obama; golf; tennis; etc., were all on display. Here, in these pieces, astonishing lettering and other engraving bewildered the eye. This work was difficult enough to achieve with a pen on paper, let alone an engraver working on crystal glass. It looked like a stencil etching; we were assured that it was not. This skilled worker was once just one of thousands of artisans; but where were the others now, other than Fergus? What skills have been lost? The guide opened a door. Surprisingly, the exit from the 'factory' space led us back directly into the gleam of the displays of the brightly lit shop, as all tours, museums and art galleries do these days. Fergus walked across to a cupboard in the display area, opened it surreptitiously - he was not supposed to get involved in sales - and revealed the packaging of the pieces. 'Made in Slovenia' – frequent; 'Made in Germany' - less frequent; 'Made in Ireland' – very, very infrequent.

Waterford - Made in Poland

Waterford - Made in Ireland

Waterford - Made in ?

3,000 workers lost their jobs

So here we had the history of skilled production being promoted as apparently being 'Made in Waterford, Ireland' when the products were mostly being made somewhere else. We were told that only one particular small array of shelves in the large showroom had products that were made in Ireland at Waterford. This was not made clear to the buyers. It was all almost a hoax; tricky at the very least: a pretence. The guide told us that the same group of private equity bankers had also purchased the famed Stuart and Edinburgh Crystal factories and had closed them down, intent only on using their names as 'quality' brands, just as they have done with Waterford: but here at Waterford they maintained a brazen and somewhat misleading guise with a make-believe re-enactment of the old factory process for tourism purposes.

Shetland Reel Gin 'produced by Saxa Vord Distillery Unst, Shetland' ##

It is a fakery that the modern era seems happy to indulge in without comment or complaint. Food, clothing, whiskey, gin,## even Shetland wool knits are all made elsewhere, but are promoted as quality 'original' items branded with the 'name' to attract an admirable price and profit. Who cares about provenance? Is it like a Gehry piece where it seems that only appearance is significant, nothing else? Our architecture seems to have adjusted to this lack of coherence and integrity too. It doesn't matter what is built with what, where, for what function, only the appearance is important. Nothing to do with history, context, craft, or rigour appears to be significant.

'Waterford crystal': 'House of Waterford' but no mention of actual place of manufacture

The Waterford experience highlights the 'faux' quality of things. Little wonder that the industry of openly selling fakes is booming because, ironically, these declared tricksters are possibly more moral than the so-called expensively branded 'originals' that really are something else - pretend originals. What might the Waterford bankers do with the 'Wedgewood' brand they had purchased? Did all of this renaming pretence start with the sale of Singer, a step that used the iconic quality brand, that once prided itself on marking every piece and part SIMANCO, on just about everything and anything cheap and plastic made anywhere? The only concern was the marketing image, not the quality or provenance.

One has to ask: would anyone making fakes, e.g. something as complex as pretend, quality designer watches, maybe a Patek Philippe or a Hermes, really set up a factory just for this specific reproduction among the many others available, just to make a ninety dollar tome that mimics the 5000 dollar 'original'? The proposition is that the fakes are really made in the same factory as the originals; e.g. maybe Hermes handbags, sunglasses, and watches, apparently the most popular fancy fakes, all come from the same place as the 'originals'? The world is cynical enough to do this in order to capture every aspect of the market, as profit is everything. Indeed, why not make the 'fakes' when the 'original' is faked too? Are we in an era of 'faked' fakes and 'original' fakes? Everything, it seems, is not as it appears to be, just because bankers want to maximise profits. Only appearance is critical, never any depth, or substance, or coherence: merely flighty representations, glimpses of a pretence, are the only critical thing, in much the same manner as it is more important to have a 'Gehry' or an 'Hadid'-branded building than any basic, caring, contextual structure. 'I am only what I appear too be' is apparently all that matters. Whether I am true to myself in what I pretend to be, seems to matter not al all. This is the brave new world of 'let's pretend.'

We walked out of the Waterford building quite pleased that we had visited, but somewhat depressed about the marketing strategy that appeared to sum up the state of affairs of this world. The museum was open now, so we returned. A tour was starting; we agreed to join it. This time we were not so lucky. There were six others wanting the tour as well; yes, the cliché group members were all there. The guide was a chirpy performer who loved the drama of his own presentation that hyped history into new extremes of dramatic events and significance, all to highlight Waterford and its grand past. He tried to re-enact, to re-invigorate the 'excitement' of those times. The building itself was interesting. Rather cleverly, it was constructed over a medieval basement: a dining room and a wine cellar. It was from here that the old wall extended out into the forecourt. Moving from the basement up through the building, one could see the careful detailing and the beautiful insitu concrete work. It was indeed splendid, of an extremely high standard of care and detail. The plan was simple, but the experience of space complex. The exhibits were well presented and interesting. It was all about Waterford in the medieval times. The surprise was that wine held such an important role in the intriguing peer games of the times. Wine was imported from France and Spain. Rights to import established rights to tax, and shrewdly, to take tax as wine, to use personally and to sell. It was a well-managed trade. The building deserved its award.

Back in the foyer after the tour, the glass engraver was still working on the piece he had shown me yesterday. Overnight I had read that the museum foyer was his studio, an odd location for work that required such concentration. Did he want to stay close to his previous place of employment, Waterford Crystal? I mentioned too him that Fergus, the tour guide, had said that he had worked on his line, and that Fergus had commented on his unique talents and craft. Sadly the engraver looked up and asked, “Did he show you my piece?" “Yes, he did.” He added that it was the best work that he had done, a complex engraving of figures that was subtle and skilfully dramatic. He smiled proudly, adding, "There used to be 3200 workers at Waterford Crystal; over 3000 skilled in the production of the world's best crystal were sacked” - all in the cause of pure profit. 'For what might it profit a man' came to mind. After commenting on how terrible this action had been, I left the engraver to continue his work. One could only admire the way he was able to concentrate on such fine, demanding work in a public place while constantly being annoyed, disrupted and distracted by inquisitive tourists like me. It was the traditional craftsman who described his method of work as: “Having concentrated, I set to work.” How could this craftsman concentrate here?

Bishop's Palace

Crustal table setting, Bishop's Palace
There are no markings on these old pieces

On leaving the building, the fine curves of the sandstone facade were admired as we moved off to the Bishops Palace. This historic residence was a stunning home full of amazing things; but how did the rest of the population live? One pondered the possibility of there being hovels surrounding this indulgence of a life that soaked up the wine under the pretence that all the local waters were polluted. What an excuse to drink wine! Did those in the hovels drink the water? Who cared? When the Tibetan monks fled Tibet in the 1950s, they had to drink beer in one Indian village because the local water was polluted. The senior monk was keen to keep the group moving in case the monks developed a taste for beer. There seemed to be no problem with the taste for wine in Waterford.

We had to leave Waterford if we were to get back to Dublin on time in a few days' time, and before we again only travelled a few kilometres in the day. Distance is no marker of progress or of interest, but we had to reach Cork that afternoon to be back on schedule.

Blarney village

Well, the name is romantically attractive: Cork, a real Corker! - but it turned out to be a very unattractive place, suffering all of the shambles that large cities seem to generate - busy streets; confusing one-way systems; no parking anywhere; no hotel rooms available anywhere. This must have been 'mad Saturday' with everyone arriving at the busy bus station for the bucks booze-ups and hens parties that seem to demand the delights of big cities to indulge this stupidity. So without wasting more time persevering with the city late on this hectic Saturday afternoon, we drove out to Blarney, to a surplus of accommodation, and enjoyed an evening in the pleasant hubbub of the small country pub. Cork would be forgotten: big cities are just big places with familiar faces. They rely on their own propaganda for their smart promotion. They are fakes just like the crystal; the world is full of them. It is in the big cities and at airports' no-man's-land zones that the big brands can best perform their tricks, their illusions of grandeur and purpose, because these are matched by cities themselves – and airports too. Little wonder that the city is the host of bucks booze-ups and hens parties. It is in the smaller things and places that life is more honest and direct, not a charade. We need to learn this in architecture: if we get the little, subtle things right, then the larger things might hold greater depth and significance by concentrating on people and provenance. We are at the risk of ignoring the importance of the ordinary, everyday simple things and the qualities they stand for.

Blarney green

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Gehry has almost acknowledged this neglect with his reported comment on the leaks at the Walt Disney Concert Hall: “You expect this in a complex building.” The unique appearance is the critical thing in this 'art'. Well, try telling that to an astronaut living in the space capsule, or a submariner in a 'complex' submarine. Architects need much more rigour. The dismissive arrogance is astonishing, but we sit back and cower at the power of statements like this without any bleating or crying out, crying or cringing while the genius smirks and the media reports support the smugness uncritically.* In the same manner, the Waterford bankers are allowed to fudge their way to profit without one complaint or any criticism from anyone in the media about the origin of the pieces marked 'Waterford.' The specific, clear declaration on each piece of crystal is 'Waterford', the brand, not where it is made; yet the distinction is never made clear unless one studies the packaging. It is interesting to note that the early pieces of crystal were never marked 'Waterford.' 'Fake is great' appears to be the catchphrase of this era that appears to only see clever business skills in such conniving. It seems that the declaration of origin on a 'Waterford' item is kept only for the disposable box. This is so apparently because the USA, and perhaps others too, demand such identification somewhere. It could be possible that the bankers might choose to have no such declaration anywhere other than the ambiguous 'Waterford' if they could get away with it. 'Getting away with as much as possible' seems to be the strategy of all businesses today.

Make a fake; make it look good; brand it; sell it as an 'original': make a fake a fake; sell it as a fake: make architecture as unique and as special as possible so that everyone will want it; brand it, promote it, just like a fake handbag or watch – for its looks. One does indeed get a, e.g., 'Gehry' provenance, but it is work concerned with appearance alone, little more, just like the crystal marked 'Waterford' made elsewhere, anywhere, and presented in a way that makes it appear to have Waterford quality. Video footage of Mr. Gehry working in his office with his staff shows him assessing model variations by their appearance; how he might like to see things happen. Forms are shaped by the eye, rarely by functions or necessity: indeed, the necessity, it seems, is to make something different, almost irrespective of what it is being formed for. Gehry has designed a bag for Louis Vuitton, a “Twisted Box.” Of course it has to be distorted to be Gehry-different! Has this been faked yet? Who makes the fakes? Does it matter?

The question is: what is a life lived as fakes, as the 'Let's pretend' world of promoted appearances that disguise provenance and purpose? What is art lived as as a fake, self-interested, Gehry-like; concerned only with the way things are seen and their stark differences to attract, to alienate and demarcate with claims of genius in the way Waterford hopes to differentiate its piece from all others, even if the others are from the same source? Gehry feels free to criticise most other works of architecture as 'rubbish' because they are not like his.* Does he realise this may be a matter of money, available budgets, as well as intent – to hype ME, to brand smartly? What is art lived as an enrichment, as truth? Will we ever know when 'even the facts don't tell the truth' (Paul Auster)? But why go for fakes and pretence when life can be enhanced with other intrigues, holding richer depth rather than the skin of pretend appearances for their own sake; with art/architecture seeking integrity, coherence, with a subtle supporting fabric of expression that can take steps towards aiding understanding, an understanding of those perplexing complex questions of existence, probing them: what is man; what is life; what is feeling? why? how? - all in a supportive resonance of meaning?

The search can still take itself seriously while always realising that an answer is no answer: 'If you find the Buddha on the way, kill him.' If art is not prepared to participate in life in a manner different to the pretend world of how things might be preferred to appear, to look in a particular manner for a particular, personal or profitable reason, what is it for - merely entertainment, pretty display; merely an economic interest: merely for 'MY' expression irrespective of anyone else: irrelevant? Is this art. Tradition says 'No.' We need an art that can ennoble; and an architecture too. We need an enriching art that can uplift the spirit, confirm it, rather than opening up the possibility of what one might have committed to being revealed as a fraud. We do need to know the provenance, the integrity of our architecture, to be able to trust it if it is to hold meaning beyond appearances in any depth. Provenance can have personal implications too. What must I do? Responsibility is involved – the ability to respond; the ability to care about the wholeness of place, space, form and detail in its making for people. Branding for business and promotional purposes has no role here. It should have no role in the world of crystal either unless we are happy to exist in the ambivalent, theatrical world of the trickster, never knowing what is what, or ever caring about the vacancy of life in the game of mere appearances.

#”How does it feel?” seems to be the classic ABC question both on TV and radio. Fran Kelly, the host on RN, The Breakfast Show, 19th October 2015 at 7:15am^ asked the question again in another context. When will we start getting more rigorous journalism instead of this trite, cliché nonsense?

^On time: 7:15am was Brisbane time – this was radio on the Internet. The ABC refuses to organise its time calls for anything but its own time zone in Sydney. The other day, in one breath, we got: “This ABC RN across Australia it is 7:30.” No, it might be in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Hobart; but in Adelaide it was 7:00am; in Darwin it was 6:00am; in Brisbane it was 6:30am; and in Perth it was 4:30am! The ABC just does not care! Complain and you will be sent the publications for you to research ABC policies so that you can identify the details of the complaint and correctly reference these, and lodge a 'proper' complaint! Little wonder that many criticize the bold critic of many others that spruiks certain judgement in: Media Watch; The Checkout; and Factcheck. People in glass houses . . . as the saying goes.

“What I like doing best is Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it's when people call out to you just as you're going off to do it, 'What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?' and you say, 'Oh, Nothing,' and then you go and do it.
It means just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering.”
“Oh!” said Pooh.

Shetland Reel whiskey is marked as being 'bottled' on the island of Unst; Shetland Reel gin is said to be 'produced'on the same island in the old RAF base stores building: but I have never seen any sign of a still in the place that it is said to be; neither have I seen any actions suggesting such activity; or indeed, any activity that might suggest bottling of any whiskey. Some suggest a miniature still is used; others a mobile one; few challenge the marketing mystery. Still, it is a mystery. One rarely sees any vehicles around the stores building until it is opened for the recycling day that the church runs. The whiskey is said to be imported from what turns out to be a failed old distillery in Portsoy, Scotland that has been more closed than open over the last 100 years; but this does not change the promotion of its vintage and heritage as though it was a grand past. The distillery has been purchased by some entrepreneurs who are again promoting it and selling off old stock. It is this whiskey that seems to be that which is being bottled, branded and sold as Shetland Reel – suggestive of being real Shetland whiskey. Most know otherwise, but most still play the 'let's pretend game.' It is just like Waterford Crystal. The less said, the better – or so it seems.


Frank Gehry made a rude gesture recently . . . He then ranted:
Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 per cent of everything that is built and designed today is pure sh*t. There's no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that's it. Once in a while, however, there's a small group of people who does something special. Very few. But good god, leave us alone!

Form; function?


31 OCTOBER 2015

Gehry's Art Gallery of Ontario gives a new meaning to 'Waterford' 


What if people could be persuaded to be less impressed by underlying realities and start instead to think what brand names might suggest? That would give one scope for the brand to conjure up all sorts of imaginary associations. Then we would start paying much more attention to these ephemeral but attractive associations than to dreary old reality.

Before long we would concentrate solely on appearances and forget all about realities. Eventually we might even come to believe that appearance was reality. Then brand would have ceased to be the dull slave of reality, authenticating that something was really what it seemed to be, and would have become the gadfly king of virtual reality, joking that anything could be anything, really.

Branding is now the art of getting people to think what something might be rather than what it necessarily is. It's about the manipulation of the virtual reality in which so many live. The manipulators include anyone with an interest in what we might think of them - not just big companies with products to sell but political parties with votes to win, design gurus with clients to attract - anyone, in other words, acting in some kind of market. They all have an interest in controlling their appearance to make us believe it is the reality.

John Humphrys Beyond Words  How Language Reveals The Way We Live Now Hodder and Stoughton. Great Britain 2006, p. 86-87

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