Monday, 26 October 2015


Ferry on Bluemull Sound

Shetland Islands were once linked by small ferries with bus connections

Ferries link the main cluster of islands that form the core of the hundred or so that make up the set that we know as the Shetland Islands. This cluster of islands is located north of Scotland, geographically above the islands of Orkney. The Shetland Islands are scattered from Foula to the west; the Out Skerries to the east; Fair Isle to the south; and Unst to the north. The cliché is that Shetland has 'the most northerly island' in Britain, Unst, with the 'most northerly' of everything else too. Unlike its near neighbour, Norway on the east, and the more distant Faroe Islands, the first stop west of Shetland, there are no tunnels in Shetland: they have been thought about. A few minor bridges link land masses, and a some natural land bridges too, tombolos, those narrow strips of land that stretch so tenuously between arcs that divide the waters, like the tensed neck of a balloon.

Tombolo at St Ninian's Isle, Shetland
The treasure was found at the chapel site on the right of the photo near the coast

Boats have always been used for inter-island journeys. Years ago, in the 1960's and before, the ferries were more like the flit boats that for years serviced the islands, carrying everything required from the larger vessels anchored off the coast to land, including animals, vehicles, and general and sundry boxes, barrels and bags. On these older ferries, one could sit along the side of the half-cabin boat close to the water and, on a fine day, enjoy the bright sky, the light breeze, the birds, the seals and the distant vistas. These vessels were replaced by small, basic steel-fabricated vehicular RoRo ferries in November 1973: roll on, roll off. Today these small ferries are slowly being replaced by ever-larger RoRo ships. These bigger vessels are made of steel too, with a opening bows to allow easy access for all vehicles, buses, trucks, cranes, cars, vans, trailers - everything than needs to cross between the islands. One does not even have to leave the vehicle. Not only are the newer ferries significantly larger than the first car ferries, but they have also been designed symmetrically, opening up identically at each end around a central bridge that likewise addresses each alternate direction, a mirroring that overcomes the requirement for any physical turning and awkward reversing. The smaller RoRo boats had a bow and a folding ramp 'tray' at the stern.

Smaller RoRo ferry

One is reminded of the story in Two Hundred Years of Farming in Sutherland The Story of my Family by Reay D. G. Clarke, published by the Islands Book Trust, Isle of Lewis in 2014.+ This extraordinary story of a remarkable farming dynasty – it is a genealogy, a history, and a family narrative - tells of the life on Eriboll, a 35000 acre property in northeast Sutherland, that carried over 5000 sheep and other animals. On page 77 it is told how, under the new ownership of the Marquis of Stafford, 'At the Hope River, a chain ferry was installed with a sloping ramp on each bank whereby horses and carriage could be driven on board, carried over the river and discharged on the far side, all without unyoking the horses.' Along with road improvements, this meant that 'A carriage could then be driven, without the passengers ever disembarking, from the Kyle of Tongue to the Kyle of Durness.'

The largest RoRo ferry working in Yell Sound

The largest RoRo arriving at Toft, Mainland

This is exactly what the RoRo ferries allow today. One can travel from Skaw to Sumburgh, from the very top of Shetland to the bottom of Mainland, without having to get out of the car. The RoRo ferries offer a seamless journey in Shetland, if one chooses to indulge in this easy comfort. While getting out of the car when on the ferries might have its discomforts, with the wind, rain, sleet, snow, gales and rough seas that this region experiences, there are many delights to be enjoyed. As throughout all of Shetland, the varying vistas astonish: the land, sea and sky intertwine in a land/seascape wonder enmeshed in light and shadow. One should add for the record that this is the 'pre-turbine' experience of Shetland that might soon be changed. The promise of fortunes from energy companies seems to make these monsters agreeable to some, in spite of the impact on the landscape. Shetlanders have become too used to the easy life of 'oil' handouts and generous grants to become critical of 'progress' if it means savings and/or an income. It will be a sad day if the wind turbines are constructed as has been planned and approved: see - Today these mysteriously naked, layered distances that glow and sparkle in the soft haze can be truly loved as they are enhanced by the play of soft light and velvet shade over land, water, and sky to transform them into a sequence of ever-changing, surprising astonishments. Shetland is truly a place to be enjoyed; it amazes. As has been said of traditional art, (by Martin Lings), these vistas cannot be admired enough, such is their wonder: 'one cannot marvel enough.' It is a photographer's dream.

Closer by, there is more to entrance. When out of the car on the ferry's deck, the marvellous details of the shipbuilders who invent and make everything needed out of their favourite material, steel, assemble as an array of surprise and intrigue, everywhere. Steel can be cut, shaped and welded to make anything and everything that is needed on the ferry that becomes a host of wonderful inventions. Whatever the shape, it is possible; any function can be accommodated. The mind of the designer's thinking eye can be seen everywhere, and can be appreciated. One can see how these forms and this intelligent reasoning changed architecture; how they inspired architects like le Corbusier. Corbusier wrote about these things in his seminal Towards a New Architecture. His 'hand' can be seen everywhere, his inspiration. There is a beautiful logic here, a remarkable rigour. A vent is needed; it is made. The heavy seas need to be kept out:;a flap is made. The opening has to be sealed; a seal is incorporated. The flap has to be fixed open; a device is detailed and made. It has to be fixed shut; the device is adapted. The detailing and design are a tour-de-force of itemised, rational clarity responding to necessity with an unpretentious, efficient rigour. Balustrades are needed; they are made. The balustrade needs to return, to terminate; it is done. A ladder is needed, but it must not protrude; a recessed ladder is invented – done.

One could go on and on. The issues are all addressed with a remarkably lucid reasoning, all without any preconception. The pieces create their own aesthetic that could be called 'elemental' design, because each element attends to its own particular concerns, nothing else. The whole becomes a complex conglomerate of the boilermakers' careful practical steel solutions: door hinges, locks, riser vents too, for water and fuel tanks, lower accommodation spaces, and motors are needed, and, like everything else, they are made to operate exactly as required, collected within the composition that becomes the boat. All the particular pieces are made using the one technique, the one material, the one type of welding rod; everything is painted. Welding styles can be recognised; the variations in skill and technique can be compared by the eye. These are like fingerprints, as it were, the markings left by different hands, for the ship is handmade. Everything is clear in its intent and function. The making of the whole and all of the parts is explicit, everywhere. The sheets of steel welded to make the ten-metre high walls around the parking deck can all be seen. Every piece, curved, radiused, and/or angled as required, moulded with the flexibility and adaptability of clay, is defined by its weld. Here one is reminded of John James who researched Chartres Cathedral for many years, and could recognise the various hands that had made it so precisely that he drew up a chronology based on his identification of the handiwork of those involved. Rather than identifying the master masons with names, he called them colours; a wonderful inspiration: see – The Master Masons of Chartres and his other excellent publications.

The ledge with the yellow nosing and deck-green tread is literally the door step, not just a 'pretty' decorative addition

But there is more in these steel ship walls too. The 'shadows' - the weld stressing - from the assemblies on the other side can be seen as ghostings. One realises that the walls are all sheet-steel thick. The angle of the concealed stair stringer and the fixings of the hand rail can be deciphered; and much more too. Each part is made in the same steel; all have the same welding connections. The ferry is almost monolithic. All the pieces are there without apology, being just as required in order to achieve the function being accommodated, nothing more or less. No wonder Corbusier was enthusiastic about ship detailing: see below. It was here that modernism gained its inspiration, its origins, roots, along with other utilitarian structures like silos: one a model in steel, the other in concrete; both materials that revolutionised architecture. There was no applied aesthetic here; no self-conscious distortion; no esoteric manipulation: there was nothing of the 'Gehry' or 'Hadid' ambition here, just simple, honest rigour. Only the necessities that need to be attended to, solved, are provided for, all within the rules of the materials, the logic of the operation, and the making. Here form and function interact in an integral purity and straightforward simplicity, juxtaposed nonchalantly, without any compositional attention or intention. There is no decoration here; Adolf Loos would be pleased.*

But there was still more to be discovered on the RoRo ferries. As the larger ferry at the Mainland crossing to Yell, from Toft to Ulsta, pulled into the terminal, the bow was raised to slowly block out the sky and reveal the land. As the radial rigour in the array of ribs, the cross pattern of the walkway and its rail, and the drainage holes in the detailing of the huge form were being admired, the association was made - this is the Sydney Opera House shell. The familiar form stood large and clear, high and proud, heavy but light, and right in its integral logic of making and shaping. Utzon was a Dane. He must have seen the raised bow form many times as ferries link Denmark to many other destinations in Europe. Over the years, the commentaries on the opera house all speak of sails, and record how Utzon was sailor, suggesting that these white billowing forms on water were the inspiration. They might have been, but Utzon must also have been a passenger on a RoRo ferry too. More recently the Sydney Opera House concept has been spoken of with greater abstraction, as 'boat design': see - Here it is noted that Utzon's father was a boat designer and that the young Utzon was brought up in his studio. Utzon must have seen many bow forms in all manner of ways in this environment, even inverted as the boats were being built or transported.#

A massing of sails

Giacomo Balla Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash

Utzon's sketch embodies movement

Seeing the opera house as a series of raised bows makes more coherent sense of this land-locked structure than other interpretations. The ferry only raises the bow when coming into the terminal. Sails billow only when sailing freely on open, breezy water. The opera house can be seen as a being like Futurist's motion picture, c.f. Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, and the Muybridge motion studies, with the shells reading as a sequence of images fixed in time as the bow opens, to give the classic image we know today, complete with the reversal in form where the shells mirror each other as sets. This is the RoRo essence; the large ferries are symmetrically organised around a high, central bridge, literally a bridge over the car deck, with each bow fore and aft being identical. The Sydney Opera House is a RoRo ferry at its terminal, with each bow rising in a welcoming motion, inviting the land to the water, the water to the land, as the bows gesture to the sky in all of their massive grandeur that is captured in stop motion frames forever.

Muybridge's study of a horse running

There is another observation to make: the bow shells open up to the land as though one was on board the ferry, waiting to leave the land as though on a boat; and to the water, likewise. It is the reverse of the reading of the bow of the ferry at the terminal when waiting to board. The inference is that one is being asked, invited, requested to approach, such is the power of the gesture. One is drawn into the centre of the opera house, into its core, its axis mundi that anchors the genius loci of this place. The inference is so potent that this location, this point, becomes the heart of the city, its axis, its marker of place, which it has indeed become and is. This ferry is going nowhere. It is doubly anchored at its mooring by having both bows open for all to exit through and into, to enter this place of power and magic, the heart of Sydney. It is stationary. Sailing boats must move to maintain their authoritative billowing and be well away from land to express their free-flowing motions. Likening the shell forms to sails is a poor metaphor. RoRo ferries only become elevated bow shells when pulled into land. Here at Central Quay, the heart and home of Sydney's ferries, stands another place waiting to ferry everyone away into the magic world of opera, from the land and the sea, into the Opera House interior.

Yes, the opera house does have nautical roots, but these are RoRo ferries not sailing boats. This is its origin: the opera house is at the terminal waiting for patrons to come on board as though leaving the transience of a ship, to share the trip into another more anchored world of theatre and magic, as it invites the great harbour in too, to be transported into the joys of opera. The form transforms the permanence of place, water and land, into transitory zones like the ferry boat that is always moving in-between; only the Opera House is permanent: life is short; art is enduring. But it is easy to be assertive with concepts and origins because they always seem so clear in their associations. They never are or should be. Origins are ambiguous, multifaceted. Good work always embodies such powerful complexities that should never be curtailed or limited or belittled. Each interpretation can become just another layer of understanding in the effort to comprehend the immutable, the ephemeral, the mythic, the magical; indeed the spiritual. Rationalisations should never make things black and white with such demanding, blind, dead-end certainty, finality. The story of the spiritual journey tells that if one should find the Buddha, one should kill him. The dance, the search must continue in the limitless richness of associations, in the equivocal experience of delight. Sails? Yes they look and feel like that; a RoRo bow and all that this might mean? - indeed, it is, they are: they say 'Welcome to the opera house,' as they become Sydney's axis mundi defining its genius loci.^

It is interesting to read on page 68 of Clarke's book:
His (Patrick Sellar) third recommendation was to sow with grass all the land that was
then in tillage at Eriboll. He says that oats, potatoes and turnips can be bought in from
Caithness, Sutherland or Ross, cheaper than can be grown at Eriboll.
This report was prepared in 1832 - and we think of this kind of thinking as Thatcherism,
now modern economic rationalism that drives the world today. It is the logic behind the use of brands that make a quality product anywhere and promote it as being genuine. It seems to have been just basic conservatism, the search for profits. It was, after all, this desire to maximise profits that made the lairds clear the crofts from the quality land and replace them with sheep from the south. Sheep were doing very well then, but prices fell once the Napoleonic wars stopped and cheaper wool was imported from Australia.

On the poor land that the crofters were moved to, Clarke reports on pages 128-129 on a
discussion the crofters were having on the pressing problem of what should be done
with Adold Hitler, were he to fall alive into the hands of the advancing allies. 'He should
be hanged,' someone said. There was no dissent but someone thought hanging was not
sufficient a punishment for one whose crimes were so monstrous. 'Perhaps he should
be tortured first,' it was suggested. 'No! No! No!' said an old woman, who had so far not
taken any part in the discussion, 'He deserves much worse than that. He should be
given a croft in Laid.'

Clarke had previously described Laid as - p.128 - Laid, that exposed strip of peat hags,
acid soil and rocks . . . a poor site for establishing a crofting community. Yet it was here
that those whom Lord Reay had cleared from the lands of Eriboll on the fertile eastern
shore of Lock Eribill and elsewhere were allowed to settle.
Such were the clearances. The enduring drive for profit remains today, as does the cynically critical humour of folk.

Lad, described today as 'a straggling village'

^The opera house can be seen as being shaped around an axis mundi a little like that at Ronchamp, in le Corbusier's chapel: see - Here the proposition is that the axis plays a subtle but core role in the whole form. Unlike the grand pagodas that hold a certain, vertical centrality in its form to mark the axis, the chapel at Ronchamp has a dominant edge that plays this role. At Sydney, the mirroring of the massing marks a centre from which the 'bow' forms define the entrance and a welcome. In the general assembly of the shells, it is the core pyramidal form from which all the shells/bows reach out. The Egyptian pyramids mark the axis mundi similarly, but with a different and more singular scale and intent. The Sydney Opera House can be seen as Sydney's great pyramid, such is its iconic image for which sails become too variable, perhaps too playful, too loose an explanation/inspiration.

In the making of the opera house, the nautical connections again raise their head as a reference. Utzon has treated each challenge in the design with the rigour and rationalism of the shipbuilder working in steel. There appears to be nothing of an 'aesthetic' that has been applied, brought to intervene in this process.

Like the Egyptian pyramids, the Sydney Opera House has been listed as a World Heritage site: see -

'Sydney Opera House was formally recognised as one of the most outstanding places on Earth with its inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List under the World Heritage Convention on 28 June 2007.
Sydney Opera House is now listed alongside other universally treasured places such as the Taj Mahal, the ancient Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the Great Barrier Reef.'

The sun did not know how beautiful its light was, until it was reflected off this building.” Louis Kahn

On steel framing, rationalism and logic, compare the shipbuilder's thinking with that in Hadid's London Olympic Swimming Pool: see - and in Gehry's work too. The philosophy here seems to be whatever it takes to create the preferred image/form.
Modernism's 'form follows function' revolutionary approach grew out of the protest against Victorian formal and decorative exuberance for its own indulgence. Can one predict a new resurgence against the aimless, ad hoc expression of the current approach?

Gehry framing

The order of the cathedral framing/forming

Hadid framing

 lLe Corbusier's steel detailing on the Heidi Weber Museum, Zurich

One can speculate further on the origin of the Sydney Opera House form. The history of the Shetland boat, the four-a-reen and the six-a-reen, is that the boats originated in Norway. The first boats were imported fully constructed. They were stacked and loaded onto cargo boats for the journey west - (lecture on the Shetland boat given by Marc Chivers, 15 May 2015 at the Shetland Museum & Archives). Subsequently the boats were sent in pieces to be built in the Shetland Islands. The point is that boats are stacked. Utzon must have seen boats stacked in Denmark. The stacking of bows can be seen as the Sydney Opera House model. The reference holds an inherent sense, but the forms lack any hinges or sense of pivoting. Still, like the RoRo recognition, the analogy enriches, expands.

More images of the rigour of the shipbuilder:

The 'ship's door to the chapel' at le Corbusier's La Tourette

Like a ship's door, the threshold is raised

Le Corbusier's door at the Heidi Weber Museum, Zurich

Door handle at le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp

The nautical balustrade of le Corbusier's Villa Savoye

Le Corbusier's church at Firminy comes to mind

Le Corbusier's Parliament Building at Chandigarh is recalled

The thinness of the funnel form surprises, like that of the Firth of Forth bridge

'Elemental' design

A RoRo bow-and-rear ramp ferry pulling into Gutcher, North Yell

The largest Shetland RoRo operating between Mainland and Yell (at Ulsta, South Yell)

Bow of a traditional Shetland wooden boat

Interior of Sydney Opera House shell, looking up

17 NOVEMBER 2015
A few more images to ponder:

The Thames Barrier

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