Sunday 15 October 2017



While travelling to Shetland recently, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) News was read on-line. One report told that Lord Howe Island residents had just rejected all wind-turbine development on their land, on aesthetic grounds, pure appearance alone.^

When driving north to Unst, the familiar turbines high above Tingwall brought the news item to mind. Later, on the approach to Gutcher, the set of five, stark wind structures standing tall over North Yell was seen for the first time. Looking back at this array of elevated spinning blades from Belmont, one soon becomes aware of the aesthetic intrigues stimulated by these prominent machines.

Belmont House, Unst

Aerial view of Belmont House

It has taken many years and much careful and committed effort for Belmont House to be renovated. All materials, indeed nearly every single stone, each precise detail, and the exact hue of the finishes were meticulously researched, recorded, reviewed, and authenticated so that this beautiful building could be respected, and responsibly restored to its original grandeur: made authentic again. While this effort has achieved its intent, the authenticity of the landscape, the original context of the old house beyond its garden walls, has been significantly altered by a development that apparently remains oblivious to its domineering impact. Belmont House now stands on its formal axis gazing out over Bluemull Sound, looking across to the hills of Yell on which the set of five turbines stand, protruding cyclically into the scope of the sky that forms part of the broad prospect of the historic house, its distant address.

The wind turbines at North Yell with new access road.
Wind turbines always come with a service access footprint.

Belmont House

The Biblical poet's 'lift up mine eyes unto the hills,' comes to mind as one ponders the 'help' that Belmont House might gain from this hilltop development. It becomes obvious that there is something askew in the search for things 'green' and sustainable, with the maintenance of a strategy that appears so careless with the aesthetic qualities of landscape in these treeless islands, of the experience of place, and the subtleties of the heritage of the region. Shetland needs to decide whether it finds such significant impacts on its stark beauty, described by MacDiarmid as 'the infinite beauties of the bare land,' to be of any relevance to its identity that it promotes without any apparent irony or embarrassment as 'Pride of Place.'

Hugh MacDiarmid

Ferry crossing Bluemull Sound (Belmont House in centre)

Weeks later, on the ferry crossing from Gutcher to Belmont, while admiring the vista of graduated, grey, misted hills, and the startling, diving flight of gannets in the late, hazed brilliance of the setting sun, the distracting dominance of the towers alerted the eyes and demanded attention. Their hedge-hogging of the sky, pricking the spirit of place with the perpetual, awkward, asymmetric agitation of their geometric rigour, made them the centre of attention; a distraction; an unwanted attraction.

Yell hills and sky without turbines

The five turbines, North Yell

View of North Yell from ferry (with wind turbines kept just of of frame left)

Shetland promotes its naked beauty, its 'green,' natural, island credentials, and its splendid landscape, perhaps best illustrated in those J.D. Ratter photographs of old, all with a certain nostalgic pomp and panache.# Shetland really has to decide if it wants the first characteristic, rationalised in the production of 'green' wind power, or the latter, the Ratter wonder, the love and care of bare, native place, as presently there appears to be a collision of intents, a raw clash of ambitions.

Hugh MacDiarmid wrote about his time on Whalsay with its 'rare interludes back in Edinburgh or Glasgow or Manchester,' as 'these comings into relationship again with minds keen, alert, attuned to beauty.' He added that he had no intention of being unfair to Shetland, since 'If there are no such people in Shetland, there are exceedingly few in Scotland or England either - not more than one per 100,000.' (Quoted by Michael Grieve in MacDiarmid in Shetland, edited by Graham and Smith, Shetland Library, Lerwick, 1992 -Foreword.)

Sadly, given Shetland's population, and using these MacDiarmid figures, the odds of Shetland acting on aesthetic grounds alone as Lord Howe Island has done, does not appear to augur well, in spite of the hyped promotional programmes that suggest otherwise. The maintenance of Shetland's unique beauty remains a challenge that is obvious to the visitor who brings great expectations, all generated by the mystique of the tourist blurb that slyly ignores the aesthetic implications of the generation of 'green' power with wind, and its disturbing impact on the experience of place* and its past, a circumstance that creates such a bold and unsettling, irrational conflict revealed so clearly on Unst, at historic Belmont.

What happens to us
Is irrelevant to the world's geology
But what happens to the world's geology
Is not irrelevant to us.
We must reconcile ourselves to the stones,
Not the stones to us.

Hugh MacDiarmid On a Raised Beach+

Hugh MacDiarmid

Oscar Wilde comes to mind: ‘Each man kills the things he loves . . . ’

Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, northern Unst

"This would affect the spectacular and scenic landscapes for which the world heritage island group is recognised," the spokesman said in a statement.

The strong influence of Shetland's landscape, heritage and culture, can be seen in the creative output of Shetland's craft makers.
Statement made in the introduction of the Shetland Craft Trail & Makers 2016/2017 booklet.

Adam Nicolson, in Sea Room An Island Life, describes the experience of his Shiant Islands as: 'the loved contours of the place.'

MacDiarmid is certainly one of the major figures of all Scottish literature, and I think probably our greatest poet since Burns.
George Mackay Brown

Thursday 5 October 2017


GSD Harvard

Scarborough College, Toronto

Scarborough College, Toronto

Student Housing, University of Guelph

Miami Seaport Passenger Terminal

The building has been known for many years. The large photo-mural of its interior had been passed every day for years when working in the office. It was an impressive structure, a new concept in studio design. The office of John Andrews had completed the project in its heady days in North America. The office had done some impressive work and had earned an international reputation – Scarborough College, Toronto, 1963; Student Housing, University of Guelph, 1968; the Miami Seaport Passenger Terminal, 1970; etc. . . It was work that turned the eyes of the world towards the office of this irrepressible larrikin, the daredevil Australian who was eventually brought back to his home country with the promise of the Cameron Offices, Belconnen, 1973-1976 – then one of Australia's largest and most prestigious jobs on offer at the exciting time when Gough Whitlam was PM.

John Andrews

Cameron Offices, Belconnen

Cameron Offices, Belconnen

Gund Hall, Harvard

The Harvard Graduate School of Architecture and Design, (GSD), Gund Hall, 1972, like the other John Andrews work, stirred preconceptions of what a building, here a school of architecture, might be: see - Images of this structure were published throughout the world in glossy magazines. The esteemed project became the idol for new architectural ideas, showing how visions could transform experience; how space and place could define interaction and participate in learning. The GSD was an impressive structure, especially with its surprising social connectivity; a place in which bright young architects were to be raised. What might be a better project to promote ideas and experiments for the new world order; to change the future?

The building became well-known through all of its impressive photographic images. These usually showed the students working in and using the place, highlighting the intended personal interaction with glowing success. One was transfixed. This was quality work, a landmark that held its place in history, in the story of architecture and the life of learning.

Interior Gund Hall (GSD)

It was not until recently that any more thought had been given to this building that had buried itself in one’s psyche. John Andrews had moved away from the architectural world, and, sadly, this world seemed happy to ignore him and his efforts: to almost mock them. It is a great shame that the profession is so rudely bitchy in such a determined, but petty manner. Does it see itself as a group of genius individuals where each is always better than the other; always able to achieve more and different?

Gund Hall (GSD) - the 'art' image

Time passed.

The plan was to visit New York for two weeks: the thought was that Boston could be a day-or-two trip from New York. Might it be possible to get to Boston? Google Maps was opened, then Google Earth. Distances were gauged; railway stations were located. Google's Street View was opened so that the place could be reviewed. The various likely journeys were perused: then back to the maps. In the middle of Cambridge, the distinctive road pattern stood out: ‘Harvard’ was notated in the coloured patch at the centre. Why not look around here?

Street View toured the streets, then returned to the Google Earth aerial view: there was very little that was memorable. Where was the GSD? The name was typed in, the Earth spun, and it appeared. Street View was opened: how did this structure look in its location? The building was well-known, but the images were always trimmed, isolating the wedged concrete mass from its context. What was its place in Harvard? One expected open green, academic courtyards and fields, but no! A dark, banded brick mass appeared from the StarWars movements; then a pair of mirror-matching tear-drop planned buildings came into view. Where was the GSD? The yellow stripe was clicked. As usual, the camera went too far. A magnificent, decorated brick building came into view. The screen was spun around, and the familiar image of the GSD appeared: tall concrete columns carrying a high, long box with its adjacent stepped mass.



The 'hidden' church

The surprise was that this Andrews building had such neighbours. How might the thinking about this location be approached today? The GSD was built at a time of bold gestures, when architecture dreamed of transforming the old world with new forms; changing it dramatically. There was very little talk of respecting other places then. Again the stripe was clicked and another view of the GSD and its surroundings appeared out of the radial haze. The wedge addressed nothing but a different neighbour, one half of the tear-drop pair. The visions of open green space died. The concrete mass was crowded onto a corner block opposite a superb, historic brick building. A quaint old church appeared as it neighbour. This information had never been printed; never been declared; had never been seen. It was as if only the GSD was important: apparently neighbours were irrelevant. One might argue that the raised open colonnade was a spatial gesture to the old precinct, but this seemed to stretch things into apologetic language rather than explain any existing circumstance. There was really nothing other than the declaration of the concrete GSD: ME! - screaming out ‘I AM!’ with biblical fervour. Oddly, the entry into this mass could not be clearly identified; other formal issues seemed more critical.

How might one have thought about the Andrews GSD if the complete context had been known? Today this boldness would very likely be treated with harsh disdain by some critics. What might have been possible? How have young minds been altered? Looking around the streets nearby, it seems that nothing has changed; that all architects still work to their own visions irrespective of context, completely ignoring the work of others. ‘I am the greatest,’ seems to be the quiet, primal scream of each place. Street View makes this clear, not the magazines that evade the unspectacular; the everyday; the ordinary mishmash of our world.

Street View

A view published on Pinterest by a casual observer

The point is that if the architects and the architectural press are not going to tell the whole story, we must rely on Google Earth's Street View to reveal this. The Drew Heath house and the Glen Murcutt mosque clearly have been managed likewise, using carefully selected images in their self-promotion; Street View tells us this: see - and If we are going to learn so much through images, we need to know all, or else it is only partial information, misinformation, that we are using to form opinions. Peter Rice has written about the power of the photograph to mislead: see - We are not all able to see everything in situ, but the world is such that everything can be photographed and reproduced quickly for everyone to see everywhere, anywhere, at any time. Architects in the Shetland Islands drool over the Murcutt houses in front of their cosy fires while gales rage outside; then try to do likewise. It is this distorted 'seeing' that needs to be opened up to show everything, rather than only illustrate, illuminate, what the 'art' camera chooses; or what the architect might prefer to be seen. Harry Seidler used to take the angles for the images of his buildings for the professional photographer to finesse. He defined the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’

Street View

This careful management of identity is all too artfully quaint: too many misguided perceptions are created. Our world becomes known as a series of chosen ‘art’ images, preferred views. Street View does away with this selection process and reveals the real world – the camera moving through it in the everyday, along the street, unannounced.

The adjacent church is usually cropped or concealed

This is not the 'iconic' side of the GSD

If the world is not to be misled, then we need Street View to be used everywhere, everyday in order to overcome this guise. Only, it seems, in this way will we be able to see the true building, not the rose-tinted version of it. Then we can act appropriately rather than continue with our hagiographical bowing to the genius of the architect: consider Hadid’s museum in Glasgow: -

. . . . . . 

Piano's 'art' views of the Whitney Museum of American Art

Piano’s new Whitney Museum of American Art was perused on Street View as New York was investigated. This was the first image seen of it. Already one can imagine how the architect might frame it, but Street View showed everything – its context and tricks working just too hard in its messy context, ready to be framed with the zoom lens, or distorted with the wide angle lens for the magazine world to get 'the image.'



Street Views of the Whitney Museum of American Art

We need to introduce, and to be introduced to all buildings with Street View if we are unable to see them 'in the flesh.' Only in this way might we overcome the illusion of the precious photograph. Those grand images of the GSD will never be able to cheat us again. We must become more honest with each other and stop trying to declare everything as brilliant, if only it can be seen alone. “We are not alone” should be the cry on everyone's lips, not in reference to any mysterious experience of aliens, but as a statement of fact. We create an alien experience with all of these ‘special’ views, images that disguise the existential issues and highlight only what the architect thinks is critical – him/herself; his/her brilliance; her/his pure genius, all revealed in this frame.

The 'art' views are all artfully cropped or shaded

We are a community; we build communities; we never build alone. The street is all we really have – see  We need Street View to show us this world; to reveal the ordinary, the everyday, that can be transformed through accommodation and adaptation rather than exclusion.

. . . . . .

Then the idea was, if Boston could not be visited, maybe Philip Johnson's work in New Canaan could be seen. Earth moved, the idea of the glass box in the green hills was transformed: the area was almost dense suburbia – numerous swimming pools, one per grassy mansion, surround this International icon that has become a tourist destination, a real business. Google Earth has shown this. 'The Glass House' is located directly opposite the railway station, as the promotional Visitor Centre, not the iconic dwelling!




House on street in front of The Glass House

Johnson's buildings are fully exposed to the street

The neighbouring house on the street is on the left, just out of frame

The real interest was the repair pattern in the bitumen road outside the railway station. Thanks Google Earth! The surprise was that The Glass House was on full view from the road, and that it had a timber gabled house in front of it. Everyone needs to know the world through Street View. All other images are, to use the terrible Trump-word that has become overused in his strange cause, FAKE! The unplanned world in the Street View vistas sings like Shelley’s skylark, revealing ‘unpremeditated art.’ The world we now have thrives on the selective, premeditated image, its artifice. Only, it seems, Street View will overcome this problem: egos seem too huge to change the canny strategies of self-promotion, of presenting only the 'preferred' vision, perhaps the idea that was never really made manifest.

The view to the street is never revealed

The neighbouring house is never seen.
The Glass Box is promoted as an isolated gem secluded in the woods*

The view back to the street is always ignored in favour of the vista of 'virgin' nature

Who would have thought that this was the view from the street?

For more on architectural visions, see

28 November 2017
It is Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House near Plano, Illinois, west of Chicago that was Johnson's inspiration. The Farnsworth House truly is the isolated gem in the woods. The house uses "the trees as its curtains." Johnson, being more of an extrovert than Mies, probably loved the exposure of his glass box that seems less likely to bring tears to the eyes in the way that Mies's classicism has done to seasoned reviewers.

Farnsworth House

29 MARCH 2019
Alas, it floods: