Sunday, January 25, 2015


This is a 25 minute talk I gave at the 3rd Dubai BIM Breakfast in November.  I'm going to split it into parts because it does rather go on a bit :-)

I think we should treat BIM like a pencil.  Anyone can pick up a pencil and adapt it to their needs.  It's a very flexible tool.  We can use it to write a shopping list, to draw a map, to write poetry.  It is equally at home in a board room, on a building site, in a classroom or a research laboratory.

But if we want BIM to be as flexible and inclusive as a pencil, we might have to cast off our business blinkers.  Much of the discussion about BIM is dominated by business jargon: ROI, competitive edge, BIM protocols & execution plans, risk management ... all that bureaucratic stuff.  I'm not saying that it's wrong or unimportant, just that the focus can get a little too narrow.  Beware of tunnel vision.

I grew up with a pencil in my hand.  My dad was an art teacher and he introduced me to the grand tradition of visual thinking that stretches back thousands & thousands of years.  When I use the word pencil, I'm really referring to that grand tradition.  There is a special synergy that takes place between hand, eye and brain when we draw or paint.  I believe there is much to gain from connecting BIM processes to that intuitive, visual, problem-solving side of our brain.

When we used pencils to design buildings we didn't feel the need to go round saying "I've just bought these new pencils, they're really going to help us grow the bottom line"  We might say "I've got this new pencil, it really feels great and the quality of the line it produces is superb." 

So I'm going to invite you to take off the business blinkers for a few minutes and imagine that BIM is part of the age old tradition of visual thinking.

Let's start by reflecting on the age of hand drafting for a moment.  It was slower of course. For all but the very earliest stages of design thinking it can't compete any more.  But were there any advantages ?  Can we learn something from the past ?

First of all, it was a much pleasanter way to spend your day and rather healthier in my view.  When we worked at drawing boards could vary our posture more, stretch our limbs, stand up for a while.  There was a craft element to the work.  You could take a pride in the quality of your linework, the rhythm of your hand written notes.  There were little rituals to do with maintaining your drawing tools and keeping the paper clean. 

It was much easier and more natural to take a step back and review your work from a distance, both literally and metaphorically. Every time you went for a cup of coffee you could pause a couple of metres away from your board and cogitate while you sipped away.

These days it's as if we have our heads stuck inside a box.  Put the earphones on, get into the zone.  We tend to leave our work behind when we step away.  Back then you would stand back a couple of metres with your cup of copy and get a fresh perspective.

And this same pauses acted as an invitation for your neighbours to sidle up and throw in a comment or two.  Casual sharing was just built in.  These days you have to print out a few sheets and invite people over to a breakout space.  Or you might have big screens installed, perhaps even expensive digital white boards.  All good stuff but just a trifle forced compared to the olden days.

It's often said that your weaknesses are also your strengths.  The lack of an undo button was a major pain.  Lots of workarounds: scratch away with razor blades, battery powered erasers with thin metal shields to mask out the stuff you wanted to keep.  The positive side of all that was that we had to be decisive.  No second chances.  Get it right !  And clients couldn't get away with changing their minds they way they do today.  Just wasn't possible if you wanted to get your building built.  And I am constanly struck by how much more is demanded in terms of output with each passing decade.

Hundreds of sheets where we used to be satisfied with a couple of dozen.  20 or 30 photorealistic renders where you would have been lucky to get one hand drawn perspective.
Fine, but are the resulting buildings any better as a result ?  I'm not sure they are to be honest. 

This one is beyond dispute.  We may have touch screens and tablets but nothing yet comes close to the tactile fluency of pencil and paper.  Sit around a table with sheets of tracing paper and ideas flow thick and fast.  That hand-eye-brain thing has been going on for thousands of years.  It's a bit like body language or eye contact.  You can't beat it for rapid effective communication, brainstorming, problem-solving.

Yes there are wonderful things that BIM can do for us, insights that were unavailable before, but we still lag on the fluency side.  I hope that will change.

I'm not sure why people tend to overlook this, but it's hugely important.  All drawing, all modelling involves simplification.  You have to be selective, to abstract the essentials.  When working by hand this is perfectly obvious.  You are constantly aware that the pencil lines you draw are simplified abstractions.  Sadly when creating a digital model we can fool ourselves that it

I just talked about standing back from the drawing board.  What I want to do now is stand back and look at the history of drawing, very briefly.  This first slide shows some of the drawing tools that have come and gone in my lifetime.  Rotring pens were actually invented when I was a teenager and I did once own a set of the caliper-like devices that preceded them.

The next segment is a short history of drawing over the past 30 thousand years.  Highly selective, simplified, abstract.  Here are some drawing technologies that have come and gone in my lifetime.  I wasn't around in 1860, but I'm almost old enough to have witnessed the transition from blueprints to diazo.

These are some of the oldest drawings we know about.  They are about 5 times older than the oldest writing, so visual thinking is rather more fundamental to the human brain than verbal thinking. 
These are drawings from Lascaux & Altamira, Chauvet.  We may think that we are much more advanced than cave men, but I challenge you to draw something that stands up alongside these remarkable images.  We may not understand what they were for, but they were surely full of meaning and information content for the people that made them.

So those were the oldest drawings we know of and this is some of the first writing.  The drawings are five times as old.  Visual thinking is much more ancient than verbal thought.  Here we have software, (the idea of symbols that represend sounds, syllables or words) hardware (clay tablet & stylus) reprographics (roll the cylinder over wet clay to make multiple copies)  Nothing much has changed since the first cities turned up in Iraq.

Here is some of the earliest writing.  It's also a kind of visual thinking, and ultimately it will become the data in our BIM models, so it belongs in this historical overview.  I'm introducting the idea of software, hardware & reprographics here.  Sofware is the idea of symbols that represent sonds and words, hardware is the clay and the stylus, reprographics is a cylinder that is rolled over wet clay to create multiple copies.  Nothing new under the sun-dried-clay.

Short of time, so a huge leap forward in time now to the renaissance.  Theory of perspective is the software breakthrough, equally as important as the personal computer in my view, a huge conceptual leap.  Hardware is represented by the device the artist is using to figure out how perspective works.  We could also cite the scientific method under the software heading here: systematic gathering of data by the method shown to test out the theory of horizon lines and vanishing points. 
This drawing is by Albrecht Durer and it's actually a wood engraving.  You can see the way he uses grooves cut into the wood to simulate the textures of different materials. 
Now we jump from 5000 years ago to 500 years ago.  Software is represented by the theory of perspective. Hardware is the device the artist is using to decode the conundrum of how perspective works.  Reprographics is the art of wood engraving that Durer exploited with such skill and flair

Durer also made use of orthographic projection as shown in this fascinating study of the 3 dimensionality of a human foot. It almost looks like a recipe for a parametric digital model.  An important point to note here is the way that drawing crosses the boundaries between art and science. 

The pendulum clock also uses orthographic, but in combination with 3d projections and a fair amount of embedded data.  This clock was a conceptual breakthrough that ranks high on the software scale and of course it became an item of hardware with a huge impact on peoples lives.

Just as the pendulum clock improved accuracy in timekeeping,  copper plate engraving enabled a finer line in printmaking.  It also opened up the possibility of acid etching.
I'm going to break off there, and pick up the BIM pencil story again in another post.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Recently I've been making some families for "traditional" Gulf architecture.  I don't want to get too deep into a discussion of what is "correct" and "incorrect" when following a traditional style.  Traditions are always works in progress, subject to change, influenced by other cultures.  Societies are living, breathing, messy groupings that share certain things in common but also embrace conflicting forces.

Here is a picture of the Shindaga district at the mouth of Dubai creek.  It has been refurbished quite recently and not everyone will be happy with the way that has been done, but it gives an impression of some of the main qualities that we try to capture when working in the "local style".

Streets are narrow and irregular, walls are rough plastered with mostly square niches. Roofs are flat, often acting as terraces with timber balustrades in places and drained by timber gargoyles.  Rainfall is a rare event but can he quite heavy when it comes. Beneath the plaster, walls are often built from roughly coursed coral blocks.

There are carved or moulded gypsum screens that offer a mix of privacy and air movement.  The ones shown here are geometric, but floral designs are also common.  The next picture illustrates the living, breathing mish-mash concept I posited earlier.  It was taken this christmas and that's my son Joe enjoying a break from the Austrian winter.  The camels are laid on for the tourists and in the background you can see plastic water tanks, satelite dishes and air conditioning equipment: a typical Dubai roofscape.

Below are some quick families I made for more decorative recesses.  The ones on the left have a fixed width and variable height.  It would be possible to make them more parametric, but I don't see the point.  It's easier to duplicate the family and scale the decorative motif up or down manually to create a new size.  In reality these will probably be GRC mouldings so you want 2 or 3 discreet sizes, not an infinitely variable range.  The floral motif is fixed in both width and height of course and would be virtually impossible to parametrically. (perhaps with a ridiculously heavy Point-World family ?)

Windows were generally quite small, barred and shuttered, no glass.  Today we have air conditioning so there will be a sheet of glass somewhere.  It's quite common to have a fixed pane between the shutters and the bars.

  We are considering having two sets of shutters, the first layer glazed, and the inner layer blank.  The ones shown here don't yet have the inner shutters.

For a while I considered the possibility of a window family with multiple options for parametric recesses that can be swapped in and out.  The advantage here is that the recesses would automatically move and resize with the windows.  The disadvantages include daunting complexity for end users, a tendency for embedded detail to show up in plan views when not wanted, and most importantly the difficulty of scheduling the windows and recesses separately.  Yes we could use shared families, but that would negate the linking of width parameters.  Anyway I opted for separate families.

Arabic doors can be very beautiful: chunky, richly carved and embellished with metal studs (nails really)  One day I will model one of these in greater detail, but for a project we need simplified representations to keep model performance within reason while conveying the design intent and making the different types recognisable in an elevation. 

The basic concept features two leaves, inward opening, with a vertical bar attached to one leaf, forming a rebate.  This is often notched & ornamented, even if the rest of the door is plain.
While working on this post I added shutters to the window family.  I've placed these in the open position, which is how they will normally be during the day. 

If I was doing this family for a historical study or educational exercise, I would consider having a choice of shutter position perhaps using instance visibility parameters.  It would be nice to take a shot from the outside with the shutters closed.  But for a fee earning project with some 50 buildings all linked to a central model ... I'm already worried about overmodelling.  Better limit the file sizes, constraints & parameters.

While we're talking practicalities, there is the question of how a detailed family will look in the General Arrangement plans.  What do you show and what do you hide ?  What appears in symbolic form ?  Everyone will have different ideas, but in this case I have turned off the shutters and the glazed panels in plan views.  The inward opening mechanism is show with dashed symbolic lines.  Strictly speaking there should be two sets, but I think this would get far too busy, especially at 1:100.

The next image zooms in on a section at 1:50.  On the left the glass is turned on which results in a rather ugly thick black line.  So I chose to switch the glass off in left/right views.  If we do callouts at 1:10 or 1:5 we will need to do some drafting over in any case, so we can pick up the glass with a detail item.

Something rather strange cropped up while working on this family.  I had never tried to activate a section box in family editor before.  Strange behaviour.  It works on nested components, but not on geometry made directly in the family.  It does work on host walls (the placeholder walls within family editor)  Also you may have noticed that object styles has very limited capabilities in family editor mode.  You can't change the appearance of section boxes for example.  Also they don't hide properly, which is to say that they don't hide at all, but remain stubbornly in the foreground.

Strange how you can use a programme on a daily basis for 10 years and still keep discovering things.  Maybe I'm just a slow learner.  I prefer to see myself as a tortoise:-)

So we have an interesting window, updated from a type that was common in the gulf region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  I'm not sure if it goes back further than that, possibly.  There are three distinct layers dealing with security, air seal & privacy respectively.  The air seal layer is a modern innovation.  "Traditionally" if you wanted an air seal (unlikely without A/C) you had to forego light and vision also.

I would very much like to take this study one level deeper and put it into the context of traditional wall and roof construction, show the oil lamps that hung between the windows internally.  Time is the eternal enemy. But I do have the beginnings of a techno-historical exploration to stand alongside my previous work on timber sliding sashes and standard steel windows.

It would also be nice to look at some other aspects of Gulf Architecture, the well known Wind Towers, the occasional use of elaborate decorative arches & corbels, the ceiling treatments and timber gargoyles.  These days there are far more fake wind towers than real ones, I'm not sure if there are any that are truly operational in inhabited buildings.  It would take a brave soul to do without air-conditioning in this climate.  Perhaps they could come back as devices to bring cooling breezes to external terraces during the hot season.  Would make a nice change from the electric fans you see sometimes at pavement cafes.

In the information age the air has become a medium for electronic communication.  In Dubai we live in the fast lane.  We drive too fast, we crave the latest toys, we wish to be the biggest and the best, we consume too much.  I guess the same can be said of North America and much of Europe.  We speak of underdeveloped countries, but rarely of overdeveloped societies, and yet we also yearn for simpler times, for the real, the honest and the natural.  We feel that we have lost something elusive that can be glimpsed in old buildings and vacations to exotic, "untouched" regions.

Perhaps we have put too much faith in "progress".

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Returning to the theme of London, viewed through the lens of Hawksmoor's six churches, but stepping aside from Revit for a moment and using photographs I have taken over the past few years, rediscovering the city that I lived in for 4 years as a student some 4 decades ago.

This post is dedicated to Caroline Lwin who I knew in those far off days of youthful discovery.  I spent several weeks staying with her and Nick in Limehouse to help out with the Squatting Book they were putting together in 1980.  This in itself was something of a rediscovery as we had gone our separate ways around 1973 when I moved back north.  It was great to become close again, just as it was wonderful to spend a couple of hours with Caroline last December, not long before she floated out of this world, as graceful as ever, still questioning the world around her. 

Nick now lives with Jane in Hastings and it has been a great pleasure to spend some quality time with them over the last 2 or 3 years.  Wonderful hosts, living in a fascinating town.  Jane worked at the De la Warr pavilion during its refurbishment period and laid on a fantastic behind-the-scenes tour for me back in July.  More on that in future posts when I get time to "finish" the Revit model of Mendelsohn's seaside classic. 

Here is the house where we did the Squatting Book.  It's an old seaman's mission built next to the Limehouse Cut, a canal linking the river lea to the river thames, cutting out a long detour around the isle of dogs.  This was built a little before the Regent's Canal and the Limehouse Basin which connected with the cut to form a primary hub linking the canal system with the wharves of the Thames.

And that was the new mission house, built on the other side of the Commercial Road which became the main artery out to London's Docklands which sprang up in rapid succession in the early 1800s.  It's an odd building, kind of a stripped down gothic, in dingy yellow brick and pale grey faience tile.  What can it have been like, having spent your life roaming the seven seas, to eke out your final years in a place like this? 

There is a bridge that carries the Commercial Road over the Limheouse Cut, a fine example of victorian brickwork sweeping over the canal in an elliptical barrel vault.  No ponies on the tow-path these days, just cyclists and joggers.  Water wheels and canals were critical to the early stages of the industrial revolution, but quickly gave way to steam power as the demands for power and transport grew too rapidly to be met by sustainable means.  So the canal building period came and went in the blink of a metaphorical eye, rather like the 5 1/4 inch floppy disks that I used to carry around with me with their massive 350k storage capacity.  I seem to remember an AutoCAD installation set comprising a full box of floppies.  That would be almost 25 years ago.

Today Limehouse is a fascinating, mixed community.  Still home to many genuine "east enders" living in old terraces or newer council estates, it also boasts a growing proportion of upwardly mobile professionals who have moved in to waterside developments conveniently positioned both for the old financial centre in the City, and the new one around Canary Wharf.  In the image above, St Anne's Limehouse floats above new riversite apartments.  Notice the old dockside cranes, now acting as monumental pieces of urban sculpture.

This shot is a little further to the right, from the same vantage point.  Investment banking now dominates the skyline of London, where once the church steeples of Wren and others rose alone above the rooftops.

Those shots were taken from the balconies at the back of the Prospect of Whitby.  Tom and I had lunch there on Wimbledon finals day.  It's another little trip back in time, much like the Grapes in Limehouse, but the Prospect is a little further upstream near the Shadwell Basin.

This shoreline shot shows the riverbank at low tide with the steeple of St Anne's in the background.  In Hawksmoor's day their would have been a lot more boats and activity. 

At the entry to Shadwell Basin there is a counterbalanced swing bridge (there's another one of the same design opposite the Prospect on the south bank also)  This probably dates from the Victorian era.  I include this here because it is so evocative of the industrial revolution which crept up on England in the decades following Hawksmoor's death.

This shot of a large engine house next to the Shadwell Basin also captures the industrial era, with just a hint of the modern intrusions in the background.

This one is not mine.  I plucked it from the internet.  I like it because it shows the glazed roof over spitalfields market in the foreground, the post-modern towers of canary wharf in the background and Hawksmoor's spire centre stage.

Back to my own photos and the interior of the market.  In Hawksmoor's day the market was a large open square and the recently built streets around were home to Huguenot silk weavers who had come over en masse from France.  As dissenting protestants the weavers would not have worshipped in Hawksmoor's church which represented the power of the English establishment.  Towards the end of Hawksmoor's life, Irish weavers were also moving into the area motivated more by economic necessity than religious persecution.  In victorian times, as hand silk-weaving went into decline, a new wave of Jewish migrants moved in, predominantly tailors.

During my life time, Bangladeshi migrants have moved in, and operate a thriving restaurant trade in Brick Lane which defines the western boundary of the block where Christchurch was built.  In Hawksmoor's day, much of the land behind brick lane would have been open fields.  Spittle Field market iself had been open ground outside the developed area of the city just a generation or two earlier. And yet it is just a stone's throw from the financial heart of England.

This photo, looking back from the edges of modern spitalfields, shows just how close it is to the city, represented here by the Gherkin.  So let's move on towards the old lady of Threadneedle Street.

When St Mary Woolnoth was built, the Bank of England was still operating in rented offices.  Soon afterwards, a portion of its present site was procured and the first permanent building opened in 1734.  Gradually neighbouring plots were acquired and around the turn of the century Sir John Soane built the enclosing wall which is almost all that remains of his extensive work at the bank between 1788 and 1833.  I photographed his statue in a niche of that wall in 2007.

Parallels can be drawn between Hawksmoor & Soane: a certain idiosyncracy, a tendency towards stark simplicity, the minimalists of their day.  Both rose from relatively humble backgrounds to become consumate professionals.  St Mary Woolnoth is a small church squeezed into the angle between converging streets.  The overall composition is rigidly cubic, but there are niches on one side that are overtly baroque in their spatial complexity. 

The Nat West tower was the first skyscraper in the City of London.  It was begun while I was a student, and the architect's son was in the year ahead of me at the Barlett School.  Colonel Seiffert also designed Centre Point which features at the beginning of the first post in this series.  It was a symbol of rapacious, profiteering development to us at the time, standing empty as it did at a time when many were homeless or living in slums.  The power of money.  Seeds sown way back in Hawksmoor's youth when the Bank of England was first established.  Extensions of the trade in stocks and bonds that took place in the coffee houses of the narrow streets around St Mary Woolnoth 300 years ago.

Architecture serves the needs of the ruling class.  That would be a strict marxist reading.  I am not so strict, but still ...  Seiffert's classy facade detailing combined with clever manipulation of building codes delivered ROI to the shareholders, boosted the profits of pension funds.  The middle class were not complaining even if their pampered offspring were using the new freedoms of the swinging sixties to make rebellious noises.  (That's me folks, only borderline middle class perhaps, but full of youthful idealism all the same)  It so happens that Centre Point looks down upon the suburb of Bloomsbury.

Back to 1710.  Bloomsbury was the rising suburb of the upper middle class.  Land didn't belong to pension funds in those days.  The aristocracy was cashing in: building townhouses on their London estates, eventually demolishing their grand houses and moving further out of town.  The squares built by the Duke of Bedford in and around Bloomsbury are now famous and symbols of cultured urban life.

Generations of professionals and intellectuals built celebrated careers while living here.  Lots of blue plaques proclaiming the importance of lives gone by.  Robert Willan was a Yorkshireman like me, but born 200 years earlier.  He was one of the founders of dermatology, describing and classifying skin diseases in a systematic manner.  So he represents the rise of professionalism and the scientific method, key elements (along with the joint stock company) in England's sudden surge to dominate the world.

There are many traces of Regency style here, that period when John Nash was the favourite architect of Royalty and a thorn in John Soane's side.  Equal and opposite perhaps.  While Soane was doing serious architectural business in the City, Nash was playfully transforming the West End.  But different though they were, both were developing an individual style and pursuing the desire to innovate that still dominates the thinking of the western tradition.  I grew up believing that innovation was "all good" and of course I am still motivated by the drive to do "something original", but as I grow older and read more widely, I can't help wondering whether homo sapiens, as a species, isn't innovating itself into oblivion.  Innovation and growth are the twin pillars of the global economy, driving each other recklessly forward.  But like Alice in Wonderland, we may find that we grow so big that our head hits the ceiling and we can no longer fit through the exit door.  Perhaps someone will invent a "drink me" potion to shrink us back to a sustainable size.

I took this photo in 2009.  I had to double-check, because it's hard to believe that 5 years have gone by so quickly.  That was my last trip to the UK before my father died.  Seems like yesterday.  It shows the balcony that was removed by the parishioners of Bloomsbury, now faithfully restored.  You can see the 5 sets of double doors that open up the side of the nave quite alarmingly, or so the parishioners obviously thought.  The altar is to the left and the tower to the right.  But the proud people of Bloomsbury relocated the altar behind the gallery that I stood on when I took this photo, so that late-comers would enter discreetly from the back and not disturb the faithful.  The elliptical arches say "baroque" but in other ways the bold simplicity and regularity of the composition looks forward to the "neo-classical" mood that was about to come into vogue.  (Burlington, Campbell, Kent)

Perhaps the culmination of that trend, the British Museum stands almost next door to Hawksmoor's church.  It was designed by Rober Smirke at a time when industrialisation had taken a firm grip and England was fast becoming the dominant power in the world (Napolean having been recently defeated)  It provides a suitable end point for this little photographic essay, and for my mini-series on Hawksmoor's six churches.  We have taken an urban design perspective, and tried to imagine London as it was when the Bank of London was founded, the calico acts were being passed and the mass production of cotton cloth in and around Manchester was yet to come.

Hopefully we can zoom in a little closer and examine the churches from an architectural perspective at some point in the future.  But for now, I'd just like to say thankyou all for visiting this blog during 2014.  A very happy new year to you all, and I do hope your wishes come true in 2015.