Postcards from Haiti 9

IMG_9883THE SCHOOL

It was the school that brought me here and, as always, it’s great to have a specific job to do. The site has been purchased and significant funds raised. The design has been finalised and it’s now a question of resolving constructional issues and procurement. This,for me, is uncharted territory.  The architecture in the town of Ounaminthe does not inspire. Buildings are almost exclusively in concrete reinforced and in blocks, generally haphazard and incomplete with a tendency towards kitsch which becomes extreme in the larger houses and hotels. Concrete allows any amount of hideous frivolity. The streets however form a grid and there are parks and squares to give relief and the whole,  saved by the furious growth of all kinds of trees which makes the city breath with a Caribbean lushness set against the craggy tree lined mountains. The media impression is that Haiti unlike the Dominican Republic is a deforested desert wilderness. This is not the case as almost 1/3rd of the land mass is forest and the mountains are covered in trees. Where there has been deforestation this has been blamed on charcoal production but again the situation is more complex.

We visit some buildings and to see how they are constructed. One was an active building site. Formerly a house,now a school. A roof is being finished on the first floor with classrooms underneath These have bare block wall with vents, tight bench rows, and a blackboard (actually green).  There are no children as this is Saturday and the school is closed for the weekend. The only resource I see are mathematic text books in French and Creole and a computer room. The building is three storeys and, with the exception of the roof, built entirely of concrete. On the building site health and safety is given no quarter. The top floor is very high off the ground and a home made ladder bends it’s way to the ground at a terrifying angle. What terrifies me more however is how this building will cope in an earthquake. A tremor could cause it all to cave in on itself and the prospect of these concrete floors descending on packed classrooms below is too awful to think about. This is not how we will build the school.

IMG_9885IMG_9875IMG_9877IMG_9861IMG_9826Later in the week we returned to see the school in action and stayed there for three hours. It was an amazing spectacle seeing hundreds of children in smart uniforms lining up for their classes and rounded up by stern teachers in immaculate grey uniforms with a belt in the hand which they used without hesitation, giving a child a smack across the ankles to get them moving. It reminded me of sheep being herded into pens but it didn’t make a lot of difference to the children who just took it in their stride and it clearly didn’t hurt. The playground was supervised by a man in a blue uniform also welding a belt. This time it looked more serious. It was made of leather like the Scottish tause and if there was any doubt about how serious he was, a rifle was under his arm and hand cuffs hung from his side. Security in and out of the playground was tight and parents had to demonstrate their authenticity before being allowed in to collect the children. The younger children were dressed in pink, the older pupils in grey and blue while seniors wore grey skirts and trousers and white blouses emblazoned with the emblem of the school “Institute Academique de Saint Israel”.

IMG_9954IMG_9944IMG_9955IMG_9931The school has over 1,100 pupils and 25 teaching staff. I did wonder, if, in the longer term these children may have greater prospects than the children brought through the system in the UK. I just wondered. Haitians who can, and who have opportunity to, often leave for the Dominican Republic , the USA and most recently Canada, but the prospect of an educated population remaining to live and work in their own country could transform the nation economically, socially and culturally beyond all recognition. That is the hope and that is the main driver behind the project.

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Postcards from Haiti 7

IMG_9780The Church

The church meets in a rented building outside the courthouse. Like everything else it is built of concrete and tin and has a bombed-out look with vent holes, which, for all the world, could have been made by shells. It is filled with wooden benches, a dais at the front with fabric drapes, a lectern and a band section with drums and massive speakers. At the rear is a small room with a toilet and here a homeless family live. From the outside it looks grim, all misshapen concrete with holes as windows and two ill fitting metal doors opening out wards onto sand. At the top is an attempt at a church like pediment unfinished. These are all things you notice at first, but strangely with every visit it becomes familiar even homely and invested with a sense of peace and blessing. It is open every day and people come to pray or sit or lay out on the benches while prayer and praise services happen in the middle of the day.

The service begins at 8am but we get there at half past and mingle with the crowd outside. The pastor leads us in, through the narrow aisle between swaying sweaty bodies up to the front . The band is in full swing and the congregation with raised arms are dancing in praise. The noise is incredible, as the silence is remarkable when the bible is being read and the sermon preached punctuated only by a chorus of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” . Various elders take turns to lead in praise and we are welcomed. Richard brings greetings from the church in Scotland.

Later he preaches with the Pastor translating, but before that, the proposal for the new school and church building is presented and discussed. This was particularly useful as we now have a much clearer picture of what the people want and need and not so much what we or the architect, think they should have. Despite my initial misgivings (my design was effectively binned) I am heartened, as it represented an act of genuine consultation. The service continues, with the sermon, more praise and prayer and closes with the blessing. A Sunday school starts followed by a second service and, six hours later, we make our way back to the hotel in the ferocious heat. It was hard to take in. There were 400-500 at each service and 300plus at the Sunday school. The congregation is exploding. There were 6 new communicants admitted that day. The irrepressible joy expressed in worship seems contagious and we need time to think.

Death Star

death star

I am sitting in the pick-up queue at the station, waiting for the Glasgow train, looking up at the dark mass of our new icon, parked ominously on the river’s edge like the Death Star itself. I am trying hard to make sense of what it is and what it will eventually be, but I can’t. Plans, sections, elevations, the understanding and visualising of three dimensions is my trade but still this edifice remains a mystery. I would really like it to work. I do earnestly hope it will be a success and be a talisman of rejuvenation and revitalisation of our beautiful city on the Tay, so long a sad forth in Scotland and the butt of so many jokes. I really do. But try as I might I can’t quite stamp out the scepticism, the growing doubts and the deep unease.

It is hard, almost impossible to express these doubts in some quarters, because so much is invested in the building. It is already an “icon”.  In the age when people are legends before they reach reaching thirty, Nobel peace prizes awarded before any peace work is done, buildings can be iconic before any concrete is poured. My niggling fear is that it will become a concrete folly in a desolate vandalised landscape, with ugly spoilers for seagulls hoping to nest on the ledges, grotesque barriers to discourage would be climbers attempting to scale the “cliff face” and the very real worry that a panel might fall off. This cliff face, which in concept, represents “the long dialogue between earth and water” is made up of cast concrete panels stuck on to the façade. They don’t, as you would expect, run through to the interior. They are unashamedly fake. The building is pretending to be something it isn’t and yet that doesn’t seem to matter. The sloped walls themselves are explained by the architect as a means of drawing people in. Straight walls repel, apparently.  Yet to my eye, the scale and slope on the exterior has a distinctly threatening air about it. It almost frightens me. The interior which is also devoid of any reference to human scale, seems to be a series of anonymous spaces with disturbingly raked walls and absolutely nothing to say about what actually will be in it.

I hope, I do hope , I am wrong. Please tell me I am wrong.

Crawford Mackenzie

Let us haste to Kelvingrove

They don’t ask me now, but people used to pose the question “As an architect and a Christian, wouldn’t you like to design a Church Building”   They were generally disappointed when I said “No, not really”  You see, I had no desire, inspiration or passion to design a church.  I had always believed (and still do) that the church is not a building.  It is the people of God wherever they are and wherever the met. The building was and is incidental.  That is not to say that I was not deeply affected and sometimes awe struck when visiting great church buildings: with the sheer majesty of the cathedral church of Notre-Dame de Reims, with the intimacy and simplicity of the parish church on Papa Stour, with monasteries in Romania and reformed churches in Hungary, with the work of Alvar Aalto and Corbusier especially with Notre Dame du Haut and many many more. Yet my appreciation of these building was perhaps esoteric and detached and I would have no conviction that they related at all to a real and living church, a gathering of God’s people for worship and service. There was a disconnect in my mind.

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I had qualified in 1973 and worked for 7 years with the late Jack Notman in Glasgow.  His output as far as building was not prolific but I learned much during my time with him. I still follow the principles that I learned then: designing buildings, that were of quality and would last, that would provide comfort and convenience and would be life affirming for those who use them, that were designed using the simple elements of space, light, materials, colour and textures, examining how spaces connect with each other, how people move though a building and what it says about who we are and what we are about. The aim was always to achieve something of real value with a timeless quality.

trinity church 3

Towards the end of my time with Jack Notman, I was involved in a number of significant projects, among them, the conversation of  Trinity Congregational Church, in the west end of Glasgow, as a rehearsal and concert hall for the then Scottish National Orchestra (now the RSNO). It was a very interesting project as it involved changing the role of the building from an ecclesiastical one to an arts and entertainment one. It was challenge to de- ecclesiasticise the structure, while retaining its character. It was opened by Princess Margaret in 1978, became a very successful project, won several awards and remained the home for the orchestra up until very recently.   Not long after it was opened, I was at a concert with a friend, who was a minister and, during the interval, he turned to me and said “This would make a good church”.  The throw-a-way comment stuck with me and I came to see that Church Buildings are, in fact, important. They do matter and like the clothes we wear, affect how we feel about ourselves and how others view us.  So began, for me, a new direction in the adapting and refurbishing of church buildings, altering, extending, re-ordering, refreshing , preparing feasibility studies and designs for new buildings which has extended to over 50 individual projects for a wide variety of Christian denominations.

trinity church 2

So it is not difficult to understand my surprise and my delight when I heard, just this week, that Trinity Congregational Church designed by John Honeyman in 1863, converted into the Henry Wood Hall by Jack Notman in 1978 was to begin a third life as a Church Building in 2016 as The Tron Kelvingrove.

Crawford Mackenzie

(I was not the Job Architect on this project but helped with drawings and details. The person who was, and who did all the real work on it, was Nigel Duncan)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Home Report

section survey 2

I am quite sure there a lot of excellent ones out there, scrupulously prepared, clearly presented and most importantly relevant and helpful but, the trouble is, I haven’t seen or heard of one yet ….The Home report.  They were introduced by the Scottish Government in 2008 and with so much new legislation they were brought in with every good intention to deal with a perceived problem in the business of buying and selling property. If you are buying or selling a house in Scotland you will have to deal at some point with one. I don’t have the authority to say if it has helped or not. I cannot say if it has made the process of buying or selling easier or cheaper but in terms of helping to establish the actual condition of a property, I doubt if they are really worth the paper they are written on, or Kb’s of memory they take up.

In my experience they are often inaccurate, focus on relative trivialities and most worryingly overlook aspects which can be quite serious. The layout, which has generally been adopted, follows a model suggested by the Scottish Government with diagrams to explain what a roof is and what a window looks like and most of the actual text is taken up with exclusions and list of things that the report is not reporting on. The actual assessment of condition is cursory and simplified to a 1,2 or 3. This, certainly, makes it easy to understand but as far as a judgement on the state of the property is concerned, it is pretty well useless.

The worrying thing is that many prospective buyers place a lot of weight on the Home Report wrongly assuming that it is valuable assessment of the building’s fabric. It is not. I have had many clients who have been frustrated, sometimes angry and often bewildered when they discover, sometimes to their great cost, that serious and obvious issues have been overlooked or simply not spotted. The reports are written in such a way, with so many disclaimers, it is almost impossible to seek redress from the surveyor.

So my advice to the purchaser? Get the report read it and then bin it . If you want to find out about the building and what you might be committing yourself to, get someone who knows, to take the time to survey it, to think through the whole structure in all its aspects, to lift carpets, get under the floors through the hatches and up on the roof.  Be prepared for some disruptive investigations also, if these are called or. In many ways it is just like a medical examination, but one where you would want to know the full story and not simply be told you are a 1, 2 or a 3.

Crawford Mackenzie

roof survey 3

Managementarianism

managementarianismI don’t know when it started or where it came from but the relentless onward march of Managementarianism is slowly and subtly strangling the life from almost all of our creative endeavours.  We have been aware, for some time now, of the deadening effect of this culture on health and education, where educators and clinicians are replaced with managers and where the end result is not health or education but efficiency and exam results. But we have been almost taken by surprise in the way that it has wormed its way into almost every aspect of our lives.  The pursuit of targets, quotas, waiting times, performance, results, outcomes, good and best practice, all with the laudable aim of improving and reforming so that they become better organised and more efficient, is increasing. The imposition of targets themselves often back fire.  Whenever I make an application for Planning Approval I know that the authority are duty bound to  give a decision within a fixed period of time and their performance, in this regard, is monitored. What happens is that the administrators appear to make it their priority to delay the registration process (before the clock starts ticking) as long as possible by scratching around for anything that might need clarification, no matter how miniscule or irrelevant, so that the process, in the end, takes longer. It has all been said before, of course, many times and better.

What has taken me quite by surprise is the way that this culture has wormed its way into surprising places.  My own profession, which at its best is concerned with one of the highest forms of art, is governed by a body that is only interested in a measured standard of practice. It takes annual fees from architects which are then used to pursue the same architects on the basis of complaints from “consumers” however spurious. Inevitably results and convictions are what is important, so the body focuses on the small and sole practioners rather than the big boys who are better able to defend themselves. The results of successful prosecutions are then gleefully posted in press releases in order to put the wind up the lone architect. All of this has a deadening and negative effect on the real work of designing buildings. When you are called up to face a tribunal only one is an architect. The chief executive is not an architect and we wonder how this has all happened.  So from the top down we are not concerned or motivated to produce architecture that inspires thrills and delights but to devote ourselves to ticking boxes and covering our backs and if there is time or energy left over, then and only then can we think about design.  It is all very very depressing.

The obsession with quantifiable results is fearsome and not only does it stifle creativity but it ditches ideals and principles. So we no longer speak of good but better, fairer rather than fair, more just rather than simply just. Crime and justice are managed so it is question of keeping the lid on things, reducing figures is what matters and seldom is there time to consider what actually might be the cause of it all.  Drugs policy is about reducing harm not about what the problem really is. A health and safety policy is successful if it can bring down accident figures. I heard a health and safety officer declare that his aim was to reduce fatalities on building sites by a significant degree. “There are still too many needless deaths” he said.  The aim to avoid any death wasn’t itself seen as an aim. Economic policy is about management, so that David Cameron advice, to us all, some time back,  “to pay off your credit card loans” – the good common sense advice that my granny would have taught me, was stifled before it was actually said. It was important that people pursued debt to keep the high streets turning over and the so the economy is managed.  The same influence is found in politics where party managers and spin doctors ditch idealism and visions in the drive towards a safe harmonious superficial unity, so that, in the end, the parties resemble each other.   It was something that saddened Tony Benn.

What is really astonishing is the way that this culture has wormed its way into the one institution, the one body which should not be following the rest but be a shining light in the darkness and confusion, which should be a haven for the oppressed, the lonely the hurt, which should be speaking courageously with a prophetic voice to the nations, the one body which should not be managed – the Church of Jesus Christ.  And yet that seems to be what is happening.  Congregations become consumers of religion and pastors service providers with job descriptions.  Stipends that historic term that beautifully defines the way a minister is to be supported becomes salaries and the church simply becomes just another modernist machine with stated aims and objectives, standards and values with just as much box ticking and watching the back as in any other field. How did this happen?

A medic friend suggested to me that it was like this: The benefits that were brought to society by Christianity who pioneered them, such as in health, education and welfare, in institutions which were subsequently handed over to the civil authority, lost their Christian base, their grounding reason for being and the only thing to fill that vacuum was a pursuit of a humanist atheistic mechanistic agenda with measureable goals. It is a scary analysis. It is scarier still if the church itself is in danger of being consumed by the same Managementarianism.

Crawford Mackenzie

Meeting Hans

amsterdam 2The only award I ever won in Architecture was as a student in my final year at college in 1972. It was an annual prize awarded by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland for a design completed within a day. Without any hint of false modesty, I am convinced I only won it because the competition was itself so poor and most of the others were diligently concentrating on the push towards their finals. I was cavalier enough to think that I could afford the time-off to do it.  With the prize money and as newlyweds we were able to make our first trip to the continent of Europe on a student charter flight to Amsterdam.  It was a city of red lights and hippies, bicycles and cafes, canal houses and neckgables, with families eating, reading and socializing on the steps down to the street in the late afternoon sun, and everywhere that delicious smell of cigar smoke. It was at once an enchanting place full of light and learning. It seemed to be the epicentre of European liberal civilisation and culture.  The pretext of the visit was to investigate and write something about the planning of the old city and by a chance encounter, I was introduced to someone who gave me access to a university library and so I found enough material to write a short dissertation and thus fulfil my obligation to the awarding body. On the Sunday we went looking for a church and found the English speaking church in the centre of the Begijnhof green. It turned out to be affiliated to the Church of Scotland. After listening to a dreary sermon on butterflies and being kind to sheep we mingled over coffee in the hall.  There we met a young American student called Chip Carter clutching a copy of “Europe on 5 dollars a day” who in turn introduced to us a couple from the States, on their honeymoon, doing Europe, on a good bit more than 5 dollars a day. Our new found friends exuded the super confidence that we lacked and so we tagged along with them for the rest of the day, visiting the Van Gogh museum and skulking at the back in in embarrassment, when they insisted on asking every resident for directions in very loud English. It paid off, however, and in the evening we found a tiny evangelical church in a nondescript district of the city where we were told Hans Rookmaker worshipped.

Hans Rookmaker was a professor of history of art at the Free University of Amsterdam and wrote “Modern art and the death of a culture” It was a seminal work and played a significant part in my understanding of faith, philosophy, reality, art, the modern world and their mutual relationship. It sorted out my ideas on these subjects and helped me sharpen my thoughts on how architecture fitted into the grand scheme of things.  In the college studios during the sixties there was no clear way forward and a confusion of philosophies (1). Some still held to the principles of design “commodity, firmness and delight” credited to Vitruvius and the historical critical method of Reyner Banham. The modern movement had run out of steam and we were crippled by the restrictions of the “form follows function” philosophy. In this discipline, there was no room for decoration or delight. Inevitable everything had to be justified in terms of utility and cost so no curves, no awkward shapes, no expensive materials, no elaborate constructions, just follow the basic requirements of the building and beauty would automatically arise. If it didn’t, it wasn’t your fault.  Among my fellow students, Brutalism still had a strong following but some of my close friends were beginning to flirt with post-modernism.  While Hans Rookmaker seldom mentioned architecture, it was his analysis of the state of art in the 20c which opened a door in my mind and threw an enormous light into an otherwise murky interior. It is hard to describe how inspirational that was.  Suddenly the parts belonged to the whole, God was as much interested in the means as the end and beauty meant more than utility.

The service in the drab school hall was in Dutch and mainly lost on us but we felt welcomed all the same, at home and able to share in the worship.  After the service we were ushered over to meet the great man, our American friends enthusiastically holding aloft their copy of the volume for signature. “And this is Crawford – he’s from Scotland he’s read your book” The old professor, already lighting up his pipe, was bemused, didn’t want to be photographed and swiftly made a sharp exit, all the while pretending that he couldn’t  speak English.  The pastor, however, was more willing to interact socially and invited us to his home in an apartment far out on the edge of the city.  This was a massive scheme of modern apartment blocks and setting for the notoriously famous “Blue movie”. We enjoyed a lovely evening chatting over delicious potato salad and watermelon with a crate of Amstel Pils bought from a neighbour and the air soon thick with cigar smoke. The children were playing with a brightly coloured rubber toy.  In a crazy sequence of connections, it turned out to be a prop from the set of David Lean’s “Ryans daughter”, where the children tease the village idiot over the lobster he had caught and it is thrown around in the crowd. In the film it is perfectly realistic.  Handling and playing with the toy you could see why. But all of the connections were beginning to take too many bizarre turns and we had had quite enough excitement for one day, so we found our way back into the city, to our little room high up in a canal house in the Jordaan district. Hans Rookmaker was to speak at a conference in Scotland some years later but he died quite suddenly and so I was never able to hear him in the flesh.

But it didn’t matter, I had his book and other writings and now more than forty years later, reading again the well-thumbed volume, I find that it has lost none of its relevance and I can feel again the thrill and excitement of a new discovery and the possibility of more.

Crawford Mackenzie

Note

1 To be fair it was not all confusion. James Macaulay’s lectures on architectural history were inspirational. Looking back was the best way of making sense of where we were, so that we could begin to chart a way forward.