Author Archives: John

Segal, part 84

Keeping away from the alluring and addictive surf (I find I’ve wasted hours before I get surf-bored), I was surprisingly nudged awake this week by a younger architectural historian friend asking if I’d seen a tweet about Walter Segal’s archive. She then kindly showed it to me.

Perhaps it happens to all tweets at holiday periods which ask a question. Certainly here a fascinating chain ensued, all stemming from an innocent private chat at a New Year party. Who knows, it may end with a wonderful, safe, organised and accessible home for the life-long material left by the ever meticulous Walter Segal.

But once on the surf this morning, that soon got me floating past all sorts of undecaying plastic in the data ocean – and suddenly meeting one of my own photographs of Walter Segal up a ladder. 

Ho hum. This opens a piece in a magazine called AnOther, it seems.  Quite a charming little piece about the Segal self-built streets in Lewisham (actually a puff for Alice and Taran’s lovely book), it also used two more of my pictures from those early self-building days. I wonder where they found them? But at least, although I was never shown this 18-month old article before, they do correctly credit my photos. It can be read here. 

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Segal, part 71

This drawer (the fourth down, on the left) , is now (July 2019) unlocked, opened and labelled Walter Segal. Now there are books contracted and underway – Walter Segal: Self-built Architect by John McKean & Alice Grahame (Lund Humphries) and  Walter Segal by John McKean in the ’20th century English Architects’ series which The 20th Century Society with RIBA and Historic England set on a fine trail and of which University of Liverpool Press have very recently taken the reins.

Here are a jumbled few posts (the Segal, part thingie series) and yellowing cuttings over recent years regarding an ongoing interest in Mr. Segal.  However, elsewhere in this filing cabinet is a large envelope labelled Walter Segal (goodness, it turns red when you hover over it!), and in there are found various substantial, pre-digital texts I have written about Mr. Segal, mostly centuries ago, which anyone interested is welcome to steal as downloadable pdf files.

Walter Segal talking through the space left alongside his cigar, sitting in the first self-built house in his system, Mr and Mrs Holland’s house, seen in poster on right. Both photographs: John McKean

I may add links to other views on Segal as time allows, but a good starting point is a brief introduction to Segal by Colin Ward which you can read here. Meanwhile my colleagues Alice Grahame (author) and Taran Wilkhu (photographer) in 2017 published attractive tales of life in two idyllic Segal streets, self-built 40 years ago in London by people on the local authority’s list of those in housing need; it can be bought here and elsewhere.  Alice has also started this useful Segal-news website here, while a range of Taran’s great pictures of the interiors in 2017 are also seen here.

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Master your own education!


Look – No Students

  •  It is fascinating to see Dezeen recently talking about Stacie Woolsey’s Make Your Own Masters which is now very much alive here – a real future in design education! 

It certainly takes me back nearly half a century, when in a very different educational world I was arguing about the possibilities at Alvin Boyarsky’s Architectural Association. And then, a few years later Monica Pidgeon published my very sketchy manifesto ‘Look no students!’  in RIBA Journal 1970.  Strange to read it again after so long; and yet, with the cobwebs dusted off …



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Building Ambitions of Brighton College

Today is mid-May (but we won’t be mid-May for much longer, I hear) and I open this website for the first time this year. My story of Brighton College’s building ambitions is finally off to be printed today and can be changed no further. Looks good here. It has been an interesting project, it just growed and growed but I hope it has been worthwhile.

And in the time it has taken me to get to print, the OMA building has moved from this shot at the very end of 2018 to a genuinely recognisable building.

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Segal, Part 70

SPECIAL OFFER!  I have a copy of this classic masterpiece at greatly reduced price one week only – £129.99!

Otherwise, Segal fans, you will just have to wait for a while more for a new book to  appear… soon…

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Et in arcadia ego

The praise heaped on David Watkin and his Morality and Architecture, following his recent death, and then that of Robert Venturi just weeks later, took me back exactly 40 years, to when I saw them both in that summer of 1978.   Giancarlo De Carlo asked me to review Watkin, Jencks’ Second Edition Post-Modern and that summer’s fun in London for his then new journal Spazio e Società.   Here is a snippet:

David Watkin’s book (perhaps to Jencks’ embarrassment) is in ways similar, but this is a mischievous if not downright malicious piece of reactionary propaganda posing as academic righteousness. Full of tendentious sneers and gratuitous insult, while purporting to argue against the moral purpose in architecture from Pugin to Pevsner and the Modern Movement, it reveals itself as a violently anti-socialist tirade.

‘It’s principal claim to originality’, philosophy professor Richard Wollheim wrote recently, ‘is the total absence of sympathy with the topic on which its polemic is conducted’. It is a corpse not worth picking at; having been adequately dismembered, its nastiness and stupidities brilliantly flayed by Reyner Banham (Times Literary Supplement 12.2.78 p. 191), and its likely consequences more subtly dissected by Robin Evans, (Architectural Design May/June 1978 p 276).

But in a sense Watkin’s hollow diatribe was as necessary as Jencks’ shallow case; for, although ‘the old Puritan idea that simplicity is moral and elaboration immoral’, (of which on pages 38-39 Watkin accuses Le Corbusier), makes me assume he’s never seen a Corbusier building, we have enough evidence of the sterility of modern architecture for Watkin’s boorishness to claim an excited following. Watkin, setting up the arid polarity of formalism (good architecture) versus socialism (bad architecture), can only retreat into the suggestion that the architect renounce all interest in the social milieu created by his work, to become the mere stylist of museum exhibits.

The Modern Movement claimed to be the only true architecture for the people; but it was unintellegible to them. ‘Anything which reminds one of the past is a vice’ (as Watkin wildly caricatures Pevsner).

I’m slightly taken aback to find this again after so long.  How far have we now really wandered into a foreign country, I wonder? 

The whole long piece for SeS – also built around Peter Cook’s Art-Net and Robin Middleton’s Beaux-Arts ‘conferences’  of summer 1978- is found here.

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Giancarlo De Carlo-Colin Ward-Walter Segal

Two good days in Togliano, the first with Franco Bunčuga and Adam Wood, the second with Alberto Franchini, talking in all sorts of ways, inter-knitting this trio from my past and now in all our presents, and the possibilities of publication of Franco’s conversations with De Carlo in English and stuff by me about Segal in Italian and all sorts of other tales enlivened by Adam and Alberto’s new youthful energies and Alberto’s excavations in Giancarlo’s archive at IUAV.

Great company, great thinking, good weather and lovely food. Conviviality.Adam’s snap of Franco and me with three editions of his Conversazione, empty prosecco glasses and bottle, my English/German ancient book on Walter and the French edition of my book on Giancarlo on the table between us.

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Moving on

What an unexpected collision of two bits of me this morning, 11 July 2018, our first morning in England for six weeks, to find two complete journals just arrived, one 24 pages, one 32 pages, and not a single word in either not written by me… and yet they couldn’t have come from more disparate corners of the universe. Will I ever find my pigeon-hole? 

Well now it is time to get that focus onto Walter Segal.

Did I really take this photograph of him 44 years ago?  I guess so.

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Exhibition half-way through its month of weekends

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No reality was hurt in the making of this photograph. No CGI, no Photoshop.

Unlike the warnings which annotate everyday life (“may contain nuts”, “do not attempt at home”…) this is a promise: No reality was hurt in the making of the photographs in this exhibition. No CGI (computer-generated imagery), no Photoshop.

In the 20th Century, Susan Sontag reminded us that we understood a photograph to be of something that did or does exist, no matter what lenses, filters, or films were deployed to transformed it. Whereas a painting had no necessary connection to the real. As Roland Barthes succinctly put it: “A photograph is always invisible; it is not it that we see.”

In the 21st Century we have all learned to perceive differently. While we still look through the photograph in front of us, we no longer believe it must portray a solid reality. Today, it is not the KGB expert’s unusual skill which eliminates a discredited enemy from the politburo photograph. We can each remove the whole crowd on the beach around our beloved, with the simple touch of a Photoshop finger.

Forty-five years ago, Sontag wrote “A faked painting (with false attribution) falsifies the history of art. A faked photograph (retouched or tampered with) falsifies reality.”

We see a quite different world now. Yet the photograph remains ‘invisible,’ is looked through, not at.

My current work explores this central paradox of photography: and the difficulty of seeing what is in front of the eyes. There is too much reality out there. As we move through the world, we tend to edit out much of what is actually in front of us. I am not interested in post-click, electronic manipulation: here is what I see.

Does the distinction between the real and unreal, the true and fake, matter at all?   Are they not just flat images of more or less visual interest?

Ah yes, but what the caption “this is a real photograph” is saying is: “Look! This is what you too see, if you open your eyes.”

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