Category Archives: Posts … words

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and architectural experience

Tomorrow, 18 February 2015, what is billed as the first ever exhibition of Mackintosh’s architecture opens in London, having come from Pamela Robertson’s wonderfully comprehensive project at the Hunterian in Glasgow (

How can a show in a room exhibit something which is itself far larger than a room, which is an experience in space and time?  It’s easy enough to exhibit a libretto and costumes, with models of stage sets and even film excerpts, but how do you exhibit an opera?

Do you, in fact, exhibit the opera only by attending a production of the opera?  How can you exhibit architecture without, um, having the architecture there to be experienced?

JMcK-hh-e copyAnd with Mackintosh, whose achievement as architect is often clouded by the easily photographed and endlessly reproduced  imagery of his essential accoutrements and decorative finishings, the architectural experience is unusually complete: the essentially linked exterior and interior, the link of one  interior space to the next, the link of the formal armature and the tactile, precious detail.

When the RIBA Journal asked me to locate Mackintosh’s importance as architect for today, to go with this exhibition which of course I had not yet seen at all, I mused on these issues.  It was not easy to know what to say.   My piece is in their February 2015 issue,

So I have been waiting slightly anxiously for the exhibition to open.  Olly Wainwright in The Guardian has already led the myriad tweets urging that we “must go and see Mackintosh’s retrospective”.  He adds that the exhibition shows CRM to have had over 1000 collaborators – he quotes Robertson for this bizarre comment to oppose the ‘isolated genius’ picture which he claims (quoting a discussion of my book in 2000 – to be my position, though without naming me.

Ah well.  Fifteen years ago, my book was discussed by Mark Lawson on Front Row on BBC Radio 4.  Tonight on Front Row the new exhibition was discussed by Amanda Levete – who, unlike me, has actually seen the show which opens tomorrow.   She makes it sound like an exhibition of exquisite drawings of the exteriors of buildings. She says “it misses out the essence of Mackintosh.”

What a pity.


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Where has 2014 gone?

2014 began with a trickle of what was intended to be a steady flow of posts encapsulating architecture, but that soon dried right up.  With luck, the tap will be turned on again, gently, in 2015.

As tour leader to Urbino, I pose with Francesco di Giorgio Martini, that city's great Renaissance designer (photographed at Sassocorvaro)

As tour leader to Urbino, I pose with Francesco di Giorgio Martini, that city’s great Renaissance designer
(photographed at Sassocorvaro)

For 2014 also began with the new venture of Cognoscenti Travel, and this has thoroughly dominated the year – with two very successful tours to Roman and Renaissance Italy in the summer followed by one to Hannover in September, celebrating the tercentenary of the dynasty from those parts taking the British thrones.   Planning well into 2016 is underway and the first 2015 tour (Edge of Empire, in May) has long been sold out.

Do look out for the Cognoscenti website ( and please follow us on Facebook.

Exhibition of my drawings in Udine, April 2014, moves location with difficulty

Exhibition of my drawings in Udine, April 2014, moves location with difficulty – and much help from friends!

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Worlds apart? (Part one of three)

An email arrives today from Sri Lanka – and it is in Italian!

It wishes me complimenti e tanti auguri per la mostra – but what Tilak Samarawickrema doesn’t know is that the exhibition in Italy includes drawings from our youth.   So here is Colombo from 45 years ago:1968-copy

seen from my flat


where I worked


and where I occasionally ate.

(a few more images from that moment in Part Two)

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Worlds apart – (part two of three)

I also noticed a little of historic Sri Lanka in 1969:


1968-12-31-Kandy-supreme-court-x 1969-03-03-Embekke-paddy-store-x


(and there were people there too – see Part Three of this post)

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Worlds apart (part three)

There were people in my Sri Lanka in 1969, even if virtually none in my exhibition in Italy in 2014.

As we waited at a rural bus-stop, this gentleman was looking at his picture appearing upside-down


Three sketches on a long tiring train journey with students between Colombo and Jaffna

(1969 was a political age ago)

1969-02-jaffna-train-fx 1969-02-jaffna-train-e-x


And finally today’s correspondent from Sri Lanka looking slightly less mature back then


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The Impossibility of Seeing What is In Front of the Eyes

The exhibition of my drawings and a few photographs

accompanying the talk “Why do Architects Draw?”

on 29 aprile 2014 alle ore 18.00 in



moves on 30 aprile 2014 to

Museo Diocesano e Gallerie del Tiepolo

piazza Patriarcato 1, 33100 Udine


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Thinking aloud with pencil: talk and exhibition in Udine




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Spring is sprung

Recent months have fled, and now that we are into April, my short-term focus is on putting together an exhibition of my drawings (and some photographs) along with a talk on Why do Architects Draw? in Udine at the end of the month (30 April 2014).   Sorry no time to say more!

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North-east Passage : crossroads at the edge


Begram, the centre of Kushan culture in the early centuries of our era, is today in Afghanistan not far north of Kabul. Around the year200, and for no reason we can fathom, two rooms in a building in the town centre were bricked up and abandoned. When opened by French archaeologists in the 1930s, nearly two millennia later, an astonishing crossroads in material culture was revealed. And it was a culture at the very edge of architecture, of settlement.

In these rooms in Begram were stacked luxury goods of all sorts: bronze sculptures from Italy, lacquer boxes from China, plaster medallions of muscular Greek youths, exquisitely painted Egyptian glass vessels – with images of the pharos (the lighthouse at Alexandria), of an African leopard hunt, of a scene from the Iliad. There were more than a thousand exquisitely carved ivory or bone sculptured figures, featuring placidly smiling but dynamically poised, curvaceous women – their grapefruit breasts and tiny waists immediately appearing Indian, and often they were likenesses of Ganga the Indian river goddess.

2ndC BCE Ai Khanoum

2nd Century BCE column capital from Ai Khanoum
(Wikimedia Commons)

Here was a key exchange point on the cultural artery which crossed Asia, from northern China to the Mediterranean, whose central tract had varied routes the most southern of which came by here, and which was to become known as the Silk Route. Begram’s history as trading centre has long been seen in huge caches of coins – 175 years ago a British traveller said the locals were unearthing 30,000 coins a year; he took 2000 on his way, and hordes are still being found in this unhappy country today. The plastered up rooms, it seems, were probably a merchant’s luxury goods warehouse.

Greek-style sculpture was found here – there is a lovely, delicately modelled plaster medallion of a youth – but a dynamic hybridity in the regional culture was nothing new, for half a millennium earlier there was a Greek city founded 130 miles further north, on the south of the great Amu Darya [or Oxus] river, today the Afghan northern border with Uzbeki and Tajikistan, but even then the border between cities and the open steppes, between town and nomad. Alexandria Oxiana, was the furthest Greek foundation, and ultimately allowed access to commerce with the Chinese empire. (Today it is called Aï-Khanoum, that is Uzbek for ‘Moon lady’.)

With its Greek theatre, gymnasium, baths, cemeteries with mausoleums, and Greek houses with colonnaded courtyards, Alexandria Oxiana was an important new city, Greek inasmuch as was Alexander, it is Seleucid and yet Bactrian. Its vast palaces and temples meld Hellenistic, Persian and Zoroastrian forms from across western Asia. With a rectangular grid enclosed within two miles of ramparts, it stood at the edge of architecture – for beyond were vanishing nomads.

The hybridity of its culture is typified in a 10 inch diameter silver disk now in Kabul Museum. (Well, by “now” I know it was it here a few years ago.) It shows gilded figures of Cybele and Nike, in Grecian dress though one with wings, riding in a central Asian chariot pulled by lions and followed by a servant on foot holding a gilded umbrella. They are approaching a priest who officiates atop a ziqqurat while, in the sky above, Helios the gilded sun-god watches over them, with a golden sun and crescent moon. It is a wonderful amalgam.


Plate showing Cybele, votive sacrifice and sun god, 2nd Century BCE, Ai Khanoum
(Wikimedia Commons)

Within two centuries this city was destroyed, and within two more (still well before the rise of Begram), some 200 miles west along the river, a tribe of Bactrian nomads settled, coming south across the great river, the Amu Daryu from the central Asian steppe. While their architecture remains unknown – and surely formed of nomads’ material – they embedded their new material cultural in the chieftains’ graves at the start of the present era.

At a place today called Tillya Tepe (‘golden hill’), graves found by a Russian archaeologist in 1970 held not only riches of wonderfully worked gold, but an engaging hybridity, reflecting not just east and west, but also north and south – that is the nomadic and settled life. A Siberian bear holds a grapevine; an Aphrodite with wings has an Indian-style circle on her brow. A gold-chain collar, beautifully formed of strung units of delicately shaped gold pendants inlaid with gems had been sewn into a dress that could go everywhere with the noblewoman’s person; a similarly delicate gold crown could be dismantled into six pieces for easy travel in a camel’s satchel.

Here one senses a genuinely global hybridity of culture, enough to terrify a Ukip euroskeptic, producing object of wonderful quality. Meanwhile, not far away, the great Alexandria Oxiana, buried for so long is become, since 1978, a totally destroyed battleground, as the Soviet Union then the United States and their vassals fight their bitter colonial struggles. Classic destruction.

Capsule 103

15 February 2014


Discussion of this post on Linkedin moves to Petra and the Nabataeans, and offers the fascinating map of Indo-Roman trade:

Indo-Roman trade

Indo-Roman trade (Wikimedia Commons)


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Encompassing architecture : Orientation


One of the first tasks of architecture is to offer an armature that aids alignment of our selves to the world that surrounds us. To help us orient ourselves, to mediate between our life and the great outside, architecture can be an anchor to prevent our being tossed randomly or drowned. In our incredibly dynamic world, the sun rises and sets over a different horizon each day, each precise arc repeated, in a great cycle, every year. Every night, the amazing complexity of sparkle in the dark sky is configured slightly differently; the extraordinary moon displays a syncopated pattern as it appears and disappears at different points in the heavens and simultaneously its very shape grows and withers with the days. As we live with the complexity of the overlaying of these dynamic, multi-rhythmic cycles, architecture has provided a frame to fix our giddy spinning. A safe, steady marker. Outlasting human lifespan, it holds us safely between before and after.

Through numberless millennia, our species knew – in ways we find incomprehensible today – how to live with that dance of the heavens. And so from architecture’s earliest times the exact orientation of those buildings which were of value to a society became of great significance. The location of north and south, then east and west, defined with ever greater precision, ensured that constructions that mattered would align with these markers.


Settlements small and large were aligned with their axes north-south (often the major ones) and east-west (often the minor ones) – it defined the towns in the 3rd Millennium BCE from the Yellow to the Indus river valleys, and long before the Romans did the same.

The great individual structures of lasting social value were similarly aligned.  Their sides were set normal to the cardinal points with great precision at the pyramids at Giza, their corners set facing the cardinal points at the temples of Sumer. Rectilinear sides facing the cardinal points were almost ubiquitous, indicating a sacredness from south-western and central America to east Asia. All this before the development of the magnetic compass – an advance which, according to Joseph Needham, was made in China for the purposes of feng-shui: to help ensure the favourable and resonant forming of new places within the greater landscape and the cosmos beyond.

Typically, to pick examples from a myriad possibilities, Buddhist stupas, including the great one at Sanchi, the circle inscribed in the square, had a gate facing each cardinal point and the temple of Borobudur had its similarly mandala-like symmetry precisely aligned to the cosmic order; the rectilinear slab (or ‘mastaba’) tombs of Egypt and the palaces-ancestor-temple-tombs of China were all so aligned, usually stressing the north-south axis.


Borabadur stupa

At the Mayan holy city of Teotihuacan the arrangement of the numerous platforms along the Avenue of the Dead was described by John Lundquist as “connected more with the universe through the cosmic orientation than with each other as parts of a more traditional architectural arrangement.” Temples and pyramids built along the axis (Avenue of the Dead) were oriented astronomically to the Pleiades, the four cardinal directions, and the surrounding mountains. While the central pyramidal structure, the Pyramid of the Sun, was built over a cave which had been a sacred spot from before time began (it figures in the Mayan creation account, the Popul Vuh). This cave was lit by the sun, each year only once, at the summer solstice.

More than north-south, it is the east-west axis which more closely mimics the sun’s path, and so we see this axis universally echoing the cycle of dawn to dusk as birth (or life) to death. This force is exemplified from the most simple caves of Yangshao peoples, deep in today’s Ninxia Hui autonomous region of China, with their horizontal cave entrances all facing east, to the great temples on India’s southern east coast (nearing the equator), facing the sun rising over the vast ocean horizon to hit the temple door.

Orientation to catch the sun developed in different places to articulate differing cultural forms and belief systems. Clearly the further from the equator, the more extreme the sun path variation. And linking the northerly location of Stonehenge with its first builders’ presumed greater concerns with moon paths before the later focus on the sun, produced the complex alignments but basically facing north-easterly, as do all the other similar land-marks long predating Stonehenge’s great remaining stone circles.

The magical points of change, the equinox and the solstice, are universal markers in joining our lives to the cosmos. For a very few days in midwinter, at New Grange, on Brú na Bóinne in Ireland, the sun creeps through its long, narrow tunnel deep into this great earthen mound until, in the early morning of the winter solstice, it comes in nearly horizontal through the window carefully placed over the entrance, along the passage rising to the core, and for 15 minutes it uncannily illuminates the deeply hidden chamber floor. Thus (on a sunny day) are the human and greater worlds connected, by this architectural construction now over five thousand years old.

The Modhera temple, built by Bhimder I more than three millennia later and shortly before the Normans colonised southern Britain, is a Gujarati masterpiece. At dawn on the equinox, the sun penetrates and falls directly on the Surya deity. 300 years earlier, across the world at Palenque, the Maya celebrated their ruler and the sun together at the winter solstice. As the sun, in mid-afternoon, slowly disappears behind the ridge where Lord Pacal’s tomb stands, a long shadow hits the temple on the opposite ridge. The sun then dips into the underworld until, two hours later, its dying beam reappears to spotlight a carved frieze of the ascension of the new ruler. At the moment of death it announces the sun’s birth.

At their centre of Uaxactun, north of Tikal, three small temples aligned north-south stand across a courtyard from a pyramid facing east. From the pyramid steps, the sun rose directly over the central temple on the equinoxes, over then southernmost at winter solstice and the northernmost at summer solstice. On the opposite side of the world, at the early 12th Century CE Angkor Wat, the sun rose directly aligned over the topmost tower precisely at the entrance to the west on equinox and solstice; altogether 22 positions within the temple were used to observe sun and moon. Thus were world and cosmos bound together.


Plan of the Bayon, Angkor Thom with north to the top. The above observations on the Angkor temples are from late 20th Century scientific studies quoted by John Lundquist, The Temple, London, 1993

However deeply buried, this urge will not entirely disappear. In the Utah desert, west of the Great Salt Lake and somewhere near N 40º 48.439 and W 114º 01.266, in the early 1970s Nancy Holt (wife of land artist Robert Smithson) carefully placed a cross with an empty centre, made of four 18’ long concrete drain pipes laid out in the desert. The 9’ diameter tubes (she called them ‘sun tunnels’) are precisely aligned with the sunrise and sunset of the summer and winter solstices. They are also pierced by holes of varying size, corresponding with the pattern of selected celestial constellations: one pipe each for Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn. Its sense of both majesty and banality leave a memorable mark from the 20th Century.

Architecture as a sundial, however, might rather differently align with a man-made anniversary. The Great Temple at Abu Simbel was dedicated to the sungods Amun-Re and Re Harakhti, as well as to Ptah and the deified king Ramesses II himself. The great hall and then vestibule lead to the sanctuary where, on a black back wall, are four seated figures: Re Harakhti, the deified king Ramesses, and the gods Amun-Re and Ptah. Twice a year, on October 20 (the day of the jubilee celebrating the king’s thirty year rule) and February 20, the rays of the sun pass down its long axis, penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the figures on the back wall, – except for the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the Underworld, who always remained in the dark. This image of the king was enhanced and revitalized by the energy of the solar star, and the deified Ramesses could take his place next to Amun-Re and Re Harakhti.

Back over three millennia and again to the early 1970s, the competition winning design for Northamptonshire County Offices in England, by Dixon Jones Cross and Gold, was in the form of a pure pyramid, appearing unbroken but its skin punctured by deep light wells and a winter garden cut into each face, outside the air-conditioned envelope. (The design goal was to upset the uniform banality of late-Modern standardised office provision.) One key shaft through the pyramid was so aligned that the chief accountant’s desk would be lit by direct sunlight only in mid-morning on the first day of the UK financial year, 6th April. This final ‘touch of humour’, Jeremy Dixon told me, very nearly lost them the competition. But could that unease have subconsciously touched a very ancient nerve here, when the archetypal importance of such a gesture was being treated ironically in this proposal?

Another generation on and Daniel Libeskind wins the competition to design ‘Freedom Tower’ on the site of Yamasaki’s banal twin blocks for the World Trade Center. This contains the ‘Wedge of Light’ so oriented that no shadow will be cast on the site of the destroyed towers on the anniversary of their destruction. “Each year on September 11 between the hours of 8.46am when the first airplane hit, and 10.28am, when the second tower collapsed,” he explains, “the sun will shine without shadow, in perpetual tribute to altruism and courage.”
Pompous and kitsch? Or is the architect grappling with these archetypal memories of when such connections were meaningful?

Relaxing from such cardinal precision, the European mediaeval cathedral developed an iconography of orientation, presuming an axis from ‘westwork’ to ‘east end’ even if often not topographically followed, and the Buddhist shrine similarly also faces east, as that was the way The Buddha faced in meditation under his bhodi tree. The mihrab in a Muslim mosque, however, should face one point on earth wherever it is constructed, and that is towards the Ka’bah in Makkah on the Arabian peninsula (The Ka’bah’s GPS coordinates are 21°25’24”N, 39°49’24”E.)

When the Umayyad Arabs from Damascus were expelled and set themselves up as el-Andalus far to the west, on the Iberian peninsula (Andalusia), the Mihrab in their great mosque of Cordoba faced south. It aimed towards the spiritual Makkah, for thus had all the mosques they knew in the Levant; rather than south east, towards its literal location.
Today we have a different obsession with orientation. In most places around the world, for a Muslim to orientate correctly when praying, the aim towards Makkah suffices. However, within the Sacred Mosque, worshippers pray in concentric circles radiating outwards around the Ka’bah. The focus is in the middle of the Ka’bah, but to take a GPS reading from within or on top or it is forbidden, and an estimate must be made from various positions around the Ka’bah.


On the axis of Angkor Wat
(photo: John McKean)

Capsule 102

8 February 2014

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