• The Isolation Files #3 – ‘Instant’ architecture

    Demand is falling for the modular, transportable or slot-together medical facilities brought quickly into being around the world, although many have proved critical. Traditionally, speed is considered antithetical to good architecture. Consideration of the brief, site and approach followed by construction itself all take years – typically three to five for any large building today – with the implication that effectiveness, efficiency and, yes, aesthetics have been thoroughly considered in that time too. Yet permanent as well as temporary buildings have appeared every fifty years or so since the industrial age began which were in fact conceived and – especially – fabricated in months rather than years…


    Completed: 1800

    Building: Ditherington Flax Mill (Shrewsbury, UK)

    Architect: Charles Bage

    Construction: 12 months

    Function: Textile mill

    Capacity: 900 spindles

    Materials: Iron, bricks, timber, glass

    Features: Iron frame; non-structural brick elevations

    Bage was actually a structural engineer. He had worked closely with fellow engineer William Strutt to produce the earliest known analysis of the strength of iron beams and columns, and used the knowledge to build this mill for spinning flax into linen yarn and thread. Ditherington has a structure of cast iron columns and beams spanning the building at each floor level, with floors on brick arches tied by wrought iron bars. This is entirely self-supporting and the brick elevations are merely weather-proofing. Ditherington was far more fire-resistant than mills built from the traditional timber and the first iron-framed building in the world. It is thus regarded as the ancestor of the iron- and steel-framed office building or skyscraper, which only appeared – in Chicago – well over three quarters of a century later.


    Completed: 1851

    Building: Crystal Palace (London, UK)

    Architect: Joseph Paxton

    Construction: 9 months

    Function: Exhibition venue

    Area: 92,000 square metres

    Materials: Iron, timber, glass

    Features: Kit of parts; self-supporting structure; modular wall panels

    Paxton had pioneered iron and glass construction with a great greenhouse on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. He sketched his initial idea for this temporary exhibition venue on a train and, having been selected over many renowned architects to build his scheme, partnered with a contractor to produce a full set of plans in 10 days. Every component was designed to be simple and repetitive, allowing volume manufacture at reasonable cost and fast assembly. The structure was formed from iron columns and lattice frames, both cast and wrought; the columns acted as downpipes. It followed a grid that was itself driven by the largest panes of plate glass then manufactured. Those on the roof were formed into units and fitted from trolleys. The floorboards were initially used for hoarding the site and external walls were modular, composed of glazing panels, ventilation louvres or timber. The Exhibition made a 40% profit and the building was re-used elsewhere in expanded form afterward.


    Completed: 1895

    Building: Reliance Building (Chicago, US)

    Architect: Daniel H. Burnham, John Root, Charles B. Atwood

    Construction: 8 months

    Function: Commercial tower

    Floors: 16

    Materials: Steel, terracotta, glass

    Features: Steel frame; terracotta cladding; electric light and telephone in each office

    The Reliance is generally accepted to be the first building to bring together the steel frame, a lightweight ‘skin’ and large expanses of expensive plate glass to make an office tower whose rooms were flooded with daylight. Careful column specification and design removed the need for cross-bracing whilst still providing good wind resistance. This economy, plus the absence of masonry above the ground floor (which was part of an earlier scheme aborted after the death of Root), meant it was exceptionally fast to build, taking just twelve weeks for the frame to be assembled. This was enclosed with white, glazed terracotta pieces that were thinner than brick or stone, aiding the provision of daylight. Intended for rental as professional chambers to doctors, dentists and so on, tenants began occupying the building on New Year’s Day, 1895.


    Completed: 1939

    Building: Maison du Peuple de Clichy (Paris, France)

    Architect: Eugène Beaudouin, Marcel Lods, Jean Prouvé

    Construction: 26 months (excluding emergency basement shelter)

    Function: Community facility

    Area: 2,000 square metres

    Materials: Steel, glass

    Features: Cladding independent of structure; moveable internals; adjustable roof

    Intended to provide in one building a covered market, village hall, conference room, cinema and offices for a union and the local council, the ‘people’s house’ is a key project featuring the designs of metal worker and architect Prouvé. To combine the contradictory needs of the brief, his wall and floor elements are separate from the structure and can be installed, erected or moved as needed, creating for example a meeting venue with partitions or an open trading area out of the same space at different times of the week. The roof could open as needed. Toilets, stairs and other fittings were prefabricated. Prouvé was inspired by the automobile and aeronautics industry, anticipating the work of the British High-Tech movement, and later specialised in metal curtain walling which often had built-in shutters and vents.


    Completed: 1966

    Building: DeLaveaga Elementary School (Santa Cruz, USA)

    Architect: Leefe & Ehrenkrantz

    Construction: 9 months

    Function: School

    Roll: 270 students (initial building)

    Materials: Steel, brick, glass

    Features: Demountable partitions; moveable services and storage

    DeLaveaga was one of a dozen schools built under California’s experimental School Construction Systems Development (SCSD) programme, serving the rising population of post-war America via an industrialised, component-based approach to the provision of education facilities. SCSD was created by architect Ezra Ehrenkrantz who was inspired by the comparable British Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) of 1957. Six subsystems comprised the SCSD specification, encompassing structure (excluding external walls), air conditioning (within the roof space and repositionable), lighting and so on. Commissioning echoed the aerospace industry, as each school board gave performance goals for suppliers to respond to with their versions of the subsystems. These therefore had to be compatible with each other to allow the necessary flexibility. Some bids included maintenance for a period.


    Completed: 1993

    Building: Igus GmbH (Cologne, Germany)

    Architect: Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners

    Construction: 15 months

    Function: Factory

    Area: 7,400 square metres

    Materials: Steel, aluminium, GRP, glass

    Features: Unobstructed floors; service runs in ceiling; interchangeable cladding panels

    Designed for a plastics company as an expandable factory, warehouse and testing facility with the specific additional requirement of a complete change of use thereafter, Igus was one of a series of buildings by High-Tech architects that were flexible, fast and future-proof in their design and erection. Steel masts with tension rods work with steel beams arranged as a simple square grid to form the structure; the insulated exterior skin includes areas that can be changed between glazed, solid, grille or door inserts, and fittings can be attached directly to its inside face. Services are not fixed and hang from the roof or sit outside the overall envelope. The self-contained pods are plugged into ducting and risers and can float to another location on the floor. Domes of GRP bring daylight and natural ventilation.


    Completed: 2019

    Building: Mjøstårnet (Brumunddal, Norway)

    Architect: Voll Arkitekter

    Construction: 18 months

    Function: Mixed-use tower

    Floors: 18

    Materials: Timber, glass

    Features: Prefabricated timber structure and cladding

    The world’s tallest all-timber building contains a hotel, apartments, offices and a restaurant. Its structure, lift shafts and façades are made exclusively from two kinds of factory-made engineered timber – glulam, where layers of planed wood are sandwiched together with their grain aligned, and cross-laminated timber where the grain is alternated. Adhesive is used in both cases. Here the former was used for columns, beams and diagonals, the latter for elevator shafts and balconies. Elements were brought to the site assembled before being craned into position. Such materials are increasingly employed as alternatives to concrete and steel, compared to which they are more sustainable and renewable without sacrificing strength and durability.



  • VE DAY 75: Aftermath

    “It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.”

    - Aristotle

    “Those who can win a war well can rarely make a good peace and those who could make a good peace would never have won the war.”

    - Churchill

    The impact of the war for Europe was almost impossible to comprehend, even excepting its contribution to a death toll of tens of millions. Entire armies and their weapons had to be stood down, disarmed and returned home. Prisoners of war awaited repatriation. There were insurrections, ethnic and other retaliations and more formal reckonings via war crimes trials. Vast swathes of land had changed hands. Millions of civilians found themselves in the wrong country, homeless or starving, or wandering, lost. Cities had been levelled and were littered with unexploded ordnance and wrecked materiel.

    My father – who was to spend six months in Germany – and his Wing at Travemünde saw many of these problems. A factory was emptied to allow blankets to be made and 2,000 military supply containers were converted into stoves for civilian use in the winter. Theft of food and other items occurred, a guard was killed during an escape of prisoners near Hamburg and cuts in rations caused “alarm and adverse comment on the British administration”. And though the war was over, death was still present for the Wing itself – seven of its airmen died during their posting, by explosion, gunshot, vehicle crash and drowning.

    Mere miles from the agreed occupation boundary between Russia and the Western Allies, the Wing found itself at the intersection of two very different armies and two very different cultures. Oral testimonies of British servicemen based at Lübeck and Travemünde reference Russian abuses of German civilians and the difficulties of intervening in the actions of an ally, and reveal their complicity in disobeying repatriation orders and falsifying papers to allow those fleeing from the east to stay in the west. Interference by Russia in Western intelligence operations was not unusual, although Russian officers visited the Wing cordially at least once. And as early as March 1946, speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill warned that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent”.



  • VE DAY 75: 8 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 8 May 1945, it was Victory in Europe Day in Britain, western Europe and America. In London 50,000 people, some of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to be there, gathered in Whitehall for Churchill’s announcement. Made in Downing Street but relayed live by loudspeaker to the crowd outside, he proclaimed that the war in Europe would end at “one minute past midnight tonight”. An hour later Churchill appeared with the Royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to great acclaim. Two hours after that, he emerged onto the balcony of 100 Parliament Street, opposite the building containing the underground cabinet war rooms, and said “This is your victory,” before beginning an impromptu rendition of Land of Hope and Glory that the crowd happily joined. Finally, at 9pm, King George VI broadcast to the nation, remembering “those who will not come back” and saluting “the great host of the living who have brought us to victory”.

    Much later – after midnight in fact – in the Berlin suburb of Karlshorst German commanders were made to sign the surrender again for the Soviet Union, which to this day marks VE Day one day after the rest of the world in accordance with the Allies’ original plan. The resentment this caused in Russia would be one of many steps toward a new conflict that would overshadow the world in the coming decades. This war, though, was over, although it was not until 20 May that the German garrison on Texel, an island immediately north of Amsterdam, was defeated by Canadian forces in the last battle of the European war.

    For my father and his mates, their job – to remove or destroy Luftwaffe aircraft, equipment and weapons – was just beginning. On VE Day the advance party left Ostend and drove 230 miles to Twente in Holland. They passed through Arnhem, which my father recalled was still burning and filled with starving citizens, and camped by the road that night. The rear party, meanwhile, sailed from England today. Ahead lay a link up, revised orders, a long drive to Germany, and the secret Luftwaffe test centre at Travemünde on the Baltic coast, at the northern-most point of what would soon become the Iron Curtain.



  • COUNTDOWN TO VE DAY 75: 7 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 7 May 1945, the war in Europe was over by the time people woke up. In the early hours of this morning in a room at the technical college of Reims in France that served as his headquarters, Eisenhower took the formal surrender of all remaining German forces in Europe. The German delegation had arrived late on 6 May with the hope of a signing before midnight but negotiations had taken longer than intended. The surrender was to come into effect at 23:01 Central European Time on 8 May 1945 (one minute past midnight on 9 May, given the daylight-saving then in effect – Britain was in the same time zone for the duration). The delay was to allow Russia, whose own army was pushing forward from the east and which was not properly represented at Reims, to be informed and a simultaneous announcement and so news of the agreement was embargoed as a result. Posing for the press immediately afterwards, Eisenhower made a ‘V for Victory’ sign with the pens used in the ceremony. One journalist leaked the story, however, and by this afternoon the secret was out in much of the West. In Britain the public were anxious for confirmation and eventually the government, in hasty consultation with those of the other Western Allies, had to announce that Churchill would speak to the nation at 3pm tomorrow, 8 May. Just a few hours after the signing at Reims, and still an hour before sunrise, the advance party of the RAF’s No.8401 Air Disarmament Wing embarked at Tilbury for the crossing to Ostend in Belgium, including my father. The Wing’s war diary notes that “lifebelts were issued together with a paper vomit bag”, although fortunately the crossing was calm.



  • COUNTDOWN TO VE DAY 75: 6 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 6 May 1945, more and more people, including soldiers, medics and journalists, were finding out exactly what the fighting had been for as aid started to arrive at the many prisoner-of-war, concentration and extermination camps Nazi Germany had created. Outside the camps, hundreds of thousands of German troops had to be disarmed, guarded and in some cases interrogated. There were also thousands more refugees, displaced persons and deserters to be fed, housed and managed; some of these wanted to return to where they came from, others wanted anything but. All of this awaited the RAF’s No.8401 Air Disarmament Wing, an advance party of which left RAF Kenley at 0730 in a convoy of 37 trucks heading for Tilbury Docks. My father was among them. Their route took them through Brixton, Vauxhall and Southwark, across the Thames via London Bridge, into the City of London and out past Aldgate. At Dagenham they were diverted to nearby RAF Hornchurch, where they spent the evening awaiting a ship.



  • COUNTDOWN TO VE DAY 75: 5 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 5 May 1945, the surrender signed at Lüneburg yesterday came into effect. One of the German generals stayed with Montgomery overnight to assist with this. Fighting continued in those parts of Europe outside of the surrender’s scope. Montgomery was still under pressure to secure Demark for the Western Allies and sent a single senior officer and a company of elite British paratroopers in a dozen Dakotas to take Copenhagen. They landed at 5pm to huge acclaim; the Germans stayed in their barracks. In Holland the Canadians managed that country. In a telegram to his Foreign Secretary, Prime Minister Winston Churchill describes the situation as “quite a satisfactory incident in our military history.” At Rheims in France General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander for the theatre, prepared for the total surrender to come. In England my father’s unit, the RAF’s No.8401 disarmament Wing, was ordered to move out tomorrow.



  • COUNTDOWN TO VE DAY 75: 4 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 4 May 1945, von Friedeberg’s delegation returned to Montgomery’s tactical headquarters at Lüneburg with authorisation to accept the unconditional surrender of German forces in Holland, northern Germany and Denmark. Montgomery had invited a full press corps to the event, which took place that evening within his tented command caravan, lit by floodlights powered by a generator. The signing of the one-page surrender instrument by five German senior commanders was recorded by photographers but also newsreel cameramen using the new technology of synchronised sound. Montgomery relished the moment that, in the words of one Allied officer, he had been rehearsing all his life. Back in Kent the men of No.8401 AD Wing, including my father, conducted practice convoys to get use to the challenge of driving trucks and men hundreds of miles in perfect order.



  • COUNTDOWN TO VE DAY 75: 3 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 3 May 1945, the first Allied troops arrived at Travemünde, just west of Wismar. A reconnaissance platoon from T-Force, whose sole aim was to locate and seize German technology, scientists and materiel, secured the area against a flow of refugees heading west and took surrender of the top secret Luftwaffe research station on the Priwall peninsular. At Lüneburg, west of the Elbe river, Admiral Hans von Friedeberg, head of the German navy after Karl Doenitz succeeded Hitler as Nazi leader, arrives to offer Montgomery terms; Germany will surrender to the Western Allies only. Montgomery refuses, requiring those Germans in the east to surrender to Russia. Von Friedeberg, horrified, protests, citing what might happen to German civilians and soldiers alike. “You should have thought of all this six years ago,” Montgomery retorts, and sends him back to his commanding officer to try again.



  • COUNTDOWN TO VE DAY 75: 2 MAY 1945

    Seventy-five years ago today, 2 May 1945, Allied forces arrived at Lübeck on the Baltic coast of Germany, having fought their way east since June 1944. The town was supposed to be the limit of their advance, the Russians having also agreed to stop there, but fears of a Russian take-over of northern Germany and Denmark drove Field Marshal Montgomery to send a joint British and American unit 30 miles further east to Wismar to intercept the Red Army. They passed Russian tanks heading west as they did so and only after the threat of Allied-Allied conflict were things settled. Denmark remained in western Europe. In England my father, Cyril Rogers, waited at RAF Kenley with the rest of No.8401 Air Disarmament Wing; yesterday the Wing received orders to move to Germany within a few days, and Cyril was promoted.



  • The Isolation Files #2 - Science, fact and fiction

    The speed of our eventual recovery depends entirely on our collective ability to get on top of the virus now and that means we have to take the next steps on scientific advice

    – Boris Johnson, 19 March 2020, press conference

    There’s a ‘fire’, sir.

    – Captain Morton, 5 February 1971, The Andromeda Strain (1971)

    Whether anyone could or should have been more prepared for a pandemic originating amidst Earth’s six billion people is a moot point for now; instead, scientists are working hard on a vaccine and improved treatments. But fifty years ago, young doctor-turned-author Michael Crichton imagined elaborate plans to protect against the possibility of a lethal micro-organism arriving from space, in his novel The Andromeda Strain. It was an immediate success and the film version two years later, directed by Robert Wise, is unarguably the most grounded, intelligent and respectful portrayal of a similar scientific struggle.

    Crichton’s story centres on four scientists battling to detect, characterise and suppress an unknown contagion that kills all but two residents of a small, isolated town after a space probe’s re-entry vehicle makes landfall. The scientists are summoned from around the US by military policemen, armed guards and tapped telephone lines and brought to a secure, state of the art biocontainment facility buried beneath the Nevada desert on land owned by the Atomic Energy Commission. Codenamed Wildfire, the complex is as classified as the intercontinental ballistic missile silos scattered across the American Mid-West, has its own nuclear device for emergency sanitisation and is further protected by a large, fenced-in agricultural research station sitting above it. The scientists – a surgeon, a bacteriologist, a pathologist and a microbiologist – must work together using the latest technology but also logic, methodology and experience to solve the mystery, not knowing what form of life they are battling and how it might mutate.

    It can be seen already that the film weaves a rich mix of the real and the fictional. Indeed, both book and film are presented as documenting actuality – Crichton was inspired by his editor to consider what the novel “would look like, if the story were true. Where would I have gotten the information? How much would I know? And in what style would I write it, if it were true?” A specific influence was Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File of 1962, not least for its inclusion of footnotes both factual and fictitious. For his book, then, Crichton drew on his own medical training and available technology like spy satellite film recovery capsules, although also included a lengthy bibliography of sources that is convincing but entirely false. Wise continued this approach by having authentic-looking documents created for the montage that underlays the opening titles. These comprise the security clearance for one of the team; a secure storage area allocation card for a nurse who supports one of the main characters; a foreign national visitor request for a Hungarian scientist who is later seen advocating the concept of bacteriological life on meteorites (the request is stamped DISAPPROVED); the summary court martial record of a Vandenberg Air Force Base sergeant who also appears in the film; and a sales receipt for barley seed delivered to the Wildfire cover site.

    Under production designer Boris Neven the hardware used adopted the same principle. Multiple organisations and contractors assisted the production, as they did on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey two years earlier. Telechirs or remote manipulators from the nuclear industry, a magnascanner or medical imager employing radiological material, industrial robots and a computer controlled by light pen were all provided. These and other devices, such as closed-circuit television, fingerprint scanners – which had barely been invented – and lasers, were real but cutting edge systems whose presence increased the credibility of elements that were entirely hypothetical, such as the Wildfire laboratory itself. Composed of five ring-shaped floors, each colour-coded, it was equipped with airlocks, tracking systems and a nutrient tablet-dispensing canteen.

    The film thus displays the cinematic techno-fetishism of its era yet is clearly positioned between the Playboy-style architectural fantasies of Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) and Ken Adam’s sets for Bond adventure Diamonds are Forever (1969) and the more subdued technology of The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). Visually Wise adopted deep-focus composition and the split-screen technique briefly popular in the wake of Christopher Chapman’s multi-image documentary short A Place to Stand, made for Expo 67. Aurally the film features a range of mechanical noises, effects and announcements and an early electronic score by jazz musician and composer Gil Mellé.

    Just as Wildfire is hidden by a quotidian disguise, the principal characters gain significant credibility from the deliberate casting of lesser-known actors. Arthur Hill is particularly impressive as solid project leader Jeremy Stone, shouldering most of the dialogue – which itself is heavy with jargon and exposition – effortlessly and naturally. Kate Reid’s sardonic, entirely unglamorous Ruth Leavitt is a useful contrast, leaving David Wayne as the mature and laid-back Charles Dutton and James Olsen as eventual action man Mark Hall to complete the quartet.

    Importantly, they are depicted as true professionals, neither heroic nor histrionic but determined and rational. Science as a discipline is shown to be superior to the other arms of crisis management on display – politicians and the military. In this respect The Andromeda Strain is influenced by Peter Yates’s Bullitt (1968), one of the first dramas to accurately depict medical and police procedures, and anticipates the thematically comparable Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) and Arrival (2016).

    One final point is worthy of note. The story is told in flashback, from the point of view of Stone testifying before a Senate committee. Despite the near-cataclysm that forms the climax if the film, this subliminally comforting sleight of hand shows that disasters both atomic and biological were avoided. There is hope.



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443


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