Kate V Robertson
July 18th, 2013
This work by Kate V Robertson appears at a number of locations around Edinburgh’s Old Town, tracing a route from Embassy’s origins at East Crosscausewayside, via the Roxy, past the Parliament and over Calton Hill, to Broughton Street Lane. The project continues Robertson’s ongoing relationship with walls, and the barely-there interventions subtlety erode the solidity and perceived permanence of the architecture and monuments of the city, peeling back the City’s skin.
Kate V Robertson’s work is a sensitive, subtle and intelligent exploration of substance, surface and encounter within the urban landscape. The text that follows is none of these things, but should serve, through its faults, to asser the value of the former all the more clearly.
The first, un-proofed rejected draft of an infamous review from an academic journal No One Read.
As discovered by Mitch Miller.
Professor Abigail MacDonald’s Surfaces and Sheens: Building Assembly in Contemporary Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, 2013) is in many respect a welcome publication but one that inevitably, raises a vexed (and vexatious) discourse that was, many in our urban planning departments had no doubt hoped, laid firmly to rest. The arrival of this book signals an unfortunate renaissance of discord which I, and I am sure many others in this country, feel our fragile little protectorate could well do without.
With recent lurid press articles (I shall not mention by name the recent muckraking of a Scotsman journalist, but still read the headline ‘Is Scottish Decalism coming away at the edges?” with profound distaste) and a raft of publications promised (or should I say, threatened) for publication in academic literature over the coming year (I point here, by way of an initial, if not exhaustive list to Khan’s The new metropolitan Infrastructure: A Decade of Decals, Boyd’s as yet untitled biography of leading modernist decalist Alberto Panini, Nathaniel’s article on the bricklayer’s insurrection of 1958 in the latest edition of Scottish Affairs – an article that will re-ignite political tensions and dignify a Luddite strain best forgotten – Judge’s magisterial Dorling, Usborne & Doubler: Selected Applications 1936-1987, and McGarvey’s polemic Absent Interiors) we must all brace ourselves for a renewed period of obsessive deconstruction of Decalitary principles and practices at the very time where the intelligentsia and the profession need to stick together. All too clearly, one can see how the stage is set for renewed infighting and pointless self-examination.
The culprits belong to a cohort of newly-minted academics, still wide-eyed and floaty on the fumes of their latest trendy studentship, supervised by smooth talking and enthusiastic ‘intellects’ with no direct training in the discipline and, inevitably given the economic climate, now vying for all too-rare lectureships by proclaiming their iconoclasm against decalism louder than their otherwise-identical compatriots. And when they get there, what do they do? They indulge. Overlong and overly-referenced, they partake in the equivalent of questioning “whether the propellors really are keeping the plane up after all?” Or perhaps more accurately, like C.S Lewis’ Refusenik dwarfs in the Last Battle, although safely in, and surrounded by Paradise, are so unable to see their good fortune and so closed-off to the very possibility of it, they convince themselves they are actually huddled in a dark, dank and mouldy stable (until recently, used by a false God). [Yes that’s a better metaphor – could the editor take out the bit about the propeller and leave this in please and tidy it all up a bit? I can’t be bothered retyping all of this… Thanking you in advance].
Professor MacDonald is the recently-appointed chair of Critical Studies at the Mackintosh School of Decorative Sciences at the Glasgow School of Art, a position she acquired, one can only assume, on the basis of this book. That, one supposes, is fair enough – she has worked hard on this. But Professor MacDonald will surely come to realise that she is perhaps in an unfortunate historical position in that she will inevitably be regarded as an instigator, when I fancy her intention was to do nothing more than fill the perfectly respectable historian’s remit. A book that takes stock of where Scotland stands in its distinctive tradition of building is wholly necessary – I agreed as much when I sent my own modest proposal to Edinburgh University Press in 2010 – but one wonders whether Professor MacDonald has really considered the implications of the way in which she handles this important subject.
Her reading list is certainly copious, dredging up forgotten documents tracing back to the 15th century. But not exhaustive: she omits much of the French Neo-Veneerist literature from the 1960s and is curiously behind the times in terms of recent articles – where is Melbrooks’ (2007)’s seminal discussion of American Midwestern Facadism and its influence on the expansion of the Stranraer-Wigtown railway? Prof. MacDonald also spends altogether too much time trying to establish a link between Decalism – the application of a whole surface to change the apparent nature of another – and Transferism, which impresses pigment onto the body of a thing. She stirs the teacup in her introductory essay (effectively a whinge on the defects of decalism) over first principles. Admittedly, “the residues left behind when decals are removed do cause problems, and some building cores have come away, crumbled or torn when this has happened, due to vandalism or a need to re-site” (page – whatever, get one of your trained postdoc monkeys to sort it? I left the review copy at the ‘Jinglin Geordie’ and can’t really read my handwriting) Let me ask her this though -could our ingenious 19th century Edinburghers have turned the Flodden ditch into Flodden wall so quickly, and cost-effectively, otherwise? How else would we have moved Cardross Seminary from a Glasgow slum to its pleasant environs south of Helensburgh without the flexibility of these materials? The quick transmission of value is the basis of the world we live in, and should we seek to pick at that unduly, we risk losing all of its gains.
These issues are perhaps, it is true, best left to pub-table debates and the cut and thrust of Q and As, but I raise them because the good Professor will insist upon taking a philosophical direction in her otherwise magisterial survey of historical sources. It’s all very well to poke a finger under the skin of things now and then, ‘hoc est corpus’ and all that, but this gets downright dangerous at times – for example, by giving so much space to the objections of the Substantialist lunatic fringe she dignifies them with a weight (and aren’t they always going on about that? And wind.) they neither have nor ever will have, beyond a few disparate constituencies of the nostalgic. The lamentable number of child-deaths in high rise applications she explicates at length, but does no-one ever ask why these parents let their children tear about their houses? People in houses with tearable walls shouldn’t let their children tear about. It’s really that simple.
(is it actually ‘tare’ about? I seem to remember the word ‘tare’ being talked about on Call My Bluff one time. I do not know if Frank thingmy – the one with the bowtie – was bluffing though. Maybe it was actually Countdown?)
Those of us long satisfied that a cheap, affordable and easy to use system of building construction was discovered, engineered and successfully applied by successive generations of technological adepts late in the nineteenth century, then rolled out and adopted for the general betterment of society as a whole can perhaps be forgiven if we retire to our bunkers for the next couple of years while all the fuss dies down.
Nevertheless, I am happy to recommend this tome to students, and those organising foundation courses in colleges and universities. When the Prof professes facts that can be verified by taking a good look, it’s exceedingly good and mostly up-to-date. When she tries to go deep’ – well, I’d fancy the subject itself defeats her, but our author has no one to blame but herself. As for the rest of us, the forthcoming year of celebration gives us public squares to beautify, a warrior king’s statue to be reworked and whole districts of Glasgow to regenerate. Those of us who have had to wrestle with that final moment of commitment, of smoothing the image over the given spot – REAL decalists, will have altogether too much on their minds to pay any attention to petty minded carping or Luddite controversies.