s k o p j e

[ 12:07 sunday 29 november 2015 – gradski trgovski centar, skopje, macedonia ]

this is simultaneously my first visit to the balkans and my first despatch written from a shopping centre.

here i am in skopje, capital city of the republic of macedonia, nestled in the southern balkans with serbia and kosovo to the north, greece to the south, bulgaria to the east and albania to the west. the british council flew me over to give a speech at a summit about supporting entrepreneurs across the region. they were kind enough to let me stay for a couple of days extra so i could explore the city.

over the last few days i’ve met a lot of people involved in technology and the creative industries. but in parallel with this the trip has become an impromptu pilgrimage for brutalist architecture and urban planning.

it was in my early teens, living in cornwall, that i first started taking an interest in contemporary architecture. during my time at truro school a new crown court was constructed the city. it was unlike anything else in truro, designed in a modernist style with geometric massing, undecorated white surfaces and a circular tower at its centre. it’s the first building i ever remember catching my interest architecturally. around this time i started sketching imaginary structures, exploring the relationship between different spaces and functions.

by the age of fifteen i was thinking seriously about a career in architecture. with my parents’ encouragement i arranged a visit to the father of one of my classmates who ran a small architecture practice in cornwall. i spent an evening with him looking through plans he was working on, listening to him explain the logic behind each element and hearing how he designed buildings to reduce energy use by harnessing heat from the sun. i was transfixed. it felt like i’d found my calling.

all too soon mum arrived to collect me and it was time to go. as i was saying goodbye my friend’s father hesitated for a moment then took me to one side. he looked me in the eye and said “listen, you go into architecture thinking you’re going to change the world but you end up designing petrol stations and supermarkets. don’t do it charles, find something different.”

i’ve never forgotten those words. i was devastated. i don’t think i said a single word on the journey home in the car. mum must have thought something awful had happened. in that moment my friend’s father changed the path of my life.  all thought of becoming a professional architect was abandoned and my life developed in a different direction. my passion for architecture, however, remained undimmed.

arriving at cambridge in the 1990s architectural discussion was polarised into two camps: proponents of modern architecture and those who advocated a return to traditional forms and styles. this seemed like a totally bizarre dichotomy to me. it had never occurred to me there might be a serious body of architectural opinion that set itself against new ideas. i found myself cast as an arch-modernist and forced for the first time to justify my beliefs.  it was a valuable experience and helped to clarify my thinking. it was during these years i realised that many of the buildings which excited me the most were lumped together under the term “brutalist”. generally these were large-scale projects with experimental geometric forms and undecorated concrete surfaces.

this is where the story returns to skopje. in july 1963 a huge earthquake levelled eighty percent of the city and killed more than a thousand people. the yugoslav government called in the united nations to run an international architectural competition to rebuild the city. the winning entry came from kenzo tange, a young japanese architect with a penchant for avant garde brutalist design. tange proposed a bold masterplan for skopje structured around a semi-circular “city wall” of tall housing units with a “city gate” axis running from a new railway station through a business district to the city centre. the genius of tange’s plan was taking familiar mediaeval models and translating them into a futuristic vocabulary.

only about half of tange’s plan was actually implemented, but the city government continued to commission extremely abstract brutalist designs for new construction projects until the mid 1980s. as a result  skpoje has a higher concentration of full-blooded brutalist experiments than anywhere else on earth that i’ve seen. for someone like me it’s like arriving in the promised land. a lot of the buildings are now run-down but they’re still being used as they were intended. indeed the biggest threat they face is the current regime’s desire to turn skopje into a surreal theme park of las vegas baroque.

i spent yesterday exploring by foot with my trusty rolleiflex, visiting a dozen sites. the highlight was the university of saints cyril and methodius, a jaw-droppingly complex ensemble built around a central courtyard with beams and towers sticking out in all directions. today one of the british council officials (a fellow brutalism fan) was kind enough to drive me to some of the more inaccessible sites, including the beautiful but decrepit goce delcev student accommodation complex, and tell me about their history. i’ll put up the photographs once they’re developed and scanned.

for many people buildings like these are hideous and misguided failures.  i’m often asked disbelievingly why i like them. part of the answer is aesthetic. at their best these buildings represent the freest use of architecture as a sculptural medium. they seek to deploy materials in new ways that are expressive as well as functional. but more important to me is the deep sense of social purpose they embody. most brutalist buildings i’ve encountered were created by architects who sincerely believed in their duty to lay foundations for a better society. this sense is absent from most large buildings constructed since the 1980s and i believe that is an important loss.

the shopping mall where i’m currently seated is a fine piece of work in its own right. we’re so used to the american template of the mall as huge sealed bubble with just a few entrances and exits, like a fortress for retail, we assume that’s the only possibility. this place is certainly huge, occupying several city blocks and spread over three levels, but in every other respect it defies the familiar model. most radically this mall is completely porous. a series of side streets connect it to the city grid enabling pedestrians to criss-cross it twenty-four hours a day. sections of it are also open to the sky so rain and light can enter small courtyards. the impression is of a modern reinvention of the labyrinthine mediaeval bazaar just across the river in skopje’s old town.

it’s ironic that having decided against a career in architecture i’ve ended up designing buildings anyway. when i founded the trampery in 2009 it was an experiment in fusing architecture with sociology, entrepreneurship and community development. six years later i find myself working on projects that apply this recipe to startup workspaces, corporate offices, housing and whole city districts. life is full of surprises.

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f o l e g a n d r o s

[ yacht “tramontana”, crossing from sifnos to folegandros, greece – 22:05 saturday 5 september 2015 ]

i’m sitting on the foredeck of a yacht gliding through silky black water surrounded by an explosion of stars. the warm air flows over my skin. the massive silhouette of folegandros island blots out the sky to starboard. the lack of even a single light visible on the island thrills me, suggesting a barren wildness remote from civilisation. the sun set a couple of hours ago, a molten red disc dissolving into the azure horizon.

i arrived in mykonos four nights ago with my friend derek. after a day’s entertaining exploration on quad bike we took a ship to pafos and picked up the yacht. at this time of year the meltemi brings a constant northerly blast through the cyclades islands. however we managed to choose a freakish week when the air is completely still. it feels like a karmic trade-off for the superb winds i had sailing with dad last week in cornwall.

so the sails remain resolutely furled and we proceed by motor. but there’s still the same joyous freedom and autonomy of living afloat. from pafos we crossed to sifnos where we coincided with a one day gathering of folk dancers and musicians from all over greece. i was fascinated by the trance-like music of the pontiac culture, originating from the shores of the black sea. after the formal performances the musicians carried on playing in a local nightclub. we staggered back to the yacht as the sun was rising.

tonight we’ll anchor off folegandros. then in the morning derek and i will leave the yacht and try to find somewhere to stay on the island.

[ galifos, folegandros – 19:55 monday 7 september ]

having tried to moor in the main port and been turned away we finally anchored just after midnight in the bay of angali on the south of the island. in the morning we woke to find ourselves surrounded by spectacular cliffs and stony hillsides. derek and i came ashore and took the footpath around the coast to galifos where we’d heard there were some rooms. we found two simple white buildings containing ten bedrooms and a communal kitchen, in complete isolation above a small beach. one was available so we took it. now i’m sitting on our terrace overlooking the bay, shimmering violet in the deepening twilight. a paraffin lamp on the table behind me provides the only illumination. there’s no electricity.

folegandros is everything I dreamed of. the landscape is mercilessly stony and barren, sliced with vertiginous precipices and ravines. the island is seven miles long but has a permanent population of fewer than seven hundred. the air is pervaded by an intense silence, broken only by the rustle of wind in the scrub and the lap of waves.

my days here have been spent walking, taking photographs with the rolleiflex, swimming naked in the turquoise water until my limbs ache and sitting on rocks lost in the stark sunlight. it’s been sublime.

this journey has made me think a lot about how and why i travel. i don’t look for it to be easy or predictable. when i travel i seek to be tested, place myself in uncomfortable situations, learn new things about myself, get inside different cultures, pursue elusive goals. i prefer only to have a minimum of fixed points and not to know much about where i’m going. for the current trip i didn’t make any plans until a week beforehand. at that point i decided to spend a week with my family in cornwall then a week somewhere different. i didn’t book the flights to greece until a few days before departing, by which time derek had decided to come too. he’s one of few people I know who prefers to make travel plans at the last minute.

we reserved a place to stay in mykonos an hour before taking off from gatwick. i’d booked the yacht a few days earlier but without any idea where we’d be meeting it to go aboard. for folegandros all we had was an intriguing three year old photograph of a sign advertising rooms without electricity.

this has been my first trip for more than ten years where i haven’t brought a laptop. in the past i always felt the need to be prepared in case a crisis blew up with one of my businesses. this time i felt a strong urge to leave that responsibility behind and it’s been fantastically liberating. i did have my telephone but even that has been kept switched off most of the time. i’m writing these words on the phone now. i’ve avoided connecting to the internet except for a few occasions when i needed to check a timetable or confirm a booking.

tomorrow i catch the ship for athens. i’ll spend one day there before making my return to london.

: c :

s u m m e r h o u s e

[ 19:27 monday 10 august – hytta wichstrøm, førenes, norway ]

i’m in a sublimely beautiful place. a house made from pine and glass perched on a wind-smoothed outrcop of rock with forest all around and a sheltered bay below. the coast is folded into intricate bays and inlets dotted with a thousand islands. the house was built in the early 1970s for the grandfather of my friends thor and stephanie. architecturally it comprises a series of joined single-pitch structures with wooden terraces at the front and back. the living areas are surrounded by an almost continuous band of floor to ceiling windows framed with a rectangular grid of pine. some of these glazed walls slide open to link the inside spaces with the terraces. meanwhile the house nestles in the irregular structure of the rock outcrop, a section of which pushes up through the rear terrace. the overall effect is a blurring of inside and outside, a sense of the house as an extension of its surrounding landscape. the building’s geometric forms and its harmony with the environment carry echoes of traditional japanese architecture.

the forest here is predominantly oak and pine. almost everywhere i walk there’s a dense undergrowth of blueberry bushes at the apogee of fruiting. it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to stop every minute or two and gorge oneself. more than once i’ve returned to the house with a guilty look and purple stains all over the lower part of my face. even more exquisite are the wild raspberries, harder to find but equally at the pinnacle of ripeness, super-sweet miniature originals of the cultivated versions found in gardens and supermarkets.

here at the southern tip of norway civilisation feels reassuringly distant. the nearest shop is in lillesand, a couple of miles away as the crow flies but much further by road or sea. getting to and from the outside world is most easily accomplished via a dinghy with an outboard that’s moored at a jetty below the house. to get here i made the four and a half hour train journey from oslo southward through the forests and lakes to kristiansand, followed by a forty-five minute bus trip to lillesand, then finally a twenty-minute skim between islands in the dinghy. as we neared the quay thor stopped the engine, leapt out into the shallow water and returned with a dozen wild oysters. the largest of them was as big as an ostrich egg. we ate them with chopped red onion in vinegar.

yesterday afternoon thor and stephanie took me out fishing. it’s the first time i’ve used a proper rod rather than a primitive line wound around a piece of wood. over a period of three hours i caught two cod and thor caught three more. all were duly baked for supper. today we took the boat to a tiny island with a lighthouse. the whole island was bare rock with broad stripes of grey, pink and black like a 1980s minimalist interior, worn into smooth curves by centuries of wind and sea. the only flora were wild pansies and daisies nestling in sheltered folds in the rock. the inter-tidal rock was coated with mussels and barnacles. we swam in the rolling swell which was bracingly cold. afterwards i sat in the warm breeze watching the horizon and felt myself dissolving into the rock and the rush of waves.

: c :

u n d e r s a i l

[ 20:33 sunday 12 july – river fowey, cornwall ]

i’m sitting in the cabin of dad’s 22 foot yacht “wild rose”. we’re moored in the river fowey about quarter of a mile upstream from the town. the boat sways gently in the ebbing tide. around us the trees press down the sides of the valley stretching their gnarled limbs towards the water. the air is almost motionless. wisps of mist twist and weave among the darkening trees. a grey-feathered heron stands motionless at the edge of the water watching for prey. across the channel a complex mass of girders and ducts juts into the river, part of a structure for loading china clay onto ships.

yesterday afternoon i sailed down the coast with dad and adam. we set out from mylor in a brisk south-westerly, weaving between the traditional working boats racing in falmouth harbour. by the time we rounded dodman point the wind was freshening to force six and a heavy swell had started rolling beneath us. we sped into fowey harbour on an exhilarating run then came upriver seeking a sheltered mooring.

this has been my best ever year for sailing. three weeks ago i travelled down to salcombe to join my friends arthur and gregoir who’d just arrived after crossing the channel from normandy and spent a magical week with them. the plan was to sail west along the cornish coast and cross to the isles of scilly. over the years i’ve arrived in the scillies by freight ship, ferry, helicopter and light aircraft but never under sail. it’s a long-standing dream of mine. however in the face of unremitting westerly winds we only sailed west for a single day, reaching cawsand at the southeastern eastern tip of cornwall. this is where we spent the solstice, starting with a group of villagers at a pub where a band was playing, then sitting on the darkened beach with a bottle of rum. the next day we turned around and headed eastward along the devon and dorset coasts stopping at dartmouth, teignmouth, exmouth, weymouth and poole.

we had some adventures along the way. leaving exmouth a fog bank descended on us and we spent most of the day sailing without any sight of land or other vessels. being isolated in cold, clammy greyness is tremendously unsettling. one’s senses are so amplified by the fear of collision with an unseen boat that one begins to hallucinate shapes and sounds. later that day approaching portland bill we realised with sinking hearts that we’d miscalculated the tidal flows and would be reaching it when its notorious tidal race was in full flow with its whirlpools and 10 knot currents. we could have been stuck for six hours before being able to get around. but following arthur’s instincts we headed close in to the land, as close as we dared go, and sure enough we found a counter-current that swept us around in the direction we wanted to go. the finest sailing was on my last day when we spent several exhilarating hours playing in  the wind before scudding into poole harbour with a force six wind behind us.

my dad worked in yacht-building when i was a child  so i was always around boats. likewise during my year in the isles of scilly and my two years on stromboli i was frequently on the water. a couple of years ago i felt the impulse to start taking it more seriously and did the royal yachting association’s day skipper course. now i’m trying to get out as often as the possibility arises.

one think i appreciate about being on a yacht for even a few days is the way life is stripped back to its essential components. the layers of modern behaviour which occupy so much of our attention simply melt away. if you go for days without seeing yourself in a mirror you stop worrying what your hair looks like. the end of daily showers makes concerns about hygiene irrelevant. there’s no deliberation about what clothes to wear when you wear the same clothes day after day. meanwhile the lack of electricity means mobile phones are turned off and the mass of neurotic habits for checking messages and status updates just fades away.

: c :

n y t t a a r

[ 15:52 saturday 3 january 2015 – lyngen, norway ]

i’m sitting at a great oval table with a computer-fabricated viking longship suspended above me. the building is a spectacular updating of a mediaeval great hall, an immense open space with a steeply pitched roof held up by the huge trunks of eight pine trees . the roof and walls are clad in pine planks. the floor is stone with a fireplace in its centre surmounted by a copper hood and steel flue which runs to the roof.

the hall sits on the west side of lyngenfjord, norway’s largest fjord. the small town of lyngseidet with its three thousand inhabitants lies six miles to the north. on either side of the fjord jagged mountains rise sheer from the water to a height of six thousand feet. beyond the mouth of the fjord are the grey wastes of the arctic ocean. at a latitude of sixty-nine degrees north this is the fringe of the human-inhabited world, deep inside the arctic circle.

this far north the sun doesn’t rise for two months during mid-winter. the landscape is bathed in a mysterious blue twilight for four hours each day from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon. the rest of the time it is darkness. each day during the precious hours of light i go walking beside the fjord with my rolleiflex. the rest of the time i am here in the hall chatting, reading and writing. last night i had my first glimpse of the northern lights, sending bands of electric green swirling and flickering across the velvet sky.

as 2014 neared its end i felt a growing hunger to escape from the world. so much has happened and so many new doors are opening. i needed to get away from everything, clear my head and ready my focus for the year ahead.

typically my first thought was to seek out a small island. i started looking at the cape verde group and preparing plans. but my friend jens dyvik, a designer and fabricator based in oslo, suggested a trip up here and it seemed perfect. my friend martin dittus from london was also able to join us.

the reason for jens’ suggestion was not just the spectacular location. the hall where i’m sitting was the world’s first “fablab”, a workshop with a strong community ethos providing a variety of computer-controlled fabrication devices for contemporary craft workers. there are now more than three hundred fablabs around the world but this is where the movement began in 2003. its founder haakon karlsen is a remarkable man who has pioneered everything from the most efficient technique for artificial insemination to wireless systems that track sheep roaming free in the mountains. it’s been an inspiration learning about his philosophy and experiences.

jens specialises in systems of community design and production. he publishes the files for his designs without restriction so they can be freely reused and adapted by other people around the world. he spent two years visiting fablabs in twenty countries and working on projects with them as he went. he’d made two prior visits to lyngen to meet haakon and was eager to make a third trip. it’s been fascinating to be a bystander as they take a laser scan of an iron-age brooch and fabricate a mould so they can cast replicas; or as they cut text into a raw pine plank with a computer-controlled milling machine to create a sign for the sheep farm where the fablab is based. it’s the first time i’ve seen experts working with these tools at close quarters. the path from an idea to a beautifully-crafted physical object is astonishingly fluid and immediate.

jens, martin and i joined a dozen of haaken’s family and friends to see in the new year with a vast norwegian feast of fish, meat and salads in the hall. at midnight we went outside in the snow with glasses of champagne to watch fireworks going off all around the fjord.

2014 has mostly been a wonderful year for me. the trampery opened two new buildings. the first was fish island labs, a centre for digital arts created with the barbican centre in an edwardian stable block beside the river lea. the second was the trampery old street, where we transformed an abandoned 1960s building in  central shoreditch. old street was the culmination of three and a half years’ struggle and probably the most difficult thing i’ve ever undertaken. i ended up taking responsibility for the entire interior, down to the selection of every light switch and tap, so it was also the biggest design project i’ve done. sulaiman sibai made a beautiful film about the creation of the building. with poetic timing the trampery old street opened five years to the day after the doors opened at the trampery’s very first site at dereham place.

it was also an exciting year for trampoline systems. craig and i rebooted the company in 2011 with a new focus to develop innovative techniques for analysing business data. 2014 was really the year this approach came of age. in the spring we were appointed by the european commission to undertake a two year initiative analysing the startup economy across the whole continent. then in the autumn we won a project from the mayor of london’s office to undertake the most detailed ever analysis of the science and technology sector in greater london. in between we completed projects analysing the employment and revenue created by the uk’s venture capital industry and tracking all the country’s high-growth firms.

having been such a woeful correspondent over the past three years the backlog of untold stories is too intimidating for me to even think about trying to chip away at it. the most i can attempt is to fill in a couple of the larger pieces.

after six years living upstairs from a glass foundry in dalston, in september 2013 the glassmaker sold the whole building for redevelopment and i was obliged to move out. i’d loved being there despite the constant filth percolating up from below, the leaky roof and the impossibility of heating the place in winter. in particular i loved the immense roof terrace where i cultivated a wild garden complete with summer house. the prospect of moving was horrifying. first because of the sheer quantity of stuff i’d accumulated through inheritance, ebay purchases and picking stuff up on the street. second because it seemed highly unlikely i’d ever find another place that suited me so well.

the search was every bit as depressing as i feared. but at the last minute i came across something so peculiar  it made my jaw drop. it was a 1940s lock-keeper’s cottage in hackney wick, converted into a television studio in the 90s, sandwiched between the river and the canal, without any road leading to it, surrounded by lawn and mature trees. in an extra bizarre twist the house was the closest dwelling to the olympic stadium. i raced over to see it and fell in love right away. the owners lived next door and were understandably picky about who moved in so i had an anxious few days while they considered my suitability. thankfully they concluded they could put up with me as a neighbour.

moving my belongings from dalston to hackney wick required three days, three vans and a team of four burly lithuanians. the lack of road access meant every item, including my piano and spinet, had to be carried across the canal on a footbridge then wheeled up the towpath to the house. it was one of the most appalling experiences of my life but at last it was done.

after fifteen months living at old ford lock cottage i’m still intoxicated by the miraculous improbability of it. the house is like a sanctuary, a pocket of rural tranquility cheek by jowl with london’s most creatively energetic district. often the loudest sound i can hear is the wind rustling in the trees, birdsong or the rush of water from the lock sluices. yet i can walk out of the house and within ten minutes be watching experimental theatre or bouncing around at a rave.

the house is spread over three floors with dining room and kitchen at ground level, the main living space on the first floor and a spiral staircase leading up to a bedroom and dressing room on the second floor. the building was beautifully refurbished by my landlord with a variety of reclaimed materials. in contrast to dalston the windows are double glazed, the walls are insulated, the roof is waterproof and  everything in the house works.

as summer approached i constructed a south-facing deck in front of the house where i have breakfast as often as conditions permit. i also acquired a five-man inflatable dinghy (with electric outboard) and a one-man kayak to escape up the canal alone or with friends whenever the mood takes me. they have been well used.

2014 was a year of hectic travels with trips to warsaw, paris, brussels, cannes, toronto, san francisco, copenhagen, austin, salzburg, oslo, geneva, chamonix, stromboli, pizzo callabro, jeddah and finally lyngen. it’s been a bit exhausting fitting all this in alongside my labours in london but the succession of encounters with different people and places has been magnificently energising.

i’ve left the biggest development of these years until last. specifically it consisted of meeting a beautiful young architect called mattia at a club in dalston in september 2011. he was dancing in a world of his own, as if the rest of the crowded club didn’t exist. i was immediately smitten. we spent the next three years together.

i never expected to find a partner who shared my guilty adoration of brutalist architecture and 1970s urban planning. we worked together on a series of trampery interiors, bickering like a pair of old women. these were supremely happy years for me. it was hard when our relationship came to an end in september but i remain grateful for every moment of it.

here’s to 2015. for everyone reading these words i send my wishes for courage, truth and joy in the year ahead.

: c :

f o t o s : lyngenfjord, new year 2015

thirty-one images from midwinter at the edge of the arctic ocean. hiking with jens and martin beside lyngenfjord in the sunless indigo twilight. an emporium of components and relics in haakon’s technology-filled viking hall. a trawler torn in half by the might of a winter storm. my sincere gratitude to haakon for his hospitality and inspiration.

related post: n y t t a r

camera: rolleiflex 6008i
lens: rollei distagon el 1:4 50mm
film: fujichrome provia 400x
scanner: nikon coolscan 8000ed