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Fire Both Barrels: An Architectural Odyssey

Fire Both Barrels: An Architectural Odyssey

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Fire Both Barrels: An Architectural Odyssey

236 pages
3 heures
Nov 23, 2011


As a teen, author Geoff Swaines passions were for railways and football. At the time, neither seemed suited to a full-time career. He did, however, have a dream of making technical drawings for new diesel locomotives. In 1959, he secured a job at the architectural firm of Riley and Glanfield in London, England. To a sixteen-year-old, the thought of being an architect sounded enticing.

In this memoir, Swaine discusses his forty-year career as an architectural technician during the second half of the twentieth century, one of the most changeable times in history, and one that saw an unprecedented period of boom and full employment. Fire Both Barrels narrates Swaines working life in architecture, offering insight into the social picture, the political climate, the buildings of the time, and the cast of diverse characters who worked in the industry.

Providing background into the rebuilding of a war-torn country, Fire Both Barrels provides a snapshot of the life and times in England from 1960 to 2008.
Nov 23, 2011

À propos de l'auteur

Geoff Swaine worked more than forty years as an architectural technician in England, where he still currently lives.

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Fire Both Barrels - Geoff Swaine

‘Fire Both Barrels’

An Architectural Odyssey


Geoff Swaine

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© Copyright 2011 Geoff Swaine.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written prior permission of the author.

Printed in the United States of America.

isbn: 978-1-4269-9446-3 (sc)

isbn: 978-1-4269-9447-0 (hc)

isbn: 978-1-4269-9445-6 (e)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2011916091

Trafford rev. 11/15/2011


North America & international

toll-free: 1 888 232 4444 (USA & Canada)

phone: 250 383 6864 * fax: 812 355 4082



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27



In the sixties, tower blocks were being designed by students straight out of architectural college. Five years later they were leaking and five years after that, most of them started to come down.

There lies the story of the worst period of architecture ever to hit these islands and I am mixed up in it.

Led by the approved government policy of permitting widespread renewal, the heart was being ripped out of many of our historic towns and cities. It was a case of vandalism rather than regeneration. All right, we know that there was a dire need to improve the living standards for the population. But the quest for innovation in building was evolving faster than the knowledge of how to perform the construction. This, and a total lack of consideration of how new buildings would sit into their surroundings. Scale was something that got completely overlooked in the sixties. Brutalism became the name of the style.

There were not enough old-heads around - with all offices seemingly being staffed by a contingent of youngsters, there was the lacking of a bit of guidance that some old heads would have given. We know that a generation was lost to the war, which left a vacuum afterwards. But everyone was then thrown into the pot to get on with it. An unprepared workforce was expected to perform the task of rebuilding a war-torn country.

I joined one of the famous large London practices in 1967, but by this time I had already had a few years’ experience in the profession. My entry into the arms of architecture began in 1959.

Some of my former colleagues will read this and be pleased that I have remembered them and put our memories in print. But others may think differently. For anyone who has been good company or added to a day’s work with some clever wit has had a mention. Some of the others though, will think a bit differently. For they are the ones who have been the asses of the office. Not good company, and downright arrogant. Well, they might think. ‘He can’t say that.’ But as of now, I have. And if those wild thoughts which are currently going around in your head are starting to think towards litigation, by all means carry on. I will look forward to it as it will be a jolly good form of publicity.

The author

Chapter 1

What do you want

Here I was leaving school with all the inner feelings in my body causing torment. Every instinct seemed to be there for me to do the one thing that I had been bred for. Something I was put on this earth to do. A natural vocation for a person perfectly suited to do it. For I felt that I had been reared to take over a family business, to take it onward for another generation. Then of course, my son (if he so wished) could take it further onwards. There was only one thing wrong – there was no family business. That had closed in 1936. It was a tailoring business in Somerset, where my grandfather was forced to let it close. It was depressed times when the Multiples such as Burtons and the Co-op had moved into the town. My grandfather had a son, and a fine young man he was, but it so happened that my father, Bill, had been blessed with the brain of a professor and not that of a tailor’s cutter, so the closure became inevitable. A generation later the tailor’s cutter came along, but by then it was all too late.

I had left school with all the craft skills but little of what would be thought to be academic. Geometry and geography, yes, but biology or geology, no. My father would have turned in quite the opposite results to me, which meant that we spent a good deal of our lives in conflict. He wanted a son to compliment his thoughts and aspirations. But here I was, not much more than a glorified tradesman.

Much of my life had been spent with my grandfather in Somerset. All the school holidays were spent there, right in the location where the tailors shop had been. Alright, nothing was ever mentioned of the past, but the town of Frome had overwhelmed me. My mother took us there to see out the war, but from 1947 the family home had been in Bloomsbury, London.

St George the Martyr primary school in Queen Square was my early base of schooling, before progressing to Haverstock School in North London in 1953. Like my two sisters, we all had to take the eleven-plus exam, to ascertain the next level of education which would be suited for us. They both passed well enough to go on to grammar schools, but I got a central margin pass, which is what it said; not the best and not the worst. So they sent me along to Haverstock. When I joined, it had a motto of ‘Carry On’ and I think that many of the students were taking that literally, as it was a mixed school. It was one of the early experimental Comprehensive schools, which had evolved ten years before they became widespread.

I attended there from 1953 to 1958 and came away with three O Level examination passes and three RSA credits. A very average haul, which left me pretty clueless as to what to do next. My G.S.E. passes were Woodwork, Metalwork and Art which correctly reflected my aptitudes. The school had suited me well because we had the option at 13 years-of-age of going into any particular stream. For me, there was the only one which was going to suit - Technical.

None of my passes were to get me very far in choosing a career, unless that was to be as an apprentice to a welder or gas fitter, because those were two of the options that I was offered by the employment officers. I did have a ‘Technical Drawing’ pass in the minor Royal Society of Arts examination. It should have been a GSE pass because I was fine at that, but the teacher of that subject had his favourites and I wasn’t one of them – so hadn’t been entered.

My mother said that I was a happy-go-lucky boy who lacked ambition, I think though, that what she was really meaning was lazy: I can’t argue with that because in most of the subjects I was totally switched off.

After a first job in the old fruit market of Covent Garden and then helping out a decorator for a while. I went down to Euston Station and signed on with British Railways. It really was only a stand-in job until something more suitable showed itself, but being clueless about a career it seemed like a good idea. My passions were for railways and football, so with having no chance of joining the Arsenal, this was the next option. As a career - I don’t think so. I was a recorder for a signalman at Camden Town and had a birdseye view of the dirty railway engines going past. But with having to get out of bed at five-thirty in the morning, there was little chance of it being long term.

This did suit me for a few weeks, but the shift work was playing havoc with aspirations of a social life. The pleasure of watching old steam trains pass the signalbox in the murk of the English winter was something which unfortunately couldn’t last. This was also at the time of the demise of the steam era and I didn’t particularly want to be there for the last rites, so my desires soon turned elsewhere.

The night shift was the best, where I was at my desk below an old gas lamp; it was very cozy. The signalman did his football pools coupons and spent nearly 25% of his wages on these. He was still hoping for a big win although he was nearly retired.

When not doing the coupons, he chatted for hours with all the other signalmen down the line on the open phones. I had one of these too. It had a set of buttons to press with each of the signalboxes having a separate code. All those stations along the line like Canonbury, Barnsbury or Hackney Wick all had chatty signalmen happy to pass those quiet hours of the night chatting about football or whatever. To talk it was necessary to stand and speak into the mouthpiece. All the men chatted on the line with a vocabulary which included a swearword in every sentence. I could either listen to the one sided conversation of my signalman or pick up the earpiece and have an earwig of the whole thing.

It was in the January of ’59 when the inspiration to move on overtook me. I made an appointment to go to see a Youth Employment Officer near St. Paul’s. It had become plainly obvious that what was needed was a job with as later start as possible. Getting out of bed was a problem. In I went to be instantly assessed by the fellow at a desk who wasn’t particularly impressed. What he saw was a disagreeable little upstart.

‘You’re well suited to go into electrical engineering’, he said.

‘No’, I replied. ‘I’m looking for a job in a drawing office.’ I had this little dream of doing technical drawings for the new diesel locomotives.

‘We don’t have any of those, he said, ‘but what about an apprenticeship as a toolmaker’.

‘No, I want a job as a draughtsman,’ and began to get up. I had been stonewalled like this before. The signalbox beckoned again.

I must have gone in there at the right time, for there were in fact, virtually no other kids looking for work at the time. Almost everyone left school in July, so in January it was very quiet. Suddenly, as I was getting up, he stopped me in my tracks and said. ‘Wait a minute,’ and disappeared from the room.

He came back in with a pile of cards in his hand, all seemingly for drawing office work. He looked at the top one and said. ‘How do you fancy an Architects office?’

‘Fine,’ I replied, having absolutely no knowledge of what it might entail, but it sounded good.

He picked up the phone and made an appointment for an interview. I was out of there with the card in my pocket thinking that my parents would be impressed. Especially my father who had frowned upon nearly everything that I previously done; he was more than a little disappointed in me

The firm in question was Riley and Glanfield, which consisted of only seven people. Two partners, two men who were potential partners, two assistants and a secretary. Then there was me.

I think that most kids leave school not knowing what they want to do, but often, like me, they take a few sideways steps before landing on something that is really suitable.

Located at Grays Inn, just off Theobalds Road in Holborn, this office was in the area of London frequented mostly by lawyers and solicitors. I strolled down the approach-road to number 6 Raymond Buildings not quite knowing what to expect. Our flat was only a ten minute walk away, so it was very convenient, (and it was a 9 o’clock start).

At the back of my mind I was not really sure if this was what I wanted, or if I really wanted to leave the railway at all. The lure of the steam engines had quite a pull on my emotions , but the thought of what the job on the railway would do in the longer term was the deciding factor. I could always turn this down, there was no harm in going along and having a look. Deep down I knew that it was time to get a real job.

My father said ‘that’s better,’ when he heard about the interview. With both my sisters doing well and staying on at grammar school, with distinct prospects of university looming, my antics had not gone down well. The activities of the son working on the railway did not resonate at all well.

I knocked on the door wearing my Burton suit, which I’d got for £1 deposit, and felt nervous. This was my first interview for a proper job. A handwritten sign on the door said ‘No representatives can be seen without an appointment,’ but that was not me. At least I knew that.

There was no such thing as a CV in those days, so all that I carried was the card from the Youth Employment Office, and my two certificates. Not much to show, but they were only looking for an office boy.

Anyway, they quite quickly saw that I had experience of making tea (plenty of that in a signal box). Having had a technical education and done technical drawing my credentials suited fairly well, although most of these types of places looked for kids who had passed A-Levels. (That’s two years more at school). A senior assistant called Gooch, interviewed me and showed me around, which didn’t take long, to which I got offered a job at £4 a week.

There was talk of me doing some night school and getting some more GCE’s. Then participating in an eight-year course to become an Architect, to which, of course, I said ‘I’ll do that.’ My mother would have known better, but I had quickly learned to be agreeable - it would be easy to side-step some of that later. But, the thought of being an Architect sounded good to a 16-year-old, I would take this job.

It is worth noting at this stage, the qualifications which are required to begin an Architects course. Much is different now, but then the basic requirement was five passes at GCE ‘O’ level, which must include at least three academic subjects and two other from an ‘approved’ list. (My passes didn’t match any of these).

To the standards of today that is quite easy, but in the years following the war, and right through the fifties there was an acute shortage of professionals in the building industry. The rebuilding was getting into full flow after that generation had been lost to the war. Some who had started before the hostilities had re-entered the profession but there was one generation missing from those coming through the colleges.

In those years, former students and persons with some previous experience could pick up an architectural qualification with the minimum of additional study. Similarly there was a gross shortage of teachers, whereby unqualified people went straight into schools to teach without any previous experience or having the right qualifications.

In architecture, right through to the sixties, anyone over the age of thirty-five, who had been in the profession for a few years, could become an architect by just attending, and being successful at, an interview. They became Licentiates with the letters LRIBA after their name. A little later the L was dropped, whereby they merged with the exam-qualified architects. There was then no detectable record as to the person’s path to reach that qualification. All was controlled by the Royal Institute of British Architects and it was not to be long before things changed again. Nowhere was there any provision for somebody like me who was more of a technical person.

In 1961, in their wisdom, the RIBA revised their recommendations for the entry qualifications to the colleges of architecture. They brought in the stipulation that two of the academic GCE passes must be at advanced level.

This had a profound effect on a mass of young people who entered the profession at the time. They, like me, had come into an industry thinking that another two or three O-Level passes could quickly get them onto the course. But now it was not to be. Many of these youngsters joined the embryonic ‘large’ firms of the sixties, with their best option being to do nothing – just work in an office and learn as you go.

I was put into this office to be with two guys who talked all the time about the great modern architecture. One chap was called Bob Gill, an Australian who did not suffer from a lack of modesty; he was working over here as a base to ‘look at the Europe’. He had done most of this and been in this country for two years. Not long afterwards he was to return home to work from his own country. Along the way, he had found out that he was eligible to get an assisted passage back to Australia as an emigrant and was about to take this option to save himself some money. The other fellow was a young RAF type named Ron Paxton who had done his National Service and was into a part-time architectural course at Holloway. He was quite humorous in a very ‘chocs away’ fashion.

I had to quickly come to terms with this ‘proper job’ after previously been indulging myself working in the signalbox - watching the trains go by – but continued to struggle to find enough interest for me here, it was all a bit alien.

The architecture that my two new colleagues talked about was ‘Modernism’, inspired by their French idol, the architect, Le Corbusier. He had been the trendsetter in the twenties and thirties designing spaces for people to live in whilst enclosing them in white rectangular boxes. Modernism was a reactionary style brought about to counteract the uninventive styles of Victorian times. Back then many prominent architects borrowed the old Gothic shapes to form the basis for civic style buildings, a style that encouraged as much decoration as possible to be applied to the outside of a building.

Gill raved about the new modern wave and made it his specialty to design houses for people which were ‘spaces surrounded by rectangular boxes.’ Flat roofs may be ideal in Australia or the south of France, but here in England they just caused problems. Ron lapped it all up so that everything which came off his drawing

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