Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Book Review – Barnabas Calder, Architecture From Prehistory to Climate Emergency

Regular readers will know that I have much regard for the work of Andreas Malm. His book Fossil Capital was influential in my thinking about how to reframe my teaching of business strategy at my university. It tells the story of our addiction to fossil fuels. It posits the idea that it did not need to be so; the addiction arose primarily from the owners of capital using technology to outflank organised labour on the one hand, and competitors on the other. Organised labour was quite powerful in the British mill towns of the 18/19 Centuries because of the static nature or source of motive power – flowing rivers. Steam, generated by burning coal and heating water was so much more flexible and, what’s more, the owners could be confident the government would intervene to crush organised labour when called on. But equally, water was a shared resource and the owners proved themselves to be unable to agree how to share it.

Calder has made me think again in his extraordinary book (right). Calder is a historian of architecture, but very particular kind. In every building he sees energy. In the prehistory it is in the food that provides the energy to build shelter. In later periods of human advancement – particularly in respect of agricultural efficiency and yields – excesses meant that labour could be siphoned off by kings and emperors to build the great vanity projects of history such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, etc. With the advent of fossil fuels, not only was more labour displaceable from the land, but the building materials themselves were innovated as well as construction techniques. That bundle of stored energy found in coal and oil liberated architects, builders and clients. Later they were aided and abetted by information technologies that were able to do the calculations that legions of humans could not realistically handle (Calder offers the example of the challenge to realise Jørn Oberg Utzon’s vision for the Sydney Opera House and the pioneering work of Ove Arup crunching the necessary numbers).

The first part of the book examines culture, energy and architecture interesting pairings. Greeks and Persians; Rome and the Song Dynasty – different places, different times. Though he also uses this technique for the 20th Century in comparing New York and Chicago (chapter 9 – good value even if one does not read the rest of the book – difficult to keep Donald Trump out of the mind, however). In all cases through history, powerful men are deliberately trying to outdo one another. Rightly, we are constantly reminded about infrastructure, bridges, water supply and sewerage.

Photo: Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Teli, Pays de Dogon

What are some of the curiosities? I learned (always a good indicator of a worthwhile read) from prehistory, Dogon village houses (Mali, left) have low height forcing occupants to sit. This specifically prevents men from fighting one another. Uruk (in modern-day Iraq) is perhaps humanity’s first city. Not everyone worked the land and hence specialisms developed – bronze casting, currency and writing. The transformative agricultural technology was animal-drawn ploughs and, of course, irrigation. We are talking 5000 years ago. 2000 years ago, 172 men pulled crafted stones of 58 tonnes with a lone individual throwing water to keep down the friction. Though 200 tonnes was not unheard of as manageable by human strength – though the men needed to be fit and, crucially, well fed.

For the Parthenon, Calder tells us why the columns are not evenly spaced (of course, Doric order!), reveals that it bends upwards to the middle, there are other distortions too (entasis) and that these are a deliberate manifestation of intellectual debate and democracy prevalent in Athenian society.

Photo: by MM in

I learned about opus incertum (random), Opus recitulatum (standard square bricks), opus latericium (like a brick wall – rectangular fired bricks that overlap, right). I did not know about Roman concrete and that the Pantheon’s dome is made of it and that it gets lighter as the dome extends so that the whole structure does not collapse. It is impressive, notes Calder, that it has survived 1900 years!

Not surprisingly, religious buildings feature highly in the prose. There is a chapter on mosques and some insights on the architecture of what is now Istanbul (the text is not limited to Istanbul, there is an extensive section on the Great Mosque of Damascus – the initiative of Caliph al-Walid I c705-15 and the mosque in Timbuktu c1320, the product of Mansa Musa’s great wealth as emperor of Mali). I have visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, as well as the near-adjacent Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), a private enterprise that, on cost grounds, sourced materials much closer to home than the builders of its neighbour. For Christian buildings (notwithstanding the Hagia Sophia’s regular changes of denomination), Calder discusses the 13th Century cathedral in Bourges, so big that it breached the city walls and so tall it reached to what we would now identify as 10 storeys high. To the locals living in tiny dwellings shared with animals the internal cleanliness, order and light, Calder says, would have seemed astonishing. But Cathedral building was not immune to ego – the next one needed to be bigger: Notre Dame, Reims, Amiens and Beauvais (left) all bigger than the rest. Though there were limits, Beauvais repeatedly collapsed under its own weight.

Next on Calder’s list is the impact of plague on European civilisations. Bubonic plague devastated populations in the 5th and 6th centuries leading to reduced cultivation and construction. With no surplus, building returned to basics and bricks were no longer fired. The Black Death did wonders for pay rates and educational opportunities. There is room, too, for the Renaissance, the Vatican and the Reformation. These are gems for readers of this blog to explore without my help.

Source: Wikipedia; original source not specified

Into modern times, and into territory that is really Calder’s heartland, modernism and concrete. There is rightly an extensive review of the work and life of Le Corbusier (asa Edouard Jeanneret). His influences included Giacomo Matté-Trucco’s Lingotto factory (Fiat’s manufacturing plant in Turin with its roof racing track, right). Le Corbusier was quite a self-publicist, it seems like he sold more books about his architecture and the attendant vision for concrete, steel, glass and electricity), as he did design buildings. I certainly did not know how awful the buildings were to occupy. Concrete and glass enabled a very particular spacious and well-lit living and work spaces, but with no insulation and relatively poor heating, the houses had serious condensation problems. It is not surprising that one famous building – Villa Savoye – ended up as a barn after its occupant-family fled the Nazis. Nor was I aware that the beautiful Bauhaus building in Dessau was similarly afflicted by intense heat loss rendering it totally unsuitable for its use as a workshop. Le Corbusier is, however, celebrated for his Unitè d’Habitation in Marseille – a huge block of 337 flats with a row of shops half way up. It’s founding principles as a community with its roof garden for children is visionary and only possible because of new building materials and the fossil fuels that generate the energy to make cement from limestone and steel from iron ore (Calder gives us the figures to demonstrate their consumption). The Barbican in London was a later manifestation of this principle.

My own alma mater – the University of East Anglia – gets a mention for its Ziggurat-shaped student accommodation (which was my home for some of my university career) for its modular design and manufacture. Concrete remained in the 60s the building material of choice for the new inclusiveness captured in school and university buildings. It is true, the building I studied in was one continuous block of concrete. Magnificent it was, too.

And so to conclusions. Calder is clear, we need more renovation of failing properties. Demolition might be a viable business proposition using current measures, but the energy needed cannot be justified in a carbon-reducing world. Calder does not find too many exemplars. Even buildings like the Blomberg HQ in London falls far short of being sustainable. Calder introduces us to the Cork House in London. Built from cork as the name suggests. But its limitations are such that it cannot accommodate current and future needs for buildings.

On his own sustainability, Calder tells us early on that some of the buildings he writes about he has not actually visited, to do so would have been to make the carbon problem worse. This is a brave statement and one that sets a standard. Modern technology gives us unprecedented virtual access to so many cultural artefacts, sufficient to be a scholar and produce work of this quality. If your summer is short of reading, this is 20 GBPs well spent.

Spectacle Hut being crass

2014-11-02 18.51.17This is Spectacle Hut in Hastings, UK. Nothing special, just one of those high-street opticians. They are open 7 days a week and there are eyesight test appointments available on Sundays. And how do we know this? Well through a crass poster (right).2014-11-02 18.51.02

Now I’m an atheist and certainly no friend of the Catholic Church; but this is just insulting. Put a fully made-up model in a nun’s habit and hey presto, point made. Spectacle Hut, if you are going to stoop this low, at least use a real nun.

Even God…

I’ve decided, after considerable thought, to follow God. On Twitter. One of the reasons for this, is that there are times when the world is incomprehensible, and some explanation is needed from afar. God is as far afar as is inconceivable.

A few days ago, after one particularly incomprehensible event, he tweeted the following:

It made me feel marginally better after 300 people were blown out of the sky by a rocket over Ukraine and a plane load of people murdered in Gaza, with more literally promised this evening by the Israeli Government.

If God has lost control, essentially he is saying, if I read him correctly, that humanity has to do something about this. What do I hear? The BBC doing its lazy ‘balanced’ reporting and my Government sticking to the tired and wrong ‘right of self-defence’ argument. This is obscene.





Halal meat

HalalRecent revelations that most UK supermarkets are selling unlabelled halal meat is not really a surprise. Supermarkets respond to demand – the halal market in the UK is huge (estimated to be something in the order of £1bn). Not to be in that market, with so much money at stake, would breach of most supermarkets’ responsibilities. That is, to make money for shareholders.

From what I understand, halal slaughter – which usually involves no pre-stunning of animals – is allowed in the UK under religious exemption. As an atheist, I have a problem with that. But the arguments made by some that too much attention is given to slaughter and not enough to the quality of life, has some merit. But as an atheist vegetarian, I’m inclined to reject that, too. Too much meat is eaten. It is unsustainable in terms of ‘production’, and not so good for the human population generally consuming too many saturated fats.

With respect to the argument about too much attention is given to the moment of slaughter, I have this to say. So often I hear that halal slaughterers are skilled and make their incision with precision such that the animals lose consciousness almost instantly and hence do not suffer. Now it is quite some time since I have had intimate experience of animal slaughter, what is clear is that animals remain commodities. Slaughter is an industrial process. Slaughter is not a craft profession. It is a volume business.

Finally, where animals are stunned, they are unconscious when they are strung up and bled. Correct me if I am wrong, but where animals are not stunned, they will be hung upside down prior to throat cutting. That seems unnecessarily cruel and offensive.


Killing on the streets of London

The covering of this story by the British media has been shameful. Readers of this blog know that I have no time for religion, and if there is a religious dimension to this killing, then I have no time for it. No God is a justification for killing. But if it is about ‘an eye for an eye’ and British State’s contempt for people in other countries in which an occupying army is present – as indicated by the perpetrator – then there is something to hear. And we are not hearing it.

The BBC, again, leads the charge. The Today programme on 24 May wasted time first on the ‘radicalisation’ debate of young men and then getting muslim religious leaders again to condemn what has happened. And any equivocation is pounced on as tacit endorsement for the act. Wrongly. And now it is reported that one-hundred British imams have signed a letter condemning the Woolwich attack in the name of ‘our’ religion.

BBC Newsnight on 23 May interviewed ‘radical cleric’ Anjem Choudary and – not surprisingly – he  refused to condemn the killing despite repeated requests by presenter Kirsty Wark. According to the Guardian newspaper “he said he was “shocked” by the murder of Lee Rigby who was killed on Wednesday afternoon but pointedly refused to say he “abhorred” the attack.” What is the point in this kind of questioning?

Radio 5 Live employs a gang of inept journalists to cover the ‘latest’ from the story. ‘The streets of Woolwich are eeriely quiet, but one can sense a change in attitude in the last few minutes’ – excuse my paraphrasing of nonsense heard on Wednesday’s blanket coverage. (This particular ‘journalist’ is skilled in this respect.); David Cameron is cutting short his visit to Paris to chair a meeting of COBRA. He leads us in condemnation and facing up to the ‘threat’ posed by terroristAdebolajos.

The vocal man with the bloodied hands – Michael Adebolajo (right) – makes his case pretty coherently. He uses all of the sources open to him – in this case the ability and willingness of witnesses to use their mobile phones to record the aftermath. It seems clear to me what the motive was; but I have yet to hear a discussion on the grievance and how that translates to killing in the street. I have heard no parallel news stories dealing with the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan; made all the more surreal with President Obama talking on the same day and almost in the same breath about drone strikes – soldiers in the USA attacking citizens of far-away countries from the safety of a military base on the US mainland.

The British public respond with a tacit endorsement of Fascists who are quick to get onto the streets to stir up unrest. They also then give the charity ‘Help for Heroes’ their best fund-raising day since establishment.

Politicians and journalists revel in these kinds of stories. There’s capital to be made.

Since writing this post, Mehdi Hassan in the New Statesman has written a piece drawing on the link between foreign policy and violence. This piece – which is not available on the New Statesman Website – has elicited a response suggesting that it is half right. Readers of this blog can access this argument here:; It is right to point out that there are many different groupings within Islam and one may not be able argue that violence against Shia muslims in Iraq equates with violent reprisals by Sunni muslims in the UK.

New Pope

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013Now the dust has settled, time to reflect. First, the BBC. I was listening on Radio 5 Live whose coverage was baleful. There was a time when the election of the Pope was reported as that and the pantomime around it – the Conclave, etc. – was largely ignored. Now it is an event in its own right.

BBC Radio 5 Live had the fawning Shelagh Fogarty in St Peter’s Square talking to some “academic” theologan who clearly believed that the Holy Spirit had the casting vote in the “election”. Mingling with the faithful was Dominic Laurie, 5-Live’s business and economics correspondent (though a freelancer), asking inane questions and getting obvious answers. What was he doing there? Well, seemingly in his youth he taught English in Rome for a year prior to becoming a journalist. Suitably qualified.

Of course the funniest moment – despite the briefings and so-called expertise on hand – was the failure of both the radio and the TV to identify exactly which cardinal had been elected. The TV and radio correspondents had different thoughts until the confusion was sorted after an AP wire. Such ineptness.

Then there is the nonsense about the Church more generally. Why does the BBC pay such homage to a corrupt and abusive institution? For the same reason it pays homage to the British Monarchy? It defeats me. The manipulation of the media by the Vatican is not subtle. The spinning going on is quite extraordinary. Here we have a new pope who is a simple man, who lived in a flat alone and cooked his own food. Goodness me, he also used public transport. And he wears a wooden cross (though not in the above photograph). Now we learn that he called his own newsagent in Buenes Aires to cancel his daily newspaper as, seemingly, he will not be going back. These are fripperies. He heads up the Catholic Church – a vile corporation – with a mission to exploit, misuse resources, lie/cover-up, subjugate women, etc. The BBC – of all news gathers – should not legitimise it.Musei_vaticani,_cappella_sistina,_retro_02

The fact that the Church was ever able to afford to build and maintain the Vatican and is the home of those great works of art; for example, the Sistine Chapel (right), says it all.

Now I know there are some good people in the Church. The monks who have persistently put their own lives at risk in Brazil hiding those who oppose the land grabs of the loggers, are a case in point. Equally, many hospitals and schools in South America and Africa are run by the Catholic Church to compensate for the failure of states to provide basic services. I commend the people behind these enterprises. But Iwould argue that education and health services in the 21st Century are the responsbilility and preserve of states, not churches.

Pictures: Pope Francis

Sistine Chapel: Sailko (Wikipedia)

Women Bishops

So, the Church of England has voted against the ordination of women bishops at its General Synod on 21 November 2012. How progressive is that? What is particularly troubling is the number of women in the laity who have argued for their own subservience on this issue. It turns out that half of those voting against were women associated with the conservative evangelical group Reform or the traditional Anglo-Catholic movement, Forward in Faith (surely wrongly named?).

I am inclined, however, to call for the expedition of the removal of bishops from the House of Lords on the grounds that they represent an organisation with strict discriminatory policies; namely, that women cannot actually get to the top on the basis of some bizarre reading of stories that may or may not be true and of dubious authenticity. Equally – and for not dissimilar reasons – it is time to disestablish.

Or maybe on the grounds that a belief in the supernatural should not be rewarded with a seat in Parliament.

Bigot of the year

Stonewall, the gay rights campaigning group, it seems, risks losing valuable sponsorship from Barclays and Coutts banks. The two banks have threated to withdraw support if Stonewall runs its bigot of the year award again in 2013. Both banks are concerned about being associated with the award after it was given to Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland at its annual ceremony last week. A deserved winner. Notwithstanding the bigotry, any award that two ethically-challenged banks struggle with must be hitting the mark.

O’Brien won decisively, reported the Guardian newspaper, “after describing gay marriage as a ‘grotesque subversion’ of the traditions of marriage and likened it to slavery. The cardinal called it an ‘aberration’ and claimed it might clear the way for polygamous marriages and would cause ‘further degeneration of society into immorality’.

That strikes me as being spoken by a true bigot. Pure folly as well.

Richard Dawkins and the empty chair

Richard Dawkins has declined an invitation (25 October 2011) to debate his book, The God Delusion, with William Lane Craig, despite the abuse that has come his way in recent weeks. At the top of this abuse list is bus advertising in Oxford (see left). This is, of course, a play on his own advertising claiming ‘There probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’, that got the God botherers particularly worked up.

As Dawkins point out in in a riposte in the Guardian newspaper on Friday (here) the issue is not about debating the book but more to do with Craig’s literal translation of the Old Testament that commits him to defend genocide (of the Canannites in Deuteronomy 20: 15-17) and the goodness associated with the death of children (God is doing them a favour). The latter potentially leads us in a recent example, to be thankful that two vehicles ran over the little girl in China as she has most certainly gone to a better place and it was God’s will (see, for example, Huffingtonpost).

There are plenty of Dawkins provocations on the internet and in the press. Another Oxford Don, Daniel Came (who appears at the debate), writing in the Guardian, has accused Dawkins of cynicism and anti-intellectualism.  Let’s get this clear, Dawkins is a scientist. This God bit is not his life’s raison d’etre; despite that, nobody advocates atheism better. Life really is too short to debate with Craig. Just look at the review to see how true that is: see oxfordstudent

This has got to stop

Catherine Pepinster, again, has used her 3 minutes on national radio to defend her religion’s approach to child abuse, in the context the Irish Government’s call for priests to pass details of child abusers in confession on to the police. This is unacceptable, BBC. This is not a ‘thought for the day’; this is pure religious propaganda, and in this case Vatican propaganda. Stop it!