Category Archives: Design

So far I’m impressed, just going from the airport to the hotel! Reykjavík, Iceland. 2011

For years I’ve been an avid reader of Icelandic sagas, and for that reason I’ve wanted to go to Iceland for a long time. Over the years I’ve noticed that when I hype myself up with expectations over a long period of time, I’m invariably disappointed. So it has been with a certain amount of dread that I’ve been facing the prospect of actually setting foot in Iceland.

As soon as I landed at Keflavik international airport I noticed the colour of the light and how lush and saturated everything looked. As I drove into Reykjavík I was struck by how utterly alien the landscape looked. All new geology caused by volcanic activity, no trees in amongst the rocks, just tiny little heath and lichen. I got such a shock when I stepped out of the car to take this picture.


Although the ground is obviously very rocky, the rocks are covered in such think lichen that it is like walking on the softest and most luxurious shag carpet that you could possibly dream of.

After we spent about half an hour marvelling at the amazing landscape we got back in the car and within about ten minutes I saw a small tornado off in the distance.


Although I’ve been through areas within an hour of one passing through the countryside and a small town in Ontario, Canada years ago, and have seen close up the destruction they cause, I’ve never seen one actually happen. More amazement!

After boggling on the tornado until it petered out, we made our way to the accommodation that we booked (reykjavik4you) and were blown away by how nice it is! I’m not kidding, this place it as good as it’s website says it is. Here’s a picture of the lounge area of our room.


Spa bath, DVD player with free movies, flat screen TV, hi speed internet, kitchen plus a great bakery just across the road and it’s located in the middle of town!

As soon as we dumped our bags we went for a stroll downtown. With a population of about 120,000, Reykjavík is not a huge city, but it has tremendous heart. The town is just abuzz with an energy that I haven’t seen anywhere else that I’ve been to in Europe. For me there is a real sense of Reykjavík being a “happening place”, and in the short time I’ve been here, I’m already kicking myself we spent so much time in Finland and we didn’t spend it here instead!


So far, so good (he says, tempting the gods).

Uggarde Rohr and Gålrum Skeppssättningar. Gotland, Sweden. 2011

Much of the sightseeing in Gotland involves looking at things to do with burials. Anything from gigantic bronze age cairns (rojr) to iron age stone ship burial (skeppssättningar) sites onto medieval and later graveyards with inscribed memorials.

Whenever I look at graveyards of any kind I’m reminded of a quatrain from the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two–is gone.

Of late I’ve been thinking about the transitory nature of memorials. In most relatively modern graveyards the gravestones have lost their inscriptions within 350 years. Even deeply inscribed medieval grave markers are usually are an unreadable mess if they’re left out to the elements for more than a measly 500 or 600 years. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the more modern the tombstone, the shorter the time it will last.

Sandstone and marble are crap when it comes to withstanding the rigours of time and many headstones made of these materials only remain legible for about 150 years. Inscriptions hardly last any longer on granite unless they are on polished stones. I’ve noticed that roughly hewn granite breaks down faster than the polished version. Perhaps it has something to do with the mosses and lichens getting a foothold in the rougher textured stone and this helps the stone erode faster. Most of the cast iron memorials that were popular in the mid 19th century usually lie broken and rusted, as though in mocking mute witness to the fleeting nature of what we think of as the better design brought about by modern technology.

To my mind if you want to construct a memorial that will last a long time it would be expedient to start thinking like a bronze age chieftain. Make an arrangement with your people to bring some really big rocks along to your funeral and pile them up into a huge cairn like the one at Uggare in Gotland.


Uggarde rojr was made anywhere between 1500BC to 500BC and it is 45 metres across (about 150 feet) by 8 meters high (about 25 feet) and was constructed by piling rocks that are a heavy load for just about any man and many would’ve a needed a few people to lift them. The really amazing thing is that Uggarde rojr is still here. It’s just so big and the stones are so heavy no one has bothered to mess with it.

Now I know that most of us don’t have so many friends or the power to compel others to erect such large and lasting memorials to us, so another kind of enduring memorial might be of some use to those of us with more modest means.

The skeppssättningar or stone ship burial is another type of memorial that has withstood the test of time. Made during the iron age  (from about 500BC to 400AD in northern Europe) in the outline of a boat with large stones that would need many people to move, stone ship burials range in size from a few metres long right up to a very egotistical 170 metres (about 500 feet) in length.

I think that a smaller skeppssättningar would be within the means of most of us. A few grand spent at a landscape supply, the rental of a small crane, an afternoon’s work of some capable friends and I think that most of us could get a durable memorial made to remind people in the future of the great person interred below. A few long lasting grave goods (pottery is always good) should also be added with the corpse so as to give the grave some interest to archaeologists in the future.


The only thing that remains is some sort of inscription.

This would be the tricky and expensive part, but I think a deeply laser etched account of the life of the person interred, on a thick sheet (5mm or about 1/4 “) of stainless steel that has been hammered around the biggest stone (don’t bolt it into the stone because the expansion and contraction of  bolts will eventually help break down the stone) at the “bow” should do the trick.

A safety moment by Engogirl from the Vasamuseet in Stockholm, Sweden. 2011

My wife (Engogirl) is an engineer who works as a senior consultant in computational analysis. Engogirl tends to take photos of things that stimulate her thoughts rather than eye candy like me.  Below is is an e-mail that Engogirl sent to her co-wokers in Sydney.


Today’s safety moment comes to you from the Vasamuseet in Stockholm, Sweden.  This museum houses the 69m long warship ‘Vasa’, which was built for King Gustav II Adolf from 1626 to 1628, and was one of the most heavily armed warships of its time.

The attached photos show the actual warship viewed from the front port side,


and a 1:10 scale model viewed from the stern.


Ten minutes into the Vasa’s maiden voyage in 1628, a light breeze blew as the ship emerged from the lee of the city.  The sails filled, and the ship heeled suddenly to its port side, leaning so far over that water entered the open gun ports.  This caused the ship to further destabilise, and it quickly sank to the bottom of the harbour in 32m of water, with only the tops of the masts left showing.  There it stayed until 1961, when it was salvaged and found to be almost entirely intact.  The ship is now housed in the Vasamuseet. Of the estimated 150 people on board when it sank, at least 30 are thought to have perished.

So why did the ship sink?  Basically it was top-heavy.  When the ship heeled, the centre of gravity was so high that the result was an unstable load condition.  The heavy guns were too high above the waterline, too far from the ship centreline, and there was too little ballast in the hold below the waterline to lower the centre of gravity and provide a restoring moment.  This was further exacerbated by the gun ports being left open on the maiden voyage – contrary to usual practice.

What lessons can be learned?

1. Letting the client dictate the design as well as the function

The King had ordered the ship to be constructed with specific dimensions, and two gun decks with 48 heavy 24 pound cannons.  He ordered and approved the designs, but was not a shipbuilder.

2. Loss of key personnel

In the 1600s ships were built without any drawings.  The shipwrights used various rules of thumb to determine the measurements.  The Dutch shipwright Henrik Hybertsson was commissioned to build the warship, but he fell ill one year into the job, and died in the spring of 1627.  The ship was completed by his assistant, Henrik Jacobsson.  During the inquest following the sinking, Jacobsson claimed he just followed the instructions of Hybertsson.

3. Ignoring the results of preliminary testing

The ship’s captain ordered some heeling tests to be carried out before the ship was completed.  The hull was floated and thirty men ran back and forth across the upper deck to start the ship rolling, and it was found to be so unstable that the test was stopped early for fear that the ship would capsize.  Despite this result, the construction continued as it was behind schedule and the King was applying extreme pressure for the ship to be completed.

4. Relying on God to save you

Following the heeling tests, the captain apparently commented that he would trust in God to keep the ship afloat.  Unfortunately, such trust was apparently misplaced.

The good news is that the high levels of pollution in Stockholm harbour resulted in excellent preservation of the timbers, ropes and even the sails, and the Vasa now offers a fascinating insight into naval techniques of 17th century Sweden.



Lærdal Tunnel, Norway. 2011

At 24.5km (about 15 miles), the Lærdal Tunnel is the longest road tunnel in the world. Most of the tunnels that we’ve been through in Norway are grim dark affairs that evoke Grieg’s “In the hall of the Mountain King” mixed with death metal. The Lærdal Tunnel is a bit different. Sure, it’s mostly dark and scary to drive in but a third of the way in (also half way and a third before the end) there is a huge stopping area lit by blue lights from the top and yellow lights from below.


It’s amazing how a few coloured lights can seem so other-worldly and welcome when one has been driving in near darkness for a relatively short time.

Melbourne tries harder than Sydney

If I were to compare Sydney and Melbourne to people, I’d say that Sydney is one of those naturally beautiful but vacuous people who just sits there expecting everyone to adore them just for how they look and Melbourne is one of those plain looking people, who has been forced to develop an interesting personality to attract people.
I not only live in Sydney, I love Sydney, but I also have to say that during my recent visit to Melbourne, I was left with the feeling that Sydney is somewhat lacking.  Sydney just seems to be relying on its natural beauty, which comes from being located on a spectacular harbour.  Although Sydney has the world-famous Opera house, and the clunky Sydney Harbour Bridge, it’s not a particularly nice city, to walk around.  Once one gets away from the harbour, most of Sydney is merely functional rather than beautiful. 
There have been articles in the Sydney Morning Herald describing a recent visit by a Danish urban planner, Jan Gehl and his comments about Sydney. Gehl was quoted as saying that Sydney “is a doughnut, because it has nothing in the centre.” I couldn’t agree more.
Melbourne on the other hand has instituted changes suggested by Prof  Gehl after studies his team conducted in 1994 and 2004, that have completely transformed that city into a much more liveable place. 
Melbourne has many kilometres of cycleways that encourage people to get exercise, and reduce the amount of cars on the road.  There is also much more public art in Melbourne.  I really enjoyed seeing Duncan Stemler’s “Blowhole”,

Blowhole by Duncan Stemler

a 15 metre (50ft) high wind powered sculpture set in a children’s playground, and John Kelly’s joyously quirky  “Cow up a tree”, not only put a smile on my face, it brightened up the rest of my day.

Cow up a Tree by John Kelly

As a matter of fact, many public structures in Melbourne exhibit beauty in their design, more than mere functionality.

Cycle path bridge

When I told my friend that I was going to Melbourne, she recommended that my wife and I take our bicycles.  Luckily, I took that advice and spent a few days cycling around Melbourne’s beautiful art filled streets.  We’ll be going back to Melbourne again, we loved the place.

As for Sydney… get your act together, Melbourne’s kicking our collective butts!

This post was first posted on the 29th of January 2008

The Alcázar of Segovia, Spain. 2009

The Alcázar of Segovia was for me, the best grand building I saw on my European trip last year. Most palaces and their selfish and clueless ostentation leave me feeling cold. 

Warning bells went off in my head when I read that the Alcázar of Segovia was one of the buildings along with Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, that inspired that great exponent of kitsch and schmaltz, Walt Disney, to design the Wonderland entrance to his amusement parks. I was surprised how much I disliked Neuschwanstein and I wasn’t too optimistic about enjoying Segovia’s main tourist attraction.

We stayed in a very beautiful hotel right at the back of the castle, and as soon as I clapped my eyes on it, I was gob-smacked. Appearing through the early autumn foliage was, what has become for me, the epitome of what a castle could be. 

Neuschwanstein rankled me so much because it was so ersatz; tacky in such a mad and over the top sort of way. A pure folly of  brainless selfishness.

Segovia’s castle is obviously a defensive structure where some very powerful had people lived, but for me what saved it from being dismissed as yet another monument to greed, was that as far as the palaces I’ve experienced, it was relatively restrained.

Sure, the form of the Alcázar follows function, but there is also plenty of evidence of a desire to build something beautiful that not just the owners will see.

One of the things that struck me about Europe, was the fact that architectural beauty is important. I guess it’s a sad thing about wages becoming more equitable in the first world in this modern age that we live in.  No more cheap labour to suck the life out of and exploit. No more decoration, just for the sake of it.

So many buildings (here in Australia at least) are built for a price nowadays and aesthetics have largely been abandoned in much of the public architecture I’ve seen sprouting up lately. For every Renzo Piano or Frank Gehry there seems to be thousands of tasteless architectural versions of Myrmidons, ready to churn out  as many eyesores as they can.

Although most of the Alcázar is comparatively modest and functional, compared to so many other royal residences I’ve been to, there has been a fortune spent on the ceilings. It’s obvious where so much new world gold was spent. After all, this was the home of Isabella and Ferdinand, the alpha couple of their time.

As I looked up at the ceilings, I found myself thinking about Christopher Columbus going cap in hand to the King and Queen as he promised to make them so much richer.

The ceilings are proof that Columbus was a man of his word.

Perhaps this heavenwards manifestation of wealth was an early form of prosperity preaching. Go with the right god and you’ll hit the big time. Jesus is my main guy and his co-pilot the pope, let me take all this great stuff  from those heathens.

So watch your step, or your arse will be mine!

Despite thoughts about what was done in Isabella and Ferdinand’s names, my wife and I never tired of seeing the Alcázar rising like a beautiful Renaissance stone battleship, out of the rocks.

The Queen Victoria building. Sydney, NSW, Australia. 2009

Today I went into the city to meet up with fellow blogger Vanille who has come over from New Zealand with her husband, Paprika for a short trip.

Vanille is a French woman with a real sense of style, a fabulous food photographer and cook who has a deep interest in architecture. So when I offered to show her and Paprika around town I felt a little worried about where to take them. The weather as been pretty lousy here in Sydney lately so I knew I wouldn’t be able to take the easy way out with a trip on the harbour which always pleases. I asked what places they’d wanted to visit and the told me the Powerhouse museum and Darling Harbour. I’ve been to those two place several times and felt they weren’t that interesting but I thought that they might be of interest to others who had never seen them so I didn’t try to dissuade them.

Sydney is like any other tourist destination, in that it has heaps of over hyped opportunities to blow money and time on very little.

The first place we went to was the Powerhouse Museum which features technology and design. Although the Powerhouse museum was much vaunted in various design media when it was first opened, it is now a tired old triumph of style over substance. Dark displays hidden under noisy soundscapes and wretched projected video excess. I felt embarrassed that I was there with people of obvious taste and intelligence. Mercifully, Vanille and Paprika were self assured enough to let me know they’d rather see something else, so we bailed and headed for nearby Chinatown for lunch.

Despite the best efforts of whatever committee that has tried to turn Chinatown into a tourist experience, it is still a great place to go for excellent and cheap food. I particularly recommend the Sussex centre which is basically an Asian shopping mall that has a fantastic food hall of very authentic Chinese food from all over Asia. One of my favourite dishes that I like to turn visitors (who are unfamiliar with the food of South East Asia) onto, is the laksa (I prefer the Katong style).

After lunch we went to Darling Harbour which, despite being promoted as a tourist attraction, is nothing more than yet another retail mall with more tourist nick-knacks per square metre than just about anywhere else in Australia.

I think that what the people who design such places don’t understand, is that there should something that makes the place worthwhile to visit on an intrinsic level rather than just a place to shop. Darling harbour is just one of those lame-arse copies of the glasshouse Eaton centre in Toronto Canada with very little to offer to anyone other than pathological shoppaholic. At least it’s near the water and gives a good view of the city.

To my mind, Vanille and Paprika were starting to look a little dispirited with some of Sydney’s major tourist traps and when the pouring rain came I knew I had to think fast.

Vanille has studied architecture and we had been talking about the design of various things so I thought I should show her the beautiful Queen Victoria building as a way to show that not everything in Sydney is a clumsy and crass attempt to separate tourists from their money.

The Queen Victoria building (also known as the QVB) is a stunningly ornate sandstone shopping centre  built in the late 19th century that has been recently renovated.

It’s a building that has much old world charm and it offers so much more than a chance to merely shop. The QVB is an aesthetic tour de force that is so rare in these days of soulless shopping malls and tourist traps.

The venue was more interesting than the art. 17th Sydney Biennale, Cockatoo Island, NSW, Australia. 2010

I went to Cockatoo Island (one of my favourite places in Sydney) on Sunday with some friends to check out part of the Sydney Biennale. I was instantly reminded of something a set designer once said to me about a detail on a set I’d spotted (I used to be a set builder in the theatre) that needed to be sorted out. She said to me, “oh don’t worry about that, if the audience notices, it will be a sign that the play is a flop”.

I remember being stuck by what she (the set designer) had said, and how true it was.

Not long after, I was involved with the complicated construction of a set that was built on two revolves that when rotated would break the set in half and then produce another scene as the old scene rotated off stage. There were three amazing set changes that happened with the audience watching . It was all a very magical theatrical experience and an excellent piece of set design.

The trouble was, that the play was so bad that the only thing the audience applauded were the set changes!

I’m not kidding.

Cockatoo Island is an old dockyard from the early 19th century. It’s now decommissioned as a dockyard but a lot of the old decaying buildings are still there. The whole place is a sort of monument to a shabby kind utilitarian brutalism that has almost been malevolently designed to be as ugly as possible. The strange thing is that now that the paint is peeling and iron is rusting Cockatoo Island has to my mind become a wonderful place.

Visual roughage for the eyes, if you will.

As part of the Sydney Biennale a free art exhibition is currently showing on Cockatoo Island in the various buildings. The only problem was, was that most of the art was so weak that the venue totally overwhelmed what was being shown.

I didn’t see anything that I thought was particularly interesting, never mind anything mind blowing. A few pieces were O.K. but there was nothing that I saw that I thought required more than a few seconds to look at.

Oh well, at least the buildings were interesting.

21st century travel in Europe. Part 1, the vehicle.

Although I’ve bummed around much of the world travelling the hard way, hitch-hiking and sleeping rough when I was younger, my trip to Europe last year with my wife was so different and went so well, I thought I should do a few posts about how we did it.

This first part will be about travelling by car.

Although Europe has a pretty good public transport infrastructure, my wife and I wanted to get a bit more off the beaten track and go to places that were less crowded, so we leased a car for three months. France has an exceptionally good system for foreigners to lease brand new cars for short periods. Citroen, Peugeot and Renault all offer very competitive rates with no-fault insurance. Only Renault’s insurance gave us coverage in Bosnia so we chose a Renault Clio Estate diesel with a manual transmission.

For 86 days car lease including insurance with no other hidden costs we paid just under $2,800 AUD (about $2,500 US or 1,970 Euros) which worked out at approximately $32 AUD (about $28 US or 22 Euros) a day.

We went with the Clio Estate because it’s a small car with a fairly large cargo space. We were able to put two folding bicycles and our luggage in the back and still pull the cargo cover over, so our things couldn’t be seen through the windows. When we were in Germany, we met up with my parents and they travelled with us for about 10 days. Much to my parent’s credit, they are seasoned travellers and they know how to travel light so we had no trouble fitting them and their luggage in the car as well.

The Europeans really know how to get the most out of their cars through design.

Although I was a bit worried that the Clio only had a 1.4 ltr diesel engine, it had more than enough get up and go for all our needs. As a matter of fact I got the Clio up to 167 kph (about 103 mph) and most of the countries we went through had a maximum speed limit of 130 kph (80 mph).  I was very surprised at how well the Clio performed and it was so economical to run. In over 14,000 kms (about 8,700 miles) we only had to fill the tank about 11 times.

It’s no wonder the American automobile industry is in such big trouble when the Japanese and Europeans make such well designed and efficient cars.

Because of our long flight (27 hours), we arranged to pick up our car from the airport in Paris, two days after we arrived so we would be more mentally alert for what was for me, driving on the wrong side of the road.

I’d like to offer this advice to anyone who has to drive on the opposite side the road to what they are used to. Encourage your passenger to be an extra set of eyes and set the ground rules that they are to warn you with a calm, clear voice and not to over react by screaming incoherently and pointing. This is particularly important when making turns around corners so you go into the correct lane and not into oncoming traffic.

I feel I should stress to those who have never been to Europe, that a big car is a very bad idea. Many of the streets in the old towns are extremely narrow, parking is often very hard to find and when a spot is found, it’s usually a very tight fit, plus fuel is very expensive.

I had to laugh when I drove through streets like the one in the photo below (taken in the northern Italian town of Cimbergo), at the thought that if one was silly enough to be driving a large camper or something really stupid like a Hummer you’d end up having to do some quite long and complicated reverse driving with crossed fingers that no one was following behind you.

In our whole trip I didn’t have any mechanical problems or accidents. On the whole I’d say that most European drivers are quite good and I had no problems anywhere with dealing with the traffic. I guess driving here in Sydney had prepared me pretty well for whatever Europe had on the roads. The is one exception though, and that was Germany. The Germans are great drivers, courteous, safe and fast which made driving in Germany the best motoring experience I’ve ever had.

The whole leasing experience was so easy. The pick up involved a little paper work and the drop off couldn’t have been simpler. When I dropped off the car, I was asked if I had damaged it, so I told them that I hit a concrete block that was hidden in the grass in the Netherlands and I’d smashed up one of the hubcaps and put a ding in the wheel rim. The car lease guy asked to see it and when I showed him, he almost laughed and said it was nothing.

My father-in-law had a similar experience the year before except that he’d done a bit of damage to a body panel and it was just marked on his paperwork and there were no extra charges.

So, in short, I’d highly recommend leasing a car in France to drive around the rest of Europe. It’s reasonably priced and hassle free, unlike experiences I’ve had in the US where there always seemed to be some excuse to wring more money out of me.

I’d definitely lease car in France, without a worry, if I’m ever in that part of the world again.

Oh, and I thought I should mention, that I’m soooo totally over hitch-hiking nowadays.