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Haxted Thinking is a monthly newsletter for anyone interested in how buildings are designed, made and used.
 
Edition No. 3: November 2020

Firstly many thanks to all of you who have recently signed up to receive Haxted Thinking. Thanks to Pete the wizard, back issues of the newsletter are now accessible via the website here.  


This edition of the newsletter was going to be dedicated to that most ubiquitous of building materials, concrete. And in particular brutalism, which is a heavy subject at the best of times. But with enough heavy stuff going in the world right now I want to provide an antidote to the heaviness. So instead we’ll focus on less weighty and more uplifting matters this month. Edition 3 is a call to arms for curiosity – a subject close to my heart and one that I explored in my 2014 Do Lectures talk. What follows is a bit of a smorgasbord of stuff loosely connected to the process of making buildings. And there will be guitar. Lots of guitar. In terms of brutalism you can make do with the image below for now.

Chasing The Light

When I studied for my photography degree at Goldsmiths back in 2014-2016 I developed a great friendship with a young Spanish photographer and travel entrepreneur, Nacho Piqueras. In his critique after my very first presentation of a set of images to class he said “you are chasing the light.” Initially I was bemused. The imposter syndrome standing in that classroom was bad enough, and now I had to contend with not knowing whether the comment was positive or negative. “You shoot into the light” he said. “You are searching for something. It is good.” I loved our two years together. He became a great critic and mentor. We did a lot of research into the spatial and photographic qualities of Deptford and New Cross’s bewildering variety of watering holes. I’ll put a link to Nacho’s photographic work in a future newsletter when he gets his website sorted. In the meantime you’ll find him here on Instagram.
 
Nacho’s words had a profound effect. For the next two years I came back to them time and time again. Why did his words resonate so deeply? The conclusion I came to was that this searching, this ‘chasing the light’ was an essential ingredient for productive creativity. In my case it lead to all sorts of helpful discoveries in the adjacent disciplines of architecture, archaeology, anthropology, geography, and not least philosophy. Which proved to be a wonderful antidote to decades of having been told that the most successful people ‘stay in their lane,’ to ‘master their niche,’ and should ‘specialise.’ This notion always seemed suspect to me, and still does. It’s a subject dealt with brilliantly by David Epstein in his book Range which I highly recommend. I believe that the most interesting approach to life and work provides room for all kinds of wanderings, and enquiry. The king of British fashion Sir Paul Smith said:
 
“If you can’t find inspiration everywhere then you’re not looking hard enough.”
 
A thousand times yes, Sir.  This thinking also provided confirmation of the hypothesis I considered in my Do Lectures talk, namely that actively exercising curiosity leads to greater inspiration which in turn leads to more creativity. And this enhances our prospects for living fully. Furthermore in pushing ourselves into new or hitherto unexplored creative endeavours we are called upon to ask questions of ourselves, often difficult ones. And we are invited to reflect on our innermost vulnerabilities. Which is good. The supreme creator David Bowie put it like this:
 
“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
 
Here he is in a short extract from an interview where he also gives some brilliant advice to young artists.
 
We’re drifting off-piste. So anyway back to Chasing the Light. This also happens to be the title of part one of Oliver Stone’s brilliant new autobiography which I read this month. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s about making a dream a reality at all costs, even when there is no money. It’s about success and failure and the hubris that comes before a fall. And like all of the very best autobiographies it is really about the philosophy of the journey. And the thing about directing and producing a film is that it's really similar to making a building. First you need a strong idea, one that you believe other people will believe in. Second you need the resilience to persevere with it when all around you are telling you you’re crackers. Often over a period of many years. Third, and for me the hardest part, is that you have to raise obscene amounts of money, usually from strangers. Fourth you need to assemble and lead a team of enormously diverse talent, much of it precious and prone to wild mood swings. Fifth you need to need to keep the faith when all around are losing theirs, and sixth, when it is eventually released you have to let it go, like a child that’s come of age, it’s not yours anymore. And you have to let it go however much you fear for it.
 
Directing a development project really is like directing a film. I think one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever come across for how to ensure the team shine was from Robert Altman:
 
“The role of the director is to create a space where the actresses and actors can become more than they have ever been before, more than they have ever dreamed of being.”
 
So that’s what we try to do. Create the space for the magic to happen and let the actors and actresses make it. 
 
In a similar vein the longstanding conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the amazing Ben Zander, talks about looking for ‘shining eyes’ in his players. To get the best performance he says you have to create the space where their eyes are shining. And if they are not you have to ask the question “who am I being that their eyes are not shining.” What a wonderful exhortation for any leader. The point Zander goes on to make is truly brilliant:

“The conductor doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful; on his ability to awaken possibility in other people.”
 
It was this discovery, this realisation, that changed his fortunes and moved him and Boston Philharmonic into the pantheon of truly great performers. 
 
 “My job is to remind the orchestra what the rhythm of transformation is because the rhythm of transformation is lighter, brighter and faster than the rhythm of exhortation or blame ….you should, you must, you need…”
 
So get out there, chase the light, and get their eyes shining. 

Art is everything you don’t have to do

Brian Eno, long term David Bowie collaborator, gave a really powerful John Peel lecture in 2015 where he asks the question whether art is a luxury we can do without. You can find it here.  It really is a brilliant and provocative speech. And he comes to the conclusion that ‘art is everything that you don’t have to do.’ By way of example he explains that while we have to eat to stay alive, ‘we don’t have to invent Baked Alaska or sausage rolls or Heston Blumenthal.’ The embellishment and stylisation is art. Likewise for clothing whilst we need to wear something (certainly most of the time in the Northern Hemisphere anyway!), Dior dresses or Doc Marten boots are art. When we ornament and decorate something beyond its function, then the process is art. Same with movement. We need to move but ‘we don’t have to do the rumba, the tango, the Charleston and the twerk.’ 


Eno also suggests that where children learn through play, adults learn through art. It’s a lovely idea and one I’m subscribed to. I recommend Eno’s Oblique Strategies card deck for playing with your own preconceptions about how to solve difficult problems, or to break through when stuck. He developed them in the late 1970’s when working with Bowie and Tony Visconti on the Berlin Trilogy of albums. Mine were a 50th birthday present from my talented (and mildly unhinged) friend Phil Tidy, but you can get them here. If you are on an Eno roll then you’ll also enjoy his two podcasts with Adam Buxton.  Oh and his 1994 diary - A Year With Swollen Appendices is also brilliant. It was impossible to get hold of but it’s just been reprinted and is available later this week. Accrete


One thing I learned above all from Eno is the power of trying things you’re not used to. Or comfortable with. So in Berlin where he and Bowie and Tony Visconti made those three great albums, he had the drummer playing bass, and the guitarist, keyboards. That sort of thing. Just to ensure everyone got jolted out of their comfort zone, and got to see things from someone else’s perspective. It’s a good move and one you can try today with your team.

We need art in everything we do. Particularly in making the spaces that we live and work in. In any development or building project, consider all the things you don't need to do and do a bunch of them anyway. It's how we uplift ourselves and each other.

We need more craftsmanship

In any endeavour craftsmanship is vital. Whether it’s making chairs, buildings, or music, you can’t ever  have too much craftsmanship. I’ve had the great pleasure recently to witness stained glass windows being made by hand at our Cane Hill development. Truly a craft skill I didn’t know whether we could still find. But through the amazing historic buildings team at Restore London we did and Thomas and Tony’s work is incredible. Click on the link below for a very short extract from a little film I'm making of craftsmanship in action.


 
For some inexplicable reason watching Thomas work got me thinking about learning to play guitar. Perhaps it was the intense focus or the hand eye co-ordination. Or simply the majesty of being absorbed by something that I’m incapable of doing. Anyway watching him I remembered Mark Knopfler talking beautifully about the craftsmanship behind playing guitar. You'll find it here. And re-watching that reminded me of how my mind was blown as a young lover of rock music seeing Dire Straits play Sultans of Swing. Wow what a first single for any band. And there is a weird Goldsmiths connection. That’s where bassist John Ilsley was studying sociology when he met Mark's brother David Knopfler and went on to form the band in back in 1977. (By the way Ilsley knows how to create the most wonderful eating and drinking spaces and now owns a couple of fabulous boozers - the East End Arms in the sublime New Forest, and The George in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight). 
 
Last month we talked about simplicity beyond complexity. And as full on, and wild and complex as that performance of Sultans is, how about this extraordinary stripped down, classic Spanish guitar version by the wonderful Gabriella Quevedo.
 
I promised you lots of guitar so while we are it you ought to check out the utter brilliance of Prince when he totally owns the stage at the George Harrison tribute gig in 2004 during When My Guitar Gently Weeps. He kicks in at 3 minutes 28 seconds and then soars for 3 minutes. Enjoy. Prince was one of the formative influences of a young Lenny Kravitz. Like the genius Prince, Kravitz is a master craftsman. He plays guitar, bass, drums and keyboard. And sings with a voice like honey. In his recent Broken Record podcast conversation with Rick Rubin he talks from deep in his heart about the moment that Johnny Cash and his wife June held him when he needed it most. You’ll find it from 48 minutes onwards but I really do recommend listening to the whole conversation. It’s uplifting. And even if you don’t, go to the end and listen to Lenny play his song 'Johnny Cash' which he wrote as a response to the Johnny and June experience. 
One last thing
 
I like the counterpoint of small spaces with large ones. So I believe a really great house design incorporates both. Large open plan space, without the counterpoint of connected small spaces, can create negative unintended consequences. There’s an art to designing in such a way to get the best of both. Next month we’ll look at this further.
 
But for now consider the counterpoint spaces that yachtsman Alex Thomson will be living with over the next 4 months as he embarks on the world’s toughest sporting challenge - The Vendée Globe. For 24,000 nautical miles his living quarters on his Open 60 boat Hugo Boss will be no larger than a modest sized bathroom. With a restricted headroom. And yet up on deck he’ll be surrounded by the unimaginable beauty and ferocity of the whole universe bearing down on him. He’s finished the last two Vendée’s in third and second place so here’s to him becoming the first Briton, and the first non Frenchman to win it. It really is the most extraordinary feat of human bravery. You can follow his progress here. He's currently leading. Alex is a terrific guy and a total badass. Check out his mast walk, his keel walk: and the sky walk. There also a great film of his journey to the last Vendée Globe in 2017 Relentless.

Stay safe and well out there everybody and thank you for your time. Please do get in touch to start a conversation about any of the subjects raised in the newsletters. 
Who is Haxted? 
Haxted is a real estate development company passionate about creating beautiful homes and workspaces at a fair price. Our business is grounded in the visceral belief that well-designed and crafted buildings can massively enhance the quality of peoples’ lives. Haxted came into existence during the 2008 global financial crisis, a time of great turmoil.  Our thinking was that property needed less business-as-usual and more imagination. Less stuff and more soul. A little less conversation, a whole lot more action.  It felt like the tectonic plates of how to do development were shifting. We needed to be nimble and ready to change shape at short notice. 
 
The next few years are going to test us all. The decisions that we make about the buildings we choose to live and work in have never been more important. At Haxted we are fueled by curiosity and the art of the possible. If you’d like to see what we’re up to, or discuss doing something together please email me at cnavato@haxted.com.  I’ll generally respond within 24 hours.

http://www.haxted.com

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