The Wind Tree

I am cycling along thinking of not a whole lot. What looks like a sci-fi futuristic tree-like sculpture has been installed outside that very discrete private bank Banque Piguet Galland at the end of my road, Avenue Peschier. I notice the “leaves” are turning in the light, cool January breeze. Intrigued, I stop and take photos. Still thinking this is “art” only, I find a brochure in the bank about the Wind Tree (Arbre a Vent®) and stumble upon a feel good story.

The Wind Tree 1

The Wind Tree is the brain-child of Jérôme Michaud-Larivière, free-thinking engineer and founder of NewWind R&D. Some years ago, whilst walking down a street, Michaud-Larivière noticed that although there was no perceptible wind, the leaves of the nearby trees were still fluttering. This got him thinking about how, in a city environment, the energy from winds from any direction can be harnessed. The outcome of his research is the Aeroleaf® a “biomimetic wind turbine.” The whole arborial structure upon which the 63 Aeroleaves are deployed is a design masterpiece by Geneva’s very own Claudio Colucci.

The Wind Tree 2

NewWind’s aspirations are inspirational. “What was gigantic, NewWind has made small. 
What was unsightly, NewWind has made beautiful
. What was unique, NewWind has multiplied
. What was far away, NewWind has brought close to home. 
What was noisy, NewWind has made silent.”

As a statement of its corporate view of an eco-responsible future, Banque Piquet Galland bought and installed this Wind Tree; one of the first five produced. The brochure tells me that it can produce enough electricity to power 15 street lights, an 100m2 office environment and most of the domestic energy needs of a family of four. Such technology should bring a sustainably greener future for the 70% of the world’s population who live in urban environments.

Beautiful stuff! It brings hope!

An extinct car in Schiphol airport!


I hurry through Amsterdam’s crowded Schiphol airport late for my flight connection. Whooaaaaa! What’s that? I snap a photo. Others do the same. I assume the airport authorities have commissioned some contemporary sculpter to lighten the mood of stressed travellers. But, no! This is an advertisement for Sixt Car Rentals. Well…. they certainly caught my eye. The wooden board reads: “Thanks to Sixt, expensive car rentals are extinct.” Bravo, Sixt! Nice idea!

It works. I love the skeletal dinosaur theme implying extinction. Yet it’s clearly based on a reasonably modern car. And it makes me laugh. I particularly like the spoiler and the little boney rear-view mirror. But of course, it’s basic appeal (for me at least) is because of it’s immediate association with The Flintstones. Talking of whom…. I understand that a recent survey of Middle Eastern countries about American television reveals that the people in Kuwait don’t like Fred Flintstone, but the people in AbuDhabidoooooooo!

Is this beautiful?

Accelerator 1

Talking Beautiful Stuff has written about how an object’s beauty may be derived directly from its function. “That’s a really beautiful car!” “What a fabulous knife!” In other words, one thing we take into account when considering the aesthetic appeal of a particular output of the human creative spirit is what the object in question does. Yesterday, I came across this stunning construction on display in a theme park. I just stopped and stared in fascination. I had no idea what it was but I found it intriguing, intimidating and, yes, beautiful. Could it be – and I can hardly bring myself to say the word – “art”?

So, what do you think? Is it:

  • a prop from a 1960’s sci-fi film?
  • the winner of the Steampunk Festival 2014?
  • a work by a major contemporary metallic sculptor entitled “Devoid of humanity (with head) VII”?
  • a particle accelerator from the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN)?

While you consider these options, take a look at the gorgeous, burnished and exquisitely crafted copper exterior. It hasn’t dulled with exposure to the wind and rain.

Accelerator 2

The answer: this is one of the original particle accelerators built at CERN in 1983. It and 127 others like it (limited edition!) were placed around the famous 27km circular tunnel under the French-Swiss border. The acceleration around the tunnel of both electrons and positrons up to the speed of light was achieved by making them “surf” on electromagnetic waves of 352 MHz. A physicist friend tells me with great enthusiasm that the cylindrical lower part of each accelerator generated the waves whilst the spherical upper part served as a heat-reducing microwave energy store. I nod politely.

Accelerator 3

Photocopyright: CERN 1983

Here it is! With all the bells and whistles all wired up and ready for work!

Isn’t this fabulous? The designers cannot have given thought to the aesthetic appeal of a particle accelerator. This must be design for function only. This is the technical stuff of pure science. This is one hound in the hunt for Higg’s Boson. This is the sort of thing commemorated by the work of Gayle Hermick. But an aesthetic appeal it definitely does have even though I – like most others – have little comprehension of its function and will never see it actually working. However, it stopped me in my tracks and when I told my physicist friend that I wanted to photograph one of the objects  in CERN’s Léon Van Hove Square, he immediately knew which one it would be.

Accelerator 4

Another object on display in the Square and only 30 metres from the accelerator is an electrical staircase that multiplies the voltage of a transformer. Invented in 1932 in Cambridge (UK), this was used to generate the required 500,000 volts for particle acceleration. It’s looks really whacky and has the sci-fi look but, somehow, it just isn’t …. well…. beautiful.

Does my lifetime exposure to wondrous contemporary sculptures, old sci-fi films, steampunk and the world of Heath Robinson ultimately influence whether I perceive an object such as the particle accelerator as beautiful? Am I influenced because the object is part of the glamour of this cutting edge of science? Why is it easily imaginable that this really is a work by a major contemporary sculptor? If it was put up for sale and CERN asked the price of $1million, does this make it “art”?

The knives of Blackbird Valley

Blackbird Valley 1

The knife is perfectly balanced in my hand. It reminds of a scalpel: the healing steel. The honed blade glows dully. The handle is the fine antler of a one-year old stag. I want to use this knife but for a delicate task. It is made by Ross Johnston, master knife-maker, at his Blackbird Valley forge near Nelson, New Zealand.

Blackbird Valley 2

Nelson – at the top of the South Island – was originally a small town serving an agricultural community. The climate is fabulous. The area is now a beach destination and the surrounding sheep farms are largely replaced by vineyards, olive groves and orchards. Many creative spirits have made this area their home; there are numerous galleries and studios all brimming with beautiful stuff. It is probably most famous as the birth place of the World of WearableArt.

But today, I am looking for something more earthy; some uncut gemstone of kiwi beautiful stuff. A friend tells me I should meet Ross at his forge. This former steeple-jack and deep sea diver has been making knives from recycled steel for forty years. His knives are his life and his passion. He is a big man with a big smile and big hands and a big handshake. He is one big good old kiwi bloke! He gives me a big welcome. His knife shop is faced with sections of massive bandsaw-blades from local timber mills. Next to the door is the rib of a whale and a ceramic party-dress made by a friend. (So Nelson!) But before I see the display of finished knives, I want to see the forge: the first lines in the narrative of the knives of Blackbird Valley.

Blackbird Valley 3

The forge is everything I expect from a one-man outfit working steel: functional, untidy and honest. I am immediately drawn to what is simply scattered on the ground in front. I walk over fragments of old circular saw-blades, cut-up bandsaw-blades and vehicle springs. It is difficult to believe these can be transformed into beautiful glistening knives. Also strewn around are deer antlers from trophy stags for the knife handles. This is the uncut raw material of Ross’s beautiful stuff.

Blackbird Valley 4

Ross displays his knives on a deer-skin. He recites the provenance of each blade whether Honda leaf-spring, circular saw-blade or part of a 19th century carriage spring found when digging in his garden. Ross is familiar with the properties and apperance – raw and worked – of each.

Blackbird Valley 5

He shows me a huge Bowie-style knife. Not really my thing. But I pick it up. It also has a pleasing weight and feel. It begs to be used. I wonder if I might just be ready for a discussion with Croc Dundee. What I love about it is that the blade is made from a huge wood rasp; this gives it a unique, scaley and rather sinister look.

Blackbird Valley 6

I then spy a knife that Ross has put aside assuming that I would not be interested. It is a simple flat file fashioned into an exquisite kitchen knife. The handle part has been made by cleverly twisting the file around itself so as to produce a perfect fit for my hand. It speaks to me. I fall for it and buy it. I feel its edge and see it slicing through the skin of a ripe tomato.

The knives of Blackbird Valley raise the whole question of aesthetics and function and the aesthetics of function. These are beautifully crafted objects without doubt; but the perception of beauty comes from picking them up, turning them in one’s hand and imagining their use. They become beautiful objects when looked at in terms of their potential function.

The Blackbird Valley forge is worth a visit. It’s real-deal kiwi. And… you’ll find a knife that speaks to you!

The Dry Stone Walls of Cape Wrath, Scotland

Dry Stone Walls 1

I am in Cape Wrath, Scotland. The weather is… well… Scottish! It is Sunday. The locals remind me that, as for golfers at St Andrew’s, Scottish tradition dictates that trout fishermen also take a break on the sabbath. (“You know, Sir, even the wee fishes need their rest!”) My passion for fly fishing is displaced for the day by my passion for discovering beautiful stuff. However, apart from Lotte Glob‘s isolated ceramic wonderworld, this is not the place to find many painters, sculptors, galleries or studios. It is the most northerly and bleak part of mainland Britain. Just hills with a scattering of sheep, lochs and sea. And then I realise that my view is full of beautiful stuff: dry stone walls.

Dry Stone Walls 2

These walls are a major feature of the landscape of rural Scotland. They still serve as boundary markers and as fences to contain sheep. Some date back to the 1600s. Originally, land was cleared of stones for better grazing and crop growing. The stones were then piled up around the margins to contain the livestock. The history of Scottish dry stone walls is profoundly linked to the clan system, the volatile relationship between landlords and tenants, the infamous “highland clearances” and crofting. It is known that, centuries ago, many such walls were constructed by whole teams of professional wall builders. There is still a professional body dedicated to construction of dry stone walls.

Dry Stone Walls 3

Dry stone walls contain no cement but they withstand the worst of Scottish weather (yes, the very worst!) However, their building involves much more than the simple piling of selected stones in a line. There lies within a recurring and more solid construction. The cross-section of such a wall reveals an “A” frame. The two lower limbs of the “A” are made of smother well-fitting and generally larger stones. Between them, unseen, is the “fill” of smaller stones. The cross piece and “apex” of the “A” are together made by the stones that sit atop the wall. Both the solid, weighty two-layer design and the enduring functionality result from a feat of engineering. As for stone houses, bridges and paved roads, I guess we will never know the name of the genius who first had the idea.

Dry Stone Walls 4

Cleverly and where necessary, the construction can simply incorporate a bigger unmovable rock that happens to be in the way. I am in awe of the skill of those who built these walls. I am mesmerised by the patterns and proportions created by the placement, shape, colour and texture of the stones. Other words come to mind. Resilience. Permanence. Balance. Complexity. This is beautiful stuff on a major scale.

Dry Stone Walls 5

I find a little bonus to looking closely at these walls. Over hundreds of years each plays host to its own ecosystem of lichen, moss, grass, bracken, spiders, mice and beetles.

Dry Stone Walls 6

However, it is more than the the skill required to build these dry stone walls, their beauty and their place in nature that I dwell on. It is also the work invovled. I try to imagine being a builder. My hands are broad and calloused but dextrous nevertheless. My back is strong. I rely on an instinct guiding me to which stone is placed where and how it sits with its neighbours. Without this instinct the effort required would double as the stone in question must be moved, rotated, turned or even set aside for another. In physical terms, all I do is lift, place and move stones of up to 30kg. My working day is long. I build whatever the weather.

How accurate is my imagination? Is there anyone at hand who can tell me what it really takes to build a dry stone wall?

Dry Stone Walls 7

John Lennon was not famous as a builder of dry stone walls! However, there is a connection. Before the Beatles became famous, Lennon visited Durness near Cape Wrath  several times. His memories of the place and people inspired the song “In My Life” from the Rubber Soul album. In 2007, Durness dedicated a space to a John Lennon Memorial garden. And that tireless tinkerer in beautiful stuff, Roger Bunting, was a part of the team that made the dry stone wall that surrounds the garden. Roger shows me “his” part of the wall and is justly proud of it. I ask if its construction was hard work. “After two days, I was bloody knackered!” he replies.

Dry Stone Walls 8

I drive south. I see a sign to Oldshoremore. As I drive through this crofting village heading for its famous beach, the only obvious man-made structure in view is the Oldshoremore cemetery. It occurs to me that its surrounding dry stone wall is unlikely to contain those ancient spirits that will come to haunt me if I catch a trout for my Sunday supper?