It’s in the genes

It is quite amazing that what you might think of as the family inheritance, either in terms of  buildings, bricks, pieces of furniture or skills and interests, seldom go to where you think they might have. I always thought that, having been an architect, a teacher and someone who has exhorted lots of people to the possibility of re-designing and re-using existing buildings, that somehow this skill or this interest would pass to other close members of the family.  And to a degree it has, and I have wonderful photographs of my then eleven-year old daughter shovelling hen pen which was higher in the building than she was at the time, and my sixteen-year old son sitting in the huge valley gutter with an enormous pot of asphalt, which he was applying desperately to the cracks that had appeared in it to try and stop the water pouring in the historic building we had inherited.

So it was with pleasure, if not surprise, that eventually this interest passed, not to the Scottish Ferguson line, but through my niece in Canada to my great nephew Trevor Vilac who, having visited the Mill and been taken to various historic buildings in Scotland progressed from his interest in engineering (which he was studying at the time and has subsequently qualified in) to architecture, and it has been wonderful to watch his growth in the field I have made my life.  So a recent message triggered delight as he told me that from the University in Vancouver he was going on a study visit to Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Prague, Brno and other places mostly in Eastern Europe.

I have fabulous memories of taking, in the communist days, up to seventy students and sometimes more, to Prague and Brno with whom we were twinned, to look at architecture, both ancient and modern.

In those days, Prague was not the city of shining spires and wonderful buildings we see now – certainly the wonderful buildings were there, but everything was black, everything seemed to be grey, none of the churches or buildings of a vaguely ecclesiastical nature were open to the public, and we survived only because I had an Arts Council passport and my students were there under the auspices of student transfer. We also had a Chedok guide who was very good when it came to the National Gallery (which incidentally contained the best collection of French impressionists that I have ever seen!), but also to medieval libraries, monasteries, and fabulous baroque churches, all of which were not available at the time to the general population.  What we didn’t expect of course was that outside the City of Prague the works of an architect called Jože Plečnik were to be available, and in terms of modern architecture, and many, many of the students I took there, with an astonishment that they had not had the opportunity of finding in their home country!

Although I can tell Trevor how to get to Prague and get to some of the places we eventually found by accident, but I will never be able to recreate what was for us the astonishing experience of living in a communist state.  One or two examples spring to mind.

Everything that we had told the students about behaving themselves was brought to them very clearly when standing in front of the Cathedral, next to the Presidential Palace, when the girl from a young couple not with us ran up to the guard and waited for the boyfriend to take a photograph, the guard gently nudged her away with the butt of his rifle, but she was not to be moved, she then went to the guard on the other side, and similarly paused while the boyfriend took pictures, and at that moment an officer appeared from behind the two sentries, rushed up to the young man, took the camera, put it on the ground and smashed it to smitherins with his rifle butt, leaving, I may say, a group of young glaswegians open-mouthed and suitably warned!

This was similarly brought to mind on various other occasions, including the fact that one of my students disappeared for three days, as it left me, as the officer in charge having to phone the University to say ‘what do I do now?’.  The answer was to go to the police, so I went to the police but they said ‘not interested’, however I said to the students ‘you have to tell me what happened to him!’  They said ‘well, we were drinking in a bar with some Russian soldiers and one of them had a balalaika, and he asked if he could play it’ – the next thing we knew, he was leaving with the Russian soldiers!  So he was in the Soviet barracks somewhere, and true to form, the next day up turned said student, wearing a fuzzy Russian army hat and clutching a balalaika which had been a gift from the soldiers in the barracks – and I could relax slightly!

However we were there when the May Day parade was taking place, and the Chedok guide (‘Jimmy Chedok’ as we called him!) said: ‘no cameras, no cameras, you mustn’t go anywhere near the parade, you can watch the parade from a distance, I’ll take you there, but no cameras please’.  So we went and we waited, and the parade appeared, these enormous rockets, the likes of which we had never seen before, goose stepping Russian soldiers and the whole might of the then Soviet empire on display.  And of course, four of the students immediately ducked under the rope, ran into the middle area of the dual carriageway down which the parade was coming, lay on their stomachs and started taking photographs!  Jimmy Chedok said ‘I am out of here’ and left at speed.  And I was waiting for someone to rush out of the crowd to smash either their heads or their cameras, but to our surprise the soldiers waived to them and the parade passed them by!  So we began to lighten up slightly, and on the final night, as was traditional, the University paid for a meal for everyone: we had had several young czek students showing us around, we had spoken to art historians etc, so we invited them to join us in what was a very fashionable restaurant in the middle of Prague.  I went to organise this meal, and I explained that there would be 75 people and we wanted a three-course meal with drinks, and he looked at me and said: ’75 people?’ yes, ‘alcohol?’ yes, and I said ‘what can you offer?’  He replied ‘well, it depends on what I can get’. We’d already had a huge surprise in the hotel Chemo where we were staying, where the lady running it presented 72 hard-boiled eggs at breakfast, and when the students started throwing them about and certainly not eating them, she had hysterics because her husband had cycled 35 kms in order to collect enough fresh eggs – and nobody wanted to eat them! However, the manager in the restaurant said you will get a good meal and we will provide beer for everyone, as much as they can drink, and for you and your guests there will be vodka and wine.  I said ‘how much will this be’, he said ‘about £5 a head’, and I thought ‘oh this is going to be a disaster!’  However, having booked it and got the money from the fund to pay for it, we went: it was an old cinema and there were cantilevered balconies and you could see people eating below and above on each side.  We started with wonderful chicken soup, then we had carp with a white sauce, then mixed grill including goose, and chops, steak and vegetables of all kinds, then a sort of Prague version of Eton mess.  The students each had 2 or 3 bottles of beer, and the staff and the visitors had vodka and very nice wines, and as I said at £5 a head it was quite astonishing!  And surprisingly many of the important young people form the architecture scene who were with us said they had never seen such food before!  And about this point, a group in one of the other balconies started singing, and you can imagine what happened for the rest of the evening, 72 loud slightly inebriated Glasgow students of architecture sang their wee hearts out, I can’t tell you what they sang, some were not entirely polite in any language, but it didn’t seem to matter as the evening was absolutely fabulous. The surprising thing is that I took my wife there about 5 years later and as I walked into the restaurant and the manager said  ‘Scottish architectureman’!

And that’s why I know Trevor is going to have a wonder full time, certainly in Prague and Brno. I look forward to hearing his stories and I will tell him what I think he should see, but £5 meals are unfortunately a thing of the past!

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