Hubert Murray
7 min readApr 1, 2021

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The Cutty Sark clipper ship in full sail

Redundancy in Three Acts

Lessons from Suez

On the 23 March 2021 the Suez Canal was blocked by the container ship Ever Given en route from Malaysia to the Netherlands. Six days later, on the 29 March, through a combination of technology, judicious dredging and tugging and the blessings of a high tide on a full moon, the 400-metre-long vessel was refloated, and the canal unblocked. The blockage had held up 450 container ships for six days. Mid-crisis, much was made in the press of the fact that 12% of of world trade passes through the canal and Lloyd’s List estimated the value of goods held up by the blockage at US$400 million per hour or $9.6 billion a day[1]. The revolutionary concept of ‘Just In Time’ production developed at Toyota in the 1960’s and 1970’s was called into question as the global supply chain suffered its latest thrombosis and manufacturers and distributors waited for deliveries.

As the titans of industry and their actuaries and lawyers will no doubt contribute mightily to their various gross national products through their deliberations over what actually happened and who is to blame, there is in this incident fertile material for educating architects, engineers and other designers.

Redundancy Act One: the Suez Canal

At the height of European, and particularly British, colonial expansion in the mid-nineteenth century, China and India were principal fields of imperial trade. British clipper ships would export manufactured goods to India; opium from India to China; and on the return trip a high value cargo of tea back to London. Then, as now, speed was of the essence in international trade. A straight run by clipper around the Cape of Good Hope from one of China’s ‘tea ports’ to London would take about 3½ months, high premiums written into contracts for trips accomplished faster than the norm.

As a new entry into this highly competitive trade, the Cutty Sark clipper ship was launched from the Dumbarton shipyard of Scott and Linton on the 22 February 1869. She was one of the finest and fastest of the clippers, a Scottish rival to the American competition. Her top speed was recorded at 17.5 knots, and her fastest trip from London to Shanghai was 89 days and on the return trip 109 days from Hankou. For a ship of her capacity she could knock days of the route, an efficient deliverer of goods for the London tea merchants. Her maximum payload was 921 tons but more significantly, her displacement was 2,100 tons at 20’ draft (6.1m).[2] She was designed for the tea trade.

How fortuitous then, that the Suez Canal was opened on 17 November 1869, a mere five days before the launching of the Cutty Sark. The canal had been ten years in construction and immediately reduced the length of the voyage to the east by about 4,000 miles or eight to ten days’ sailing. It was claimed at the opening that the depth of the canal was 8 meters (about 24’) but some sceptical observers felt that figure may have been exaggerated. Notwithstanding that dispute, the dimensional tolerances of the canal were such that a sailing ship could not navigate under sail but would have to be towed. However fine the design and however superlative the skills of skipper and crew, they could not hope to compete with the shorter route that had opened up to steam.

Redundancy Act Two: Steam

Steam / sail hybrids navigating the Suez Canal, sails furled

At that time, the first coal fired steamships had been launched[3] which in themselves reduced the sailing time between London and the Chinese ports by as much as 12 days. On these logistics alone, a compounded 20 days’ reduction in sailing time from origin to destination proved to be overwhelming competition to the disadvantage of sail. Tilting the advantage to steam yet further, despite the fact that the draft of the new steamships was more or less the same as that of the clippers, the former could navigate the canal under their own power whereas the latter would have towing and piloting expenses, adding further overheads to the delivery of tea to the European tea exchanges.

All was not lost for the clippers however, even giving up the tea and opium trade to steam and the advantages conferred by the Suez Canal. Most European clipper ships were diverted to the wool trade that had started in the middle of the 19th century between the great sheep stations of Australia and New Zealand. Since the Suez Canal did not confer such an advantage on the route to Australia through the Southern Ocean, the former tea clippers became wool clippers extending their working lives another decade or two to the end of the century by which time steam again prevailed. The Cutty Sark resorted to the wool trade in 1883 and completed her last run in 1895. Her best outward voyage was 72 days (Plymouth to Sydney) and homebound 84 days (Sydney to Plymouth).[4] Twice had the Cutty Sark and other clipper ships of her day, been made redundant, by the Suez Canal and by steam.

Redundancy Act Three — lessons for designers

We designers must keep our eyes and ears open to what is going on in the outside world lest our designs turn out to be redundant, in the sense of being unnecessary, superfluous, or superseded by events. This could have been the fate of the Cutty Sark, made redundant by Suez and steam, but for the fact that there was within the system of world trade, some redundancy in the second sense, a secondary system[5], a fail-safe alternative in the form of an alternative purpose. Outcompeted in the tea trade to China, the Cutty Sark found alternative employment to good effect in the wool trade until, once again succumbing to steam, she was eventually put out to pasture as a training ship[6].

It is this second sense of redundancy that Stewart Brand advocates in his book How Buildings Learn[7], a building’s capacity to be reprogrammed, to be reinhabited with another use. The current efficacious use of sports facilities as medical vaccination centers, former steelworks transformed into public recreational areas[8]and the more questionable conversion of office buildings into affordable housing[9] are examples that come to mind. Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt[10], linked the decline in the potteries industry in the English midlands and the corresponding closure of the railways with the widening demand for higher education. Mobile classrooms in railway carriages traveling throughout old industrial areas was a brilliant stroke of imagination overcoming Redundancy One with the creative conceptualization of Redundancy Two.

Just as the canal and steam challenged the economics of the clipper ship, so the environmental, technological and social disruptions of the twenty first century — climate change, global systems of production and distribution, social platforms and pandemics are challenging the inherited and ossified norms of twentieth century life that have so far gone largely unquestioned.

Schools, colleges and universities designed for the centralized mass production of job qualifications, increasingly unaffordable, should be open to question. Highly specialised and centralized quaternary or quinary care hospitals, increasingly unaffordable, should be open to question. Personal mobility embodied in the private ownership of notoriously underutilized vehicles, underwritten by massive public infrastructure investment should be open to question. And the huge capital and operational costs, let alone the savage injustices embodied in mass incarceration, should be open to question.

Redundancy in the second sense, that of sustaining alternative means by which people and planet may continue to thrive, is an exercise in resilience.

Designers are often only too delighted to indulge in revolutionary form-making but in every building type, the school, the prison, the office, the library there is an opportunity and an obligation to think upstream, to ask what is the question to which this building is an answer. At a time when the global economy is consuming natural resources at 1.7 times the rate of replenishment[11], when climate change is already causing major disruptions, when the world financial system, world trade and world health are so self-evidently precarious, architects must look up from their screens, look around, and start asking questions. That, or be made redundant.

Hubert Murray FAIA March 30, 2021

[1] https://theweek.com/speedreads/973967/suez-canal-blockage-reportedly-costing-400-million-hour-could-last-weeks

[2] Displacement is the weight of water displaced by the ship when stores, fuel and water are aboard but without the payload.

[3] The steam ship Agamemnon arrived in Liverpool, her home port, from the Greenock shipyard on 1 April 1866.

[4] https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/1883-95-australian-wool-years

[5] This concept is familiar to structural engineers who introduce redundancy into design to avoid critical collapse in the event of failure of a component part. The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 is an example of “fracture-critical design” in which the failure of one component leads to complete and sudden failure of the entire system. Thomas Fisher’s book Designing to Avoid Disaster discusses the nature of fracture-critical design in a number of contexts including nuclear power plants, oil rigs, financial systems and others.

[6] Since 1953 the Cutty Sark has been preserved in dry dock in Greenwich, a major tourist attraction.

[7] Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn, Penguin, 1994.

[8] https://climate-adapt.eea.europa.eu/metadata/case-studies/a-flood-and-heat-proof-green-emscher-valley-germany/11305605.pdf

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/18/turning-offices-into-homes-threatens-affordability-study

[10] https://archiblog.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/price-c.-1966-potteries-thinkbelt-architectural-design.pdf

[11] https://data.footprintnetwork.org/?_ga=2.14009136.640093767.1617216455-1114182444.1617216455#/

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Hubert Murray

Hubert Murray is an architect based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.