~Flow Engineering Writing Commission
Piece 1: The Marine Expert
I once swam the Tyne river, on a balmy and deceptively cold September morning at first light. I remember that when I reached the thin silver belt of The Millennium Bridge this stretch of water represented a small lacuna to me. This was a last stretch of calm, undisturbed water before the more chaotic harbour at the Toffee factory, where the static vessels leave their elusive mark on the water.
When I first approached the mill, years later in a speedboat, it therefore occurred to me how ideally situated it was. As I neared it on the phosphorescent morning water it looked like a perfectly formed remnant from a Mark Twain novel.
There was no one around, and as I checked for salinity, in my state of early morning delirium, I almost felt as if I was checking that the mirage before me was real. I looked into the water, and saw how fish that move past the mill correct their movement infinitesimally as they pass by, thereby acknowledging its existence too. I pull the samples back into the hull of the boat and I drain my thermos of its coffee.
I realize then that I consider this mill a small respite. It is calm, somehow honest work, to chug as close as you can to it and to check that it coexists peacefully with the encroaching tide. My modern, smoke-pumping motorboat looks somehow indecent next to the creaking timber, the wood panels and the delicate railings. I know that on further expeditions upstream in a few hours time my job will fall back into the familiar remit of dials and pressure chambers. But working on the mill there is air, a sense of antiquity, and also somehow a sense of defiance. The mill acts as a stoic reminder of times past. Its engineering a calm reminder of ages when life was generated not by unseen electricity, but by the visceral movement of tide, harnessed by sheer endeavour. That reminder exists too in the fish bones that hide amongst the driftwood under the wheel. On sites where nature is harnessed for man’s needs, the constant invigoration of nature is present in the heady fragrance of the flowing water.
I carefully close the samples I have collected, my demeanour apologising for the gusts of smoke that the speedboat billows into the water. It is only when I have ensured that the mill remains in synergy with its watery surroundings that I feel finally able to venture further upstream.
Piece 2: The Artist
As I enter the log cabin that constitutes the entrance to the mill it is as if I have been suddenly scaled down, and rendered able to venture amongst the cogs of an ornate pocket watch.
On this site scale is all. It is the sense of timescale that gives the mill its visual impact, contrasting as it does with the modernist surroundings. It is in the difference of scale between the bulk of the great wheel and the tiny cathodes in the electrical boxes that the great sweep of time is apparent.
Inside the hut I cannot help but try to pick out a melody from the sounds generated. The insistent river washes in my ears like a resonant bass line, that pulse interspersed by the occasional heave of timber from the housing when it creaks. The wind that circles this small site, this intriguing dip in the attention of passing onlookers, is an ambient wash. I pass to my right, following the rail, and take in the laconic sine wave of the samplers as they dip rhythmically into a precise alignment of glass beakers. The beakers, like many artefacts within the hut, recall charming artefacts from a childhood school trip. As they dip in and out of their receptacles they generate earthy tones- simultaneously organic and yet artificial too. Combined with the scent of passing water, generated by the great tidal heave, the hut generates a unique response.
The musical sounds emanate from conical speakers, like Victorian ear trumpets pinned above our heads. Their physical presence threatens an aural onslaught that never quite comes. Instead the sound generated entices and soothes. The air is filled with a sense of curiosity and a kind of reverent expectation. There, beside the speakers are the clunking blowers, like great medieval fire-makers. Tools of some alchemist who remains unseen, but whose stamp remains firmly planted on the many curiosities that the eye feasts upon here.
The turbidity bulbs sit just below the speakers, clouded glass casks whose purpose remains elusive. Children stand nearby with widened eyes, spellbound perhaps by the sense of possibility that these instruments evoke. The adults, in reflective moments, communicate in glances that suggest impressed intrigue. When they eventually move away from the site the agreed impression seems to be that this is a site of exquisite, secretive ingenuity. There is a constant sense of agency- in the way the mill hones the wide force of river and in the way that nature never overwhelms it. The natural and kinetic becomes compressed, reduced and then expressed neatly as quirky musical sounds. We grow aware that only concerted human effort could forge such a great compromise.
As I pass through the hut and out onto its balcony the sound fades from my ears. I am struck by how defiantly the mill stands, in contrast to its sleek and modernist surroundings. Over The Tyne The Baltic stands as a sparkling monument to rejuvenation, and yet down here the Mill endures, a postcard to a bygone era. An era in which the simple flow of nature was enough to harness enough energy for all our earthly causes. The mill sits hunched beside the river, a precise barnacle on this sleek lip of land. Held to the city by thin, sky blue guy ropes. A secretive, carefully formed site where the madcap and archaic meets the precise and modern. In the pale morning light, or in the inky dark that eventually falls, the mill persists in a state of charming defiance. It is full of shrink-wrapped secrets, which only reveal in time how it manages to act as a mediator between man and nature.
Piece 3: The Engineer
As I stoop down here in a corner of this site, with my half-moon glasses and leather belt of screwdrivers, I probably resemble a character from a Tolkien book.
This mill is currently running slightly off-schedule and I am on site to try and return it to working order. Once such pressing concerns are dealt with I start to enjoy the final tweaks and flourishes before I must leave. I embrace the idea that I must look like some fairy tale character, silent and bowed, making miniscule adjustments while people flit around just within my field of vision. A man wanting to express through a great, heaving mill the sheer appliance required to make machine conjoin with nature.
Success requires repetition, deliberation, and sheet of numbers that people assume do not exist. Sums that manifest onsite only in small signs of victory- the activation of a cathode, a pleasing line on a chart, the correct number on a monitor. But I purposely box off from observers the most delicate, electronic pieces of equipment. I keep the real secrets hidden from the naked eye. I want people to think that the sensations they experience here are a direct manifestation of nature’s movement. I want people to simply feel the more kinetic aspects, the churn of the great wheel and the enforced chaos of the water. I want people to just experience the frightening clunks of the wheel and feel part of a robust and energetic process.
I envisage them pulling the levers, bemused and mystified by the flickering readings on the ships log. Part of my job is to maintain what seems a mythic process, one arguably as old as time. The Jules Verne-like machinery is theatre to me, though I always leave the real theatre to others. I know the true essence of Flow is in the darker corners in which I dwell. It is in the adjustment of one tiny cog, and the mathematics on some distant memory stick. It is in the sheer frustration of trying and failing that the real magic lies, somewhere in a den of perspiration. But here success seems to be in great sweeps of movement, loud bangs and the exhilarating wash of water. I keep the other mysteries to myself, and my notebook promises not to give them away.
Piece 4: The Designer
Filters, lasers and sensors. I had forgotten to include them in my preliminary drawing, but there they are. As I walk on site I remember my original plan for the layout. I decided on a short aisle for people to walk on; a gangway, which gives them the opportunity to take in all the machinery. I wanted the experience to be exhilarating, but on my drawing there was no protective steel mesh obscuring the sensors. Well, at least they are apparent enough for the inquisitive eye to see, and for officials to check. I know that on the one hand the visitors must feel enmeshed, amongst the cogs. But on the other hand they must be safe, unable to interfere with the essential elements. I wanted them to be involved without affecting the delicate state of compromise that must exist here.
When I first started work on this project I was given my components, and my job was to integrate them in an attractive experience. I knew there needed to be enough room for participant involvement, so people were able to put their hands on the site, experience the texture and feel that they had influenced the output.
When I am designing I feel as if I am an illusionist, hiding the delicate components and allowing the spectator to focus just on the most exciting elements. The sweep of the wheel and the churn of the water, the sound generated and the floorboard creaked. My original vision for the Flow Mill lies mute in my notebook. Here, on site, it has been gradually realized after much painstaking effort.
But no matter how meticulously a designer plans elements of glorious chaos always creep in. I am satisfied that my sparse, careful vision has come to life, but standing amongst it I realize that in fact its essence lies in the chaos. Its essence lies the elements that I had not considered; the melee that occurs when children bring the reckless swing of their inquisitive minds. How could I have planned for the reckless crash of the waves, the relentless battering of the wind? The way the river makes the timbers sing? Here, standing amongst it I see that the essence of the site is in such elements, as much as it is in the precise pencil drawings that remain static and mute in my satchel.
Piece 5: The Maintenance Official
‘Is there supposed to be a football down there?’ asks the boy in the vest-top. Not if I am doing my job properly, comes my silent reply.
I skirt around his parents, reaching for the pole that I have specially commissioned to retrieve such errant items from the base of the wheel. I choose to ignore the question. The greater the wheel, the more likely objects are to lodge in it. But I don’t tell the boy that.
Carefully, I reach over the protective rail and try to poke around the lattice of wood that collects around the bottom of the wheel. The lattice remains interwoven, despite it rising and falling like a belly with the movement of the passing river.
‘Is there supposed to be a football down there?’ the boy asks again.
‘Not for much longer,’ I answer, with what I intend to be a hearty, jocular tone. But the ball remains out of my reach. It occurs to me that this is par for the course on any site which invites children to play on it. The rest of the mill looks purposefully ancient, like something out of The Wild West even. Then you see the gleaming Adidas ball stuck in its housing, and the illusion is temporarily shattered.
‘But what does the football do?’ his little sister asks.
It gets itself stuck where its not wanted, I want to say.
‘It clogs up the wheel and stops it generating power for the music inside,’ her father answers, with a sagely nod of his head.
My attempts to unhook the ball with my pole only cause it to spin in the water. It keeps spinning, elusive amongst the blend of fragmented wood and congealed water.
In the end I pin it against one of the flaps of the wheel, and with careful negotiation I bring the precious, abandoned Adidas back into the daylight. By now my struggle has fascinated the boy, his sister and various other onlookers who have gradually noted my exertions. Finally the ball is in my hands, the mill free to continue on its seemingly ancestral path unimpeded.
‘God knows how these things get lodged in it,’ I ask rhetorically, in a broad attempt at bonhomie.
‘I kicked it down there,’ the boy replies, receiving his trophy with dirty and grateful hands.
Piece 6: The Funding Representative
From a distance the mill looks merely like a hut from the Mississippi; a bystander over the wide river. It looks as if it must be a historic site, a place of interest to those concerned with the archaic. I can imagine it, from this distance, as an enchanting water feature that’s been imported wholesale from Beamish.
I move down the ramp, and as I draw closer I hear laughter inside. I assume that today has not been dedicated to onsite academic enquiry. But the children scattered around the mill are not statically going along with their parents interests. It is the parents standing back, wide-eyed while the children throw their minds and bodies at the site.
Small hands twist over the dials on long wooden panels. Young minds avidly process the strange and bewildering display of glass casks. They press their ears to the speakers, their eyes up to the monitors, looking to understand it all by exploring with their hands. A girl screams in delighted fright at a sudden bang from the wheel, and as the Millennium bridge rises for a passing ship we feel the stretch of the hut as it resists the water.
Questions are asked of bewildered fathers, who rummage around their brains for memories of ‘O’ Level Science. I realize at that moment that this is a complex Aladdin’s Cave of a playground.
The Flow Mill provokes a childlike reaction in me, and I have to remind myself to stay conscious of my task here. It is up to me to ascertain the market appeal of this site; to determine how much funding should be poured into it and also how it can be best applied.
But the answers to my questions are soon apparent in the gusts of laughter that resonate around me. I see that the site takes us all to that great childlike cusp, to that very age where we meddle in chemistry sets and dive in ponds for tadpoles. It brings out the wonder-struck science-loving child in us. And I know that that child’s sense of adventure and intrigue is so priceless because it is the momentum upon which careers are created and imaginations fired.
Amongst the dizzying array of stimulus I have to remind myself of my purpose, and remember to be adult. Remember to consult the list of questions I had brought with me, remember to ask the right questions of the staff. Remember to tick off the checklist I brought down with me. And the very fact that I need to make such an effort to remember my duties also tells me all I need to know about the value of this site.
~ ~ ~
As part of a series of engineering themed events that used ~Flow as inspiration, a group of writers were commissioned to produce a piece of original writing inspired by the engineering behind ~Flow. Engineering relies on precision and detail, as does good writing.
The writers worked alongside Dr Viccy Adams from the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Newcastle University and Buro Happold to develop their work. The selected writers were:
~Flow is proud to have worked in partnership with The Royal Academy of Engineering to develop the ~Flow Engineering Programme.