Invited to Stratford-upon-Avon

This happened once, last August, invited to be one of four people on a stage (not the main stage) for the Royal Shakespeare Company discussing Vienna, the city, Measure for Measure. A wonderful moment in a bad time. A happy memory.

I had not expected to like Stratford-upon-Avon so much. It really was terribly touristy, several hundred years it’s been that way. I suppose I expected just how much is gone, but not that so much should be left…almost anything vaguely of Shakespeare’s time survived if it got through those early crucial years when worship of his work had not quite stretched to full preservation of anything of even remotest connection to him. The 1800s more or less, in 1846 Dickens helped raise funds to buy his birthplace.

The house Shakespeare bought after success (New Place) is gone, but the house he was born in still stands (thanks Dickens!), as does the house he wooed Anne Hathaway in, his grammar school, the homes of his daughter and his friends, the premises of his butcher, the guild hall. Splendid buildings all of them. This is like a vernacular building wonderland.

I loved Anne Hathaway’s cottage most. I walked through town out to Shottery where it sits, across well kept fields. I walked alone, arrived late in the day. The Hathaway family and their descendants lived there until the death of Mary Baker in 1892. Her parlour has been left as it was for the most part, small decorative things, pictures in frames. The simplicity of her life without electricity, running water, indoor toilet. A small area on the upper floor of the cottage where smoke from the fire was diverted to smoke meat.

More than anywhere I’ve been I think, perhaps given the lateness of the hour and fewness of people and the fact that it still retains some remnant of a sense of being lived in, you get a sense of the smallness of it (though it had been expanded greatly since Shakespeare’s time there). A sense of the interior darkness, the crowding, the low ceilings, dim light, everything hand crafted mortise and tenon wise. A life utterly different. Hard to imagine a life lived in such housing as this, in such intimate proximity such absence of privacy. So few things, all made by those known to you.

I confess too I shivered walking the flagstones.

I loved the tales of how much Mary Baker charged for her stories, for postcards, for pieces of the settee where she claimed Shakespeare courted Anne…you can see how it has disappeared little by little. She sounds canny and fabulous.

There is a museum where the New House stood — a lovely garden and a tale of crime: Shakespeare bought New House from a man named William Underhill in 1597, only two months later Underhill was poisoned by his oldest son Fulke Underhill who was hanged in 1599 — all property was confiscated by the crown. The sale was not finalised until 1602 (by youngest brother Hercules!). Still, Shakespeare was holding malt there in 1598 (well, his wife was holding malt there in 1598). She totally kept everything on track as he moved between Stratford and London — he always came back here. I resist so much of the scaffolding of gossip and guessing built around the frame of his life, but I love the fact that this remained home. To return to the New Place as home, even while they waited for full possession of it from the court, the Globe was being built (1599), and Shakespeare’s father died (1601). A hard time.

His birthplace? Hopeless, packed full to wonder at glove making and beds, you troop through in a line. I did like the names of the famous and not-so-famous etched into the glass. His daughter’s home ‘The Cage’ was better. But so many people. I should have visited everywhere late in the day, just before closing. Coaches all gone home so they cannot vomit out their hordes that move past you in waves of people speed viewing, pictures, conversations.

Still. To be honest, I could feast on a diet of Tudor homes for days, I love everything about them.

Just as I loved being there with purpose that would make my folks proud, a slap up fish supper with cheap white wine, and the most swans I have ever seen in one place before.

I wish this travesty of ‘Independence’ day meant anything like adequate precautions were in place, or that we could travel beyond the hospital and its MRI machine. Holiday continues.

The Amazing Oreo By Fran Ross

Oreo

Fran Ross’s Oreo is amazing and hilarious and wondrous, I cannot believe I had never heard of it before, never read it. It is funny, so few books are actually successfully funny. Brilliant inventive language and a dance through culture and knowledge that makes absurd any distinction between high and low. All about race, hybridity, fierce female strength and sass that is comfortable in its own skin. It contains some awesome whipping of some pimp ass. Philly v New York. My my, but you could not ask for more.

Writing so much about segregation, this made me laugh out loud but it is not the best bit by any stretch. That might be the bit about riding the bus, but might not. There are so many.

The family favorite that night was the story she told about playing at a house party in the all-black suburb of Whitehall, so much in the news when low-income whites were making their first pitiful attempts to get in. The upper-middle-class blacks of Whitehall objected to the palefaces, not because they were poor (“The poor we have with us always,” said town spokesman, the Reverend Cotton Smith-Jones, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church), but because they were white (“We just do not want whitey, with his honky ways, around us,” said Reverend Smith-Jones to a chorus of genteel Episcopalian “Amens”). As Chuck Smith-Jones pointed out, whitey was beyond help. Chuck did not groove on crime in the streets, the way black people did; he did not dig getting his head whipped, his house robbed, his wife raped, the way black people did; he was not really in getting his jollies over his youngsters’ popping pills, tripping out, or shooting up, the way black people did. Such uptight, constipated people should not he allowed to mingle with decent, pleasure-loving black folk. That was the true story, but officially Whitehall had to be against the would-be intruders on the basis of poverty.

The town adopted a strict housing code, which was automatically rescinded for blacks and reinstated whenever whites appeared. (The code was shredded, its particles sprinkled into confiscated timed-release capsules, and is now part of the consciousness of millions of cold sufferers.) “Keep Whitehall black,” the townspeople chanted in their characteristically rich baritones and basses. “If you’re black, you’re all right, jack; if you’re white, get out of my sight,” said others in aberrant Butterfly McQueen falsettos. These and other racist slogans were heani, as the social, moral, economic, and political life of the town was threatened.

The white blue-collar workers who labored so faithfully at the Smith-Jones Afro Wig and Dashiki Co., Inc., were welcome to earn their daily bread in the town, but they were not welcome to bring their low-cholesterol foods, their derivative folk-rock music, and their sentimental craxploitation films to Whitehall. The poor, the white, and the disadvantaged could go jump.

The people of Whitehall set up floodlights to play over the outskirts of the neighboring, honky-loving black town, whose lawns (formerly reasonably manicured but now nervously bitten to the quick) bore sad witness to the instant herbaphobia that whites brought with them. Black Whitehall posted sentries and devised elaborate alarm/gotcha systems (the showpiece was a giant microwave oven with the door ajar). The Whitehall PO-lice raised attack dogs on a special “preview” diet of saltines and the white meat of turkeys. Helen quoted Reverend Smith-Jones as saying, in his down-home way, “If any chalks should be rash enough to come in here, those dogs will jump on them like white on rice.” (73-75)

Ross, Fran ([1974] 2015) Oreo. New York: New Directions.

Planning with light (or the Neonisation of the soviets)

We should be in Poland now. Katowice, spending some time with beloved friends after Mark keynoted the literary philosophical conference they were putting together (which I had promised to submit a paper to but failed, being broken by work. So broken. But resting now). Still, we are on holiday, a holiday slipping through fingers stuck here at home. A holiday of writing. I thought perhaps I could return to some old blogs started and not finished, but it is not helping.

When in Warsaw — we were in Warsaw, another conference just before Christmas, a fascinating city I’ve still to write — we walked to the Neon Museum. When in Warsaw, in a time when travel was still possible, when movement beyond South Manchester a privilege but not an impossibility. The Neon Museum’s driving force has been the neon collector Ilona Karwinska along with David Hill, and it is marvelous. You can find English news coverage on CNN. We brought home this documentary Neon (2014) Eric Bednarski.

Mark watched it with me with good grace, I am fascinated by this idea of planning with light, of a unique time and a language that made to neonise a verb. I am a little in love with this way of designing a city, transforming this city completely rebuilt after Nazi destruction in WWII on massive Stalinist lines in grey concrete. A collective effort of collaborative design between architects, graphic designers, painters, engineers. The celebration of it in the pages of the magazine Stolica.

The time of neon was the time of the thaw after Stalin’s death in 1953, and a new emphasis on lightness, brightness, colour. Neon became both about bringing glamour to the city, but also provided a kind of a map, allowing the orientation of self in the city through light — you see the cow you know what street you are on. It reminds me of the saints that guard and guide you through the streets of Valletta. Warsaw’s idiom was full of modernity’s promise, associated with the bright lights of Times Square or Vegas. But in many ways it has more in common with the saints, expressively noncommercial, artisanal. It is a way to know and navigate a city, imagine the maps that Kevin Lynch might have uncovered here.

The process of creating neon itself is fascinating. Blow torches are used to shape the tubes, they rely on chemistry and the composition of gasses that somehow relate more to the mysteries of alchemy than modernity to me. And in Warsaw they were all unique, made for one specific place and time without standardisation.

My favourite thing about the film was the neon designer Piotr Perepłyś, without the smallest doubt. He embodied for me the joy of neon, the beauty of it, the way it felt (I paraphrase) to see something new shining there on any street ‘we could feel we were part of the world, part of Europe’. Neon imparted a new, a different kind of vitality to architecture, it gave it movement, light, energy. It transformed the grey (but oh, there is such a sense of the drab greyness of this twisted facade of communism). Perepłyś says something like ‘in that sad grey reality of ours, neon became a brooch, a jewel, gleaming down‘.

He designed with a pen and nib, a flowing hand, the best way to create the smooth lines and joined letters needed.

But the addition of gases to create shifting lights means that it is not (necessarily) a static art, but one that allows you to add a storyline, a narrative a joke.

Most wonderful. Because they did.

I love that the city designers of Warsaw’s different areas competed in neon. Yet even so it could be up to 3 years from design to building and putting it in place. A tortuous approval process ate up this time, which included the city council — the documentary contains an awesome document montage that gives a sense of the process.

And of course there are some great stories. Like the enormous flower bouquet that disturbed the sleep of the mistress of the minister, but complain as she might, it had gone through all the stages of approval and therefore it could not be removed.

This would all change. The mid 70s would bring economic crisis and (as everywhere) issues with energy. Many companies started leaving their neon unlit even before martial law was declared in 1981 in response to the solidarity movement. A new era began of military blockade, curfews and blackout with neons forbidden.

I can’t remember who says it but it is definitely true that ‘unlit neons are very depressing‘.

As letters fell, meanings became transformed in humorous ways. Yet this signaled the beginning of the end, and by 1991 the neons started to disappear, often actively destroyed as communist remnants.

Many remain scattered through the city — though nothing like their heyday which I would have loved to have seen. There are some amazing photographs here. I am glad this many have been saved, glad they are having something of a come back. The museum is wonderful, and well worth a visit, as is wandering the surrounding area.

 

 

Jamaica Kincaid: Breadfruit, Gardens, Empire

My Garden

The picture above is from Jennifer Jewell’s The Earth in Her Hands. In this great green garden she created and in that T-shirt, Jamaica Kincaid is fierce. A quote from her interview there: ‘Plants contain the world. The garden, better than any college education, gave the world to me‘.

I loved this book, even if (maybe because) it isn’t very easy. I loved the spiked outline of Jamaica Kincaid in all its fullness of garden colour and glory: the obsessive gardening, the plants, the meditations on winter and colour and travel and China and self and other people and foxes and history and Vermont and Antigua and mothers and children and … you know, this stuff of everyday thought and life.

It is not full of things to be quoted really. It is to be enjoyed in the round this book, the full chiaroscuro of character that only appears when you reach that last page, close that cover. But there were two things I wanted to share. The first because I have noticed only in the past few months (pre-lockdown) the strange appearance of breadfruit everywhere in Manchester and Bristol. The new vegetarian alternative, from replacing my favourite pizza at Zizzi’s to numerous other restaurants offering strange versions of it. I know it is not at all new elsewhere, but how did it happen like this all at once here? There is something going on, but what?

Kincaid gives it new meaning.

This food, the breadfruit, has been the cause of more disagreement between parents and their children than anything I can think of. No West Indian that I know has ever liked it. It was sent to the West Indies by Joseph Banks, the English naturalist and world traveler, and the founder of Kew Gardens, which was then a clearinghouse for all the plants stolen from the various parts of the world these people had been (the climbing rose R. banksiae from China was named for his wife). He sent tea to India, he sent the West Indies the breadfruit; it was meant to be a cheap food for feeding slaves. It was in the cargo that Captain Bligh was carrying to the West Indies on the Bounty when his crew so correctly mutinied. (Perhaps Antiguan children sense intuitively the part this food has played in the history of injustice and so they will not eat it.) It grows readily, it bears fruit abundantly, it is impervious to drought, a serious impediment to the growing of things anywhere. In a place like Antigua the breadfruit is not a food, it is a weapon. (100-101)

And obsessed with history as I am, I loved this, and she repeats that larger paragraph at the end of this chapter on history, underlines it.

What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me?

Should I call it history?

If so, what should history mean to someone like me?

Should it be an idea, should it be an open wound with each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again and again, over and over, and is this the healing and opening a moment that begins in 1492 and has yet to come to an end? Is it a collection of facts, all true and precise details, and if so, when I come across these true and precise details, what should I do, how should I feel, where should I place myself?

Why should I be obsessed with all these questions?

My history begins like this: In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World (114).

I suppose more than anything this makes me ache even more for my own space, my own garden. I know that old excitement of plant catalogs. This is an old ache exacerbated in lockdown, staring at the wild grass outside I must cut. A small yard not mine, without tools to prune the wild suckers and plant growing things (and plant for whom? though I know I should leave this place better than I found it as I hope to leave all places, yet a punishing terrible job leaves no time to cultivate or improve anything in a sustained way and I never ever expected to be here so long, that alone makes me want to curl up and give in), the damp in the walls, the furnishings and appliances that belong to a landlord and are cheap and breaking down, this bed that hurts my back so I can’t exercise much anymore, the stove that will not bake properly at gas mark 4, these uncomfortable couches, kitchen chairs you can’t sit on for too long, the glass table. Sometimes I feel like I am shriveling up.

I do, I really do, know that it could be worse.

Kincaid, Jamaica (1999) My Garden (book): London: Vintage.

Longsight to Fletcher Moss Park

A long walk, guided again through side streets and suburbs in the ongoing hunt for blue plaques. What else to do in South Manchester lockdown? We started with the simple terrace houses built over the fields where Louis Paulhan (1883-1963) landed a Farman Biplane, marking the first flight between London and Manchester on 28 April 1910.

He was one of two contestants in what sounds like an epic race for £10,000 offered by the Daily Mail, beating Claude Grahame-White (despite his perilous first lift-off at night) to the prize. Wikipedia has this lovely quote from Paulhan rescued from behind the NY Times paywall:

I shouted and I sang. I do not think my voice is particularly fascinating, but nobody seems to mind that in the upper air. A pelting rainstorm lashed me for twenty minutes while I was in the neighborhood of Rugby. Fortunately I am not unused to flying in the rain, and, therefore, although it was uncomfortable, it had no effect upon my flight. I kept on flying at a steady pace, although my altitude varied remarkably. (Louis Paulhan[19])

Paulhan on the plane he flew from London to Burnage
Paulhan on the plane he flew from London to Burnage

We saw also the massive home of Daniel Adamson (1820-1890), engineer and lead promoter of the Manchester Ship Canal. It is now a conference kind of centre, hidden in the depths of a modern business park of overwhelming amounts of blue green glass, manicured lawns, and no way out but the main entrance. We did try, but failed. We walked on to the Croft, now part of Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden, where lived Emily Williamson (1855-1936), founder of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The gardens are beautiful, especially in May though we just missed the height of the azaleas. A bit of the history:

The Old Parsonage is the second oldest building in Didsbury after St James’ Parish Church, which is on the opposite side of Stenner Lane; it dates from around 1650. Although now called the ‘Parsonage’ (previous names were ‘Ash House’ and ‘Spring Bank’) it has only ever been lived in by two of the church ministers. A map of 1851 shows it joined to the Olde Cock Inn.The Moss family lived in the house from 1865 as tenants, eventually buying it in 1884 for £4000. In 1915 Fletcher Moss gifted the house and gardens, along with the house and gardens at ‘The Croft’ (on Millgate Lane), to the City of Manchester on condition he could live in there for the remainder of his life; he died in 1919.

Much of the present layout of the gardens is the result of the work of Fletcher Moss and his mother.

There is also a note to the fact that the parsonage was believed to be haunted. Sadly we saw no ghost, but were instead bowled over with admiration for the wondrous carving of Bender astride a winged beast on one of the garden benches.

We continued back, passed the house of Robert Howard Spring (1889-1965), Welsh journalist and novelist (but unread by me I’m afraid).

We passed protest over housing in this time of Covid-19…silent words sent through banners and hand drawn flyers flyposted on bus stops.

On to the lovely library, which stands near the site where Prince Rupert and his Royalist army camped on their way to the battle of Marston Moor in Yorkshire, on the 2nd of July 1644. I’m not sure quite why this has a plaque, nor how much this makes history come alive. Hard to imagine an army able to camp here on the open ground of ‘Barloe More’. Prince Rupert of the Rhine was 23, headstrong and impatient, he would go one to fight in one horrific European war after another, help found the Hudson Bay company, raid as a privateer in Caribbean waters and make money from the slave trade, become a colonial governor of Canada. I suppose you can’t fit all of that on a plaque.

We came to a road marked private–I hate private roads, even when this is marked by signs in a lovely art nouveau style. this marks the Broadway conservation area, an odd road uneasy where it sits, an old attempt at enclave.

From the conservation documents

The avenue and the properties on each side of it were designed as a complete entity and built by Emmanuel Nove, an emigré from the Ukraine who had arrived in Manchester in the mid 1890s. After setting up a firm of builders he first constructed Grove Terrace, Burton Road, Withington and in the 1920s he constructed Nos. 6-14a Oxford Road near the city centre.

Each of the properties in Old Broadway has a different appearance, but there is a certain continuity brought about by features and details common to the period, when the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements were in vogue. The internal layout of each of the properties, however, is remarkably similar.

It is understood that the superior quality of the houses made them popular with doctors who worked at, and were required to live within four miles of, Manchester Royal Infirmary.

Immigrant success story? I suppose it has always been easy to cash in on the desire for segregation and exclusivity.

From there on to Ladybarn Lane, which I do love. Here you can actually see the survivors of the old village now swallowed by the suburb and student housing.

And home.

Carlos Bulosan On looking for Housing in America

I found a hotel on Third Street that was tenanted by dark Europeans. It was managed by an elderly woman who, when I asked if Orientals were accepted, explained that it was not an American establishment. She meant that Filipinos were allowed to stay so long as they abided by the rules. In other places I had felt like a criminal, running up to my room in fear and closing the door suspiciously, as though the whole world were conspiring against me. (306)

Wonderful autobiography, highly recommend.

Bulosan, Carlos ([1946] 2014) America is in the Heart: A Personal History. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press.

From Longsight to The Fairfield Moravian settlement

A long long walk through to neighbourhoods we have not seen before revealed such unexpected treasures today, above all the Fairfield Moravian settlement. We walked through Gorton (increasingly well known) and on to Openshaw, Fairfield, Droylsden. Needing to stretch our legs safely in lockdown, so tired of the streets immediately around us. We went off once again in quest of more blue plaques…quests we enjoy. Mark has posted a badly photographed plaque every day now for weeks, and I love the wander through everyday streets and architectures with a preliminary destination provided by the randomness of human birth and committee-recognised achievement.

We found such extraordinary things on this walk, though sadly as much flytipping as ever. Improved, perhaps, by the presence of creepy dolls and ancient suitcases, cheap chairs sat upright in the road.

We saw flowers growing from walls, the memories of windows and doors and crosses, a canal and some cottages down at an old wharf, geese and the astounding cuteness of goslings, a Moravian settlement of cobbled streets and timeless feel, open fields, huge brick factories in various stages of disrepair and decay, very pleasing sections of older terraced housing, some fascinating church architecture (South Manchester has such a wealth of wondrous churches and mosques with astonishing spires), an extraordinary checkerboarded market building, a variety of old pubs (closed alas all closed), birds attacking a kestrel above the ghosted outlines of a factory long demolished, the library bearing a plaque for Harry Pollitt, former General Secretary and Chairman of the British Communist Party, cats on roofs and staring at us from windows, and the birthplace of Frank Hampson who created the Dan Dare comic strip.

The Moravian settlement was most extraordinary, visited as the site of two plaques but we had no idea what else what there until we found it. A whole community (or what is left of this village and its fields that once covered 60 acres) of Georgian houses opened in 1785, built by Czech Moravians fleeing persecution. The money to build it came from Moravian church member John Lees, who sold two of his mines in Oldham (mines in Oldham!) to raise the £6,000 needed (£6000!). From the church’s website:

Fairfield is a Settlement congregation which was opened in 1785. It was planned and built by its own people, with its inn, shop, bakery, farm, laundry, fire-engine, night-watchman, inspector of weights and measures, an overseer of roads, and even its physician. There were community houses for sisters and brethren, who applied themselves to the varied work of the Settlement.

With the passing of time have come changes. The boarding schools of Fairfield have gone. That for boys, started in 1790, was discontinued in 1891; and the girls’ school, begun in 1796, has passed into the care of the local authority as Fairfield High School for Girls. The work of the Moravian Theological College was transferred to Fairfield in 1875 and continued there in the original Sisters’ House until 1958. Fairfield is no longer a self contained village; no longer does the watchman make his nightly rounds, and in the farm meadows are now streets and houses.

Despite the many changes in the life of the Settlement over the past 200 years, the Church, with its worshipping and serving congregation, remains its focus and heart.

There is a lovely piece in the Manchester Evening News about the museum there (closed sadly but not-sadly of course due to lockdown) and the woman who runs it and was baptised as a baby here. From the news article (well worth a read):

With its own council, inspector of weights and measures, bakery and laundry the Morovians built their own unique community where men and women were equal.

The plaques were for Charles Hindley, first Moravian MP, mill owner and part of the factory reform movement and Mary Moffat who attended the Fairfield Girl’s School, became a missionary to South Africa and whose daughter married David Livingstone. I have left the pictures in the flow of the walk below, simply because they stand in such incredible contrast to the world around them. We were struck by how simple this place is and yet how much better it seemed to work as a place to live, labour, visit than the whole of the area around it. How I would love to live in such a place. Obviously I am a bit obsessive about how urban space works, and some of this has rubbed off on my partner. We spoke about it as we walked the long miles home. Those thoughts and more below:

  • As I stare at my pictures, and the other pleasing examples of terraces we walked past, I am ever more certain that for me it is the height of the ceilings and the size of the windows above all that makes terraced housing most pleasing. The older they are the bigger the windows, and even the most simple two up two downs are thus rescued from what always strikes me as the meanness of so much later housing construction.
  • No asphalt or paved roadways, with nicely wide pavements raised from the roadways but not otherwise distinctive. This makes the whole of the space between buildings feel more unified and for walking or playing in, with cars allowed on sufferance. They are cobbled and obviously this makes them absurdly picturesque, but it is more the narrower cobbled space for cars and the parking set in the middle rather than along the edges that makes this work I think.
  • Likewise I think houses fronting right on the pavements, trees down the middle of the space between the terraces creates more of a sense of community and connection, a shared greenspace but easy (perhaps better said easier) to maintain. But what we could see of the gardens also showed them much loved and beautiful
  • Unified building materials but very differently sized dwellings giving visual interest, adding nooks and crannies and varied surfaces but also a sense that this community has planned for a diversity of household sizes and needs. There is clearly some level of class/status distinction here, but they feel to some extent unremarkable in the face of the quality of building, the greater sense of community expressed by the layout of the buildings and the way people clearly lived side by side.
  • the feeling of artisan rather than mass construction
  • Beautiful communal buildings
  • Well cared for and maintained (I’m guessing few absentee landlords here, and regulations maintaining the ‘historic preservation’ aspect), clean, some houses covered by greenery (my favourites of course) but many not

I found a map of the original settlement that shows the layout and the changing building uses, including the initial building of rooms for single men and women:

By F H Mellowes – Two Hundred Years of Church Service, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6869830

Scrolling down, you meet a statue to honour the early Moravians themselves, and then the village is easy to see emerging from South Manchester. But this walk took us past many streets and buildings and spaces full of character, one of my favourites so far.

Walk to the Secret Lake

When a friend mentioned walking to the secret lake I thought he was just talking about the reservoir, but there is actually a secret lake. We found it almost by accident. Walked through Nutsford Vale Park and through the bit that still feels more landfill than park to find that most of it is actually lovely. We walked through trees and fields to someone playing a slow version of Bella Ciao over and over again. It was eerie, sad when meeting asphalt paths and other people broke the spell.

This walk brought us narrow passages full of rubbish, an old motor bike rusting in a dried stream bed, factories, recycling, Nutsford Vale Park and Greenbank Park, the secret lake full of swans and water lilies and lined by hopeful fisherman.

The City As A Work of Art

Seeing the city as a work of art is a curious way to view a city, I found it an interesting exercise. This book represents quite a masterful look at London, Paris and Vienna, with a splendid raft of photographs, illustrations and quotations. To the greater or lesser extent that I know them, they are all cities that I love. Perhaps the best way to document just how Olsen thinks of cities here is to give a view of the table of contents – you can see that he gets through quite a lot.

THE CITY AS LUXURY
1 Urban Virtue and Urban Beauty
THE CITY AS MONUMENT
2 The Monumental Impulse
3 The Remaking of London The Vision of Splendor, 1811-1825 • Disillusion and Disgust, 1825-1837 • The Victorian Alternative
4 The New Paris Paris before Haussmann • Paris Remade, 1852-1870 • Paris after Haussmann, 1870-1914
5 The Vienna of Franz Joseph Vienna in 1857 • The Creation of the Ringstrasse
6 The Process of Urban Embellishment
THE CITY AS HOME
7 The Building and the Dwelling: The Family and the Individual • London • Paris Vienna
8 Inside the Dwelling: The Public and the Private • The London House • The Paris Flat • The Viennese Wohnung
9 Social Geography The Town as a Map of Society • London • Paris • Vienna
10 Villa Suburbia London • Paris • Vienna
11 Working-Class Housing: Scarcity, Abundance, and Domestic Values
THE CITY AS PLAYGROUND
12 London: Hidden Pleasures
13 Paris: The Garden and the Street
14 Vienna: Display and Self-Representation
THE CITY AS DOCUMENT
15 Architecture as Historical Evidence
16 The Beautiful: In Search of a Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic • London • Paris • Vienna
17 Architecture as Language: Representation and Instruction
18 The City as the Embodiment of History

Exploring the City as Art also, of course, means really as ‘high art’. I find that just a little tiresome, as I do of this ongoing debate that tires me of cities as good or bad, beautiful or ugly — there are a number of binary debates rehearsed in here. But useful to give his summary here:

The city as a work of art? Surely not. The city as wasteland, perhaps, or as battleground, or jungle. The city as manifestation of all that is rotten in society, festering wound in the body politic, foretaste of hell in which brute force tramples the weak underfoot, corruption feeds on innocence, gluttony mocks hunger, unprotected virtue submits to triumphant vice. From Juvenal to Cobbett, from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, poets and moralists, publicists and philosophers have subjected the city to righteous abuse. In more measured language, the modern scholar approaches urbanization as a pathologist tracing the course of a disease. Defenders of the city usually justify their position on economic rather than aesthetic grounds. They see the city as infrastructure, to be judged by the efficiency with which it facilitates the creation and distribution of wealth. To both attackers and defenders, the city is the product of vast, anonymous forces, not an individual creation. Any beauty it might possess would be incidental to its real nature, any visible structure one imposed by historical necessity rather than artistic intent.

Yet with rare exceptions, such as Ireland before the Viking invasions, the civilizations of the past have regarded cities as neither shameful nor inevitable, but as deliberate creations, worth making sacrifices to build, maintain, and embellish. (3)

I do quite love the idea of city as deliberate creation — what after all is the point of urban planning if not that (though I know I know it is so rarely that…) In the end I find viewing London-Paris-Vienna through the eyes of Art and Architectural History (and this very specific view of Art and Architectural History capitalised) enriches other views (as annoyed as I sometimes became reading it, being a great lover of bottom-up histories rather than this necessarily top down one, which as Olsen says by necessity excludes industrial cities such as Sheffield given such a focus on ART and ARCHITECTURE, but aside from all my annoyance still to some degree a useful exercise…). He writes of London:

Here both individual and national extravagance were at worst forgivable, at best laudable. Whether such extravagance took the form of an afternoon spent purchasing frivolities in Bond Street or the erection of pinnacled monuments along the Embankment, London offered possibilities of conspicuous self-indulgence and significant display that would have been out of place in an industrial city. To grasp the meaning of such self-indulgence, such display, the techniques of the economic historian are useless, those of the social historian inadequate. The art historian and the intellectual historian are better qualified to illuminate our understanding of cities that, like London, transcend in both aspiration and achievement the merely practical and utilitarian.

While waiting for the results of the refined analysis such specialists may engage in, we can perhaps achieve cruder but still valuable insights by using our eyes and by finding out how people in the century before 1914 themselves perceived London, Paris, and Vienna. (6)

And thus we begin. This book is quite full of splendid detail, almost too much so, it is impossible to capture or blog properly. I’ve pulled out a little for each city of London – Paris – Vienna separately, but here try to give just a sense of how Olsen compares them.

City As Monument

The nineteenth was the most historically minded of centuries, the one most aware of itself as participant in a continuing drama. It possessed at the same time, unexampled means for giving material expression to that awareness…London, Paris, and Vienna had long contained monuments. Only in the nineteenth century did they try to become monuments. (9)

I like that distinction, I confess. Olsen continues:

Although the inner core of each city bore uncomfortable witness to its medieval origins, suburban extensions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a degree of order and decency that occasionally rose to monumentality.

What failed them from doing so completely? The ‘enforced poverty’ of English monarchs subject to Parliament’s unwillingness to pay out. For the Bourbons and Habsburgs, ‘another instance of their unwillingness to interfere with private interests and individual rights‘ (10-11).

The concluding chapter (The Process of Urban Embellishment) sums the monumental argument up (I am also enjoying reviewing these geographies in my mind and how they resonate or not with my own experiences of walking these cities, such a pleasure during this time of lockdown):

first London, then Paris, and finally Vienna attempted to turn them-selves into monuments in the course of the nineteenth century. London, between 1811 and 1837, remade itself along the line connecting Regent’s Park with St. James’s Park and Trafalgar Square; Paris, between 1852 and 1870, cut great swaths across itself, north to south, east to west, and diagonally, planting trees and flowers wherever it could; Vienna, beginning in 1857, turned a fortified zone into a ring of pleasure. The three programs shared a number of characteristics: they resulted from the initiative of the central government; depended for their success on the attraction of private investment by speculative builders and developers; were intended to make royal or imperial residences more prominent; created public parks; mixed public and private buildings, ecclesiastical and secular purposes, residential and commercial uses; used architecture mainly in the classical tradition (broadly defined); put up monuments of national, imperial, dynastic, or cultural significance; built wide streets both to facilitate traffic and to serve as fashionable promenades; and combined aesthetic with social and sanitary motives. London and Paris incorporated slum clearance in the preliminary demolitions; in Vienna no destruction of residential or commercial property, slum or otherwise, was necessary.

And a note to self on the distinctiveness of Vienna — which does indeed feel different and I think in the end in great part because of this:

One peculiarity, indeed, of Vienna is that it has never indulged either in the cutting through of percees or in systematic slum clearance as these operations were carried out in London and Paris. (82)

Yet these had nothing on the great motorways and ringroads of the following centuries.

The City as Home

The two dominant institutions of the nineteenth century, the two focuses of loyalty, were the family and the nation-state. … Between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century there had developed, through western and northern Europe, a belief in the values of individualism, privacy, and domesticity. (89)

Thus, he argues:

The dwellings of London, Paris, and Vienna illuminate the respective attitudes of the three societies toward domesticity, familial affection, privacy, and individuality. (90)

Been reading a lot about homes, how they’ve changed over the centuries (like Judith Flanders, Witold Rybczynski, my favourite from Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling) so nothing here was too revelatory, though I loved the architectural drawings of buildings and almost laughed out loud at this:

The English were convinced that nowhere were domestic virtues better or more extensively cultivated than in England. Paris certainly, and Vienna so far as they knew about it, seemed on the whole more suitable for extramarital adventure than for sober family life. (90)

This goes without saying

The major difference between them being that English cities tend to be made up of ‘small dwelling houses’ while the other two ‘large blocks of flats’. (92)

But this I hadn’t known:

And this — almost all London buildings beginning life as residences, true of most houses between the City and Hyde Park:

And even while Parisian middle classes loved their flats, still there remained some of these:

And then there is Vienna — where not a single medieval home still exists. It is now palaces of the aristocracy and blocks of flats for the rest.

Social Geography

How can we read social geographies through architecture? Broadly speaking, he argues that medieval homes had everyone living and undertaking work and other activities in the same space and this slowly transitioned into single family homes partitioned with each person and activity separated and assigned space, servants separate from family, more public spaces separate from private. Just so cities went from such a mix to more segregated subdivisions. London, due to being larger and more technologically advanced with its embracing of domesticity and privacy took this further earlier than either Paris or Vienna.

This of course could only proceed so far until modern transport, and the spaces for workers, servants, carriages and horses and such even in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods were no longer required. I love mews though have only known them in their gentrified incarnations. This lovely illustration shows all they were before becoming additional luxury residences.

While the English perceived class distinctions to be fewer in France, Olsen hedges that it was only slightly less in Paris than in London, especially after the 1850s and 60s, but always a distinction between left bank and right, interior and the working class suburbs. Still, in London and Paris the geographies of wealth and fashion did shift to some extent. Of all three Vienna remained the most stable: prosperous aristocratic neighborhoods remained so, and there continues to be ‘a marked decline in social prestige as one moves from the first Bezirk (City and Rigstrasse) to Vorstadt…to Vorort’. (151)

Also housing signaled slightly different things in each city:

The customary English way for a rich City man to insinuate himself, or rather his descendants, into the governing class was to purchase a country estate and set himself up as a landed gentleman. No London mansion, no taking of a house in Grosvenor Square, would serve to expunge the mercantile stain. In Vienna residence in the City, far from being incompatible with a noble manner of living, was essential to it. The Ringstrasse, though attached to the City, imitating it in its architectural forms, and surpassing it in physical magnificence, never succeeded in equaling it in fashion and prestige. The French aristocracy transferred itself to the Marais under Louis XIII, to Saint-Germain under Louis XV, and—if it could afford it—to the Champs-Elysees and beyond during the Third Republic; the Viennese aristocracy, once established in the Altstadt, stayed there.

I sit and try to remember what it felt like to wander these cities, to travel at all. Olsen continues on Vienna:

It would be wrong to exaggerate the social inferiority of the Ringstrasse. It served rather as the concrete expression of the admission to the ruling classes of both individuals and broader social groupings, who expanded and enriched the older governing class just as the Ringstrasse zone expanded and enriched the older City. The Ringstrasse united new aristocracy with old, money with birth, ability with rank, the arts and scholarship with politics and administration.-3 It represented what was healthiest about the last period of the Habsburg Empire: its openness to talent, new ideas, and new artistic forms, whatever their origin; its cosmopolitanism, its respect for learning and achievement, and its refusal to be shocked by the unconventional. (154)

This is obviously not the place to look for solid descriptions of working class housing, but there is this:

The paucity of reference to the working classes in this discussion of the city as home may suggest that privacy, intimacy, and domesticity were qualities too expensive for them to afford. With respect to the housing available to them in Paris and Vienna, and to a considerable extent in London, this may very nearly have been true: when the normal family dwelling consists of a single room, with perhaps a small separate kitchen, discussing the impact of degagements and subdivided, specialized areas makes little sense… As for neighborhoods segregated by social class, the luxury of choice of district was a middle-class privilege: the workers moved to whatever places economically stronger groups chose to avoid.

Studies of working-class housing before 1914, local and national, normally stress its inadequacy—overcrowded, overpriced, and insufficient—and note the failure of the free market to produce enough new housing to keep up with the growing population, much less bring average standards up to a level of decency. The most optimistic estimates show a degree of improvement far less than any overall rise in living standards.1 But as one reads the dismal accounts the nagging objection emerges: conditions everywhere could not be worse than they were everywhere else. And the testimony both of contemporaries and of the buildings themselves suggests that for the working classes as for the middle classes, standards were higher in London than in Paris, in Paris than in Vienna. They were high enough to enable a significant minority of London’s working classes to imitate middle-class patterns of behavior, much as the middle classes were shaping their own lives according to their notion of aristocratic manners.

There is also some reference to the economics of it all, which I appreciated:

Contributing more to differentials in cost were the local building codes, most stringent in Vienna, least in London. The flimsy, jerry-built construction practiced by London’s builders, of which contemporaries were forever complaining, did enable them to build and sell more cheaply and allowed house owners to make reasonable profits from lower rents than would have been conceivable in either Paris or Vienna. The mild English winters and the willingness of the English to endure cold indoors permitted builders to make little provision for insulation or other than primitive heating arrangements.

The nature of the London building industry, in which large numbers of small undercapitalized speculators were able to coexist with giants like Cubitt and William Willett, meant that there were always those willing to plunge into housing development whatever the economic climate. They went bankrupt with monotonous regularity, leaving rows of carcasses to be finished by the next generation of hopeful speculators, but the houses ultimately got built. The syndicates and companies that were responsible for building Paris and Vienna were not above over-estimating the market themselves, but on the whole they behaved more rationally and cautiously and hence built more in response to than in anticipation of demand.

And of course all of these — the type, amount, cost of housing, building codes, climate etc — were co-constitutive of how people lived in it. Each impacted the other and I wouldn’t wager which was more important, but the large differences remain

If the nature of the London house, the layout of the London street, and the pattern of development that informed the Victorian metropolis encouraged withdrawal and seclusion, the structure of the Paris flat, the attractions of the Paris street, and the very nature of Paris itself called its residents out of doors. If the life of London lay hidden in its drawing rooms, inside its clubs, within the cozy subdivisions of its pubs, the life of Paris was there for all to see, and perhaps to join: in its promenades, its boulevards, and its streets. (185)

City as Playground

This is partly city as enjoyed by tourist. Interesting to note London as a city was very much lacking in hotels or restaurants. For men single or married, there was instead the club. Described by Cesar Daly (who I must read but seems like I must read him in French, yikes) as a way to enjoy the society of others without mixing with those of inferior social class. That sums up England rather beautifully.

Olsen quotes Henry T. Tuckerman on Paris, a very different sort of place:

We of England and America, instinctively revolve about a permanent centre, hallowed and held by the triple bond of habit, love, and religion. Not so the Parisians: Imagine … we dwelt in a kind of metropolitan encampment, requiring no domicile except a bedroom for seven hours in the twenty-four, and passing the remainder of each day and night as nomadic cosmopolites: going to a café to breakfast, a restaurant to dine, an estaminet to smoke, a national library to study, a cabinet de lecture to read the gazettes, a public bath for ablution…a thronged garden to promenade, a theatre to he amused, a museum for science, a royal gallery for art, a municipal ball, literary soirée, or suburban rendezvous, for society.39 (217)

Fun fact: The first raised foot pavement in Paris was in the rue de ‘Odeon in 1781 (Wow) but rare anywhere else until the 1830s. And yet, this view of Paris as a place where live is lived out of doors is ubiquitous, as in this quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton (Paris in Old and Present Times). ‘The English have invented the house, the French have invented the street.

Vienna? ‘No city in Europe is better suited for a life of public self-representation‘.

The City as Document

This opens with a bit of a debate around history and architecture that I find a little stale,

An assumption underlying this book has been that a work of art is also a historical source, that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century. (251)

The caption for the picture below: “A Parisian facade seems to be a drawing in stone, full size, literally an immense lithograph.” Rue de la Victoire 98. From Revue Generale de l’architecture 16 (1858)

This one is even better for Vienna: “If a street census were taken…they would certainly equal the population of a respectable market town.” Figurative sculpture on facade of Schubertring 9-11, Ludwig von Zettl , architect, 1865 (Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universitat Wien. Photo Johana Fiegl).

Architecture as Language

Just a few good quotes;

The history of architecture is the history of the world,- proclaimed Pugin in 1843. “The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised.” [A. Welby Pugin An Apology… 1969]

1892 N. J. W. Westlake: “the higher architecture is . . . a language for the expression of thought. . . . In ancient times it expressed the ideas of the period in the idiom of the period.”

Pevsner: “…every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it.” [A History of Building Types]

From John Belcher’s presidential address to the RIBA in 1904, where he ‘made explicit a conviction implicit in historicist theory: architecture and its associated arts could convey the maximum of beauty, morality, and truth only if they combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk‘:

Architecture must tell its tale; it has its message to deliver. Like a musical score it expresses a great deal more than meets the eye. . . . Architecture is the prose of inarticulate but beautiful thought and feeling. Sometimes it tells of the commonplace in life; rising higher it speaks of domestic peace and happiness; and yet again in more stately diction it sets forth the grander and larger purposes of life. It recounts the past, records the present, and holds up ideals for the future. But only when it is enriched from the sister arts of sculpture and painting can it tell the tale with the fulness of eloquence and power.

Olsen’s take, and a summary of the questions he tries to answer here:

What messages were buildings, cities, and other works of art expected to transmit? What meaning did they possess, what ideas did they contain? What can a city, in its capacity as a work of art, accomplish? What can art do, apart from existing in its own right? It can tell a story, or many stories. It can establish a mood. It can reinforce selected virtues. It can surprise and delight by unexpected juxtapositions of forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can soothe and reassure by repetition of familiar forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can stand for, or represent, ideas, qualities, institutions. English critics placed great stress on the expressive qualities of buildings, German theorists on their representational qualities. (285)

Olsen, Donald J. (1986) The City as a Work of Art: London – Paris – Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Longsight to Debdale Reservoir and a piece of Gorton Village

Down through Bellevue, past the grayhound stadium, down through Gorton, on and on to Debdale reservoir, developed to provide water to Victorian Manchester. It was much bigger and grander than expected, and just as unexpected, contained donkeys. Then back through Gorton and very happily stumbling across the Gorton Heritage Trail — one to return to. It traces the history of the Gore Brook Valley and this piece of Gorton that still feels like a village. We walked past the Vale Cottage pub, along some lovely old houses, through woods. A pretty walk, a welcome escape from the rest of the city, just that little bit too far to return to with ease but maybe when the pub opens once again. A far, fair future.

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