Category Archives: Housing

Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]

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In Defense of Housing: Madden & Marcuse

Madden and Marcuse have written a great book here  in In Defense of Housing — concise, clear, and challenging to the status quo. It is a great outline of some of the key structural challenges we face, and ways forward to short and long-term transformation of how we deal with housing.

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is only one in a long line of tragedies caused by putting profit over human life. These moments of spectacular violence shock and enrage — hopefully driving a will to change. But there is a slow violence at work here too, the way high rents drive anxiety and force families to make hard choices every day of every month, and the way poor housing conditions destroy both physical and mental health every minutes spent inside which add up to a life damaged and often death at a younger age.

In thinking about housing  in the US, there is a key fact to start: There is no state in the US where someone working full time on minimum wage can afford to rent a one-bedroom apt paying what is ‘affordable’.

That generally means paying no more than one third of your income. That is fucking crazy, right? Forget about trying to have any kind of family on that income. Forget about living life well on that income. Leaving two choices, which should probably go together — raise minimum wage, and lower what people must pay for a home.

These are eminently political questions. We go back to good old Engels.

We take from Engels the idea that the housing question is embedded within the structures of class society. Posing the housing question today means uncovering the connections between societal power and the residential experience. It means asking who and what housing is for, who controls it, who it empowers, who it oppresses. It means questioning the function of housing within globalized neoliberal capitalism. (6)

Like Harvey and Lefebvre, Marcuse and Madden emphasise:

Housing and urban development today are not secondary phenomena. Rather, they are becoming some of the main processes driving contemporary capitalism. (8)

Thus it is real estate and housing development that is soaking up investment and driving the accumulation of wealth. The other end of the spectrum?

for poor and working class communities, housing crisis is the norm. (9)

You been there, you don’t need anyone to tell you what that’s like. All because someone’s making money off your housing.

I found the distinctions between the US and the UK useful to think about, I am still getting my head round them.

In the United States, the discourse of housing crisis is often used to condemn state “interference” in housing markets. In the UK, the crisis frame is invoked in support of granting new legal powers to developers in order to override local planning guidelines. (10)

Above all I appreciate Marcuse’s point that the housing crisis is not a result of the system breaking down, but of the system working as it is intended.

Just let that sit a while. Writing this in the aftermath of the horror and death in Grenfell Tower, there could be no better way to capture just how capital and government collude to maximize profit on real estate, cutting corners, silencing complaint, and in the end killing children.

Thinking about this really comes home, when they write:

The built form of housing has always been seen as a tangible, visual reflection of the organization of society. It reveals the existing class structure and power relationships. But it has long been a vehicle for imagining alternative social orders. Every emancipatory movement must deal with the housing question in one form or another. (12)

We can see what our current system has brought us in the flames exploding up to engulf that building. Time to imagine something better. Still, there’s not much behind that sentence in the book itself.  There is so much more to explore there, but at least it is signaled here. Also the importance of land in defining identity

…struggles over housing are always, in part, struggles over autonomy. … No other modern commodity is as important for organizing citizenship, work, identities, solidarities, and politics. (12)

But what is missing here is mortality, morbity, life chances and particularly how this ties to segregation and racism. of course, this is where my own work focuses, so I’m bound to be critical. They have a section for intersectionality, that always drives me a little crazy, because there is a lot more going on there and it weaves through everything. My principal critique I think.

Against the commodification of housing

This is key, well-argued, everyone involved in housing should be working to this end and that means a substantial shift in some of the strategies used by both charities and advocates. There was a time in the UK when most land wasn’t actually a commodity — more acts of violence were needed to make that happen, through the privatization of the commons. This was still in process in the 1840s:

when Engels was surveying the dwelling conditions of the great towns of industrial Britain, he was in part describing the emerging impact of the commodification of housing. (22)

Through this period, housing became

ever less an infrastructure for living, and evermore an instrument for financial accumulation. (26)

The problem in a nice nutshell there. I think there’s more to tease out about how housing and neighbourhood remain part of the social reproduction of power and wealth, with segregation/enclaves occurring globally now. Still, it’s very true that real estate is increasingly the driver of the economy per Harvey and Lefebvre, they look at three other trends leading to hyper-commodification of housing:

  1. removal of restrictions on real estate as a commodity
  2. financialisation — ‘a generic term to describe the increasing power and prominence of actors and firms that engage in profit accumulation through the servicing and exchanging of money and financial instruments.’ (31)
  3. globalization — housing market now dominated by economic networks global in scope

These ensure housing has become a commodity as never before — and easily converted to investment capital, the heart of the present crisis.

The value of super-prime real estate is secure because of the ease with which it can be converted into money through loans, debentures, mortgages (37)

Full deregulation and building new housing cannot be the answers to the crisis. First, because the

State has always been central to the process of making housing a commodity…Government sets the rules of the game. It enforces the sanctity of contracts, establishes and defends regimes of property rights…[connects] the financial system to the bricks and mortar… (46-47)

Second because of issues around power — housing is a domain of struggle.

The commodification of housing is a political project that refuses to acknowledge itself as such. (47)

Opposed to people’s needs for a home, the real estate industry does anything possible to raise prices within a market now moved by global investment forces, not local demand for somewhere to live. Marcuse and Madden write:

The solution to the housing problem, then, is not moralism, but the creation of an alternative residential logic. Exhorting for-profit real estate companies to act differently in the name of creating a less vicious housing system is pointless. Housing problems are not the result of greed or dishonesty. They result from the structural logical of the current housing system. Alternative, decommodified models of residential development must therefore be created. (52)

Residential Alienation

Like Lefebvre, they apply the idea of alienation to housing in addition to more traditional Marxist uses of alienation in labour.

Alienation means estrangement, objectification, or othering. The idea is rarely applied to housing, but it should be. (56)

They begin to get at the meaning of home (see Dovey or Cooper-Marcus for much deeper examinations of this…)

Home is an extension and expression of our capacity to create. It takes an infinite variety of forms, but making a home for ourselves is an essential and universal activity. Residential alienation is what happens when a capitalist class captures the housing process and exploits it for its own ends. (58-59)

They summarise experience of today’s housing market in three words: precarity, insecurity, disempowerment. (59) They write ‘In America, the narrative that housing is the key to dignity and stability is deeply ingrained…’ (74) but this is only true for elites. We need a new definition for a successful society, and that is one where ‘the residential good life is provided to everyone’ (82)

Disalienation would mean reorganizing the housing system around the goal of providing residential stability and ontological security for all. (83)

Oppression and Liberation in Housing

In all social settings, dwelling space structures power relations. It can be used to maintain the social order, or to support challenges to it… housing is part and parcel of social and political struggles. (86)

Yep. Housing is worth fighting for. I can never quite believe that this has been a struggle for so many marxists.

I confess hadn’t thought much before of the additional benefits of emptying the discontent from the city centre.

The zones of empty luxury housing at the center of global cities are as peaceful as cemeteries. Commodification is not only a strategy for capital accumulation. It is also a technique of governance, a political process as much as an economic one. (94)

After nodding my head through all of this,  I then found here a subtitle — the intersectionality of residential oppression. The nodding stopped, I must confess that I don’t really like that this isn’t woven through, that it is a section apart, contained.  It kept bugging me. But there’s some good stuff here. I like bell hooks’s idea of the ‘homeplace’

“where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship and deprivation.” from Yearning, Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. NY:Routledge 2015, p 42

I think this is so important to recognise, home is a place of strength. We don’t just need affordable housing, but housing that enables its residents to ‘confront power, social inequality, and structural violence…’ (117)

The Myths of Housing Policy

I always enjoy some myth debunking. These two are doozies.

  • The myth of the benevolent state — that the government has tried to solve the housing crsis, acting for the benefit of the majority. Nope.

all based on controlling the poor, preventing revolution and worst infectious diseases. Actions like slum clearence, despite all claims to the contrary, were always prey to real estate and development interests from the beginning. Then there’s idea of ‘Affordable’, an ideological term, and one that helps legitimize the building of luxury housing if it ensures provision of a little ‘affordable’ housing as a result. Rather vomitous

  • The myth of the meddling state — one that just gets in the way arising through the 1980s. But this ignores the need for the state to guarantee the conditions for the housing market to exist, so the state is always involved, it just depends on which side.

The question will always be how the state should act towards housing, not whether it should do so. (142)

This narrative of the meddling state prevents an open view of the services the state renders to housing markets. A useful obfuscation.

Housing Movements of New York

I’m glad this was in here.

Conclusion: For A Radical Right to Housing

They argue for struggle to ensure housing as a right, and look to steps that are small enough to be doable, but that point towards much deeper structural change towards a true right to the city. Useful thinking for housing organisers. There three main areas of suggested action are:

  • To decommodify and de-financialize the housing system (as an overarching goal) — public control, rent control, secure tenancies, public ownership of land, public financing, limits on speculation, regulation of home-finance mechanisms (201)
  • To expand, defend and improve public housing (203)
  • To let a thousand housing alternatives bloom — cooperatives, mutuals, communes, limited equity co-ownership, land trusts (209)

A good place to start.

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Hold Everything Dear: John Berger

John Berger gives us words to live by, Hold Everything Dear. An amazing book. This is a rather Benjaminian collection of quotes that I particularly loved really.

From ‘Wanting Now’, thinking  of all the struggle that lies outside of a ‘movement’:

Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organizations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. (2)

From ‘Let Us Think About Fear’ — it seems even more uncannily accurate about Trump and the Republicans today, who almost make me miss Bush Jr.

The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to Fear … Day and Night the partners of Fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths … It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, they become unfamiliar with reality, whilst continuing to dream about, and of course to exercise, power. They continually have to absorb shocks whilst accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions. (53)

From ‘Stones’ — on the walls of Ramallah:

Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead, taken when alive and now reprinted as small posters. … These faces transform the desultory street walls into something as intimate as a wallet of private papers and pictures. … Around the posters, the walls are scarred with bullet and shrapnel marks.  (59)

I confess, I am perhaps a bit wary of such essays as a form, printed in a small book they seem part of the elite tradition of letters. I still love this book, I know Berger was a Marxist to the end. Yet it makes me so sad that the cover should name Berger one of the great intellectuals of our time, that he could then write such an essay so powerful on Palestine, and that it should continue to be ignored. It makes me wonder what we are doing, what we should do, what we can do.

As I read Raja Shehadeh, another such powerful writer, on his wanderings and the beauty of Palestine it reminded me so much of the Arizona  desert I love, that was also lost though not in the same way. So this had a bit of an eerie feeling to it:

I have never seen such a light before. It comes down from the sky in a strangely regular way, for it makes no distinction between what is distant and what is close. The difference between far and near is one of scale, never of colour, texture or precision. And this affects the way you place yourself, it affects your sense of being here. The land arranges itself around you, rather than confronting you. It’s the opposite of Arizona. Instead of beckoning, it recommends never leaving. (68)

This captures capitalism I think, and our history of conquest and pillage of which Bacon knew quite a lot — On a new appreciation of Francis Bacon’s work ‘A Master of Pitilessness’

Today’s pitilessness is perhaps more unremitting, pervasive and continuous. It spares neither the planet itself, nor anyone living on it anywhere. Abstract because deriving from the sole logic of the pursuit of profit (as cold as the freezer), it threatens to make obsolete all other sets of belief, along with their traditions of facing the cruelty of life with dignity and some flashes of hope. (87)

More about walls, about poverty, about home. ‘Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls’ (Oct 2004)

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The poor have no residence.

The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.

***

The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens. (91-92)

‘Looking Carefully — Two Women Photographers’ made me feel inspired to be a photographer again, but I particularly liked this:

Within such a concept of history we have to come to see that every simplification, every label, serves only the interests of those who wield power; the more extensive their power, the greater their need for simplifications. And, by contrast, the interests of those who suffer under, or struggle against this blind power, are served now and for the long, long future by the recognition and acceptance of diversity, difference and complexities. (134)

Ah, to take pictures that do not capture and simplify but render up complexities.

I end where the book actually begins, with a poem. It has been too long since I shared a poem.

Hold Everything Dear
for John Berger

as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey

as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind

as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks

as the leaves of the hedge store the light
that the moment thought it had lost

as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air

as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark

hold everything dear

the calligraphy of birds across the morning
the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth
one step ahead of time
the broken teeth of tribes and their long place

steppe-scattered and together
clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug
carrying itself towards us through the soil

the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot

but given as a torch

hold everything dear

the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them

the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching

the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days
as it sinks to become what it loves

memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed

the words
the bread

the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door

the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world

the people in the room the people in the street the people

hold everything dear

19th May 2005
–Gareth Evans

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A Place to Call Home

It’s been such a long few weeks of trying to recontact people I talked to months ago facing homelessness… many homeless still. Others housed. Some in prison. Most impossible to contact. I’ve been across Wales, away from my own home for most of the month, and work hasn’t stopped while I’m away. I’ve edited an issue of City, and written this piece about my hopes for Labour policy and homes that support life as it should be lived for a Verso ebook, also online with Salvage. Of course it could not look away from Grenfell, my heart is still broken.

A place to call home. A simple thing. Labour once had a vision that there should be housing for everyone, though what makes a home is perhaps not so simple. As Kim Dovey writes, home is deeply intertwined with our identity. It centres the relationship between ourselves and the earth, centres our connection to community and culture and society, to our past with its memories, and to our ability to grow into our full potential with the power to define our future. A home should be a place of strength and safety.

A home should not be what kills us.

Yet Grenfell went up in flames, went up in a great stench and acrid smoking to consume its survivors’ past and their present, their safety and security and community. It greedily consumed a still unknown, possibly never-to-be-known, number of human beings who trusted it and built their lives within its walls. Each of them was a world of stories and dreams and laughter. Only memories and ashes now, a gaping hole in the hearts and lives of those who loved them.

But I tried to dig down, go further. Think about how housing should be rethought before it is rebuilt. It was so hard to write, everything has been hard to write. Grief has been ever-present this month. Fundraising for the funeral for Julian, fundraising for Chelsea’s Silas and his future now that hers has been erased. The murderer of Philando Castile set free, a jury who could see what I and the rest of the world saw and do nothing. My friends sharing stories and fears, and nothing can ease fear for their lives in a country that puts no value on any Black life. On another front. My mother fighting to get the medicine she needs to live, and the Republicans doing what they can to take away the little and the imperfect support she now has. And bombs keep dropping and people far from here are still dying and millions are in movement across this earth and home has become such an impossible thing and their grief rages like a forest fire beside my small blaze.  I suppose this diminishes neither. I just wish there were more that I could do.

Oslo’s Old Wooden Houses

We found two streets of old wooden houses — Damstredet and Telthusbakken — saved from the wrecking ball and brought back to beauty and life. I loved them more than I can say, and only wished I had had more time to explore the city and find more of them. We found other old wooden homes scattered here and there across the city’s face.

The large pink house was also once a stable for writer Henrik Wergeland’s horse (I think. Again,  I confess a total inability to read plaques in Norwegian)

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Khadambi Asalache: poetry and place finished unfinished

We went to see Khadambi Asalache’s house today, and it was wondrous indeed. Poetry carved into wood, crafted into space. From the National Trust:

575 Wandsworth Road

This small, early nineteenth-century terraced house was the home of Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist and civil servant. In 1986, he began carving wooden fretwork to disguise a persistent damp problem in the basement dining room. He went on to embellish almost every wall, ceiling and door in the house with fretwork patterns and motifs which he hand-carved from reclaimed pine doors and floorboards found in skips. Over the course of a twenty year period he turned his home into a work of art.

He did not like for his friends to take pictures, because pictures mediate between you and the experience of place, and they also mediate your memories. Nothing could give you a true sense of what it means to be physically present in this house, so if you have the ability to come to London, to stand here, maybe stop reading now. Don’t look. But if you cannot get here, then a pale reflection can help you understand what follows.

I confess I liked being in this space without taking any photographs. But I also like these photographs from the website, for they frame and capture scenes in this place of almost overwhelming detail that allow you to isolate small portions and spend more time over them, to gain access to someone else’s framing of the space to see what others see.

A few things that struck me the most about this incredible place.

First the ways in which this incredible 20-year labour of detailed carving and fretworking and painting carved a space out of London that had nothing to do with London at all. Not an escape perhaps, but an alternate universe, a sidestep through a carved door into a place of beauty and safety and memory. Complete in itself, indifferent. It’s only the garden out the back that it calls on, its mimosa tree repeated and made soft, forever muted green in paint. Asalache created a completely different world of shadow and light and wood, maximised every last glimmer of sunshine in this often gray and gloomy place through glass and porcelain, through subtle and hidden touches of gold paint.

Our guides also mentioned how this house reflected Asalache’s philosophies as he carved a work that was beautiful, harmonious, forever unsymmetrical (though containing much symmetry) and forever incomplete. I think creating such intricacy across the whole of the house meant that not designing in a symmetrical way was more difficult — though this provoked laughter I am still a little hurt by. I don’t know why. But simply to mirror one half across another is easy, a mechanical operation that surely would have cut the time required (though of course to do it with machine like precision might not be). Instead, balance and harmony must emerge from some level of deeper awareness and attention as new forms are created to form a larger sense of wholeness that does not jar, that feels right and fitting in its difference rather than its sameness. This seems to me infinitely harder, worth a deeper appreciation.

He started in the kitchen, and he finished this room before moving to the next. There is an aspect to this house that made me initially think of obsession, made me think of the Watts Towers meticulously crafted over decades in a work that would never and could never be finished. There would always be more to do, more to add. The edges of things were all left rough, splintery, though they often incorporated smooth wood carvings rescued from jettisoned paneling and furniture in Lambeth’s great 1980s wave of gentrification and rebuilding. Almost all of the wood was found in skips, saved from this Georgian neighbourhood being gutted by money and development.

I love that Asalache could finish, and that part of that finishing was to leave sections unfinished. There is one shelf in particular in the dining room where fretwork adorns one half but not the other — left deliberately along with the other aspect of unfinishedness so as not to overwhelm his friends according to our guides. I stared at it…wanted to finish it myself. It is provocative, makes you think about this shelf as it fits into the room, fits into the house, fits into an ability to be incomplete, imperfect. The house is full of other examples, but none so marked as this one I think. A topic for discussion at dinner perhaps. I loved this long table, the conviviality it implied and memories it must hold of collective talk and laughter and breaking of bread together.

I loved how each room was different, loved the floors with patterns mirroring the rugs (the rugs were there first and the patterns painted in harmony with them), loved the doors decorated on only one side, loved the figures dancing, the multitudes of animals and birds carved and painted delicately on walls. Loved the beauty of the objects and the precision of their placement. Loved how this still feels like a space to be lived in, despite its beauty and fragility.

   I loved this house. To be here on a tour of only six, guided slowly by people who love it too, who know it so well, who can point out the parrot with a looking glass, the ancient Egyptians with a telephone, the painting of a man falling that a friend had snuck upstairs to do. All wonderful. I hope to come back, this is a place you will always find something new.

I found some of his poems too, though his most famous novel, A Calabash of Life, is sadly long out of print despite his role in an important period of African literature in diaspora.

From Prometheus (found in African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 66):

The shadow of sadness gently rolled down his tears
for now, between him and heaven, nothing but clouds
the grey procession moving into the silent afternoon
following a chink of light to close the path of escape.

His eyes followed this gloom, the puzzling fate,
like a drunken moment bringing its dark face
to come lower, lower, a fulfillment of stored hate
coming down to crush the hand of

From Conversations with a Suicide (African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 67):

the mind’s vault is walled
like a lake that has frozen round its shore, looks
pure. This is the frozen heart of the crystal
and the wind that blows hardens on
its face, shadowless

like a row of empty chairs in a waiting room
when you arrive the blank face of the wall
look away to avoid your stare-if you stop
to hit back you see only yourself, a dream
nothing more

if you were born under the sign of Neptune
the secret of your life is with stars
there is no answer for you here. Up
in the sky clouds gather to build
their own strength without fear moving
to make a search

And finally, just a curious little letter he wrote on the subject of ujamaa, which I am interested in from afar as a technique for collective liberation that parallels Freire’s popular education or what I learned about Friday in Denmarks Common Third, I find it curious that this is his reaction to it (written from a different house as you can see):

Dear Sir,

I have just been reading Messrs. Omindi and Mboya’s letters in your issue No. 11. Mr. Mboya’s article on African Socialism begins to be clearer. From afar mountains are misty. He must know what he says when he writes ‘these leaders . . . are those most likely to know what philosophy and principles underlie their policies?’ Many would take the point and feel suitably told off.

Once I thought Socialism was a political theory of society but now I hear the African brand is being adapted from our traditions of Ujamaa. Producing ‘African Socialism’ from Ujamaa is chasing a wild goose: poor wazee in the villages will no doubt be flattered when they are told that their humanity and friendliness arising from ujamaa is the ‘twentieth century African socialism.’

Yours sincerely,

KHADAMBI ASALACHE.
120 Hurlingharn Road,
London S. W.6.

Letters to the Editor
Lennard H. Okola, Gary Gappert, Khadambi Asalache and Jan Knappert
Transition No. 13 (Mar. – Apr., 1964), pp. 5-7

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House, Home and Homelessness: Kim Dovey

‘Home and Homelessness: An Introduction’ by Kim Dovey is a short book chapter, yet appears here at length — such great length, you have to be as excited as I am to read this and honestly, you’re definitely better off just reading the chapter, this is my most selfish need-to-write-to-digest post yet.

Why? Because I loved it that much in how it tries to grapple with the meaning of home and what it means to be without — a deeper understanding of homelessness, but perhaps a more true one that shouldn’t be ignored in the quest to ensure everyone has at least a roof over their head.

Like everything I am thinking about at the moment, this is looking at home not as discrete object but as a connection, as a relationship (and a dialectical one at that):

Although a house is an object, a part of the environment, home is best conceived of as a kind of relationship between people and their environment. It is an emotionally based and meaningful relationship between dwellers and their dwelling places. Concomitant with this distinction is the assumption that the concept of the “housing problem” is not identical to that of “homelessness.” Indeed, the housing problem can be, and often is, solved in a manner that creates homelessness.

I love that last sentence — building a house does not create a home, and in a nutshell this presents many of the problems of social housing or emergency housing. The point being not to get rid of either or to argue they are unnecessary, but to fundamentally change how we think about housing provision. The question becomes how?

It’s not rocket science is really my new favourite phrase, because none of this is. It is hard work though, and not profitable.

What better first step than a better understanding of what home means to us, how our relationship with it works. Like Bachelard, Dove’s approach is phenomenological, drawing on philosophy, geography, ethnography and literature.

The theoretical approach in this essay is phenomenological. Such an approach is suggested by the intangible nature of the concept in question. … My aim, however, is not to produce specific cause-effect relationships or explanations; it is rather to deepen our understanding of an intrinsically intangible phenomenon. My sources are several. First, I draw heavily on the literature of phenomenological philosophy and geography. Second, the cross-cultural studies of anthropological fieldwork offer an insight into the forms and experiences of home in the traditional world. Third, the world of literature reveals important and clear explications of the experience of home and the processes of its emergence.

I still hate Heidegger. I don’t think you can separate his philosophy from his actions, or from that Heidegger who dressed up in his Nazi uniform to go eat a feast. I don’t know what to do with that really.

Dovey looks at the spatial and temporal aspects of home as order, identity, connectedness and then the dialectics of home (bring on the dialectics), before moving on to look at homelessness and its causes in a way I particularly love.

HOME AS ORDER

The first of these properties is order, by which is meant simply “patterning” in environmental experience and behavior. Being at home is a mode of being whereby we are oriented within a spatial, temporal, and sociocultural order that we understand.

What is more important that understanding how we fit, where we stand?

Spatial Order

One of the most important contributions of the phenomenological approach to environmental experience has been a thorough reinterpretation of the concept of space that parallels the distinction between house and home. At the heart of this reinterpretation is an important distinction between conceptual space and lived space (Bollnow, 1967). Conceptual space is abstract, geometric, and objectively measured, a kind of context or ether within which places, people, and things exist. Lived space, by contrast, is the pre-conceptual and meaningful spatial experience of what phenomenologists call “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 1962).

Lefebvre writes about this too of course, maybe a good way of not citing Heidegger.

Home is a sacred place (Eliade, 1959), a secure place (Rainwater, 1966), a place of certainty and of stability. It is a principle by which we order our existence in space (Dovey, 1978).

Temporal Order

Home as order is not only spatial orientation but also temporal orientation. Home is a kind of origin, we go “back” home even when our arrival is in the future. The home environment is one thoroughly imbued with the familiarity of past experience. It is the environment we inhabit day after day until it becomes taken for granted and is unselfconscious. This sense of familiarity is rooted in bodily routines…

I love the jolt this gives that familiar phrase, ‘to go back home’. It does make it temporal, does mean it’s the place you are from, the place you left and return to, it is a cyclical movement not a forwardly linear one.

Our sense of it is based on our past, structured by how we grew up, incredibly specific to time and places and all of their associated privileges or injustices.

Home as temporal order is not dependent on aesthetic attraction; it may be more accurate to say that the homes of our past set the ground for our very perceptions of attractiveness and ugliness.

At it’s best, it connects us to the environment more widely —

In yet another way, home as temporal order can extend to a familiarity with the past processes through which the forms of the environment have come into being. The experience of wood for instance connects with our experiences of climbing trees, sawing, chopping, nailing, and carving.

and it is perhaps a failing of modern society that it is ever more rare to have this rooted sense of materiality, and true cost to the planet of where we live.

Sociocultural Order

This discussion of home as spatiotemporal order has thus far largely omitted any mention of environmental form. This is because the forms in which this order becomes manifest are primarily sociocultural.

It’s different for everyone! Whew, unlike Bachelard there is no assumption of European houses with basements and attics, no hut fantasies. But acknowledgment that ‘home’ is intimately linked with culture… even when that culture is simply one of consumption.

The notion of home as social order is at once extremely flexible and yet conservative. It is flexible inasmuch as it is embodied not in a house or building but in the patterning of experience and behavior. It is a way of relating to the environment that may be transposed from place to place, and in this way the meanings of home may be re-evoked if the patterns are recreated.

I think of new life brought to neighbourhoods by migrants, my small attempts at color and warmth here in Manchester. It is a reminder of connections, history, culture — and a timely reminder that this is not always a positive thing.

Through being deeply rooted in the past, home also carries with it considerable inertia to change. Social hierarchy, injustice, and outmoded sex roles are difficult to question when they are embodied in, and evoked by, the taken-for- granted world of spatial patterning.

Home as Identity

There is an integrity, a connectedness between the dweller and dwelling. Home as order and as identity are strongly interrelated; yet whereas order is concerned with “where” we are at home, identity broaches the questions of “who” we are, as expressed in the home, and “how” we are at home.

Spatial Identity

This can be identity as in the western world of consumption — status and class and etc.

The social perspective tends to interpret the home as a “statement” of identity expressed through a shared symbolic language (Appleyard, 1979b; Goffman, 1971).

But home can be so much more than that.

My view is that the personal and the social are inextricably interwoven; that representation of identity in the home stems from both social structure and our quest for personal identification within it. The home is both a “statement” and a “mirror,” developing both socially and individually, reflecting both collective ideology and authentic personal experience… Individual interpretations often argue for a deeper connection between the home and the human spirit. Jung has argued that self-expression in built form is one way in which the self-archetype becomes manifest. He has described the construction of his own house as a “concretization of the individuation process” (Jung, 1967, p. 252), an approach that has been developed by Cooper (1974) and others.

Where it further from consumption, more closely tied to other forms of culture and self-expression, it is a bottom-up, rooted phenomenon in the natural environment. I think of a permaculture home, or hogans or adobes or constructions perfectly suited to their place.

The sense of identity embodied in the phenomenon of home has an important component of autochthony. Another way to describe this is as “indigenous,” the etymology of which means “to be born within.” Home in this sense is something that grows in a place rather than being imposed from without. It grows both from the particular personal and social circumstances of the dwellers but also from the environmental context of the place itself, its genius loci. Thus home has a key element of uniqueness, it is place based.

Not that this needs be unchanging. We are a connected world — I think of all the wondrous architectural and social hybrids that could flourish through travel, sharing, learning, improving our relationship to and reducing our impact on the land we live on. Why haven’t we done it that way?

Temporal Identity

Home is a place where our identity is continually evoked through connections with the past. Although temporal order is primarily concerned with familiarity, temporal identity is a means of establishing who we are by where we have come from. The role of the physical environment in this regard is that of a kind of mnemonic anchor.

All that is lost to the migrant. A tremendous, implacable loss.

Home as Connectedness

You know I  love this:

The themes of home as order and identity that I have presented thus far are summarized in Figure 1. Home is a schema of relationships that brings order, integrity, and meaning to experience in place—a series of connections between person and, world:

  • Connectedness with people: both through the patterns of sociocultural order and through the role of the home place in the symbolization and representation of identity

  • Connectedness with the place: first, through being oriented in it; and second, through the ways in which we put down roots and draw an indigenous sense of identity from each unique place

  • Connectedness with the past: through having memory anchored in the forms of the home place and from the experience of familiarity and continuity that this engenders

  • Connectedness with the future: when power and autonomy permit directly and hopes to inform environmental change

Hell yes to all of this.

Home then is an integrative schema that is at once a bonding of person and place and, a set of connections between the experience of dwelling and the wider spatial, temporal, and sociocultural context within which it emerges. Home orients us and connects us with the past, the future, the physical environment, and our social world.

Dialectics of Home

Too static you say? Not enough process, movement, change over time? Dovey agrees.

The picture of the phenomenon of home presented here has one critical weakness—it is too static. It does not convey an understanding of the dynamic processes through which the order, identity, and connectedness of home come into being. These processes are fundamentally dialectical.

Spatial Dialectics

Yet the dialectics of home involve more than inside versus outside. Home is a place of security within an insecure world, a place of certainty within doubt, a familiar place in it strange world, a sacred place in a profane world (Dovey, 1978). It is a place of autonomy and power in an increasingly heteronomous world where others make the rules. These oppositions can be subsumed under the rubric of order and chaos. Home certainly has the properties of order as argued earlier; yet it is only through the dialectical interaction that its meaning develops. Home as mere order and identity can well become a prison, a hermetically sealed world devoid of chance.

Social Dialectics

it participates in the negotiation and representation of identity through the oppositions of self/other, identity/community, and private/public.

Dialectics of Appropriation

This is particularly important in thinking about power — what power you have to shape your home and your environment, the extraordinary lengths to which we go to try and take hold of that power. What happens when we lose that battle. and the impact that has on us.

This is a very difficult yet fundamentally important notion—because “it goes to the heart of the concept of home as a mode of being-in-the-world. I use the term appropriation in the general sense of its etymological root, the Latin appropriare, “to make one’s own.” … It involves both a “caring” for a place and a “taking” of that place into our own being (Relph, 1981).

Dovey turns to literature to look at this, those brilliant passages from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the transformation of the Palace Flophouse — I remember that this is precisely one of the reasons why this is one of my favourite Steinbeck novels. Margaret Mead’s autobiography is the second example used to evoke that sense of what he calls ‘becoming-at-home’.

I quite love that phrase. Need to read Relph.

So finally the properties of homelessness — not the status of being without a house, but what strips our possibilities of becoming-at-home.

PROPERTIES OF HOMELESSNESS

Rationalism and Technology

The immediately obvious advantages of technological change, in this case improved efficiency and cleanliness, can serve initially to mask the loss of intangible meanings.

These meanings are lost as priority is given to ‘the abstract conceptual modes of “space” as opposed to the meaning-centered mode of “lived space.”‘

Commoditization

The belief on the part of both producers and consumers that the home is the house trivializes the concept of home and treats it as an object to be instantly consumed.

If I could underline this whole section ten times I would, I think commoditization is at the heart of all of this. But I like the other sections as well.

Commoditization has its main eroding effect not in the quality of house form but in the quality of the relationship of the dweller with the dwelling. The house as a piece of property implies a legal relationship between the owner and the place, a relationship embodying certain legal freedoms. Home as appropriation, on the other hand, implies a relationship that is rooted in the experiences of everyday life over a long period of time. It requires adaptability, control, freedom, and security of tenure. A contradiction emerges here under conditions of absentee ownership or rental.

Bureaucracy

Whereas home is the kind of order that flows upward from the opportunities and problems of each unique place and context, bureaucratic order flows downward. A centralized order is imposed across diverse particular cases according to typical situations and contexts (Crozier, 1964, pp. 183-184). Likewise, bureaucratic organization has its own identity that, in the case of housing programs, becomes stamped upon the landscape at the expense of the diverse identifications of the dwellers. Housing becomes symbolic of the organization that produces it, spatially regular and temporally regulated places that may not be easily adapted to the uniqueness of each situation or to changes that occur over time. The complexities of the experience of home and the role of the dweller in achieving it are beyond the capabilities of bureaucratic structures to deal with.

Scale and Speed

The scale at which environmental and housing problems are framed and tackled and the speed at which environmental change is implemented are two properties that are closely linked to those outlined previously, and they contribute to the erosion of the experience of home. Bureaucratic organization, for instance, develops to ensure the remote control necessary to implement largescale programs. Big problems would seem to demand big solutions. Housing, however, is not so much a big problem as it is a large collection of small ones—many people with a desire for shelter, roots, security, and identity, yet with a multitude of dreams, forms, and social patterns within which this might be realized.

The Erosion of Communal Space

The public realm has become a place where it is difficult if not impossible to enact personal or collective appropriations. It is a place where “they” are responsible for control and maintenance of a rule-bound status quo. At the personal level, this loss of a shared common place as a context of the home brings a subtle yet profound erosion of the dialectics of home/journey and private/public. The home becomes the sole area of personal control and security; its boundary hardens, semiprivate edge areas disappear, informal appropriation and surveillance across the interface weaken, and crime proliferates (Newman, 1972). … As the communally shared realm has been eroded, so the private realm has expanded to fill the void, leading to an inordinate demand on the home to fulfill all of one’s needs. Herein lies a dilemma—without the broader sense of home extending into community life, the experience of home contracts and loses meaning; yet at the same time increased demands are placed upon this depleted experience of home.

Professionalism

Strong forces within the architectural profession mitigate against the emergence of a sense of home. … A home cannot be someone else’s work of art.

Thus we have mass housing that hasn’t worked, urban renewal that transformed landscapes, destroyed networks, house seen as technological fixes never becoming homes.

Do I have anything further to add to this list a whole three decades further? Maybe a little more about financialisation and globalisation of capital, but fundamentally, I don’t think so.

Implications for future research?

I like this list too:

  1. the development and application of design patterns or guidelines that embody understandings of the experience of home.  … good examples being Alexander, Ishikawa, & Silverstein, 1977; Cooper Marcus & Sarkissian, 1985; Zeisel, 1977 (ooh, who is Zeisel? Here I think)
  2. Participatory Design
  3. understanding and undercutting the properties of homelessness outlined in the second part of this essay

And to finish, maybe a bit cheesy but true — English is a terrible language for speaking about deeper meanings in:

Finally, a change in attitude and understanding is required of designers. This involves an enhanced understanding and a celebration of the experience of home and the processes of becoming-at-home that exist in every place and every community. The goal here is not only to create a sense of home, but rather to recognize and preserve it in its myriad of processes and forms. Its processes are seldom visible, and its forms are not always beautiful; yet beneath them lie the seeds of a deeper sense of home, struggling to flower.

[Dovey, Kimberly (1985) ‘Home and Homelessness: Introduction’, in Altman, Irwin and Carol M. Werner eds. Home Environments. Human Behavior and Environment: Advances in Theory and Research. Vol 8. New York: Plenum Press, 1985.]

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Gaston Bachelard: The House in Literature

Bachelard The Poetics of SpaceIn Chapter 2 of The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard moves from phenomenology (see part 1) to a tying of philosophy to particular kinds of spaces (see part 2) to read houses and rooms written by great writers.I have gone very Walter Benjamin on these posts, they are mostly strings of quotes to ponder. At least what follows is not all from Bachelard himself. For example, the poetic epigraph from Paul Eluard, Dignes de vivre:

Quand les cimes de notre ciel se rejoindront
Ma maison aura un toit.

(When the peaks of our sky come together
My house will have a roof.) (39)

I swooned away just a little there. Bachelard turns to poetry and fiction because how else to understand how space transfixes us?

In this dynamic rivalry between house and universe, we are far removed from any reference to simple geometrical forms. A house that has been experience is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space. (47)

He describes how Bosco’s Malicroix works to help us understand the power of that which surrounds us:

the world influences solitary man more than the characters are able to do. … the cosmos molds mankind, it can transform a man of the hills into a man of islands and rivers, and that the house remodels man. (47)

Quotes William Goyen from novel House of Breath:

That people could come into the world in a place they could not at first even name and had never known before; and that out of a nameless and unknown place they could grow and move around in it until its name they knew and called with love, and call it HOME, and put roots there and love others there; so that whenever they left this place they would sing homesick songs about it and write poems of yearning for it, like a lover … (58)

I have thought a lot about this from friends with The Circle Works, not about the creation of home, but the creation of warm, welcoming spaces that serve to foster human beings and community growth. Bachelard writes

But I now believe that we can go deeper, that we can sense how a human being can devote himself to things and make them his own by perfecting their beauty. (69)

There is more to be found here, this is a book I look to come back to. But in the meanwhile, Bachelard makes me wonder if I would not do better to quote single lines from my favourites poems, like this one, another poem fragment from Milosz:

L’odeur du silence est si vielle

(The odor of silence is so old…)

To end? A copyrighted picture of Bachelard in his beautiful library…oh the thoughts I could think in such a space!

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