Ground Control: Anna Minton

Ground Control by Anna Minton is a great summation and ordering of the neoliberal features of current planning and development in the UK, and how they have developed since the 1970s. It quite brilliantly gets at the main features of planning and housing policies, ordering them in ways that makes a wealth of detail comprehensible while also highlighting its egregious effects on individuals, their communities and society as a whole.

It is a pleasure to read, but not pleasant reading if you know what I mean. Nothing infuriates me more than the privatisation and destruction of housing and the constant increases in control, security and surveillance. Over and over again you see the looting of the public sector and land belonging to all of us by the private sector, facilitated by politicians and planners and academics as well. Not that academics have power, but write the kind of theory that people in power want to hear and watch that shit fly.  Above all, the promotion of profit as the highest and best use, and the purpose of government to facilitate that. So while the Olympics in East London were billed as a benefit and income generator, it turned out as we ‘cynics’ expected all along.

According to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee less than 2 percent of the Olympic budget has ended up coming from the private sector. (xvii)

When things began to fall apart in the economic downturn, the Wellcome Trust made a £1 billion bid for the development to explore a more full community use for the land. They were rejected, and Minton writes:

It is amazing that despite the utter collapse of the commercial case for the Olympic development the bottom line remains the only consideration the Olympic decision makers are prepared to consider. (xix)

She describes the rise of large corporations becoming community developers, which explains why so many new builds have so little possibility of generating community. This rise of what she calls ‘Tesco towns’, where a corporation building superstores builds customer’s homes along with it through its regeneration subsidiary Spenhill. It has built homes, schools, and public places in Gateshead, Kirby , West Bromwich Bradley Stoke, Shepton mallet, Seaton, Bromley-by-Bow, Woolich, Streatham.  (xxxv)

A book in itself to explore our new company towns. But I am reminded of that book I have seen on a colleagues shelf, Tescopoly, and am resolved to steal it. Borrow it. Whatever.

Then we have the Docklands as the birth of an idea — land amassed with the support of the state and sold off (cheap) to a developer. It is no longer public but private. New ‘luxury’ residences sit under rigid control alongside bars and restaurants in gated, high-security communities.

Minton writes:

‘…every former inner-city industrial area is trying to emulate this model, from the waterfronts of Salford Quays and Cardiff to the controversial demolition programmes of the old industrial northern cities.’ (5)

God forbid, but I stare at Salford Quays and can see the truth of it for myself.

The very particular form that this has taken in this country is fascinating though, as it is quite different from the states. Beginning in the the 1980s and the rise of the quango — the Urban Development Corporation, or UDC. A very clever way for conservatives to bypass the power of local (powerful, Labour) authorities — essentially giving developers who generally dominated the UDCs power of planning & economic development, power to buy land using compulsory purchase and sell land & spend public money without debate required. Elected figures too often seemed to be a rubber stamp and an air of legitimacy, but the real teeth in planning and public processes were removed.

Thus we have the Docklands — eight and a half square miles assembled and developed with no public debate in the face of immense local opposition. It sits there today, a place that in its form goes against everything I believe quality public and city spaces — spaces that promote wellbeing, conviviality, interchange and a sense of belonging to a wider society — should be.

Minton got some great interviews, this is so telling:

In the late 1980s it was like the Yukon gold rush in the whole Docklands area. Places such as Limehouse were totally overheated and developers were building orange boxes and practically giving away  free Porsches with them. It was exciting, but it was frightening. Then the whole thing went belly up. (12)
— Bob Barlow, marketing consultant with Barratt Homes and others

In 1992 Canary Wharf Estate went bankrupt, in spite of all the public subsidy. I’ve heard Canary Wharf’s ‘success’ in generating profit billed as a success story, instead I think of just how much public taxpayer money went into building such a space for international capital and insanely wealthy individuals who have chosen to put walls and gates between themselves and the local community. There’s ExCel just down the way, I’ve written about that terribly bleak space too, just one of the spaces along the Thames that are all privately owned — like ExCel, with its exhibition centre, six hotels, 2000 homes on ‘one hundred-acre ‘campus” on the old Royal Victoria Dock.  It sits above Canning town, it’s hard to reach from the community, it makes protesting the arms fairs happening there harder. (13)

Of course that in itself is not entirely new — Minton notes the controls and the gating of the old Bedford Estate, particularly along the border with Camden (remember when Camden was full of poor people? Damn.). They:

used uniformed ex-prison officers to patrol their enclave and when a fight over entry into the area broke out, leading to a death, the coroner is recorded as saying that government conduct was “disgraceful in allowing these squares and place places to be closed to the public.” (20)

Leading to a death…unthinkable for so many years, but I think we are returning to those kinds of times once again.

Still, there is something different about what is happening now, about this huge shift in the twenty-first century towards the creation of large private estates — shopping centres and office complexes that no longer sit on public streets. A very clever way of stripping local authority assets. Much of this was made possible in 2004, when a new act of Parliament changed the definition  of ‘public benefit’ to make economic impact rather than community impact more important.

Didn’t see New Labour getting rid of that now did we.

Minton’s tells us that the best place to look for how space will be managed and run, the feel of it, is in the ‘Estate Management Strategy’. Management is all important.

“Insurers like to see developers taking as many measures as possible to avoid a claim and they’re taking an increasing interest in risk controls being put in place in developments”, Gloyn says [Bill Gloyn, chairman of European real estate at Aon]. The consequence is that the private estates are far more ‘risk averse’ than the public parts of the city. This creates a very different atmosphere and public culture, which is now at the heart of all new developments. (33)

It doesn’t matter whether your taste runs to these developments or not, Minton says (I wonder honestly who does like them, but I know I am not hanging out with people from the city):

The real problem is that because these places are not for everyone, spending too much time in them means people become unaccustomed to – and eventually very frightened of – difference. (36)

BIDs and privatisation

We move to take a look at my new home of Manchester and New Labour’s love affair here — putting this city on the cutting edge of the introduction of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and growing privatisation.

Vomitous.

Thus was the Free Trade Hall made into part of a national hotel chain and removed from public life — now I know to mourn. Picadilly Gardens the same. The centre of Manchester is run by Cityco since 2000, in the fashion of a BID though they took over before BIDs were introduced here. Like in the States (I write about them, and they are so much more in your face there), their primary interest in keeping the area ‘clean and safe’. This is entirely about customer experience and about business bottom lines, not community. At least, not about the whole community. BIDs are clearly set up for consumers, Minton quotes another BID manager:

…The whole business of BIDs is moving the problem on, either by putting homeless people in a hostel or making sure they go somewhere else. (57)

In 2002, David Blunkett as home secretary introduced the ‘wider police family’, broadening who could exercise police powers. (45) Minton writes, that the:

flipside to clean and safe is control and zero tolerance. (48)

It is the promotion of the view that people ‘doing nothing’ in a space are suspicious or dangerous. (53) The opposite of what people who actually study public spaces have shown to be true. So we come to the best quote from a Bid manager:

We probably are a bit controlling in your terms, but we want quality control… There’s a trade-off between public safety and spontaneity. What you want is a few surprises, I agree with that, so we add in unpredictability with lighting schemes and water features, anything that adds to the quirkiness of what happens when you walk around as a consumer. We make huge efforts to import vitality. (54)

It really is the best quote. It really explains why those spaces are completely dead inside. Minton notes, however, that BID’s face less opposition here, due partly to tangled nature of the partnerships involved. For example in Manchester the founding chair was from Cityco and head of Brintwood — then Manchester’s biggest property developer — and the current chair is joint chief exec of Argent, the company redeveloping Picaccadilly Place. But the council is also represented. (56)

Defending Space

In the 1970s Britain first moved towards policies on ‘defensible space’ — established by Oscar Newman whose ideas were adopted by Essex County Council in the Design Guide of 1973. They drew on lessons from 3 public housing projects in NY — I mean, really? And then over the last decade we’ve seen the government initiative ‘Secured by Design’ (62, 72), spearheaded by the Association of Chief Police Officers in 1998 as a crime-reduction project. Same as ‘Crime Prevention through Design’ or CPTED in teh States. Still blaming poor people’s behaviour for all the world’s problems and thinking punitive architecture can fix it. Still, insurance companies love it and provide lower premiums when its used, as do security agencies.

So everyone uses it. More gates. Minton describes them as a stereotype of  luxury living. God, I suppose they are, but it wasn’t always…She gives the depressing example of St George’s Hill of Digger fame, which was the first gated development in the 1920s. Is now a golf course and country club. Is now full of absurdly expensive hi-tech homes marketed at men just like other gated communities.

Renewal…

This breaks my heart more than anything, streets of row houses demolished for profit only, communities broken up. Oldham is her example. It’s infuriating and desperately sad. If a building is listed it can only be knocked down if it becomes a danger to the public — good reason to let it become so.

Again we are back to that 2004 Compulsory Purchase Act — allowed economic well-being alone as a justification for purchase and redevelopment. (93) Profit rules.

She gives the example of Wainman Street, here in Salford as one of these places identified by Brendan Nevin, academic and architect of the Pathfinder Policy to ‘restructure housing provision in some older industrial cities.’ (97) Houses were emptied out of people who wanted to live in them through the 2000s, demolished to create land for redevelopment. Pathfinder has been shown to benefit only developers who get control over wide areas of empty land and councils who get government funding for the program, no one else. Definitely not the families who want to keep their homes. New Labour ran with it.

There are, of course, the new HMOs, or Housing in Multiple Occupation: ‘bedsits with high concentrations of economic migrants… Often they clash with the poor, mainly white population…” (108)

In London almost everyone I knew lived in this kind of housing of course, but here up North it’s just coming into its own. Just one of the horrors of the Private Rented Sector. There are bad conditions:

Following the buy-to-let boom, there are now hundreds of thousands of landlords who have not had to pass any tests of competence, demonstrate any knowledge of landlord or tenent law, or prove their honesty, financial probity or absence from criminal convictions, let along have any experience of property management. (111)

There’s Right to Buy — only had impact it did because councils not allowed to reinvest money made through sales back into council housing, combined with the buy-to-let mortgage that really came into its own under New Labour– buy-to-let now makes up a third of the private rented sector. (117) This created huge added costs to councils to provide statutory duties to those who find themselves homeless. By 2005, it was common practice that many of these empty investment rental apartments were leased back to the council as temporary accommodation as they scrambled to find housing for homeless to whom they had statutory duty to house. At exorbitant prices you can be sure. More transferal of money from the public to the private sector.

The Civil Society

The impact of all of this on society can hardly be underestimated. Minton starts with the fear of crime —  looking at where it comes from, and how it increases for those living behind gates. Thus, while it ‘arises from a multitude of complex reasons, underpinned by the emotional state of the individual’,  eventually it turns on trust. Gates tend to dissolve trust, and shutter people away from identification with the larger world.  (132)

There’s a lot on ASBOs here which helped me understand them better — they are very English, emerging from the Labour government’s Antisocial Behaviour White Paper of 2003,  what a travesty. Of course this connects to broken-window theory, which I hate with a great passionate hatred.

Turns out Manchester was the ASBO capital of Britain, with Cityco particularly enthusiastic in this regard. Salford too declred a Respect Action Area…so a lot of focus on the impacts here.

Minton tells us about a mother in Salford describing how her kids can’t go into kebab shops or play on the street. There is nothing in Salford to do for youth, and pubs tend not to be open to people under 21. That shocked me, so I’ve started noticing just how many set age limits above the national ones. A number of them.

A final thought on the crux of it all

So many of today’s fractures in civil society have come about as a result of the single-minded approach to extracting the maximum profit from the places we live in, through policies on property.  (177)

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House as a Mirror of Self: Clare Cooper-Marcus

I quite loved Clare Cooper-Marcus’s book House as a Mirror of Self. I loved the uniqueness of its approach; its fearlessness in connecting the material, the social, the psychological and the spiritual; and the very real insights it develops around the intertwining of our sense of self and our sense of place. Using Jungian therapy is such an interesting methodology for exploring our connections to place, how this is formed in our childhood and how this plays out through our lives. It is a way to get more to the centre of what place really means to us as human beings.

A core theme of this book and the stories within it is the notion that we are all — throughout our lives–striving toward a state of wholeness, of being wholly ourselves. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every relationship, event, mishap, or good fortune in our lives can be preserved as a “teaching,” guiding us toward being more and more fully who we are. Although this has been widely written about, especially by Jungians, what this book adds to the debate is the suggestion that the places we live in are reflections of that process, and indeed the places themselves have a powerful effect on our journey toward wholeness. (10)

In this aspect of the book, it is reminiscent of Bachelard’s work on The Poetics of Space, particularly as Bachelard also attempts it from within a Jungian framework. It helps that Jung built his own house and tied it so explicitly in his work to his own psychological development. I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet. it is trying to get at the same thing Yi-Fu Tuan writes about from the anthropological side of things, which also makes me slightly uncomfortable, though just as interesting.

Anyway, like all good psychoanalysts, Clare Cooper-marcus begins at the beginning.

“First houses are the grounds of our first experiences,” writes Australian novelist David Malouf. “Crawling about at floor level, room by room, we discover laws that we will apply later to the world at large: and who is to say if our notions of space and dimension are not determined for all time by what we encounter there.” (19-20)

I always get a bit uncomfortable on this territory, don’t really like edging towards the psyche — and at the same time I am driven there, recognising that it is only there that many answers can be found in thinking about belonging, as well as things like violence that I have been wrestling with. I felt this way reading Fromm, and I am sure I shall continue to feel this way…

But of course it feels true that most would regard childhood as a sacred period in our lives, and that it is formative in so much of who we are:

We hold the childhood memories of certain places as a kind of psychic anchor, reminding us of where we come from, of what we once were, or of how the physical environment perhaps nurtured us when family dynamics were strained or the context of our lives fraught with uncertainty. (20)

I love this sense of place-making as deeply embedded in our lives and childhoods, think of the desert where I grew up where all of us had places named after us, and we had names for many others…

The designation of special names is an important component of childhood appropriation of space, the beginnings of a lifetime experience with place-making. (25)

She later writes:

To appropriate space, to order and mold it into a form that pleases us and affirms who we are, is a universal need. (68)

So back to the book. Cooper-Marcus qualified as a therapist, worked with people to examine their living spaces as a way of examining their lives. For this reason it was a self-selected group of the middle-class edging upwards — I realise I have no real sense of where middle- and upper-class meet. For so long I thought anyone was rich who had a car they could depend on or pop-tarts for breakfast. Some of the people she interviewed challenged my more mature understandings of middle-classness and sent it skyrocketing upwards. But she is honest and open about this, as well as the ways in which she met people at conferences and through presentations, the nature of her snowball sample in primarily the Oakland Hills, and the limitations of all of that.

The limitations of the well-off talking about housing still really annoyed me at times, but the book was worth it all and engaged with the co-constitutive natures of self and place in a way few other books do, or even could. So a few quotes — though given my interest is in how this intersects with more structural aspects of house and home means I won’t quote quite as extensively as my usual absurd standard. Still, there’s a great quote from Kim Dovey on how some fo these layers come together, and broad meanings of home and belonging:

Home can be a room inside a house, a house within a neighborhood, a neighborhood within a city, and a city within a nation. At each level the meaning of home gains in intensity and depth from the dialectical interaction between the two poles of experience — the place and its context at a larger scale…. 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. It is a place of autonomy and power in an increasingly heteronomous world where others make the rules. (“Home and homelessness”, 191)

I loved this on the difference between being able to huild a home and shape it over the years, and not just because this is how I grew up and what I rather long to have now:

…the house is me. Because I built it and because it’s everything I wanted it to be; I think of it really as an extension of our family. It is not an object you buy in a showroom, like a car or a piece of furniture. It’s us. Its imperfections are as revealing to me as its satisfactions, like a friend or member of the family whose imperfections we can see… I don’t think we change our habits to suit the house…we change the house to suit our habits, so it’s constantly evolving. We live it, we don’t live in it. (54)

Cooper-Marcus notes that our desire to have control over our home spaces are more significant when we don’t have control over other aspects of our lives. Hell of true.

Also coming out so strongly through these interviews — almost makes me sorry for rich people — was the gendered differences in how people experience place and how they are limited or freed by it. Cooper-Marcus notes the studies that show the ways in which women are much more affected by the location of the home than men — particularly access to services, This is particularly visible in studies of suburbs where distance separates home from services and services from each other.

One study of over 200 couples in upper-middle-class sections of Stamford, Connecticut and NYC found ‘the most satisfied group was suburban men.’ These men spent significantly less time with their children and spouse. (199) That floored me, while at the same time, am I honestly surprised? Susan Saegert summarises another study that sheds additional light on this:

it appears that men prefer residential environments that reinforce the public-private distinction. This may be an inadvertent consequence of the bonuses of suburban life–retreat, outdoor activities, home ownership,relief from the pace of the city– or it many be partially motivated by the perhaps unconscious desire in many men to assure their home will be taken care of by a woman with few other options. (200)

I wonder how much this is shifting, and how this is working with other factors such as the return to city centres and resulting gentrification I wonder all of this in relation to suburban people, mostly white people, this is not a book that examines the kind of neighbourhoods I have long worked in, care most about, at all. But it certainly points towards a very interesting and rewarding way of looking at such neighbourhoods, building on work done by Mindy Fullilove and others.

The real importance of understanding and grappling with this is the way that this creates patterns over the course of our lives and down the generations — particularly in view of generations of segregation. Cooper-Marcus writes:

Research suggests that though few of us remain living in the same specific locale throughout our lives, many of us have a tendency to prefer living in the same type of setting…we each have a ‘settlement identity.’ (201)

This is an identity bound up in whether we prefer, and how we feel while we are in, the city, the suburbs etc… This tends to form in our childhood — whose setting often becomes our ideal, though if a childhood is unhappy people will often chose a contrasting setting. This isn’t a simple thing, but important to understand as taste in home and neighbourhood can be ‘significant indicators of group identity’, particularly socioeconomic identity.

Whether by choice or not, where you live and what you see around you are a reflection of who you are–or who society says you are. Making neighborhoods safe, secure, beautiful, and socially nurturing is not just some pie-in-the-sky aesthetic dream. It needs to be an essential component of urban policy, a high-priority expenditure of tax dollars. If the place where you grew up is as critical to your psychological development as I have tried to communicate in this book, imagine the damage to the next generation of youngsters who cannot freely play outside of their homes for fear of being shot? (213)

The crux of why this matters.

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Wilhelmine, Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth

Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine (1709 – 1758) was the daughter of Frederick William I of Prussia and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover,  granddaughter of George I of Great Britain, and sister of Frederick the Great. Her memoirs, several versions of them, are available online, here are the ones I read… Sadly, I found much salacious (yet somehow mostly uninteresting) gossip but little in them about Bayreuth or some of the more interesting things she is known for — a literary and scientific salon that attracted Voltaire among others, and her work as a composer.

Her music is rather lovely.

This is really an account of another dreadful, brutal, and both physically and emotionally violent upbringing of a member of the aristocracy, though one rather higher in rank than Cosima Wagner. I found a picture of her and her brother as children — there is no mention of a Black servant but I wonder who he was, where he came from, why he was so included though I suppose it was a signal to wealth and status:

Antoine Pesne: Wilhelmine mit ihrem Bruder Friedrich, c 1715

The goal of it all to marry advantageously, and her mother as a Hanover had her heart set on the crown prince of England, also a Hanover of course, while her father preferred the Habsburg — this intersection between royal courts and empires and families caused no end of problems in a still-not-unified-Germany of competing principalities that I still haven’t quite got my head around apart from just how boring their constant wrangling is. Boring and destructive.

Wilhelmine writes this chilling description of a princess for sale:

We went to Charlottenburg on the 6th of October ; and on the 7th, in the evening, King George arrived there. The whole Court was assembled, and the King and Queen and all the princes received him as he alighted from his carriage. After they had welcomed him, I was presented to him. He embraced me, and said nothing further than ” She is very tall; how old is she? ” Then he gave his hand to the Queen, who led him to her room, all the princes following. No sooner had he reached her room, than he took a candle, which he held under my nose, and looked at me from top to toe. I can never describe the state of agitation I was in. I turned red and pale by turns ; and all the time he never uttered one word.

This is a tale of the petty intrigue and awfulness that swirled around the issue of her marriage. The machinations, lies, gossip, spying and stabbing in the back that goes one when a multitude’s lives and fortunes all depend on the whim of a king and his independently wealthy and powerful queen are of an extraordinary horribleness. It seems to me that the general tenor of the life and politics of the court ring true, whatever doubts have been described of trustworthiness around the details of, among other things, sex for information and power. Even that is remarkably uninteresting in such a context.

There are some good little nuggets though. I can think of a number of figures of whom this saying of Cardinal de Richelieu is true:

He has been guilty of too many bad actions to be well spoken of, and he has done too many good actions to be ill spoken of.

My fascinations with early trade and the East India Company were also piqued:

In the year 1717, the Emperor [Charles VI. of Austria, Emperor of Germany] had founded an East Indian Company in Ostend, a small town in Holland. This company began to trade with two ships, and in spite of all the difficulties which the Dutch tried to lay in their way, they reaped many advantages. The Emperor had given this company, to the exclusion of all his other subjects, the right and privilege for thirty years of extending their trade to Africa and India. As trade and commerce are the best means of increasing the prosperity of a State, the Emperor had made a secret treaty with Spain, in 1725, in which he bound himself to obtain Gibraltar and Port Mahon for the Spaniards.

But rather more interesting (on so many levels) was this little foible of her father’s:

My father’s greatest passion and amusement consisted first in hoarding up money, and then in perfecting his regiment at Potsdam, of which he was Colonel. This regiment was composed of nothing but giants, the smallest of the men being six feet. They were sought for all over the world, and the recruiting sergeants took them by force wherever they found them. Up to this time the King of England had constantly sent my father such recruits, but the Hanoverian Government, which had never been friendly to the House of Brandenburg, refused to obey their King’s orders any longer, hoping by this means to create a bad feeling between the two Courts. Some Prussian officers were bold enough to take several men by force from Hanoverian soil. This caused a great disturbance.

The international political implications of a desire for giants… and what a fucking disgrace that Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia had power enough to simply go around taking them by force.

More music in case you are done with the overture to the opera Wilhelmine wrote for her husband’s birthday, a concerto this time…

I think my favourite passage from the memoirs is this description of a stay in a castle in the late 1720s, she was definitely no stranger to sarcasm:

In a fortnight’s time we went to “Wusterhausen”. A description of this celebrated place will not be amiss here. The King had, with the greatest labour, succeeded in raising a mound which so well shut out the view of the Castle, that you never caught sight of it till you were close upon it. The Castle consisted of the main building, the chief point of interest in which was a curious old tower, which had served as a refuge for the robbers that had built the castle, and to whom it had belonged. The Castle was surrounded by a moat and ramparts. The water in the moat was as black as the Styx, and certainly could not be compared to lavender water. A bridge built over the moat led to the Castle. There were two wings to the main building, each guarded by two black and two white eagles. The sentries consisted of ten or twelve large bears, who walked about on their hind legs, their front paws having been cut off. In the middle of the courtyard was a grass plot, on which a fountain had been made with great trouble. The fountain was surrounded by an iron railing, and steps led up to it. It was near this pleasant spot that the King had his “Tabagie.” My sisters and I, with our suites, were lodged in two rooms which resembled a hospital far more than rooms in a palace. We always dined in a tent, whatever the weather might be. Sometimes when it rained we sat up to our ankles in water. The dinner always numbered twenty-four persons, half of whom had to starve, for there were never more than six dishes served, and these were so meagre that one hungry being might easily have eaten them up alone. We had to spend ‘the whole day shut up in the Queen’s room, and were not allowed to get any fresh air, even when the weather was fine. It was a wonder we did not get bilious from sitting in-doors all day long, and hearing nothing but disagreeable speeches.

Holy Animal Liberation Front though, did they actually cut off the front paws of the bears? The translation is maybe not the best, but to have bears chained at all is terrible, I am glad they all dined in water up to their ankles. I shall probably never see castles in quite the same way again.

I also love this sentence describing the morning of her wedding day.

The next morning I went to the Queen in an elegant undress. She led me to the King to pronounce the customary renunciation to the allodial estates.

I have no idea what elegant undress looked like, but I assume it was probably still a great deal of dress.

A final quote, this time actually about Bayreuth, though about the Ermitage as it was in 1744, the closest I could get to her intellectual abilities:

Near the house are ten avenues of limes, whose branches are so thick that the sun’s rays never penetrate them. Every path in the wood leads to some hermit’s cave or other device, each differing from the other. I have a little hermitage of my own commanding a view of a ruined temple built in imitation of those at Rome. I have dedicated it to the Muses, and have placed in it the pictures of all the famous scientific men of the last century: Descartes, Leibnitz, Locke, Newton, Bayle, Voltaire, Maupertius, &c.

I didn’t get to the Ermitage, but saw much of her and her husband’s rebuilding of Bayreuth, particularly the new castle and the opera house, though I did not get to see the famous rococo interiors sadly  — their projects almost bankrupted their court. A final piece of hers performed in the opera house, currently closed for restoration. Seeing the extravagance of this might have made this trip a little more enjoyable, though in general I am not a rococo fan. Bayreuth was also home to Jean-Paul Richter, and there is a museum here for him as well (closed on the Sunday). I am sad that the Wagners have eclipsed both of them so.

Wilhelmine’s Bayreuth

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Wahnfried, and I cannot rid myself of Hitler

Sun shining and blue skies and birds singing as I walked through the lovely Richard Wagner Park to Wahnfried. Following in footsteps I know to Richard Wagner’s home, to Cosima Wagner’s home, to a haven for Hitler.

I still hope none of that dust clung to my shoes.

Wahnfried, this horrible straightjacketed place of immense ambition, this entombing of a man who never was, this legacy of machinations and power plays to control music, talent, creativity, the meaning of being German tied into the aristocratic and exploitative, the epic, the nationalistic, the anti-semitic… Tied into blood.

I thought about Hermann Levi begging for his release, and the contortions required of him to conduct music. I thought too of Cosima broken down by Madame Patersi and rebuilt again in stone and will and charm.

It is hard to get in, the doors to the building marked museum are all closed and there is no sign of welcome. Of the main double doors that serve as the entry, one is locked. The one I tried. If only I hadn’t been so determined. Almost everything in this town is in German. There is only the occasional nod to a non-German speaker, and that is only in English, most of what is written here is not for you. You start in a great black modern space, head downstairs to lockers for bags and great glass cases for opera costumes carefully preserved from one hundred years of Bayreuth Festivals. Art separated from complicated life.

Up and outside and over to Wahnfried itself. It feels as though almost everything is under dust covers, waiting for more important guests than myself  —  furniture, paintings, almost as though the house waits for Cosima’s own return. But of course not everything is under dust covers. I listen to an immensity of detail about its architecture and art. Look at old photographs of it, and realise how much of the sacred clutter is no longer here. The video shows expensive bric-a-brac piled and spilling across every surface, a profusion of wealth and a living museum of memory. Cosima still stares down from almost every surface, from walls and corners and up from displays under glass. Not hard to imagine her ghost extorting the rebuilding of the house after her great room was destroyed by the bombing and an irreverent descendant refused to return it to the way it was before. But that’s all changed now, and it has been restored to resemble this once again.

A beautiful house in its way, its great hall built for its acoustics, a house dedicated to music. Up to the second floor and down spiral staircases to the mezzanine. Notes on Wagner’s preferences for pink and blue, his fanciful dress. Liszt occasionally. I think about his holding court here to Wagner’s annoyance, his unhappiness and neglect and death in this house. Nietzsche looks on, caught briefly in this web of power and grand ideas. I realise I am moving backwards through Wagner’s life having gone the wrong way round.  I need to read Nietzsche’s piece on Wagner, need to know what he thought of all this.

Nothing about Hitler here, though he loved this house.

On to Siegfried’s, Winifred’s house, a beautiful long and low art-deco house on the left as you stare down to Wahnfried’s front. They expanded the gardener’s house facing it so it wouldn’t be too ruinous to Wahnfried’s symmetry. It is wood paneled and dark with windows at the end looking out over a fountain. My first impression of a lovely house of the kind I could imagine living in. A great stone fireplace at which Hitler once stood ranting about the greatness of Wagner and Germany. He is in footage and in pictures, this is where the Wagner museum has chosen to deal with him. It is mostly about Winifred, the support the festival received, Winifred’s two appearances at Nuremburg. After all, Cosima and Siegfried died in 1930, before Hitler’s rise.

I knew some of it then, not all of it. I hadn’t finished Cosima’s biography. I don’t think it would have stopped me from going, curious to know evil a little better, understand the power of fascism to better fight it. Or just curious. I don’t know I would have expected it to affect me so much, but learning some of that while there in that space — it did. A sick feeling in my stomach, a kind of nausea that made me want to shake all over. A feeling I needed to throw up, vomit out. A physical feeling that took a long time to leave me, and that returns as I write. I couldn’t watch all the footage like the only other visitor there with me. He sat grimly on every bench and watched each film commentary through. He understood German — or he didn’t care to understand. I wonder what he was feeling. Looking back it occurs to me that someone might as easily go there to enjoy this place. Shrug off the tut tutting. Revel in the hatred that once filled these four walls to overflowing.

This feeling crept into my view of the rest of the day, the rest of the town. I tried to exorcise it looking up heroes of the resistance and finding one born here: Wilhelm Leuschner, social democrat, trade unionist, but above all he fought the good fight against fascism. He was executed in 1944. The tenement where he was born into poverty is long gone, and now there remains only a single-story building dedicated to him:

Bayreuth

Bayreuth

Hard to find, I walked past it first. Not like Wahnfried. Not like the statues of Wagner everywhere. I wish instead that I had been able to escape the conference on Saturday to see other things.

I also read (most of) the memoirs of Wilhelmine, Margravine of Bayreuth. She was here earlier, composed some music and held salons, built some of the massive piles of 18th Century architecture and the fabulous opera house, which drew Wagner here in the first place. Though it was too small for him. There is little in her tales of palace intrigue about Bayreuth itself, but I didn’t want to let the Wagners completely overshadow her. So I suppose I will have one more post on this place.

And from now on finally, whatever else I do, I will NOT mention the war.

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Cosima Wagner: Lady of Bayreuth

This biography of Cosima Wagner was very difficult to read on many levels. Mark was being flown to Bayreuth for a workshop and I picked it up as part of my tradition of exploring a place — I confess I was utterly ignorant of Cosima Wagner’s history, or Richard Wagner’s history or the role that this city where they made a home played in the formation of Hitler’s pseudophilosophy, his social circle, and his base of power.  Because this family made a home here in Bayreuth at Wahnfried.

That I found most difficult.

But there was also the author Oliver Hilmes… his tone, what he singled out, his commentary were all quite contrary to my own style and feeling. This can hardly be a criticism of course, because we do not all think the same. I thought it best to signal it — and that said, numerous times I think he did actually let the family off the hook for some fairly vile little foibles of theirs.

So from the beginning I felt that while I might perhaps agree broadly that Marie d’Agoult was not the nicest of women or very present for her children, yet my critique of her would be directed differently. I would have made more of her support for women’s equality, I might have mentioned her wider friendships with other women such as Georges Sand, and my sympathy would certainly have been much more engaged. Cosima’s father Franz Liszt did simply take the children away from Marie after Paris followed her mother in rejecting them all from polite society (their ideas of free love being greatly frowned upon then but thank god they fought for them), and he did refuse to let her see them. Hilmes then describes Liszt as under the sway of his new life-long lover and companion Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein — and that kind of language always worries me. Yet at her direction Liszt’s three children were removed from the home they had made with Lizst’s mother Anna and placed under the care of a horrible governess of the ancien regime, Madame Patersi de Fossombroni and her sister. Here is Cosima standing.

It’s as though 1848 never happened, in this book. I found that curious. But Madame Patersi had been a governess for many princesses of soon-to-be-relegated-to-history principalities, and so I imagine in that house even the gains of the French Revolution were steadfastly ignored.

This book also and again reinforced the realisation that the education of European aristocratic youth consisted (and still consists to some extent) of breaking children into small pieces to rebuild them as heartless, stony-faced, charming individuals who know much about etiquette but have had all feeling for humanity destroyed. How better to maintain power and obscene privilege as though it were right and natural? Reading about such upbringings you are almost sorry for them.

I was sorry for Cosima too, in reading Hans von Bülow’s official request to Liszt for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

It is more than love I feel for her… Rather, the idea of drawing even closer to you, whom I regard as the principal instigator and animator of my present and future existence, sums up all the happiness that I can expect to feel here on earth. In my eyes Cosima Liszt towers over all other women not only because she bears your name but also because she resembles you so much and because so many of her qualities make her a faithful reflection of your own person. (39-40)

The creepiest declaration of love I have ever read, and hardly a solid foundation for a happy marriage, though she did marry him.

She did very much resemble Liszt. He met his end in Beyreuth, in her home. She made it a hard and painful one refusing medical help for him at the end and refusing to allow anyone in to see him as she would be the one to nurse him — and then finding herself too busy to nurse him. Liszt’s pupil watched through the window from the bushes after being expelled from the sickroom, heard his dying groans. Almost you can feel sorry for him. But I get ahead of myself.

There are a number of brilliant quotes here. I thought this one very telling.

‘What she says is almost always intelligent,’ recalled one contemporary, ‘in other words, it is well thought through; but one has the feeling that it has been thought through for a long time in advance, so that the ideas are inflexible and fail to adapt to the actual conversation.’ (49)

Hilmes blames this on the limitations of her otherwise flawless German, but seems more a characteristic of mind perhaps. In her younger years she wrote for a monthly magazine, though always under pseudonyms and this memory not encouraged by family hagiographers — not something for women to do. Her mother had fought long and hard for women’s rights to be authors.

Cosima met Wagner as a child as he was a friend of Liszt — they moved in the same artistic and often radical circles as did Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow. Wagner, however, did not notice her until her marriage brought her within his orbit, and his failing marriage left him without the feminine support he believed he needed. This book fails to mentions Wagner’s time on Dresden’s barricades in 1849, his arrest.  I learned that at Wahnfried… a fact hard to guess because some of Wagner’s quotes? Wow.

Mine is a different kind of organism, I have sensitive nerves, I must have beautify. radiance and light. The world owes me a living! I can’t live the miserable life of an organist like your Master Bach! Is it such as outrageous demand to say that I deserve the little bit of luxury that I can bear? I, who can give pleasure to thousands?
— letter to mistress Eliza Wille (65)

He had many many mistresses. And a wife, named Minna. She had a hard time I believe. I know I am doing none of them justice, I apologise.

There are Wagner’s terrible letters to King Ludovic II, who was utterly smitten with him and known to be gay. Every age has its idiom and this may be reflected here, yet if they weren’t lovers this could be worse, as Wagner must have known very well what he was about in using such language to get land, money and influence. This is only a taste.

‘My beloved has often wanted to know more about my political views. I have already divulged certain things. Would my beloved know more?’ … Ludwig begged the ‘light of his life’ to inform him of his own opinion … (70)

Wagner did inform him, in the form of journal entries, and they were distributed as policy documents to Ludwig’s ministers.

I’m not saying that his obsessive fashion sense and his extreme care in interior decoration says anything definitive about the breadth of his sexuality, but, well. He loved pastels, loved to wear silk and satin and velvet (who doesn’t, I know), and here is a description of Wagner’s interior decoration sense from his villa in Munich bestowed upon him by Ludwig:

To the right a door led to the composer’s holy of holies, his ‘satin chamber’. The select few who were permitted to enter this study were generally overwhelmed by what they found here, for the room’s furnishings — entirely Wagner’s own creation — were a riot of light and colour and an orgy of velvet and satin. The walls were lined with yellow satin, while the pink silk curtains in front of the windows bathed the room in a roseate glow. Through the room were draperies, artificial roses and decorations made from precious fabrics such as damask and satin. In the middle of the study was a couch covered with a floral moire fabric. (77)

The von Bülows moved to Munich, just around the corner, in 1864. in April, 1865 Wagner’s first daughter Isolde was born to Cosima. Hilmes notes that it is not certain that von Bülow knew it was Wagner’s child — which could mean Cosima was sleeping with both at the same time! I almost laughed at the shock implied in the sentence discounting such as thing.

It is impossible to laugh, however, at the letter she wrote in November of 1867 to protest Ludwig hiring Paul Heyse as artistic director of his theatre company.

My objections to him are as follows: 1) his Jewish extraction — in this respect I beg our august and dear friend most humbly not to see a harsh prejudice but a profoundly well-justified fear of a race that has caused the Germans much harm … (90)

Meanwhile Wagner was about to cross the line with old Ludwig… you’d have thought that journal escapade would have done it, but no. Or that time he called Ludwig ‘my lad’. But after glorious days in which Wagner organised concerts in the morning then read to Bavaria’s king from his memoirs after which the two of them would head off to sport in the countryside, Wagner went so far as to demand the resignations of the cabinet secretary and the prime minister. And so, Hilmes describes it as involuntary exile.

After much passionate recrimination, Cosima finally obtained a divorce from von Bülow, and married Wagner in 1870. She would dedicate her life in his service, and in service to her son…an oddly dictatorial service to be sure, or to their myth as she interpreted it. How better to summarise the role she saw for her life than this picture?

There is a quote here that is fairly terrifying from her private journals (though she wrote them as testaments to her service, and they were always meant to be read by her children, particularly Siegfried):

Spoke very seriously with the children, wept and prayed with them, brought them to the point of asking me for punishment. (107)

Hilmes ties her strange streak of self-sacrifice to her husband’s myth and her sadomasochism that emerged from her upbringing to her anti-semitism. I find his psychoanalysis a little simple perhaps, but the roots of it are all here. It’s not surprising that Wagner reissued a little pamphlet he had written about the Jews the year of their marriage in 1870 — I haven’t yet read it. I suppose I will. I am curious. But all of it brings on nausea.

In 1871 they moved to Bayreuth, gifted land and money to build a home by Ludwig it was known as Wahnfried (from wahn and fried which mean roughly delusion and freedom), and written upon it Wagner’s motto:

 “Hier wo mein Wähnen Frieden fand – Wahnfried – sei dieses Haus von mir benannt.” (“Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”)

Oh the delusions that this home would help spawn.

Gifted land from the council they built the Festspielhaus, a new opera house for the festival they would begin — Wagner found the town’s incredible baroque opera house too small for the orchestras he needed.

I think for me, one of the most terrible substories in the book is that of Hermann Levi, an enormously gifted conductor (poet, composer) who was court kapellmeister to Ludwig in Munich, and whom Ludwig himself insisted be first conductor for Wagner’s recently finished Parsifal. The book is clear that Wagner objected, on the grounds he was a jew, only to be overruled. Hilmes writes:

Among Wagner’s less attractive qualities was his insistence on repeatedly tormenting his new in-house conductor with anti-Semitic barbs. (145)

He notes Levi tried to break his ties to the Wagners many times. Yet in spite of this, Levi is referred to consistently thereafter as a family friend… it seems to me that whatever this complicated relationship might have been, friendship is not quite the right term for it. His relationship with Cosima far less so, it hurts my soul to read of it.

In 1883 Wagner died while in Vienna. There were scenes of operatic horror as Cosima lay by the side of his decomposing corpse and refused to be removed, kept slipping in to be with his body, cut off all of her hair and sewed it into a pillow to be buried with Wagner. From here she would dedicate her life to his myth, his music, and his festival in Bayreuth. Everything was sacrificed to that cause, but only as she defined it and controlled it. She never released power, and she never forgave those who challenged her. Wahnfried in Bayreuth became a shrine to her dead husband and the family and to Germany as she imagined it. She placed glass over Wagner’s desk to keep it always as he left it, people described the chair that could not be sat in, the many ornaments and the piano that could never be touched. This is what she tried to do on a much grander scale across Germany itself, making of his life, work and thought a kind of museum performed over and over again through the festival, yet at the same a living force in music and in German nationalism. She tried to control it all, keep Wagner at the pinnacle of musical achievement (a strange madness for anyone who loved music) as well as relevance for the ideal of the German people. It is terrifying how effective she was.

I loved this quote about the Beyreuth festival from Brahms’s pupil Elisabeth von Herzogenberg — and of course I had forgotten that Brahms and the Wagnerians were sworn enemies, I like Brahms even more now. But this sums up the feeling that you get from all of this — Cosima’s relentless rule in the house, her children’s desperately unhappy lives in service of her will and Wagner’s myth and the way that any one and everyone was also pulled into that service who could be of any use:

People like that go to Parsifal just as Catholics visit graves on Good Friday, it has become a church service for them. The whole bunch of them are in an unnaturally heightened, hysterically enraptured state like Ribera’s saints, with their eyes raised aloft so that one can see only the whites of them, and under their shirts they all have carefully tended stigmata. I tell you, the whole thing has a really bad smell to it, like a church that has never been aired or like a butcher’s display of meat in summer: a blood-thirstiness and musty smell of incense, a sultry sensuality with terribly serious gestures, a heaviness and a bombast otherwise unprecedented in art weighs down on one, its brooding intensity taking one’s breath away. (194)

This is the antisemitic and German nationalist atmosphere that drew Houston Chamberlain here in quest of one of Wagner’s daughters — he ended up marrying Eva. He is perhaps best known for writing the innocuous sounding Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century), a favourite of Hitler’s. While de Gobineau had been long in favour in Wahnfried circles, Cosima and others felt that Chamberlain had updated these outdated ideas of race with more modern understandings of race for the new century. She was ecstatic at snagging such a mind to be in service to the family’s task and Germany itself. Meanwhile Siegfried had married Winifred, another English woman raised in Germany and friendly to the cause. She described Hitler’s first open visit in 1925. He continued to visit in secret over the next few years while still widely seen as the nasty little man he was, up through his successes in 1933, so as not to compromise the family. Hilmes writes:

Generally Hitler would turn up at Wahnfried after dark, Friedelind Wagner recalling that ‘late as it was, he never failed to come into the nursery and tell us gruesome tales of his adventure. We all sat up among the pillows in the half-light and listened while he made our flesh creep.’ Chamberlain too, could scarcely wait for Hitler’s flying visits: ‘Visits by A.H. highly enjoyable & enthralling, eyes wide open & directed at him.’

Joseph Goebbels came along to visit the great man Chamberlain as well, though he was already very ill. He would die in 1927 — very possibly of late-stage syphilis. One can only hope, it is most unpleasant. Cosima died in 1930, Siegfried followed soon after, Winifred was left to run the festival which she did most ably with great support from Hitler himself until the end of the war.

It is hard to say what I feel finishing this… horror certainly. Amazement at what have always seemed to me to be such different times, such different worlds spanned by Cosima’s life — from the rebellion of Liszt and d’Agoult and the romantic period and 1848 smashed against an ancien regime governess’s rocks through to Wagner and Brahms and then to the rise of Hitler in Germany … it is almost inconceivable really. Yet her life shows how these things tied together, how far Nazi Germany was from being a strange bubble, shows the depths of its roots. She was such a force. I need to read more of Wagner to get a better grip on how much she shaped his legacy, but I’m not sure I have the stomach for it.

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New York Cityscapes

Just as we walked past them…

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Urban Infrastructure: Trains, High lines, Bridges and Garbage Trucks

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More trains.

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That was taken from the the high line… I was so looking forward to this but THERE WERE SO MANY PEOPLE. You walk in a line of people up one way then back the other. They stop in front of you. They are slow. They have selfie sticks. They are everything I hate as a fast walker in the big city.

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Bridges and ferries:

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And to end? Trash collection:

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and garbage trucks. They gotta park somewhere.

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Public Art of All Kinds, NY

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The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the Lower East Side

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.

Ah, the Lower East Side…

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For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.

I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.

I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.

I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.

Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.

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A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.

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I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:

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On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

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Housing co-ops:

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Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:

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New YorkAnd finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.

 

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Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.