Tag Archives: community

Bowling Alone: Robert Putnam’s vision of Social Capital

Putnam Bowling AloneRobert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) is the great classic of social capital, referred to in almost everything that is dealing with community and connection.


Before getting into why that is, a hilarious aside of how worried people in power get (and academics when embedded in that) about people having too much time on their hands. You know there are some hardcore assumptions about working class people in this

1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago, which fretted that “the most dangerous  threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,” a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb. (16)

So what is social capital?

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

The term social capital itself turns out to have been independently invented at least six times over the twentieth century, each time to call attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties. (19)

This is what I love, that social capital is all about connection. It is all about relationships. What I hate? The word capital. But ah well, it’s done and dusted and a term thrown around hither and yon now, and so must be engaged with. Unlike the capital of Marx’s title, reciprocity is the key here:

Social connections are also important for the rules of conduct that they sustain. Networks involve (almost by definition) mutual obligations; they are not interesting as mere “contacts.” Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity… (20)

And, of course, such close and tight-knit relationships do not always lead in good directions — the more I write about white mobs, the more clear this becomes. So some care is needed in thinking about how this works. More thought is needed about the nature of these connections.

Social capital, in short, can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital … Therefore it is important to ask how the positive consequences of social capital — mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness — can be maximized and the negative manifestations — sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption — minimized.

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). (22)

This is such a key distinction. I think a lot can be done with this… Whereas a Freirean or a Frommean would think about how one or the other leads to a more full expression of our humanity, a more full life, a better society, a truly radical reimagining of our relationships, the use of ‘capital’ tends to lead us down another road:

Bonding social capital is, as Xavier de Souza Briggs puts it, good for “getting by,” but bridging social capital is crucial for “getting ahead.” (23)

I don’t know what getting ahead means, and for people of wealth and privilege, bonding capital is good for both. So this takes us sliding down into a more apolitical, neutral concept. But we don’t have to go that way.

Even so, anything that pulls away from the mad idea that we do it all ourselves is great:

our national myths often exaggerate the role of individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort.

So a central question of the book is, is it true community is really on the wane? Reading Raymond Williams on the Country and the City, it’s clear there’s a nostalgia in every generation. Putnam writes:

Debates about the waxing and waning of “community” have been endemic for at least two centuries. “Declensionist narratives” — postmodern jargon for tales of decline and fall — have a long pedigree in our letters. (24)

But Putnam seeks to establish whether or not this is true — and finds it to be true:

The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (27)

And so we enter the great lists of just what is declining.

The Great Declines

Declines in Political Participation

I like the need to measure different kinds of change, to make this distinction between

social change that is intracohort — the change that happens within a generation, an intercohort — the change that happens when a generation dies off. (34)

And Putnam does find a decline.

Financial capital — the wherewithal for mass marketing — has steadily replaced social capital — that is, grassroots citizen networks — as the coin of the realm. (40)

Declines in Civic Participation

Looking at 32 national chapter-based associations (PTA B’nai B’rith, Knights of Colombus etc…), again, more decline (though still, better than 1900):

bowling-alone-23-728(p 54)

On average, across all these organizations, membership rates began to plateau in 1957, peaked in the early 1960s, and began the period of sustained decline by 1969. On average, membership rates more than doubled between 1940-1945 and the peak and were slightly less than halved between the peak and 1997. (55)

Declining religious participation

I don’t know that I think that this all that terrible a thing — because I think we’ve seen a real rise in religious participation lately and it’s fucking terrifying. But liberation theology and Black radical traditions are a whole different thing.

Religiosity rivals education as a powerful correlate of most forms of civic engagement. (67)

…the more demanding the form of involvement — actual attendance as compared to formal membership, for example — the greater the decline. In effect, the classic institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” (72)

The result is that the country is becoming ever more clearly divided into two groups — the devoutly observant and the entirely unchurched. (75)


Informal Social Connections

In Yiddish, men and women who invest lots of time in formal organizations are often termed machers — that is, people who make things happen in the community. By contrast, those who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion are termed schmoozers. (93)

I like this distinction. I like too the realisation that cities weren’t the evil, atomising places they were once theorised to be.

Some early sociologists though that this thicket of informal social connection would not survive a transplant o the anonymous city, that urbanization would doom both friendship and extended kinship. However, experience showed that even in the most densely populated urban settings, social filaments linking residents were steadily regenerated. The density of social connections is lower in cities … but twentieth-century urbanization was not fatal to friendship. Urban settings sustain not a single, tightly integrated community, but a mosaic of loosely coupled communities … (96)

Despite this,

we are connecting less every year, and schmoozers more and more common than machers. But even ‘informal social connectedness has declined in all parts of American society.’ (108)

Still, I’m not such that schmoozers and machers really describe all the informal connections within communities.I’m not so sure that this captures what I think of when I think of informal support networks, how people survive on low incomes. Another way Putnam measures loss is in restaurants and cafes and bars giving way to fast food —

These cold numbers confirm the gradual disappearance of what social commentator Ray Oldenburg calls “the great good place,” those hangout that “get you through the day.” (102)

And I’m not sure that fast food in some places isn’t actually filling that role still, though in a different way.

Altruism, Volunteering, and Philanthropy

The second two of these three are hard to measure unless you’re talking about middle classes and formal organisations I think, which captures only a fraction of connection…

Reciprocity, Honesty & Trust

There is an important difference between honesty based on personal experience and honesty based on a general community norm — between trusting Max at the corner store because you’ve known him for years and trusting someone to whom you nodded for the first time at the coffee shop last week. Trust embedded in personal relations that are strong, frequent, and nested in wider networks is sometimes called “thick trust.” One the other hand, a thinner trust also rests implicitly on some background of shared social networks and expectations of reciprocity. (136)

This is an interesting concept, this thick and thin trust. I like the ways that Lyn Lofland and Elija Anderson take this in different directions thinking more about the connections people make and the spaces they make them in, building of course on Jane Jacobs.

Small Groups and Social Movements

Ah, social movements… I agree mostly with both of these statements, though always worry when terms like ‘social movements’ are thrown around as kind of everyday things, when in fact I think they are fairly rare, and what we have are groups engaged in building movement.

Social movements and social capital are so closely connected that it is sometimes hard to see which is chicken and which egg. Social networks are the quintessential resources of movement organizers. (152)

Social movements also create social capital, by fostering new identities and extending social networks. (153)

Why the Decline?

Why, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s, did the fabric of American community life begin to unravel? Before we can consider reweaving the fabric, we need to address this mystery. (184)

Pressures of time and money

Longer working hours, increased financial worries and sense of financial vulnerability mean people don’t get together. Putnam notes that one practical way to increase engagement is to make it possible for men and women to work part time if they wish (and still continue to live a decent life). Amen to that.

Mobility and sprawl

First the creation of suburbs — this is pretty anti suburb, though it doesn’t get into how suburbs fostered a white sense of community by coming together to fight like hell to keep everyone else out. They are now hoist with their own petards.

Eric Oliver found that the greater the social homogeneity of a community, the lower the level of political involvement; “By creating communities of homogenous political interests, suburbanization reduces the local conflicts that engage and draw the citzenry into the public realm.” (210)

A good quote from Lewis Mumford: “suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life.” Putnam continues:

Now, however, the privatization of suburban life has become formalized and impersonal. Gated communities are innately introverted, as traditional urban neighborhoods were innately extroverted. (210)

Putnam quotes Kenneth T. Jackson, great scholar of the suburb and the KKK, about a ‘weakened sense of community, increase in social life feeling privatized’ (211)

He looks at commuting:

Car and commute demonstrably bad for engagement, the more commuters in  community the less engagement of all members of community, even those who don’t commute (213)

Spatial fragmentation between home and workplace bad for community life. (214)

He looks at sprawl (these are all picked up in Urban Sprawl and Public Health, and Walkable Cities) and gives the main reasons sprawl is bad: Time taken in commute, social segregation and increased homogeneity, disruption of community “boundedness”, separation from work, home and shopping. (214)

Technology and Mass Media


Nothing — not low education, not full-time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations, not poverty or financial distress — is more broadly associated with civic disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for entertainment. (231)

So What? Why We Should Care

Social capital has many features that help people translate aspirations into realities. (288)

That’s always nice. This is a pretty good list of why connections are good for us, even if I worry about some of the language. Greasing the wheels for example.

  1. social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily.
  2. … greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy … everyday business and social transactions are less costly.
  3. … widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fate is linked… Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others… (288)
  4. The networks that constitute social capital also serve as conduits for the flow of helpful information that facilitates achieving our goals.
  5. Social capital also operates through psychological and biological processes to improve individuals’ lives. Mounting evidence suggests that people whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with traumas and fight illness more effectively. (289)

Putnam goes on to measures how social capital makes a difference in our lives looking at 5 variables: child welfare and education, healthy and productive neighborhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic citizenship and government performance. (290)

There’s some stuff here too about how inequality and social solidarity are incompatible — the more unequal a society, the less social capital. It’s significant how badly former slave states perform along every index. Of course, books like The Spirit Level have since picked up on this and broadened the analysis to be global.

child welfare and education:

— higher social capital rates statistically highly correlated with babies healthier, fewer teen parents, lower dropout rates, less violent crime, suicide, homicide, lower child abuse rates, higher test scores (informal social capital more highly correlated than formal for student achievement)

healthy and productive neighborhoods,

Higher social capital correlates to lower crime, less lethal violence, also home to survival networks

economic prosperity

support networks for jobs, loans, ideas etc

health and happiness

huge benefits to health (see the Marmot report, not quoted here but all the same findings…)

democratic citizenship and government performance

higher public-spiritedness, local organizations become schools for democracy, the more isolated people, the higher tendency to extremism, need more forums for debate, meaningful engagement in big issues…

The Dark Side — Babbitry

Shows tolerance has increased between 1960s and 1990s as disconnection from civic life decreased…. But still studies find that more engaged people are more tolerant. Given growing inequalities and disengagement, perhaps this all explains the trouble we are having now?

So, social capital.







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.


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.


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.”‘


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.


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.


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.]



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…

New York

New York

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.

New York

New York

New York

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.

New York

New York

New York

New York

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:

New York

On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

New York

Housing co-ops:

New York

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:

New York

New York

New York

New York

New York

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.






The meaning of home: Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Martín

1143647More poetry from Jimmy Santiago Baca, poetry of place and home. Poetry of labour. What it means to build or rebuild a house that will hold you, that will hold meaning. From Martín:

I gutted the plaster frame house,
nailed, puttied, roofed, plumbed,
poured cement, sheet-rocked, tiled, carpeted,
tore-out, re-set,
piled, burned, cleaned, cemented, installed,
washed and painted,
trimmed, pruned, shoveled, raked,
sawed, hammered, measured, stuccoed,
calloused handed, muscle-firmed, sleek hard bodied,
our small house rose
from a charred, faded gravemarker,
a weather-rotted roost
for junkies and vagrants,

wind, rain, and sun splintered
jagged stories of storms on,
I corrected,
re-wrote upon
this plaster wood tablet,
our own version of love, family and power. (47)


But It burns down, this home. They need someplace to stay. Temporary places that don’t fit. These dislocations I share, so rarely found in books.

From Meditations on the South Valley


Cruising back from 7-11
esta mañana
In my 56’ Chevy truckita,
beat up and rankled
farm truck,
clanking between rows
Of shiny new cars–

“Hey fella! Trees need pruning
and the grass needs trimming!”
A man yelled down to me
from his 3rd-story balcony.

“Sorry, I’m not the gardener,”
I yelled up to him.

Funny how in the Valley
an old truck symbolizes prestige
and in the Heights, poverty.

Worth is determined in the Valley
by age and durability,
and in the Heights, by newness
and impression.

In the Valley,
the atmosphere is soft and worn,
things are passed down.
In the heights,
the air is blistered with glaze
of new cars and new homes.

How many days of my life
I have spent fixing up
rusty broken things,
charging up old batteries,
charging pieces of old batteries,
wiring pieces of odds and ends together!
Ah, those lovely bricks
and sticks I found in the fields
and took home with me
to make flower boxes!
the old cars I’ve worked on
endlessly giving them tune-ups,
changing tires, tracing
electrical shorts,
cursing when I’ve been stranded
between Laguna pueblo and Burque.
It’s the process of making-do,
of the life I’ve lived between
breakdowns and break-ups, that has made life
worth living.

I could not bear a life
with everything perfect. (59-60)

Read a book sometimes, and someone captures just what you been missing in these places you been living.


in the Valley at my house
y parcelita de tierra,
I added, raised, knocked down,
until over months and years,
the place in which I lived
had my own character.
I could look at it and see

This apartment
reflects a faceless person,
with no future,
no past,
just an emptiness. (61)

I remember the house my dad built, I want to build a poem too — and I am happy these words have been breathed into the world.  A different kind of home.


After that, the interior of the house
emanating blue dawn light,
full of gusto in the fresh-timber smelling house,
proud of the 3 bedrooms, hallway, livingroom & kitchen,
my finest poem I thought,
that sheltered me from the rain and wind,
as we worked our way
into doors, staining kickboards, putting doorknobs in,
(fine-tuning the poem),
measuring cabinets, leveling the floors,
shimmying here & there,
spitting & stomping, throwing our tools down in disgust
and huffs of temper,
yelling into the cold mornings
at each other, trying to go on and finish
in six weeks. (97-98)


Andrea Hairston and Bernice Reagon: Song and Struggle

Andrea Hairston - MindscapeMindscape by Andrea Hairston is quite an incredible book, I can’t believe it’s her first. Maybe I do, because I confess it just might have taken me a little while and some work to get into it, but damn. I loved this story of hope and struggle and culture and ideals and love and death and some freaky alien future earth. It’s complex and complete with Ghost Dancers and ‘ethnic throwbacks’ in a supposedly postracial world that still hasn’t quite got there (because whiteness still seems like it’s getting in the way), technology and healers and spoken combinations of German and Yoruba. It’s also full of heat and action, symbiogenesis (taking me back to Butler) and plenty of deep thoughts on language, race and struggle. From my favourite character, Lawanda, who sticks to her talk despite being looked down upon for it:

Survival be havin’ words to call home, havin’ idioms and syntax to heal the Diaspora. In your cultural rhythm and rhyme, that’s where the soul keep time. (51)

Her lover, the Major, responds in his intellectual way:

Consider that language, despite science fantasy projections, is essentially conservative, hence our ability to communicate across generations. Even the hippest multi-channeling gearhead uses two-thousand-year-old metaphors, slang (such as “hip”) from 1900 that’s now standard, as well as jazzy, take-no-prisoners inspeak that leaves the rest of us down a corridor as the portal collapses. The battle over language, over naming and experiencing the universe, over what constitutes reality is always fierce. Ethnic throwbacks are ideal warriors in these gory cultural skirmishes. (78)

It’s still one hell of a battle, in SF as much as anywhere.

This novel is all about change through struggle, about launching yourself into the unknown and risking everything to change a world of deep pain and horror. It’s about the people who ground you while that change is happening, and the words and culture and songs you hold on to.

997330I love when things in life coincide, disparate things coming together at the right time — like reading this at the same time I reached the excerpt from a 1986 interview with Bernice Reagon–member of NAACP and SNCC and the Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock, she’s amazing–in Eyes on the Prize: The Civil Rights Reader.

Funny because look here, in the epigraph for Book IV, Hairston quotes Reagon: ‘Standing in a rainstorm, I believe.’

Reagon’s interview has been one of my favourite parts so far in wading through this massive collection a day at a time. She brings together music and tradition to show the ways that these two things only truly become your own through struggle. They root you in the strength of your past, and uplift you in the movement for the future. Mindscape was full of the power of music and harmony to sculpt human and alien reality both.  There is Mahalia Selasie (see what Hairston did there?) and her gospel choir working along with everyone else to create a better future, helping one lost soul after another. To heal, to open, to change. Bernice Reagon on music:

Growing up in Albany, I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song…. Now the singing tradition in Albany was congregational. There were not soloists, there were song leaders.

Like the struggle in which you find your true self:

I know a lot of people talk about it being a movement and when they do a movement they’re talking about buses and jobs and the ICC ruling, and the Trailways bus station. Those things were just incidents that gave us an excuse to be something of ourselves. (143)

She was in Union Baptist Church after the first march, when asked to sing, she added the word “freedom” to a traditional song. She tells us:

I’d always been a singer but I had always, more or less, been singing what other people taught me to sing. That was the first time I had the awareness that these songs were mine and I could use them for what I needed them to.

At that meeting, they did what they usually do. They said, “Bernice, would you lead us in a song?” And I did the same first song, “Over My Head I See Freedom in the Air,” but I’d never heard that voice before. I had never been that me before. And once I became that me, I have never let that me go.

Reading this is pure joy, no? This is the moment that change happens.

I like people to know when they deal with the movement that there are these specific things, but there is a transformation that took place inside of the people that needs to also be quantified in the picture. (144)

This is what Paulo Freire and Myles Horton and Ella Baker and Septima Clark (and I’m getting to the ladies soon, I promise) were all about, and the process that we are enveloped in through Hairston’s novel. Only there’s sex and violence and you never quite know what is going on and it’s all a bit complicated and there are a lot more ants.

I confess, I fucking hate ants. I could have done without the ants, but I honour their place in Mindscape’s mythologies. She does one hell of a job worldbuilding. Just two more quotes — and I confess I singled out the more political bits because that’s how I roll, but it is not especially how the novel rolls so don’t worry. These points are just in there because it’s people working through why things are the way they are, and this shit explains it. Why don’t I have quotes about music? I don’t know, maybe because it’s woven throughout. But I liked this:

Look, ethnic throwbacks do culture not identity politics. We don’t put stock in color. Race is how the world see you, ethnicity is how you see yourself. (121)

I smiled at the next one, I ask this question all the time:

The Last Days… People be past masters at imaginin’ the end of the world–Armageddon, Ragnarök, Götterdämmerung, Apocalypse Now, the Big Crunch–doom and gloom in the twilight of the Gods–but folk’re hard put to imagine a new day where we get on with each other, where we tear it up but keep it real. Why is that? It’s an ole question, but I gotta keep askin’.
— Geraldine Kitt, Junk Bonds of the Mind

I appreciated that in this novel nothing comes easy, least of all love (whether that be for one person or all of them). No one is perfect, but somehow people manage to pull it together and the point of it all is to imagine a new day. It’s inspiring, so maybe I’ll just end with a quote from Septima Clark, who fought all her life for justice and equality and who also knew that your humanity is found in struggle and in change.

But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (Ready from Within, 125)









Starting a Community Garden

To go from gravel covered ground to a vibrant community garden of raised beds is going to take a lot of work, so we thought the sooner we started the better. The 5th of March was chosen and we stuck to it and we had a number of brave and wonderful people brave the weather to join us:


We planned a number of activities so that all ages could participate even at this stage of the community garden, from planting seeds to planting sacks. We set up a few tables in the foyer though, so people could plant some seeds to take away and grow food on their windowsills, and if possible to bring us back a plant or two that could grow and flourish here.


The sack planting was a bit chilly but very cool, and tomorrow’s post will be a complete how-to on how to make your own. They are very useful ways to grows vegetables in small urban spaces like balconies or a little patch of paved garden.



The key learning, however, is that it is not too early for strawberries.

The main things for Saturday, however, was to build one of the large herb beds we want to set alongside the path across the Precinct site, so people can pick fresh herbs for their meals as they walk from Cable Street to the Limehouse DLR and back.

We started with the large but fairly flimsy structure that our first load of firewood was delivered in. To get it in out of the first drops of rain, I had already sawed this in two as you can see:


To shore up those flimsy sides we broke up two other pallets (given to us by a wonderful foreman name of Gary running a building site off Commercial)


And screwed it all together:




At that point it started to hail. We brought it all inside the hub.


Paint doesn’t usually last too long on outdoor beds, cracking and peeling with sun and rain and, er, hail. But we have gallons of marine paint left over from painting the trim on the containers and that is much more resilient, so we went ahead and used that to paint our first herb bed. Half orange and half turquoise.

It isn’t the best paint to use inside and in enclosed spaces, but we made do…

community garden

community garden

We’ll be lining it and filling it with wicking materials to conserve moisture despite the windiness and exposure of our site, then soil and plants, probably also adding a bench to make it somewhere people can sit and enjoy the fragrance once it warms up a bit. Looking at it, I wonder if it doesn’t need a few more planks and a little more solidity, but we’ll be keeping some of the spaces as things will grow as happily out of the side of it as they will from the top. We’ll be posting another how-to once it is all done, but for a first day this was absolutely lovely and we got so much accomplished.

Best of all, I think, was the time we were able to work outside and chat with people on their way through who just came up to to find out what we were doing, to say how happy they were that this vacant piece of land was finally being put to a community use, and even just how much they loved gardens. It really felt like we were creating a sense of community then, and gave us a good taste of what will be possible when the sun is shining and people are looking around for things to do outside…

I’m going to end this gratuitously with a puppy, Nala is the Precinct Art Space’s newest tenant and made Saturday even more wonderful than it was before. Along with always having strawberries, may we suggest trying to find a puppy to join you…

community garden

[also posted on St Katharine’s site]


Amazing Container Gardens from recycled materials

I started research on what to do for our community container garden just looking at pallet constructions. There are some beautiful DIY designs, this one from Caravanserai, who were amazing enough to help us build the benches for the cafe and who are coming on Saturday to lend a hand:

b32dc9eb52b5b05d8da6fd6194fb0295And more…

from palletsdesigns.com

01a1b59ec7f8ad0e5ab486ec1b8eef0f 4f246eafdb9e24dd2e792beee3dc41db 383d0eeb204c8a0db0c1dc41ffb3d691

A vertical pallet herb garden…I’m pretty excited about that…

pallet-vertical-garden-ideaThese are perhaps more classy…more work too. But so beautiful from palletsdesigns.com:

diy-pallet-garden-planter diy-pallet-garden-planter-ideas

Put all together they are lovely, as you can see in a post from 99pallets.com (I clearly am far from alone in loving pallet construction):


There are some more complex designs that require a little more than a hand saw, though I suppose you could manage with just that:

from palletfurniturediy.com

all the way to more professional loveliness that still seems within reach

b sq. Design Studio, Canada Blooms Garden Festival
b sq. Design Studio, Canada Blooms Garden Festival

These varnished and waxed vertical systems for succulent seem just as fancy — also doable:

from palletfurniturediy.com

And what to do with that sunny but vertical slope?


You think it can’t get better and then you look at this amazing project from Johannesburg: you start with something so simple, that becomes more complex:

Brothers-in-benches-pallet-social-project-done-in-Johannesburg-1-400x300Put a few more together and holy shit:

Brothers-in-benches-pallet-social-project-done-in-Johannesburg-3-400x291There is a write-up of the project ‘Brothers in Benches’ here — what better way to allow people to creatively interact with and shape social space?

That’s enough about pallets, because while looking into them I heard from a wonderful friend about African Sack gardening, as they had planted them in the school where she worked with their students. Who loved them unconditionally.

Part of a wonderful how-to post from Humanitarian Aid & Relief: Stories and updates from World Concern


(RIGHT) Ms Harriet Nakabale plucks spinach from a sack that doubles as a garden in her compound. (LEFT) Ms Nakabale shows a section of straw berries from her home based farm. From The Daily Monitor.

Looking more at them,  I began to find my way into the wider wonderful world of container growing in the Phillipines. There is Peñalosa Farms, Negros Occidental. I mean, my god:

penalosa organic farmP9060186


Ramon_Penalosa vertical organic gardenYou can stay there too.

I was amazed by how people have recycled plastic, inspired, and then momentarily cast down after stumbling across an article that suggested they might well be unsafe. Then I recalled all those posts about why you shouldn’t drink bottled water and the carcinogens leaching out of the plastic and etc. So a little more research… Some plastic is unsafe, but some is (probably) safe. For a long discussion of that try this article on the fresh organic gardening website.  These are the ‘safe’ plastics


PETE or PET bottles. You see the triangle symbol with the #1 inside at the bottom of the container. This type of plastic is used for most clear beverage bottles.

HDPE (high density polyethylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #2 inside at the bottom of the container. This type of plastic is used for “cloudy” milk and water jugs, opaque food bottles.

LDPE (low density polyethylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #4 inside at the bottom of the container. This plastic is used in food storage bags and squeeze bottles.

PP (polypropylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #5 inside at the bottom of the container. This is used in rigid containers, including some baby bottles, and some cups and bowls. Examples are the wide-necked milky white containers usually used for yogurt.

This is an issue with some reclaimed wood as well, we’ll be lining our beds so there’s no possibility of toxins leaching from creasote-treated or painted wood. I’m glad some bottles are probably safe, because there is recycled bottle tower growing — I am so looking forward to trying this:

p1070455-copyYou can find a wonderful how-to post from Dr Van Cotthem here, which is a site where my vertical and container gardening learning has advanced in leaps and bounds. More from the Phillipines:


From Rancho Delicioso in Costa Rica:


But those bottles don’t have to stay vertical, they can be laid out horizontally like so:


Hung from on high


Put into pyramids even


More vertical gardening ideas use gutters — all the lettuce you could use for your salads:


Amazing what we can do, how much we can grow even in small spaces.

Now, to grow it.

Starting an author evening in the East End…

Reblogging a work blog…building community through writing along with all the other ways we are working at it.

Every third Tuesday of the month we are planning to hold the Yurt Salon — a night of words, and sometimes music, with authors local and not-so-local. It’s a good question how many local authors and poets we can turn up who live or work within walking distance!

We hope that this will become a night that will bring them together to share their work, to inspire us and to find inspiration. We hope, too, that this might spill over into unexpected encounters in the yurt cafe as people start dropping by, or becoming part of the WorkHub and joining us on a Wednesday, or through any number of ways we might help create and foster a diverse and supportive creative writing community.

Our first Tuesday was an amazing way to kick it all off, mainly through the brilliant efforts of Bobby Nayyar, poet and publisher of Limehouse Books who brought these wonderful poets together and acted as M.C. If you wish to experience the wonderful poetry, albeit at one remove, you can follow the links to their books.

Bobby Nayyar
Bobby Nayyar

Our own Seb opened up the evening, introducing The Royal Foundation of St Katharine and the precinct and all of our greater hopes for this space.

I followed with our efforts to collectively create projects through the community and wellbeing hub, and our standing invitation for all to join in or to work with us to start something entirely new.

This is, in fact, how I first met Bobby — through one of our community conversation afternoons. We had a chat about what was possible and thus the idea behind the yurt salon was born.

It felt amazing to sit in the yurt less than three months and a Christmas holiday later, remember that afternoon back in November. I remember this as empty ground, and now for the first time the yurt was packed just full enough to be splendid without being so rammed it was unpleasant.

photo (c) Limehouse Books

Michelle Madsen kicked it off, lively and energetic and jumping and funny. A little sad. She had the crowd in stitches most of the time, the bittersweet laughter shared because everyone there had shared the emotions and experience behind them.

Michelle Madsen
Michelle Madsen
Photo (c) Limehouse Books
Michelle Madsen, photo (c) Limehouse Books

But her last poem left a silence. A poignant reflection on the state of the world, it set the change of tone.

Gretchen Heffernan was a very different performer altogether. Soft spoken, caught up in her words not the audience. She didn’t play to us, but read quickly. We didn’t always know where one poem ended and another began in time to clap, but her words were beautiful and carried us away. Her last poem I remember best too, on the beach. The wonder at our power to create a human being. Seeing living things in the stones.

Gretchen Heffernan, photo (c) Limehouse Books
Gretchen Heffernan, photo (c) Limehouse Books

Then a break! Time for wine, or beer if that was your fancy, or water or juice or the most delicious hot chocolate you have yet tasted, with or without cointreau. And cheese — by plate or baked in a toastie.

Bobby started the second set…it is funny to see someone you know and have worked with, transform himself through powerful words that try to express all those things we never talk about in everyday conversation. He succeeded in expressing those things — memory, loss, love. It was, in fact, wonderful. These powerful, short poems poured out…the emotion deflected a little at the end of each one by a joke.

photo (c) Limehouse Books
Bobby Nayyar, photo (c) Limehouse Books

Before planning this evening, I had no idea quite how pun heavy it all would be, but it stood in such contrast to the poems from Glass Scissors, whose beauty knocked me over just a bit.

We finished the poetry with Sophia Blackwell, charisma personified there on stage, wearing the most marvelous shoes. I sat in terror, worried she might fall between the boards of our upcycled pallet stage I had earlier been so proud of.


Sophia Blackwell, photo (c) Limehouse Books
Sophia Blackwell, photo (c) Limehouse Books

She knew all of her poems by heart, told of love and loss, invited us into her life. She shocked and awed. It was a wonderful finish.

Break again! And then the wonderful harmonising of Long Stride Lizzy (who I am afraid I persisted obstinately in calling Thin Stride Lizzy because, well, you know. Thin Lizzy. I can’t apologise enough!) But they are their own, near perfect sound, and you will love them if you love bluegrass or part singing, and have any desire at all to enjoy thoughtful, beautiful often funny lyrics. Another form of poetry.



Music was the perfect way to end I think, and they performed an old old song to finish — Green Apples. I imagine they didn’t know it, but Raymond was sat next to me who knew all the words and might well have remembered when it first came out in popular form…it was a gift to him. It made me happy.

As did the whole night, we could not have asked for a better start. I was trying to convey how wonderful it was to Carrie Ffoulkes, who is also a poet and part of the team for convening these evenings and sadly unable to make it. I said — I can’t tell if we don’t have to worry too much about future events, or the bar has been set too high.

I still can’t tell. But I am so much looking forward to the next one. I am also glad some of the work is behind us, as preparations for the night included much that was new for us. Seb was here for hours the night before setting up the speakers and figuring out the PA system, and working on some spotlights (they looked beautiful I think). Gabby and I worked on a small stage. More upcycled and recycled wood!


To what we hoped was a striking design using the precinct colours, which are symbolic of the three different areas of the precinct this event brought together — yellow (eat: share food, drink and conversation at the cafe), turquoise (connect with the community), and orange (create, used in the ArtSpace).


Arguable there was plenty of reflection happening as well, both during the poems and after as they resonated through the evening.

Our next Yurt Salon will be on 15th of March, celebrating the new short fiction anthology being brought out by Open Pen (found nearby on Commercial Road) and Limehouse Books. We really can’t wait. But between now and then, there are three more Yurt Lates, running every Tuesday from 6:30 to 9 pm. They will be:

Tuesday, 23rd Feb — World Bingo

Tuesday, 1st March — Social evening

Tuesday, 8th March — Boardgame Night

We hope to see you at one or all!


Bertrand Goldberg: Dans La Ville

You can find Michel Ragon’s Goldberg: Dans La Ville or On the City, online now, part of the wonderful website that has tried to collect everything available on Bertrand Goldberg and his work. The book itself in physical form is long out of print and not to be found anywhere.

Myself, I’ve wanted to find out more about Goldberg since his work first stopped me dead in my tracks on a visit to Chicago, and I heard a little about his ideas and his ideals on the river cruise tour of Chicago’s architecture:

Chicago Skyline

Here his ideals are as described by Michel Ragon in Goldberg: Dans la Ville:

To save the heart of the city to rehabilitate, repopulate. revitalize the modern city, best characterizes Bertrand Goldberg ‘s architecture. His work is completely oriented toward the problems of the modern city. It is first of all an urban architecture, a high density architecture, an act of faith in the technical, industrial and mercantile city.

Thus Ragon places him in the tradition of Louis Sullivan rather than the 2nd Chicago School —

He thereby finds himself in opposition to both of the great Chicago leaders who followed that first Chicago School: Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. In opposition to Frank Lloyd Wright, because Wnght, by embracing Rousseau’s philosophical celebration of the American prairie pioneers is a dis-urbanist; in opposition to Mies van der Rohe, because this leader of the second Chicago School was hardly concerned with the city, setting his jewel-like glass boxes down like strange objects in an urban landscape to which they contribute no new life.

Marina City, totally contradicted Mies ‘ work. Not only by its
form, in which the curve “thumbed its nose ” at the right angle, but also by its material (concrete instead of steel). Beginning with this architectural manifesto, Bertrand Goldberg undertook a veritable crusade against box architecture, advocating the naturalist shell form over the abstraction of the parallelepiped rectangle. In Chicago, Bertrand Goldberg ‘s Marina City (1963) seems to be a reply, almost an affront, to Mies ‘s Lake Shore Drive apartments (1951). The disciple revolts. (011)

I love this quote from Goldberg about this revolt:

“I was revolting against a century of static space, against the straight line, against the idea of man made in the image of the machine. All of Mies’ drawings are identical, whether they are meant to describe a factory, a hospital, or a private home. Mies perceived architecture like an artist, and the inhabitants as people who could be folded to fit inside. Faced with the realization that modern urban planning was heading for a catastrophe, if I turned to Mies to find an answer, it seemed to me that Mies was not an urbanist, but rather an anti-urbanist. In the end I transcended the notion of Mies’ post-and-beam structures without realizing it. Moving beyond these structures was inevitable. My own structures were geocentric. For Mies what was clear was in the form, not in the function. Now what is important to me is to give clarity to the function. Mies ignored the potential of American machines which could transform the nature of materials. He was a synthetic thinker rather than an innovator.” (017)

This led him in search of very different shapes and forms, a very different architecture:

His concern for man, for man ‘s development in an architecture which would no longer be box architecture, but rather a reassuring envelope, like an egg or a womb… (012)

but the form always had very practical reasons behind it, and demanded new materials:

Goldberg abandoned steel in favour of concrete because it was
the only material which allowed him to use the shell technique, and he proposed a round architecture because the cylindrical form reduces the effects of the wind force in a very windy city. But with their sixty-five stories, the Marina City towers became the tallest building in the world using this shape and this technique. (013)

And I love how he experimented with them, using his skills and imagination to try and meet the very real needs of a world emerging from war:

In any case, from his return from the Bauhaus until the Second World War, Bertrand Goldberg produced a great number of industrializable products . He wanted to create for the masses. Son and grandson of Illinois brick-makers , he was a child of the factory and the machine. Thus he studied the prefabrication of steel furniture, bathrooms , kitchens, and homes. He was completely absorbed by individual procedures and their applications to architecture. He designed prototypes for prefabricated houses with the aeronautic industry during the war. He also designed armament containers which could be transformed into housing once they reached Europe. (015)

3. A view of a unit bathroom appliance which contained a bathtub, shower, lavatory, water closet and plumbing. 4. A view of the shower fixture which was pivoted to permit a variety of uses. 5. A view of bathing a small child in the lavatory basin. 6. A view of the lavatory which was pivoted to swing either over the bathtub or over the water closet. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
3. A view of a unit bathroom appliance which contained a bathtub, shower, lavatory, water closet and plumbing. 4. A view of the shower fixture which was pivoted to permit a variety of uses. 5. A view of bathing a small child in the lavatory basin. 6. A view of the lavatory which was pivoted to swing either over the bathtub or over the water closet.

Out of this developed a new kind of architectural philosophy

A space created by a force (an egg) is different from one created by an intellectual concept (a box). The egg, the womb, the bee hive are forms which were brought about by forces. This leads Goldberg , through a paraphrase of the famous slogan “Form follows function” used by all proponents of functionalism, from Sullivan to Le Corbusier, passing through the Bauhaus, of course, to declare “Function creates form.” Thus the forces of structures more than the shapes of structures are what guide Bertrand Goldberg’s quest. And for a compact and complex architecture forming the equivalent of a neighborhood or a small city, this multiplication of forces and their interconnection are what must be taken into account. “When you create a building, says Goldberg , “you think of a structure, but when you create a community, you think of a series of forces reacting with each other.”

5. A view of the concrete balconies in the Marina City residential towers. Every habitable room in the towers opens onto a balcony. 6. The steel frame supporting the sprayed concrete lead-sheeted roof of the theater building. 7. The circular parking structure and the beginning of the apartment levels which both surround the already completed core structure. 8. Schematic floor plan of the structure of the apartment buildings. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
5. A view of the concrete balconies in the Marina City residential towers. Every habitable room in the towers opens onto a balcony. 6. The steel frame supporting the sprayed concrete lead-sheeted roof of the theater building. 7. The circular parking structure and the beginning of the apartment levels which both surround the already completed core structure. 8. Schematic floor plan of the structure of the apartment buildings.

So he thought about buildings in terms of forces and their relationships with each other, and this emerged out of a detailed observation of the forces that would be contained within his buildings:

Bertrand Goldberg ‘s architectural philosophy has been particularly useful as it is expressed in his hospitals: he never regarded a hospital as a building, but rather as an ensemble of social relations and functions for which architecture was supposed to be the graphic illustration. Bertrand Goldberg always devotes himself to a scientific study of the patterns of life in those settings he is responsible for designing. In hospitals the medical systems impose numerous restrictions on the architect which he must translate into architectonic shapes.

Health Sciences Centre -- State University of New York, Stony Brook. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
Health Sciences Center — State University of New York, Stony Brook


View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been used in many of Bertrand Goldberg's hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough : the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been used in many of Bertrand Goldberg’s hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough: the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns.


St Joseph's Hospital, Tacoma, with a schematic plan of the design for the surgical rooms. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
St Joseph’s Hospital, Tacoma, with a schematic plan of the design for the surgical rooms.

This concern for community, for human beings and their needs translated into a concern about the health of cities as a whole.

“The hard core of urban planning,” observes Bertrand Goldberg further “is people.” That means the users of architecture, the users of the city. (019)

2. Children use the public areas between the elderly and family buildings. The site plan was designed to promote the participation of the elderly residents in the activities of the children. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
Raymond Hilliard Center — Children use the public areas between the elderly and family buildings. The site plan was designed to promote the participation of the elderly residents in the activities of the children.

The following thoughts fascinate me as the phenomenon of white flight connected to capitalism’s spatial fix (the subject of my thesis after all) is here looked at so superficially, as a natural phenomenon almost, and an attempt made to save the central city by providing what they believe people seem to be in search of…They were in the middle of it after all, and I cannot help but applaud the effort and the unwillingness to accept the movement of whites and resources to the suburbs.

All large American cities saw their central population moving out to the expanding suburbs around their periphery. Chicago was no exception. Lewis Mumford spoke of modern cities in terms of “necropolis,” and Mc Luhan in Understanding Media (1964), affirmed that he was a resolute dis-urbanist. And Gutkind in The Twilight of Cities (1962), revived the thesis of the dispersion of living so dear to Frank Lloyd Wright, and declared ” Cities as we know them cannot survive’.’

Bertrand Goldberg observed the same exodus, but his conclusion was completely different. The sclerosis of downtown areas seemed to him to be a warning symbol of agony of a humanistic culture which he therefore intended to defend. To the originality of its round form Marina City added the much greater originality of creating , in two vertical blocks, a mini-city in which living, work, and recreation would mingle as they had done formerly in traditional cities. By situating his two towers on the bank of the Chicago River, Bertrand Goldberg was reconnecting symbolically with the old theme of water as a factor in urban animation. And since transportation and communication have become key words in contemporary life, he grafted his two apartment towers onto a port for boats and a garage for cars. Thus these two buildings were directly linked to the river, to Lake Michigan, and to the street. They didn’t constitute a privileged island in an amorphous center, but rather a kind of radiator (doesn’t their shape suggest a car radiator more than the ears of corn with which they are often compared?) which was to heat up lukewarm urban life. (012)

Ragon asks him this question  — ‘So why persist, then, in believing in the city as a moral and spiritual value?’ He answers:

“Because…people need to communicate personally with each other. This is a primitive instinct which architecture must understand, even if governments don ‘t always understand.” For,” says Goldberg, “communication makes community’.’

After communication , there is a second word which recurs the most often in his speech: community. (018)

This focus means he saw things very differently from most planners and architects of his time — the same ones we now excoriate (or some of us do anyway) for a nightmare of unsustainable sprawl and toxic and segregated lifestyles. This means he is a very interesting figure to return to in thinking about how we reimagine our cities, especially in light of energy descent:

Contrary to the urban planning tendency which favors the suburbs and decentralizes the city, Bertrand Goldberg believes that urban life will only be improved by increasing the population density. Denser urban communities would make it possible to finance public transportation , to develop high-technology companies, to offer an intense cultural life, and to economize energy resources. High density urban design would also make it possible to reduce the costs of housing and to lower rent prices…(018)

“A city can no longer afford the burden of buildings which are only used thirty-five hours a week,” adds Goldberg. “Spatial urban planning must therefore be multifunctional, and as open, as mobile, as possible. Cities, if they are not to wallow in perpetual budget deficits, must function all day long, spreading their operating costs among commerce, education, housing, leisure activity, and high-tech industries.” (019)

I’m not sure that density is in fact any more sustainable than other models on this scale, though Ragon states that:

In any case, Marina City demonstrated that a high population density in a well thought-out space didn’t cause any problems . The nine hundred families at Marina City, who form one of the most dense populations in the western world, live in perfect harmony. The rooms which expand from the center of the tower toward the outside give the impression of being larger than they actually are. And in summer, the barbecues on the balconies create the congenial feeling of an Indian camp . (012)

But there was a whole movement of tower blocks and megastructures that has to some extent been discounted these days. That said, I think many would still jump at the chance to actually live in one of Goldberg’s buildings:

And since we are discussing architectural futurology , Bertrand Goldberg ‘s work since 1959 illustrates another one of its notions: the megastructure, although he never uses this term, neither in his conversation nor in his numerous writings. Bringing together all the functions of a neighborhood in one architectural unit, conceiving thick buildings that reduce energy consumption , breaking down the classic skyscaper with buildings linked by horizontal as well as vertical passageways, moving in some way toward a spatial urban design : these are some of the advantages of the megastructure. But Bertrand Goldberg never uses the term “megastructure,” because he is wary of it. For him, megastructures like those proposed by the futurology of the sixties are too large. He prefers, as in his Stony Brook building , to separate the megastructure into sections and create focal points so that people can orient themselves and form clusters of activity. (014)

Goldberg: Dans la Ville
A view of the office building supported above its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling alley and commercial retail space. The roof of the base is a recreational terrace for the office employees. The ten floors of office space are supported on a transfer system created by the columns.

Interesting that this also began in a way with Louis Sullivan here in Chicago:

In the tone of Bertrand Goldberg ‘s writings and in their philosophy there is an evident kinship with Sullivan, even with the mixed-use building which Louis Sullivan undertook as his first influential work. The Chicago Auditorium Building (1886-1889), a gigantic architectural complex , included an auditorium, meeting rooms, offices, and a hotel. And the skyscrapers were of course the first stage in this history of three-dimensional urban design which Bertrand Goldberg fully intends to bring to a new, influential form, moving from the static to the kinetic. (020)

Goldberg: Dans la Ville
Louis Sullivan – Auditorium theater. Chicago, Illinois, 1889.

There is also in both an idea of community and democracy that became centered in Chicago’s architectural traditions:

Like the poet Walt Whitman, who united the machine and democracy in his songs. Sullivan believed that from industrial society a profoundly democratic society would be born; the Chicago School became one of the first artistic expressions. And his disciple Frank Lloyd Wright, like him, bestowed a moral mission on architecture, proclaiming democratic convictions which his architecture was supposed to help propagate and consolidate.

There is much more here, particularly in Goldberg’s two essays that have been included and that I think I just might look at separately.



Building benches at Canning Town Caravanserai

Canning Town Caravanserai is an incredible space right beside the Canning Town DLR, ‘architect Ash Sakula’s innovative concept for a dynamic and economically sustainable 21st Century Urban Public space.’ But so many people have been involved building and creating things there (look at this outpouring of creativity and effort), and it has been all about recycling, reusing, reimagining. There is a cafe and theatre space, tables and chairs and room for workshops and so much more.



These extraordinary ripples of color are actually created from old saris pressed into the the shape of corrugated iron and encased in something to make them hard and strong and waterproof…





It has been up for over four years now and so much has happened here — and sadly it is all coming to an end. You should definitely get down there for the final closing down party this Saturday, September 26th and a final week of events, including two productions of Macbeth and some dancing and steel drums and more… Still, it was only ever meant to be a temporary ‘oasis-like meeting and trading post’, and its spirit will be carried on in the projects it has inspired and supported with help making and imagining things.

Like this Wednesday when Che and Makhosi helped Gabby and I build two beautiful benches that will soon sit in our yurt cafe. They are built entirely from pallets — here are some of the ones we used for our project. We hope now when you see them discarded and sitting on the pavement, you might not just walk past…


We started with a very simple design:


Which was made reality through playing with wood, bringing together pallets of the same shape and general feel (there are many varieties of pallet as you soon learn…) and thinking about ways to make it lighter, sturdier.


Then the sawing began — old school, and extremely beneficial for the upper arms:




Almost before we knew it, the first bench was done…though there was some extra work in a removal of excess slats after thinking through how to build it in a way that would allow us to sand it all down and remove splinters, and then varnish or paint it — I think we’re going to do a bit of both, but in the next few weeks.


The second one came together with a little more work, because the form of the pallets wasn’t quite as amenable, and they were much fuller of rusty nails. Forests of them. This work saves wood from landfills, reduces the demand for new timber…it’s part of both the ethics and the aesthetics we hope to promote in St Katharine’s precinct. It’s not meant to stand forever, but to recycle materials and be recycled in its turn when the project is done. It does take extra time but we still managed to finish them both.


Here they are in formation, as we hope to see them in the cafe alongside the stove.


This was a wonderful project and we hope to do several more. The main lessons we took away were:

  1. Just how immensely fulfilling and good it feels to build things like this yourself, to work with your hands and take something like a pallet and make it into something newly useful and beautiful.
  2. Having someone who knew what they were doing and wholly enthusiastic about this kind of work made the experience enjoyable instead of just hard work, especially at the end — so an immense thanks again to Che and Makhosi.
  3. It took much longer than we expected — that seems like such an obvious thing, but good to keep in mind. Just plan to give it a day, because you’ll want a bit of a rest after as well…
  4. Our group of 3-4 was about the right size for this project building to a new design, more people wouldn’t have had much to do without a larger project planned in much more detail in advance and some thought given to splitting up tasks — but that is hard because it was through the process of actually building it that we made lots of small and impromptu decisions to improve the design. You’re also limited by the tools available — hammers, electric drills, saws, chisels.
  5. This would have been faster with a crowbar. We need to get a crowbar. And a large selection of screws. And something that helps remove or break off long rusty nails that does not require quite so much brute force.
  6. It was important to have a wide range of pallets available to mix and match sizes and styles and etc…
  7. Did I mention how wonderful it is to be outside and to build things with your hands? It’s wonderful. I had somehow forgotten. It’s definitely something we need to think more about as we explore how people can find out what wellbeing means for them here at St Katharine’s.

You can visit and even sit on our new benches if you head to the Caravanserai this weekend, they will provide seating for the final festivities before they come home to us.

[also posted on St Katharine’s blog]