Tag Archives: design

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.]



Production Designer Ken Adam: the architecture of villains, corporations and government

Ken Adam designed the iconic sets for Dr Strangelove, which we were at the Arnolfini to see, and it was very cool to see the original drawings of the war room. Kubrick cut the sho of the whole from the film to maintain its claustrophobic feel, but it was pretty awesome:

Not only that, but Adam drew it as a second attempt to please Kubrick who was staring down over his shoulder.

I learned too that the war room table was covered with green baize, to instill the feel of a poker game, amongst the actors at least.

But of course Ken Adam also designed a a multitude of Bond films in the 1960s and 1970s, and Addam’s Family Values,  winning two Academy Awards for best art direction. There were some other fascinating facts in the talk by Christopher Frayling at the Arnolfini, I hadn’t even known that Ken Adam’s family had fled Berlin in the 1930s:

  • Ken Adam was one of just two German citizens to fly RAF fighter planes in WW2;
  • his parent’s sports shop in Berlin, designed by Mies van der Rohe, equipped a number of mountain films (but none of Leni Reifenstahl’s);
  • he went to school with Wernher von Braun;
  • architect Norman Foster was deeply influenced by Ken Adam’s design of Bond villain’s lairs and volcano bases;
  • Ken Adam was a student at the Bartlett school of architecture and planning in London

It made me wonder to myself why it is I love architecture and cities, and yet never paid much attention to set design, and what that might tell us about the emotional affect and signification of space and building.

And of course, films are highly influential in their turn. I’ve heard this about Metropolis, about Blade Runner. But of course some of Ken Adam’s incredible and evocative sets influenced modern corporate architecture, the villains of today.


Kevin Lynch on Perceptible Objects and Urban Design

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityWhere the first part of The Image of the City looks at the big picture of how and why human beings need to be able to read their cities, and how they find their way through them, Kevin Lynch in Chapter III goes on to the nitty gritty, as he analyses physical, perceptible objects and their relation to imageability. Lynch classifies these into five types of elements:

  1. Paths:  … the channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves… For many people, these are the predominant elements in their image.

  2. Edges: …the linear elements not used or considered as paths… the boundaries between two phases, linear breaks in continuity: shores, railroad cuts… some edges may be barriers, more or less penetrable, which close one region off from another; or they may be seams, lines along which two regions are related…

  3. Districts: …the medium-to-large sectiosn of the city, conceived of as having two-dimensional extent, which the observer mentally enters “inside-of,” and which are recognizable as having some common, identifying character.

  4. Nodes: … points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter … they may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another. Or the ndoes may be simply concentrations… a street-corner hangout or an enclosed square. (47)

  5. Landmarks: …another type of point-reference, but in this case the observer does not enter within them, they are external (48).

The visual drawings of each can be found in the margins (I quite love the use of the margins in this book, they make reading this unique to most books on cities)

Kevin Lynch city elements

More on how these all work:

These elements are simply the raw material of the environmental image at the city scale. They must be patterned together to provide a satisfying form. (83)

And this…oh this is an aside for Lynch, but opens up so much in terms of how people move through space and those boundary lines of race, class, age…so much.

The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)

I loved this about the various maps that people drew, how the progression of physical things didn’t change even if they experienced them in very different ways:

However distorted, there was a strong element of topological invariance with respect to reality. it was as if the map were drawn on an infinitely flexible rubber sheet; directions were twisted, distances stretched or compressed, large forms so changed from their accurate scale projection as to be at first unrecognizable. But the sequence was usually correct, the map was rarely torn and sewn back together in another order. (87)

That would be so interesting to dig more deeply into, understand how individual relationships to the city and its various communities might impact these maps.

The larger goal that Lynch is attempting to reach with this work:

We have the opportunity of forming our new city world into an imageable landscape: visible, coherent, and clear. It will require a new attitude on the part of the city dweller, and a physical reshaping of his domain into forms which entrance the eye, which organize themselves from level to level in time and space, which can stand as symbols for urban life. (91)

He continues:

The common hopes and pleasure, the sense of community may be made flesh. Above all, if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meanings and connections. Then it will become a place, remarkable and unmistakable. (92)

It is interesting to think about how the ‘sense of community may be made flesh’, how by organizing an environment and providing clear markers in it, people’s quality of life and relationships might also be transformed.

To continue on to how one might actually plan for this, beginning with the improvement of paths, which are

the most potent means by which the whole can be ordered. The key lines should have some singular quality which marks them off from the surrounding channels: a concentration of some special use or activity along their margins, a characteristic spatial quality, a secial texture of floor or facade, a particular lighting pattern, a unique set of smells or sounds, a typical detail or mode of planting. (96)

Methods might include emphasizing nature of street to get somewhere with perspective, using a gradient and then there is this:

Where the journey contains such a series of distinct events, a reaching and passing of one sub-goal after another, the trip itself takes on meaning and becomes an experience in its own right. (97)

I think he captures the joy brought by traversing certain streets fairly well here. I particularly love the analogy with music he brings to bear:

There is a final way of organizing a path or set of paths … It might be called “melodic” in analogy to music. The events and characteristics along the path–landmarks, space changes, dynamic sensations–might be organized as a melodic line, perceived and imaged as a form which is experienced over a substantial time interval. (99)

On nodes he writes, that they are

the conceptual anchor points in our cities. Rarely in the United States, however, do they have a form adequate to support this attention… (102)

They need to be places, with some defining characteristics. So on to his list (yay lists) of qualities of urban design that create successful places:

  1. Singularity or figure-background clarity: sharpness of boundary…closure…contrast

  2. Form Simplicity: …in the geometrical sense (105)

  3. Continuity: continuance of an edge or surface … nearness of parts (as in a cluster fo buildings); repetition of rhythmic interval … similarity, analogy, or harmony of surface…

  4. Dominance: …of one part over others by means of size, intensity, or interest

  5. Clarity of Joint: … high visibility of joints and seams… clear relation and interconnection

  6. Directional Differentiation: asymmetries, gradients, and radial differences which differentiate one end from another…

  7. Visual Scope: qualities which increase the range and penetration of vision…transparencies…overlaps… vistas and panoramas… articulating elements… (106)

  8. Motion awareness: the qualities which make sensible to the observer…his own actual or potential motion…

  9. Time Series: series which are sensed over time … or truly structured in time and thus melodic in nature (107)

  10. Names and Meanings: non-physical characteristics which may enhance the imageability of an element.

Below are the visuals corresponding to the first 7 of these elements, to be read down the left side and then down the right:

Kevin Lynch Design Elements 1

Kevin Lynch continues:

In discussing design by element types, there is a tendency to skim over the interrelation of the parts into a whole. in such a whole, paths would expose and prepare for the districts, and link together the various nodes. The nodes would joint and mark off the paths, while the edges would bound off the districts, and the landmarks would indicate their cores. It is the total orchestration of these unites which would knit together a dense and vivid image, and sustain it over areas of metropolitan scale. (108)

A good reminder, one often forgotten. Ultimately, he argues

…the function of a good visual environment may not be simply to facilitate routine trips, nor to support meanings and feelings already possessed. Quite as important may be its role as a guide and a stimulus for new exploration. In a complex society, there are many interactions to be mastered. in a democracy, we deplore isolation, extol individual development, hope for ever-widening communication between groups. If an environment has a strong visible framework and highly characteristic parts, then exploration of new sectors is both easier and more inviting. if strategic links in communication (such as museums or libraries or meeting places) are clearly set forth, then those who might otherwise neglect them may be tempted to enter. (110)

This aspect of planning and urban design is coming to the fore now, I think, which is really something to celebrate. Like Lynch, however, many of those writing don’t really pay much attention to power, capital, inequalities, racism and fear … those tricky things. So these remain ideals, potentialities opened up though with little sense of how to make them reality. Lynch does, however, note how the city is full of many very different people, and so its designers have to create places that allow for wide differences in how people organize their city. I do love, for all my critique, that Lynch’s principal solution is that designers must provide their cities richly with the different imageable elements that people can organize according to their wishes. Can’t be too specialized or orchestrated, you don’t want people to feel that one path dominates, multiple paths and adventures must be left open.

He ends with idea that not only do planners need to build more eligible cities, but also that people need to be taught to read them better, to really see them. He advocates programs

teaching him to look at his city, to observe its manifold forms and how they mesh with one another. Citizens could be taken into the street, classes could be held in the schools and universities, the city could be made an animated museum of our society and its hopes. (117)

Something about this section strikes me as rather patronising in its wording, yet I love the idea, and particularly love thinking about how the city might in fact be an animated museum of our society and its hopes. People should think about their cities, it is an important part of having more power over them.

Two final notes of interest, first, this almost throwaway comment on the underground:

The subway is a disconnected nether world, and it is intriguing to speculate what means might be used to mesh it into the structure of the whole. (57)

I’m more excited about the netherworld, I confess. A last note on speed, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since reading Le Corbusier and Illich:

The increasing size of our metropolitan areas and the speed with which we traverse them raise many new problems for perception. (112)

I think it has, it does. He doesn’t get into the ways cities have been built for cars, but that is clearly inimical to the kind of planning and design he is thinking about.

One final post on LA specifically, a little more discussion of class and race, and on to the next book from my reading list:

and for even more on building city spaces…



Walking through a permaculture garden

Permaculture as a way of life and process for design is quite amazing. I asked Alex before he moved on to the next farm what his favourite thing about working here had been, and that’s the first thing he said — the incredible thoughtfulness of the design. I would agree with that with one addition — how beauty has been incorporated as part of that design for usefulness, this is an extraordinarily beautiful place. I think I have pictures from each section of the garden to do a quick walkthrough to share and remember its scope and design.

It’s hard to imagine that when they arrived here twenty years ago it was just one enormous field, bare and windswept, though with some quite beautiful and fertile soil. Everything you see has been built and grown over this period.

You walk out of their door, past the washing line, and you see this:

Farming 2.3

Three greenhouses (all recycled before they were torn down in other places and the third finished the second weekend I was there with the help of Julian, who had wwoofed with them before). These are full of seeds to be planted out into the garden, and have become ever more important with global weirding, as the weather has been more and more unpredictable over the past few years. I mentioned this with the runner beans, but it’s such a visceral way to understand climate change in counterpoint to everything else I am reading.

To the right you can just see the top of the caravan, and somewhere there is also a giant underground water cistern that collects rain and water run-off which is used to water the polytunnels and the beds when there is a bit of drought. This was constructed with a small grant.

The flower bed closest to the path is full of flowers and herbs, lots of beautiful aquilegias, some old roses, valerian, ornamental grasses. Here it is after our weeding efforts, and beyond it a bed of onions, also weeded on my last day with the use of the splendid English hoe:

Farm 2.6

Continuing forward  you walk into the square we actually spent most of our time — you can see the tracks of our feet marking the grass. The hedges are of beech, and very beautiful — this once giant field has been divided up to create sheltered micro-climates that plants can better thrive in. The differences between this beautiful hedged squares and the open bit of meadow that has been left as a piece of the wild is quite amazing.

There are three sheds here, all very beautiful. Rob & Diana had been considering straw bale or cob, but received a small grant to build these on a very short time frame, so they are wood. I have completely failed to take a good photo of the shed to the right but here is a piece of it — it is where veg and boxes are stored in three different sections, and has a most wonderous wisteria climbing across the front of it. There is also a porch to shelter timber, and you can see the wheelbarrows.

Farming 2.3

Here are the others (or is it just one long one with two entrances? I somehow don’t know, I should have finished this while I was there):


The entrance on the left leads to two rooms, one containing the beautiful collection of old hand tools, which we carefully cleaned every day and oiled with WD-40 on wet days to keep from rust, and another where I prepared the salad bags and Diana dries the herbs she uses in her practice.


The other entrance leads to the room where Diana carries out her practice.

Continuing straight ahead through this square we come to two polytunnels and a line of grapes and berries recently mulched.

Farming 2.3

The polytunnel on the right, where I was collecting salad leaves:

Farm 2.2

Polytunnel on the left:

Farming 2.3

Farming 2.3

Behind this polytunnel could be found the very sheltered and warm area perfect for the herb garden — with the terribly overgrown bed we weeded and the one we began to create:

Farm 2.6

You continue straight ahead on the path between the polytunnels and arrive here, the stack of willow poles we used for the beans in sight (everything is used once, twice, three times — nothing wasted is a key permaculture principle):

Farming 2.3

To the right, the Szechuan pepper and the willows we planted my first day, here almost hidden by their mulch donuts:

Farming 2.3

Continuing straight through you arrive at the orchard and chickens and geese:

Farming 2.3

There is one main henhouse and a couple of smaller ones with runs, to separate mums and chicks from the others and give them a little more protection against foxes and the magpies and jays and crows that regularly predate eggs — Rob was checking down here several times a day to regularly collect eggs before the birds got them. The geese are kept in a separate enclosure with their own house just behind me here.

Farm 2.5

So back up to the sheds, towards the house (meeting Biddy as she stalks down the paths of gravel laid just last winter),

Farming 2.4

Turning right here you would come to the main outdoor vegetable beds, looking straight ahead:

Farming 2.3

Left — I realise I actually have no idea what this shed was supposed to be for, but we never did use it

Farming 2.3

Looking to your right (this closest bed is before we weeded it and where we created the willow wigwams for the beans) towards the bog garden and flower meadow, Rob’s little writing shed in the distance (he never did have energy for writing at the end of the day — something for me to remember):

Farming 2.3

Continuing straight down the main path you can see the duck enclosure (again they have a secure house within a secure fully covered pen, these are within a much larger pen with just a low fence surrounding it where they spend their days — more pics here)

Farming 2.3

And looking to the left, the rest of the beds and the berry enclosure, to protect delicious fruit from birds. There are, of course, lots of berries planted outside for the birds, because this is a smallholding to encourage all kinds of life.

Farming 2.3

Turning right you head down to the wildflower area and the writing shed — Rob has just been down here with the scythe to start to reclaim the bog garden, but I failed to take a picture of this, or the lovely yellows of the buttercups being dug up all over the rest of the smallholding.


Looking further down the wildflower meadow to the end of the property, the Hawthornes blooming beautifully:


To the right is the old veg bed that had been plasticed over to help kill the couch grass and nettles that we partially reclaimed for more runner beans:


Beyond it more fruit trees (Rob has over 60 heirloom apple trees and myriads of others), here is more of Alex’s amazing mulching work with the grasses and nettles scythed down from the forest garden path you can see beyond:


We walk down it and see the little crossroads:


Turning left we come to the far polytunnel


A bit battered from last winter’s storms but still very serviceable, this held most of the spinach and chard we’ve been harvesting for market, all now run to seed so in the process of being cleared and replaced with tomatoes dying to get out of their little greenhouse pots.


Back to the crossroads we turn left now


Newly cut grass and poles coppiced and left here to cure


Looking right we’re back looking at the area behind the two polytunnels that we were working to weed and clear for the herb gardens proper


We can keep walking straight past more poles


and down to the open area just in front of the chickens and orchard (to your left here):


Back up this little path of flagstones we have traversed before to the polytunnel


And then back between the two heading towards the house.


I haven’t really even started on describing the contents of the beds or the rotations — as much thought goes into that as anything else, but it is all in Rob’s head. So impressive. This smallholding is hovering at the line at which it can be maintained by Rob and wwoofers using hand tools and learning the great arts of permaculture and gardening, earning almost-but-often-not-quite-enough income through sales at Tavistock market (Rob is looking for another outlet as he has excess veg at this point) for true sustainability. It definitely feeds them exceedingly well. To make an income it needs to be a bit bigger, but that would require mechanization and more outlets — hopefully we are moving more towards a world in which a smallholding like this one, as well as Ian and Tania’s, become more viable propositions for those working in ways that leaves the planet better for their work here.

As you can see, it is a wonderful place that reflects the wonderful people who have created it. I learned so much but there is clearly so much left to learn here…not least the great wisdom of Diana around herbs and their uses. You can see her website here, she runs day courses as well as her practice, and I couldn’t recommend them highly enough based on our little session on dandelions.

You can read some of the theory and thinking behind permaculture here.

Off to the next farm on Monday! Peak district, here I come.


Designing the Urban Commons

Went to the launch event for this last night, it has been an interesting few months after a good invitation to people to submit proposals for how urban commons might be designed, created, reimagined, repurposed, preserved. heroish The website with the original call from earlier this year states:

The city itself should arguably be treated as a common: a collective physical and cultural creation by and for its inhabitants. However the range of activities permitted in urban spaces is becoming increasingly narrow. Many streets and squares are now managed by private owners and those held by the state are too often sanitised by public space designs that serve to enhance local property values and business rates. This leaves little possibility for the urban public to be used productively by its communities to sustain themselves materially or culturally. Where today is there space in public for people to work together to produce the city and its resources outside of market demands?

Commoning, the collective ownership and management of resources, is currently being reimagined across social, political and economic debates as a response to this challenge facing all cities today. With Britain’s rich history of common rights, London is the perfect place to test commons out as a vital approach to urban design.

Designing the Urban Commons, LSEI think London is a good place — though in many ways it is a difficult place as struggle of who has a right to public spaces is so very fierce here as the housing crisis grows ever bigger, austerity bites ever deeper and people’s lives become even more precarious. Once diversity of class and race and occupation is lost simply by virtue of who can afford to live in an area and who has been priced out, beautifying public spaces takes on a whole new dimension with its user-base fixed.

The exhibition showed the ten winners, a few of them grappling in some way with these dynamics, though many not. It is a difficult thing to ensure manageable concrete interventions work to counter to the movements of capital and privatisation.

In reality, I think that things like this can often contribute to such movements, many are easily co-opted into placemaking for the elite who can’t manage to create their own own bottom-up ‘culture’ the way it sometimes emerges naturally and vibrantly in cities, often in places where the local residents have had the time and inexpensive space to create. Holding an exhibition at LSE under the gazes of nobel laureate economists doesn’t give me more confidence, perhaps more so because I went there. Truth is, though, after having living in Glasgow, after visiting Liverpool and Sheffield, I find myself jealous of the kinds of shops and the activities (art, music, writing, all that stuff that almost never pays its own way) that can flourish there where ground rents don’t kill everything but boutiques and chain stores.

Unquestionably, however, vibrant public spaces help people find the inspiration and the means of preserving their rights to remain living nearby. Such spaces also inspire people to fight for them, and protect them from privatisation. I quite love imagining how to help facilitate this vibrance, and thinking through just how much is possible through design. Whyte, Jacobs and Gehl among others show a great deal is possible. But only if you’re paying attention.

UrbanCommons_Service-Wash-Headline-Image_AD_TRPOne of the pieces — Service Wash — was certainly a provocation around austerity and its consequences (and while launderettes may be declining in popularity, I rather challenge its premise that they are no longer much used, as they certainly are in my neighbourhood, and I’ve heard that women come for miles to wash clothes with their mums on a Saturday, back to their communities where they can no longer afford to live).

An urban phenomenon, the launderette is a relic of postwar social infrastructure, a provision intended to be egalitarian. Its decline in popularity is countered by an A1 class designation that prohibits change of use…thus explaining the bye-gone-era flavour of your local launderette. The Service Wash utilises the launderette’s quotidian presence proposing an expansion of its established function in favour of those most marginalised by urban renewal – the homeless. The physical inability to clean or be clean can be psychologically punishing; it creates an additional barrier to inclusiveness that the proposal aims to remedy. By partnering with homeless charities and drawing on existing initiatives, the launderette becomes a place to wash both clothes and self for those who have no other means to do so.

I’d prefer a focus on the problem of housing. I’d prefer a different use of words, perhaps, public baths were still being built at the turn of last century for example. But I like not ignoring the large and steady increases of those sleeping rough, I like imagining public places that serve their needs before we build their homes, and I especially like highlighting the negative changes in our society that are causing this increase in people who need public showers along with somewhere to wash their clothes. There was one explicitly battling developers — Commonstruction: A Manual for Radical Inclusivity:

Local community groups are resisting the planned regeneration of Tottenham with the claim that a policy of social cleansing is being used to facilitate a land grab by developers and speculators. The purpose of our design manual is to create a circular reference for various actors in the area that will coordinate collective action and enrich the threatened public life. There are 3 key combinations of spaces that constitute it: • Live-work & Community workshops • Public social spaces • Residential & Start-up spaces

It starts with a land trust…so I like it, though I’m not entirely sure I know exactly what it would be. It provokes questions about how commons are preserved exactly, and what happens when they are too full of activity and new building. I wonder. The winners were profiled on large boards along one wall, it was full enough to make it difficult to get wine and get close enough to the boards to read them properly, space was cleared though as the speeches started.

You can just see here the Reimagining the Lodge poster from the folks at Shuffle whose events, mostly held at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park where the lodge sits are amazing:

Reinventing the Lodge is about creating a place to meet, a place to be and opportunities for things to do. To give people permission to inhabit this undervalued environment in new ways is to cultivate local pride, identity and sense of belonging – the feeling of being at home.

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE I was far and couldn’t see the wonderful Richard Sennet, who I never did manage to see lecture while at LSE. I could hear though: Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 14.25.31I’m not a big tweeter (I left the right hashtag off and everything), but I couldn’t resist this one a bit later (I just make up my own hash tags you see): Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 14.25.31-2It was good, though, to hear about occupy and the struggle over public space. Some proposals fit that better than others, like Saturday Commoning Fever:

Saturday Commoning Fever is an online platform that provides Londoners with means to common in the streets of the city. By simplifying “street rules” in a website rather than hiding in regulation files, we aim to question those rules and challenge them.

I quite loved Rainbow of Desires — not least because it involves theatre of the oppressed and mentions Augusto Boal, but I am quite intrigued by these kiosks and the uses an estate might make of them…

“Rainbow of desires” is a set of small pavilions installed in the open spaces of the Rhodes estate in Dalston. During a period of three months the pavilions are doubling as performative devices and workshop spaces based on the techniques of the theatre of the Oppressed and spaces of communal everyday life (public seating area, an open kitchen, an exchange library, a cinema).

Rainbow-of-Desires-close-up-900x526 There was a proposal to fill the old gasworks with trees (being raised in America it was years before I knew what the hell those things even were, and now I can only think of all the workers suffered there). Good idea, though they are fascinating structures and I sometimes dream of what else they could become…

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE

I did like this little display showing the winners’ physical locations around London, though I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to it when this is done, and will we be able to play with it then:

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE

A good event, it was wonderful to view the ideas that poured out in response to the call and honestly, can we just put up these notice boards around lamp posts already? UCHeadline-900x900


Topophilia (pt 1)

4462961I’d seen Yi-Fu Tuan mentioned  a number of times, but it was still whim that led me to pick up this book because I thought it might help with some of the ways I’ve been thinking about how human beings connect to places. This particularly in a still unfinished response to some of Doreen Massey’s work on the politics of place, which to me mirrors many of the problems in capitalist development and also sadly in Planning and Geography both. I saw this

Topophilia is the affective bond between people and place or setting. Diffuse as concept, vivid and concrete as personal experience, topophilia is the recurrent theme of the book (4).

So it was surprising, and a little delightful I confess, to go from there bounding off through some social biology like this:

Ultraviolet rays are invisible to man, though ants and the honey bees are sensitive to them. Man has no direct perception of infrared rays, unlike the rattlesnake… (6)

I am easily distracted by thinking of how much in the world we are missing, all the things out there that we cannot see or feel or smell. I am easily impressed by rattlesnakes, have loved them ever since we were little even though we invariably killed them when they came too near the house. But it is interesting to think of the biological bases for our perceptions.

It turns out that this is a sprawling book that unearths various academic disciplines, art and poetry to examine from different viewpoints our connection to land. I’m still considering what ties it all together, it is not at all obvious, so this reads something like a collection of my favourite bits. Which it is, but in that sense it mirrors the book itself.

The first half in particular took me back to my old undergrad sociology and anthropology days raising no small degree of nostalgia with section headings like ‘harmonious whole, binary oppositions, and cosmological schemata,’ and citations of Durkheim, Mauss, Levi-Strauss. There were stories of remote tribes and how they related to the world. A man emerging for the first time from the Amazonian rainforest and unable to judge distance, like Dougal from Father Ted (who had no such excuse) unable to tell what was small and what was just far away. He also calls upon Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, poets Eliot, Sandburg and cummings.

This walked a thin line for me as I hate it when people gaily argue we are all the same, but I think he managed to stay on the right side of it — teasing out processes, ways of thinking, methods of making sense of the world that peoples around the world hold in common rather than the content of our understandings. Something I find useful though it can be by no means definitive. Like this one, which I particularly liked:

Generally speaking [my partner usually attempts forlornly to shut me up when I start a sentence like that], we may say that only the visitor (and particularly the tourist) has a viewpoint; his perception is often a matter of using his eyes to compose pictures. The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment. The visitor’s viewpoint, being simple, is easily stated. Confrontation with novelty may also prompt him to express himself. The complex attitude of the native, on the other hand, can be expressed by him only with difficulty and indirectly through behavior, local tradition, lore, and myth (63).

I think he misses here the role that art can play, the different ways in which a photographer/ painter/ writer/ self-aware person might compose scenes, layer history and character and experience on top of them. But I like to think about how we experience place when we’re not thinking about it, which this attempts to capture. He argues the vistor’s ‘evaluation of environment is essentially aesthetic…The outsider judges by appearance, by some formal canon of beauty. A special effort is required to empathize with the lives and values of the inhabitants (64).’

He is not initially writing about modern redevelopment here, but captures in a nutshell its purpose of attracting visitors and its ugliness as it discourages such empathy — and goes on to cite the work of Herbert Gans’ study of Boston’s West End, a much-loved neighbourhood demolished for urban renewal.

There is a section on changing views of mountains, and this:

A great Alpine tourist, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer of Zurich, made nine extensive trips through the mountains between 1702 and 1711. He was a botanist and a geologist. He made barometric measurements of height and theorized on how ice moved but he also gave a reasoned catalogue of Swiss dragons, arranged according to cantons.

A beautiful fragment from Thomas Traherne:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with stars (98).

He reminded me of how we have lost our awe and fear in face of the wilderness — because nature no longer exists in the raw overwhelming power it once did. We have for the most part confined it to parks and preserves, big and wondrous as they are we are still aware of their boundaries and their vulnerability in our minds. He writes ‘As a state of the mind, true wilderness exists only in the great sprawling cities’ (112). I have to think about that.

I laughed when I read ‘The Sudan is monotonous and niggardly [! a word that dates this as surely as the all male pronouns] to the outsider, but Evans-Pritchard says that he can hardly persuade the Nuer who live there that better places exist outside its confines’ (114). Evans-Pritchard, what a dick. Only proving the point that it is often where we are raised that defines our aesthetic sense of a good place to live — and we desert dwellers often suffer for it. Yet sadly it still doesn’t stop people stealing the land.

There is a wonderful section that looks at the relationship between the natural world and how we depict and recreate it through art, words, gardens. He writes:

Only roughly do painted landscapes image external reality. We cannot depend on the visual arts to provide us with clues as to how particular places looked in the past; nor can we depend on them for what the artists personally delighted in, but we can take painted landscapes to be special structurings of reality that for a time enjoyed a measure of popular acclaim (122).

The contrast between Chinese landscapes and others:

…the Chinese have never developed linear perspective with the mathematical rigidity that for a time found favour in European painting. Perspective existed but from shifting standpoints. There is no single horizon. Elements in the landscape are drawn as though the eye were free to vary the horizontal direction along which it looks into the depth of a picture (137).

I love his discussion of cathedrals, in medieval times surrounded by clusters of buildings, never really meant to be seen in its entirety:

…to see the cathedral from a distance would diminish its impact of bulk and verticality. The details of its facade would no longer be visible. The medieval cathedral was meant to be experienced; it was a dense text to be read with devout attention and not an architectural form to be merely seen. In fact some figures and decorations could not be seen at all. They were made for the eyes of God (137-138).

From cathedrals to gardens — it’s like he knows my favourite things. Clearly there is a relationship here with traditional Chinese landscapes:

The Chinese garden evolved in antithesis to the city. Poised against the rectilinear geometry of the city are the natural lines and spaces of the garden. In the city of man one finds hierarchical order, in the garden the complex informality of nature, Social distinctions are discarded in the garden where man is free to contemplate and commune with nature in neglect of his fellow human beings. The garden is not designed to give the visitor a certain number of privileged views; seeing is an aesthetic and intellectual activity that puts a distance between the object and the observer. The garden is designed to involved, to encompass the visitor who, as he walks along a winding trail, is exposed to constantly shifting scenes (138).

How liberating these must have seemed to Europeans, and he captures their gardens perfectly:

The garden was for show: it glorified man. From the royal bedroom at Versailles the Sun King of France could gaze down a long central vista, which was made to seem even longer by the flat sheets of water and the sentinel of trees. Such a show of human will in formal design left no sense of nature or of the divine.

… emphasis is put on the increasing tendency to see the garden as an environment for the house, the garden as a place of controlled aesthetic experience from a limited number of standpoints. The garden caters primarily to sight. .. the habitual use of the eyes leads us to appreciate the world as a spatial entity of well-defined lines, surfaces and solids. The other senses teach us to perceive the world as a rich unfocused ambiance (140).

I am loving thinking that through, turning it over in my mind. Tuan then looks at how this translates into language, which is rather fascinating I confess, though I am wary of such generalisations:

The cosmos of premodern man was multistoried; nature was rich in symbols, its objects could be read at several levels and evoke emotion-laden response. We are aware of ambiguity in language. The language of ordinary discourse, and a fortiori of poetry, is rich in symbols and metaphors. Science, by contrast, strives to remove the possibility of multiple readings. A traditional world has the ambiguity and richness of ordinary and ritual speech. The modern world, on the other hand, aspires to be transparent and literal (141).

Again it is a shutting down of meaning, of richness into clean definitions. This reminds me of Voloshinov and especially Bakhtin’s celebrations of the carnival of language and how that continues always, but often in opposition of those who would seek to control and kill it.

I feel that there is so much in here that offers a particular insight to a particular problem, roughly like a cloud forming I feel what it might mean for our lived spaces and how we experience them — how they experience us. Do they encompass us, hold us, are they forced to frame our greatness like a backdrop or inspire others with an awe of our power over them. Do they control our points of view, our interactions with others, or do they allow us to relax, look and wander, feel respite from the presence of people. I still struggle with this book as a whole, want to move on to something a little more concrete. This is far too abstract for the intensity of connection I feel, and I know others feel, for certain places and the struggle that invariably arises over that under capitalism.

It was also particularly rich in the final sections on the city, so those will fill a future post

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960

William_Morris_CoverNational Portrait Gallery
16 October 2014 – 11 January 2015

If you are looking for any hint of actual anarchy or anarchism, a better grasp of how Morris’s work and art and design connected to his politics or dedication to Socialist struggle, or the ways in which this connection or a political legacy continued on through the years, this exhibition will make you just a little sad. The very limited exhibit brochure states:

…this major exhibition illustrates Morris’s concept of ‘art for the people’ and highlights the achievements of those he inspired.

And this really was about ‘art for the people’, and much of the later part of it about ‘art for the people to look at from afar’, which perhaps explains why to me it missed the greater point which always was art by the people, of the people, and how this connected to everyday labour and struggle. From his pamphlet on Art and Socialism, as paraphrased by E.P. Thompson:

  1. Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour

  2. Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers

  3. the only healthy art is ‘an art which is to be made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and user’

William Morris became political and turned to Socialism because of and through art, because he firmly believed in these things. He wrote ‘…neutrality is impossible in man’s handiwork…a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine…anything that is made by man and has form, must either be a work of art or destructive to art'(646 – ‘The Socialist Ideal: Art’). I think it’s telling that E.P. Thompson’s massive biography is nowhere referred to, though the earlier biography by Mackail features heavily, and the exhibition is curated by Fiona MacCarthy who has written biographies of Morris, Eric Gill and Edward Bourne-Jones. I have read none of these others so can’t be too critical I suppose, and I am sure there are some things Thompson got wrong (Janey Morris for example) but this exhibit certainly somehow stripped so much of struggle away. The description beside the photograph of George Lansbury, for example, said nothing about his prison sentence for refusing to pay rates as head of the Poplar council. I can’t help but feel that is the principal reason he is remembered and still beloved today. As for anarchy — well, I will come back to that.

morris2All that said, I loved the first half of the exhibit where the focus is William Morris himself, because his huge personality and the different aspects of his work demands the inclusion of it all. Perhaps most of all I loved the discovery of just how many wonderful little drawings of Morris there are by Edward Bourne-Jones, who actually features very little in what I’ve read, but a great deal here. I knew how close Morris was to Edward’s wife Georgiana Bourne-Jones from long excerpts of their wonderful letters used by Thompson (she’s represented here by only a portrait sadly), but Edward was his working partner and friend for just as long, and his caricatures of Morris at work and play are grand and give so much insight to their characters I think. Do a google search and you will see! I like the one above, from 1865, Morris reading to Bourne-Jones. The one shown in the exhibit is this:


A picture of William Morris demonstrating weaving, from 1888. His rotund little figure gets up to all sorts of antics, he’s even shown in the bath. The dates give an idea of the longevity and awesomeness of this close personal friendship, and also, I think, how Morris just could not have taken himself too seriously. There’s another, and not so kind, caricature of Morris from Rosetti, The bard and Petty Tradesman from 1868:

It encapsulates quite clearly what Rosetti thought of Morris’s arts and crafts designing and selling things nonsense. If he couldn’t paint, poetry was the thing.

I loved seeing Morris’s old satchel, and the huge and beautiful Prioress’s Tale Wardrobe, painted as a wedding present by Bourne-Jones. I had no idea Morris kept a ‘Socialist Diary’ for three months — the only period he kept a diary. They had it, there to read the one open page, three month’s worth of ‘a view of the Socialist movement from the inside, Jonah’s view of the whale’. Awesome. I want to read it (and can online here). They had the beautiful Hammersmith Socialist Society Banner, made (or designed and crafted through the business) by May Morris, and I learned a little more about her relationship with her father, both as head of the company’s embroidery division and in politics. They had Morris’s wonderful copy of Marx’s Le Capital, specially bound after his original had fallen apart through his study (I love that fact!), and several of the beautiful books from Kelmscott Press, including the giant Chaucer: KelmscottChaucer

Volysey Kelmscott Chaucerand a lovely cabinet crafted specially to hold it by Charles Voysey. Of course, this beautiful piece of furniture that I love also highlights the fairly elite nature of much of the arts and crafts movement and ‘the people’ who are in engaging in it inspired by Morris’s work. Not quite ‘the people’ Morris referred to, spoke to, worked with and fought for,  which this exhibit does not really reflect on at all.

I found out more, saw more of the Red House. Really, I so love the art and the craft of Morris, I confess this exhibit shows a good sample of those beautifully. To me the house is indeed one of ‘the beautifullest place on earth’, designed by Phillip Webb and William Morris and both inside and out full of lovely handcrafted things. It was also wonderful to look at a full size print of the famous picture by Hollyer (seen on the cover of the book at the top of this post), pictures of him and his family, pictures of the Hammersmith Socialist Society as well as the portrait of him by George Frederic Wattmorriswattss below. How interesting too, to find out that WB Yeats had a copy of this over his mantel.

The way that so many figures of the social movements of this time intersected with the arts was also fairly revelatory. I had no idea that Sylvia Pankhurst was such an artist and craftswoman, designing the WPSU’s logo, badges, and beautiful silver brooches given to women who had been incarcerated for the cause. There is a wonderful site — sylviapankhurst.com — full of resources on her life, struggle and art. Many more of Morris’s contemporaries have art and portraits on display here, and that I loved too. It’s as the exhibit moves through time that it becomes more and more about artisanship, the arts and crafts aspect from which all connection to labour and struggle has seemingly been stripped that I didn’t like so much.

There was quite a lot about the garden city movement, again art for the people, and while the original dream of the garden city had political content, the reality as built had very little. A superficial reading of the ideals of Morris may be somewhat reflected in the ‘cultured cottage style’ of so much of the residential building at Letchworth, which is a centre of one of the exhibit sections. Yet I rather wish I could hear the explosion of his famous temper were he to be thanked for the end result of fairly highly priced suburban accommodation that only achieved a shadow of the original ideal for building working class, sustainable communities.

What happens, I think, is that artisanship and hand-crafting is portrayed as inherently radical, that a bunch of wealthy people absconding to the country to live their ideals should somehow be in Morris’s revolutionary tradition. Morris hated more than anything the Victorian architectural tradition of using a superficial mishmash of gothic ‘features’ rather than understanding the relationship of work and art that he felt was truly gothic, he railed against it. I feel that the cultured cottage style, and many other arts and crafts objects, are themselves just such a superficial reference to a very different ideal that combines art and socialism. One of the last objects is an erotic garden roller designed by Eric Gill to maintain grass tennis courts:

Eric Gill's Garden RollerCool enough, but individually owned grass tennis courts make my lip curl a little, not exactly part of a simple life. In News From Nowhere, Morris imagines a society of plenty where everyday objects are things of great beauty. There would be plenty of time to create such a tennis lawn roller for community use. But under capitalism? Morris struggled after converting to Socialism with how best to live simply and according to his ideals, run a workshop and employ workers, create things that a wide number of people could afford while still providing pleasure in labour to the craftsman, whether he should give all of his money away (a sacrifice he seemed willing to make but hesitant for his family though who can really know) or use it to employ workers and fund the movement. The second of which, in the end he did. Honestly, I doubt many things could be further from this interior struggle than such a roller — though it is strangely the primary focus of the short Guardian article on the exhibition by Mark Brown, who clearly cares little and knows less of Morris himself. Gill was a Fabian and then a Socialist, so perhaps I am being too hard on him, but nothing here really connected his work to his politics (or the controversies over his claimed sexual abuse of his children and other revelations, which make me uninterested in anything else about him really).

So how does this all this connect back to anarchy? I still puzzle over the use of that word in the title. Perhaps if I could have afforded or wanted the book, it would have been made more clear. One thing I love about Morris is that he partially bridged the growing split between  Socialism and Anarchism in his life and work. That’s nowhere here. Anarchy here seems to to be referring to a very general and minimal revolt against society, and its limited use emerged most when it was looking at Morris’s connections to women’s and queer liberation — and those are only explicitly through his influence on the arts really, I have no idea if he ever openly pronounced on matters of sexuality. Artistically though, there’s Edward Carpenter, a pioneer of gay rights, and his workshop crafting artisanal sandals (you can see a pair of his sandals here). C.R. Ashbee was another, with the Guild and School of Handicraft and his bisexuality. Yet Morris’s own prizing of women’s liberation both in work and freedom within relationships that might make more sense as part of the tradition of ‘anarchy’ or radicalism is missing for the most part. You can never tell how much men actually practice of their rhetoric around women’s liberation of course, but News From Nowhere is at least an openly expressed preference for fairly open relations between the sexes, as well as a variety of living arrangements with little desire for a nuclear family. I loved that, even if women tended to ‘prefer’ domestic duties. Anyway, in this exhibit there  was a lot of beauty, no real anarchy at all.

So in the end I have mixed feelings, and wonder what people take away from this who don’t know much when they walk in. As I say, though, the materials themselves relating to Morris and the early arts and crafts movement are brilliant to see and read about, so it’s probably worth going.

(All coincidence in terms of timing, but I’ve just been reading all about this, reflections on E.P. Thompson’s biography can be found as Part 1 and Part 2, and thoughts on News From Nowhere are here)