I gutted the plaster frame house,
nailed, puttied, roofed, plumbed,
poured cement, sheet-rocked, tiled, carpeted,
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,
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
In my 56’ Chevy truckita,
beat up and rankled
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
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
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
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
reflects a faceless person,
with no future,
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)
Every line of it was beautiful, thoughtful perfection. You can tell this was written by a poet. When I started reading it those first few pages made me keep putting the book down with a shiver of joy at the language. It is amazing to have two authors, Dybek and Brooks, remind me in just the past couple of weeks what a very visceral, physical pleasure reading can be.
WHAT she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch; and dandelions. (1)
Yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard. She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower. (2)
This is so much about home and its creation and its effects, but in that the fucked-upness of segregated American cities is omnipresent, and every now and then you glimpse a direct view of the city of Chicago in the background. And the sky.
The school looked solid. Brownish-red brick, dirty cream stone trim. Massive chimney, candid, serious. The sky was gray, but the sun was making little silver promises somewhere up there, hinting. A wind blew. (4)
There were lives in these buildings. Past the tiny lives the children blew. Cramp, inhibition, choke–they did not trouble themselves about these. (5)
How she loved a “hike.” Especially in the evening, for then everything was moody, odd, deliciously threatening, always hunched and ready to close in on you but never doing so. East of Cottage Grove you saw fewer people, and those you did see had, all of them (how strange, thought Maud Martha), white faces. (9)
On every page I could find you a line to love. But we shall jump ahead to the tautness of Chapter 8 as they wait for Maud Martha’s papa to come home from a visit to try and get an extension on the mortgage to save their home of 14 years.
There was little hope. The Home Owners’ Loan was hard.
HOLC. I have read so much about them in rather more abstract terms. Just as everything this book reflects on poetically is so much more often written about in terms abstract or worthy. Very different from these vivid scenes brought alive through feelings, colours, sounds, smells…
And these things–roaches, and having to be satisfied with the place as it was–were not the only annoyances that had to be reckoned with. She was becoming aware of an oddness in color and sound and smell about her, the color and sound and smell of the kitchenette building. the color was gray, and the smell and sound had taken on a suggestion of the properties of color, and impressed one as gray, too. The sobbings, the frustrations, the small hates, the little pushing-through love, the boredom, that came to her from behind those walls (some of them beaverboard) via speech and scream and sigh–all these were gray. And the smells of various types of sweat, and of bathing and bodily functions (the bathroom was always in use, someone was always in the bathroom) and of fresh or stale love-making, which rushed in thick fumes to your nostril as you walked down the hall, or down the stairs–these were gray.
Organising tenants you see a whole lot of gray — though I don’t know that gray is the right colour for walls yellowed with tobacco smoke and damp and dirt. To me the word of horror was always dingy, that is the word contains all the smells and sounds of these buildings unified by poverty and overworked exhaustion and absentee landlords. I lived in those dingy places a long time, they strip life of its color. They get you down.
But oh, there is still some vibrance in the lives within them. You meet the people who live in the kitchenette building, meet all the hang-ups about shades of blackness and pretensions to class, all the terrible frustrations, the wonderful children whose faces light up like candles, the nameless ones who scream about the house, the two people who really love each other. They are vivid despite the gray.
There are moments of hate, moments of fear. A child being born. A life passing by and it is no one but the world’s fault that the dandelion world of the child should shift to the gray of the kitchenette building and the pressure of parenthood and adult life. Disappointments. Settling. Still finding those moments of beauty, but less often perhaps.
Near the end there is an inspired meditation on segregation and race and violence through Maud Martha’s disgust at cleaning out a chicken — refusing to touch it, hacking at its insides with a knife to do what butchers once did before the war:
And yet the chicken was a sort of person, a respectable individual, with its own kind of dignity. The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.
When the animal was ready for the oven Maud Martha smacked her lips at the though of her meal. (153)
There is a kind of genius in that. I love that it sits alongside those crystalline lines and images of beauty that open Maud Martha, and are scattered throughout.
I quite loved Gabriel Gbadamosi’s coming-of-age novel, a little boy figuring out his place in his family, his school, and his city as the son of an Irish mother and Nigerian dad. Culture and the racism provoked by the colour of your skin, homelessness and addiction, violent death, the embarrassing things that you do as a child because you just don’t know much…
I bought this after doing a walking tour of Vauxhall with Gabriel Gbadamosi (you too should buy it). So I knew I would love it, and recognise some of the stories — it did take me too long to get to this book. I’ve been watching a lot of Trümmerfilm or rubble films, (like The Third Man (Reed 1949), and Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949)), and then reading Stuart Dybek on the tearing down of his Chicago neighborhood after declaring it ‘blighted’ and remembering Marshall Berman describing the Bronx and my many years of struggle in LA and the stories I heard from urban renewal’s heyday.
It struck me how urban renewal resulted in the same kinds of landscapes as WWII, and it struck me that exploring that would be a really good little article. Bombs and war are a different level of violence and terror and death, why then do we recreate its landscapes for profit? It might capture a little of my ever renewed store of fury over people being forced from homes they love and have invested in. I remembered this book, and it did indeed have both bomb damage and the council’s slum-clearing damage and underlined that this losing of home, especially as a child, is something you never quite get over.
How many thousands of children are experiencing this at the moment, because we are bombing them…it breaks my heart. I wish I believed an article would stop bombs and urban renewal and evictions, but it can’t be bad for people to feel these things, get a sense of how they might connect.
So from Vauxhall — first there is growing up where bomb damage is taken for granted:
Brian was pulling back the corrugated iron on the bombsite that was blocked off round by the pub. We didn’t play in there because it was dangerous and could fall in on top of you. (64)
‘Lucky it wasn’t a bomb,’ Brian said, and shrugged.
‘It’s a bomb site.’
It took a while to sink in. A bombsite was a playground, a rough place you could play in between the houses — when you could get in past the corrugated iron. I didn’t know it was the place where a bomb fell. No one told me there was a bomb under there. Until it burst in my head, and the ground went out under my feet. (69)
The feeling of the landscape as more houses begin to come down one by one (This row of houses is just where Vauxhall Park is now, and you would never know it):
It was half dark, the light was going. We looked round at the rubble of broken bricks from the house that wasn’t there any more, at the gaping hole that was full of rubbish people had thrown out. The empty space between the walls had tall weeds growing up into it. We were on our own. (87)
What it is like to lose your neighbours, your best friends:
After I while I passed his house and it was like only I knew anyone ever lived there. It was like a bomb had hit it and everyone had gone, and it was just the walls standing. It was dark and it felt dead, but I still had to get up and walk past it on my way to school and come back, past all the bomb sites where people used to live but no one knew who they were any more. (93)
I’m just going to slip this one quote in here, this specific non-rubble related quote, because I love this bit just as I would have run down always to the Thames….
Everyone told us not to go down by the Thames. Manus said the scaly fish wrapped round the lamp posts would come alive if the water splashed them, they were dredged up from the bottom, that’s why they were black. They had open eyes and fleshy mouths that dripped and glistened in the rain…
‘Dont go down to the river.’
‘All right, Mum.’
The way down was dank and slippery, and I was always down there where it opened on to a bend in the river…Everyone said don’t go, but there river pulled you. (145)
And so to end with this…the whys and the how-it-feels and the anger and the resignation, and a very creepy echo of my own thinking before reading this book that the results of urban renewal and bombing aren’t all that different:
It was like the houses had been eaten from the inside. they just had the wall of them facing the street with the sky through the windows. And then they knocked that down.
‘Like a bomb hit it,’ a man said, passing by in the street as my dad was locking the front door. My mum was beside me putting her coat on and looking up at the flattened houses — you could see through to the back of the school playground. Bits of brick wall were standing, but the houses just weren’t there any more. And they’d knocked down the first two houses on the corner of our street next to the bomb site.
‘The council,’ my dad said over his shoulder.
‘Why?’ The man paused on his way and shook his head, ‘Because the got outside loos?’
My dad shrugged, putting the keys in his pocket, ‘They want the land. Big Ben is just there.’
‘We’re being slum cleared,’ Manus said. (205)
But really, it is quite a mad reimagining of our world as it could and should be, but at the same time serves as a blueprint of how to build it. After that final scene in V for Vendetta when the world is reduced to rubble and everyone is like oh shit, what next? You want to think through what happens after the revolution if you’d prefer not to find all the bondage leather you can carry and go off into the desert to kill other people other for fuel and for fun and for vaseline and always drive really fast?
Get this book. But why did no one say?
Maybe because the authors use the introduction to emphasize the ways that this new society can be built piecemeal, can grow organically within the old (but really, can it?). Still, I struggled to hold that in mind as I continued to read given they seem wildly prescriptive at times, pulling out studies and equations and optimal numbers as guides. Ultimately, I grant them, their larger ethos consists of building for the ways that people actually use space with a view to making them (and the earth) happiest. They write:
We believe that the patterns presented in this section can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large scale patterns. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there (3).
As I say, this doesn’t stop them from thinking really big:
Wherever possible work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world; each with a population between 2 and 10 million; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries. (14)
I didn’t realise that this is actually a part 2 (and there is a part 3, The Oregon Experiment). The earlier book, A Timeless Way of Building goes more into this fascinating idea of patterns and language and how we write them across the city. So I’ll wait to delve into that, this is way too long as it is. But essentially this book breaks up the components of cities, towns, neighbourhoods and homes into numbered pieces for assembly, ranging from 1. Independent regions to 37. House cluster to 135. Tapestry of Light and Dark to 204. Secret place (YES! Every home needs a secret place) to 253. Things from your life. It’s an impressive number and thoughtfulness of patterns. So what follows are a few that struck me in particular, but there is so much richness here in thinking about different kinds of spaces, and it pulls on a variety of literature, you’ll always be finding different things.
I don’t usually like quotes from native people’s taken out of context, but this one is beautiful, and a way of thinking we have moved far too much away from:
I conceive that land belongs for us to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless members are still unborn.
–a Nigerian tribesman (37)
The one place they completely lost me in the book — the whole 1166 pages of it — was their ‘mosaic of subcultures’. The principle here:
The homogenous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character. (43)
I might agree with that, but how strange to go from that to neighborhoods divided up into subcultures and separated one from the other by belts of industry or other land uses? They write that this is so no one more powerful or wealthier subculture might be tempted to interfere with their neighbors, but this seems a deathknell to diversity and fortuitous mixings and glorious circumstance.
Funny that this emerges with their understanding of how people view property values and how they value homogeneity — things that I think this separation plays into even though such ideologies have been constructed for all of the wrong reasons and have immense negative effects. I am back to wondering why people just can’t seem to even attempt to grapple with class and race in the city. Probably something to do with class and race. Still. They grapple with a lot in this book, primarily physical space and how we live in it, and so I will allow it some exemptions given its already massive nature as utopian blueprint. But i would prefer an equality of class, race, gender, sexuality and etc to be explicit in that.
Hell, if they’re going to call for an evolution of independent regions a la Kropotkin, they can throw a little intersectionality in there.
But I do like acknowledging that ‘People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to’ (81). That neighborhoods need to be small in number, small in area, and guess what, large streets driven through their middle destroys them.
I like the section on ‘The Magic of the City’, the ways that they are ‘rich, various, fascinating.’ (59) I like that they don’t really try to define it, just let it stand as it is. Because obviously, they just have some magic.
So do railways, and I love that the Swiss have a massive network that ties in the smallest villages to the largest towns after the ‘democratic railway movement’ of the 19th Century demanded and won that they do so. This has avoided some of the centralisation seen in France and England, maintaining the viability of smaller areas. Go Switzerland.
There is a whole section on how terrible high-rises are, and how they negatively impact the mental and social well-being of the people living within them. Children start playing outside later and less-often unattended and free, people feel isolated, it’s a larger barrier to get out into the world. There can be few casual interactions, you are removed from everything and no longer can feel part of the street and the life on it. A lot of this makes sense, though it also reminded me of the Doomwatch episode where the female scientist tests the new council highrises and has a nervous breakdown. You get the feeling it’s more because she’s female.
But I loved this poem from Glasgow
The Jelly Piece Song
By Adam McNaughton
I’m a skyscraper wean, I live on the nineteenth flair,
on’ I’m no’ gaun oot tae play ony mair
For since we moved tae oor new hoose I’m wastin’ away,
‘Cos I’m gettin’ was less meal ev’ry day
Oh, ye canny fling pieces oot a twenty-story flat
Seven hundred hungry weans will testify tae that
If it’s butter, cheese or jeely, if the breid is plain or pan,
The odds against it reachin’ us is ninty-nine tae wan.
We’re wrote away tae Oxfam tae try an’ get some aid,
We’ve a’ joined thegither an’ formed a “piece” brigade,
We’re gonny march tae London tae demand oor Civil Rights,
Like “Nae mair hooses ower piece flingin’ heights.” (117-118)
Moving on to 45. ‘Necklace of community projects’, how cool is that? They write:
The local town hall will not be an honest part of the community which lives around it, unless it is itself surrounded by all kinds of small community activities and projects, generated by the people for themselves. (243)
These are political projects of opposition in part, but free and low-cost space for any number of things to begin, projects to come together, things to be created. Exactly the kind of spaces that real estate capital tends to destroy.
Pattern 47 is Health center — and they look at Peckham Health Center as a model. I’ve been meaning to look into that place for ages, and its early focus on staying healthy and thinking about it holistically rather than simply seeing health as the absence of disease.
Green streets? Yes please, many small residential roads do not need asphalt and would be perfectly lovely with paving stones or concrete treads for tires, allowing natural drainage, reducing heat trapped and use of non-renewable resources and making it feel good to be and play in. I’m in.
Lots of small public squares — wonderful. Here they make the point that the operative word is small, that it is small plazas that are most used unless there is a very large flow of people past a place. The authors have put so much time and thoughtfulness into this book, they suggest 60 feet in diameter (at least in width, long and skinny seems to work as well), bigger than that and places don’t feel used, vibrant.
The idea of outdoor rooms, both public and private — we should have them. It is true as they say that
There are very few spots along the streets of modern towns and neighborhoods where people can hang out comfortably, for hours at a time. (349)
I’d go further than that and say that such a thing would be frowned up and disapproved of in the US and UK these days, that kind of social fabric is something belonging to the past. There is to be no more enjoyment of time. Unless maybe you’re on the Mediterranean, or Aegean.
We need to end speculation and profit on housing of course. Of course. ‘Rental areas are always the first to turn to slums.’ But as importantly,
People will only be able to feel comfortable in their houses, if they can change their houses to suit themselves, add on whatever they need, rearrange the garden as they like it… (394).
This is a book that describes thick living walls that can be carved out, shaped by incoming families. Niches made and filled. Gardens created. Rooms added on. Their rule of thumb for this pattern?
Do everything possible to make the traditional form of rental impossible, indeed, illegal. Give every household its own home, with space enough for a garden. Keep the emphasis in the definition of ownership on control, not on financial ownership (395).
They want to reinstitute the inn, a warm centre where strangers can stay, congregate, meet, entertain each other. Yes, I say.
Open space and gardens are used if they are sunny (with deserts being somewhat of an exception). So put them on the south side. How hard is that?
Connect your buildings, create some density, don’t create dead space between buildings! They write ‘Isolated buildings are symptoms of a disconnected sick society’ (532), and I think they may be right. make sure they’re insulated for sound of course, but that saves on energy and space and all kinds of things. I also like the idea of lines of long thin houses facing the world on the long sides, rather than the narrow ends as they do now. That makes sense to me in terms of sunlight and view, but apparently mathematically it creates the greatest feeling of spaciousness and allows the maximum flexibility in arrangement of space. Who knew?
They go all the way down into seemingly minor details of what makes us happy and comfortable, but still so important. A wall at our backs when outside, arcades that bridge the spaces inside and outside. Building edges should be crenellated to create interest and space for people passing by, and as much care should be given to the space surrounding the buildings as to the buildings themselves– they form a whole. They notice that people tend to hug the edges of squares — if those don’t work, the square will never work. That homes should have an entrance room to make it feel as though you have truly arrived somewhere. They write:
The most impressionistic and intuitive way to describe the need for the entrance room is to say that the time of arriving, or leaving, seems to swell with respect to the minutes which precede and follow it, and that in order to be congruent with the importance of the moment, the space too must follow suit and swell with respect to the immediate inside and the immediate outside of the building. (623)
They think of what children most need from space as they grow, ending with possible private entrances and private roofs. They junk the Victorian ideals of tiny bedrooms rooms in favour of children having bed niches surrounding shared space for living rather than sleeping, small dressing rooms for that which we want to keep most private. Distance and space alone for parents. Rooms that are never perfectly square or uniform. Building materials that are easily used by people without much experience, cheap, and ecologically greener. They even have some plans and rules of thumb for building.
I read through this — skimmed often, as this is more meant to be a working book, one you flip through as you plan your own space and its building — and was immensely impressed. So much of this lies outside commonly accepted wisdom on ‘good’ development, yet intuitively so much of this feels right. I want to sit and just imagine what society might transform into if more were built this way.
It makes me want to build.
(Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns. Buildings. Construction. NY: Oxford University Press.)
More on building social spaces…
and even more…
I live in a small, rather damp and quite cold flat that for all of its smallness still manages to contain four bedrooms and a winding corridor, stairs that go up and then stairs that go down…probably because it does not contain the space to hold a table for a sit-down meal. It could be very nice and quirky, but mostly it is cold and full of someone else’s stuff. In bags mostly.
But my room is mine, and it is home.
It sits over a shop that once held two large white men who sold a variety of used and crappy things without enthusiasm as they ran poker games out of the back. Since then it has been a used-goods shop that actually made a little more effort (but there was a hell of a lot more angry arguing under my window — which may have signaled a not entirely legitimate business practice or possibly just the presence of customers , something I had never seen/heard before), and a bicycle repair shop with some serious drama amongst owners over a year or so — I miss some of them, though I do not miss their reggae booming through the floor — and some kind of garment making operation in the back. I’ve spent two non-consecutive winters with it empty, just a big ball of cold damp empty space making my room even colder.
All of it has just been sold, the new owner is a bit hostile, making rumblings about structural unsoundness, wants to move the entrance in an inexplicable move that makes no sense given this ‘lovely’ 1840s architecture, but really we think just wants to tear it down. Build some ‘luxury’ flats as cheaply as possible. Words words words and nothing in writing yet. But the end is probably coming.
This is the third time I go through this, different from losing the house my parents built, different from losing my mum’s house that we had all invested in, but still. Forced to pick up and go. Move along. Shove off. Pull yourself out, not up, by your roots or what was left of them. Take them with you in case you sprout back, like a weed. You are not wanted in this new place.
We’ll stay as long as we can, but imagine it will get both unpleasant and ugly. There is a padlock war on at the moment over the back gate.
Sitting here staring at my stuff — I have way too much stuff, I recognise this. Books mostly, I cannot stop from filling anywhere I live with books. And they are a bitch to move, thank god I don’t work for a publisher anymore carting them around to sell. Moving books makes you hate them. So I’m putting everything I might be able to give away to someone deserving (because they were awesome and should not rot here in my room) / get to the thrift shop after reading into a pile to read quick. Quickish. Thought I might post a list to inspire myself to stick with it, also to cheer myself up. I have read one already since my list decision was made.
Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kharkov
- The Black Book – Orhan Pamuk
- The Good Soldier Schweik – Yaroslav Hasek
- Lanark – Alasdair Gray
- Floating Worlds – Cecilia Holland
- The Panda’s Thumb – Gould
- We – Zamyatin
- The Very Slow Time Machine – Ian Watson
- The Octopus – Frank Norris
- Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
- What Was Lust – Catharine O’Flynn
- The Bridge of the Golden Horn – Emine Ozdamer
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — Chabon
- Semiotext SF
- Conversations with Chester Himes
- The History of the Day Before – Eco
- Southern Nights – Barry Gifford
- The Telling – Le Guin
- The 5th Inning – E. Ethelbert Miller
- Rio Quibu – Ronaldo Menendez
- Fast Forward 2
- Twenty Epics
- The Best Noir of the Century
- The Buenos Aires Affair – Manuel Puig
- The Taking of the Waters – John Shannon
- Mr Bloomfield’s Orchard – Nicholas Money
- Necropolis – catharine Arnold
- Re:Imagining Change – Reinsborough & Canning
- What Would it Mean to Win? – Turbulence
- Vic: Lambeth to Lambourn – Victor Cox
- Gravity’s Rainbow – Pynchon
- Americanah – Chimamanda
- Against Architecture – Franco La Cecla
- Revolting Subjects – Imogen Tyler
- The Housing Monster – Prole
- Session: Irish Stories – Mick Fitzgerald
- Vauxhall – Gbadamosi
- Perfect Vacuum – Lem
- Fiasco – Lem
- Return From the Stars – Lem
- Hospital of the Transfiguration – Lem
- Eden – Lem
- One To Count Cadence – Crumley
To go back to the library:
45. East London – Besant
46. Growing Smarter – ed. robert bullard
47. Palestinian Walks – Shehadeh
48. East End and Docklands – Fisher
No problem reading all of those, right? More will enter this stack I am sure — those two books my dad gave me before he died, can I get rid of those? What about the ones that I needed for my thesis and were really awesome but I probably won’t use again?
The only good thing is that I am finally going to get to use that milestone widget I believe! Now, do I read a big one to free more space or several small ones to cross shit off?
St Patrick’s day. My dad’s birthday. I am missing him so much. Him eating his big chocolate cake and my family all around and all of us in the adobe house my parents built in the desert. In my sadness I remembered this short book I found on Project Gutenberg I’ve been meaning to read forever. Cottage Building in Cob, Pise, Chalk and Clay (1919) by Clough William-Ellis. I knew it was right when I read this from the introduction by J. St Loe Strachey:
My deep desire was to find something in the earth out of which walls could be made. My ideal was a man or group of men with spades and pickaxes coming upon the land and creating the walls of a house out of what they found there. I wanted my house, my cottage in “Cloud-Cuckoo Land,” to rise like the lark from the furrows.
Or like our dream in the desert:
I never knew how deep this kind of building tradition ran here in England, or that some architects looked towards it for a brief time in the 1920s to help overcome the lack of materials and the desperate need for housing after WWI (I greatly enjoyed Strachey’s overblown rhetoric):
In this dread predicament what are we to do as a nation? What we must not do is at any rate quite clear. We must not lie down in the high road of civilisation and cry out that we are ruined or betrayed, or that the world is too hard for us, and that we must give up the task of living in houses. Whether we like it or not we have got to do something about the housing question, and we have got to do it at once, and there is an end. Translated into terms of action, this means that as we have not got enough of the old forms of material we must turn to others and learn how to house ourselves with materials such as we have not used before. Once again necessity must be the mother of invention, or rather, of invention and revival, for in anything so old and universal as the housing problem it is too late to be ambitious.
It is the object of the present book to attack part of the problem of how to build without bricks, and indeed without mortar, and equally important, as far as possible without the vast cost of transporting the heavy material of the house from one quarter of England to another.
In the spirit of the time, he began work on the fruit house above, building it of rammed earth (pisé de terre) following a manual for Australian settlers. It worked and they built a dinning hall. Built it collectively, which also reminded me of my house, and how homes can and should be built:
Everyone worked at that wall; the nursing staff, the coachman, an occasional visitor, a schoolboy, a couple of boy scouts, members of the National Reserve who were guarding a “vulnerable point” close by, and even some of the patients.
There is, of course, a fairly large distance between the two of us. He was a member of Brook’s Club, known to me only through my long-ago reading of my grandmother’s Georgette Heyer regency romance novels, he writes:
Happening to be sleeping in a bedroom at Brooks’s Club in 1916, I noticed a charming Regency bookcase full of old books. Among them was a copy of a Cyclopædia of 1819. I thought it would be amusing to see whether there was any mention of Pisé de terre. What was my astonishment to find that what I thought was my own special and peculiar hobby and discovery was treated therein at very great length and with very great ability, but treated not in the least as anything new or wonderful, but instead as “this well-known and greatly appreciated system of building, etc., etc.”
And even better:
At the end of my researches and experiments I found that Pliny has got it all in his Natural History in six lines! There is no need for more words.
“Have we not in Africa and in Spain walls of earth, known as ‘formocean’ walls? From the fact that they are moulded, rather than built, by enclosing earth within a frame of boards, constructed on either side. These walls will last for centuries, are proof against rain, wind, and fire, and are superior in solidity to any cement. Even at this day Spain still holds watch-towers that were erected by Hannibal.”—Pliny’s “Natural History,” Bk. XXXV, chapter xlviii.
It all started in Africa, of course.
Architect Clough William-Ellis (he built The Village from The Prisoner) doesn’t have quite the same gift of words or the happy enthusiasm, and as he starts in on the housing question he set my back up right away:
In a recent speech the Registrar-General said: “War does not only fill the graves, it also empties the cradles.” This is no less true of bad and inadequate housing.
Only the most reckless and thick-skinned of the poorer population will adventure on marriage and the bringing up of a family whilst the odds against decent and reasonable housing persist as at present.
It was that embarrassing period for the upper classes when open discussions of eugenics were floating around, and they blamed the poor for their own poverty with a little more directness than they do today. Much of this little book is made up of letters from around England and the colonies giving precise details of other projects — very useful indeed actually, for those experimenting, but also serving to show the casual racism of Imperial Britain:
My experience of all black labour is, that they won’t put any ‘guts’ into it. They therefore want fairly heavy rammers, which they can lift and drop, say a foot, and which will do the rest for them.
–Major Baylay, Peter Maritzburg, Natal, South Africa
This signals the larger problems of Empire and the resulting oppression, exploitation and consumption that have played such a large role in getting us into the current ecological crisis that bears such similarity to the period immediately after WWI when this was written, but I shall note them and then set them to one side.
This passage shows the effect the war had on building, and probably exactly the kind of development rules we should have today:
Formerly, he who wilfully carried bricks into Merioneth or the Cotswolds, or slates into Kent or ragstone-rubble into Middlesex, was guilty of no more than foolishness and an æsthetic solecism.
Under present conditions such action should render him liable to prosecution and conviction on some such count as “Wasting the shrunken resources of his country in a time of great scarcity, . . . in that he did wantonly transport material for building the walls of a house by rail and road from A to B when suitable and sufficient material of another sort and at no higher cost existed, and was readily accessible hard by the site at B.”
That indeed is our one chance of salvation, the existence and use of “the materials of another sort hard by the site.”
If only we had really taken that on board in the 1920s, our towns and cities would look completely different (though he makes the point, and it’s a good one, that this kind of architecture is better suited to the raw materials found in the countryside rather than an urban setting, this requires more thought).
He starts with cob — only recently I saw an article about a man who had built his home of this, but had no idea quite how far back it went or what beautiful homes you could build:
It is a mixture of shale and clay and straw, well-mixed through treading and then built in courses upon a stone foundation, lifted on and then trodden well down. It is allowed to project over the foundation, and then pared down and left to dry.
It creates places of beauty built of the very earth they sit on:
Clough-Ellis’s design has a bit of the fairytale about it — ruined a bit by the assumption that its tenants will have servants. This search for alternative building materials has not quite yet joined with a deep desire to live better on the earth:
You can imagine what it would be like inside…and no corridors or hallways. Interesting.
The versatility of it as a building material is clear, though this is rather too grand for just one person — it could be one of the future hostels like in News From Nowhere:
If well built it keeps the house warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and stays lovely and dry…living in a block house of the 1840s, I can’t tell you how much I like the sound of that.
I particularly loved this sentence:
Cob, like every other material, should have a certain say in the design of any building in which its use is intended.
And quoting an unnamed but old authority:
In Devonshire the builders of cob-wall houses like to begin their work when the birds begin to build their nests, in order that there may be time to cover in the shell of the building before winter.
There are some interesting historical touches in here as the authors collected every reference they could find:
There is this on the astonishing lateness of the use of wheeled carts, the methods of payment, and the skills passed down from generations:
Mr. Fulford, of Great Fulford, near Exeter, whose own village and estate can show as many good examples of old cob work as any place in Devon, writes as follows:
….Wheeled carts which began to creep in about the beginning of 1800, were not in general use until twenty or thirty years later. As a boy I knew a farmer who remembered the first wheeled cart coming to Dunsford. In 1838 the Rector of Bridford (the ‘Christowell’ of Blackmore’s novel) recorded the fact that in 1818 there was only one cart in the parish and it was scarcely used twice a year…In the northern part of the county the common price of stonework, including the value of three quarts of cider or beer daily, was from 22d. to 24d... Cob-making was, like many other local trades, carried on in some families from generation to generation and developed by them into an art, but apart from these specialists, practically every village mason and his labourers built as much with cob as they did with stone.
A second, the quality of the buildings:
Mr. S. Baring-Gould, in his Book of the West, writing on the subject says: “No house can be considered more warm and cosy than that built of cob, especially when thatched. It is warm in winter and cool in summer, and I have known labourers bitterly bewail their fate in being transferred from an old fifteenth or sixteenth century cob cottage into a newly-built stone edifice of the most approved style, as they said it was like going out of warm life into a cold grave.”
Another example of the comparison between old and new — and my retrospective fury with utopian planners (as unfair as that may be, yet they surely should have paid attention to these things — besides, it burns me up to thing of dockers being ‘imported’):
I can endorse from experience the comfort of these old buildings, and the affection of Devon people for them. The thick walls give all that a house should—protection from heat in summer and cold in winter. For the contrast, visit the new Garden City at Rosyth. Many of the houses are attractive, but their thin brick walls, tile and slate hanging are not suitable to the north and east coasts. Ask the opinion of the occupants of these new houses. Many of them are Devon born and bred, and imported from the dockyards of the three towns. They nearly all complain of the cold, and their views form an interesting comment on modern construction.
–Extract From a Letter to the Editor of Country Life, July 27th, 1918
A third is that Sir Walter Raleigh was born and raised in a cob house — this cob house:
Writing of Raleigh and his home, Mr. Charles Bernard says:
Sir Walter Raleigh’s House.—“He had great affection for his boyhood’s home—the old manor-house at Hayes Barton where he was born, and did his best to secure it from its then owner. ‘I will,’ he wrote, ‘most willingly give you whatsoever in your conscience you shall deme it worth . . . for ye naturall disposition I have to that place, being borne in that house, I had rather see myself there than anywhere else.’ But alas! it was not to be, and the snug and friendly Tudor homestead passed into other hands. The house at Hayes Barton was probably not newly built when Raleigh’s parents lived there, and it says much for the character of cob that the house is as good to-day as ever it was; though for all that it has, to use Mr. Eden Phillpotts’ words, ‘been patched and tinkered through the centuries,’ it ‘still endures, complete and sturdy, in harmony of old design, with unspoiled dignity from a far past.’
You can see the outside but not within, and it troubles me that Raleigh too was exiled from the home of his childhood.
Cob has one curious downside though, that honestly I wasn’t expecting:
Rats.—Where the surface rendering of cob-walls has been omitted or has been allowed to fall away, an enterprising rat will sometimes do considerable damage by his tunnelling.
A little powdered glass mixed with the lower strata of a wall will discourage any such burrowing…
This made me think immediately of an episode of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, or Terekhov’s The Rat Killer, but neither has been enough to put me off these wonderful homes.
Now, to move on to Clough William-Ellis’s second method: ‘“Pisé de terre” is merely the French for rammed earth, and rammed earth is an exceedingly good material for the building of walls.’ You built a stout form of wood and ram earth down into it and it is as strong and impervious to weather as anything.
The kind of earth is key of course — unless you’re actually building, much of this section is a bit boring — but then there is this:
The material used for the walls at Empandeni is one-third sand, one-third ant-heap, and one-third soil, all pulverised and put through a sieve.
Ant-heaps seem to provide a perfect leaven, and there is more discussion of how to keep ants out. I can attest to the importance of this.
There was a demonstration building put up at Newlands Corner, near Guildford…I am curious if it is still there unsung, I can find no mention of what happened to it. But there is a lovely article in the Spectator from 1919.
The coolest thing, though, is that you can do this with chalk, as well as build of chalk blocks.
Those who may wish to see buildings in chalk conglomerate, both old and new, would do well to visit some such typical chalk district as that lying about Andover in Wiltshire.
It should, however, be constantly borne in mind that most of the old cottages were somewhat unscientifically erected by their original jack-of-all-trades occupiers, that damp-courses and Portland cement were unknown, and that the advantages of proper ventilation and the causes of dry-rot were discoveries yet to be made.
Secondly, a large number of these cottages have been sadly neglected either recently or in the past, and they bear the disfiguring marks of their ill-treatment upon them now.
But a chalk cottage that is well found in the beginning, and that is reasonably well cared for subsequently, has nothing to fear from comparison with cottages built in the most approved manner of the more fashionable materials.
I particularly love chalk because
In its purest form chalk consists of over 95 per cent. of carbonate of lime in the form of fine granular particles held together by a calcareous cement, its organic origin being clearly traced in the remains of the minute sea creatures with which it abounds.
I am looking forward to hunting some of these old buildings down, it never occurred to me you could build with it.
At Medmenham there are cottages both old and new of hewn rock chalk, and both the Berks and Bucks banks of the Thames have many buildings to show of this beautiful material.
Gertrude Jekyll did the gardens there. And then there is:
The Deanery Garden, Sonning — another place you can no longer go, because it is owned by Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zepplin. Yet another odd resonance with my youth, and I felicitate him on his choice but damn, I’ll never get in there now.
And finally — there are buildings of adobe! They may be known unflatteringly as ‘lumps’ at this point but still, amazing find unburned clay bricks here.
Mr. Skipper of Norwich writes of the material as follows:
“Who, travelling from Norfolk to London, whether by the Ipswich or Cambridge line, has not noticed the numerous colour-washed or black (tarred) cottage, farmhouse and agricultural buildings scattered practically all along the countryside? Some of these are of studwork and plaster, some of wattle and daub, but many are built of clay made up into lumps, sun-dried, and built into the walls with a soft clay-mixture as mortar.
These made me happy, I will go find them also. Wish my dad could’ve seen them, because there is something about living in a building made of the earth itself, and this was my parent’s gift to me.
This was interesting, and read just fine, but didn’t really ask the questions I wanted it to ask, it didn’t dig deep enough. I’m not sure how much insight fiction can yield, but felt there must be more. The first chapter is titled ‘Race as Metaphor’, and is the argument of the book:
This book will argue that, on the contrary, a close study of the fiction of novelists of the nineteenth century, and a close attention in particular to the use of metaphor in that fiction, reveals that, since the gender positioning of British women writers required them to negotiate an association with ‘inferior races,’ their feminist impulses to question gender hierarchies often provoked an interrogation of race hierarchies. To say this is not to contend, with the optimistic idealism of the feminism of an earlier era, that an awareness of gender oppression has historically given women an easy, automatic comprehension of oppression on the basis of race or class…An attention to their fiction reveals that their gender (and in some cases, class) positioning produced a complex and ambivalent relation to the ideology of imperialist domination, rather than an easy and straightforward one. It was precisely the gender positioning of these women writers in British society, in combination with their feminist impulses and their use of race as a metaphor, that provoked and enabled an (albeit partial) questioning of British imperialism (11).
So for me this study becomes muddied between what in an author’s work is intentional, what reflects their unconscious, and where that comes from. I was reading and kept reacting as a writer, knowing sometimes metaphors are very deliberate but just as often they are not. Other times I reacted as a reader, someone who loves Jane Eyre — and though I know how problematic it is, I still didn’t buy all of these critiques — and really didn’t like Wuthering Heights when I read it so many years ago. Though this might have convinced me to read it again, and better understand why I identified with Heathcliff and despised Catherine with every ounce of me. This looks at George Eliot’s and Daniel Deronda as well, which I am curious about now. But they are so damn long.
So just to pull out a few things I found interesting. In the opening chapter drawing the literary links made between women and slaves or colonised populations, she looks at Anthony Trollope’s ‘Miss Sarah Jack of Spanish Town, Jamaica’ and Dickens Mystery of Edwin Drood and writes:
In both narratives, also, the English house or home has a greater than literal status. The image of the house at once evokes the literal dwelling, the lineage of the family that inhabits it (as in the phrase ‘the house of Cumming’), and the entire Anglo-Saxon race. The domestic space of the home is at once an individual domicile and suggestive of the domestic space in a larger sense, the domestic space of England. In neither narrative is the space of domesticity separate from the concerns of imperialism. The Trollope text, in particular, strongly suggest that what happens in the home is both parallel to and necessary for the construction of empire. (7)
I feel this connection between home and empire — and white men the master of both — is so important.
I also loved reading about the Brontë sisters, the imaginary and colonial worlds they created, how they read chapters to each other as they were writing them. I suppose this is common knowledge amongst English majors, but I had no idea.
I really liked this quote from Thomas McLaughlin’s “‘Figurative Language’ in Critical Terms for Literary Study”, and want to think more about it in terms of what we can learn from literature about these systems of thought, often opaque to those who use them:
‘If figures of speech rely on an accepted system of thought, they also reveal to the critical reader that it is a system, that it is not a simple reflection of reality…Figures of speech, especially spectacular ones, are potential weaknesses in the system, places where the workings are visible, places that remind us that our truths are not self-evident.
There is also a quite extraordinary quote from George Eliot, whose Middlemarch I read too long ago to remember it very well at all. The quote is on race and submission — which figure prominently in this discussion — and interestingly, the art of writing itself and crafting a story. It comes from Notes on “The Spanish Gypsy.”
A tragedy has not to expound why the individual must give way to the general; it has to show that it is compelled to give way; the tragedy consisting in the struggle involved, and often in the entirely calamitous issue in spite of a grand submission. Silva presents the tragedy of entire rebellion; Fedalma of a grand submission, which is rendered vain by the effects of Silva’s rebellion. Zarca, the struggle for a great end, rendered vain by the surrounding conditions of life.
Now, what is the fact about our individual lots? A woman, say, finds herself on the earth with an inherited organization; she may be lame, she may inherit a disease,  or what is tantamount to a disease; she may be a negress, or have other marks of race repulsive in the community where she is born, etc. One may go on for a long while without reaching the limits of the commonest inherited misfortunes. It is almost a mockery to say to such human beings, “Seek your own happiness.” The utmost approach to well-being that can be made in such a case is through large resignation and acceptance of the inevitable, with as much effort to overcome any disadvantage as good sense will show to be attended with a likelihood of success. Any one may say, that is the dictate of mere rational reflection. But calm can, in hardly any human organism, be attained by rational reflection. Happily, we are not left to that. Love, pity, constituting sympathy, and generous joy with regard to the lot of our fellow-men comes in—has been growing since the beginning—enormously enhanced by wider vision of results, by an imagination actively interested in the lot of mankind generally; and these feelings become piety—i.e., loving, willing submission and heroic Promethean effort towards high possibilities, which may result from our individual life.
Sometimes I marvel at just how deep racism goes, that easy assumption of white privilege, even recognising the oppression of gender.
There was one other interesting historical tidbit that stood out:
In an intriguing historical parallel, the social standards that mandated the voluminous clothing of mid-Victorian women also provided a significant stimulus to the textile trade: eighteenth-century style was revived in the enormous hoop skirts and numerous petticoats that came into fashion in the early 1850s, reaching their largest circumference in 1860, the year in which The Mill and the Floss was published. Eliot’s mockery of earlier women’s styles also involving colossal quantities of cloth is part of her quiet resistance to the commercial economy of 1860 (152).
Hm. I’m not so convinced this is part of a quiet resistance but maybe. Still, Meyer goes on to say ‘The novel seems to be facing the existing social organization as one might face the fact of mortality: it is an unchangeable but regrettable fact, and the mature thing to do is to accommodate it’ (156).
God I hate accommodation. Good thing the struggle has moved on.
Becky Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven is a marvelously well researched and incredibly detailed look at the lives of people in South Gate, one which challenges a number of common assumptions about the suburbs while providing evidence for others.
I love how it details the ways that ideas and meanings of home and community were constructed, and their change over time. My Blue Heaven‘s principal argument is that from the 1920s through WWII, home was primarily a survival strategy for the working class. They bought affordable lots and built homes as and when they could, using extensive yards to grow food, thus provisioning themselves against want outside of the cash economy. At this time, residents felt that lower taxes were more important than school segregation for example, highlighting the precariousness of their living situation. This shifted after World War II, as South Gate came to resemble other suburbs such as Lakewood in its infrastructure and tract housing, and as owner salaries rose and situations improved, their homes became principally investments and marks of status. This led to a very strong feeling around taxes. Thus their bitter struggle against school integration, and defensive posture around residential integration to protect home values.
It is an interesting thing to think about, that poverty should make people less inclined to active racism when there were incentives to the contrary. Yet racism was no less virulent for communities made up of so many Southern migrants:
In 1925, the local booster-editor asserted “Home Gardens is a town of, by and for workingmen — and we want hundreds more of them. The only restrictions are racial — the white race only may own property here,” 
But this tension isn’t explored as much as I wished it to be, although the racial tensions post WWII are quite well documented. This is also true of the shift in how individuals saw taxes, and the foundations of Prop 13, and the today’s anti-tax conservatism. It is a fundamental dynamic in American politics, and this is some of the best evidence I’ve seen in terms of understanding how American politics has developed, both in the origins of strong-held opinions on the importance of low taxes:
When boom hit bust in the 1930s, their assumptions about the role of individuals and government began to shift. As both the politics of development and education revealed, residents began with the unspoken assumption that the burden of financing municipal services-from streets to schools-should fall on the backs of individual property owners, including the humble working-class home owner. Embracing an ethos of privatism, they believed property ownership conferred the responsibility of municipal stewardship. All property owners- regardless of wealth-became urban stewards. It was thus up to individuals, not government more broadly, to pay for services. In a poorer suburb like South Gate, residents simply chose to limit these services, to create a modest infrastructure that they could reasonably afford. There was no assumption that urban services were a right, and that they should be financed through a redistributive system of taxation. This reflected their deeply held ideals of individualism, self- help, hard work, plain-folk Americanism’ and anticommunism, an outlook asserting that urban fiscal policy ought to be based on a private approach rather than a collective one.
and then the ways in which discussions around taxes have also become coded in terms of race through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s
In numerous public statements, “taxes” became a coded reference to civil rights and programs for minorities, an excellent local example of the national trend that saw an overlapping of race and taxes as political issues. “While you work and sweat to protect your earnings and property, the politicians scheme with their minority supporters to put you in a hopeless position to protect yourself against raids of everything you work for…. Today CORE, NAACP, COPE  and their like are the only participants who pressure our legislators for the kind of government we have now, while today’s citizen is a drone, quite impotent in local affairs because he stays home, and our taxes continue to go up, up and up,”
It is extraordinary to watch a working class community shift from supporters of EPIC and the New Deal, to supporters of conservative Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. But through this historical view it finally makes some kind of sense…it also contains a lot of more ethnographic and quite fascinating information on daily life, entertainment, and particularly labor. Nicolaides argues that home became the center of people’s lives rather than their work, and explores some of its implications for labor.
Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in any of these topics, and a beautiful example of an in depth historical view of a single suburb that manages to give insight into key historical forces happening all over the country.
[Nicolaides, Becky M. (2002) My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]