Category Archives: Writing cities

Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 3)

A last few things beyond Burnley, getting more to where history, narrative, memory, theory mesh in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. Where she pulls off all that she promised in her opening and more. Where she cracks open the contradictions. This is rather more full of fragments I loved, most with their headings to give more a sense of the flow, than any sustained narrative. She does it so much better and you should just go read it immediately. But I still feel like sharing the fragments.

I open it a little out of order maybe, but with one of my favourite quote about the Labour Party, a biting quote, one to relish in this period when I feel that once more the betrayal stings fairly sharp and new.

I grew up in the 1950s, the place and time now located as the first scene of Labour’s failure to grasp the political consciousness of its constituency and its eschewal of socialism in favour of welfare philanthropism. But the left had failed with my mother long before the 1950s. (7-8)

Labour should read more I think.

The Weaver’s Daughter

I cry now over accounts of childhoods like this,

she writes

weeping furtively over the reports of nineteenth-century commissions of inquiry into child labour, abandoning myself to the luxuriance of grief in libraries, tears staining the pages where Mayhew’s little watercress girl tells her story. The lesson was, of course, that I must never, ever, cry for myself, for I was a lucky little girl: my tears should be for all the strong, brave women who gave me life. This story, which embodied fierce resentment against the unfairness of things, was carried through seventy years and three generations, and all of them, all the good women, dissolved into the figure of my mother, who was, as she told us, a good mother. (30)

Continue reading Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 3)

Steedman’s Stories: On Weaving and Fashion and Burnley (Pt 2)

I loved the storytelling as much as the theory-making in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, and to tell the truth the two seem to effortlessly intertwine. I imagine the writing of it was far from effortless, of course, and as I said in part 1 on this wonderful book, this is a tour de force that few could accomplish so well. It is also a most moving glimpse into the past lives of the women who lived just a few miles from where I sit writing now. She writes:

My mother’s story was told to me early on, in bits and pieces throughout the fifties, and it wasn’t delivered to entertain, like my father’s much later stories were, but rather to teach me lessons. There was a child, an eleven-year-old from a farm seven miles south of Coventry, sent off to be a maid-of-all-work in a parsonage in Burnley. She had her tin trunk, and she cried, waiting on the platform with her family seeing her off, for the through train to Manchester. They’d sent her fare, the people in Burnley; ‘But think how she felt, such a little girl, she was only eleven, with nothing but her little tin box. Oh, she did cry.’ (30)

The eleven-year-old who cried on Coventry station hated being a servant. She got out as soon as she could and found work in the weaving sheds – ‘she was a good weaver; six looms under her by the time she was sixteen’ – married, produced nine children, eight of whom emigrated to the cotton mills of Massachusetts before the First World War, managed, ‘never went before the Guardians’. 2 It was much, much later that I learned from One Hand Tied Behind Us that four was the usual number of looms in Lancashire weaving towns. 3 Burnley weavers were badly organized over the question of loom supervision, and my great-grandmother had six not because she was a good weaver, but because she was exploited. (31)

Continue reading Steedman’s Stories: On Weaving and Fashion and Burnley (Pt 2)

Wetheral Covid Christmas

We always go home to Arizona for Christmas, eat all the wonderful things my mother and I (but mostly my mother) bake, enjoy sun and home and Mexican food and friends and family. This year my brother Dan married the most lovely Jessica the day after Christmas. I have two nieces I have not met yet, nephews I no longer know, yet we could not see family of any kind, spend any time at all with friends or strangers. I feel so very lucky that the rules, as far as they can be understood, allowed us some time in self-catering accommodation in Cumbria, where we could actually go for lovely walks and see things and be outside. Alone, but outside. We cannot tell you anything of pubs or food. So strange. Yet I feel lucky we could afford to go, we had time from work, we could stay safe.

We ended up in Wetheral, which was beautiful. There is an extensive early description of it in The Stranger’s Grave, published anonymously in 1823 but finally attributed with some confidence to Thomas de Quincey. It seems fairly convincing he lived here briefly with his brother Richard de Quincey in 1814-5, if this is the correct de Quincy who bought Eden Croft and lived there for a few years. This very house just opposite the church:

The stranger stays at the Wheel, which must be based on what was the Fish Inn. You can see the building at the end of the road there. Closed in 1906 due to ‘ill conduct, drunkenness and bad situation concealed by the churchyard’, it was repurposed as a residence called the Ferry Hill House in 1907 (94). I read about a third of it. I rather loved the awkward framing of it as submitted manuscript, and this final paragraph of the ‘advertisement’ that tells of its sexegenarian author in particular:

…old age has at length damped his ardour for travelling, by depriving him of sufficient strength of body to endure its fatigues. But his mind is still active. If, therefore, the following specimen of his discoveries be favourably received by the public, he will not fail, provided life be spared to him, to lay others, from time to time, before it. If otherwise, his papers shall be committed to the flames and he and they shall perish together, leaving no trace behind them that they ever existed.
– London, Oct. 1823.

I think they were better off left to the flames. So long as the stranger remains mysterious it remains interesting, but I was reminded just how little I care for de Quincey once the annoying incestuous love affair between two horribly spoiled children really gets going. I stopped reading, a rare thing for me but almost 200 more pages of such nonsense seemed too great a sacrifice.

Still, there is a brilliant description of the village in the early 1800s, before the railway, the arrival of Carlisle’s industrial magnates and their large mansions, the building of Corby Castle’s grand folly down the hillside. I quote at length, unable to do much better.

THERE are few situations, even in the romantic county of Cumberland, more strikingly picturesque and beautiful than that in which the village of Wetheral stands. It is built along the side of a hill, from the summit of which a fine and extensive prospect of hill and valley, wood and water, meets the eye; but being itself somewhat beneath the ridge, he who looks forth from amidst its white-washed and unassuming cottages, finds his gaze is compressed within much narrower limits. At the base of this hill, along a channel which seems as if it had been formed by some sudden convulsion of nature, runs the river Eden; not smoothly and quietly like the rivers of the south, but chafing and roaring from pool to pool, or dashing over the broken ledges of rock, which at innumerable intervals arise to interrupt its progress. The bank upon which Wetheral hangs, is comparatively bare of foliage. Somewhat higher up the stream, indeed, the woods thicken on this side as well as on the other; but it is upon the opposite bank, overshadowed with the tall trees for which the grounds of Corby Castle are remarkable, that the eye of the spectator is irresistibly enchained.

The bank upon which Corby Castle stands, rises, like that of Wetheral, to a considerable height above the stream. Here art and nature seem to have done their · utmost to produce a scene of unrivalled beauty, and it must be confessed that they have not laboured in vain. The whole face of the hill is covered with the most luxuriant wood, through which are cut narrow winding footpaths,
intercepted ever and anon by some tall red rock, or ending in the. mouth of a cave hewn out in the side of the cliff…

Like other mountain streams, the river Eden is winding in its course. At this place the curve is such as to place the lowermost cottages of Wetheral within a perfect amphitheatre of hills; the high banks closing in both to the right and left, so rapidly as to reduce the whole compass of the prospect within the space of perhaps a mile in length, and little more than a bowshot in breadth. But to the real lover of nature, a scene like this can hardly be too confined.

We stayed at Geltsdale, from long after de Quincey’s time there. Originally called Wansdales, it was built for Christopher Ling, corn merchant and one-time mayor of Carlisle. The house was requisitioned by the RAF in WWII and briefly housed a duplicate communications centre for the delivery of aircraft from maintenance to operational units. Before the end of the war, this work was transferred elsewhere and the house became a hostel for the Women’s Land Army. There are some lovely pictures from this time, and how some lives remained intertwined with those in the village. After the war, it was briefly the County Council orphanage, then West Cumberland Farmers took over, and then private developers to return it to a private residence. We were left the local history of Wetheral and Great Corby by Perriam and Ramshaw — all page numbers here reference quotes from this. My favourite might just have been the one below:

‘The emininent architectural historian, Howard Colvin (later knighted) was on a visit to Wetheral about 1965 when he noticed amongst the rubble of the monuments cleared from the churchyard the sculptured arm of an early cross. Anglo-Saxon lettering was inscribed on the reverse of the stone. He realised the importance of the find but for some reason took it back to Oxford and did not make the find generally known. (5)

I think there are other words for taking things home with you without saying anything about it. I found a little more about the Roman history of the area but nothing much further about the Anglo-Saxon. There is a well here, St Cuthbert’s well, whose sign informs you that

According to legend, St Cuthbert’s Well was built long before Norman times when Wetheral Priory was founded. The exact date is not known, but St Cuthbert is thought to have visited Carlisle in 683 and 687.

The most extensive information comes from just after the Norman conquest, but I might add that to another post. The village, though, is lovely as is Great Corby across the viaduct, which is splendid. You can walk alongside it on a walkway that once required a toll.

With a splendid view along the Eden and down over the mill.

And a few more views from these frosty frosty days.

Salford in Robert Roberts ‘The Classic Slum’

I so enjoyed The Classic Slum, wish very much I could have met Robert Roberts. Funny that I remember buying this book in North Hollywood in my favourite used bookshop, the Iliad. Over a decade ago. I was curious about just how LA compared, those far away days now of tenant organising filled with rats and roaches and chinches and slumlords and lead poisoning and amazing amazing people still in my heart. Maybe I didn’t actually want to think more about slums just then. Never got around to reading it, never expected I might work in Salford, come to know it so well. Though it is not the Salford that Roberts described of course, not the Salford of the Lowry paintings I love so much. We have left that behind.

I left all my books behind there too, in LA, left almost everything. I only occasionally miss any of it, maybe simply because I have managed to collect new shelves upon shelves piles upon piles of books. I missed this though. Had to order it again, another copy of the Classic Slum, an orange binding rather than blue this time. He writes as his place of beginning:

This is a book made much from talk, the talk first of men and women, fifty or more years ago, of ideas and views repeated in family, street, factory and shop, and borne in mind with intent! The corner shop, my first home, was a perfect spot for young intelligence to eavesdrop on life. Here, back and forth across the counters, slide the comedy, tragedy, hopes, fears and fancies of a whole community: here was market place and village well combined… Then, and for long afterwards, I mixed with people, adult in Edwardian and Georgian days, who had lived out their time in ghettos spawned by the industrial revolution. Many among them, shrewd and thoughtful, could not only recapitulate experience, they knew how to assess its value in relation to their lives. Men discussed, argued, reminisced: I listened and remembered. To them all, many long gone now, I am indeed greatful for what they taught. (9)

I love this opening so much.

Roberts was born in Salford, grew up in these streets ‘behind a general shop in an area which, sixty years before, Frederick Engels had called the ‘classic slum’, I grew up in perhaps an ideal position for viewing the english proletarian caste system in its late flower’. (13)

I keep his chapters, so much thought goes into organising thoughts, ideas, memory. Yet I realise as a reader I often don’t even notice, I will do better. This is, as always, a hodge podge of what I found most interesting in excruciating detail. Part 1.

Class Structure

We start with class, and quoting Engels himself? From several decades before Roberts’ birth.

All Salford is built in courts or narrow lanes, so narrow, that they remind me of the narrowest I have ever seen, the little lanes of Genoa. The average construction of Salford is in this respect much worse than that of Manchester, and so, too, in respect to cleanliness. If, in Manchester, the police, from time to time, every six or ten years, makes a raid upon the working-people’s districts, closes the worst dwellings, and causes the filthiest spots in these Augean stables to be cleansed, in Salford it seems to have done absolutely nothing.

This is saying a lot if you’ve read all that he says about Manchester.

I am always fascinated by understandings of boundaries, communities, where a neighbourhood ends and another begins. Especially here in the UK and Europe where a weight of history sits so much more heavily on the urban form and how people understand their place within it and how that connects to the rest of the world. Roberts writes:

Every industrial city, of course, folds within itself a clutter of loosely defined overlapping ‘villages’. Those in the Great Britain of seventy years ago were almosy self-contained communities. Our own consisted of some thirty streets and alleys locked along the north and south by two railway systems a furlough apart. About twice that distance to the east lay another slum which turned on its farther side into a land of bonded warehouses and the city proper. West of us, well beyond teh tramlines, lay the middle classes, bay-windowed and begardened. We knew them not. (16)

And ah the details, the familiar environmental justice issues raised by the presence of industry and pollution, both industrial and animal.

Over one quarter of a mile industry stood represented by a dying brickworks and an iron foundry. Several gasholders on the south side polluted the air, sometimes for days together. Little would grow; even the valiant aspidistra pined.* We possessed besides two coal yards, a corn store, a cattle wharf and perhaps as closed an urban society as any in Europe.

In our community, as in every other of its kind, each street* had the usual social rating; one side or one end of that street might be classed higher than another. Weekly rents varied from 2s 6d for the back-to-back to 4s 6d for a ‘two up and two down’. End houses often had special status. Every family, too, had a tacit ranking, and even individual members within it… (17)

The footnotes, as they so often are, are brilliant. On aspidistras

*To encourage the Adam in us our local park sold ‘garden soil’ at a penny a bucket. At home, expending twopence, we once trried a window box ‘for flowers’ in the back yard. A few blooms struggled up then collapsed. ‘So!’ said my mother, loud in her husband’s hearing, ‘you can raise a child, it seems, on coal gas, but it does for geraniums!’

And footnote 2 on land ownership — curious to me though why ownership should be relegated to a footnote, surely it is part of the crux of the matter? And to all that happened later.

*The railway company which owned most of our streets kept its houses in a moderate state of disrepair. Two workmen haunted the properties, a crabby joiner and, trailing behind him with the handcart, his mate, a tall, frail, consumptive. This pair were known to the neighbourhood unkndly as ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Marley’s Ghost’. (17)

I love the workmen. I confess, though, I really struggle to understand the depths of self-imposed hierarchy that I have seen described elsewhere — Morrison in Tales of Mean Streets writing about East London most memorably, but that is not the only place. It is such an ugly head to rear up, and it saddens my heart.

The real social divide existed between those who, in earning daily bread, dirtied hands and face and those who did not. …

These division could be marked in many public houses, where workers other than craftsman would be frozen or flatly ordered out of those rooms in which journeymen foregathered. Each part of the tavern had its status rating; indeed, ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ stood as a common slur. (19)

I might start using ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ though, I rather like the phrase when mis-applied. These distinctions of skill, wage and dress were as present among women. Carolyn Steedman writes of fashion and class with such heart-breaking eloquence, but here it is in different form.

Many women and girls in the district worked in some branch of the textile industry. Of these, we accepted weavers as ‘top’ in their class, followed by winders and drawers-in. Then came spinners. They lacked standing on several counts: first, the trade contained a strong Irish Catholic element, and wages generally were lower than in other sections. Again, because of the heat and slippery floors, women worked barefoot, dressed in little more than calico shifts. These garments, the respectable believed, induced in female spinners a certain moral carelessness. … Clogs and shawls were, of course, standard wear for all. … So clearly, in fact, did headwear denote class that, in Glasgow, separate clubs existed for ‘hat’ girls and ‘shawl’ girls. (20)

Still from short film: Mitchell and Kenyon 20: Howarth’s Egerton Mill, Orsdall Lane, Salford, 1900
produced by Mitchell and Kenyon (London, England: British Film Institute, 1900

Along with my ubiquitous people at the bottom of every hierarchy. I suppose the move to America rather than Manchester allowed us to be hat girls. Another footnote returns us to Engels on the Irish question:

Engels pointed out how, in the 1840s, the million or more britalized Irish immigrants pouring into English slums were depressing native social and economical standards. Little integration, however, seems to have followed upon the influx. Even up to the outbreak of the first world war differences in race, religion, culture and status kept English and Irish apart. The Irish poor, already of course deeply deferential to the Church, remained, in sobriety, even more than their English counterparts, respectful to the point of obsequiousness to any they considered their social superiors. (23)

In sobriety might be the key phrase? Still, this saddens me of course, surely there was some smouldering rebellion? It will not be found in these pages, nor anywhere in these streets. At least not at this time he describes. There are some fantastic descriptions of Marxists though.

The class struggle, as manual wokers in general knew it, was apolitical and had place entirely within their own society. They looked upon it not in any way as a war against the employers but as a perpetual series of engagements in the battle of life itself. … Marxist ‘ranters’ from the Hall who paid fleeting visits to our streets and insisted that we, the proletariat, stood locked in titanic struggle with some wicked master class. We were battling, they told us (from a vinegar barrel borrowed from our corner shop), to cast off our chains and win a whole world. Most people passed by; a few stood to listen, but not for long; the problems of the ‘proletariat’, they felt, had little to do with them.

Before 1914 the great majority in the lower working classes were ignorant of Socialist doctrine in any form, whether ‘Christian’ or Marxist. (28)

There is sadly no footnote about the Hall from whence these ranters emerge. But there is a tragedy of a message of hope and fury not coming through.

Meanwhile, though the millenium for a socialist few might seem just around the corner, many gave up struggling. The suicide rate among us remained pretty high. (29)

Possessions

This chapter resonated so brilliantly with so much I have been reading — climate change, sustainability, the need for us (the Western, more wealthy us who have lots of stuff now) to give up a great deal of our things, our consumption and desire to possess. But also with the more abstract relationality of things, object oriented ontology and etc. My own childhood where possessions were so few and so precious.

The social standing of every person within the community was constantly affected by material pressures, some of the slightest, and the struggle for the acquisition and display of objects seened fiercer than any known in Britain now for cars, boats or similar prestige symbols. For many of the lowest group the spectre of destitution stood close; any new possession helped to stifle fear.

To stifle fear. What a shiver. I know that is part of the appeal of buying new things for me, even with destitution left far behind.

One scrimped and saved to get a new piece of oilcloth, a rag rug, the day at Southport, a pair of framed pictures — ‘Her First Singing Lesson’ perhaps, with ‘Her First Dancing Lesson’. Pictures, in a society far from wholly literate, were especially esteemed.(32)

A list of material possessions that seem, as he says even from his time of writing, ‘pathetically modest’. My grandparents had some of these pictures.

I sit in such comfort. Nothing like this, though the damp of this old Victorian row house gives me some inkling of how terrible and cold cold cold damp and cold it might have been.

In general slum life was far from being the jolly hive of communal activity that some romantics have claimed. They forget, perhaps, or never knew of the dirt that hung over all, of the rubbish that lay for months in the back alleys, of the ‘entries’ or ginnels with open middens where starving cats and dogs roamed or died and lay for weeks unmoved. They did not know those houses that stank so badly through an open doorway that one stepped off the pavement to pass them by. That people stayed scrupulously clean in such surroundings–and many did–only proves the tenacity of the human spirit. (49)

Governors, pastors and masters

Ah, the patriarchy.

Round parents the houshold revolved, and little could be done without their approval. Espoecially was paternal consent needed. In compensation, perhaps, for the slights of the outside world, a labourer often played king at home. (50)

Another kind of hierarchy, male from top to bottom.

He notes the preference of ‘vagrants’ (when did we shift terminology from vagrant to homeless?) for prison rather than the workhouse, and unsurprisingly that the numbers of those sent to prison were in proportion to those unemployed

The Common Scene

This then, forms the common scene of 1900-1910. It is so grim, from every angle. The ‘1906 Board of Trade figures showed half the women in industrial Britain earned under 10s for a week’s work of seldom less than fifty-four hours’ (76). A world of endless work and its reward only enough for bare life. Charity stepping insultingly into the void, and so ‘The Ladies’ Health Society’ goes along visiting women together with the ‘Sanitary Society’ to sell carbolic soap and powder. Women who often wrote and described all they saw like Margaret Harkness and Maud Pember Reeves, and they are valuable records I suppose, but leave a bad taste. They would not write this way.

So our neighbours, and many like them, in this ‘thrice happy first decade’ fought on grimly, certainly not to rise, but to stave off that dreaded descent into the social and economic depths. Under the common bustle crouched fear. In children — fear of parents, teachers, the Church, the police, and authority of any sort; in adults — fear of petty chargehands, foremen, managers and employers of labour. Men harboured a dread of sickness, debt, loss of status, above all, of losing a job, which could bring all other evils fast in train. (88)

And despite all of this workers still strike. To have strikes shattered by troops recently returned from fighting in Egypt and elsewhere. For Empire. How far removed this feels from Empire and yet it is at its heart.

Food, Drink and Physic

To return back to this role of Empire, yet another brilliant footnote

Some families who dealt with us had male members (all unskilled workers) who had soldiered in the outposts of empire during the late ninteenth century and after. Their experience seemed to have gained them litle beyond a contempt for lesser breeds, a love of family discipline and passion for hot pickles. (105)

Not much of physic though, and a very different attitude towards death.

Knocks, bruises, ailments one accepted stoically enough. Death, after all, called often. Children made a common habit of visiting a house wgere someone had just passed away to ask reverently to view the body, a request that was never refused. one friend of my youth boasted of having seen thirty-seven corpses over a wide area. (124)

So much unrelenting poverty. But all on the cusp of a change.

Roberts, Robert ([1971] 1990) The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. London: Penguin

Urban island futures: Aves In the Fiction of Buckell

I enjoyed Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever. I’m coming to terms with the fact that in these pandemic days of ever growing workload, it’s fine that really I can only read fiction.

This is a solid thriller. I loved the glimpses of history of a part of the world I know too little about and the snarkiness about US dominance and white supremacy. Above all, though, I enjoyed its setting in the world almost certainly extisting in our very near future brought into being by global warming. The porous rock on which Miami is built having permitted its permament flooding — you can read something like Extreme Cities by Ashley Dawson for more about this certain future. The hurricanes coming faster and stronger, the swallowing of islands, the flooding of cities. All of those impacts easier to chart, the shifts in geopolitics more difficult to predict.

I quite loved the book’s description of a possible urban future lashed to the rock of La Isla de Aves. This is what the island looks like now:

Isla De Aves photo by Veronidae (CC License) https://thedominican.net/2016/08/claim-to-bird-island.html

There is a nice description of stumbling across the empty sandbar and the startling military installation while sailing in the St Kitts & Nevis Observer, along with some of its history. There is another web page titled: ‘Isla Avis: Don’t Run Into this Island!’ What I loved from Buckell was this imagining of a future city here in such an improbable place, born of a bid for independance from Venezuela, the uniting of the Caribbean and the development of a free trade zone.

A horizontal blotch of a city on stilts, surrounded by more sturdy platforms rising out of the sea on rusted, rotund legs. Some of them oil platforms, moved to create more open space where the sand no longer existed. But later, the floating piers and homes systems had been added to Aves that were commonly found in more and more coastal cities throughout the world.

No one on Aves ever planned to try and keep the roaring seas back. It was a futile gesture. Instead they used the tp of the island peeking up from its submarine mountain range as a base to bolt everything to.

Even the sand around Aves’s pylons was a fiction. The (155) original Aves Island had long since been swallowed by rising seas. The sand had been imported to continue the fiction that Aves Island was still a thing. A physical spit of something that people could continue to threaten a war over, countersue about in courts, and generally get upset about or use.

Twenty thousand people lived out here, naked to the ocean’s power, clinging on stilts to what lay beneath. (156)

Well imagined. Even without such a future, it is rather a fascinating place — a source of guano to the US, Danes hunting eggs, its geographies and very definitions fought over by Venezuela and Dominica, potentially involving the mobilization of pregnant women to bear Venezuelan citizens solidifying this claim to Venezuelan soil. Definitely a thesis in that. This is such a twist on how this past might shape an all-too-near future.

Buckell, Tobias (2014) Hurricane Fever. Del Rey.

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

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The City As A Work of Art

Seeing the city as a work of art is a curious way to view a city, I found it an interesting exercise. This book represents quite a masterful look at London, Paris and Vienna, with a splendid raft of photographs, illustrations and quotations. To the greater or lesser extent that I know them, they are all cities that I love. Perhaps the best way to document just how Olsen thinks of cities here is to give a view of the table of contents – you can see that he gets through quite a lot.

THE CITY AS LUXURY
1 Urban Virtue and Urban Beauty
THE CITY AS MONUMENT
2 The Monumental Impulse
3 The Remaking of London The Vision of Splendor, 1811-1825 • Disillusion and Disgust, 1825-1837 • The Victorian Alternative
4 The New Paris Paris before Haussmann • Paris Remade, 1852-1870 • Paris after Haussmann, 1870-1914
5 The Vienna of Franz Joseph Vienna in 1857 • The Creation of the Ringstrasse
6 The Process of Urban Embellishment
THE CITY AS HOME
7 The Building and the Dwelling: The Family and the Individual • London • Paris Vienna
8 Inside the Dwelling: The Public and the Private • The London House • The Paris Flat • The Viennese Wohnung
9 Social Geography The Town as a Map of Society • London • Paris • Vienna
10 Villa Suburbia London • Paris • Vienna
11 Working-Class Housing: Scarcity, Abundance, and Domestic Values
THE CITY AS PLAYGROUND
12 London: Hidden Pleasures
13 Paris: The Garden and the Street
14 Vienna: Display and Self-Representation
THE CITY AS DOCUMENT
15 Architecture as Historical Evidence
16 The Beautiful: In Search of a Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic • London • Paris • Vienna
17 Architecture as Language: Representation and Instruction
18 The City as the Embodiment of History

Exploring the City as Art also, of course, means really as ‘high art’. I find that just a little tiresome, as I do of this ongoing debate that tires me of cities as good or bad, beautiful or ugly — there are a number of binary debates rehearsed in here. But useful to give his summary here:

The city as a work of art? Surely not. The city as wasteland, perhaps, or as battleground, or jungle. The city as manifestation of all that is rotten in society, festering wound in the body politic, foretaste of hell in which brute force tramples the weak underfoot, corruption feeds on innocence, gluttony mocks hunger, unprotected virtue submits to triumphant vice. From Juvenal to Cobbett, from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, poets and moralists, publicists and philosophers have subjected the city to righteous abuse. In more measured language, the modern scholar approaches urbanization as a pathologist tracing the course of a disease. Defenders of the city usually justify their position on economic rather than aesthetic grounds. They see the city as infrastructure, to be judged by the efficiency with which it facilitates the creation and distribution of wealth. To both attackers and defenders, the city is the product of vast, anonymous forces, not an individual creation. Any beauty it might possess would be incidental to its real nature, any visible structure one imposed by historical necessity rather than artistic intent.

Yet with rare exceptions, such as Ireland before the Viking invasions, the civilizations of the past have regarded cities as neither shameful nor inevitable, but as deliberate creations, worth making sacrifices to build, maintain, and embellish. (3)

I do quite love the idea of city as deliberate creation — what after all is the point of urban planning if not that (though I know I know it is so rarely that…) In the end I find viewing London-Paris-Vienna through the eyes of Art and Architectural History (and this very specific view of Art and Architectural History capitalised) enriches other views (as annoyed as I sometimes became reading it, being a great lover of bottom-up histories rather than this necessarily top down one, which as Olsen says by necessity excludes industrial cities such as Sheffield given such a focus on ART and ARCHITECTURE, but aside from all my annoyance still to some degree a useful exercise…). He writes of London:

Here both individual and national extravagance were at worst forgivable, at best laudable. Whether such extravagance took the form of an afternoon spent purchasing frivolities in Bond Street or the erection of pinnacled monuments along the Embankment, London offered possibilities of conspicuous self-indulgence and significant display that would have been out of place in an industrial city. To grasp the meaning of such self-indulgence, such display, the techniques of the economic historian are useless, those of the social historian inadequate. The art historian and the intellectual historian are better qualified to illuminate our understanding of cities that, like London, transcend in both aspiration and achievement the merely practical and utilitarian.

While waiting for the results of the refined analysis such specialists may engage in, we can perhaps achieve cruder but still valuable insights by using our eyes and by finding out how people in the century before 1914 themselves perceived London, Paris, and Vienna. (6)

And thus we begin. This book is quite full of splendid detail, almost too much so, it is impossible to capture or blog properly. I’ve pulled out a little for each city of London – Paris – Vienna separately, but here try to give just a sense of how Olsen compares them.

City As Monument

The nineteenth was the most historically minded of centuries, the one most aware of itself as participant in a continuing drama. It possessed at the same time, unexampled means for giving material expression to that awareness…London, Paris, and Vienna had long contained monuments. Only in the nineteenth century did they try to become monuments. (9)

I like that distinction, I confess. Olsen continues:

Although the inner core of each city bore uncomfortable witness to its medieval origins, suburban extensions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a degree of order and decency that occasionally rose to monumentality.

What failed them from doing so completely? The ‘enforced poverty’ of English monarchs subject to Parliament’s unwillingness to pay out. For the Bourbons and Habsburgs, ‘another instance of their unwillingness to interfere with private interests and individual rights‘ (10-11).

The concluding chapter (The Process of Urban Embellishment) sums the monumental argument up (I am also enjoying reviewing these geographies in my mind and how they resonate or not with my own experiences of walking these cities, such a pleasure during this time of lockdown):

first London, then Paris, and finally Vienna attempted to turn them-selves into monuments in the course of the nineteenth century. London, between 1811 and 1837, remade itself along the line connecting Regent’s Park with St. James’s Park and Trafalgar Square; Paris, between 1852 and 1870, cut great swaths across itself, north to south, east to west, and diagonally, planting trees and flowers wherever it could; Vienna, beginning in 1857, turned a fortified zone into a ring of pleasure. The three programs shared a number of characteristics: they resulted from the initiative of the central government; depended for their success on the attraction of private investment by speculative builders and developers; were intended to make royal or imperial residences more prominent; created public parks; mixed public and private buildings, ecclesiastical and secular purposes, residential and commercial uses; used architecture mainly in the classical tradition (broadly defined); put up monuments of national, imperial, dynastic, or cultural significance; built wide streets both to facilitate traffic and to serve as fashionable promenades; and combined aesthetic with social and sanitary motives. London and Paris incorporated slum clearance in the preliminary demolitions; in Vienna no destruction of residential or commercial property, slum or otherwise, was necessary.

And a note to self on the distinctiveness of Vienna — which does indeed feel different and I think in the end in great part because of this:

One peculiarity, indeed, of Vienna is that it has never indulged either in the cutting through of percees or in systematic slum clearance as these operations were carried out in London and Paris. (82)

Yet these had nothing on the great motorways and ringroads of the following centuries.

The City as Home

The two dominant institutions of the nineteenth century, the two focuses of loyalty, were the family and the nation-state. … Between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century there had developed, through western and northern Europe, a belief in the values of individualism, privacy, and domesticity. (89)

Thus, he argues:

The dwellings of London, Paris, and Vienna illuminate the respective attitudes of the three societies toward domesticity, familial affection, privacy, and individuality. (90)

Been reading a lot about homes, how they’ve changed over the centuries (like Judith Flanders, Witold Rybczynski, my favourite from Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling) so nothing here was too revelatory, though I loved the architectural drawings of buildings and almost laughed out loud at this:

The English were convinced that nowhere were domestic virtues better or more extensively cultivated than in England. Paris certainly, and Vienna so far as they knew about it, seemed on the whole more suitable for extramarital adventure than for sober family life. (90)

This goes without saying

The major difference between them being that English cities tend to be made up of ‘small dwelling houses’ while the other two ‘large blocks of flats’. (92)

But this I hadn’t known:

And this — almost all London buildings beginning life as residences, true of most houses between the City and Hyde Park:

And even while Parisian middle classes loved their flats, still there remained some of these:

And then there is Vienna — where not a single medieval home still exists. It is now palaces of the aristocracy and blocks of flats for the rest.

Social Geography

How can we read social geographies through architecture? Broadly speaking, he argues that medieval homes had everyone living and undertaking work and other activities in the same space and this slowly transitioned into single family homes partitioned with each person and activity separated and assigned space, servants separate from family, more public spaces separate from private. Just so cities went from such a mix to more segregated subdivisions. London, due to being larger and more technologically advanced with its embracing of domesticity and privacy took this further earlier than either Paris or Vienna.

This of course could only proceed so far until modern transport, and the spaces for workers, servants, carriages and horses and such even in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods were no longer required. I love mews though have only known them in their gentrified incarnations. This lovely illustration shows all they were before becoming additional luxury residences.

While the English perceived class distinctions to be fewer in France, Olsen hedges that it was only slightly less in Paris than in London, especially after the 1850s and 60s, but always a distinction between left bank and right, interior and the working class suburbs. Still, in London and Paris the geographies of wealth and fashion did shift to some extent. Of all three Vienna remained the most stable: prosperous aristocratic neighborhoods remained so, and there continues to be ‘a marked decline in social prestige as one moves from the first Bezirk (City and Rigstrasse) to Vorstadt…to Vorort’. (151)

Also housing signaled slightly different things in each city:

The customary English way for a rich City man to insinuate himself, or rather his descendants, into the governing class was to purchase a country estate and set himself up as a landed gentleman. No London mansion, no taking of a house in Grosvenor Square, would serve to expunge the mercantile stain. In Vienna residence in the City, far from being incompatible with a noble manner of living, was essential to it. The Ringstrasse, though attached to the City, imitating it in its architectural forms, and surpassing it in physical magnificence, never succeeded in equaling it in fashion and prestige. The French aristocracy transferred itself to the Marais under Louis XIII, to Saint-Germain under Louis XV, and—if it could afford it—to the Champs-Elysees and beyond during the Third Republic; the Viennese aristocracy, once established in the Altstadt, stayed there.

I sit and try to remember what it felt like to wander these cities, to travel at all. Olsen continues on Vienna:

It would be wrong to exaggerate the social inferiority of the Ringstrasse. It served rather as the concrete expression of the admission to the ruling classes of both individuals and broader social groupings, who expanded and enriched the older governing class just as the Ringstrasse zone expanded and enriched the older City. The Ringstrasse united new aristocracy with old, money with birth, ability with rank, the arts and scholarship with politics and administration.-3 It represented what was healthiest about the last period of the Habsburg Empire: its openness to talent, new ideas, and new artistic forms, whatever their origin; its cosmopolitanism, its respect for learning and achievement, and its refusal to be shocked by the unconventional. (154)

This is obviously not the place to look for solid descriptions of working class housing, but there is this:

The paucity of reference to the working classes in this discussion of the city as home may suggest that privacy, intimacy, and domesticity were qualities too expensive for them to afford. With respect to the housing available to them in Paris and Vienna, and to a considerable extent in London, this may very nearly have been true: when the normal family dwelling consists of a single room, with perhaps a small separate kitchen, discussing the impact of degagements and subdivided, specialized areas makes little sense… As for neighborhoods segregated by social class, the luxury of choice of district was a middle-class privilege: the workers moved to whatever places economically stronger groups chose to avoid.

Studies of working-class housing before 1914, local and national, normally stress its inadequacy—overcrowded, overpriced, and insufficient—and note the failure of the free market to produce enough new housing to keep up with the growing population, much less bring average standards up to a level of decency. The most optimistic estimates show a degree of improvement far less than any overall rise in living standards.1 But as one reads the dismal accounts the nagging objection emerges: conditions everywhere could not be worse than they were everywhere else. And the testimony both of contemporaries and of the buildings themselves suggests that for the working classes as for the middle classes, standards were higher in London than in Paris, in Paris than in Vienna. They were high enough to enable a significant minority of London’s working classes to imitate middle-class patterns of behavior, much as the middle classes were shaping their own lives according to their notion of aristocratic manners.

There is also some reference to the economics of it all, which I appreciated:

Contributing more to differentials in cost were the local building codes, most stringent in Vienna, least in London. The flimsy, jerry-built construction practiced by London’s builders, of which contemporaries were forever complaining, did enable them to build and sell more cheaply and allowed house owners to make reasonable profits from lower rents than would have been conceivable in either Paris or Vienna. The mild English winters and the willingness of the English to endure cold indoors permitted builders to make little provision for insulation or other than primitive heating arrangements.

The nature of the London building industry, in which large numbers of small undercapitalized speculators were able to coexist with giants like Cubitt and William Willett, meant that there were always those willing to plunge into housing development whatever the economic climate. They went bankrupt with monotonous regularity, leaving rows of carcasses to be finished by the next generation of hopeful speculators, but the houses ultimately got built. The syndicates and companies that were responsible for building Paris and Vienna were not above over-estimating the market themselves, but on the whole they behaved more rationally and cautiously and hence built more in response to than in anticipation of demand.

And of course all of these — the type, amount, cost of housing, building codes, climate etc — were co-constitutive of how people lived in it. Each impacted the other and I wouldn’t wager which was more important, but the large differences remain

If the nature of the London house, the layout of the London street, and the pattern of development that informed the Victorian metropolis encouraged withdrawal and seclusion, the structure of the Paris flat, the attractions of the Paris street, and the very nature of Paris itself called its residents out of doors. If the life of London lay hidden in its drawing rooms, inside its clubs, within the cozy subdivisions of its pubs, the life of Paris was there for all to see, and perhaps to join: in its promenades, its boulevards, and its streets. (185)

City as Playground

This is partly city as enjoyed by tourist. Interesting to note London as a city was very much lacking in hotels or restaurants. For men single or married, there was instead the club. Described by Cesar Daly (who I must read but seems like I must read him in French, yikes) as a way to enjoy the society of others without mixing with those of inferior social class. That sums up England rather beautifully.

Olsen quotes Henry T. Tuckerman on Paris, a very different sort of place:

We of England and America, instinctively revolve about a permanent centre, hallowed and held by the triple bond of habit, love, and religion. Not so the Parisians: Imagine … we dwelt in a kind of metropolitan encampment, requiring no domicile except a bedroom for seven hours in the twenty-four, and passing the remainder of each day and night as nomadic cosmopolites: going to a café to breakfast, a restaurant to dine, an estaminet to smoke, a national library to study, a cabinet de lecture to read the gazettes, a public bath for ablution…a thronged garden to promenade, a theatre to he amused, a museum for science, a royal gallery for art, a municipal ball, literary soirée, or suburban rendezvous, for society.39 (217)

Fun fact: The first raised foot pavement in Paris was in the rue de ‘Odeon in 1781 (Wow) but rare anywhere else until the 1830s. And yet, this view of Paris as a place where live is lived out of doors is ubiquitous, as in this quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton (Paris in Old and Present Times). ‘The English have invented the house, the French have invented the street.

Vienna? ‘No city in Europe is better suited for a life of public self-representation‘.

The City as Document

This opens with a bit of a debate around history and architecture that I find a little stale,

An assumption underlying this book has been that a work of art is also a historical source, that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century. (251)

The caption for the picture below: “A Parisian facade seems to be a drawing in stone, full size, literally an immense lithograph.” Rue de la Victoire 98. From Revue Generale de l’architecture 16 (1858)

This one is even better for Vienna: “If a street census were taken…they would certainly equal the population of a respectable market town.” Figurative sculpture on facade of Schubertring 9-11, Ludwig von Zettl , architect, 1865 (Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universitat Wien. Photo Johana Fiegl).

Architecture as Language

Just a few good quotes;

The history of architecture is the history of the world,- proclaimed Pugin in 1843. “The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised.” [A. Welby Pugin An Apology… 1969]

1892 N. J. W. Westlake: “the higher architecture is . . . a language for the expression of thought. . . . In ancient times it expressed the ideas of the period in the idiom of the period.”

Pevsner: “…every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it.” [A History of Building Types]

From John Belcher’s presidential address to the RIBA in 1904, where he ‘made explicit a conviction implicit in historicist theory: architecture and its associated arts could convey the maximum of beauty, morality, and truth only if they combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk‘:

Architecture must tell its tale; it has its message to deliver. Like a musical score it expresses a great deal more than meets the eye. . . . Architecture is the prose of inarticulate but beautiful thought and feeling. Sometimes it tells of the commonplace in life; rising higher it speaks of domestic peace and happiness; and yet again in more stately diction it sets forth the grander and larger purposes of life. It recounts the past, records the present, and holds up ideals for the future. But only when it is enriched from the sister arts of sculpture and painting can it tell the tale with the fulness of eloquence and power.

Olsen’s take, and a summary of the questions he tries to answer here:

What messages were buildings, cities, and other works of art expected to transmit? What meaning did they possess, what ideas did they contain? What can a city, in its capacity as a work of art, accomplish? What can art do, apart from existing in its own right? It can tell a story, or many stories. It can establish a mood. It can reinforce selected virtues. It can surprise and delight by unexpected juxtapositions of forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can soothe and reassure by repetition of familiar forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can stand for, or represent, ideas, qualities, institutions. English critics placed great stress on the expressive qualities of buildings, German theorists on their representational qualities. (285)

Olsen, Donald J. (1986) The City as a Work of Art: London – Paris – Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

reading buildings like tea leaves

Magush reads the future in a vacant building opposite the charcoal yard where he lives. The six huge picture windows and the twelve little windows of the adjacent building are like cards for him. Magush never thought of associating windows and cards: that was my idea. His methods are mysterious and can be explained only in part. He tells me that during the day he has trouble drawing conclusions, because the light disturbs the images. The most propitious moment to carry out his task is at sunset, when certain slanting rays of light filter through the side windows of the building and are reflected onto the glass of the windows in front. That is why he always makes appointments with his clients for that hour of the day. I know, having learned from careful research, that the upper part of the building has to do with matters of the heart, the lower part with money and work, and the middle with problems of family and health.

— ‘Magush’ by Silvina Ocampo in Thus Were Their Faces, p 126

‘This is a machine for killing people’

The hill was a network of lights in which the twin stars of a car’s headlights traced a live circuit. There was an abstract, designed beauty in the setting of the clusters of bright rectangles that marked out houses along the well-lit roads, climbing at last to the long, low striations of light that signified the offices and labs at the summit. A satellite dish was a shield of gold, a communications tower a lance of silver. The captive power plant twinkled with ruby points of brilliance, cadmium sulphoselenide letting only red rays through. Good gatekeeper, cutting the seamless continuum of light into freed and absorbed, escaped and imprisoned. To the lens, there was only red and not-red. There were no other questions, no other categories. Gopal sat astride his bike and watched. Here, a hundred metres down the approach road from the town to the campus gate, he could appreciate the cold schematic beauty of it all. This complex in the middle of nowhere was the child and citadel of science, clean and limpid in its stark organization, its grid layout, its lit streets and planned bungalows. He could not think of those spaces as containing people. From here it was only infrastructure, a valued and valuable asset to the nation.

Entered in the account books of the republic: so many crores of rupees, so many man-hours of labour invested. Purpose: national security. Aims: laudable. Control: absolute. Glory: unlimited.

This is a machine for killing people. (113-114)

Chatterjee, Rimi B. (2005) Signal Red. London: Penguin.

Pynchon on the collective history of garbage

Been reading so much about the struggle for environmental justice and the political economies of garbage (Julie Sze’s Noxious New York), funny to find these passages here helping bring some of the contradictions a little more alive:

Under the high-arching openwork of the Bayonne Bridge. Oil, storage tanks, tanker traffic forever unsleeping. Addiction to oil gradually converging with the other national bad habit, inability to deal with refuse. Maxine has been smelling garbage for a while, and now it intensifies as they approach a lofty mountain range of waste. Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death and decay, chemicals unpronounceable as the names of God, the heaps of landfill bigger than Maxine imagines they’d be, reaching close to 200 feet overhead according to Sid, higher than a typical residential building on the Yupper West Side.

Sid kills the running lights and the motor, and they settle in behind Island of Meadows, at the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself, and here unexpectedly at the heart of it is this 100 acres of untouched marshland, directly underneath the North Atlantic flyway, sequestered by law from development and dumping, marsh birds sleeping in safety. Which, given the real-estate imperatives running this town, is really, if you want to know, fucking depressing, because how long can it last? How long can any of these innocent critters depend on finding safety around here? It’s exactly the sort of patch that makes a developer’s heart sing—typically, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Also Is My Land.”

Every Fairway bag full of potato peels, coffee grounds, uneaten Chinese food, used tissues and tampons and paper napkins and disposable diapers, fruit gone bad, yogurt past its sell-by date that Maxine has ever thrown away is up in there someplace, multiplied by everybody in the city she knows, multiplied by everybody she doesn’t know, since 1948, before she was even born, and what she thought was lost and out of her life has only entered a collective history, which is like being Jewish and finding out that death is not the end of everything–suddenly denied the comfort of absolute zero. (166-67)

Here this ‘looming and prophetic landfill, that perfect negative of the city in its seething foul incoherence)’ becomes a possible place to follow the links through into refuge.

Now it is a park. NY, however, still needs places to send its garbage.

Pynchon, Thomas (2013) Bleeding Edge. New York: Penguin Press.

Night Walking, Manchester

Walking home from the Briton’s Protection through the darkness along the Manchester canal…it’s not late but there is no one here. The night still hides the brash and cheap ‘luxury’ buildings that line the waterway here. I walk and stare at the water reflecting lights and bricks, think simply how easy it would be to fall in. I am not drunk but jetlagged, only a few hours sleep, not much to eat…This would have been no place for me one hundred years ago, and I know how many secrets the canals hid.

I exult in walking, the darkness, the city, it wants to come pouring out in the form of the great modernist novel. But of course, we have left the modernist novel far behind. I can no longer write it. Ironic that now as a woman I can wander the darkness like James Joyce, Dylan Thomas (and it’s funny how they are always with me as I walk), but I can no longer push boundaries the way they did. The boundaries have been pushed, the novels written. The city they knew no longer exists.

I walk past Elizabeth Gaskell’s home, wonder who she might have been outside of the constrictions of her time and place. Wonder if she might have wandered the darkness, or wanted to. Wonder if she might have had less mawkish sentiment in her. The cemetery and what’s left of the church bombed out in WWII, her home, a handful of villas transformed into student flats are all that’s left really of what was here once. I am happy for the council housing, but these streets — Manchester is all wide streets, all cars, all noise. It is no longer for walkers, not like London. Almost no one walks in most of the city apart from the very centre, and on a Friday night…well. First time I came here myself was for a hen do with a bunch of girls from Glasgow. We trampled these canal pathways with stiletto heels and shrill drunken laughter. But honestly, perhaps I was closer to my great modernist novel then…

Elizabeth Gaskell’s house