Stepney: The Reason London Should be Considered a Capital City

Coline MacInnes captures the Stepney-that-was so brilliantly in Mr Love and Justice. When it still had docks, sailors, teeming life overflowing its streets and markets. I never got to see Spitalfields like this, never saw ships, and don’t think you quite get that feeling anymore of London ending abruptly at its city gates. I wish I seen it like that, though I still loved working and walking there: for the continued presence of so many different cultures; the bits and pieces of utopia; Barnardo’s orphanage; the work of Eleanor Marx, Father Groser and meals on wheels at St Katharine’s; what we ourselves built at St Katharine’s and its community garden.

So different from more judgmental views found in histories like that of Walter Besant or the orientalised visions expanded from Limehouse in the Fu Manchu novels, this description is splendid.

Stepney, in early morning, has a macabre, poetic beauty. It is one of those areas of London that is thoroughly confused about itself, being in transition from various ancient states of being to new ones it is still busy searching for. The City, which still preserves its Roman quality of ending very abruptly at its ancient gates, towers beyond Aldgate pump, then stops: so that gruesome Venetian financial palaces abut on to semi-slums. From the dowdy baroque of Liverpool street station, smoke and thunder fall on Spitalfields market with its vigorous dawn life and odour of veg, fruit and flowers like blended essences of the citizens’ duties, delights and fantasies. Below the windowless brick warehouses of the Port of London Authority, the road life of Wentworth street–almost unknown elsewhere in London where roads are considered means by which to move from place to place, not places in themselves–bubbles, over spills and sways in argument and shrill persuasion, to the off-stage squawks of thousands of slaughtered chickens. Old Montague street with its doorless shops that open outward in the narrow thoroughfare, and its discreet, secretive synagogues, has still the flavour of a semi-voluntary ghetto. Further south, in Commercial road, are the nocturnal vice caffs that members of parliament and of Royal Commissions are wont to visit, invariably accompanied by a detective-inspector to ensure that their expedition will reveal nothing characteristic of the area; and which, when suppressed, pop up again immediately elsewhere or under different names with different men of straw at the identical old address. In Cable street, below, the castaways from Africa and the Caribbean perform a perpetual, melancholy, wryly humorous ballet of which they are themselves the only audience. Amid incredible slums–which, one may imagine, with the huge new blocks replacing them, are preserved there by authority to demonstrate the contrast of before-and-after–are pieces of railway architecture of grimly sombre grandeur. Then come the docks with masts and funnels strangely emerging above chimney tops, and house-locked basins, the entry to which by narrow canals and swinging bridges seems, to the landsman, an impossibility, were it not for the cargo boats nestling snugly between the derelict tenements. Suddenly, beyond this, you come upon the river: which this far down, lined with wharves and cranes and bearing great ocean loving steamers, is no longer the pretty, grubby, playground of the higher reaches but already, by now, the sea.

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The faded respectability and self-righteous drabness of Kilburn: Mr Love and Justice

The London geographies in Colin MacInness’ Mr Love and Justice overlap some of my own much loved parts of London in interesting ways. I quite enjoyed the book, especially as it steadily grew more complicated and took its interesting turns. But my little urbanist heart proper stopped a couple of times as he describes architecture and place in rather brilliant ways. And wrestling.

I never lived in North London, but one of my favourite people lives in Kilburn. I’ve always loved it up there. This description of it fascinates, especially given how many new layers (pretty antithetical to coppers) have been added to these streets. Though I wonder if it isn’t returning to its middle class heyday.

Examining the area, Edward liked it. There is about Kilburn a sort of faded respectability, of self-righteous drabness, that appealed to him. For the true copper’s dominant characteristic, if the truth be known, is neither those daring nor vicious qualities that are some times attributed to him by friend or enemy, but an ingrained conservatism, an almost desperate love of the conventional. It is untidiness, disorder, the unusual, that a copper disapproves of most of all: far more, even, than of crime, which is merely a professional matter. Hence his profound dislike of people loitering in streets, dressing extravagantly, speaking with exotic accents, being strange, weak, eccentric or simply any rare minority-of their doing, in short, anything that cannot be safely predicted.

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hammett And the Fat Man

I was back in Arizona taking care of my mom for a while, still Covid times, still so hot, so not much hiking. A lot of reading. For some reason I’m only now encountering classic Japanese crime novels and loving them. Possibly loving more the space of dialogue they create between them and the Western canon–particularly the locked-room mysteries of Christie, Carr, Doyle, LeBlanc, Poe, Chesterton etc–as they transcend it and do their own unique, rather more grisley thing. I mean some authors have even written footnotes to explain the references they are making. All the murderers (and detectives) are avid readers of detective fiction. You can tell who has done the evil deed by their book shelves (though sometimes secret book shelves, for obvious reasons). It’s awesome.

But in this mix I threw a Hammet and that turned out to be a spanner because then I read all of his novels again, despite the palpable lack of locked rooms. I still love them all apart from The Dain Curse, and not just because the procession of people of colour of various nationalities who feature as the not-so-bright and interfering hired help. Maybe mostly because of that, but I don’t like the structure either. Somehow it’s this novel reminds me of how much I hate the Pinkertons and his awful treatment of women, but those sit in tension always with all of his work.

Anyway, I don’t know that The Maltese Falcon is my favourite, but I love the baroque language of it. The description of Sam Spade is pretty good:

SAMUEL SPADE’S jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down from high flat temples in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

But really it is Gutman who is both impossible and sublime.

The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin Ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped grey worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes.

His voice was a throaty purr. “Ah, Mr. Spade,” he said with enthusiasm and held out a hand like a fat pink star.

Then I watched what Roy del Ruth (The Maltese Falcon 1931), and William Dieterle (Satan Met a Lady 1936) did to it feeling a bit sick to my stomach. But it made me realise a little better how noir was knitted together not just by authors like Hammet, but by John Huston who directed the classic version in 1941, and Humphrey Bogart who is not a man of v’s, yet finally played Sam Spade to perfection. And Peter Lorre of course. And Elisha Cook Jr. And Sydney Greenstreet. And everyone else is pretty good too.

I loved each of the films’ Gutmans to be honest, even when transformed to Madame Barabbas played by the brilliant Alison Skipworth. Sadly, I have yet to see the human match of Hammet’s passage, possibly my favourite character description in all of fiction. Bulbs rise and shake everytime he arrives on a page, and it is magical. I do love a man with bulbs that rise and shake.

Arturo Escobar on Development and Discourse

Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development is one of those books that felt like it fundamentally changed how I see things.

Because of this, maybe, I never properly blogged it — I have a PDF full of highlights, bought the book, I flip through seeking key insights and instead get involved again on every page. But I wanted to get a bit down, an overview of argument as I think through some of these ideas for new work of my own (and finishing up a article long overdue). I start with the preface:

THIS BOOK grew out of a sense of puzzlement: the fact that for many years the industrialized nations of North America and Europe were supposed to be the indubitable models for the societies of Asia. Africa, and Latin America, the so-called Third World, and that these societies must catch up with the industrialized countries, perhaps even become like them. This belief is still held today in many quarters.

It is quite puzzling. Sadly it still seems almost as true in 2021 as it did in 1995.

While he calls this a poststructural approach and it focuses in on discourse, he never loses sight of the material. This is one of those works that manages to bring two very different, and often opposing, ways of though together in fruitful and powerful ways. I think maybe Anna Tsing is the last person to so impress me with this alchemy. So to say again what Escobar wishes for this book to be and do:

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Matrix: A Feminist Critique of Home Design

Matrix’s Making Space covers home design most extensively, and unsuprisingly I suppose (see the first post here on who Matrix was and what they were all about). How many continue to believe that a woman’s place is in the home? And yet homes have never really been designed for women, especially not now with the many new responsibilities and work patterns alongside those of care that so many women have had to take on.

There is some brilliant history to be found here, as well as historic design. That is, historic given the time it was designed and built, but we continue to live in so many of these homes. So not quite so historic after all. This all makes me want to go back to people writing architectural histories like Swenarton and Burnett, to think about what they might have missed.

5 House Design and Women’s Roles

Chapter 5 delves more some actual plans from key reformers and reports, they are brilliant and illustrate so clearly the lack of consideration for women and the assumptions of life trajectories built into the fabric of our homes.

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Matrix: Subverting the Man-Made Environment

I love everything about Making Space (1984), and the collective Matrix who wrote it, could not believe I didn’t know of them until I started work on my housing briefing for the Feminist Green New Deal project. I have read so many amazing things for this, but this is one of my favourites and I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, especially as the new exhibition is out at the Barbican that I hope to soon see. Ther work so deserves to be widely celebrated and even more widely taken up as a challenge and inspiration to do everything better.

The women in Matrix: Jos Boys, Frances Bradshaw, Jane Darke, Benedicte Foo, Sue Francis, Barbara McFarlane, Marion Roberts, Anne Thorne, and Susan Wilkes.

http://www.matrixfeministarchitecturearchive.co.uk/

This is what brought them together.

The authors of this book belong to a group of feminist designers col- lectively known as Matrix. We are women who share a concern about the way buildings and cities work for women. We work as architects, teachers in higher education, researchers, mothers, a builder, a journalist and a housing manager. Working together on this book was for most of us a first chance to develop ideas about buildings with other women; and we have learnt a lot from each other. (vii)

Sometimes you read things and you’re just like damn, I wish I was there. Especially when you read the next bit.

Our intentions were to work together as women to develop a feminist approach to design through practical projects and theoretical analysis, and to communicate our ideas more widely. Our training and our work in Matrix have helped us to look critically at the way our built surroundings can affect women in this society. These skills have been useful to us, and we want to share them with others to help us all develop an understanding of how we are ‘placed’ as women in a man-made environment and to use that knowledge to subvert it. (viii)

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Priddy Nine Barrows and the Priddy Circles

Os map of Chewton Mendip to Priddy to Wells walk

This walk was splendid, one of our best yet. We caught the 376 to Chewton Mendip (site of an earlier not so great walk before I knew you should never go anywhere without an OS map or you will get lost and miss all the things), stopped at the Mendip Pantry to pick up some incredible pies, scotch eggs, lush baked goods of all sorts. Highly recommended. We ate our first pie alongside the church, which is so unexpectedly grand. It has Saxon origins, was rebuilt in the 12th century, most of what you can see was built in the 1400s by Carthusians and patched and rebuilt again across the centuries and into the 1800s (but look at the door, I mean just look at it)

Be still my heart. The tower is from the 15th century.

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A Feminist Green New Deal for Housing

It’s out! Launched into the world! The briefing I just finished for the Women’s Budget Project and Women’s Environmental Network as part of their awesome Feminist Green New Deal project. It focuses on housing and just how transformative it might be to how we live with each other and how we live in the world. All this under the exciting title Rethinking Housing Supply and Design.

A little teaser.

Housing is fundamental to life, security and wellbeing as well as tackling climate change and working towards a zero-carbon future. It also remains a key site of gender and intersectional inequality, with design that does not accommodate diverse needs or care responsibilities, with mortgages and rents out of reach, and a suburban ideal that requires a car for daily living and can isolate women and children in the home. Housing investment as a central part of a Green New Deal (GND) —with a commitment to full funding from central government to ensure costs are never passed on to residents or local communities— would open up an incredible opportunity to centre a new vision of equality and care capable of transforming both landscapes and lives. It would also acknowledge and begin to address the connections between climate crisis and housing crisis, reducing housing’s contribution to the UK’s carbon footprint even as it reverses the rise of homelessness and houses the estimated 8 million people are in housing need.

This paper offers seven recommendations to achieve a gender inclusive and sustainable housing sector:

1. Participatory planning for the future: centring women and others traditionally marginalised

2. Making internal form and design responsive to care work, gender and diversity

3. Improving the materials and fabric of our buildings

4. Developing gender-, community- and climate-responsive site design

5. Improving connection to town, city and region

6. Expanding who builds, installs and maintains housing to non-traditional workers

7. Implementing a right to safe, decent and affordable housing following the most recent UN guidelines, where housing as a home is prioritised over housing as an asset

Read the full policy paper here.

About the Feminist Green New Deal project

The Feminist Green New Deal is bringing a gendered and intersectional approach/perspective to the Green economy/Green Recovery – ensuring that the voices of women, people of colour and other marginalised groups are heard during environmental and political debates.

Through a programme of nationwide grassroots workshops and policy roundtables a Feminist Green New Deal Manifesto will be created and launched at COP26 Glasgow Climate Talks.

This Project is a collaboration between Wen (Women’s Environmental Network) and the Women’s Budget Group (WBG).

Learn more about the project here.

Papanek on Architecture and the Vernacular

In addition to lists and principles for design, there are these two lovely chapters on architecture in Victor Papanek’s Green Imperative. This book also reminds me how much I love a good epigraph, and that I should use them for everything I write.

Sensing a Dwelling

Think with the whole body.
–Deshimaru

We are born indoors, live, love, bring up our families, worship, work, grow old, sicken and die indoors. Architecture mirrors every aspect of our lives–social, economical, spiritual.
–Eugene Raskin

I think all of my favourite architects talk about the ways architecture affects every sense, and unsurprisingly Papanek argues that we need to pay attention to mood and an environment that supports and develops our sensory abilities.

We need to pay attention to the dimension of light, he mentions Taliesin West by Frank Lloyd Wright – and the light that comes through its canvas sails is indeed quite wonderful.

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Victor Papanek on the Green Imperative

Victor Papanek, what a legend. Born in Vienna in 1927 (Red Vienna!), he studied at Taliesin West. This was written between 1991 and 1995 and three places, Tanah Lot Temple in Bali, Schumacher College, Dartington and Fundacion Valparaiso Mojacar, Spain. I can’t help but be just a little jealous about that.

Truth be told though, it is Arturo Escobar brought me to Papanek, with his recent work on design as a way of thinking/ theorising/ getting to the pluriverse. So I am newly intrigued by design understood in its broader sense, and this is of course where Papanek has so much to contribute (though to be sure he also excels at the actual design and the making and the details). He likes lists as much as I do, and we start there. He writes that the repertoire of a designer’s skills and talents include:

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Andrea Gibbons