Tag Archives: architecture

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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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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Skipton Castle and Woods

A lovely, warm, sunshiney weekend everyone said, so off we went like the magical, spontaneous creatures we are. Minimal extras, as the spontaneous non-car life demands (but more about that later). A quick search of places not too far, well suited for country walks, with a train station and a reasonable room for two nights. Not the easiest of combinations to find, but Skipton was brilliant.

The land orginally belonged to Earl Edwin, son of Leofwine and brother to Leofric of Mercia according to an 1873 history of Skipton. This is mostly a rather boring account about lords and ladies, has some interesting lists of goods and lands taxed and the meaning of wealth. But I love this description of the castle’s founding:

After the forfeiture of Earl Edwin, the first grantee of his lands in Craven was Robert. de Romille, a Norman adventurer of ancient family. In his choice of a situation for the seat of his barony, Romille had nothing but the face of Nature to direct him. There had, unquestionably, been a Saxon manse at Bolton, for the occasional residence of the lord; but it was now dilapidated; and though the sequestration of that favoured place would have attracted a monk, and its beauties a man of taste, yet it wanted two of the first ingredients in the residence of an ancient baron—elevation and natural strength. These Romille found. on the brink of a perpendicular rock at Skipton, which furnished an impregnable barrier to the north; while a moderate declivity to the south, equally rocky, and therefore incapable of being undermined, afforded sufficient room for the enclosure of a spacious “bailley,” the ramparts of which would command the plain beneath.

The erection of this castle elevated the place at once from a poor dependent village to a respectable town. In times of turbulence and disorder, the inhabitants of the adjoining country would crowd for protection under its walls. Many privileges also would be granted by the lords, many advantageous offices enjoyed by their immediate dependents…

— An extract from the History and Antiquities of the Deanery of Craven in the County of York by Thomas Dunham Whitaker, 3rd Edition Published in 1878

Skipton Castle is splendid, increasingly well-fortified over the years to defend against incursions by the Scots by the Clifford family, whose principal family seat it served until 1676. Of Lady Margaret Russell (1560-1616), who married George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland in 1577, the website states: ‘deeply interested in alchemy she discovered many excellent medicines‘. Looking her up I didn’t find much more about that, but she was also the patron of Emilia Lanier, first woman to style herself a professional poet (and possibly Shakespeare’s dark lady). She enjoyed being a mistress more than a wife. I would know more of them. Lady Russell’s daughter Anne is most celebrated in the placards around the castle itself, and planted the lovely old yew that stands in the castle courtyard in 1659. They grow so slowly.

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Urban Acupuncture

Curitiba, I remember it as a rather wonderful city, though I know it has different sides. But the buses…a brilliant example of an innovation that brings meaningful and important change to many thousands of people and has an impact on the carbon footprint. With service every few minutes, a life-changing improvement in accessibility built into the design, dedicated lanes and innovative safe and protected loading areas where passengers pay before they get on the bus, they revolutionised public transport for a fraction of the cost of underground lines. A stripped down version of the idea was introduced in LA, and London as well until Boris Johnson made one of his first disastrous marks. So in many ways I love this short book of what are essentially case studies from Jaime Lerner, the mayor who made the bendy buses possible and whose loss earlier this year made many mourn.

In some ways I am all for it. As Lerner writes:

Everyone knows that planning is a process. Yet no matter how good it may be, a plan by itself cannot bring about immediate transformation. Almost always, it is a spark that sets off a current that begins to spread. This is what I call good acupuncture–true urban acupuncture. (2-3)

I definitely love this idea of a spark — I think in the end this is actually how good things start to happen. And acupuncture is awesome, but has its limits, especially when you have no food or shelter.

So I do wish this book came with a warning label. Something like, YES! Be inspired, do what you can with what you have, imagine and innovate, try new things, get people involved, learn from others, see how powerful small changes can be. BUT DO NOT STOP THERE.

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Jim Thompson on Verdon Nebraska and farming for the future

Jim Thompson wrote deep, dark, violent, murderous noir, and then sometimes he wrote something very close to a love song to small towns, to farmers, to states like Nebraska that never get much love from anyone at all. At least not in print. Heed the Thunder is a number of things, but this is what I loved about it (not so much like King Blood, which brings these two together in a meditation on frontier and race violence).

This is a glimpse down a street I shall never see, homes I can’t walk into and a mix of architecture and old nostalgias in a place I have never been and a community I can only stretch to understand. A critique of capitalism and its creation of debt and its destruction of the soil. Unexpected, at least to me. A lovely reminder too, of the European traditions of thinking forward to future generations.

The road down which he drove was lined with houses which bore somewhat the same resemblance to each other as children with the same mother but different sires. There were New England houses, rich with gables and shutters; middle-Eastern houses with shingled turrets; porticoed southern houses. There were even one or two houses which showed chinked-in logs in their facades, which were, purely, except for their ambiguous additions, Western.

They were all different, and all alike. Whatever the home state or homeland that had inspired them, necessity and conservatism had forced them into a definite if elastic pattern. Roofs were strong, anchored and angled to defeat the wind. Paint had been applied generously and generously maintained; and colors ran mostly to blue and yellow and brown. Porches were either closed in or adaptable to closing. Foundations were thick and deep, and frequently extended a fractions of an inch outward from the house proper. Like a burial mound, at the rear of each residence was the grassy, cemented, or bricked hump of a cyclone hole. Nothing was flamboyant. To build markedly better than your neighbor was bad taste; it would create talk, arouse envy, and mark you with the mortal sin of extravagance. To build shoddily was as bad. In these close-knit communities, little of the inside and none of the outside of a man’s home was his castle. Erring in judgment, one might remodel or rebuild, but to do so was to repent before a public that would never forget.

To the outsider, the street might appear unchanging, but not to Sherman Fargo. The Methodist preacher’s wife had picked the grapes from her arbor. The gate at the Widow Talley’s place was hanging on one hinge. (Some of these dudes had probably probably worn it out.) Doc Jones was digging– (36)

Beyond his extensive descriptions of architecture and its relation to a small town community? A remarkable grasp of farming, of philosophy, of debt and capitalism, of the destruction of the land that would bring us to where we sit today amidst climate crisis. All of it written into a short dialogue between a German farmer and a salesman.

But I am not like the others, in this way: I do not make a practice of farming from one year to the next… Now, you say next year will be good for wheat. Maybe you are right—”

“It’s my sincere opinion, Mr. Deutsch, that this will be the biggest—”

“So. And maybe you are right. Maybe next year will be bigger, too, and the next, and so on for ten years. I plant wheat for ten years and every year I make big money and what do I have at the end of it? Nothing.”

“Nothing? How do you figure—”

“I would have no farm. The soil would not stand it. Now, you say you are not implying that I should plant wheat fo; ten years, but there is the principle, you see. The temptation to grab the immediate profit. And I cannot farm that way because I know it is wrong. I have a crop-rotation plan, and that is what I go by. That plan extends one hundred and sixty years into the future.”

The salesman so far forgot his tact that he guffawed. Or, perhaps, be believed that the farmer was joking with him.

“A hundred and sixty years!” he laughed. “Why, you won’t even be here then.”

The farmer nodded, slowly, staring at him. “That is right, Mr. Simpson. I will not be here.”

Simpson reddened. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It was just kind of—uh—so funny—”

“Yes, I suppose it is to show any thought for the people of one hundred and sixty years from now—our great grand-children and their children, shall we say.”

“Well, uh—”

“But look at it this way, Mr. Simpson. Suppose I merely plan to exhaust my land during my own and my children lifetime. It will be getting worse and worse all the time we are living from it, will it not? It will not go bad all at once. When we have lived half our lives, we shall only be able to take half as much from it as we could at the beginning.

“I guess you’re right about that.”

“Do you ever read any of the bulletins of the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Simpson?”

“well, sure,” lied the salesman, “I’ve read some of ’em.”

“There is one on dry-land farming in the United States—you should get hold of it. According to this bulletin, the farmer in this country can expect to receive a return on his vestment of about 3 per cent a year. That is from crops, livestock, everything. . .”

Simpson laughed again. He saw no possibility of making a e, and he was getting tired.

“Three per cent!” he scoffed. “Why, Mr. Deutsch, I can ow you farmers right in my territory that cleaned up—.”

“But this is for every year,” the German interrupted, ently. “The average for the bad and the good years. And I think it is a little bit high. It does not sound like a great deal, ut over a period of forty years it amounts to about sixty thousand dollars on an investment such as mine. And in one hundred and sixty years it amounts to almost one quarter of a million dollars—and this land will still be earning its 3 per cent one hundred and sixty years from now. . . But I am getting away from my point. If my land, at its flush, earns only 3 per cent, what will its earnings be over a period of forty years if its life is only that? About 1 per cent, eh—less than enough to exist on. And what will be the position of my children and theirs in this valley?” Simpson put the lines back around his neck and laid his hands to the plow handles. “I’ve certainly enjoyed this talk,” he declared. “I think it’s about time I was getting back to town, though.” Deutsch smiled, then laughed openly. (136-137)

He called and they came into the mirror of the window, seemingly fighting for remembrance even as he fought to remember them. They came brashly and shy, swaggering and halting and prissing, laughing, smiling, frowning, grimacing. Good, bad, and indifferent: the real people, the people of the land. And then they were gone, the last of them; and as he burned them forever into his memory, he pressed his face against the window and fought to hold the land:

The land. The good land, the bad land, the fair-to-middling land, the beautiful land, the ugly land, the homely land, the kind and hateful land; the land with its tall towers, its great barns, its roomy houses, its spring-pole wells, its shabby sheds, its dugouts; the land with its little villages and towns, its cities and great cities, its blacksmith shops and factories, its one-room schools and colleges; the honky land, the Rooshan land, the German land, the Dutch and Swede land, the Protestant and Catholic and Jewish land: the American land—the land that was slipping so surely, so swiftly, into the black abyss of the night. (297)

Thompson, Jim ([1946] 1991) Heed the Thunder. New York: Black Lizard.

Invited to Stratford-upon-Avon

This happened once, last August, invited to be one of four people on a stage (not the main stage) for the Royal Shakespeare Company discussing Vienna, the city, Measure for Measure. A wonderful moment in a bad time. A happy memory.

I had not expected to like Stratford-upon-Avon so much. It really was terribly touristy, several hundred years it’s been that way. I suppose I expected just how much is gone, but not that so much should be left…almost anything vaguely of Shakespeare’s time survived if it got through those early crucial years when worship of his work had not quite stretched to full preservation of anything of even remotest connection to him. The 1800s more or less, in 1846 Dickens helped raise funds to buy his birthplace.

The house Shakespeare bought after success (New Place) is gone, but the house he was born in still stands (thanks Dickens!), as does the house he wooed Anne Hathaway in, his grammar school, the homes of his daughter and his friends, the premises of his butcher, the guild hall. Splendid buildings all of them. This is like a vernacular building wonderland.

I loved Anne Hathaway’s cottage most. I walked through town out to Shottery where it sits, across well kept fields. I walked alone, arrived late in the day. The Hathaway family and their descendants lived there until the death of Mary Baker in 1892. Her parlour has been left as it was for the most part, small decorative things, pictures in frames. The simplicity of her life without electricity, running water, indoor toilet. A small area on the upper floor of the cottage where smoke from the fire was diverted to smoke meat.

More than anywhere I’ve been I think, perhaps given the lateness of the hour and fewness of people and the fact that it still retains some remnant of a sense of being lived in, you get a sense of the smallness of it (though it had been expanded greatly since Shakespeare’s time there). A sense of the interior darkness, the crowding, the low ceilings, dim light, everything hand crafted mortise and tenon wise. A life utterly different. Hard to imagine a life lived in such housing as this, in such intimate proximity such absence of privacy. So few things, all made by those known to you.

I confess too I shivered walking the flagstones.

I loved the tales of how much Mary Baker charged for her stories, for postcards, for pieces of the settee where she claimed Shakespeare courted Anne…you can see how it has disappeared little by little. She sounds canny and fabulous.

There is a museum where the New House stood — a lovely garden and a tale of crime: Shakespeare bought New House from a man named William Underhill in 1597, only two months later Underhill was poisoned by his oldest son Fulke Underhill who was hanged in 1599 — all property was confiscated by the crown. The sale was not finalised until 1602 (by youngest brother Hercules!). Still, Shakespeare was holding malt there in 1598 (well, his wife was holding malt there in 1598). She totally kept everything on track as he moved between Stratford and London — he always came back here. I resist so much of the scaffolding of gossip and guessing built around the frame of his life, but I love the fact that this remained home. To return to the New Place as home, even while they waited for full possession of it from the court, the Globe was being built (1599), and Shakespeare’s father died (1601). A hard time.

His birthplace? Hopeless, packed full to wonder at glove making and beds, you troop through in a line. I did like the names of the famous and not-so-famous etched into the glass. His daughter’s home ‘The Cage’ was better. But so many people. I should have visited everywhere late in the day, just before closing. Coaches all gone home so they cannot vomit out their hordes that move past you in waves of people speed viewing, pictures, conversations.

Still. To be honest, I could feast on a diet of Tudor homes for days, I love everything about them.

Just as I loved being there with purpose that would make my folks proud, a slap up fish supper with cheap white wine, and the most swans I have ever seen in one place before.

I wish this travesty of ‘Independence’ day meant anything like adequate precautions were in place, or that we could travel beyond the hospital and its MRI machine. Holiday continues.

From Longsight to The Fairfield Moravian settlement

A long long walk through to neighbourhoods we have not seen before revealed such unexpected treasures today, above all the Fairfield Moravian settlement. We walked through Gorton (increasingly well known) and on to Openshaw, Fairfield, Droylsden. Needing to stretch our legs safely in lockdown, so tired of the streets immediately around us. We went off once again in quest of more blue plaques…quests we enjoy. Mark has posted a badly photographed plaque every day now for weeks, and I love the wander through everyday streets and architectures with a preliminary destination provided by the randomness of human birth and committee-recognised achievement.

We found such extraordinary things on this walk, though sadly as much flytipping as ever. Improved, perhaps, by the presence of creepy dolls and ancient suitcases, cheap chairs sat upright in the road.

We saw flowers growing from walls, the memories of windows and doors and crosses, a canal and some cottages down at an old wharf, geese and the astounding cuteness of goslings, a Moravian settlement of cobbled streets and timeless feel, open fields, huge brick factories in various stages of disrepair and decay, very pleasing sections of older terraced housing, some fascinating church architecture (South Manchester has such a wealth of wondrous churches and mosques with astonishing spires), an extraordinary checkerboarded market building, a variety of old pubs (closed alas all closed), birds attacking a kestrel above the ghosted outlines of a factory long demolished, the library bearing a plaque for Harry Pollitt, former General Secretary and Chairman of the British Communist Party, cats on roofs and staring at us from windows, and the birthplace of Frank Hampson who created the Dan Dare comic strip.

The Moravian settlement was most extraordinary, visited as the site of two plaques but we had no idea what else what there until we found it. A whole community (or what is left of this village and its fields that once covered 60 acres) of Georgian houses opened in 1785, built by Czech Moravians fleeing persecution. The money to build it came from Moravian church member John Lees, who sold two of his mines in Oldham (mines in Oldham!) to raise the £6,000 needed (£6000!). From the church’s website:

Fairfield is a Settlement congregation which was opened in 1785. It was planned and built by its own people, with its inn, shop, bakery, farm, laundry, fire-engine, night-watchman, inspector of weights and measures, an overseer of roads, and even its physician. There were community houses for sisters and brethren, who applied themselves to the varied work of the Settlement.

With the passing of time have come changes. The boarding schools of Fairfield have gone. That for boys, started in 1790, was discontinued in 1891; and the girls’ school, begun in 1796, has passed into the care of the local authority as Fairfield High School for Girls. The work of the Moravian Theological College was transferred to Fairfield in 1875 and continued there in the original Sisters’ House until 1958. Fairfield is no longer a self contained village; no longer does the watchman make his nightly rounds, and in the farm meadows are now streets and houses.

Despite the many changes in the life of the Settlement over the past 200 years, the Church, with its worshipping and serving congregation, remains its focus and heart.

There is a lovely piece in the Manchester Evening News about the museum there (closed sadly but not-sadly of course due to lockdown) and the woman who runs it and was baptised as a baby here. From the news article (well worth a read):

With its own council, inspector of weights and measures, bakery and laundry the Morovians built their own unique community where men and women were equal.

The plaques were for Charles Hindley, first Moravian MP, mill owner and part of the factory reform movement and Mary Moffat who attended the Fairfield Girl’s School, became a missionary to South Africa and whose daughter married David Livingstone. I have left the pictures in the flow of the walk below, simply because they stand in such incredible contrast to the world around them. We were struck by how simple this place is and yet how much better it seemed to work as a place to live, labour, visit than the whole of the area around it. How I would love to live in such a place. Obviously I am a bit obsessive about how urban space works, and some of this has rubbed off on my partner. We spoke about it as we walked the long miles home. Those thoughts and more below:

  • As I stare at my pictures, and the other pleasing examples of terraces we walked past, I am ever more certain that for me it is the height of the ceilings and the size of the windows above all that makes terraced housing most pleasing. The older they are the bigger the windows, and even the most simple two up two downs are thus rescued from what always strikes me as the meanness of so much later housing construction.
  • No asphalt or paved roadways, with nicely wide pavements raised from the roadways but not otherwise distinctive. This makes the whole of the space between buildings feel more unified and for walking or playing in, with cars allowed on sufferance. They are cobbled and obviously this makes them absurdly picturesque, but it is more the narrower cobbled space for cars and the parking set in the middle rather than along the edges that makes this work I think.
  • Likewise I think houses fronting right on the pavements, trees down the middle of the space between the terraces creates more of a sense of community and connection, a shared greenspace but easy (perhaps better said easier) to maintain. But what we could see of the gardens also showed them much loved and beautiful
  • Unified building materials but very differently sized dwellings giving visual interest, adding nooks and crannies and varied surfaces but also a sense that this community has planned for a diversity of household sizes and needs. There is clearly some level of class/status distinction here, but they feel to some extent unremarkable in the face of the quality of building, the greater sense of community expressed by the layout of the buildings and the way people clearly lived side by side.
  • the feeling of artisan rather than mass construction
  • Beautiful communal buildings
  • Well cared for and maintained (I’m guessing few absentee landlords here, and regulations maintaining the ‘historic preservation’ aspect), clean, some houses covered by greenery (my favourites of course) but many not

I found a map of the original settlement that shows the layout and the changing building uses, including the initial building of rooms for single men and women:

By F H Mellowes – Two Hundred Years of Church Service, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6869830

Scrolling down, you meet a statue to honour the early Moravians themselves, and then the village is easy to see emerging from South Manchester. But this walk took us past many streets and buildings and spaces full of character, one of my favourites so far.

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.

More medieval Misogyny, architecture and gardens — Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

I didn’t read the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili properly, eyes drooping amidst its turgid misogyny and lengthy OCD descriptions of classical architecture, sculpture and tits…I realised I had many better things to do. But I skimmed along, I liked the pictures (lol). Glasgow University Library has a great blog on it, they liked the pictures too:

Arguably the most beautiful book of the Venetian Renaissance… Published in 1499 by the renowned printer Aldus Manutius, this magnificently crafted volume is illustrated with 172 woodcuts by an unknown artist.

So…beautiful to look at, but some choice quotes of the reactions of others Glasgow University collected:

The overall literary merit of this work is debatable, and some critics have dismissed it as unreadable. Certainly it is written in an odd hybrid of Latin vocabulary imposed upon Italian syntax; this idiosyncratic language would probably have been as difficult for sixteenth century readers as it is today.

That’s actually pretty cool, if only the content merited it.

Liane Lefaivre, for instance, suggests that it is in many ways a nondescript example of ‘a highly stylized genre’. Professor Weiss, meanwhile, declared it to be ‘a serious runner up for the title of most boring work in Italian literature’.

IT IS SO BORING. But laid out rather beautifully as they say (on the right is an absurd statue that gets like two pages of absurdly erotic description — the priapic satyr? Yikes):

But I pulled out a few bits that weren’t totally boring, it does have lots to interest the gardener or aficionado of medieval clothing. I’d bought it on a whim from a used bookstore years ago, and thought after reading the Decameron (1353) I’d give it a go in this great time of lockdown.

It totally justifies some of Boccaccio’s ill will towards the Venetians.

Like Boccaccio too, it is obsessed with the ancients in all things, looking backwards always for inspiration. But being of its time, there are some choice passages on the plague, near the very end. The first book is Poliphilo wandering in a strange (yet strangely familiar) land. I liked the tiny second book stuck at the end which actually gives the history of Polia and Poliphilo the best to be honest.

These are the words of Polia, the object of the protagonist’s desire (it’s all in the name to be sure).

Very soon after this there occurred a great carnage affecting people of every age and condition. They were infected through the corrupted air by a contagious and deadly plague, and a great multitude died. Dreadful terror and alarm spread over the sickly earth, and people were struck by mortal fear. Everyone sought safety outside the city and took flight to the suburbs and country regions. Such a dreadful mass of people was exterminated that it was suspected that the fetid south wind had brought the plague from humid Egypt, where at the flooding of the turbid Nile the fields are strewn with a multitude of dead animals that putrefy and stink, and that these had infected the air. …

Ah Europeans, always blaming plagues on the dark continents and the whims of nature rather than commerce. She continues:

Due to my own frail and malignant fate, I found myself afflicted by a tumour in the groin. I besought the highest gods, on the chance that they would grant me recovery, while the spreading infection of the plague in my groin gravely weakened me. Because of this everyone deserted me, and I was left behind, except by my nurse, the kindest and best of women, who stayed to care for me and to witness my last breath and the departure of my spirit. Afflicted by the grave malady, raving and wandering, I uttered incoherent words and many a groan and lamentation. But turning inwards I did the best I could, and sincerely invoked the help of divine Diana, because I had as yet no notion of other gods and no religion but of this goddess. So I uttered many a single minded prayer in my trembling voice, and vowed myself to her cold and sacred chastity, promising in my tormented state that I would be her devotee and ever serve her religiously in her sacred temples, in strict continence, if only she would save me from this deadly contagion and sickness. (378-88)

Seems fair enough that after that she would then reject the advances of Poliphilo — also against him is the fact that he is possibly the most annoying, boring man alive, as his lengthy writing style proves beyond doubt. Sadly, he wrote the book, chose the ending, and this is clearly male wish fulfillment at its finest:

Then the fearless nymph turned to me, with her placid and charming presence showing every sign of kindness, and with a sigh uttered hotly from the bottom of her inflamed heart she spoke thus: ‘Dearest and best beloved Poliphilo, your ardent and excessive desire and your constant and persistent love have altogether stolen me away from the college of chastity, and forced me to extinguish my torch….it has cost me no small fire to keep it hidden and concealed in me, and so long suppressed. … A love so worthy should not be left unrequited and denied equal reciprocation and recompense; and consequently I am all prepared for your inflamed desires.

You may throw up just a little in your mouth here and yet it goes on

Look: I feel the fire of fervent love spreading and tingling throughout my whole being. Here I am, the end of your bitter and frequent sighs. Here I am, dearest Poliphilo, the healing and instant remedy of your grave and vexing pains. Here I am, a ready consort for your amorous and bitter suffering and a sharer in everything. Here I am with my profuse tears to quench your burning heart, and to die for you promptly and most devotedly.

what?

And as proof of it, take this!’ She hugged me close and gave me, mouth to mouth, a luscious biting kiss full of divine sweetness, and also a few pearls in the form of tearlets, wrung by singular sweetness from her starry eyes. Inflamed from head to foot by her charming speech and by the mouth-watering and delicious savour, I dissolved in sweet and amorous tears and lost myself completely. Likewise the sacrificial President and all the others, moved with sudden emotion, could not contain their tears and sweet sighs (216-17).

Tearlets? Vomitous. At least she did try to get rid of him. I quite liked this illustration:

She’s refused him, he collapses, she drags him off to a dark corner of Diana’s Temple where he lies dead for a few days. This could have been an awesome feminist murder mystery, an early example of medieval noir.

But no. She had to change her tune, go back for him, bring him to life (of a kind) with her tears and kisses, and become a sacrificial sex doll of a woman.

That’s what counts for a plot.

There are also numerous monsters, this could have been a great medieval bestiary. I liked these drawings too:

But the skinks are too small, unicorns pull carriages and are consumed for dinner, and there is no mayhem whatsoever.

Instead this is mostly an ‘erotic’ yet somehow still boring tale of architecture, sculpture, gardens — and I love all three of these things and yet, god its boring. The illustrations are far and away the best thing about it. Here is one of the less boring descriptions of columns:

The reason that flutings were used for the temple of a goddess is that they represented the folds of feminine garments, while the capitals placed upon them with their hanging volutes indicated the braided hair of women and their ornaments. The Caryatids, which have a female head for the capital, were made for the temple of a rebellious people after their subjugation, because of their feminine inconstancy, whose perpetual memory was signified by columns thus constructed (49)

Thanks a lot.

I did like the sense of what the greatest possible imaginable luxury was of this time though, as well as menus for fine dining:

All the utensils or instruments at this supreme and splendid table were of fine gold, as was the round table in front of the Queen. Now a cordial confection was presented, which I think I am right in saying was a healthy compound made mostly of powdered unicorn’s horn, the two kinds of sandalwood, ground pearls in brandy set alight so as to dissolve them completely, manna, pine-nuts, rosewater, musk and powdered gold: a very precious mixture, weighed and pressed out in morsels with fine sugar and starch. We were given two servings of this, at a moderate interval and without drinking in between. It is a food for preventing every harmful fever and for dispelling all sorrowful fatigue.

After this, everything was taken away in an instant: the fragrant violets were scattered on the ground and the table was stripped. No sooner was this done than the table was covered once more with a sea-coloured cloth, and all the servants were wearing the same. Then, as before, they covered it with fragrant flowers of citrine, orange and lemon, and then presented in vases of beryl (and the Queen’s table was of the same stone, except for the forks, which were of gold) five cakes or fritters made from saffron-coloured dough with hot rosewater and sugar, cooled and finely sprinkled with the same musk-flavoured water and with powdered sugar. (108)

That is quite a meal, though it’s health-giving benefits seem debatable.

I did love the illustrations of classical ruins:

Indeed, the classical motif runs throughout stretching back to Egypt — there are any number of obelisks in here. That was curious.

These ‘hieroglyphics’ are awesome too, a medieval reimagining of the scripts of earlier time.

I also greatly loved these views into homes — bearing out just how different medieval homes were to ours, how much more bare with their furniture along the walls:

But with massive beds (also, love this perspective, and look at the ducks pulling the carriage! Awesome.):

https://marialynce.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/hypnerp426_3489.jpg?w=474

And CATS. Or is that a dog?

And I did, of course I did, love the illustrations of gardens. It is splendid in illustrating medieval gardens.

Particularly this knotwork patterned garden with a list of what should be planted there: cyclamen, myrtle, mountain hulwort, wild thyme, laurentiana, tarragon, achillea, groundsel, idiosmo, terrambula, hazelwort, wild nard, golden-hair. I would like to make one.

I couldn’t recommend you read it, but a good skim through the pictures — excellent.

Colonna, Francesco (or maybe not) ([1499] 2005) Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream, translated by Joscelyn Godwin. London: Thames & Hudson.