Tag Archives: community

The meaning of home: Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Martín

1143647More poetry from Jimmy Santiago Baca, poetry of place and home. Poetry of labour. What it means to build or rebuild a house that will hold you, that will hold meaning. From Martín:

I gutted the plaster frame house,
nailed, puttied, roofed, plumbed,
poured cement, sheet-rocked, tiled, carpeted,
tore-out, re-set,
piled, burned, cleaned, cemented, installed,
washed and painted,
trimmed, pruned, shoveled, raked,
sawed, hammered, measured, stuccoed,
calloused handed, muscle-firmed, sleek hard bodied,
our small house rose
from a charred, faded gravemarker,
a weather-rotted roost
for junkies and vagrants,

wind, rain, and sun splintered
jagged stories of storms on,
I corrected,
re-wrote upon
this plaster wood tablet,
our own version of love, family and power. (47)


But It burns down, this home. They need someplace to stay. Temporary places that don’t fit. These dislocations I share, so rarely found in books.

From Meditations on the South Valley


Cruising back from 7-11
esta mañana
In my 56’ Chevy truckita,
beat up and rankled
farm truck,
clanking between rows
Of shiny new cars–

“Hey fella! Trees need pruning
and the grass needs trimming!”
A man yelled down to me
from his 3rd-story balcony.

“Sorry, I’m not the gardener,”
I yelled up to him.

Funny how in the Valley
an old truck symbolizes prestige
and in the Heights, poverty.

Worth is determined in the Valley
by age and durability,
and in the Heights, by newness
and impression.

In the Valley,
the atmosphere is soft and worn,
things are passed down.
In the heights,
the air is blistered with glaze
of new cars and new homes.

How many days of my life
I have spent fixing up
rusty broken things,
charging up old batteries,
charging pieces of old batteries,
wiring pieces of odds and ends together!
Ah, those lovely bricks
and sticks I found in the fields
and took home with me
to make flower boxes!
the old cars I’ve worked on
endlessly giving them tune-ups,
changing tires, tracing
electrical shorts,
cursing when I’ve been stranded
between Laguna pueblo and Burque.
It’s the process of making-do,
of the life I’ve lived between
breakdowns and break-ups, that has made life
worth living.

I could not bear a life
with everything perfect. (59-60)

Read a book sometimes, and someone captures just what you been missing in these places you been living.


in the Valley at my house
y parcelita de tierra,
I added, raised, knocked down,
until over months and years,
the place in which I lived
had my own character.
I could look at it and see

This apartment
reflects a faceless person,
with no future,
no past,
just an emptiness. (61)

I remember the house my dad built, I want to build a poem too — and I am happy these words have been breathed into the world.  A different kind of home.


After that, the interior of the house
emanating blue dawn light,
full of gusto in the fresh-timber smelling house,
proud of the 3 bedrooms, hallway, livingroom & kitchen,
my finest poem I thought,
that sheltered me from the rain and wind,
as we worked our way
into doors, staining kickboards, putting doorknobs in,
(fine-tuning the poem),
measuring cabinets, leveling the floors,
shimmying here & there,
spitting & stomping, throwing our tools down in disgust
and huffs of temper,
yelling into the cold mornings
at each other, trying to go on and finish
in six weeks. (97-98)


Andrea Hairston and Bernice Reagon: Song and Struggle

Andrea Hairston - MindscapeMindscape by Andrea Hairston is quite an incredible book, I can’t believe it’s her first. Maybe I do, because I confess it just might have taken me a little while and some work to get into it, but damn. I loved this story of hope and struggle and culture and ideals and love and death and some freaky alien future earth. It’s complex and complete with Ghost Dancers and ‘ethnic throwbacks’ in a supposedly postracial world that still hasn’t quite got there (because whiteness still seems like it’s getting in the way), technology and healers and spoken combinations of German and Yoruba. It’s also full of heat and action, symbiogenesis (taking me back to Butler) and plenty of deep thoughts on language, race and struggle. From my favourite character, Lawanda, who sticks to her talk despite being looked down upon for it:

Survival be havin’ words to call home, havin’ idioms and syntax to heal the Diaspora. In your cultural rhythm and rhyme, that’s where the soul keep time. (51)

Her lover, the Major, responds in his intellectual way:

Consider that language, despite science fantasy projections, is essentially conservative, hence our ability to communicate across generations. Even the hippest multi-channeling gearhead uses two-thousand-year-old metaphors, slang (such as “hip”) from 1900 that’s now standard, as well as jazzy, take-no-prisoners inspeak that leaves the rest of us down a corridor as the portal collapses. The battle over language, over naming and experiencing the universe, over what constitutes reality is always fierce. Ethnic throwbacks are ideal warriors in these gory cultural skirmishes. (78)

It’s still one hell of a battle, in SF as much as anywhere.

This novel is all about change through struggle, about launching yourself into the unknown and risking everything to change a world of deep pain and horror. It’s about the people who ground you while that change is happening, and the words and culture and songs you hold on to.

997330I love when things in life coincide, disparate things coming together at the right time — like reading this at the same time I reached the excerpt from a 1986 interview with Bernice Reagon–member of NAACP and SNCC and the Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock, she’s amazing–in Eyes on the Prize: The Civil Rights Reader.

Funny because look here, in the epigraph for Book IV, Hairston quotes Reagon: ‘Standing in a rainstorm, I believe.’

Reagon’s interview has been one of my favourite parts so far in wading through this massive collection a day at a time. She brings together music and tradition to show the ways that these two things only truly become your own through struggle. They root you in the strength of your past, and uplift you in the movement for the future. Mindscape was full of the power of music and harmony to sculpt human and alien reality both.  There is Mahalia Selasie (see what Hairston did there?) and her gospel choir working along with everyone else to create a better future, helping one lost soul after another. To heal, to open, to change. Bernice Reagon on music:

Growing up in Albany, I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song…. Now the singing tradition in Albany was congregational. There were not soloists, there were song leaders.

Like the struggle in which you find your true self:

I know a lot of people talk about it being a movement and when they do a movement they’re talking about buses and jobs and the ICC ruling, and the Trailways bus station. Those things were just incidents that gave us an excuse to be something of ourselves. (143)

She was in Union Baptist Church after the first march, when asked to sing, she added the word “freedom” to a traditional song. She tells us:

I’d always been a singer but I had always, more or less, been singing what other people taught me to sing. That was the first time I had the awareness that these songs were mine and I could use them for what I needed them to.

At that meeting, they did what they usually do. They said, “Bernice, would you lead us in a song?” And I did the same first song, “Over My Head I See Freedom in the Air,” but I’d never heard that voice before. I had never been that me before. And once I became that me, I have never let that me go.

Reading this is pure joy, no? This is the moment that change happens.

I like people to know when they deal with the movement that there are these specific things, but there is a transformation that took place inside of the people that needs to also be quantified in the picture. (144)

This is what Paulo Freire and Myles Horton and Ella Baker and Septima Clark (and I’m getting to the ladies soon, I promise) were all about, and the process that we are enveloped in through Hairston’s novel. Only there’s sex and violence and you never quite know what is going on and it’s all a bit complicated and there are a lot more ants.

I confess, I fucking hate ants. I could have done without the ants, but I honour their place in Mindscape’s mythologies. She does one hell of a job worldbuilding. Just two more quotes — and I confess I singled out the more political bits because that’s how I roll, but it is not especially how the novel rolls so don’t worry. These points are just in there because it’s people working through why things are the way they are, and this shit explains it. Why don’t I have quotes about music? I don’t know, maybe because it’s woven throughout. But I liked this:

Look, ethnic throwbacks do culture not identity politics. We don’t put stock in color. Race is how the world see you, ethnicity is how you see yourself. (121)

I smiled at the next one, I ask this question all the time:

The Last Days… People be past masters at imaginin’ the end of the world–Armageddon, Ragnarök, Götterdämmerung, Apocalypse Now, the Big Crunch–doom and gloom in the twilight of the Gods–but folk’re hard put to imagine a new day where we get on with each other, where we tear it up but keep it real. Why is that? It’s an ole question, but I gotta keep askin’.
— Geraldine Kitt, Junk Bonds of the Mind

I appreciated that in this novel nothing comes easy, least of all love (whether that be for one person or all of them). No one is perfect, but somehow people manage to pull it together and the point of it all is to imagine a new day. It’s inspiring, so maybe I’ll just end with a quote from Septima Clark, who fought all her life for justice and equality and who also knew that your humanity is found in struggle and in change.

But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (Ready from Within, 125)









Starting a Community Garden

To go from gravel covered ground to a vibrant community garden of raised beds is going to take a lot of work, so we thought the sooner we started the better. The 5th of March was chosen and we stuck to it and we had a number of brave and wonderful people brave the weather to join us:


We planned a number of activities so that all ages could participate even at this stage of the community garden, from planting seeds to planting sacks. We set up a few tables in the foyer though, so people could plant some seeds to take away and grow food on their windowsills, and if possible to bring us back a plant or two that could grow and flourish here.


The sack planting was a bit chilly but very cool, and tomorrow’s post will be a complete how-to on how to make your own. They are very useful ways to grows vegetables in small urban spaces like balconies or a little patch of paved garden.



The key learning, however, is that it is not too early for strawberries.

The main things for Saturday, however, was to build one of the large herb beds we want to set alongside the path across the Precinct site, so people can pick fresh herbs for their meals as they walk from Cable Street to the Limehouse DLR and back.

We started with the large but fairly flimsy structure that our first load of firewood was delivered in. To get it in out of the first drops of rain, I had already sawed this in two as you can see:


To shore up those flimsy sides we broke up two other pallets (given to us by a wonderful foreman name of Gary running a building site off Commercial)


And screwed it all together:




At that point it started to hail. We brought it all inside the hub.


Paint doesn’t usually last too long on outdoor beds, cracking and peeling with sun and rain and, er, hail. But we have gallons of marine paint left over from painting the trim on the containers and that is much more resilient, so we went ahead and used that to paint our first herb bed. Half orange and half turquoise.

It isn’t the best paint to use inside and in enclosed spaces, but we made do…

community garden

community garden

We’ll be lining it and filling it with wicking materials to conserve moisture despite the windiness and exposure of our site, then soil and plants, probably also adding a bench to make it somewhere people can sit and enjoy the fragrance once it warms up a bit. Looking at it, I wonder if it doesn’t need a few more planks and a little more solidity, but we’ll be keeping some of the spaces as things will grow as happily out of the side of it as they will from the top. We’ll be posting another how-to once it is all done, but for a first day this was absolutely lovely and we got so much accomplished.

Best of all, I think, was the time we were able to work outside and chat with people on their way through who just came up to to find out what we were doing, to say how happy they were that this vacant piece of land was finally being put to a community use, and even just how much they loved gardens. It really felt like we were creating a sense of community then, and gave us a good taste of what will be possible when the sun is shining and people are looking around for things to do outside…

I’m going to end this gratuitously with a puppy, Nala is the Precinct Art Space’s newest tenant and made Saturday even more wonderful than it was before. Along with always having strawberries, may we suggest trying to find a puppy to join you…

community garden

[also posted on St Katharine’s site]


Starting an author evening in the East End…

Reblogging a work blog…building community through writing along with all the other ways we are working at it.

Every third Tuesday of the month we are planning to hold the Yurt Salon — a night of words, and sometimes music, with authors local and not-so-local. It’s a good question how many local authors and poets we can turn up who live or work within walking distance!

We hope that this will become a night that will bring them together to share their work, to inspire us and to find inspiration. We hope, too, that this might spill over into unexpected encounters in the yurt cafe as people start dropping by, or becoming part of the WorkHub and joining us on a Wednesday, or through any number of ways we might help create and foster a diverse and supportive creative writing community.

Our first Tuesday was an amazing way to kick it all off, mainly through the brilliant efforts of Bobby Nayyar, poet and publisher of Limehouse Books who brought these wonderful poets together and acted as M.C. If you wish to experience the wonderful poetry, albeit at one remove, you can follow the links to their books.

Bobby Nayyar
Bobby Nayyar

Our own Seb opened up the evening, introducing The Royal Foundation of St Katharine and the precinct and all of our greater hopes for this space.

I followed with our efforts to collectively create projects through the community and wellbeing hub, and our standing invitation for all to join in or to work with us to start something entirely new.

This is, in fact, how I first met Bobby — through one of our community conversation afternoons. We had a chat about what was possible and thus the idea behind the yurt salon was born.

It felt amazing to sit in the yurt less than three months and a Christmas holiday later, remember that afternoon back in November. I remember this as empty ground, and now for the first time the yurt was packed just full enough to be splendid without being so rammed it was unpleasant.

photo (c) Limehouse Books

Michelle Madsen kicked it off, lively and energetic and jumping and funny. A little sad. She had the crowd in stitches most of the time, the bittersweet laughter shared because everyone there had shared the emotions and experience behind them.

Michelle Madsen
Michelle Madsen
Photo (c) Limehouse Books
Michelle Madsen, photo (c) Limehouse Books

But her last poem left a silence. A poignant reflection on the state of the world, it set the change of tone.

Gretchen Heffernan was a very different performer altogether. Soft spoken, caught up in her words not the audience. She didn’t play to us, but read quickly. We didn’t always know where one poem ended and another began in time to clap, but her words were beautiful and carried us away. Her last poem I remember best too, on the beach. The wonder at our power to create a human being. Seeing living things in the stones.

Gretchen Heffernan, photo (c) Limehouse Books
Gretchen Heffernan, photo (c) Limehouse Books

Then a break! Time for wine, or beer if that was your fancy, or water or juice or the most delicious hot chocolate you have yet tasted, with or without cointreau. And cheese — by plate or baked in a toastie.

Bobby started the second set…it is funny to see someone you know and have worked with, transform himself through powerful words that try to express all those things we never talk about in everyday conversation. He succeeded in expressing those things — memory, loss, love. It was, in fact, wonderful. These powerful, short poems poured out…the emotion deflected a little at the end of each one by a joke.

photo (c) Limehouse Books
Bobby Nayyar, photo (c) Limehouse Books

Before planning this evening, I had no idea quite how pun heavy it all would be, but it stood in such contrast to the poems from Glass Scissors, whose beauty knocked me over just a bit.

We finished the poetry with Sophia Blackwell, charisma personified there on stage, wearing the most marvelous shoes. I sat in terror, worried she might fall between the boards of our upcycled pallet stage I had earlier been so proud of.


Sophia Blackwell, photo (c) Limehouse Books
Sophia Blackwell, photo (c) Limehouse Books

She knew all of her poems by heart, told of love and loss, invited us into her life. She shocked and awed. It was a wonderful finish.

Break again! And then the wonderful harmonising of Long Stride Lizzy (who I am afraid I persisted obstinately in calling Thin Stride Lizzy because, well, you know. Thin Lizzy. I can’t apologise enough!) But they are their own, near perfect sound, and you will love them if you love bluegrass or part singing, and have any desire at all to enjoy thoughtful, beautiful often funny lyrics. Another form of poetry.



Music was the perfect way to end I think, and they performed an old old song to finish — Green Apples. I imagine they didn’t know it, but Raymond was sat next to me who knew all the words and might well have remembered when it first came out in popular form…it was a gift to him. It made me happy.

As did the whole night, we could not have asked for a better start. I was trying to convey how wonderful it was to Carrie Ffoulkes, who is also a poet and part of the team for convening these evenings and sadly unable to make it. I said — I can’t tell if we don’t have to worry too much about future events, or the bar has been set too high.

I still can’t tell. But I am so much looking forward to the next one. I am also glad some of the work is behind us, as preparations for the night included much that was new for us. Seb was here for hours the night before setting up the speakers and figuring out the PA system, and working on some spotlights (they looked beautiful I think). Gabby and I worked on a small stage. More upcycled and recycled wood!


To what we hoped was a striking design using the precinct colours, which are symbolic of the three different areas of the precinct this event brought together — yellow (eat: share food, drink and conversation at the cafe), turquoise (connect with the community), and orange (create, used in the ArtSpace).


Arguable there was plenty of reflection happening as well, both during the poems and after as they resonated through the evening.

Our next Yurt Salon will be on 15th of March, celebrating the new short fiction anthology being brought out by Open Pen (found nearby on Commercial Road) and Limehouse Books. We really can’t wait. But between now and then, there are three more Yurt Lates, running every Tuesday from 6:30 to 9 pm. They will be:

Tuesday, 23rd Feb — World Bingo

Tuesday, 1st March — Social evening

Tuesday, 8th March — Boardgame Night

We hope to see you at one or all!


Bertrand Goldberg: Dans La Ville

You can find Michel Ragon’s Goldberg: Dans La Ville or On the City, online now, part of the wonderful website that has tried to collect everything available on Bertrand Goldberg and his work. The book itself in physical form is long out of print and not to be found anywhere.

Myself, I’ve wanted to find out more about Goldberg since his work first stopped me dead in my tracks on a visit to Chicago, and I heard a little about his ideas and his ideals on the river cruise tour of Chicago’s architecture:

Chicago Skyline

Here his ideals are as described by Michel Ragon in Goldberg: Dans la Ville:

To save the heart of the city to rehabilitate, repopulate. revitalize the modern city, best characterizes Bertrand Goldberg ‘s architecture. His work is completely oriented toward the problems of the modern city. It is first of all an urban architecture, a high density architecture, an act of faith in the technical, industrial and mercantile city.

Thus Ragon places him in the tradition of Louis Sullivan rather than the 2nd Chicago School —

He thereby finds himself in opposition to both of the great Chicago leaders who followed that first Chicago School: Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. In opposition to Frank Lloyd Wright, because Wnght, by embracing Rousseau’s philosophical celebration of the American prairie pioneers is a dis-urbanist; in opposition to Mies van der Rohe, because this leader of the second Chicago School was hardly concerned with the city, setting his jewel-like glass boxes down like strange objects in an urban landscape to which they contribute no new life.

Marina City, totally contradicted Mies ‘ work. Not only by its
form, in which the curve “thumbed its nose ” at the right angle, but also by its material (concrete instead of steel). Beginning with this architectural manifesto, Bertrand Goldberg undertook a veritable crusade against box architecture, advocating the naturalist shell form over the abstraction of the parallelepiped rectangle. In Chicago, Bertrand Goldberg ‘s Marina City (1963) seems to be a reply, almost an affront, to Mies ‘s Lake Shore Drive apartments (1951). The disciple revolts. (011)

I love this quote from Goldberg about this revolt:

“I was revolting against a century of static space, against the straight line, against the idea of man made in the image of the machine. All of Mies’ drawings are identical, whether they are meant to describe a factory, a hospital, or a private home. Mies perceived architecture like an artist, and the inhabitants as people who could be folded to fit inside. Faced with the realization that modern urban planning was heading for a catastrophe, if I turned to Mies to find an answer, it seemed to me that Mies was not an urbanist, but rather an anti-urbanist. In the end I transcended the notion of Mies’ post-and-beam structures without realizing it. Moving beyond these structures was inevitable. My own structures were geocentric. For Mies what was clear was in the form, not in the function. Now what is important to me is to give clarity to the function. Mies ignored the potential of American machines which could transform the nature of materials. He was a synthetic thinker rather than an innovator.” (017)

This led him in search of very different shapes and forms, a very different architecture:

His concern for man, for man ‘s development in an architecture which would no longer be box architecture, but rather a reassuring envelope, like an egg or a womb… (012)

but the form always had very practical reasons behind it, and demanded new materials:

Goldberg abandoned steel in favour of concrete because it was
the only material which allowed him to use the shell technique, and he proposed a round architecture because the cylindrical form reduces the effects of the wind force in a very windy city. But with their sixty-five stories, the Marina City towers became the tallest building in the world using this shape and this technique. (013)

And I love how he experimented with them, using his skills and imagination to try and meet the very real needs of a world emerging from war:

In any case, from his return from the Bauhaus until the Second World War, Bertrand Goldberg produced a great number of industrializable products . He wanted to create for the masses. Son and grandson of Illinois brick-makers , he was a child of the factory and the machine. Thus he studied the prefabrication of steel furniture, bathrooms , kitchens, and homes. He was completely absorbed by individual procedures and their applications to architecture. He designed prototypes for prefabricated houses with the aeronautic industry during the war. He also designed armament containers which could be transformed into housing once they reached Europe. (015)

3. A view of a unit bathroom appliance which contained a bathtub, shower, lavatory, water closet and plumbing. 4. A view of the shower fixture which was pivoted to permit a variety of uses. 5. A view of bathing a small child in the lavatory basin. 6. A view of the lavatory which was pivoted to swing either over the bathtub or over the water closet. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
3. A view of a unit bathroom appliance which contained a bathtub, shower, lavatory, water closet and plumbing. 4. A view of the shower fixture which was pivoted to permit a variety of uses. 5. A view of bathing a small child in the lavatory basin. 6. A view of the lavatory which was pivoted to swing either over the bathtub or over the water closet.

Out of this developed a new kind of architectural philosophy

A space created by a force (an egg) is different from one created by an intellectual concept (a box). The egg, the womb, the bee hive are forms which were brought about by forces. This leads Goldberg , through a paraphrase of the famous slogan “Form follows function” used by all proponents of functionalism, from Sullivan to Le Corbusier, passing through the Bauhaus, of course, to declare “Function creates form.” Thus the forces of structures more than the shapes of structures are what guide Bertrand Goldberg’s quest. And for a compact and complex architecture forming the equivalent of a neighborhood or a small city, this multiplication of forces and their interconnection are what must be taken into account. “When you create a building, says Goldberg , “you think of a structure, but when you create a community, you think of a series of forces reacting with each other.”

5. A view of the concrete balconies in the Marina City residential towers. Every habitable room in the towers opens onto a balcony. 6. The steel frame supporting the sprayed concrete lead-sheeted roof of the theater building. 7. The circular parking structure and the beginning of the apartment levels which both surround the already completed core structure. 8. Schematic floor plan of the structure of the apartment buildings. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
5. A view of the concrete balconies in the Marina City residential towers. Every habitable room in the towers opens onto a balcony. 6. The steel frame supporting the sprayed concrete lead-sheeted roof of the theater building. 7. The circular parking structure and the beginning of the apartment levels which both surround the already completed core structure. 8. Schematic floor plan of the structure of the apartment buildings.

So he thought about buildings in terms of forces and their relationships with each other, and this emerged out of a detailed observation of the forces that would be contained within his buildings:

Bertrand Goldberg ‘s architectural philosophy has been particularly useful as it is expressed in his hospitals: he never regarded a hospital as a building, but rather as an ensemble of social relations and functions for which architecture was supposed to be the graphic illustration. Bertrand Goldberg always devotes himself to a scientific study of the patterns of life in those settings he is responsible for designing. In hospitals the medical systems impose numerous restrictions on the architect which he must translate into architectonic shapes.

Health Sciences Centre -- State University of New York, Stony Brook. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
Health Sciences Center — State University of New York, Stony Brook


View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been used in many of Bertrand Goldberg's hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough : the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been used in many of Bertrand Goldberg’s hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough: the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns.


St Joseph's Hospital, Tacoma, with a schematic plan of the design for the surgical rooms. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
St Joseph’s Hospital, Tacoma, with a schematic plan of the design for the surgical rooms.

This concern for community, for human beings and their needs translated into a concern about the health of cities as a whole.

“The hard core of urban planning,” observes Bertrand Goldberg further “is people.” That means the users of architecture, the users of the city. (019)

2. Children use the public areas between the elderly and family buildings. The site plan was designed to promote the participation of the elderly residents in the activities of the children. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
Raymond Hilliard Center — Children use the public areas between the elderly and family buildings. The site plan was designed to promote the participation of the elderly residents in the activities of the children.

The following thoughts fascinate me as the phenomenon of white flight connected to capitalism’s spatial fix (the subject of my thesis after all) is here looked at so superficially, as a natural phenomenon almost, and an attempt made to save the central city by providing what they believe people seem to be in search of…They were in the middle of it after all, and I cannot help but applaud the effort and the unwillingness to accept the movement of whites and resources to the suburbs.

All large American cities saw their central population moving out to the expanding suburbs around their periphery. Chicago was no exception. Lewis Mumford spoke of modern cities in terms of “necropolis,” and Mc Luhan in Understanding Media (1964), affirmed that he was a resolute dis-urbanist. And Gutkind in The Twilight of Cities (1962), revived the thesis of the dispersion of living so dear to Frank Lloyd Wright, and declared ” Cities as we know them cannot survive’.’

Bertrand Goldberg observed the same exodus, but his conclusion was completely different. The sclerosis of downtown areas seemed to him to be a warning symbol of agony of a humanistic culture which he therefore intended to defend. To the originality of its round form Marina City added the much greater originality of creating , in two vertical blocks, a mini-city in which living, work, and recreation would mingle as they had done formerly in traditional cities. By situating his two towers on the bank of the Chicago River, Bertrand Goldberg was reconnecting symbolically with the old theme of water as a factor in urban animation. And since transportation and communication have become key words in contemporary life, he grafted his two apartment towers onto a port for boats and a garage for cars. Thus these two buildings were directly linked to the river, to Lake Michigan, and to the street. They didn’t constitute a privileged island in an amorphous center, but rather a kind of radiator (doesn’t their shape suggest a car radiator more than the ears of corn with which they are often compared?) which was to heat up lukewarm urban life. (012)

Ragon asks him this question  — ‘So why persist, then, in believing in the city as a moral and spiritual value?’ He answers:

“Because…people need to communicate personally with each other. This is a primitive instinct which architecture must understand, even if governments don ‘t always understand.” For,” says Goldberg, “communication makes community’.’

After communication , there is a second word which recurs the most often in his speech: community. (018)

This focus means he saw things very differently from most planners and architects of his time — the same ones we now excoriate (or some of us do anyway) for a nightmare of unsustainable sprawl and toxic and segregated lifestyles. This means he is a very interesting figure to return to in thinking about how we reimagine our cities, especially in light of energy descent:

Contrary to the urban planning tendency which favors the suburbs and decentralizes the city, Bertrand Goldberg believes that urban life will only be improved by increasing the population density. Denser urban communities would make it possible to finance public transportation , to develop high-technology companies, to offer an intense cultural life, and to economize energy resources. High density urban design would also make it possible to reduce the costs of housing and to lower rent prices…(018)

“A city can no longer afford the burden of buildings which are only used thirty-five hours a week,” adds Goldberg. “Spatial urban planning must therefore be multifunctional, and as open, as mobile, as possible. Cities, if they are not to wallow in perpetual budget deficits, must function all day long, spreading their operating costs among commerce, education, housing, leisure activity, and high-tech industries.” (019)

I’m not sure that density is in fact any more sustainable than other models on this scale, though Ragon states that:

In any case, Marina City demonstrated that a high population density in a well thought-out space didn’t cause any problems . The nine hundred families at Marina City, who form one of the most dense populations in the western world, live in perfect harmony. The rooms which expand from the center of the tower toward the outside give the impression of being larger than they actually are. And in summer, the barbecues on the balconies create the congenial feeling of an Indian camp . (012)

But there was a whole movement of tower blocks and megastructures that has to some extent been discounted these days. That said, I think many would still jump at the chance to actually live in one of Goldberg’s buildings:

And since we are discussing architectural futurology , Bertrand Goldberg ‘s work since 1959 illustrates another one of its notions: the megastructure, although he never uses this term, neither in his conversation nor in his numerous writings. Bringing together all the functions of a neighborhood in one architectural unit, conceiving thick buildings that reduce energy consumption , breaking down the classic skyscaper with buildings linked by horizontal as well as vertical passageways, moving in some way toward a spatial urban design : these are some of the advantages of the megastructure. But Bertrand Goldberg never uses the term “megastructure,” because he is wary of it. For him, megastructures like those proposed by the futurology of the sixties are too large. He prefers, as in his Stony Brook building , to separate the megastructure into sections and create focal points so that people can orient themselves and form clusters of activity. (014)

Goldberg: Dans la Ville
A view of the office building supported above its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling alley and commercial retail space. The roof of the base is a recreational terrace for the office employees. The ten floors of office space are supported on a transfer system created by the columns.

Interesting that this also began in a way with Louis Sullivan here in Chicago:

In the tone of Bertrand Goldberg ‘s writings and in their philosophy there is an evident kinship with Sullivan, even with the mixed-use building which Louis Sullivan undertook as his first influential work. The Chicago Auditorium Building (1886-1889), a gigantic architectural complex , included an auditorium, meeting rooms, offices, and a hotel. And the skyscrapers were of course the first stage in this history of three-dimensional urban design which Bertrand Goldberg fully intends to bring to a new, influential form, moving from the static to the kinetic. (020)

Goldberg: Dans la Ville
Louis Sullivan – Auditorium theater. Chicago, Illinois, 1889.

There is also in both an idea of community and democracy that became centered in Chicago’s architectural traditions:

Like the poet Walt Whitman, who united the machine and democracy in his songs. Sullivan believed that from industrial society a profoundly democratic society would be born; the Chicago School became one of the first artistic expressions. And his disciple Frank Lloyd Wright, like him, bestowed a moral mission on architecture, proclaiming democratic convictions which his architecture was supposed to help propagate and consolidate.

There is much more here, particularly in Goldberg’s two essays that have been included and that I think I just might look at separately.



Building benches at Canning Town Caravanserai

Canning Town Caravanserai is an incredible space right beside the Canning Town DLR, ‘architect Ash Sakula’s innovative concept for a dynamic and economically sustainable 21st Century Urban Public space.’ But so many people have been involved building and creating things there (look at this outpouring of creativity and effort), and it has been all about recycling, reusing, reimagining. There is a cafe and theatre space, tables and chairs and room for workshops and so much more.



These extraordinary ripples of color are actually created from old saris pressed into the the shape of corrugated iron and encased in something to make them hard and strong and waterproof…





It has been up for over four years now and so much has happened here — and sadly it is all coming to an end. You should definitely get down there for the final closing down party this Saturday, September 26th and a final week of events, including two productions of Macbeth and some dancing and steel drums and more… Still, it was only ever meant to be a temporary ‘oasis-like meeting and trading post’, and its spirit will be carried on in the projects it has inspired and supported with help making and imagining things.

Like this Wednesday when Che and Makhosi helped Gabby and I build two beautiful benches that will soon sit in our yurt cafe. They are built entirely from pallets — here are some of the ones we used for our project. We hope now when you see them discarded and sitting on the pavement, you might not just walk past…


We started with a very simple design:


Which was made reality through playing with wood, bringing together pallets of the same shape and general feel (there are many varieties of pallet as you soon learn…) and thinking about ways to make it lighter, sturdier.


Then the sawing began — old school, and extremely beneficial for the upper arms:




Almost before we knew it, the first bench was done…though there was some extra work in a removal of excess slats after thinking through how to build it in a way that would allow us to sand it all down and remove splinters, and then varnish or paint it — I think we’re going to do a bit of both, but in the next few weeks.


The second one came together with a little more work, because the form of the pallets wasn’t quite as amenable, and they were much fuller of rusty nails. Forests of them. This work saves wood from landfills, reduces the demand for new timber…it’s part of both the ethics and the aesthetics we hope to promote in St Katharine’s precinct. It’s not meant to stand forever, but to recycle materials and be recycled in its turn when the project is done. It does take extra time but we still managed to finish them both.


Here they are in formation, as we hope to see them in the cafe alongside the stove.


This was a wonderful project and we hope to do several more. The main lessons we took away were:

  1. Just how immensely fulfilling and good it feels to build things like this yourself, to work with your hands and take something like a pallet and make it into something newly useful and beautiful.
  2. Having someone who knew what they were doing and wholly enthusiastic about this kind of work made the experience enjoyable instead of just hard work, especially at the end — so an immense thanks again to Che and Makhosi.
  3. It took much longer than we expected — that seems like such an obvious thing, but good to keep in mind. Just plan to give it a day, because you’ll want a bit of a rest after as well…
  4. Our group of 3-4 was about the right size for this project building to a new design, more people wouldn’t have had much to do without a larger project planned in much more detail in advance and some thought given to splitting up tasks — but that is hard because it was through the process of actually building it that we made lots of small and impromptu decisions to improve the design. You’re also limited by the tools available — hammers, electric drills, saws, chisels.
  5. This would have been faster with a crowbar. We need to get a crowbar. And a large selection of screws. And something that helps remove or break off long rusty nails that does not require quite so much brute force.
  6. It was important to have a wide range of pallets available to mix and match sizes and styles and etc…
  7. Did I mention how wonderful it is to be outside and to build things with your hands? It’s wonderful. I had somehow forgotten. It’s definitely something we need to think more about as we explore how people can find out what wellbeing means for them here at St Katharine’s.

You can visit and even sit on our new benches if you head to the Caravanserai this weekend, they will provide seating for the final festivities before they come home to us.

[also posted on St Katharine’s blog]


Donald Appleyard on Creating Livable Streets

51EDGFKJ6AL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_This is a splendid book of studies, both of traffic and of community. It opens with my favourite sentence of the whole book:

Nearly everyone in the world lives on a street. People have always lived on streets. They have been the places where children first learned about the world, where neighbors met, the social centres of towns and cities, the rallying points for revolts, the scenes of repression. But they have also been the channels for transportation and access; noisy with the clatter of horses’ hooves and the shouts of their drivers, putrid with dung, garbage and mud, the places where strangers intruded, and criminals lurked. (1)

I think in many ways Appleyard proves many of the things we fighting to improve our cities instinctively know, these studies should have formed a baseline for all community building and traffic interventions in all countries.

They clearly didn’t.

Look how long this was written:

Neighboring: One of the most significant and discussed aspects of street life is the amount and quality of neighboring (Suttles, 1972, Gans, 1968 and Jacobs, 1961). Its interruption or “severance” has been identified as one of the primary measures of transportation impact in Britain (Lee, 1975). (35)

And this:

Traffic as the Most Widespread Problem The dominance of traffic as a problem on all street types is the most salient–and counterintuitive–finding of the study, since crime is commonly perceived as our major urban street threat. (59)

The photographs are wonderful:


Mrs. Hampton from Camden Town, attempting to get home in 1976:


These good old days of fashion and street life:


But the real innovations were the ways he made visual the data from questionnaires and observations.

There are a few people still fighting for livable streets, for instance you can see quite a splendid animation of his ideas here on the website StreetFilms, or here, a roundup of other ways these ideas continue to live on and how they are struggled over where I found the map below:


Because I am not alone in loving most of all these wonderful illustrations, the way they show the city as it works, the city as it is lived.

My  favourites were from this study of traffic and community:


This is the same illustration I found in Jan Gehl’s book and that brought me here:


Here people drew the area they felt was their own territory, in light traffic it included both the home and the street, the common spaces shared between neighbors. This could not exist on the heavily trafficked streets.


How wonderful are these, another representation of how we life in our homes, how we use our rooms and the ways that the external environment changes those patterns. It’s something I never really thought of before:

IMG_2541 IMG_2543

To end, this fabulous illustration that looks so innocent yet contains some rather radical ways to improve the street.



For more…



Racist Real Estate Text Books of an Earlier Era

Stanley McMichael. Ugh. Though if you want a vintage encapsulation of how subdividers worked in the 1930s-50s and probably after through racist real estate text books, hurrah. This is an extremely detailed nuts and bolts handbook for developers creating subdivisions with occasional chapters by other experts in the field. It contains check-lists for getting things through planning, sample contracts and deeds, detailed explanations of how and what to build and what creates value. It opens like this however:

‘POSSESSION AND USE of land, since the very dawn of human history, has been the most interesting and important business pursuit of mankind. Biblical history, the oldest written record of human events, is replete with real estate transactions and there is scarcely a book in the Old Testament in which reference is not made to land and its possession.

Adam was the first to be given possession of land, subject, however, to certain restrictions. Through the reported connivance of his co-tenant, Eve, these restrictions were broken and the first eviction occurred, for God banished them from the Garden of Eden. Adam had been given no deed to the land and not even a one dollar consideration was on record as having been paid. Indeed, the first real estate transaction was actually a conditional lease in perpetuity, contingent upon observance of certain covenants. Violation of one of these covenants led, subsequently, to a long series of litigations, which have been responsible for more clogged legal docket than any other phase of human behavior. [7]

From Adam it moves along to other old testament figures, then jumps quickly to George Washington before reaching the builders of today. Both extraordinary and vomitous, I confess. But the reason for it is because for all of its focus on the how-to of subdividing and development, this book recognises that ‘The place for social control of land to start is through the subdivider himself‘. Which is why we should care about it, and read rubbish like this. And this is essentially a manual for building a divided, unequal and bigoted society really, representing the leading theory of the time as pushed by the National Real Estate Board, the Federal Housing Adminstration and multiple others in the field.

First you have to split people up by class

The subdivider knows that “birds of a feather flock together.” It is a wise assumption and consequently there must be a variety of allotment properties, possessing definite social grades and distinctions to fit into community life. The location and character of the land to be subdivided usually suggest the class of buyers that will be most readily attracted and accommodated. [21]

and develop accordingly:

While expensive pavements, curbs, and sidewalks go well with the higher classes of development they are not so necessary in most allotments where workingmen aim to make their homes.

Of course it celebrates the suburbs, you develop low density for automobiles, separate residential from commercial. They are designing neighborhoods for people whose top 3 out of 4 reasons for buying a home they believe are about status:

Among the motives that cause buyers to acquire subdivision property are:

(1) Desire to own a home
(2) Desire to “put up a front”
(3) Ambition to outshine his neighbors by living in a better district
(4) Imitation-a “follow the leader” impulse, caused by seeing his friends move into better neighborhoods

Thus the primary goals of such an individual when choosing his (and it is of course, a him)subdivision are protection

The purchaser who buys a lot-particularly for a home-reasonably expects certain benefits to accrue, among which are these: that the restrictions will establish a district in which future improvements will conform to minimum standards as to cost, character, and location thereof; that he will be protected against the possibility of undesirable neighbors; that the restrictions are designed to accomplish the complete and economic use of the tract …

A protection which is far more important than any other larger sense of public feeling or obligation, thus quite a lot of time is spent in looking at how best to protect him, and you have to really appreciate the candour and honesty of the old days:

zoning restrictions, to be valid, must be substantially related to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare. They must operate uniformly for the general public welfare; they cannot be created for the benefit of any particular group, nor discriminate against another. Furthermore, “since the police power cannot be invoked by purely esthetic considerations, zoning ordinances merely seeking to promote or protect the beautiful, or to preserve the appearance of the neighborhood, are unauthorized.”

Deed restrictions, on the other hand, may be imposed in any manner and for any purpose that will best serve the desire of the subdivider and of the lot owners. In contrast to zoning ordinances, such restrictions need not necessarily promote public health, safety, morals, or general welfare of the public-they may be intended to create a particular character of neighborhood desirable only to the subdivider or the tract owners, and may be based upon “purely esthetic considerations.” They may be uneconomic, discriminatory, and utterly unsuited for the character of community development which should be sought; but they are, nevertheless, valid contract obligations which may be enforced [181]

The book has three chapters devoted to restrictions, a full chapter to race restrictions. Can they still be enforced? McMichael writes:

Chief Justice Vinson, who wrote the decisions covering the two cases, declared that the application of restrictive clauses to the sale of real estate violates the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but he further definitely specified that it “erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful.” This means, it is generally conceded, that two persons can make a contract that will be binding between them but it cannot be enforced against all comers. [202]


‘That the entry of non-Caucasians into districts where distinctly Caucasian residents live tends to depress real estate values is agreed to by practically all real estate subdividers and students of city life and growth. Infiltration at the outset may be slow, but once the trend is established, values start to drop, until properties can be purchased at discounts of from 50 to 75 per cent.’

yet non-Caucasians are going to keep moving into cities, McMichael asks the key question,

‘What remedy will solve this tremendous problem and protect the interests of subdividers, as well as the owners of property in selective sections of our great cities? [204]’

He quotes the full address of the president of the California Real Estate Association stating their reasons for pushing an amendment to the constitution giving owners the ‘right’ to discriminate, grandfathered of course. Then gives another little gem from Glendale real estate expert, which is worth quoting in full as McMichael does

The president of a real estate board can arrange for a meeting of a small group of persons interested in helping to solve this problem locally. To this meeting invite persons representing each of such groups as: the real estate board, real estate brokers not members of [208] the board, the local lending agencies, the chamber of commerce, the merchants association, and the planning commission. At this meeting the problem can be discussed and a general planning committee can be appointed to work out a long-range plan whereby certain portions of the community will be designated, and agreed upon by those interested, as most suitable for the residence of nonwhites, a location where they and their children would be more likely to be contented and happy than in an all-white neighborhood.
After this general committee makes a careful study of the problem, it should report its findings with recommendations to the original group, who, in turn, should report back to their various groups, each reporting suggestions or recommendations as to what can be done by his organization to help further the general plan. Part of the program should be to develop a “sales talk” setting forth the advantages which would accrue to the nonwhites by having their own neighborhoods apart from the all-white sections.

In cities where certain races predominate in some neighborhoods, especially when it appears that the residents are more contented among people of their own race, the program should cover that situation as well as the general segregation of whites and nonwhites.

The value of real estate depends upon its salability, or marketability. Marketability depends largely upon desirability. Maximum desirability of residential property depends importantly upon the neighbors being harmonious. For this reason, racial segregations are often advisable because persons of the same race have a tendency to possess similar tastes, traits and tendencies which encourage the harmonious relationships so important in making a neighborhood a desirable place in which to live.

there are some humerous moments of course, when you suddenly realise that hot-dog stands could cause ruin to residential property values, but really this is just a long explanation of so much of what is wrong with America, complete with sample residential restrictions and articles of incorporation for Homeowner Associations, their best bets for keeping undesirables out.

[McMichael, Stanley L. 1949. Real Estate Subdivisions. Prentice-Hall.]

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

381359Jane Jacobs (1961)

One of the books that all planners are supposed to have read, I know it’s a bit shocking that I have only now read it. And regrettable. It deserves every ounce of it’s status as a classic (if such status were to be measured in ounces). It’s eminently readable (and isn’t that a pleasure in a book of this kind), but also incredibly insightful and of course I love how it resonates so brilliantly with my experience living in many different cities while toppling most accepted planning theory. The more diverse cities are, the more people love them. The more people on the street at all different times of day, the safer and more enjoyable those streets are. High foot traffic allows a glorious flowering in the kinds of local businesses to spring up, and those in turn provide stability and attraction to the street. The longer people stay in neighborhoods and the more they feel pride and ownership and love for them, the better those neighborhoods become. It’s brilliant to be able to walk out of your door and buy what you need within a few blocks, getting to know the shop owners as you do so. Kids growing up in this environment feel a sense of civic engagement and helpfulness, and are accountable and supervised by a multitude of friendly and known adults. And who could know better the improvements and changes needed for a neighborhood than those who live there?

And yet planning over decades has worked to destroy all this.

This is a practical and eminently sensible account of what makes city neighbourhoods work. I think its weaknesses are highlighted by the fact that it is a rare popular book read by those who are not planners, and accepted as a classic amongst urban planners themselves, and yet, although written in 1961, has had remarkably little effect on how planning occurs or how urban development takes place. This points to the questions that Jacobs answers only superficially — why exactly planning and development have taken the shape they have. That is truly a tragedy for it is full of brilliant and insightfully practical suggestions on how to improve both. It does look at the process of redlining, it has some analysis of racism and classism and prejudice, but not enough. And ultimately the driving forces of profit and capitalism are left unquestioned. To find those you have read David Harvey and Neil Smith and a host of others. I don’t think that makes the insight offered by Jacobs any less, simply incomplete, and highlights the fact that a more fundamental change in how we develop and plan our cities is required, one based upon need and increasing vitality rather than the greatest profit.