Architecture is compelling because it offers a lens through which lives and values can be understood.
Or, as McCarter and Pallasmaa put it:
“The real purpose of Architecture is not to create aestheticised objects as spaces, but to provide frames, horizons and settings for experiencing and understanding the world and, finally, ourselves.”1
For the past five years, the University of Western Australia has been revealing architecture and this purpose to me, and, to this end, my student portfolio now bulges with thoughtful acts of design, premised on a range of societal and cultural phenomena – a humanitarian crisis on Lampedusa; the study of Cypriot antiquities; the collection of Thai atmospheric dust; healthcare service accessibility for rural Tanzanians – and so on.
These intellectual encounters are well-intentioned and worthwhile, though, I admit to eventually becoming bothered by their heady eclecticism. You see, I thought that McCarter and Pallasmaa had placed ourselves critically, tantalisingly, in relation to architecture and the universe?
Yet, the work left no clue as to how I might emerge.
Naturally, I thought of myself initially as architect, as Rowan Moore had done –“the individual creator, whose unique life history and genius makes him or her the best possible person to realise [their] ideals”2. But the last thing my subjects needed was the additional, incongruous feature of my own life and experiences to become entangled with them, and the lives of the unknown others whose plight had been imagined.
Otherwise, I was architecture’s intended recipient – though this, too, led to uncertainty. The subject matter had me worrying that architecture’s prestige was best reserved for special occasions, and, by definition, I would be unlikely to find my own story finding place within it. This wasn’t so much a matter of personal pride, it just seemed that architecture – space and meaning – was simply for others.
Was the University confusing architecture with status, on my behalf? I couldn’t be sure.
Either way, myself and the revelations of architecture, seemed fated to remain apart.
“pride and reason; two irreconcilable terms.”3 (Gaston Bachelard)
More probably, I had become confused about my own status within architecture, and the surroundings which lead to understanding.
This realisation arrived at me in the unexpected form of a Frenchman called Xavier De Maistre, who, in 1790, had thought to take a journey around his bedroom, and write about it. This, he closely followed with an account of a second journey – around the same room – though this time at night, and in so doing became an early pioneer of a type of literature dealing with spatial self-exploration and meaning4. I found similar, contemporary accounts – David Malouf’s 12 Edmondstone Street, Bill Bryson’s Home, Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things, and Witold Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful House In The World – all of which thought to frame their author’s contemplations within the same place: home.
Here were better clues for how authentic, personal meaning might arise within space.
Encouraged by these examples, I looked to my own home and suburban surroundings. What would they say about me?
It was difficult to say – the familiarity was stifling.
So instead, I flew 14,470km home, to England. My former homeland seemed a better place to search for myself, and could at least – because architecture had arrived to me during an Australian period of existence – be looked upon through uniquely fresh and re-trained eyes.
I make no apology, by the way, for using the fullest extent of the label home, to refer to a huge variety of places (nation, city, town, street, dwelling, etc.) and situations (origin, present, past, outlook, identity, ownership and psychology, etc.) and, confusingly, which may apply to several of these at once. Regardless, you’ll recognise the density and power home brings to the thing, and to our sense that we deserve to belong to it.
l: original marketing material, approx 1975; r: 1979
At this point of encountering though, home was its most conventional thing: a house – the one I grew up in – and which was, through mishap, unoccupied – my spontaneity having had no regard for my parent’s leisure schedule. This presented the house as a pure, unhindered artifact – like a museum object – for my inspection.
Home seemed somewhat indifferent to my 22 year absence. We had both changed in different ways. I had been to universities, married, travelled the world, changed citizenship, and raised children. It had acquired a pointy roof and an electronic garage door; lost a gate, a dense fern hedge, and most of its gaudy clothing – the orange Formica kitchen, psychedelic curtains, striped wallpaper and blue bedroom walls – all tranquillised to make way for a selection of bland biscuit tones, as aging things do. I noted how its’ floorplan, once modern, seemed now outmoded. It seemed not to care, and, I suppose, I had become a little outmoded too.
Of course, the risk of wandering, aimlessly, unhurried and alone around past places – and then trying to account for it – is the potential for appearing odd, incoherent or lacking in imagination.
For, whereas we might imagine this time was spent in poetic reverie over forgotten shafts of light, framed vistas of bucolic English countryside, and the stirring of the wind in the old oak tree, the actual acts of rediscovery consisted of my poking around in drawers and cupboards, marveling at forgotten things and enjoying the brief novelty of stairs, carpet underfoot, a serving hatch, unburnt grass, preposterously verdant plantings and, even, the nomenclature of the conveniences – airing cupboard, cloakroom, bidet, landing, bay window and potting shed – which had slipped from use.
I spent a happy time exploring the garage and its contents, always a source of curiosity. Stacked tobacco tins of panel pins, thumb-tacks and rubber grommets, with carefully embossed tape labels remembered early craft experiments and tinkering with bicycles and lawnmowers. The workbench and shelving were a pantry spilling with hardware relics. I welcomed a wooden box, splattered and splintered, like an old friend – the souvenir of drilling, sawing and painting, storing, sitting and doing. Time was in these objects and volumes. Comfort, too.
I performed some light housework, tidying my bedroom, sweeping the drive and putting out green waste. I made tea, put some records on, admired my father’s joinery and my mother’s needlework, and read the local paper in the lounge chair.
I was making myself at home, I suppose.
Without the animating presence of the family, the place felt better for being inhabited through use and movement, so likely my banal pottering speaks to the way in which active, not passive, experience most gives meaning to everyday domestic space, with the building itself analogous to basic hardware. And this hardware had, genuinely, germinated life, and been satisfying in its’ use – achievements that other, more meritorious buildings might envy.
Not that an appropriate level of connoisseurship isn’t worthwhile (or absent), just that I found, under scrutiny, the source of my contentments not in the virtuosity of the arrangements, but in my intimacy with their evincing. I thought this bestowed this particular house – for there are identical others on the street – with its own unique character, and also, my ease and meaning within it.
Beyond the house, home continued. I entered the fields beyond the subdivision, and attended to the sensations of my strolling. Crops and hedgerows undulated to a horizon of distant woods, accompanied as ever, by buzz and hiss – the jarring presence of powerline and motorway – reminders of the metropolis beyond. I had rolled giant bails of hay around these pleasant fields, emptying their contents into huge, grassy pools to be jumped into, raising the ire of the farmer who’d given chase in his Land Rover. His final, bittersweet revenge has been to sell the land, and 800 houses are now due. The thought was sickening.
all that we could lose: Forster Country – setting for “Howards End” (E.M. Forster, 1910)
I passed through the grounds of St Nicholas – a favourite, ancient and special place. And haunted, surely. The flint church and it’s community of collapsing gravestones sat still immortal within their setting of unrivaled, compressive, deadness – the dense periphery of tangled undergrowth having excluded all but its’ own noise and light.
St. Nicholas, c.12th century on
Via paths, bridleways and roads, and through successive stages and styles of development – medieval, arts and crafts, inter-war, post-war and modern – the centre of my hometown, the so-called New Town, was reached, though the meeting, I knew, would be grisly.
The town’s makers had once aimed for a modern, thriving (if hastily-erected) utopia, constructed with the best post-war materials and ideologies they could muster. It had worked and prospered for a while, but a more recent, disastrous demise had ensued. Knowledge, habits and economies had moved on, taking retail activity – and people – with it.
The flimsy, carnival Modernism stood no chance – the architecture had been more surface than substance. Now paint peeled, soffits collapsed, colours dimmed and boarding replaced windows. Concrete grew cancerous – and pavements grew grass – in the country’s first pedestrianised shopping mall. I was compelled to gawp and take photographs – and, as at a mugging, ashamed by my need to. Several people, shuffling their way between the few dismal remaining shops, threw me glances.
Stevenage New Town centre
Home extended further still, to the capital.
For days, I tugged at the thin strands of connection between self, architecture and world. Tracts of London, leveled by conflict, had given cause and opportunity for post-war rebuilding, with theory, ideology and people transferring from the capital to its’ satellites. I visited the Festival of Britain site at Southbank, whose bouncy Modernism recalled the now-forlorn and shabby New Town just 30 miles to the north. Both had shared visions and authors, though only one had been furthered after seeding.
l: 1951 Festival of Britain model (on public display, Royal Festival Hall, London); r: Stevenage in better days, British Pathe video still, via bbc.com
Across the capital, via maps and photographs, I traced displaced populations and erased, ruined and replaced buildings, to bombs, events, identities and ideologies. Each successive, connective strand between substance and meaning – and each further step away from home – the house-home – inveigled me in increasingly mythical indulgences. The more I was forced to imagine, the more I became interloper to the phantom lives, times and places of others, that it would never be possible to authentically know.
Architecture had seduced me.
It was time to go home.
images by author, except where stated
- McCarter, R. & Pallasmaa J. (2012), Understanding Architecture, Phaidon
- Moore, R. (2012), Why We Build, Picador
- Bachelard, G. (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon
- de Botton, A. (2002), The Art of Travel, Penguin