Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Jerusalem?

There’s nowt like a bit o’ hardship to make you appreciate the good life… which, as I’ve written before is, in a way, where Sprezzatura came from. When your back is against the wall, it certainly does make life’s more pleasant experiences seem all the sweeter, even if (or perhaps because) they may presently be unattainable.

England’s North was built on such prospects – though it’s of course debatable whether shares in muck and brass were distributed as fairly as they should have been. Our first stop outside Leeds was Saltaire, a short train-ride away. Now a World Heritage Site, Titus Salt’s model village is one of Britain’s better-known examples of Victorian philanthropy: appalled by the general living conditions of the time, the wealthy mill-owner built a residential quarter for the thousands who worked in his immense premises next-door.

Titus Salt’s enormous mill.

It is difficult to imagine how the neat grid of stone cottages was received by those who lived in them; much is made of Salt’s munificence – but I found myself mulling the contradiction set up by the knowledge that for many in Victorian times, the most basic elements of a decent life were almost completely at the discretion of private individuals – who in many cases did not care as much as Salt apparently did. But with the improved conditions came a dictated, morally-upright way of life (down to the number of baths one was required to take). Salt himself lived in considerable grandeur, with a private entrance to the mill. The work for the rest was still hard; egalitarianism, this was not.

There is also an irony, however, in that the Trades Unions which were a response to Victorian conditions would presumably have been quite happy to see Salt deposed from the position in which he was able to administer to his flock. Would that have been a victory? I think in the long run, people’s wellbeing should not rest on the discretion of more powerful others, and listening to the views of certain political figures even today, it is not clear that such lessons have been learned even now.

But we should still be careful not to cut off our noses to spite our faces.

Saltaire today is a slightly strange assemblage of Italianate and other buildings somehow rather too grand for their rural setting. It works, but still feels somewhat contrived. The vast mill itself is now a combination of business units, apartments, shops and a gallery largely devoted to the works of local artist David Hockney. His ‘The Arrival of Spring’ series, drawn on iPad and turned into large prints was an interesting and likeable expression of the creative potential of digital media.

Much of the nearby town seems contentedly inhabited, and there are a number of the chi-chi galleries, craft shops and cafes that tend to cluster in such places. Nowadays, it’s the strictures of listed building and World Heritage status that are the overlord. It’s all quite pleasant, if a little self-conscious.

Above and below: The mannered streets of Saltaire.

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We moved on further up the Aire valley, to Keighley and thence by Worth Valley steam train to Haworth, another famous location that majors on high Victorian drama. When it comes to dour Victorian novels, I very rapidly find that a little is too much, but the home of the Brontë sisters is picturesque – another place that I hadn’t visited for many years. All along the valley, the harshness of the industrial decline that rather horrified me when I first visited as a child is being mellowed as buildings are re-purposed and the profuse greenery returns. Some may yearn for the days of heavy industry, but in my eyes the removal of so much polluting harshness is a (qualified) good thing.

Above: KWVR steam train leaving Haworth. Below: the attractive and steep main street in Haworth.

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Haworth too is rather overdosing on Victorian sentimentalism these days – nearly every shop seems to be some form of nostalgia-laden giftware emporium. But again, I suppose one shouldn’t scoff – they are, in the end, a means for locals in an area that has seen its share of hardship, to make a living from the million visitors it receives each year… In general though, I have many reservations about the still-strong tendency in this country, to wallow so heavily in the past. We all know where that world-view has led, which may only restrict opportunities in the future…

The third stage of the trip was by bus over the moors to Hebden Bridge. The rather cringe-worthily-named ‘Brontë Bus’ turned out actually to be bright and modern, with USB sockets and satellite tracking, and it was interesting to do the circuits of the distinctly non-tourist parts of the area – many of which do look much better cared-for than last time I visited. I suspect that there is a fair amount of commuting to Leeds and Manchester now taking place.

That is certainly true of Hebden Bridge, which we reached after a pleasant bus-borne amble over the moors. This small town of 4500 has become famous as the ‘least cloned town in Britain’. Again it is picturesque, helped (when not being hindered by flooding) by its dramatic location deep in the valley of the Calder. The Rochdale Canal runs through, and the Pennine Way long-distance footpath is nearby, both of which no doubt feed tourism.

But the town’s main claim is the assertive localism of its residents, many of whom are creative types who came here in the seventies when property was cheap, and inadvertently turned the place into a kind of eco-mecca and focal point for the LGBT community.

The town centre has been sympathetically restored, while the presence of both an independent cinema and a highly successful arts venue are somewhat unexpected. Swanky interiors shops suggest that there is money around. Lessons can be learned for my own small town in Essex, which is of a similar size and which equally needs to seize the initiative for its own destiny at a time when the pressures of large-scale commercialism are taking their toll.

Above: Rochdale Canal, Hebden Bridge Below: The attractive streets of the town centre.

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A different kind of enlightenment from Saltaire? Certainly: this is one that is self-directed, even if the actual mechanisms by which Hebden has come to thrive are not entirely clear, intentional or controllable.

Maybe that is the secret of a genuinely good life?

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

Leeds by example

The silence was noticeable. Several times, when I told people we were taking a holiday in Leeds, the response was slow coming. “Well, I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time… ”

We, however, were reasonably confident in expecting more from the city at the heart of Britain’s fourth-largest conurbation. We have been working our way through visits to all of the country’s big cities, to see what these places, still often despised in popular opinion, are really like today after several decades of urban renewal. In only one case were we disappointed – and Leeds was the last big place on the list. I think it is fair to say that after several decades in the doldrums, Britain’s city centres are now generally worthy of the nation’s civic pride.

It was about 25 years since I had last visited Leeds, briefly, for a friend’s wedding, so I had few recollections of the city – but I knew that it had stolen a march even on Manchester in being quick out of the blocks of urban renewal. Even some of the new waterside developments are nearing thirty years old. It is now the largest financial and legal centre in England, outside London. Its high productivity has generated income whose consequences have had time to bed in, and have had a lasting effect on the city. There is still quite a lot to do when it comes to the areas just outside the city centre – but we observed the early stages in the creation of a new city park, alongside which, in a decade or so, will eventually rise the new High Speed 2 rail station, thus extending the already impressive new districts to the south of the River Aire.

For once, I had been organised, and booked our visit several months in advance. As a result, we had a room in a 42 The Calls Hotel, an early conversion of a grain warehouse into an attractive hotel, even if its early-nineties decor is now in need of a lift (forthcoming, we gather). A room upgrade saw us installed with a river view, and the roof trusses and machinery of the former hoists to look up at in bed each evening. The rest of the building is an attractive blend of Victorian beams and pillars and modern interventions.

The area around the former wharves on the River Aire is now redolent of similar dockland-style schemes across the country, but no less interesting for that. The backstreets just to the north seem to be doing a good impression of Shoreditch or Hoxton in London, with many creative businesses and bearded types in evidence… Edgy – but just sufficiently so.

Above and below: mixed modern and restored architecture on the Aire waterfront.

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In fact, that is a good summary of the rest of the city, which has cleaned and restored many of its fine Victorian buildings, while making some appealing modern interventions and reinterpretations. The city has not been ‘over-cleaned’ – or perhaps the process has now been going on for long enough that the patina of reality is re-settling. Some rejuvenated places can feel just too pristine…

Much of the centre has been pedestrianised, with a number of new arcades being added to the very fine Victorian ones for which the city is known. As a retail centre, it now ranks with the best in the country, having Harvey Nichols as well as a large new ‘statement’ John Lewis. These have been the anchors around which many lesser known brands and a fair number of independents have clustered.

Above and below: Leeds’ famous arcades – old and new – in the Victoria Quarter.

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The city centre is a pleasant place to walk around, though I gather Friday evenings can still be “interesting”… There is an ornate Victorian indoor market, while the beautiful Corn Exchange now hosts a selection of esoteric independents.

The Corn Exchange

Leeds has a lot to offer culturally too, with Opera North being homed here, as well as the Yorkshire Playhouse repertory theatre. Unfortunately, there was a lull in the programme during the days of our stay. The visual arts are perhaps slightly less well represented; the city Art Gallery is not on the scale of that in Manchester or Birmingham, though it does hold a significant collection of 20th Century art. Unfortunately this too was largely closed in preparation for the forthcoming Yorkshire Sculpture Festival – as was the Tetley Contemporary Arts Centre. Sculpture is perhaps the one visual art that bucks the trend: West Yorkshire has become something of a centre for it, on the back of the area’s associations with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (in nearby Wakefield), together with the well-regarded Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

We still find that many British towns and cities’ Achilles’ Heel is their eateries. Leeds does have Michelin starred restaurants – but for more ordinary mortals, the choice seems to be very largely restricted to the usual chain suspects. We try to escape these wherever we can. On our first night, we found a well-reviewed Italian not far from our hotel in another nicely-restored warehouse near the river. Unfortunately, the food was ordinary to say the least; we are not fastidious, but we do know our Italian food, and we can do better than this at home. More indicative, if this is considered locally to be outstanding, then expectations cannot be very high… Much renovation of British cities has found inspiration from the continent – and while there are now some very pleasing public spaces and architecture, it is a shame that the regular gastronomic offerings still mostly don’t come near our experiences of a place, for example, like Lille – let alone those further south.

We were able to see most of central Leeds in a day – it is fairly compact and easily walkable. The redeveloped areas along the river are extensive and attractive, though the main museum offering – the national Royal Armouries Museum was not really our cup of tea. Interesting building though.

Canal basin with the Royal Armouries Museum on the left.

On our second day, we travelled out of the city to some of the smaller places nearby – of which more another time.

As expected, Leeds proved to be a very successful choice for a short city break. It has a big-city feel without being overwhelming, and has made very successful use of its assets to emerge as another fine British city, whatever lagging public opinion might still be thinking. We’ll be back.

Arts, Architecture & Design

CONTEMPORARY HOUSING DEVELOPMENTS IN CAMBRIDGE 2: EDDINGTON AND GREAT KNEIGHTON

2. Eddington.

This is an entirely new urban quarter being developed initially by the University on land on the north-western edge of Cambridge. It is adjacent to a park-and-ride bus terminal, but has also been given additional transport links to the city in the form of cycle ways and a car sharing scheme. The site has been occupied for around 18 months but there is still much construction to be done.

The newly designed primary school (overseen by the University) has attracted attention, and the community centre is a candidate for the Stirling Prize. A new supermarket has opened, and other shops will follow in the central ‘market place’ in the near future, along with a hotel.

The quality of the architecture and construction is high, and perhaps unsurprisingly it has something of the feel of a university campus.

Once again, consideration has been given to the entire urban environment, with broad boulevards, numerous pedestrian routes on an engaging variety of scales and a sequence of open squares and courtyards. Mature trees have been widely imported and imaginative planting laid out, though it will of course take time for this to reach maturity.

Sustainability is integral to the plan: for example, many buildings have high-quality communal bicycle parking and refuse is dealt with by banks of communal bins in the street. These appear small, but in fact empty onto large underground receptacles which are periodically lifted out and emptied by lorry. A very neat solution.

Build-quality appears high. Many of the buildings are in the form of terraces and apartment blocks, which while not to everyone’s taste, do make for very efficient use of space, and the retention of privacy while building at high density – unlike many more ordinary modern, high-density housing estates. Perhaps part of the matter here is challenging people’s preconceptions of these matters – probably somewhat easier in a relatively liberal place like Cambridge.

Some of the architecture has classical overtones, while some of the open spaces and avenues offer reminders of some of the spaces that many find attractive in continental towns, but which the traditional British model rarely produces.

Eddington streetscape. Note the high quality of ground finishes. Something of a Georgian terrace here, too.
Above and following two: public spaces in Eddington. Varying scale. Once again, attention paid to materials and finishes. The dark coloured screens conceal segregated vehicle and cycle parking.

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The provision of walking routes is good. Again there is a range of scales, and cut-throughs such as this offer something of the enticement to explore that is a characteristic of many appealing traditional towns.
Good to see design attention being paid to public buildings. The primary school is circular, around a central green space. The metal gate sculpture is an attractive touch.
Efficient recycling: the bins empty into underground receptacles, demarcated by the white squares on the ground. The whole thing lifts out to be emptied.
Brickwork detail on the community centre. Use of traditional materials in a new context ‘grounds’ the development in its locality.
Poster detailing the scope of the development.

3. Great Kneighton

On the south side of Cambridge, a huge development is occurring near Addenbrookes Hospital. This has taken the Accordia concept several stages further, as mass-housing developers seek to cash in on the attractiveness of the model to the Cambridge market. Again this is on the edge of the city, but is served by another nearby park and ride terminus, while Cambridge’s malfunction-troubled guided busway penetrates the site.

I was expecting this site to be disappointing: the usual dilution of a great concept in the name of fast profit, but in the event I found it significantly better than that. There is a clear master-plan to the site, and its huge scale does not seem to detract greatly as a result. There are spine roads, but many discrete neighbourhoods, laid out on varying patterns but with frequent reference to the same principles of shared street space and the creation of an strong sense of place. This, to my mind, is successful, unlike the many anonymous clone-estates seen in much of the rest of the country.

Several bulk-builders are construction on the site, which has led to a variety of styles, though the quality is perhaps less consistent than in the previous two developments. Conversation with the representative of one company confirmed that it has tried to ‘raise its game’ in this location, which is encouraging – but it begs the question why there appears to be little intention of offering the same approach elsewhere in the country.

First impressions suggested a coarsening of the architecture, the usual fate of overtly commercial developments. But the public square and planting is well above average.
Above and below: enough of the spirit of Accordia remains to make this a successful development. The use of decorative brickwork is appealing without recourse to pastiche. There is again something of a Dutch overtone to the buildings below – the eastern counties of course have a long history of such influences.

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Efficient use of space in a high density development: garages are integrated, and the space over them used for living rooms and roof terraces. Planting is starting to mature nicely.
Culs-de-sac are kept short, and they mostly have pedestrian through-access (see below). This reduces the number of areas not publicly frequented. The use of dropped kerbs and varied paving creates a successful shared space.

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Terrace by Bovis. Attractive streetscape details, not dominated by roads. The use of high density makes this achievable. Again, space over garages well used.
This is aesthetically less successful, but it may mature. The spaces over the car ports could surely have been better used at minimal added expense.

Conclusions

All in all, this was an inspiring day. It shows that the potential exists for Britain to produce residential quarters significantly better than the usual bland Lego-box pastiche estates – and they will sell. Perhaps the most reassuring (and surprising) point was to see that even the quantity builders can use these principles without completely bastardising them.

My county has long had design guidelines for new development – a reaction to its blitzing with low-grade suburban development in the twentieth century. The latest incarnation of the Essex Design Guide is not hostile to contemporary architecture, but it makes the very good point that great architecture is not only about landmark buildings. The quality of ordinary ones – and the streetscapes between them – makes a far more significant contribution to the quality of people’s lives, and it is encouraging to see that the country is not beyond getting this right.

We now just need to do it much more widely.

Arts, Architecture & Design

Contemporary housing developments in Cambridge 1: Accordia

I have long been envious of the quality of housing in continental countries such as Switzerland and Germany. As with many things, a more controlled construction sector, coupled with a greater discernment on the part of clients and perhaps less aversion to modernity has produced new housing stock of a quality far superior to that in this country.

It may seem mundane, but given the centrality of home in most people’s lives, the quality of fixtures and fittings, the sound-proofing of floors and walls, the adaptability and ease of maintenance of those spaces can make a significant impact on the quality of life. And that is before we consider the psychological effect of the spaces we inhabit.

Sick building syndrome was identified some decades ago, where large artificially-lit and poorly ventilated office buildings were literally making people unwell. I think this is evidence enough to support the theory that the quality of our built environment is of major significance for our well-being.

Perhaps a little more contentious is the aesthetic impact of such spaces. I find that having a home which is pared back and calming is beneficial to the state of mind – and the use of pleasing materials and forms brings a daily uplift to my state of mind. While many in Britain still apparently see modernism as bleak and unwelcoming, I find well done modern design hugely optimistic and buoying. The freedom it presents from out-dated social forms releases the designer to respond to the needs of the present day without being a slave to convention.

I recently spent a day touring some of the recent residential developments that have been built around Cambridge. This city has long been associated with architectural innovation, and still today it seems willing to entertain visions not welcomed elsewhere. The presence of a highly-educated population no doubt helps.

We toured three developments, which I describe in this and the subsequent post.

1. Accordia.

This development of 378 dwellings was completed in 2008 on a Ministry of Defence-owned site near the University Botanical Gardens. The master-plan was developed by Felden Clegg Bradley architects, and it won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2008.

It includes a mix of types, both private and housing association properties in a range of contemporary styles. Much care was put into developing a pedestrian-friendly street plan, energy-efficient buildings, and well-landscaped grounds. The retention of a large number of mature trees helped in this respect.

The principal practice designed about 65% of the buildings, but several other architects were commissioned to provide an input, which has resulted in an eclectic range, mostly of terraces and apartments.

Inspiration was imported from the Netherlands, from where high-quality bricks were sourced, in a colour not dissimilar to the local brick colour. Much use was also made of shared street space communal facilities such a play areas for children, as widely seen in Dutch towns and cities.

In contrast to many modern British developments, the houses are mostly positioned right on the street, thus providing strong street lines and a good ‘sense of place’. Roads are mainly straight, though with chicanes to slow traffic and provide dispersed parking spaces. The corners of many side roads are blind, which in effect forces drivers to proceed slowly. Street furniture is high quality, and the traffic management is subtly done.

Cars in general are subordinated to pedestrians, with parking largely integrated within buildings, or beneath apartment blocks. Vehicular access is often at the rear of the properties, with the front doors giving onto well-planted pedestrian streets. There is a car-sharing club, which seems made for dense inner-urban developments like this. There is a range of street widths, from a generous main spine road to narrow mews-like off-shoots.

I have watched this development from its late construction stage as my sister in law has her home there. Ten years on, the development is well into the maturing stage, with the buildings increasingly softened by climbing plants. Accordia has been so successful that it spawned a number of other developments in the Cambridge area, all of which are apparently in great demand. These will be shown in the following post.

It is quite unnerving to see something of this quality in the U.K. I can’t pretend I like all of the individual buildings – but that is of course fine. The really impressive thing is the coherent master-plan for the site, which has successfully created a new residential quarter not far from the historically sensitive core of the city – in a style that is ‘of its time’ and yet which will hopefully enhance the city’s architectural inheritance rather than – as is so often the case with new-build  houses – the opposite.

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Above and below: a range of Accordia streetscapes.
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On-street parking is sensitively integrated
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Signature building at the entrance to the development. Garage to rear, off mews side-street. Note blind exit which slows traffic successfully.
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Redolent of Georgian terraces, this building has duplexes on floors 1-2 and 3-4. The upper ones have roof terraces.
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Above and below: non-car streetscapes.

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Much use is made of balconies and roof terraces to afford outdoor space to all.
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One of several children’s play areas – all overlooked for safety.
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Much car-parking is integrated into buildings thus decluttering the streets and avoiding compromise to the architecture.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria, Travel

Anti-sprezzatura

fabric

Anhedonia is a word that does not seem to be widely known. This is perhaps not surprising as it is a medical term, relating to the inability to feel pleasure: a kind of anti-sprezzatura.

It is a symptom widely reported in people suffering from depression, and they often describe it as feeling ‘flat’, when none of the things that normally give pleasure any longer does so. It goes hand-in-hand with a loss of motivation, and an ability to find life worth living, which is perhaps not surprising either when one thinks about what does motivate people in more normal circumstances.

It is extremely difficult to describe such experiences to those who have not had them. With anhedonia, one simply has no feelings for anything. One is left just staring at the music, food, places, possessions, experiences – and people – that one loves without any feeling of warmth, or indeed any feeling at all. But it is not the detachment of the critical thinker, more a sense that a handful of sand has been chucked into the gears of one’s mind. It is deeply unpleasant.

And at that point, one easily starts to wonder whether life is even worth living: it is bad enough not being able to feel those normal emotions, but it is compounded both by a sense of loss, and an utter inability to do anything about it. There is no point in trying to ‘jolly along’ someone in this condition, let alone telling them to ‘snap out of it’. It just can’t be done, and forced merriment is only likely to make matters worse.

I started Sprezzatura during just such an episode, which has lasted formally (i.e. diagnosed) for over two years, but which I think was incipient for a good while before that. It may seem strange to have started a blog dedicated to living well at such a time – but while the basic appreciation has always been there, amongst all the irrational things that happened during my illness, I developed a renewed appetite for all of the good things discussed in this blog. I was largely not able to derive much pleasure from them at that time, but that somehow made it all the more important to focus on them, to remind myself that they were still there – and starting this blog helped to do that.

I made significant efforts to overhaul my wardrobe (not necessarily a wise thing at a time when one is susceptible to splurging), to revisit certain recipes that I had not used in a long time, and to remind myself about the places (such as Italy) that were normally a source of great pleasure for me.

I’m pleased to say that matters have improved greatly in the last few months: I’m back playing music, making models, and enjoying most of the things I used to, though I feel the path has still not been fully travelled yet. What’s more, finally biting the bullet and making myself travel to Italy again in September proved to be a great tonic. I started to realise that forcing myself to immerse in those things may have been hard work, but it was also part of the recovery process – perhaps a form of re-wiring all of the disrupted mental circuitry.

Indeed, in some ways my appreciation is all the greater for now knowing what life is like without these things. But I also started to wonder whether there is a bigger pattern here. For all that one can catch Stendhal’s Syndrome in Italy, statistics suggest that reported incidence of chronic depression is significantly lower in Italy than in Britain. (There may of course be all sorts of cultural, as opposed to medical reasons why this is so). But listening to a group of British men a few days ago trying to out-bid each other in the bargain-basement stakes, I wondered again what it is about our national mentality that does this.

The active avoidance of anything with refinement or quality – of consciously ‘living well’ – seems to be almost a badge of honour. I suspect it has something to do with inverted snobbery and the social order in Britain, where any form of apparent ‘show’ can seem pretentious.

But eschewing things that can genuinely lift the spirit doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me. Ultimately, life is what you make it, and I can’t see much benefit in rejecting an honest appreciation of the better things in life, however they are defined. It need not be a matter of money: one does not have to own things in order to appreciate them, and an appreciation of quality is more a matter of how you approach things than the size of your wallet. In any case, it is quite possible to find ways around budgetary constraints – and remember, sprezzatura is as much about what you do as what you have. I am deeply puzzled by a country that sets such store by working hard and earning money, but which generally seems to have little time for appreciating the fruits of its labour.

While ironing a pair of trousers earlier today, no less, I found myself appreciating anew the fineness and craftsmanship of the Italian fabric I had chosen. It is nothing to do with show: it was (until now) an entirely private moment, a minor epiphany and reminder that the good things in life are still there, if only we can remember how to see them.

For people suffering from anhedonia, I would suggest that refocusing on your personal sprezzatura is as good a therapy as it is possible to find, even though it is hard work. And all the more reason to discover in the first place.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Into the future, looking backwards…

As 2018 staggers uncertainly towards the finishing line, the image of my nation that keeps impinging on my thoughts is of a Tardis wobbling across cardboard space-time in an early BBC special effect.

Brexit-fatigue may be growing, but that vexed issue seems to have provoked a wider spate of introspection about the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything – and a general dissatisfaction with the state of our country.

The throwing of my own life into the blender a couple of years ago, just at the time when I thought I knew how the near future was going to pan out, was ample reminder not to take too much for granted. Falling out of a teaching career at the three-quarter mark due to stress-induced illness necessitated a wholesale re-appraisal of the future. There is not a lot of point of putting one’s energy into bringing back the past; much better to try to build a positive future.

The issue of EU membership has cast a harsh light on a binary division in human psychology, namely how we deal with uncertainty and the future. The matter was thrown into relief recently by the news that our ancient town is to ‘receive’ a new development of 300 houses in the next couple of years. Small fry compared to some places no doubt, but this will add around 25% to both the building stock and the local population – enough to make a significant impact on a small and historic place.

The reaction of people locally is indicative of a wider human fallibility, particularly in relation to how it deploys time. There had been warning signs for some time – with only limited reaction from the wider community. Now that a major impact is inevitable, people are asking why something could not have been done to stop it.

Given that – as far as one can tell – the human experience of Time is fairly consistent between individuals, in that it only really moves in one direction, one wonders why humanity so often still gets caught out. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – but one might have thought we would learn from the experience. It often seems not.

Actually, the problem seems to be that bit of Time which has not yet happened. People seem remarkably resistant to thinking in any disciplined way about the future. There may be very good reasons for this – not least the fact that as Keynes said, in the long term, we’re all dead. And perhaps not even the so very long term: beyond youth, a human life speeds past. Maybe that’s why people shy away from thinking about it.

Or maybe it is an acceptance that anything so unknown cannot be reckoned for. But while that is undoubtedly partly the case, denying the ability at least to influence the future seems to me very defeatist. While much does indeed remain unknown (and neither is it easy to allow for unintended consequences of any particular course of action), doing nothing is hardly better. A proportionate, realistic, but optimistic attempt to affect things for the better seems to me a much more sensible approach – while always accepting the significant degree of uncertainty involved.

What seems to me even more unwise is to seek solace in the past. Nostalgia is big business, and it affects a huge amount of human activity. The Christmas season is predicated on it – goods times past that may or may not be entirely illusory. What it is, in reality is sentimentality – an emotional response from the less rational part of the brain to the inherent uncertainty of the future – and sometimes even the present. It is more comfortable to deal with the apparent ‘knowns’ of the past – even when they may be more fiction than fact. At this time of the year, especially with the prod in the temporal ribs that passing New Year inevitably brings, it seems just more comfortable to reside in the past. And more generally, people become more resistant to change at times when change is most rapid.

More curious still is the extent to which this propensity may be culturally determined. One of my permanent frustrations with my country is the extent to which the national identity is so predicated on looking backward. I cannot think of another developed country, at least in Europe, which relies so heavily on past (supposed) glories for its sense of self. From the heritage tat we shamelessly flog to tourists (and each other), to the companies that know the best way to ingratiate their high-tech trains with customers is to paint them in heritage colours and call them GWR or LNER, this country is only ever dragged into the future looking longingly backwards.

There are some countries, of course, whose past is something to be best forgotten, and in that sense future-orientation may be more a necessity than a choice. Neither is resistance to change a purely British phenomenon. But I cannot help thinking that a country that still yearns so strongly for the past is one that has run out of good things to say about its present – not to mention any new ideas for its future. And when we do have new ideas,  we crow incessantly about them, a self-consciousness which suggests we know that somehow they  don’t sit easily.

My attempts to persuade my neighbours that the antidote to yet another Lego-clone housing estate on their historic doorsteps is to push for something that makes a confident statement about the future, seems to be something that most simply don’t want to consider. It seems the whole point of living in a historic town is to pretend that we are still living in an arcadian past when present-day problems didn’t exist – even though they patently do – and whose future we would rather not think about. When it comes, for example, to suggesting that judicious modern architecture can work even in a historic setting, the response is a knee-jerk No. Completely unbiddable. I wonder whether it is deliberate, or just the conditioned response of a lifetime lived in a change-averse culture.

I’m sure people are sincere when they say they are more comfortable with tradition – but they never stop to think about why. Why reject the benefits of modernity? Where would we be now if prehistoric people had done that, let alone those who built from new the heritage that we now venerate?

Meanwhile, the contemporary problems of the place – traffic congestion, affordable/sustainable housing, maintaining local services and the rest – remain unresolved because of the fear of thinking radically. It seems many would rather cling to an imperfect past-orientated present, rather than contemplate a future that is different, but which could be a real improvement.

Yet time waits for no one. No matter how we seek to deny the fact, or dress it up in historic garb, the future is the only destination we have. That means facing up to uncertainty, not to mention the pressures of modern life that many appear to want simply to disappear. The problem with it is that failing to live in the present (and anticipate the future) means that sooner or later that future is likely to come along anyway and kick the unprepared firmly in the arse. It has happened in the development case I mentioned above – and in the many other communities whose apparent preference for ‘traditional’ architecture gave unsentimental developers all the pretext they needed to churn out yet more estates full of tweely-named meagre little Lego boxes whose main purpose is to enhance the bonuses of those at the top – and which, of course, they will never have to live in themselves. Clinging to the past often simply makes the present, let alone the future, worse.

Another line of approach of Nostalgics is to claim that a preference for the present is a betrayal of the past, that it is somehow disrespectful not to venerate the legacy of previous generations. It is probably true that a civilisation that has no shared memory of whence it has come is indeed placing itself at risk of future mistakes – but sentimentalising and editing the past in order to make it artificially palatable is not at all the same thing – and is equally unwise. To continue with the architectural example, while conservation may be desirable, selecting only the superficially ‘pretty’ bits is dishonest, and does the opposite of creating a genuine heritage: it manufactures a shared lie, whose only effect is to reinforce the misconception that the present was a better place than the present.

The British yearning for nostalgia does serious harm to the nation. Sentimentalism smothers more realistic appraisals of the options for the future. Necessary change is avoided, or reduced to a minimum. Difficult decisions are avoided – or sent underground, difficult conversations not had, democratic compromise replaced by shouting matches. Ironically, excessive reliance on cost-benefit analyses and psephology (designed to make the future look like the past – certain and secure) increases the risk of delusion and error. Meanwhile, opportunists leap to fill the void with changes intended only to benefit themselves.

Quite apart from the damage being done to the genuine architectural heritage by the vast swathes of pseudo-heritage development, it seems to me that the issue of the moment – Brexit – is grounded on the same illusion. Most of the case for leaving the EU has been built on a return to some era when Britain was Great(er than it is now) in a way that is nothing more than a denial of the reality of the modern world. And try as we might to make this illusion reality, the only real effect will be that sooner or later the Future will once again come along and kick the nation in the arse too. Arguably it already has: one of the few explanations I can find for why this country has such unique difficulties with the idea of the EU is that it prefers to live in the past, rather than looking to the potential of European co-operation (done properly) to create a better future. I suspect the different balance that I have sensed elsewhere has a significant effect.

This is not to suggest that other nations are not respectful of their pasts too: one only has to look at the care with which the Swiss and Germans for example, preserve their heritage to see that. But they seem much less afraid of mixing it with the present, and of adapting it to modern needs. In fact, some of the most impressive conservation I have seen has been that which blends it judiciously with the ultra-modern. It is possible to respect and appreciate the past without wanting to live in it.

The other half of the binary choice is to rush open-armed indiscriminately into the future. That is probably just as unwise, as the truth is rarely found in extremes: ill-considered, ideological progressivism is probably just as risky as uncontrolled regressivism. But realistically embracing the future seems to be a much more constructive way of spending our time on this planet than yearning for that which has already passed.

Nations that get this right seem to me to have a generally healthier attitude towards Time as a whole. They seem to have a generally more can-do, less defeatist attitude. They make considered decisions that (can) lead to healthier societies. Those that seem to prefer living in an increasingly imaginary present, built mostly around a fake version of their supposed history, seem to be in a form of denial that says little other than that they are culturally bankrupt: tired and out of ideas. “It can’t be done here!” is a familiarity cry in this country. Why not?

Driving using only the rear-view mirror is not a good idea: it seems to me like a recipe for a rapid demise.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Google-bombing Europe – or a nation in ten pictures.

One way of assessing the condition of a nation is to look at its landscapes. There are of course many factors that influence the physical appearance of an area: the topography, the climate, the ecology, geology and so on.

But part of the equation is also the prevailing social and economic conditions. The landscapes reflect the way in which a nation manages its territory: the levels of investment, the planning systems, the architectural requirements, the attitudes and expectations of the people towards their surroundings, the history of the nation.

Google Earth presents a fantastic opportunity for surveying such things, so I thought I would conduct a small experiment to see what could be found with as objective an approach as is reasonably possible.

In coming posts, I am going to present sequences of ten photographs chosen more or less at random by ‘dropping in’ on places. I will mostly leave readers to draw their own conclusions, but if I do have a point to prove, it is that the care and effort put into the surroundings in different countries does vary significantly – and that it makes a material difference to the places in which people live, physical conditions notwithstanding. I suppose I should also confess my expectation that the U.K. does not fare particularly well in terms of its built environment.

The ‘rules’ I set myself were:
1. Set the camera at an altitude of about 500km (high enough to take in a large part of the country, and to obscure any obvious features).
2. Drag the peg-man and drop before the map has stopped moving, thus making the destination as random as possible.
3. When the image resolves, ‘permission’ is granted to take a 360 degree look around and choose the most interesting view.
4. Not to move the camera laterally from where it falls.
5. One reject allowed in each ten samples to allow for tedious repetition or utterly bland images that show nothing of interest.
6. The above accepted, aim for reasonable spatial coverage – e.g. don’t just drop the peg in the middle of the country each time.

In some cases, it is even possible to land inside a building, which can reveal things about the style and quality of interiors.

A perhaps surprising thing is how rarely one lands in the centre of a major urban area: while these dominate the social climate in a country, in spatial terms, they are very small. One lands far more frequently in open countryside (which is reassuring in a certain way) and, in the U.K. at least in identikit suburbs (which is perhaps less so).

Ten pictures are hardly enough to present a coherent impression of a country, and by definition a random sample may be neither consistent nor representative. But as a random slice through the combined effects of physical and human activity, they can perhaps tell us something. The first two countries presented here are Germany and the U.K. More to follow in subsequent posts.

Germany:D01D02D03D04D05D06D07D08D09D10

The U.K.:

UK01UK02UK03UK04UK05UK06UK07UK08UK09UK10