A DISSEMBLING ASSEMBLE and the fatuous Turner Prize
Once upon a time a few of us had the idea to really fuck-in the art world's prestigious Turner Prize. We were going to play deception to the hilt setting up fake art projects accompanied by all the necessary explanatory bilge presented ever so stylistically. As per usual with these night time improvised flights of fancy the project never got beyond a bout of booze and dope. What a pity. Such a serious exquisite prank might possibly have finished the Turner flimflam for good, though most likely the yearly pathetic charade would have continued on and on as an imperious system of ossified representation demands.
Nonetheless the black hole at the centre of what's referred to as "artistic creativity" in the meantime has got ever murkier and denser somehow sensing it is set in self-destruct mode. Installation like a dying though expanding giant sun has gone more massively global ever more gimcrack and huge not even an absurd Turbine Hall in Tate Modern can contain such proportions. It seems this dying sun has had no choice but to burst through the walls of the gallery - if only to make a museum of a living breathing world – requiring the world become a landscape of artistic idols and performance rituals to be worshipped in hushed tones; the final moment of what's left of the fallout from religious monument veneration inseparable from that essential lynchpin of capitalism, the fetishism of commodities. This really is not the promesse de bonheur inherent at the core of previous avant-garde rebellion, rather it's a celebration of fictive capital prior to the moment it explodes into a million pieces before disappearing forever along with the rest of the played out core of capitalism having reached the internal limits of value reproduction. Beyond lies either the somewhat inevitably chaotic beginnings of revolutionary utopia or the worst barbarism ever experienced resulting most likely in the extinction of the human species as well as most essential life-giving bio-diverse nature.
For at least the last 150 years it's become impossible to separate art, technology and science like that. In any event it was never a case of two cultures. Specifically what we are pinpointing here is the overlap between forms of building together with practical solutions heavily dependent on some amazing engineering solutions mainly to do with basic utilities – gas, water and electricity, though not forgetting the increasing tensile strength of steel, etc. Beyond these basic innovations and things couldn't be direr as most technical ingenuity is geared towards the production, distribution and selling of a mass of trivial, often ecologically harmful, consumer goods. As for building it's either about a stratospheric reaching for the skies or heading underground towards the centre of the planet via a plethora of iceberg houses containing cinemas, swimming pools, museums and art galleries. In both respects there's only one clientele: those who wheel and deal in mountains of fiat money.
Let's consider one notable business here: Over the last half century the influential engineering giant, Ove Arup has held sway. First finding its feet in the mid 1950s and now simply and briefly referred to by the mediatique / commentariat as "Arup" this monstrosity of a company has increasingly morphed from technical ingenuity into the aesthetic and now – to cap everything - into eco-aesthetic engineering – i.e. a merger of artwash and greenwash – now to be fully realised via the proposed faux garden bridge across the Thames partially based on New York's High Line so-called eco pedestrian mall and a redesigned makeover from industrial days. Arup's latest orientation is the hoped for 'creation' of an ultra Internet-connected "smart city", no doubt in partnership with the horrendous giant monopolies of IT. In opposition to this - though essentially still on capitalisms terrain - is an Open Source 'solution' for Madrid based on leftist Podemos's mayor Manuela Carmen's notion of a "non neo-liberal smart city"... "Rather than keep funding proprietary systems with public money, support open-source collaborative technologies" allowing citizens to "raise issues of corruption, equity in the distribution of resources and open the question of access to power". This may make access to the powers that be easier though essentially utilising Open Source technology is merely a leftist parliamentarian Podemos wheeze smartly side-stepping the revolutionary need to abolish the local state along with the national state and the rest of commodity production, money, the supersession of value and wage labour which can only come into existence through a wayward, intransigent peoples' uprising of startling, even unlikely insurgent juxtapositions.
The likes of Arup &Co who almost always work in tandem with trophy architects like Gehry and Roy Rogers marks also the end of building as such ably assisted by the suppression of relative autonomous gangs of building operatives bound together by a rich comradely affinity which terrified management. These gangs were always instrumental in fermenting strikes some of which worldwide had tremendous impact suggesting a much greater potential than was ever realised. Nowadays thanks to algorithmic master plans building workers have been replaced by 'constructors' (a new horrendous descriptive tautology for passe building workers) who are merely semi-robotised synths assembling giant legoland chunks of heavy metal math of aesthetically monitored shape. Gone and forgotten is the welcome tasteless making do and mend, scorned builders' plan of decades ago. Today there's no spontaneous intervention, no improvisation, no nothing, or if there's a sign of life it's usually comes under the rubric of 'creative heritage'' a themed-up, stylistic put-on in an era where design and build companies attend crash courses on how to be authentic meaning how to manufacture fake markets. Jeez, no wonder today we hate the very concept of creativity!
Bridging and defining this changing aesthetic landscape along comes Assemble..........
Assemble is a hands-on 18 bodied collective of gals and guys mostly in their mid 20s with the rider that thankfully it seems not one as yet is absurdly qualified as an 'architect', 'designer', 'sculptor', or what have you. (The fact that they aren't 'qualified' at least has some merit). Some have studied architecture at Cambridge others have come from backgrounds in English history and philosophy whilst more exemplary individuals have worked as builders or technicians. They first came together as a group to build an arty temporary cinema in an abandoned petrol station in London's Clerkenwell in 2010. But wasn't this from the get-go a rather pointless intervention as surely we've had enough of bohemia's cinematic portfolio in tucked-away 'interesting' locations from their heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s? It's all played out. Assemble have since gone onto build a portfolio spanning everything from temporary theatre structures and artist studio spaces to arty community housing strategies and new town 'experimental' squares - as well as staging a ritual happening at the Serpentine Pavilion in the summer of 2014. In short, their oeuvre is a repetitious plethora of mostly 20th century avant-garde, tried, tested and essentially found wanting solutions.
More recently Assemble has attained a higher media profile post the 2012 urban London Olympics because the London Legacy Development Corporation offered them a warehouse space in Stratford on a peppercorn rent while awaiting development by IKEA's property arm. Not for nothing was this close by East London's new abysmal area of aestheticised urban regeneration crowned by the obnoxious though hip Queen Elizabeth Park, itself merely another marker in the hyper-gentrification of the city (c/f London's Olympic Legacy: TOWN PLANNING FOR INSECTS ) It can be said of Assemble that theoretically they mildly reject artistic cultural roles though in practise they do nothing of the sort. At best they are naive hypocrites simply because so unawares, so un-clued in. They really do – in that time-honoured maxim - need to lose themselves in order to individually- or collectively - find themselves. There's no question they BELIEVE in art and culture fitting neatly into the changing patterns of the art world's cultural consumption price tags moving ever out over acquiring grants and moneys from all the old ossified superstructures now Janus-like ever changing their faces from the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) to the new "creative bodies" set up by local councils from Croydon, to Glasgow, to Bristol, etc. London's Goldsmiths College has also got in on the act with Assemble landing a £2 million commission to build a new art gallery next to their core buildings. Assemble's work plays with the norms of conventional architectural practice though never transcending such a practice; equally they've have never claimed to be artists though obviously neither do they have a critique of art or culture in general.
Above: A design by Assemble who are now transforming a run-down listed Victorian water tank into a new art gallery for Goldsmiths College of Art. The fundraising campaign is backed by [Sir] Anthony Gormless and former Turner prize winner, Damien Hirst. Shit, this is real subversive stuff.
More recently their attentions have also been reoriented towards Liverpool and the suburb of Toxteth restoring boarded up houses, etc., hopefully bestowing on them a new livable-in, nature oriented dimension. In response to the July 1981 riots exploding most magnificently and mostly lucidly in Liverpool (Toxteth was the hub of the country-wide 1981 urban riots) the then Tory government spearheaded by PM Maggie Thatcher engineered perhaps the first major state sponsored eco project hoping to turn a decaying, former industrial city into a vibrant garden city; and perhaps the first born again act of hip regeneration. Nothing was to come came of this grandiose project as Merseyslide really did slip-slide beyond our ken, though you cannot help but conjecture Assemble picked up on this long forgotten bureaucratic panacea which they've nuanced towards the now familiar eco-aesthetic which is just as boring and lifeless as the old time garden city. (For more background information refer to: Like a Summer With a Thousand Julys ).
In early 2015 Assemble were nominated for the art lovers' Turner Prize by Alistair Hudson, Director of the Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art. Interestingly Assemble's first reaction was to consult with Toxteth's Granby St residents they were working with forthrightly asking if the community didn't want the attention of the Turner competition, they would not accept the nomination. One of Assemble's spokesperson's on finding out they'd been recommended for the Turner Prize had the gall to say: "We were concerned that the community housing project we were working on in Liverpool would suddenly be seen as art" which is precisely how it is now revaluated; a kind of adjunct to a gallery piece – and all ultimately with a curator's price tag even if ever so subtly hidden from view. Assemble should have been wise to all of this...
A Sentimental Re-education
Assemble's base line is marked by sentimentality regarding the post second world war urban clearances and rebuild especially those meted out to local poor communities throughout London from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. This baneful rebuild; this 'cleansing' aided and abetted by a growing democratic consumerism was proclaimed as Brutalism and some of its monuments are now protected as conservation artefacts though a fair amount since has been demolished by the self-same now conservation-minded local authorities as ironically too brutally ugly.
Brutalism as a neo-architectural movement came about in Britain largely in homage to the French 'architect's' Le Corbusier's obsession with giant modern concrete solutions often raised on pilotes supports; buildings such as the famous – or rather infamous – Unite de Habitacion in Marseilles, were quickly followed by even more grandiose and grotesque cityscape schemes such as Brasilia in Latin America and Chandigarh in India. (The more curvy shaped Brancusi-like sculpted concrete of Corb's church in Longchamp, France took longer to sink-in though no better than the geometric stuff). Moreover, of all things, a fucking church! For a decade and a half Brutalism conquered in Britain espoused by the likes of Denys Lasdun, Basil Spence, Erno Goldfinger, James Stirling, the Smithson's and Lewis Wormersley, Sheffield's city architect. Their names have since rightly sunk into near oblivion except perhaps in schools of architecture where reputations are preserved in aspic and no doubt the youngsters of Assemble worshipping at the feet of equally preserved in aspic lecturers make sure the ideology survives well past its sell by date. It could even be said perhaps spear-headed by Britain that Brutalism conquered the world through Beton brut a term coined by the English architectural critic Reyner Banham. More significantly it became the 'modern socialist' architectural style of the USSR and satellites post the death of Comrade Stalin and a style which the sub Bolshevikh cum academic super-star Slovoj Zizek famously responds with sentimental enthusiasm.
Although most British architects built concrete nightmares for prestigious institutions especially the 'new universities', a significant, less classy minority concentrated on designing giant 'public' housing estates. Other names and partnerships come to mind such as Powell and Moya who have again been celebrated by a borne again fundamentalist social democracy latterly via the re-distributionist phantasms of Corbymania never taking into account that we have reached the internal limits inherent in the reproduction of capitalism hence the myriad extemporisations via the euphemisms of "complex financial instruments" and "derivatives". Brutalism's revival initially came through a spectrum of intellectual nostalgics attempting to resurrect the "real economy", though one person specifically comes to mind: Owen Hatherley, (though rather than go into Hatherley's ideas it's probably best to take a look at the following: The London Olympics and Mass Market Neo-Psychogeography on the RAP web.
Above: Assemble's fake Above: The original Powell & Moya
Teaming up with a bona-fide British artist Simon Terrill to create full-size foam replicas of playground designs from architecture's Brutalist era, Assemble has re-marketed some of Powell and Moya's add-ons as anodyne art gallery SCULPTURE like the one pictured above in the paved cum lawned space of the huge Churchill Gdns Estate in London's Pimlico. Originally Powell and Moya's Brutalist play arenas recalled something of that dangerous running wild which kids found so enthralling in post second world war blitz cities but with the worst risks somewhat contained and muted. Between the late 1960s and early 70s the classic adventure playground, and more a social workers' creation than council architects, came into existence. It was subtly aimed at supervising and controlling a child's sense of edgy wonderment in play which quite easily could end up with broken arms and legs. That was the risk you took. Two steps on from this and you get Assemble's sponge Brutalist shadow this time toned-down and placed in art galleries befitting today's sugary sweet killing fields of aesthetic sweetness cum H & S concerns. All this it seems is deemed essential for kids today policed to the point of near non-existence.
To be fair, there is a real basis to 1950s nostalgia especially the better 'integration' of the working class in a more fair-minded capitalism replete with spatial new high rise flats, full of light, space and air, and most importantly free of damp, founded on rigorously controlled affordable rents and understandably the envy of more enlightened people who hate today's property market madness marked by sky-high property prices, extortionate rents and ever reduced space. All of this 1950s lost glamour was aided and abetted by social democratic legislation especially the draconian Town & Country Planning Acts enacted by the 1945-51 reforming Atlee, Labour government. These acts ushered in an epoch where everything was to be laid out just so almost down to the last millimetre, strictly regulating areas between an increasingly vacuous and dead green belt fronting and separating new build urbanism subjugated by designer nature concepts prettying up the general banality. Gone was a deregulated, watered down Arts & Crafts sprawl of the 1930s so scathingly satirised in Orwell's Coming up for Air along sadly with the often amazing inventions built by often semi-destitute Plotlanders even if these dwellings lacked basic sanitary amenities. Much of what was there could have fairly easily been put right. Life-giving communal streets could have been left as major changes such as chemical damp proofers were invented around the same time and the Plotlanders could easily have been supplied with a few mod cons. But no, everything – apart from the Arts & Craft sprawl - had to be destroyed in the name of a command statist economy which though bending the law of value in progressive ways (e.g. the creation of the NHS) wasn't remotely anti capitalist.
The trouble is Assemble seems to be wilfully ignorant of subversive revolutionary history regarding modern urbanism now proclaiming the moment of post second world war urban reproduction as socially progressive. Not once does Assemble mention the early situationist Ralph Rumney's hatred of this development in the 1950s; Rumney, the guy whom it seems invented the slogan "The LCC (London County Council) did more harm to London than all the bombs of the Luftwaffe" and by the by provoking early psychogeographic surveys and meanderings around the former splendour of a decaying Limehouse even organising a visit by Debord and friends in the early years of the Situationist International (c/f: On Ralph Rumney: Hidden Connections, Ruminations and Rambling Parentheses )
Assemble also seems to be nostalgic about the new town era which sprang into existence in the early post second world war era honing-in on New Addington built in the 1950s on a Surrey North Downs escarpment in the borough of Croydon and ever since damned by contemporary reaction as a benighted ghetto when in fact it is something else entirely. True, it was built as a 1950s Town & Country Planning new town for the then largely industrial working class and has since morphed into a place of convivial friendly nutterdom where sitting on an open air wooden bench is a most enjoyable human experience replete with nods, winks and friendly waves. In fact it's a breath of fresh air especially when considering it is cheek by jowl with the place where the suburban horror story of "Selsdon Man" - precursor of Thatcher's maimed privatized individual - was first dreamt up by Tory PM Heath in the early 1970s. Truth to tell the surrounding uptight Surrey suburbia hates and still hates New Addington no matter what face lift is periodically imposed on the place.
In 2012 Assemble took up residence in an old kiosk in new Addington's town square and over a number of weeks staged community events as full scale tests on how the public realm might be improved with a stage for pensioners, tea dances, ramps for young skate boarders and reorganizing the market. The result was supposed to be a low key collage of pieces that would then take on a life of their own. Oh really! In fact what they constructed is merely a dreary repeat of all the town and country planning kitsch that has since fallen into complete disuse on the morrow these 'improvements' were built; worse than that they are ridiculous. Take one instance: how on earth could pensioners dance on top of Assemble's non fenced-in raised brick stage without falling off even killing themselves? As for the skate boarding arenas they are so teeny-weeny that any skate boarder worth his / her salt getting up any speed would fly across the road crashing through the windows of Greggs the bakers.
New Addington is situated atop Hutchinson's Bank, a Surrey SSSI site which has recently been completely fenced off, entrance only allowed through a few kissing gates mainly to keep out the hooligan residents of the 'new town', snotty-nosed largely middle class ecos endlessly complaining about mild doses of fly tipping on top of the bank. The main culprits to be excluded were the boy racers who, in fact, were always courteous (unlike many at that time around the turn of the millennia) who welcomely though inadvertently kept paths free of invasive plants. Today, more alarmingly, the whole bank is increasingly going to pot invaded not by real people but a mélange of invasive plants. Most likely this is due to a 16% increase of Co2 in the atmosphere stimulating seemingly everywhere a rampaging bio-mass of monopolistic vegetation like bramble, dock, hogweed, creeping thistle - or, as at Hutchinson's Bank – thickets upon thickets of tiny hawthorn bushes. Everywhere these days we are confronted by the loss of bio-diversity as meadow land is remorselessly eliminated due to unstoppable climate change. Nonetheless, low-down, mildly scruffy residents are still scapegoated as if they are the main culprits. Plus ca change!
THE INSTALLATION SCULPTED SHIT OF 'SOCIAL PRACTICE'
It could be said Assemble is part and parcel and off-shoot of the Social Practise installation artist that has become a recuperated off-shoot of the 2011 American Occupy movement along with the subsequent initially grass roots explosion of Black Lives Matter.
Chicago born Theaster Gates is an African American "Social Practise" installation artist (whatever that means) who recently has transformed abandoned houses and buildings in Chicago's South-side into art works that somehow double as community centres – or so he hopes – though in reality they're homage's to a dying culture and not living venues for a street hobo to retire to on a below zero ice-filled January night. Gates is part of the art-into-total environmental aesthetic movement merely changing the mode of transaction on how art is bought and sold. Although it's a present day theme the underlying grim reality is always but always about big money making; i.e. the neo-artist as a substitute, god-like creature ably assisted by a new generation of gallery owners playing on the art gallery / anti-art gallery ambience. It's a trend encouraged by some of the world's hippest and wealthiest art dealers like Iwan and Manuele Wirth overlapping with the trendsetting Art'Otel high price tag ambience for a B& B with a difference i.e. as show case for some selected shit head of an artist like Berlin's Andy Warhol Art 'Otel. (It remains to be seen what ugh of an ultra modern English artistic 'genius' the proposed 'Otel in London's future Nine Elms regenerative rubbish will cultivate. And no doubt Deborah Orr and Will Self those post modernist paid-up intellectual superstars having sung ludicrous praises to this scheme in a recent Saturday's Guardian will worship this hallowed ground where any element of social housing and the 'ordinary' people will have been vanquished).
But let's get down to the nitty-gritty: What can a community centre really mean in an age increasingly defined by ultra-commodified space and time conceived and built upon the destruction of recent yesteryears more genuine community and communality. Today we experience a growing wasteland eating away inside all of us striking at the very core of each and every one. Let's face it, the community centre in any case came largely into its own in the period of post second world war urban redevelopment because the living, vibrant masses re-housed in Brutalist high-rise estates were beginning to retreat in doors conned into endlessly watching TV; a product if you like of the zenith and subsequent decline of social democracy able for a while to live off the illusions of technocratic substitutes for real, face-to-face, communication and simple but often profound live encounter in pubs, Smokey Joe cafes and crowded homes. More recently, Internet second life has merely dramatically added to this malaise of ultra isolation obfuscating life via Pacific Ocean sized trivia.
Moreover, are these seemingly 'space innovative' individuals really any different to the robber baron turned philanthropist of the late 19th century in their bid to leave a legacy of 'good works' to posterity? Well not quite because Theaster Gates and their ilk don't possess oodles of dosh. However they may though may do so in the future because their more traditional forays into gallery leveraged product is vastly improved through CVs which empathise their philanthropic disposition which can make potentially "high networth individuals" even richer. Certainly, they aren't Andrew Carnegies' creating libraries for poor people's enlightenment but installation sub-gods opening up 'intriguing' spaces for the destitute of the streets, where nuances are displayed that somehow will heal the sensory deprivations of their gully low, open gallery inhabitants who will (they hope) be eternally grateful to these artistic genius's. In reality "Social Practise" installation art is merely just another inflection on hoped for regeneration with art environments as spur to property prices, retail sales and higher incomes for the rich.
Indeed all these self-conscious artistic environments have at their core archly conservative paradigms. In order to make it into the ranks of this elite it is essential to strictly abide by all institutional hierarchical rules, gaining correct educational qualifications (no question here of offending high ranking institutions with direct action or a bit of anti-institution fire raising),along with assiduously cultivating media and market recognition. Assemble therefore never put two fingers up to authority in general. Specifically, they NEVER propose occupying the headquarters of the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) or other art, design and architectural schools. Instead they curry favour with these bodies asking them if they can engage in performance build on their property! No doubt if by chance they ever acquaint themselves with relevant totalising subversive theory and the necessary praxis it clearly suggests, no anger would be forthcoming as most likely they would be ever so respectful towards institutionalised hipster Prof's, especially the professors of some kind of revolution who are themselves utterly relaxed amongst all the traditional guff and protocol with their life and death say so regarding who gets good degrees and who doesn't. It can be even more grotesquely contradictory. (As an interesting aside: How does such a professor award top marks? Do you get Ist Class Hons through saying "art is dead" etc., and failed if you say "art is alive" - even kicking?)
And by way of a longish aside.....
Have we also been guilty of glaring contradictions? Kind of, oh yes and all for dollario, dosh and spondoolies! During the early years of Icteric in the mid 1960s one of us was responsible for making a non-authored town planning monstrosity. In a way it was a precursor of the moment decade's later when skilled artisanal types were to do all the spade work for what were to become the neo-artistic masters of the universe. Way back then, a certain Newcastle sculptor named [Prof'] Murray McCheyne was given a commission to design and skilfully produce (via hands that had touched Rodin's) some sea horses to hang from the top of the tower crowning the new town hall. So let's quote from an email one of us recently sent off: "By then - and in my early twenties - I was skilled in many building techniques including plastering, woodwork, arc and electric welding, plus casting in various materials including resin and fibre glass mixed with bronze filler, etc. McCheyne promptly searched me out offering £500 in readies if I could do the job in seven days! This was an unheard of amount of dosh in those days and I was skint so I eagerly said "yes" and grabbing a stack of speed I instantly set to work day and night finishing on time. Sure enough the dosh was handed over to me immediately and I headed for the local 'wild' Haymarket pub with its mixed clientele of hard working Geordies though also home to the local beat poet scene plus blues joint. I opened the door and shouted out to all the punters, "the drinks are on me", and the punters that evening included Eric Burdon, Alan Price as well as Chas Chandler. After a few hours I was gloriously finished and staggered back to my broken down pad sleeping for about a week. But then there's an extra interesting drift to this.........
Certainly our transcendence of musical orientation started in Newcastle in the mid 1960s somewhat spurred on by comments from Breton like "Let night fall on the orchestra" plus Rimbaud's "Knowing " (not 'great' as has been translated) "knowing music falls short of our desires". All of this was highlighted by our obsession with blues, jazz, especially bebop, the latter then reaching some kind of fascinating impasse moving beyond a musical terrain perhaps full of possibilities which we were slowly becoming aware of and all pointing towards a social revolution of unprecedented scope and fulfilment. At the time I was friendly with Chas Chandler and we'd engage in quite passionate discussions roaming around such insights. I remember a particularly intense one on a cold snowy January midnight as I bumped into him on the middle of that great, desolate tract called the Town Moor right next to the city centre. This was before Chas 'discovered' Jimi Hendrix but in retrospect I often wonder how much he influenced Jimi especially the latter's penchant for the English guitar blues rock fallout as well as some aspects of English romantic poetry such as John Clare's decades long remorselessly unrequited love for Mary, "And the wind cried Mary". I certainly remember discussing some of my own re-interpretations of romanticism with Chas Chandler and then you begin to reflect on underground connectivity ending up in unlikely places?????? I now see there's a lot of stuff on the Internet about the possible connection between Hendrix and John Clare's lost love whom he became obsessed with for the rest of his tortured life. The most appropriate lines of John Clare's lines were as follows: "But soft the wind comes from the sky / And whispers tales of Mary".
The ad nausea of BUILD, BUILD, BUILD, BUILD, BUILD, BUILD and BUILD
The word is out: we must build hundreds of thousands of affordable new homes on the lines of the same suburban shit we have everywhere: all celebrating the (un)clear family; all with lots of hard standing for 3 car plus households; all with permanently mown hedges and lawns; all with hanging baskets; all connected and wired for 24/7 porn; all essentially 'sustainable' when they're not and serenely separate from housing bubble prices. But how on earth can cheap prices and low rents survive in a money market, leveraged jungle without generally overthrowing the capitalist mode of production??? Nevertheless on and on obfuscation must go...... until there's no tree, bird, mouse or butterfly left for in the now time-honoured neo-liberal phraseology, "there can be no other way". Moreover it's more complicated than smoke and mirrors economic assessment as we have to take into account a profound subjective factor that the home is dead inseparable from the total invasion of life-suffocating commoditisation. As a supposedly 'autistic' 17 year old Grace from the Manchester Saints homeless occupation recently said: "I don't like houses but dream of living in a converted double-decker bus where everyone would be welcome to come and stay." Spot on.
Cracks are however appearing in the edifice of the crazed dead home syndrome, though not from Corbymania, JC loving shots of himself next to a new build housing estate going up and out over. Endlessly. Up and up. This is ridiculous stuff especially since he's appointed the chief executive of house building firm Taylor Wimpey to set out some "ideas". This is 1945-51 with bells on making Malcolm McLaren's bid to run London through a form of recuperated psychogeography rather more interesting, though even here there's enough of an overlap, like McLaren proposing to take onboard Formula One Motor ace jerk, Damon Hill to sort out London's traffic problems when the real solution to traffic congestion is the abolition of the car!!
But hark who says the following: ".... unless we want to wreck vast tracts of countryside, we cannot build our way out of this crisis. If we really want to solve it, the greatest contribution must come from the redistribution of existing stock." Yes, this is George Monbiot's solution to the ever spreading housing problem provoked by the direct action of the Manchester Saints homeless after celebrity status Man U footballers, Giggsy and Neville offered the occupiers a respite allowing them to over winter in the old stock exchange they are converting into a deluxe gymnasium, spa, lounge and boutique hotel. This solution is based on giving up your spare rooms to the homeless and feels like a throwback to the blitz when a severe life and death situation produced a sense of community marked by neighbourly compassion and solidarity that was so life enhancing suicides were reduced to near zilch. Sadly nothing though could be farther from today's grim reality of non-community, transitional singles' living, etc., all loosely tied to the on-going collapsing nuclear family structure, further accentuated by a galloping sense of loneliness, isolated helplessness and utter disconnectedness. Unlike the aforementioned Grace, this really is commoditized autism reaching the point of social breakdown; one where an individual is nothing more than a bizarre ganglion of paranoid social anxiety disorder and clinical depression reinforced with infantile delusions of omnipotence whereby it becomes increasingly impossible to contact even a close friend. Community, you must be joking! And yet the Internet is nothing unless its "social media" which in reality has become nothing but individual / social separation foisted on us to the nth degree. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc, endlessly celebrates the absence of real life where living breathing face to face in-the-flesh connecting human beings have been vanquished pointing to the moment where slow, evolving mass suicide becomes the only solution. No wonder the world is awash with youth death cults usually today dressed up in religious garb.
On the other hand on the level of simple everyday survival and emotional well being we cannot carry on much longer like this. Against all the odds there could even be a moment of practical (not religious) epiphany not unlike the blitz spirit where we simply reach out to each other, neighbour and stranger alike. We can but hope...
DOWN WITH BUILDING
What follows is a précis of our own extremely modest contribution via a very loose, often changing building workers' collective of scruffs, odd-balls and semi-idiots with crappy tools who never wear hi-viz jackets......
To rediscover - or rather to make possible for the first time on earth - a durable, anti-art, anti money, anti development, very human community is perhaps the most pressing problem of our times and can only begin through a series of subversive endeavours pointing towards a truer, more relevant human collective set in the context of a dying capitalist mode of production. Most likely such tentative experiments will come into existence in a somewhat haphazard even unpredictable way but armed with infectious potential meaning they could expand with amazing rapidity if lucky and circumstances prove favourable. Obviously in practical terms money and property cannot be abolished with a flick of the fingers but that final goal must always be there, ever pointing in that direction. Initially it's necessary by hook or by crook that decaying land banks of empty buildings like abandoned mills, warehouses, factories, etc., along with some of the 16,000 more or less empty churches be taken over courtesy of a renewed youth rebellion not as yet press ganged into killing domesticity and the dead life of suburban mores. These buildings can quickly be turned into basic living areas replete with rough shod communal kitchens administered by equally rough 'n' ready communal assemblies and NOT through an assemble of architects and artists and political parties ever on the lookout for the main chance. In occupying today's 'worthless' buildings (in terms of function) all laws surrounding sub-standard tenancies will have to be avoided, ignored, challenged, essentially somehow subverted against the might of the state which will try and come down on such takeovers like a ton of bricks especially via an omniscient Health & Safety on the side of rip-off landlordism while officially proclaiming the exact opposite. For certain none of this is going to be easy.
First though, how is this to be done? How will / can it kick-off? Well, maybe just go with the flow and you'll gradually or, quite quickly, find the light. Presently there's clearly a head of steam building up with distinctions between collectives with developing autonomous perspectives alongside the old time, platform oriented, party political set-ups though the latter now somewhat disguised. Assemblies are mentioned in the previous paragraph but they must be genuine assemblies as the term itself has now become subject to much misuse, abuse and hi-jack and a practise that the party political have gotten into. Rather than pontificate here in the abstract let's simply record facts related to a visit to one such Peoples' Assembly. Ugh, ugh, ugh!
The Croydon Assembly in late 2014
"Taking a much needed break from damp proofing a former country mansion for the homeless and still emotionally in the grip of an abandoned church in a neighbouring London borough we had helped convert into a genuinely alive, 'living space' for generation Z (and which I deem to be one of the most revealing building job I have ever engaged in, opening an authentic green door onto the future and which young generations will have to pass through, in one way or another, if there is to be any hope), I decided to check out the inaugural meeting of the Croydon Assembly to be held on 15 Nov 2014. I'm pretty sure I saw the meeting advertised in the Communist party's Morning Star newspaper. 'Our' mansion overlooked Croydon situated in the Wandle Valley below, this 'industrial river' the target of a clean up just as Bradford Beck had been, (though with far less ecologically catastrophic consequences), even though more discerning locals did ponder the question what really lay behind it: honest environmental improvement or merely the ecological veneer topping off south London's rapidly rising property market?
So it was fair to say I wasn't expecting much but curious to see if others were roughly thinking along the lines we were. In the Assembly foreword "key" questions had been posed, two, in particular, attracting my attention:
1) "Why aren't councils allowed to build 'in-house' the homes that low income families need"?
2) "How can we work toward a green economy that prevents climate chaos?"
But first of all I had to endure a no longer applicable 'socialist', back to the past, harangue from Labour MP John McDonnell and Gen' Sec of the Public & Commercial Services Union, Mark Serotkwa, I little suspecting less than a year later McDonnell would be Shadow Chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour party. However I did wonder could this be the same John MacDonnell who had purportedly read the Situationists, had glanced at the RAP web and was thoroughly familiar with those remarkably prescient chapters in Marx's Grundrisse anticipating the advent of automation and the final triumph of dead labour over living labour, of fixed capital over variable capital, as capitalism reaches its end beyond which I guess lies the longed for revolutionary human utopia or, if humanity fails to make this essential profound breakthrough, hell on earth.
So once this boringly predictable preamble was over I headed to a workshop where the absence of a roof over peoples' head was to be the main topic of discussion. I am not flattering myself when I say it was my contribution that easily generated the most interest and in no time at all the room was in thrall to what I was saying as I related my recent experiences. Moreover I was the only 'building worker' (albeit very much an alternative building worker) in the room gaining extra respect on account of my age, the country mansion we'd been converting atop a nearby hill, familiar to many people in the room. However though formerly a country mansion it was still a house that had been subdivided into flats. So far so good. But once I suggested that it is imperative we start to think outside the box and begin to imagine a different space / time framework for human beings to flourish in, one in which work, as presently understood, plays little part, money has been abolished, and what is there in terms of abandoned factories, offices, etc., have been occupied and made to serve very different ends from what they had been originally designed for, construction and the natural world no longer at odds such as we had caught a practical glimmer of in the gloriously 'mad' church--- well, then the mood began to sour. To facilitate acceptance I had even opportunistically mentioned Danny Dorling, a woman on the platform who worked in Croydon's housing dept responding because she also had graduated from Sheffield University. But there a promising debate ended, abruptly cut short by the chair who announced my proposals could, at best, only be a temporary measure and what we needed was proper, nuclear family, car owning centric housing built on brownfield sites not on our precious greenbelt as the Tories were proposing to do. What I found most disturbing was the sheer authoritarian finality and which is just so, so predictable in leftist gatherings. I went from hero to zero in an instant, my gripping narrative that had briefly held an audience finally just infantile babbling never to be mentioned again. The never-was story of my life forever teetering on the brink of non-existence.
Break time - and so to my second workshop of the day, chaired by the local Green party. This time I was fortunate enough to sit next to someone who was even more agitated than I was. He could barely sit still or contain his anger against the smug complacency emanating from the platform, as he repeatedly reiterated climate apocalypse was just around the corner, the tipping point a matter of years, not decades, away. I never got to find out if he had a thorough going critique of capitalism and the state. As the workshop kicked off with a discussion of local actions mainly to do with opposition to a proposed incinerator, I decided to raise the matter of the destruction of the Small Blue butterfly on Banstead Downs which is not that far outside the Croydon boundary. All I got was dull incomprehension from the platform - and more fool me that I expected better at this the inaugural meeting of the Croydon Assembly and that would come to form part of the more general Peoples' Assembly Against Austerity. I was blandly advised by a green councillor that I should write to Banstead and Reigate council, the very people that had brought out its whirring chariot of scythes and shredded the Small Blue caterpillars into nano particles! Had I exploded in anger I risked being accused of unacceptable macho behaviour - at least I knew not to lose my cool in these situations and give a hint at the fire raging within. The disturbing absence of passion amongst political greens had initially been a mystery to me ---until I realised all that really matters to them is the exercise of political power, greenery merely a peg on which to hang their political ambitions. Even so I couldn't resist generalising matters and mentioned our experiences in Bradford and how the Green party totally failed to respond to our entreaties, not even deigning to answer our letters. As a result they have to bear some responsibility for a preventable holocaust of the species which took place on an exceptional urban wildlife site, the Green party as indifferent to the preservation of wildlife as was the typical 1950s developer - infinitely worse in fact as the latter could always plead ignorance. And what was the reply? If the Green party had responded positively it would have been interpreted as helping the Tories. (Ironically Bradford Green party had pledged support for the Peoples' Assembly). I could contain myself no longer: "So I'm a Tory am I"? "Is that what you are saying"? The self-satisfied bastard still in his twenties, and with a long, unprincipled career in political prostitution in front of him, - or so the deluded fool may well fondly imagine - did not reply. I was not even worth replying to. I could happily have kicked the fucker's head in. But that would have landed me in jail. Pouring a tin of green paint over him would have been a far more apposite, and telling thing to do, whilst yelling at him the miners were branded Tories by Labour bureaucrats when they went on strike in the early 1970s in the run up to an election called by PM Heath over "who runs the country, me or the miners"?
I'd had enough and turned to go -only to find I had been preceded by my fuming comrade. I doubt if he ever went back to the Croydon Assembly. I certainly did not. Unfortunately there was no one to match him in the housing workshop, no one that even kicked off from the floor as I did, not losing my temper but rather seeking to introduce some daylight into the discussion, hoping I would meet with some encouraging response from the floor. But all that has happened is that the blinds have come down once more, Corbyn appointing the managing director of Taylor Wimpey to look into the housing question. The obvious, completely rational solution to the housing / urban question has been as marginalised as it ever was --and yet paradoxically, by virtue of the inescapable breakdown to come, far closer to becoming a reality than the Corbynite conventional kneejerk counterpart of nationalised acres of low rise council housing that harks back to a still viable 'functioning' capitalism that will never ever return. There is of course another scenario, that of post capitalist feudalism of sci-fi geodesic domes inhabited by leftovers of humanity, a post-people that fortunately cannot remember, imagine or think."
Above: the former Andrew Carnegie library on Leeds Rd, Shipley. This place also needs occupying as reinvigorated communal living place. In 2013 it was proposed c/o the then deputy PM's Nick Clegg's Aire Valley Regeneration Plan that it be moved and taken to the top of Windhill above this Leeds Rd junction to be carefully reassembled brick by marked brick. Beyond a vanity statement for what reason? Increasingly sites of industrial dereliction on what is a unique rocky topography in central Bradford gloriously overgrown with buddleia and often nature rich have become arenas for discreet occupation by the homeless living in pop-up tents, etc. The authorities then launch counter-attacks expensively clearing the vegetation even installing stretches of rhino fence but all to no avail as invasive vegetation quickly returns and with it the squatters – in ever increasing numbers. As for ourselves, we are proud that through our aggressive eco intervention in and around the ex Carnegie library we inadvertently scuppered council plans aimed at demolishing and / or reconverting the nearby Windhill Estate where a sizable amount of poor, dysfunctional, warmly inventive so-called no-marks from all corners of the world live and on the level of simple humanity far better than aspirant, snotty-nosed go-getters. Their outlook over the valley and the hills beyond is a location of estate agents regeneration dreams and those at the sharp end were not going to be allowed to keep it! The plan for the Aire River Valley was going to get shot of them and the tenants knew it. Little did we realise when starting out on our mission with hazy plans about what we were up to beyond trying to preserve an amazing array of wildlife on a site of industrial dereliction that this would be one of the outcomes. We were guided by the principles of an autonomous perspective which excluded all negotiations with the authorities involved in redevelopment. Our behaviour was intransigent endlessly exposing above everything else, all criminal, devious manipulation plus thuggery that the authorities resorted to. Bit by bit becoming aware of what we were doing the tenants of Windhill put two and two together before we did as we unwittingly became part of that often great law of marvellous, unintended consequences as we scuppered all redevelopment plans. We couldn't have wished for anything better though not without realising that the authorities in the shape of a PPP of Skipton Homes and the local council will return and possibly with a vengeance if and when economic opportunity again presents itself. And Jeez do the Windhillies appreciate our deadly spanner in the works always welcoming us with open-arms. At the most desperate, intense moments of the conflict tough English-Pakistani gangs responded by saying to us "If there's anybody you want doffing-up just let us know" a sentiment mirrored within 'white' gangs too. Even 10 year olds spontaneously shake our hands quipping "How are you lads" even though in our 70s!!!! However, rather than go into details here it's best to go to the relevant webs and see for yourselves especially, Bradford's Eco-Peterloo. Sustrans or Natural Born Killers?
What follows is a selective, piecemeal account of some of our simple necessary remedial solutions on old abandoned buildings requiring lots of old fashioned building know how but WITH NO SHIT ART VALORISATIONS ATTACHED. All this is for living in and not for spectator sport.
What also follows is a rough description with photos of the various works carried out on a semi-decommissioned church. Many odds and ends needed doing that demanded building skills to make the place look reasonably presentable.... ........... Needless to say, names and places have been changed to protect the guilty....... (However, we would suggest first you read the web: BRADFORD'S ECO-PETERLOO. TRUBLE UP'T GREEN MILL: A WIDE-RANGING INTRODUCTION
WE ALSO REFUSE TO SHOW THE OUTSIDE OF THESE BUILDINGS AS WE DON'T WISH TO ALERT THE 'AUTHORITIES' EVER READY TO WRONG FOOT US. Again it must be insisted upon that the photographs presented here are crap in monetary terms and meant to be. They represent essential works undertaken with degrees of skill and inventiveness. We have had no choice but to place them on this web if only to prove that what we did was no con but actually took place and a universe away from Assemble type aesthetics. Nonetheless, we feel our activity within an everyday, different but imaginative human context points towards a real non-commoditised human re-make which the best part of the rebellion of modern art once pointed towards.
First though on a more general level this is a good moment to delineate our essential differences with William Morris's Arts & Craft movement in England in the late 19th century seeing we have mentioned it enough. What marks Morris is a chasm of schizophrenic contradictions which are impossible to transcend within his paradigms. Essentially Morris worked for the enlightened bourgeoisie satisfying their acquisitive needs for 'fine' commodities at the same time as making a significant contribution in the direction of a profound social revolution. One cannot dismiss his often courageous support for violent workers' struggles alongside perceptive critiques of 'socialist' organisational forms including anarcho-syndicalism. Possessing also the beginnings of a critique of art, Morris nonetheless remained stuck producing expensive artefacts for the nouveau riche and his subsequent huge reputation relies heavily on this. Briefly there was no unity between the best of his theoretical contributions and his retarded practise and that's why what we do is far less contradictory and much more subversive pointing in a more straightforward way towards the goal of a happier future for humanity, but then we are greeted with either loud silence or bouts of rubbishing......
Ours and what became everybody's C of E 'church' in south London was earmarked for destruction by the local diocese and was only saved because local residents (the majority council tenants) got up a petition protesting the decision as they didn't want any more redevelopment knowing it could spell their end too. Ten years previously, the 'church' had been occupied by squatters decorating everything with wall slogans; a mix of desperate, smacked-out sewer doggerel not so much about sex, as shitting, which occasionally broke out into an almost edgy poetics that really communicated......... a room - a backstairs to a crypt - that became an improvised, fucked-up Schwitters-like shrine to a love nullified by commoditisation, where once many a dead body was coldly carried down stone steps, further deteriorating in a world without love, a world that still demands the realisation of Rimbaud's maxim: "love should be re-invented afresh" also noting that Rimbaud needed the advent of a glorious, totalising world social revolution to achieve this....
The church had been bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1941 and deemed to be irreparable! Originally it had been built in the neo gothic / Pre-Raphaelite period in the late 19th century and well over a century and a quarter later through our efforts has now become accommodation and home for a number of homeless young people paying an extremely cheap rent – what's called a 'peppercorn rent' - of around £70 to £80 per week which includes payment of gas, electric, water bills as well as council tax. All that is unbelievable for property insane London! The whole gang worked for months on this project for an equally peppercorn wage for a short-life co-op housing outfit. True, we became obsessed about the job because basically it was such a great idea to be practically realised (a hope against hope) and may perhaps become a beacon for other run down churches to be taken over throughout the country. Indeed we'd like to see the lived-in church as some kind of benchmark, the first of many church properties including Methodist chapels, Temples and Mosques to be 'given' out on a peppercorn rent basis – or preferably rrrreally rent free - to the homeless throughout the UK with say the addition of empty neo-gothic libraries that you get especially throughout northern England. Now that would be a breakthrough.....
The church "deconstruction" was initially slow; each part painstakingly dismantled as pesky wire nails ensured that often old wooden structures put in after the church had been decommissioned had to be split into two in order to dislodge a particular structure, so rehabilitation making it habitable wasn't easy. Moreover, the "deconstruction" was often dangerous involving add-ons weighing often a ton or more (by the way, in deliberately deploying that contemptible post modernist tautology 'deconstruction' is a means of taking the piss). We quickly realised this was basically a job for some professional outfit that we had we would have had nothing but contempt for, but once we got stuck into the job we weren't going to back off knowing that the 'professionals' wouldn't give a toss that this was about housing for the poor done on a shoe string budget. The task had become a matter of pride especially as we knew the so-called "professionals" would have charged an arm and a leg! A recent formidable structure was almost miraculously suspended in space meaning that the heavy block stone slabs surrounding it were in places somewhat destabilised once the surrounding inter-dependent wooden structures were pulled down. We then had no choice but to firm up this potential instability here and there with coats and coats of sand and cement render which finally had the strength of concrete.
And shit, engaging in such a transformation was a long, hard slog and we spent the final month and a half on a very special, very low rate for the simple reason that the money was in short supply. We also wanted this terrific project to succeed; a project that may shine light on how an innovative, low rent public sector may develop in the context of a disintegrating capitalism; one well distanced from all the unimaginative, top down sclerotic bureaucracy of post 1945 council housing which has now lost everything that may have once have had something to offer. What we were engaged in wasn't a monolithic scheme but an interaction full of personal initiatives and somewhat tenant / assembly led even while in the process of conversion.
We also had to sort out the bomb damaged area on the outside of the church which had created an insidious and all pervasive damp problem. After rooting out its causes we applied sand and cement render with waterproof additive to about 20 places where there was heavy ingress of water into the foundations of the crypt and its approaches......
In re-making the place as habitable accommodation for the young homeless poor we discovered some remarkable things that could have made the building into a minor tourist attraction and open air museum – and we had to hide this fact from the ruling church bureaucrats. Looking like a cross between a primitive Methodist chapel and a then contemporary red brick factory, (the whacko architect who designed this thing was a bit of a 19th century 'lost socialist') we found that the central section of the church was early neo Gothic in ornamentation harking back to Beckford's Fonthill Abbey and Walpole's Strawberry Hill in the 18th century. It was the period of 'Monk' Lewis that so gripped the Surrealists, which decades later Annie Le Brun was to go into in The Castles of Subversion, a book that sadly has yet to be translated into English. Then we had to deal with a deep, underground crypt which was over two metres deep in stinking fetid water ever since the Luftwaffe bombed the church in 1941. Nobody had been able to find the drains since but we did and then we had to shovel up all the accumulated detritus to make the area into a new room for the tenants we found out the foundations were probably Roman. Oh fuck what a glorious hotch-potch! The place had obviously been some kind of religious ground area from probably as far back as the time of the Roman gods! So we really did need to keep schtum.
BELOW: And a big nave becomes one helluva fascinating complex of partitioned rooms
Above: One room in order to be made really habitable had to be cleared. We were confronted by masses of wood, especially red wood plus a 13 board thick ceiling replete with intermittent layers of plaster board. It was all supported by astounding tree trunk-like pared down, log-like beams weighing ton weights that pulled by ropes when sufficiently (and judiciously) destabilized came brutally crashing down. Anybody beneath such a managed fall would have been instantly crushed to death. And then the old, lost and disappeared windows had been boarded up with weighty, huge grey manufactured block stone. And then the incessant gloom and dark lit up by our unnerving, alienating builders' halogen lights. This was impossible! Give up! Not likely...though every alternative building operative, black and white was hovering on nervous breakdown....This was more than a challenge, risking life and limb with body and mind, especially thoughts going mightily crazy working amongst the buzz of mosquitoes from that darned previously mentioned 2 metre fetid cesspit in a hidden crypt with water going back 60 years from the day the Luftwaffe bomb hit. For us, bit-by-bit, it became a passion.....one possessed with future realisation.
Taking down the many layered ceiling proved to be the lengthiest operation of all – but again all must be forgiven – because no one had any idea just how long and difficult a task this was going to be. We did suggest after a couple of days of getting into the task that we need only take down a small part of the ceiling which would have allowed in enough light from the big outside windows fronting an old 1950s LCC (London County Council) council housing estate Worse still the windows had been boarded up with that darned heavy block stone. This would have meant the room could have more easily been partitioned into two. Even so hindsight is an easy thing...though it probably might have saved a fair amount on the cost of a job done on next to nothing in any case. Be that as it may..... but jeez the room was to finally look beautiful.....and more importantly, you could live in it without going insane with church-like gloom!
Above: From the redness to the whiteness.... to a 3 dimensional Malevich-like White on White realised in marginalised living space within the context of a transformed somewhat Pre–Raphaelite, neo Gothic setting. The whiteness – that necessary tabula rasa – wherein another world is possible, and the later words of Malevich again came to mind even while beavering away "Come comrades swim with us into the whiteness"...... as some walls taken down and some re-built interspersed with red engineering brick consonants now also turned white.
Second thoughts: And then the dangers of such conjectures and flights of fancy! Dangerous because they lead to valorisation concepts, to the aesthetics of the curator. No, no, no – better to simply see it as a possible excess of white paint and nothing more! Fuck those intellectual professionals that can then pounce and misuse for their own devious careerist ends......
The above photos are of the curved arches of the neo-gothic crypt and the liveable, beautiful rooms that evolved from out of a sense of despair when first taking a look. This place had been weighted down with huge, rusting, tubular cooling / heating structures hanging from the old ceiling that left little headroom for any intrepid interloper. It was dank, dirty and cold. All windows were boarded up with the usual dark grey brick stone made worse because behind them was a packed layer of vermiculite crystals that once prized open seemed to endlessly flow onto the cold concreted floor below. Was this poisonous and toxic as the silvery-like vermiculite dust drifted into the stagnant air and all to be bagged-up and disposed of? Did the crystals contain asbestos particles? Fortunately they didn't and this was followed by much re-plastering applying specific masonry stucco as there was a lot of sporling and a lot of ancient render had fallen off these walls since the late 19th century. The place at first looked so impossibly desolate – unfortunately in retrospect – we hadn't the heart or enthusiasm to initially take photos for a then and now contrast. Nonetheless, a remarkable transformation slowly took shape as a partition was built and things took off....
Creating two separate rooms we re-used doors that had been discarded though remained dumped in forgotten church aisles. The main door was ultra, ultra heavy. The other two doors had to be cut and customised; this meant using odds and ends of wood to reinforce door frames to carry these doors. We used barn door hinges on one. Notably we got the old severely rusted-up huge Victorian hinges to work applying a specialised oil lubricant and were able to re-instate the old door to the back entrance necessary for health and safety / fire reasons. We had to fill in surrounds with plaster board and bonding so freshly modelled up curves would all blend in when the doors were closed. This was followed by painting up surrounds, etc.
We created a new toilet for the tenants building a corridor cubicle from abandoned block stone, then applying sand and cement render on the new walls plus on the floor and adjacent wall areas where there were gaping holes which had been left after putting in a new toilet, sinks, etc. The tenants then painted these areas white. In the adjacent shower cubicle, sporling had damaged much of the old brickwork, so we therefore applied masonry toupret, then trowelled in, followed with coat of stabilizer and white masonry paint. We then grouted in the tiles near the shower tray and fixed wood supports to the shower tray etc. This was followed up by knocking out an old electrical fan system, followed by opening up the holes more before installing wind-propelled spinners for ventilation.
Above: toilet door and the great out-of-whack tiling
On the other shower we placed a claw and ball opening and shutting mechanism on the customised old door also preparing the floor and disguised step down for tiling. We then showed the gal tenants how to do basic tiling and then off they went using our good quality tiling tools brilliantly tiling everything in sight like latter day Gaudi's – and just as good because so superbly child-like and daft. Moreover – and well into dumpster survival - they'd found a massive pile of thrown away tiles on an old skip which was the basis for going gloriously tile mad.
While doing all this we recalled a reimagined out-house door, the original template only now to be found in the Beamish open air museum on Tyneside. What we did with the old abandoned church doors all added to the buildings original hotch-potch look and, this to our mind is how restoration should proceed. We regret the day the rare wild pink was cleansed from the magnesium limestone walls of Fountains Abbey in the name of heritage but we would not like to see Fountains Abbey or Whitby Abbey demolished. Yet to preserve them in aspic is wrong. Let us remember what sparked the picturesque movement in this country were the disregarded tumuli of the ancient world as painted by Claude, Rosa, even Poussin and the itinerant labourers, petty thieves even brigands (i.e. surplus population) that frequent these scenes would eventually come to form the backbone of forthcoming revolutions.
Below: corridors and corridors
Above: We had to do extensive work on corridors as they were in a very dilapidated condition filling in all the big cracks near the front door and also putting in plaster board on a big gaping hole in the ceiling. We then bonded up and applied finish plaster. Worked on the walls down the corridor to the crypt where there was still much sporling. Put in patches of waterproof render here and there. We then applied stabilizer and white masonry paint and the same for the bottom of the steps leading up the tower. Also worked on the corridor area near to the toilet / shower interchange – to make look presentable.
Below: The Tower
Keeping schtum had to become our motto! Moreover – bit by bit - throughout the rambling building, secret dens and hidey holes (high up in the towers, beneath lofty ceilings and deepest crypts) have been constructed for those secret tenants not paying rent and agreed upon by an informal general assembly. At other times the work has been extremely dangerous vis-a-vis health and safety legislation (which we tended to ignore seeing it would have cost too much to abide by) and at times we were scared witless demolishing parts that, falling the wrong way, could have killed.
Demolishing a wall in front of the stained glass windows
The informal communal kitchen is now lit by a huge stained glass window – probably valued at a high price - that had been bricked up with a Dutch bonded ultra-thick wall for over 70 years. It was murder taking this down ever fearful the Church of England would prosecute us if the darned window got broken in the process as it was certainly worth some vast stoopid sum of money. But the tenants were absolutely delighted and in celebration a mass of bicycles are now parked underneath the stained glass. There has been no legal planning permission for any of this and all our collective artisanal activity – fitting in with the old neo-gothic original – had all been done on the sly.
However, it also must be remembered that the cost for the whole job would have been a lot more expensive if the aforementioned 'expert' outfit had come in as they would have insisted on proper scaffolding for the interior of the church. And if this "outfit" had taken down the Dutch bond, two brick thick wall from 65 years ago protecting the old stained glass window – which will now provide natural light for the communal kitchen – they probably would have first injected the half metre or more distance between window and wall with foam. Yet again costing the proverbial arm and leg cost comes to mind.... Even so, taking down the Dutch bond brick by brick was at times hair-raising ever fearful a brick would fall the wrong way smashing part of the beautiful post Pre-Raphaelite stained glass. Most likely the enormous window was put in perhaps as late as the 1920s the angularity of the figures a dead give-away and an anticipation of art deco. However we did breathe a collective sigh of relief once the last brick had been cast down onto the stone floor below.
The worse thing though about the 'deconstruction' of the stained glass window was unintended consequences. Everybody said there's no way we could take down the very thick Dutch bond brick wall covering it as that would take a specialist team that would cost thousands upon thousands of pounds. And wasn't this support now structural in any case post the bomb? But we haven't been on the buildings for 45 years for nothing and we knew exactly what we were doing! Even so we sweated with nerves when doing it. Moreover, the tenants wanted us to do so because if not their new big communal kitchen would only be lit with artificial light. Now they think the 'new' light and everything else is fantastic, profusely thanking us. We mentioned something to a few of them about the early derive in the mid to late 1950s, the story of the first Parisian based psychogeograhers - among them Ivan Chtcheglov - despising and decrying the 'suicide' architecture of Le Corbusier and the new subtopian housing estates (the term coined by dissident English urbanist, Ian Nairn) - Chtcheglov suggesting we all could "live in our own cathedrals". Jeez terrific! Indeed we got carried away going into the truths, tales and legends surrounding the adventures of the early psychogeographers to this new wave of experimental tenants of this 19th century south London church. These youngsters were interested but relevant history most likely fell on deaf ears though we enjoyed ourselves talking about those times. On the other hand maybe they were fascinated....Hope so!
Plus an old baronial mansion empty of occupiers for many a decade
This old baronial mansion in a relatively far-flung south London borough seemed in good condition when first looking at this elegant though faux, semi-baronial style mansion built in the early post Napoleonic period just post the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and well in the aftermath of the Peninsula campaign by the British army which emphasised the rights of small nations to resist aggression – in this case Portugal. Indeed, the accompanying splendid huge Cedar of Lebanon outside the 'mansion' reminded us of those mesmeric towns built on steep hillsides approaching the mountains to the north of Lisbon which we so enjoyed visiting during the tumultuous years of the failed Portuguese revolution in the mid 1970s.
However, once entering this baronial mansion outside appearances proved to be deceptive. Maintenance was little more than surface decoration and the distinct smell of musty damp was omnipresent in most 'flats' and rooms suggesting there had been little if any occupation of these premises for many a year. In order to make the place habitable, warm and pleasant much remedial work had to be done and we spent a couple of months basically eliminating the damp, hacking off old, rotten render, then replacing with waterproofed sand and cement followed by a coat of finish plaster.
In nearly all instances we quickly discovered this damp emanated from deplorably rotten window frames that obviously had had no cyclical maintenance applied to them for decades even though the interior walls of the various flats had been reasonably maintained as had the roof. In most cases severe ingress of water was so bad it had penetrated down through the adjacent walls into the living spaces below. We had consequently to replace all rotten areas around about 30 window frames liberally applying waterproof mastic over our 'new', extemporised window frames plus the often extensive gaps on deteriorated stone and render window sills which were then repainted with exterior masonry white. This though was no "lash-up job" which ship carpenters engaged in during heavy storms in the days of wind powered sailing ships and these frames will now be serviceable for at least a few more decades.
In and around these frames there were often very big areas of damaged, rotting render that had to be replaced. Some were almost catastrophically bad requiring many bags of render to put right. Similarly often below bay windows which this mansion abounds in ceiling areas had to be replaced and to be on the safe side, black bitumen mastic and flashing tape was deployed as additional insurance against future ingress of water.
Although the roof of the mansion had been reasonably well maintained and partially replaced even updated over the last few decades nonetheless there were two areas requiring serious attention regarding leaks. One was particularly alarming creating a veritable mini-flood when rainfall was especially heavy. To put this right we had to be inventive meticulously wrapping flashing tape and bitumen over ancient 1820s roof timber trusses followed by small sheets of expanded metal lathing on which was then applied modelled-up coats – in the best artisan tradition – of waterproof sand and cement render mix.
As ever, the mainly youngish tenants from all over the world with all their various stories fascinatingly intermingled with complex practical tasks to be accomplished like as if this had become the vibrant social arena for present day confessionals of what happens to those at the sharp end as well as perhaps the means by which traumas maybe eventually actively transcended as genuine encounter blossoms into permanent autonomous assemblies that begin to threaten the old (dis)order.
There was Lo-Lo from a South African township traumatised by something that happened to him, something so bad he couldn't mention it. All around his austere flat edgy comments were written in odd, unusual places. A small ladder had been placed against a passage wall on which was elegantly scrawled "ladder to nowhere". Underneath, on the floorboards was a small plastic figurine way too small to climb the ladder. Whatever had traumatised Lo-Lo he had briefly ended up in an asylum in a far flung outer south London suburb where he met a (white) English woman who was to become another tenant in the same building. She also suffered hellishly from other traumas and they bonded constantly looking out for each other's future well being. It was a bond stronger than conventional love. And the young woman in question was so open, so warm, so profoundly intelligently simple it did your heart good.
Now forced into the usual minimum wage exploitation Lo-Lo worked in a Smith's newsagent at a London rail terminal where he was permanently bullied by some fuckhead of a manager constantly berating him for not selling enough chocolates to customers buying newspapers, making nasty asides like "There's twenty others waiting to take your job". He'd mention all this to us while the gang was beavering away in his flat. Lo-Lo couldn't stop talking to us. "We need a communist revolution" he'd often say and we'd readily agree. We were always more or less able to fix little extras for these impoverished tenants and in this instance were able to swing an electricity reduction for Lo-Lo. He was delighted.
So many of these tenants were ringing the changes on persecution and the stories unfolded – parents who had to flee from dictators like Argentina's Videla in the 1980s. Basically none of them could fit in with standard mores whether from these islands or elsewhere. Over and over again empathy was established between a wayward building gang and the tenants. Age differences no lingered mattered. It was at times breathtaking communication and truly what life should be about.
This folks is what briefly building should be about though what we are saying will most likely be
And if things get real bad: Perhaps the world will end in utter pettiness ushered in by the jobsworths of
In the Meantime:
Down with Creative Nihilism
Up with Complex, Ingenious, Truly Human Need