Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Arendt and Sennett

I've been re-reading in a protracted, fragmentary way Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) which I first got onto years ago after a good book architecture (George Baird, The Space of Appearance) made heavy reference to and drew its title from it. I know I've read it before from my pencil markings but, as seems normally to be the case these days, remember none of the things I’d marked -- in fact I almost might as well not have read it. Not quite, though I suspect my vague general impressions come from Baird’s quotes, not the book itself.

I was reading the section on homo faber, man the maker, about the craftsman, as opposed to homo laborans who just labours, producing things like food or laundered sheets that are consumed almost as soon as produced. Arendt makes a distinction between work and labour, the products of the former being ephemeral, those of the latter lasting, often, longer than their maker’s life and contributing to the ‘human artifice’ or made world that is there before we arrive in it and survives after our death.

Other European languages, she points out, make the same distinction. Labour is associated with childbirth, travail -- French travail. Work can be a verb or a noun, including a count noun (with singular and plural works), in French too: oeuvre, les oeuvres -- which reminds me that literary and artistic and scholarly works are part of the human artifice too, though whether she counts them as the product of homo faber too I’m not sure.

For our lives to be meaningful we need an intelligible world -- ‘human artifice’ -- in which to participate, and our works, deeds and words need to be seen and heard by others, our polis, our society, in the space of appearance.

Her homo faber is mainly the craftsman who makes things with hands and tools, and her account of him (and her, as we have to supply throughout -- she was writing before gender awareness got into philosophy) struck me as in some ways unconvincing. It doesn’t matter how for now. So I found myself wondering if Richard Sennett knew of her views or had anything to say about them in his own book The Craftsman -- which again I owned and had, apparently, read in part (though, again, without any recall of the bits I’d marked).

So I look at Sennett’s Prologue and what’s the first sentence I read:

‘Just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the days in 1962 when the world was on the brink of atomic war, I ran into my teacher Hannah Arendt on the street’

on the Upper West Side in New York, it turns out. And the whole book, as I'm embarrassed not to have remembered, was an argument that Arendt had got it wrong about the craftsman.

I've heard Sennett speak at the London School of Economics, where he was until he retired, about the house that Wittgenstein designed for his sister in Vienna. He’d been round the house sketching and measuring Wittgenstein’s crazy design, including such features as doorknobs exactly half way up the door for the sake of geometrical neatness.

So I have personally a student of Hannah Arendt who was a student and lover of Heidegger who was an assistant to Husserl who studied under Brentano (who unfortunately was a student of no-one I've heard of and a Catholic priest into the bargain, thus ending my backwards chain.)

On the grounds of that pedigree, at least its part back to about 1870, I reckon I deserve a bit more respect. (I certainly can’t claim it for my memory.)

Monday, 25 April 2011

What are buildings made of?

Had one of those moments when you’re pulled up short by realising what you don’t know. Walking up Adelaide Road from Claremont Crescent to St Mark’s Hill I passed from a few lovely Regency houses...

and, looking back to the sunny side of the street, this:

...to modern low-rise blocks of flats in brick with white wooden window frames...

...and was trying to pin down what was so objectionable about the flats.

It's their pusillanimity.  Although they're Modern in being rational and functional -- no frills, no ornament -- they're Modern without panache, machines for living in without brio, built of bricks and wood with their only modern material, concrete, concealed in floor slabs and staircases. Though modern in their use of concrete, electricity and provision of plumbing in bathrooms and kitchens, there’s nothing about them that celebrates modernity. Rather, the visible materials suggest banal and unscary conformity with traditional domestic norms. Its elevation may have been drawn with ruler and set square eschewing any variation that might add interest or create satisfying proportional relationships, and avoiding the rhetoric that in older buildings marks entrances as special and suggests the relative importance of the internal spaces, what we get is an ordinary brick house wall only bigger and ordinary windows and frames only more of them.  It even has a hipped roof like a semi.

(This one’s a bit better, on the sunny side -- the sun certainly helps -- volumetrically satisfying with some interesting massing -- a bit more than just an ordinary house on steroids:

) (How do you 'close brackets' after a picture?)

Then I thought, what could have been used instead of brick? That's what I realised I didn't know.  Very recently it’s been possible to use an inner and outer skin, the outer perhaps of wooden strips or laminate and the inner of plasterboard, separated by a wide cavity filled with insulation, and triple-glazed windows that in the interests of insulation try not to be bigger than they need to be. But what about when these flats were built, which I image was in the 1980s?

Come to that, what did Corbusier use for his walls in his Unités d’Habitation flats in Marseilles? presumably he didn’t pour concrete for his walls, though he might have. Perhaps he too used brick, covered with white stucco?

After the war there was talk of turning the vast apparatus that had produced matériel -- tanks and planes -- over to housing. I'm not sure what came of that, but steel- or aluminium-plated houses never appeared and prefabs were made of asbestos -- weren’t they, or was it plywood? -- and not in aircraft factories?

You note I could find all this out with a minimum of research, but I'm choosing to write out my ignorance first.  The information I'm lacking will come along some day soon without my having to look for it -- as indeed it must have done plenty of times in the past, without my paying attention.  But writing this will make me take notice when it arrives this time (a 'language and learning' or 'language across the curriculum' point, for those in the trade).

Prefabricated concrete panels, of course, were one possibility, as used, notoriously, in tower blocks and slab blocks -- and sometimes looking great -- as in Park Hill at Sheffield and in Robin Hill Gardens in London (these two):

and sometimes, in fact usually, awful as in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s blocks you see from the inner motorway in Leeds. Perhaps prefabricated panels were precluded by cost from use in the odd single low-rise block. So can’t low-rise blocks, being condemned to brick, look daringly modern and exciting? I'll have to pay attention to them as I walk around.

Back at the start of architectural modernity you had skyscrapers -- Chicago and New York. Steel structure, of course, and steel-reinforced concrete floor slabs, but what, before glass walling was possible, were the walls made of? My impression is that on the Chrysler Building and the Empire State they were made of stone -- how modern is that?

Saturday, 23 April 2011

...and poems in the car

At the risk of signing up to a bloggers’ mutual admiration society, since there’s a nice reference to this one (i.e. mine) in Mitchell Reids in America, I nevertheless recommend it, not least because here there’s another way in which poetry can play a part in life, this time in a sociable and indeed a family context, which wasn’t at all Stéphane Hessel’s situation.

It’s apparently to be a short-lived blog since the Mitchells and Reids in question are only in America for another few weeks. While it’s very enjoyable about being there, I hope they continue on what it’s like to be back. As Mark says, having to write each day is good for us.

There’s a question left for me in there, too -- but I need more time to think about it.

Knowing poems by heart

I could, if more organised, have made a collection of testimony about the value people have found in knowing a stack of poetry by heart. I remember George Steiner somewhere talking about running an underground seminar over several years in, perhaps, Czechoslovakia. From time to time a student would stop appearing, only to turn up again months later explaining they’d been in prison where, lacking pen and paper, they’d occupied themselves in translating Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin from Russian to English, a poem over 200 pages long in the translation I looked at.

When our friends in other classes were told that their French master, Twelves, had told them how as a student he used to pace Sheffield Station reciting French verse in his head, I'm afraid we put that down along with his general demeanour to absurd Victorian stuffiness and lack of a real life.

I did, myself, though, use to know enough chunks by heart to keep myself happy for a while, though they weren’t very long -- 20-30 lines max, like the opening of the Canterbury Tales and, more arcanely, Dryden’s ‘Absolom and Achitophel’ which I thought hilarious, which in fact it is -- which makes me less dismissive that some that pupils might gain by reading Dryden. And speeches from Othello, as a result of starring in the school play (as Third Gentleman, around whom, as I explained in a long-lost article in a school magazine, the whole plot really turned).

I'm still taking Philosophie Magazine, because I think it’s good for me though I don’t get round to reading much of it. In the monthly feature, ‘Les Philosophes: L’Entretien’ the March issue has an interview with Stéphane Hessel, who I’d never heard of. Though trained in philosophy and involved in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, he is also a poet. Arrested in the Resistance he spent time in the camps:

The experience of Buchenwald, Rottleberode and Dora...showed me that knowing long poems by heart is an immeasurable resource. It’s as if you have opium on you, a substance that makes an arduous situation bearable. At Buchenwald I’d recite Paul Valéry’s Cimetière Marin Rilke’s Orphée and Villon’s La Ballade du Pendu to myself. Poetry is one of my vertical columns. It was like a medicine, it enabled me to hold on in the camps. It was more of a medicine for my soul than philosophy.

Not sure of my translation of some bits of that.

It seems to me that the fact that poetry can work like this is important and is insufficiently taken account of, let alone explained.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Blond Armpits and Hyacinth Blood

Joan Miró had the honour of my visit this morning at Tate Modern, and very enjoyable it was. HIs best titles were:

Young Girl with Half Brown, Half Red Hair Slipping in the Blood of the Frozen Hyacinths of a Burning Football Field. (1939)

Worthy of Louis Aragon! And

Woman with Blond Armpit Combing her Hair by the Light of the Stars. (1940)

This was very funny. The woman was of course little more than a suggestive outline with nipples and other features, and the blond armpit, a small white blob that I took some time to notice, made me (almost) laugh. There was a moon through a window, a bird, and a scattering of his black disks.

Could have looked at this one much longer, but that went for most of the ones I looked at, which was 11 individual works or sets. That took an hour, enough for me, though I intend to go back and take advantage of my membership for free entry. (I get very good value for my £60 or whatever.) I took notes as I've done a few times now, finding it makes me look better and see more.

If I'm conscientious, before I go back next time I'll look at my notes and try and sketch the paintings from them, then check, as well as looking at some more.

Although he does a big variety of things (and it’s a big exhibition), it felt much more like looking at Kandinsky than looking at Picasso. Or Klee. I wished I’d had a grandchild or two with me -- they’d have enjoyed it.

(The image above wasn't in the show, I think -- found it online from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and I'm sure they'll agree my purpose in purloining it is educational.)

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Mina Road: some documents

Before they were abolished in 1904, to be replaced by the London County Council as the authority in charge of London schools, the School Board for London produced a large printed report that includes a history of the development of its school buildings over the years since 1870. (Their achievement was impressive. There were no publicly provided schools when they started; over their 34 years they built 469.) One of the schools mentioned as significant was Mina Road (1882), and they print its plan, evidently of the first floor, where the Boys’ department was housed:

(Final report of the School Board for London 1870-1904, 1904, p.63.)

From other things I've read it seems the basic class size was 60, though it could be subdivided into 2 x 30 as we see in two of the classrooms, or doubled up for teaching by the head teacher, with one or more pupil-teachers, in the hall -- which had desks for that number. The broken line represents the ‘rolling shutters’ that were later removed. The principle was that the head teacher should be able both to teach one or two classes in the hall and keep an eye on the assistant teachers and pupil-teachers in the classrooms.

The total accommodation for that floor, going by the numbers on that plan, was 420 pupils (boys, not infants, aged 7-12) in 7 classes of 60 - and that fits with the actual pupil numbers I've found recorded in documents at the National Archives in Kew.

Mina Road was not judged a success. The Board’s account is as follows:

ln order to combine teaching with the occasional use of a large room for collective purposes, two types were now tried; one the Mansford-street (Hackney S) and Mina-road (East Lambeth K) type, of which four schools were built. Here there were large halls available for infants and for boys, but each of them were occupied permanently by two classes and the corresponding rooms for the girls were supplied on a separate floor over the hall. This type, though providing two handsome rooms, was not serviceable for teaching or for assembling the children. These schools are being improved by the halls being freed from the classes and used for their special purpose. (Final Report p.37)

That improvement was made possible by the removal of the oldest classes (Standards 5 and 6, what would later be called 1st and 2nd year secondary and now Year 7 and 8) to the new building, that still stands. Quite what was meant by that account of the girls’ provision on the second floor isn’t clear to me.

I hope the original plans survive in the archives. Patrick Kingwell and I will be looking in the London Metropolitan Archives -- we’ll report if we find them.

Friday, 15 April 2011

School desks at Mina Road

This is from the book written by the London schools architect, E.R. Robson in 1874 -- 8 years before Mina Road Elementary School (later Walworth School) was built (School Architecture, p.172).

Were there desks like this at the school within anyone’s memory? Comments here welcome, or, if you can't work out how to do that (many people can't, I find) then email me at walworthresearch@me.com and I'll post your memories myself (with or without your name, as you prefer).

You can enlarge the image by double clicking -- then notice the slate rack at A.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Further memories of the building

Bit by bit we’re getting there. Now I've had this from Bill Cutts:

I was at the school from 1952 until 1957 and the old building was for the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th formers. The ground floor had a hall but it was Paddy Price’s gym and also served as the dining hall. I think there were 5 classrooms on the ground floor. Three classrooms in the gym section and one in each of the corridors at each end of the gym.

The 1
st floor had a similar layout but the hall had been converted into the library, half of which was the 6th form.

The second floor I remember had the same classroom layout and numbers and the hall was used for the upper school assemblies.

A bit later Bill adds:

I have tried to remember the classrooms on the 2
nd floor but all I can remember was that the first classroom inside the hall at the Walworth Road end was Miss Porchetta and next to that was Mr. Besch’s science room.

Incidentally, the Walworth Road end corridor of the first floor had a classroom on the Mina Road side that was my 3
rd year form room. It had a piano in it and it was used for music lessons. Next to it with the door just inside what would have been the hall, was Miss Ashton’s form room, my maths teacher. Next to that was my 4th & 5th year form room and Mr. Rosen was my form teacher. The next classroom which was opposite the 6th form end of the library has slipped my mind. Through the double doors and again on the Mina Road side was my French teacher’s form room. He was Mr. Rogers.

I did make a mistake with the ground floor. The Walworth Road end corridor did not have a classroom. That space was the kitchen for the school dinners.

One day I'll search for the original plans in the London Metropolitan Archive.

Meanwhile, does anyone else than John (last posting) remember fires in the classrooms? Open fires, coal scuttles, tongs, pokers? how did it work, or not work? John remembers someone’s plimsolls getting burnt.

More on Walworth/Mina Road

John tells me:

When I came up from the Lower School in 1963 the old building was still in use. There were two halls and I remember the boys and girls in the third year being separated into them for sex education lessons. The RE teacher, Mr Tagg led for the boys , standing on the stage and asking the boys to send him confidential written notes regarding their queries about sex. As you can expect one boy's note was 'does masturbation make you blind?' Mr Tagg’s reply was confidently 'no' , but more hesitantly he admitted 'but it can make you out of breath'. He went on to state it was like 'running around the old school building at least three times'.

I can only remember two floors being in use. I don't remember whether there was a third floor. Most interestingly. during the winter the classrooms had open fires. The coke/ coal store was at the end of the building towards the Old Kent Road end. Often small bits of coke would be thrown around the playground. I think boys and girls had separate playgrounds, with the boys being adjacent to the old building and the girls being next to the remaining building. The upper school library was on the first floor of the old building. It was not very big and I think it was just a classroom made into a library. library periods were time tabled in year 3( 9), Sometimes school detentions were held in there. Brenda Harvey did much of her teaching in the old building and would be a good source of memories. However, I remember Reg Hunt saying that when the Old building was demolished they found a long length of railway track in the roof space, apparently , debris from the Blitz and bombing of Dunton Road railway yards in the second world war.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Good writing I get bored with

I wrote this last Saturday and have now just tidied it up and decided to post it for what it’s worth.

Reading Owen Hatherley (A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain -- architecture in cities post-1970) I think how good the writing is and how there’s plenty of good British writing around that requires -- i imagine -- no knowledge of the Authorised Version or Shakespeare or Milton to be enjoyed, so do we really have to read Eng Lit classics at school and uni? (a question that I'm aware deserves closer attention).

Though personally I wouldn’t look for it, good British writing, in fiction. Perhaps Martin Amis is good now, though he wasn’t when I tried to read Money. Just irritating. And I suppose I only say that because I don’t read much fiction -- tends to irritate me like theatre.

That was after reading the intro -- autobiog, survey, rant, most enjoyable and lively. Then I read a big chunk of the first chapter, on Southampton. Intrigued at first and held by the lively and witty writing, then after a while I'd had enough. I thought this was because I didn’t know Southampton (and the photographs are too small and grey to do the job -- a problem that I suppose reading it on an iPad might solve, I suppose, one argument for such devices that don’t much tempt me).

And then I thought that one advantage of the novel is that one doesn’t have to know its places and people in advance. It tells you all you need to know. But now again I think I don’t need to if I read a good history, either, even if it’s on a topic I've no knowledge of ... so I don’t know where this leaves me.

Except, come to think of it, I do. My education and all has meant I've spent a lot of time with history, one way and another, and that makes reading about it meaningful, not because I know the places and people but because I've become a sort of minimal connoisseur of how history goes so that new cases come to me as relevant, as fitting themselves -- in ways I have to decide and perhaps can’t help trying to decide -- in a tissue of memories of other works.

So, by analogy, if I'd been an assiduous observer of and reader about architecture and urban planning, and still more if I'd myself grappled with the confusion of post-1970 British urban scenes and groped for ways of making sense of them, then Hatherley’s efforts would interest me for the categories and characterisations he comes up with, for the light he throws on what appeared meaningless and for the insightfulness of his metaphors.

Later again
Then I have my tea, over a newspaper which has an extract from the unpublished (unfinished, reconstructed, I think) novel Pale King by David Foster Wallace who the papers insist was exceptionally good. Well, yes, it’s good -- very nice description of an unusual and interesting situation, the narrator’s father being caught in the closing doors of a Chicago subway train and hurtling to his death at the opening of the tunnel -- as are thousands of parallel passages in novels. But so it should be if he’s devoted his life to writing -- he’s a writer, dammit. In short, so what, nothing special, and no particular reason to read yet another new novel out of the impossible pile of good novels.

In any case I think I've always preferred non-fiction, mainly -- fiction once in a while, certainly, a periodic fix, as with poetry, but a little goes a long way.

This ends up a rambling as Montaigne. Does that make me a true essayist?

Walworth / Mina Rd responses

June kindly emailed me the following, which she's given me permission to post:

I was at Mina Road from 1953 to 1958. My first year was in 1E(Miss Eggleston.'she was Australian') that class room was on the ground floor of the Lower School.
Then I went into 2 H.(Miss Harvey) and that room was on the first floor of the lower school. Then we moved to the Upper School and I was in 3W(Miss Wallace) I believe that to have been up on the first floor. Also on the first floor was the Library and staff room, they were near the sewing rooms - they always seemed bigger to me than a normal class room with a long table in there for cutting out. I do not believe there was a hall, the hall was on the next(top) floor where we
had assemblies. The Domestic Science (Housecraft) rooms were a separate single storey building near the lower school. The hall in the Lower School I believe as on the ground floor. I do not know if this is of any help at all.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

More on Walworth School/ Mina Road

First, as I've mentioned before, there’s a website about some research about the history of three London schools (1945-65) of which Walworth or Mina Road is one. It gives you an email to contact if you want to know more or have stuff to tell us; or you can email walworthresearch@me.com.

Also, if you look down the right hand side of this screen, some way down there’s a long list of ‘labels’. These are links to other postings on my blog. Try clicking on Walworth and Mina Road.

Now, here’s a question for those of you who remember the main old building, used as the upper school -- the one nearest the Old Kent Road.

Here’s a picture of it from 1905, from the brochure for the opening of the other building (the only one that’s still there).

At that date this building was what would now be called a primary school -- infants, boys and girls (with a wall to separate them in the playground). The new building was called a Higher Grade or HIgher Elementary school, and was what we’d call a secondary school for children of 11, 12 and 13: Mina Road Higher Grade School.

We want to know more about the older building, demolished in the early 1960s. It looks as if it has only two real storeys, ground and first, with perhaps a hall on each floor (those big windows). The second floor looks much lower, with dormer windows. So what went on up there?

And how many classrooms do you remember on each floor? and who taught in each, if you can really stretch your memory? We think the middle hall became the library -- is that right?

Here to help you is a much later shot of the same building, taken from the Mina Road side. Here it looks like three main storeys, not two, with five classrooms on each floor, but it would be nice to be sure.


There may, of course, have been major alterations since 1905.