Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Look at the old house


I’ve just finished reading Patrick Keiller’s The View from the Train (Verso 2013), a stylish collection of essays that explore the urban landscape largely through Surrealist/Situationist notions of the dérive and the search for hidden places, new ‘situations’ and meanings. Of course, the problem with all of these ideas today is that they’ve already been absorbed into the Spectacle itself, for instance with the dreadfully lame Occupy ‘détourning’ of public urban spaces, or in the way certain urban areas have been flaneured to death by forty-something 'Urban Splash' types (a.k.a. property developers), or via the teeming hordes of young, hungry, and boringly tireless academics who breathlessly ‘work with place as the interface of an interrogation of ‘turbulence’ and ‘force fields’ as ways of being and becoming’. 

Once I started reading View from the Train however, it quickly dawned on me that many of Keiller’s essays date back to the 1980s and that he was adapting these ideas to his work in a genuinely purposeful manner a long time before they became so hipsterish and shallow. The most interesting essay in View from the Train for our purposes here is ‘The Dilapidated Dwelling’, which is based on a very simple but effective idea. ‘Where I live’, Keiller begins, ‘there seems to be two kinds of space. There is new space, in which none of the buildings are older than about ten years old, and there is old space, in which most of the buildings are over twenty years old … and all are more or less dilapidated.’ 

New space tends to be corporate and 'economically active ... retail sheds … a Travel Inn … distribution warehouses’. In Gainsborough, this is the town’s newest new space:



In comparison, old space ‘looks poor, even when it isn’t’ and most of it is residential. Surprisingly, Keiller doesn’t directly cite the post-war council estate as an example of old space but the Middlefield Lane estate is fifty years old this year and so old space it most certainly is: 




According to Keiller, old space always appears to be difficult to maintain. ACIS, the company that runs and maintains Middlefield Lane, valiantly keeps the housing there in good order for what must be an oversubscribed demand for decent, affordably rented homes - but the old space and its dilapidation persists:


Later, in an essay entitled ‘The Robinson Institute’, Keiller suggests that while technology has radically altered the way we communicate, the built environment has not changed anything like as much as we expected: the way we experience space now changes much faster than the fabric of the spaces we occupy. But, in the case of the Middlefield Lane estate, and despite the best efforts of ACIS, the overall fabric of its space seldom changes at all. The deterioration that began on the estate in the 1980s lingers to a point where it seems that time itself has come to a standstill. This fence post can still be found along the path seen above. It is at least forty years old.


The fence used to divide the estate from the countryside beyond.



We can keep theorising about all of this. I know I do. I could write about this fence post as a relic of a contemporary, post-war, archaeological state, or in terms of a hauntological merging of past and present, when maybe we just need a new fence. Or, if you look, some new paving stones. The notion of conserving or restoring a provincial, low-rise 1960s council estate is seldom ever raised anywhere outside of this blog. The conservationist, Keiller reckons, ‘is, as always, frustrated’ with old space. But what if we went further than conserving? What if, in its fiftieth year, we tried to restore at least part of the Middlefield Lane estate back to its 1964 setting, to how it was originally planned, designed and developed back then? I'm a sad idealist, and I've said all of this before, and no doubt I'll say it all again, because time is standing still for all of us. I've just looked: 'The Dilapidated Dwelling' was first published in 1998, and mentions 'The UK's new Labour government', that 'seems to be prepared to leave house-building to the private sector' and which seems to 'preclude a revival of public-sector house-building on anything like its former scale...'