One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things. — Henry Miller from Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957)
Wiping sweat off my forehead in +30 temperatures, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks unpacking and organising my stuff in Amadora, where I’ve moved for the summer.
As I was putting my clothes on hangers and sorting through my files, I was humming along to Kaiser Chiefs’ old tune, Oh my God, I can’t believe it, I’ve never been this far away from home, when it struck me that I’m asking myself the familiar question: “Where is home?”. Having spent the past 12 years or so moving between London and Warsaw, I’ve long struggled with the idea of a permanent home, of belonging to a place. In some ways, despite being a foreigner and living in several flats, London felt more of a home to me than Warsaw. Perhaps this is because my 20s, the time of intense personal development, happened in the Big Smoke, or perhaps it’s because London way of living, its multi-ethnicity, liberal values, and a sense of personal freedom, resonate with me more than a very homogeneous urban landscape of Poland, with its conservatism and attachment to traditional values (I wrote about it last year in a post about Berlin). Still, with this pattern of coming and going, and general restlessness, I’ve never reached a phase of feeling like I have a permanent home. London is a place of rentals and unless you’re a home owner you can’t really picture your grandchildren sitting on the sofa your grandparents gave you, because you’re likely to move out as soon as the landlord raises the rent or you find a job / relationship in a different part of town (to be fair, the idea of a family house that hosts a few generations is something of a past most of us can only romanticise about). So the closest to permanency I’ve come was in Warsaw, but the home I have built there is a home catering entirely for my single self needs — it is very much an expression of my personality, not a home built with someone I’m building a life with.
And now that I’ve come to Portugal to live with my boyfriend in a flat that is very much an expression of his single self, the questions of where and what home is started filling my head again. As he and I began reorganising the flat for me to feel comfortable, I was thinking about the very notion of comfort and the fact that it lies not just in a specific physical arrangement of objects but in understanding their emotional impact. Objects carry a history, memories and, at the risk of sounding New Age’y, some sort of energy. Their accumulation in a particular space, regardless whether it’s aesthetically pleasing or not, has a great impact on one’s psyche. And more often than not, people surround themselves with objects without realising how much all that stuff can affect their well-being. Living in a clutter of souvenirs from one’s past can be suffocating and depressing — as is living in a badly designed space. A good friend of mine, an incredibly talented furniture maker, recently said that “it’s hardly surprising why Poles are so gloomy, given how ugly their flats are.” Tacky furniture, cluttered space, unintentional eclecticism, is an omnipresent phenomena in Polish homes.
It is, however, almost non-existent in Japan. A recent visit to an excellent exhibition on Japanese Homes after 1945 at the Barbican Centre in London only increased my already big admiration of the culture. Japanese penchant for minimalism, tastefulness and beauty extends far beyond ikebana, bonseki or origami, and goes as far as communal architecture. When after World War II the country got hit with a housing shortage of critical proportions (approx. 50% of Tokyo got destroyed and 4.2 million houses lost), architects came up with a standardised modular design using prefabricated elements. The difference, however, between European and Japanese mass-housing projects was that while Europe was flooded with massive complexes of dubious attractiveness, Japan’s idea of large-scale housing was a mass-produced single family house. Therefore, rather than thinking of how to stack as many people as possible one on top of another, the Japanese were developing designs for a home that would be quickly assembled as well as aesthetically pleasing, functional and comfortable for a family. From Kunio Maekawa’s first mass-produced house (1950) and Makota Masuzawa’s minimal house (1952), through to Kiyoshi Ikebe’s extendable space units (1960s), Kisho Kurokawa’s “metabolizing” capsule towers (1972) and more complex units in the 1990s, all the designs followed those principles. And even though the housing planning is very single-family -oriented, these houses are built compact, with 30 to 50 dwelling units per hectare (12 to 20 dwelling units by acre) and 6 000 to 10 000 people per square kilometre (15 000 to 25 000 per square mile) in residential areas.
The Barbican exhibition, designed by Lucy Styles, is much more than photographs on the walls and scale models. With a full-size recreation of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House (2005) and Terunobu Fujimori’s Japanese teahouse and garden, it creates a truly sensory experience. As I was walking around the enchanting spaces, I couldn’t help wondering about the contrast between the heaviness of brick and mortar of the gloomy tower blocks that populate Poland and the lightness and delicacy of the Japanese post-war homes.
And as I arrived in Amadora, where many of the 1960s low apartment blocks have kept their original characteristics (like exotic wooden flooring and traditional window framing), and where people have a true community spirit, I was thinking again about the tower blocks of my youth.
And then the Grenfell Tower fire happened.
Within merely a few hours, and in some cases a few minutes, up to 600 people in the west London estate lost their homes, and hundreds of them their lives too. Reading about the devastating blaze which spread from 4th to 24th floor through cladding that should have been fireproof but wasn’t, I couldn’t contain my sadness. The fact that the tower block is located a mere stone throw’s away from where a dear friend of mine lives, made it even more dramatic. Given how many people died in the fire, those who ignored the official “stay put” policy and managed to get out of the building in time can count themselves lucky, but the truth is that apart from their lives, they’ve lost everything else.
One of those people is Giti Hassan who migrated to London from Sina in the Kurdistan area of Iran, and lived in Grenfell Tower for 20 years.
I and my children came to this country as refugees. We created a life for ourselves. We were very happy in the house which had been given to us. We were very satisfied. My children grew up here. We had memories. We built a life together. I suffered and worked very hard for years. But everything was burned in a few minutes.
Having grown up on the 10th floor of a huge (180 flats) tower block in Poland – an experience which fuelled my nightmares for many years – I’ve always had a negative view of high-rise housing. Reading Simon Jenkin’s very bold response to the London fire in a recent article for the Guardian, The lesson from Grenfell is simple: stop building residential towers, I was thinking of my own very grim experience of living in a place that besides being ugly, never made me feel safe or connected to its residents. I completely agree with Jenkin’s plea:
Don’t build residential towers. Don’t make or let people live in them, least of all families. They are antisocial, high-maintenance, disempowering, unnecessary, mostly ugly, and they can never be truly safe. No tower is fireproof. No fire engine can reach up 20 storeys, period.
Of course, when it comes to the aesthetics of large-scale social housing, it’s a question of personal taste — the so-called Brutalist London landmarks, like The Trellick Tower in North Kensington, Balfron in Poplar, or the famous Barbican, have as many fans as enemies. Furthermore, social housing doesn’t have to be limited to foreboding towers. In France for example, two Spanish architects, Ricardo Bofill and Manuel Nunez-Yanowsky, decided to go against “whitewashed visions of the 1950s”, building very avant-garden estates: Les Espaces d’Abraxas and Arènes de Picasso at Noisy-le-Grand in the outskirts of Paris, and Le Viaduc et le Temple (1982 and 1986) in Montigny le Bretonneux . A similarly futuristic design can be found in Nanterre, where Emile Aillaud designed the Cité Pablo Picasso estate. Impressive and unique, these sites have inspired not only photographers such as Laurent Kronental (whose series called Souvenir d’un Futur is a 4-year documentation of the “grands ensembles”), but film-makers (Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay). Bofill and Nunez-Yanowsky wanted to elevate the modern social housing; Viaduc was meant to be “Versailles for the people”. But, as Charles-Antoine Parrault rightly observed, “thirty years after construction, deteriorating prefabricated modules combined with negligent maintenance make the ornamental details look like cheap versions of themselves”. And, instead of creating a safe and comfortable community, all these estates, plagued with poverty and crime, have an atmosphere of disarray, solitude and isolation. London tower blocks suffered exactly the same fate – the Trellick became known as the “Tower of Terror”, a “haunt for drunks, thieves and dossers” until things improved in the late 80s / early 90s.
And there is another negative aspect of living in these multi-storey tower blocks: their impact on mental health.
When JG Ballard wrote in High-Rise (1975) that “the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives” would allow “the psychotics” to take over, his main inspiration was the 40-storey Trellick. The extreme sky-scrapers like NYC’s Trump World Tower and Dubai’s 90+ storey residential towers which make Trellick or Grenfell small by comparison, hadn’t been built yet. Of course, these buildings are in a completely different range than London’s council tower blocks, with prices at TWT ranging from $625,000 for a studio to over $28 million. These “cities in the sky” are highly desirable, and often incorporate a whole infrastructure within them, like Gensler’s Shanghai Tower, currently the world’s tallest building (128 stories) which hosts “restaurants, shops, homes, offices and even parks inside a consciously pro-social spiral glass shell”. But what effect can living in a building like that have on one’s brain?
In an article for the Guardian, Could bad buildings damage your mental health?, Emily Reynolds asks the questions that bug me:
Visiting a park two floors down from your flat might sound convenient, but can it really replace the health benefits of a stroll in a natural green space? Going to school in the same building you live in could save time, but it also sounds like a limiting, claustrophobic and homogenous experience.
The high-rise housing, as Reynolds describes, “was initially commended for its views, larger rooms, sense of “urban privacy” and efficient use of concrete”, but later studies suggested that it was linked to “social and mental ills: increased crime, suicide rates and behavioural problems. High-floor dwellers were most at risk when it came to the negative impacts of such living environments because they were apparently most likely to isolate themselves.” One of these studies, The Consequences of Living in High-Rise Buildings, belongs to Robert Gifford from University of Victoria. Acknowledging that the evidence is still incomplete, “but some trends in the findings certainly are more consistent than others”, Gifford concludes that “high rises are less satisfactory than other forms of housing”, with evidence suggesting that “strain often results from high building or dwelling density” and “every study surveyed indicated that children who live in high rises exhibit more behavioral problems than children who do not”.
I personally could live neither in Trellick nor Shanghai Tower, even if I were given a penthouse for free. With my introvert nature and a mild fear of height, being several floors above the ground would only enhance a sense of isolation and discomfort. I much prefer to be able to look down the balcony without vertigo and to wave to my neighbours walking down the street. That way, I feel connected both to the people and the earth. I remember friends and family visiting us in that old flat on the 10th floor and admiring the stunning views. But what I remember even better are the chilling articles in our local newspapers informing about yet another person jumping off the roof.
What is very interesting, when one compares Europe and Japan, is that despite the decay and malfunctioning of our tower buildings, they’re not easily knocked down (Grenfell Tower went through £10 million pound “retouching” to make it look better, which only diminished its already questionable safety), while Japanese houses are normally demolished after 30 years (and in some cases, much sooner). And that’s despite having a very efficient and sustainable way of mass-producing timber homes that are very good and can even withstand earthquakes. According to the International Union of Architects, Japan has 5 times more architects per 1,000 residents than Britain. For Japanese people, the value of a property lies not in bricks, mortar, or wood but in land, where, rather than living in a second-hand home, they prefer to build their own. This disposable-home culture obviously has a negative impact on the environment. One the other hand, remodelling is often more expensive and leads to less satisfactory results than rebuilding, so the Japanese model could, and perhaps should be applied to mass-housing such as the tower block estates.
And perhaps there is another inspiration one can take from the Japanese architecture culture: the idea of the ephemeral and transitory. Any building, be it a ground-level house or a 100-storey block, will age, decay, and eventually become uninhabitable. As well as that, people move to different parts of town, country or the world; get kicked out by landlords, lose homes because of catastrophes. So perhaps a home, rather than being one particular place, is any place we connect with and create memories in; a place that makes us feel safe, comfortable, and helps us build bonds with other people.