Castle Square, known locally as the Hole in the Road, was the crowning glory of Sheffield’s concrete commitment to modernist oddities. After three decades of decline it was finally filled and flattened in 1994, apparently using rubble from the nearby demolition of the similarly short lived Hyde Park flats.
I was twelve in 1994 and I can’t recall the last time I went down there, but I do quite vividly remember peering in from the top deck of a bus as the demolition teams were pouring the rubble. I informed my mum as she sat beside me:
“When I’m old I’ll enjoy describing the Hole in the Road to kids because it’ll seem mad.”
It was mad. I thought Castle Square was mad then as I do now; a sprawling and eccentric piece of civic architecture difficult to describe. The narrator of the 70s publicity video Sheffield on the Move has a good go, referring to it as a “forward looking development; an underground concourse with its ingenious roof of sky”.
I wonder what those charged with the forward looking thought they saw. I wonder because I know had I been in their shoes I would’ve probably seen the same thing.
For those working to build a better society, the modernist utopia of efficiency, logic and order provided such a solid answer. It’s a concept that makes such sense, and had I been around in the 60s and 70s I would’ve thrown myself headlong into the entire movement.
Even now, with the hindsight of a thousand wrecking balls and a thousand tumbling tower blocks, I find the image above so enticing. I let me eyes be drawn up Arundel Gate by the smooth ribbons of tarmac and I want to live there. Even though I actually did and often still do live there and know it to be largely awful, I still want to live in that picture.
Not in the place, but in the promise. I want to live in the promise of that picture, and with the hope it offers. I want to know what it’s like to live with that hope; the hope that a better world is ours to make.
Last night in a pub in Sheffield a hastily arranged party was held to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t go; to me it seemed like an own goal.
The pub chosen is situated in a stone fronted, grade II listed premises originally built in 1867 to accommodate the offices of the Sheffield Water Works Company. Over a century later work began on a large, brutalist office complex adjoining its rear facade. This much larger, purposefully imposing structure and the water works building it subsumed were together intended to house the headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers.
The proposed tenant never arrived. By the time construction work was complete in 1988, the NUM and the entire trade union movement had effectively been smashed by Thatcher’s government. The NUM HQ has stood empty throughout its life.
Though remaining conjoined, around the turn of the century the water works building regained its independence having been internally sealed off from the deserted NUM building. It now houses the aforementioned pub, one of a national chain of high street pubs ultimately owned by an outspoken eurosceptic who last year saw fit to brew a special edition ale as a “salute to Cameron’s stance” on Europe.
So to celebrate the death of their arch nemesis, the lefties of Sheffield chose to congregate in a high street chain pub set amidst the ghost of their own smashed hope and hand over their money to a large corporation used by its multimillionaire owner to further his own right wing agenda. Way to go, comrades.
A couple of blogs back I spoke of my belief that the pound in our pocket has become a more useful democratic tool than the vote we impotently cast twice a decade. I really do believe this, and I think it’s often conveniently ignored by the apparently angry and supposedly active left.
While those marching against the government and the evils of corporate greed remain happy to nip into the nearest Tesco Express for their lunch, they undermine everything they’re supposedly fighting for. Waving a banner isn’t “doing your bit”. Token gestures aren’t politics. Shouting in the street isn’t politics. Big business is politics. Rightly or wrongly, our country is run like a business. What happens in big business affects us all. Even without our government and its supposed opposition up to its eyeballs in commercial interest, we’d still need the books to balance.
So if we want to actually do our bit, we must look beyond our own convenience and make the sacrifices necessary to cut off the flow of money to those we despise. Big business needs our money to do what it’s doing; losing just a small percentage of that source of income would force real change in a very short time.
If we really care we need to stop feeding the hand that bites and start using capitalism against itself. We must shop with our political heads on, thinking about what we buy, where we buy and why we buy. Weekend socialism will achieve very little. Those who care must pick their side and do everything in their power to stick to it. Only then can the balance tip. Conscious consuming has the power to create a conscious capitalism against which our society can fare better. Unconscious consumers can only score own goals.
This leaflet, produced by the Federation of Small Businesses, insists that we keep trade local. It lies crumpled and forgotten in the window of an empty shop.
I agree with the statement, but casting my mind back to what this shop was like prior to its demise, seeing the leaflet lying there irritated me. It was a two way street, guys. I believe that if we are to maintain healthy local communities we do have a duty to keep trade local, but local businesses have a duty to us too. They have to provide a reliable service if we are to rely on them.
The business once occupying these premises failed to keep up its side of the deal. It was dreadful. The interior was dark and untidy, the service was unreliable and the products on display were covered in dust. I know it’s hard to compete with the internet and the retail parks, but daylight, tidiness, good service and cleanliness are free. There was no excuse to ignore those issues.
In our capitalist society, the pounds and pence we spend every day have more power to bring about real social change than the vote we’re allowed to cast once every four years. So I really wish shop owners would help us to help them. If local business proprietors could appreciate that they are custodians of something far bigger than just their own bank balance, they might find their bank balance starts looking after itself.
Thursday 14th March, 2013 – What car do you drive?
I went to a school to talk to a class of fairly disadvantaged fourteen year olds about my job. After delivering a brief presentation on what a graphic designer actually does for a living, the kids had the chance to ask questions. I had been forewarned that the above question would be among the first asked. It was, closely followed by “Do you have a big house?”.
Kid. Don’t worry about cars and big houses. Cars and big houses are burdensome distractions for the generation that spawned you. Ignore the adverts for shiny things, for new things. Resist that oh so enticing allure. Ignore it, for even should you ever be lucky enough to afford it, nothing will ever be shiny enough. Nothing will ever be new enough. Remain free. When the golden handcuffs are eventually presented, don’t offer your wrists. Don’t end up trapped in a prison of your own making.
Friday 15th March, 2013 – It ain’t right.
I went on the Sheffield Friday Night Ride. This month’s theme necessitated a route passing through a few of the less welcoming of our city’s suburbs. As our 25 strong group of mostly middle class, mostly middle aged and entirely very white cyclists entered Pitsmoor we were greeted by a couple of local lads. It’s not unusual for the passing convoy to be heckled by territorial teens; indeed it wasn’t the only time it happened that night. What stayed with me this particular time was the spluttered point bookending a telling pause. “Yo! You guys comin’ into Pitsmoor… It ain’t right.”
Kid. Who told you what’s right? And why ever did you listen? What you suggest is right is keeping you isolated on these forgotten streets. It’s what makes you fear the next street along. It’s what leaves you baffled when something so mundane as a group of cyclists enters your world. Get a bike and join us. We don’t just have one street corner. We have the freedom of the whole city to play in, and so should you. Forget what’s right. What you think is right is keeping you trapped in a prison of your own making.
Saturday 16th March, 2013 – Oi. Speak up.
I went on a bedroom tax protest. Standing outside Sheffield town hall at the back of the crowd straining to hear the speaker, we were distracted by an obnoxious heckle from the attention hungry ringleader of a small group of fashionably attired sixth–formers. “Oi! Speak up!” came the shout. They all laughed and walked off, dismissing the crowd to continue sipping their Starbucks. The accuracy of the statement hadn’t overriden the facetiousness of the sentiment.
Kid. The people here are fighting for your freedom, for your well being and for your future. Don’t heckle. Don’t hide behind derisory laughter. Listen and learn, because the life we’re trying to defend is the one you’re soon to enter, and you’re going to need all the help you can get. One day it might be with sorrow that you look back to the time when you could laugh away the chance to make a difference, while you still had that chance, before you found yourself trapped in a prison of your own making.
The time rich designer is able to offer a service for free to a deserving cause. There are out there many worthwhile projects very deserving of such services, and it doesn’t take long to find one you believe in. Indeed, your offer of help will likely be welcomed with open arms.
And soon enough you’ll be the least popular person at the table. Here’s why.
Typically the designer first has to work with a group to identify the desired outcome. This always goes great because it’s a conversation about ambition, optimism and affirmation.
The problems begin during the next step, when the designer begins to work backwards from that desired outcome in order to find the solution. Unfortunately, the solution might not be what people want to hear. In fact it’s almost guaranteed not to be, when one considers the reality that most things worth doing don’t come easy.
Designers – at least those who consider their remit to extend beyond the realm of decoration – have to accept the likelihood that certain aspects of the input they offer will be unpopular with the client. A designer exists to solve problems, and in order for problems to be solved they must first be identified. So for a while the job is to find fault, and no matter how tactfully it’s done, nobody likes having their faults picked out.
There’s something compounding this problem.
Volunteer-run projects unfortunately have a double mandate. Firstly, they have their core aims as stipulated in their constitution. Secondly, they have an unofficial, unspoken role to play. They have to provide satisfaction for those running the show.
In my experience to date, it seems this second unofficial role can very easily become the dominating one. It can become more important that a project’s activities satisfy the egos and desires of the team behind it, rather than satisfying the stated aims and objectives they’re all supposedly there to achieve.
Paid employees have a regular paycheque ensuring they do their job even when they hate it, but volunteering has to be rewarding. The volunteer has to be satisfied by what they do, otherwise they’ll just walk. So volunteers are often motivated by the process rather than the result. The designer – necessarily focussed on the result – is likely to suggest things that will have an effect on that process. These suggestions can therefore go down very badly indeed, and will likely be met with fierce resistance.
Ordinarily the designer should be able to justify their position, their methods and suggestions. They are after all based only on the facts. But in the voluntary world where money plays no part, this is extremely difficult because people are typically only able to see the value in that which either suits them or they’re somehow invested in. Here, the designer hasn’t been paid, nor have they said anything anybody likes to hear. They’re an outsider upsetting the apple cart. They can only offer reality, and reality is worthless if the audience hasn’t paid for it and doesn’t want to hear it.
Reality is the currency of the designer, but reality doesn’t sit well with many voluntary groups, with those people giving up their precious free time for the greater good. That’s enough of a commitment for the volunteer – they don’t want to be faced with the suggestion that they’re not volunteering well enough.
As a friend said to me a while ago; “The problem with the brutal truth is that it’s brutal.” Quite rightly, nobody expects a volunteer to deal with brutality.
That famous advertising mantra “sell the sizzle, not the sausage” brings attention to the fact that so much consumer spending is governed by our hearts rather than our heads. The art of skilful advertising, branding and marketing (different disciplines of the same game in my view) is to locate and exploit that very specific point where the inherent qualities of a product or service intersect a basic irrational human desire.
Red Bull is my favourite example of sausage playing distant second fiddle to sizzle. Their logo doesn’t represent a beverage. It represents the highest, the strongest, the fastest, the most daring. It’s base jumping, rock climbing, snowboarding. Formula 1, number one, win win win. Look at their homepage and see how long it takes to locate a reference to the actual drink on what appears to be primarily a sports news website. Yes, drowsy shift workers may well justify that fizzy caffeine hit as a rational purchase, but it’s on the shelves because Red Bull is in the business of selling action, and business is good.
Even tediously rational products are sold in the same way. The brochures for gas combi boilers come stuffed with images of healthy family lifestyles in designer houses we all aspire to inhabit. That ubiquitous mundanity the headache tablet isn’t a mix of chemicals designed to reduce fever or inflammation in humans; it’s targeted pain relief that heads straight to the heart of the problem with knowing, pinpoint precision. Toilet roll isn’t absorbent paper designed for the removal of post defecation faecal matter; it’s quilted decadent luxury or the soft fur of a faithful, playful puppy. Throughout my entire youth I assumed sanitary towels were something to do with rollerblading.
The task is simple. Find the easy sell. Turn the inherent qualities of your client into a sizzle that’ll be an easy sell. Forget the mashed eyeballs, minced testicles and artery clogging cholesterol of a sausage the head knows it should avoid. Make the heart aware of the sizzle instead and watch the world chow down on the pig giblet.
It’s all so easy. Appealing to the heart is easy. Do you know why? Because the heart is an idiot. Listening to our hearts is why people stay in abusive relationships. Why we continue to piss away the resources we rely on as a species. It’s why our homes were transformed from necessities to commodities and now have monetary values far in excess of what they’re actually worth. It’s why we continue to spend money on goods we don’t need despite facing ever increasing levels of forced austerity.
Yes, the heart is an idiot easily swayed. Deeply ingrained human desires are easy to exploit, they’re the easy pickings on which the capitalist system is hinged. But the head is something altogether different. The head is sensible. The head is cynical, logical, analytical, and this is where the paradox lies. It can be much, much harder to convince people of the worth of something genuinely, measurably, quantifiably worthwhile than it is to convince them there’s worth in something genuinely, measurably, quantifiably worthless.
The fact that heart rules head is why designing for the social sector is so much harder than it is for the commercial sector, despite seeming on the surface to be a far simpler task.
We tend to buy irrationally yet give rationally*. When we give, we want assurances that our money or our support will be used wisely. We’re cynical about where our charitable donations go and we like to hold the recipients to account, while the private corporations to which we give far more get to behave how they like. The corporate world has half the battle won before it starts because we all want to believe our selfish, frivolous spending has some value, so we disregard evidence to the contrary and convince ourselves it does. But we need to know our philanthropic endeavour has some value, and feel wronged if the evidence shows that it doesn’t.
Which is where I get to the key point of this post. It can be very easy to market your way out of a sales problem, but it’s impossible to market your way out of a social problem.
Over the past year or so in my efforts to spend more time designing for social cause clients than for purely commercial ones, I’ve ended up talking myself out of what should have been straightforward design jobs and into more complex ones well beyond my comfort zone. I’ve found myself frequently offering input that perhaps moves beyond the traditionally recognised realm of the designer. People approach me when they want design, that’s the service they expect. But providing a mere service is pointless without the promise of a result, and for the money they pay me a client deserves a result.
A brand is the clothing an organisation wears. Our favourite high street brands look great in their fancy clothes, but stripped naked they’re typically grotesque cynical monsters of ugly exploitation and devious dealings. The capitalist system rewards such behaviour, but the social and charitable sector isn’t so lucky. It also needs to look good naked.
What all designers working in this area should bear in mind is that the traditional smoke and mirrors approach has no place. There has to be real substance behind the work we do for such clients, otherwise we might as well not do anything. We need to dig deeper in order to do our jobs because the clothes we provide simply can not cover up unsightly things like they so often can in the corporate world.
The corporate world is built on polishing turds. The social and charitable sector is built on shitting gold. That is a key difference designers must recognise. Those who don’t, those happy to do the beautification work, go through the motions, take the money and run aren’t doing their job properly. Design is creative problem solving, and beautification alone can’t solve many problems in this sector.
The client may already look fantastic naked, they may well just need the clothes. If that’s the case then great, we designers can do what we’re most comfortable doing. But the onus is on us to first ensure that is the case; to make sure that we have that starting point. Otherwise we’re just taking money from a social cause and offering nothing in return, which is parasitic and immoral. I see it often and it really boils my piss.
*Last week I had to think about the merits of donating a fiver to a museum’s voluntary donation bin, then just an hour later I blew a tenner on a Chinese restaurant’s lunch menu without a second thought. Though I recall enjoying it I can’t remember now what that meal tasted like, yet I can remember all kinds of stuff I saw at the museums, from the posturing of rival crabs to the hollow bones of the pterosaur skeleton, to the beautifully engineered directional thrusters of space craft to the regimented discipline of ants collecting leaves for their nest. I learnt about global shipping, the exploitation of cotton pickers in Uzbekistan, took a virtual ride on a long dismantled railway, saw actual contents raised from the actual wreck of the actual Titanic. Many hours perusing incomprehensibly ancient artefacts, learning about the wonders of nature and the bafflingly complex technology of man was worth half as much to my logical head as a hastily prepared and consumed set meal was to my stupid heart. Indulgent, momentary and fleeting pleasure won out over countless hours of mind expansion. Idiot.
Saturday sees the opening of the V&A’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1979-1990 exhibition. I won’t be making it down there as my London return ticket quota for this year has unfortunately been met, but as is the case with the internet buzz surrounding any major design or cultural exhibition, I’ll no doubt be reading a fair bit about the subject over the next few weeks.
I’m a bit contrary when it comes to blogging. I tend to avoid talking about the same stuff that everyone else is discussing in the belief that it’s unlikely I could bring anything particularly fresh to the table. It’s why my Kenneth Grange post currently sits in the drafts folder, unfinished and unpublished while I await the last few dregs of interest to die off and I can start enthusing about him safe in the knowledge that nobody is bothered anymore. But with the postmodernism thing I thought I’d get in a few days early before we’re all hashtagged into a trending stupor of opinion overload.
So here I am, up fairly early on a frosty morning, enjoying the low, bright sun, sharing knowing, friendly nods with just a few other early risers milling around taking in the calm before the masses have risen, then I’m suddenly and helplessly compelled, before I’m even finished, to tear apart my own metaphor for the timeline that is the internet trending of postmodernism by making light of the doing of it in the sentence you’re currently reading.
Because the thing I find most ridiculous about postmodernism is that I absolutely hate everything about it, whilst simultaneously accepting that I can live no other way and therefore can only allow it to define everything about me. My relationship with postmodernism is itself annoyingly postmodernist because I’m a product of it.
If the V&As take on the era is to be accepted (and who am I to argue? Did the late, great Alan Fletcher design for me a logo that became the most frequently used example of his mastery of ‘sleight of hand’? No.) I was born three years into the age of postmodernism. It is therefore, along with its spawn post-postmodernism, the only cultural movement I’ve ever really known.
In my home city of Sheffield the shining beacon of postmodernism that springs instantly to mind is Orchard Square. Even as a young kid I found the place eerily odd without ever really knowing why. I now realise it’s because it belongs to no one time or place. It’s detached from reality, dishonest. I can remember it being new, and it looked as wrong then as it does now. Even the way it references the old cutlery works on which it was built seems ironic and sneering with its eye-stingingly twee and inexplicably absurd animatronic buffer girl cuckoo clock swivelling into view every fifteen minutes.
Previously, Sheffield had been famous for embracing modernism in a big way. For years our built environment was dominated - whether you were looking up at the huge concrete monoliths of Kelvin and Park Hill or down into the subterranean world of the Hole in the Road - by brutal, logic driven, unsympathetically modernist architecture. Stuff that was mostly being pulled down (or filled in) during my childhood.
With our fingers burnt and our confidence knocked, and with the city’s outlook turning from industry to commerce it seems we limp wristedly flopped ourselves into postmodernism. Perhaps we did so in the hope that its noncommittal vapidity might at least water down any negative effects in equal proportion to any positive ones.
But it’s not just the architecture of the time that illustrates the legacy of postmodernism. In music Nirvana came along and overnight hair metal was killed stone dead. No longer could you just get dressed up like a peacock and enjoy yourself. The rock idol no longer died of drug overdoses or generally having too good a time. Now he had to put a shotgun to his own head in a sea of misery and mental torment.
The comedy I grew up with and still most adore was pedalled by Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Ironically scheduled in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, it was knowing, self referential and self loathing. It tied itself in endless knots of complicated in jokes, with threads running long enough that they would transform beyond all recognition. “Or Queen.”
I’m a product of this era. The era that never knew what to do with itself, that never knew quite what it wanted, where it was going or how it could help itself. It was sure of nothing except its own existence. How could we possibly move forward from that? How do you leap from a surface that has no substance?
Well I’ve never known a time or situation where it was acceptable to just ‘be’, to simply indulge something without having an ironic sense of ones self doing it. I’ve lived my life with an extra pair of eyes watching its events unfold in the third person, because not doing that would seem somehow naive and foolish.
Conversation amongst mates can’t (and nor would I want it any other way) be conducted without more references to other things, including ourselves, than the thing we’re trying to discuss. We all seem to live our lives with the knowledge that we are lost, ridiculous and pointless, that we’ve never really belonged. There’s never been any culture that we can really call our own. We’re postcultural.
Or perhaps, conversely but just as tragically, we belong to every culture – perhaps we’re hypercultural. We buy modern rehashes of old products to try and capture the spirit of a bygone time, but we do it knowingly. We know purchases can’t make us happy, but we buy anyway. We know our systems don’t work, but we prop them up regardless. Anything we do find for ourselves, we immediately package up and sell on because we know of no alternative. As Irvine Welsh was quoted in King Adz’ excellent book ‘Street Knowledge’:
“It’s quite sad that street culture has become so global with the net that it doesn’t get the same chance to stay in the underground before it’s relentlessly sold back to kids”
It’s true, we’re all fully aware this happens, and we hate it. But we still go along with it. The world briefly found something valid in the work of Banksy, so he was turned into a commodity and now we all hate him. Next thing please.
We’re all so well aware of the realities of things, so defined are we by our own irony that sometimes it would just be nice to switch off and calm down. But as a product of postmodernism you can’t because there’s nowhere to calm down to.
As a designer you certainly can’t. We designers have to be aware of everything that has gone before, we have to know our cultural references, we have to be aware of ourselves as we work. We have to be able to tear ourselves and our output apart, reduce it to nothing and always look with fresh eyes and be critical of the world and our place in it. It’s our job to accept nothing at face value. Otherwise we’re no good to anyone.
It sounds like I hate this post-postmodern world, this post/hypercultural world, but if you take a look at my flickr stream or scan back through this blog you’ll see how much of my personal output fully and quite merrily indulges it. From customer ejecting kebab shops to pot washing computer games to hip hop infographics. Even my previous post on a running passion project of mine is littered with self amused shame. I can’t stop, even when I’m being completely positive.
As I’ve said on these pages before, I’d love to have been working in a time where culture wasn’t trapped in a cycle of self loathing. I’d love to be designing in the age of hope and ambition, with the belief that a better world can and will be built. The great pioneers, the old masters of our profession might have been ploughing a fresh furrow into the unknown, but part of me wonders if that’s perhaps quite a bit easier than trying to push forward a world that believes it has nowhere left to go.
We’re stuck in an era of remakes, reboots, rehashes, reimaginings, reworkings. Let’s clad that tower block, let’s update that classic car, let’s cover that song, let’s open a vintage store. Let’s wear daft sunglasses and deck shoes with tight white jeans in an attempt to be unfashionable enough that we go back round into being fashionable. Yes, I know over a half decade has passed since Nathan Barley but what’s happened since? Nothing, yeah?
This post has already shown me to be a fan of the preposterous metaphor so I’m going to use one to describe how popular culture in 2011 appears to me. It’s as if time is a torrent of water flooding down the side of a road in a heavy storm, and culture is a ping-pong ball that has been caught in the flood and carried downstream. Of course a ping-pong ball is too big to fit through the slots of the drain through which the water is all eventually flowing, so it can only helplessly and endlessly bob around, unable to follow that which has so far carried it.
But perhaps that metaphor can tell us something else. Perhaps the fact that we control culture is why we subconsciously hold it back. Do we put the grate there because we fear what’s down the drain? I don’t know.
Either way, it goes some way to explaining what I think has been the legacy of postmodernism. Or perhaps I’ve just suggested a ridiculous concept that has no validity whatsoever, and perhaps I only said it to lampoon myself and therefore you, the reader. Of course actually saying which of the two it is would undermine my point, so I’ll leave it hanging and hide behind the fact that I’m actually letting you draw your own conclusion that is or isn’t related to what you’ve just read.
I’m like that first picture of Orchard Square above. I know I’m crap and noncommittal, and in order to try and disguise it I’ve added a few supposedly modern frosted glass panels on extruded aluminium frames, even though I know they’re just as crap as the rest of it and it makes no difference. I’m fooling nobody. But nobody cares, so it’s fine.
Further to yesterday’s piece, I thought I’d illustrate the garden thing.
I’ve always been interested in the relationships we have with our homes. From the local community to the street outside our front doors, from our gardens to our rooms and the products we fill them with, I’m fascinated by the way we interact with the environment that surrounds us.
The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of home is perhaps the comfort of a sofa, or of a warm, welcoming bed. But the word ‘home’ has different meanings, depending on the perspective of those who use it.
‘Home’ can be the blue and green sphere we call earth when viewed through the window of a spacecraft. A distant coastline can be ‘home’ when considered by a weary fisherman on the deck of a lonely trawler. A cluster of orange lights set in an otherwise featureless black vista is home to the late night driver.
Home can be photos of loved ones perched on the computer monitor of a bored office worker, or in the wallet of a soldier stationed in a foreign land. Home is comfort. Ease. It’s off duty. It’s letting the guard down. Home refers to the familiar, the surroundings to which we return when at rest. Home is community. Safety. Comfort.
There is so much more to home than the house in which we live. In our bid to satisfy our misled yet insatiable appetite for the perfect house, we seem to have forgotten all about what makes the perfect home.
Being a Sheffielder I’m most familiar with terraced housing. The homes of most of my friends and family are situated in long terraces of two-up, two-down properties built to house those who provided the labour that drove the industry this city was once famous for.
Typically they have a lounge to the front and a dining room at the rear sandwiching a narrow, steep central staircase. At the rear, poking out into the garden, you’ll usually find a small off-shot kitchen. Upstairs are two bedrooms, a bathroom, and sat above the lot in the pitch of the roof is an attic room.
Such houses will typically have two chimney stacks running the height of the building – one for the front and one for the rear, built to allow for open fires to provide heat to each room before gas central heating was the norm. In the bedrooms of two terraced houses I’ve previously called home, we’ve removed plasterboard to uncover ornate if modestly sized cast iron fireplaces.
The proliferation of long disused and mostly ramshackle outhouses in the gardens highlight the fact that the bathrooms inside such properties are often a later addition, the result of a partition wall slicing the rear bedroom in half to accommodate the modern sanitary facilities we now take for granted.
Such relics highlight how much life has changed since these homes were built. Technology has changed, lifestyles have changed, expectations have changed, the family unit has changed. Our attitudes, our tastes, our working lives, the entire thing we call society has changed. But we still live in the same houses.
As such, they’re filled with compromise. Tiny kitchens struggle to accommodate modern fridge freezers while microwaves battle for position with toasters and kettles and coffee machines. Sink basins overhang bathtubs, doors bang onto bedside tables and TVs are angled so as to be the focus of rooms originally built around the fireplace.
When they were first built, our terraced homes were designed around the technology and needs of the people of the time. Today the brief has changed but we’re still using the same solution. We’ve adapted it the best we can, but much like fitting ABS, dual zone climate control and headrest mounted DVD players to a Model T Ford, we can’t hide the fact that we’re using the wrong tool for the job.
Of course our homes aren’t viewed as disposable in the way our cars are. They’re too permanent to be flattened every few years and replaced inline with every changing social trend, so we’re forced to accept that compromises must be made, both in the way we arrange our homes and the way we live our lives.
It seems to be the latter where people struggle. We’ll happily carry our evening meal from the kitchen at the back of the house through to the living room at the front, skirting round the dining table we completely ignore despite dedicating an entire room to it, failing to notice how we shimmy through the kissing gate formed by a door’s proximity with an oversized sofa. We’ll happily consider our front doors little more than an emergency exit or an ornate if drafty letterbox surround and instead gain access to our homes from the rear by learning the knack required to open the two badly constructed, flimsy gates separating the unloved, overgrown, postage stamp sized gardens of our neighbours.
We put up with all those daily annoyances and slightly absurd compromises until we stop noticing them. Where we fail to be so accommodating is in our lifestyles.
We love our cars. Despite the average terraced facade being about as wide as a car is long, our streets are expected to accommodate not just one car per home, but one car per person. So our roads are tight, our pavements narrow and the view from our windows cramped, crowded, unsightly and inhuman.
We like our huge television sets despite viewing distances being so short as to make them unnecessary. We like powerful surround sound systems despite sharing walls with our neighbours. We like our consumer goods despite not having room for them. We like our privacy, despite living mere feet and inches away from those around us.
In the end, we love, expect and mistakenly believe we require a kind of luxury that our homes were never designed to accommodate.
And for that perceived luxury we deem common sense a worthwhile sacrifice.
How much room is lost in the name of maintaining boundaries? How much land is taken up with fences and walls, and the borders that flank them? By dividing our land, how much of it do we lose? And at what cost does it come?
If we all saw the land behind our houses as one large communal space we all own, rather than a patchwork of segments we each own, our tiny individual lots could be combined, opened into a shared park that our houses backed right onto.
Surrounded on all sides by houses, these little semi-private suburban parks could become areas for neighbours to circulate and interact with each other in a way our tiny little cells don’t currently allow. We’d get to know the names of the people with which we share our environment. We’d learn the respect we need to live together. It wouldn’t be ‘me’. It’d be ‘us’.
We can erect the largest fences but our neighbours still exist. If we take them down perhaps we might get to know and understand those neighbours better. Understanding is the path to tolerance, and tolerance is something we must strive towards if our numbers continue to grow and our resources continue to dwindle.
Communities can only work when people trust each other, when we understand that everybody is in the same boat. When we know each other well enough to realise we’re all humans sharing our environment, and that our personal needs are no more or less important than those of anybody else.
When we put up fences, we hide behind them. Hide behind them for long enough and we start to fear what’s on the other side. When we finally summon the courage to take them down we might realise there’s nothing to be scared of.
According to my site stats, one of the most frequent search terms leading people to this site is “Kebab Shop Design“, or slight variants thereof. In fact such searches are responsible for about 50% of my unique, none-repeat hits.
I suppose I’m glad to learn that in this tough financial climate at least one type of local trader is enjoying booming trade, but I am slightly irritated by the fact that the most popular post on this graphic design blog is my six month old piece featuring a spoof kebab shop. It’s annoying to know that the majority of hits I get are by those with no interest in the subject I write about.
But it does beg the question – how many potential kebab shop owners look at the post without seeing the irony and think, on some level, that it contains some good ideas?
By producing a piece of dystopian design to act as a commentary on what I perceive as the ever dwindling sense of community brought about by society’s blinkered and ill advised dedication to capitalistic ideals at the cost of natural human interaction and common sense, could I at some level inadvertently shape the future of fast food vending?
I shall be pissed off if one day I find myself laying in a grazed heap on a filthy pavement having been ejected from a takeaway by one of my own ironic conveyor belts.
“CURSE ME!” I shall cry, waving my fist at myself.