From Chapter Seven: The Soul House...
The environmental psychologist, Lily Bernheimer’s says that buildings and places have the potential to proffer up a secret script that directs our actions. If we blend together Bernheimer’s idea of how places shape us, with Haskell’s idea of a labyrinthine organic connectivity, it projects a much more powerful notion of place and its potential to impact our lives. This understanding might feed into how we might view the development or regeneration of new places or, conversely, reveal the potential impact of streets of soulless glass buildings on our social cohesion and personal wellbeing. It’s in this way that I’ve been most altered by the buildings that I’ve visited and photographed - their magnetic hold, the whispers from the walls, the life lessons within.
Moving forward in time like a giant glacier, our built heritage is continuously pushing forth to its present surface materials, textures, details, texts and spatial elements that have the power to move us deep within; and eroding those elements that do not ignite us. What’s left beyond the surviving bricks and mortar is a form of cultural moraine, orchestrating our actions and emotions. Many of our most appealing places are Darwinian in their evolution, with a full life cycle of decay, demise and replenishment. Back in Micklegate at no?? there is a carved wooden sign in the form of a Falcon. It has been there since 1880. It is the surviving part of the Falcon Inn public house which traded these streets for almost 300 years until last orders in 2002, where the building functioned under different names and guises. Although the pub has gone, its embodied significance has remained with the sign. The sign has acted as a marker, a collater of social wilfulness and a retainer of collective memory of such potency that more than a decade after the original pubs demise the building has now taken on the form of a public house once again. Not only that, by connecting with the surviving sign in naming the new establishment: “The Falcon Tap’ - the patrons have re-ignited part of the bygone memory. It's as if a seed has been cast from the barren desolation of a former time and found fertile soil decades later akin to Rob Cowen’s sting of the nettle of memory. The Falcon sign is just one of thousands of 'architectural memes' thrusting forward and influencing the ever changing patina of Micklegate.
The sign at the Falcon tap, not only demonstrates how a building can communicate with us, but also how it can, as Bernheimer says shape our actions. Bernheimer also talks of how we use buildings to ‘try to re-design ourselves through them - to change who we are.” Many of the places that we inhabit are not just passive retainers of memory, but also have the capacity to be dynamic beacons of change, providing backdrops that can have the power to change the way that we think and act.
When you can read it, and feel it, the power of place is such that, even when the smallest cultural object is destroyed or damaged out of ignorance of its import, it brings on a tremendous sense of sadness, loss and disconnection. Alain de Botton, has a theory as to why at times we cut off our nose to spite our face: ‘We get angry when we should realise when we are sad and tear down ancient streets when we ought instead to introduce proper sanitation and street lights. We learn the wrong lessons from our griefs whilst grasping in vain for the origins of contentment. The places we call beautiful are, by contrast, the work of those rare architects with the humility to interrogate themselves adequately about their desires and the tenacity to translate their fleeting apprehension of joy into logical plans - a combination that enables them to create environments that satisfy needs we never consciously knew we even had.” (architecture of hap 248)
Many years ago, I came across an architect that had seen and been influenced, as I had, by the Romanesque arch at St. Leonard's in Middleton. Edgar Wood was born in Middleton, and built prolifically there. He was celebrated within the architectural circles of his day and had his buildings and furniture designs much lauded in architectural magazines and the international press at the end of the nineteenth century. A book of 1904 called Das Englische Haus written by Hermann Muthesius talks of Edgar Wood as being a pivotal link between the architectural styles of England and Scotland: Wood is ‘the bridge to the poetical and imaginative north of the British isles, to Scotland’. The observation was quite prescient, because Wood considered himself an artist first - it was his preferred vocation, with the role of architect allowing him to shoe-horn his creative ambitions into a respectable profession. Wood often sketched the historic places within his home town, and at my local library, I came across copies of sketches that he had made of Hopwood Hall and the chevroned Romanesque arch at St. Leonard's.
In the heart of Middleton town centre at 33-37 Manchester Road is one of the first flat roofed shops in Britain, of 1908, by Wood. The facade is adorned with a patterned ceramic faience.There is an early black and white photo of this building surrounded by dark, Victorian industrial mills - the shop itself is glowing white like a beacon, as if dropped in from an alien world. The top of the parapet is decorated with a terra-cotta moulding which has been cast in likeness to the St. Leonard’s church arch chevrons - the self-same arch that infected my own childhood curiosity. Beneath the cast is something revolutionary - a simple abstract of the chevron pattern on the faience facade. It's a motif that still to this day looks remarkably vibrant and contemporary, and yet, the design has drawn its nutrients from the past. In an address to the Manchester Society of Architects in (1911) he underpins the notions of creating new from old: "The notion of an absolute originality … is an absurdity. A man cannot escape in thought, any more than he can in language, from the past and the present. Originality consists in the power of digesting and assimilating thoughts so that they become part of our life and substance."
The shops at Manchester Road, created just three years earlier than his address to the Manchester Society of Architects, are a structural metaphor for these words. In the moulded terra-cotta chevrons on the parapet - he's left a pointer, a clue to the abstract pattern that, quite literally, lies beneath; he's also left a visual stepping stone, between the church which is situated just a few hundred yards to the north and the modern world.
The Manchester Road shops capture the act of a person overcoming the knots and personal challenges of his world and encoding his own revelation into the fabric of the building as an expression of those challenges. The building becomes more than the sum of its parts - as well as a structural entity, it is an architectural cipher - holding within its cryptic design the nucleus of its origin. Once the architectural narrative is revealed, the mind of the man is revealed, and in it he is paying homage to those things he held dear and to those things that changed his thinking. Perhaps the most important element from this act of homage is that he is recognising the relevancy of the past which is enshrined within the buildings he grew up with. He cements their status with the genius of his expression through the creation of something completely new.
Wood used pencil and paper to 'digest' the world around him and seems to have used a combination of locally sourced patronage and the comforts of his home town like an artists palette to explore the idea of creating an avant-garde style out of a conservative mindset. He picked up the chevron pattern and played ball with it, using it throughout his work including some later houses, built in 1914 in south Manchester, with the zigzag forming the backdrop to jazzy, raucous decoration adorning the facades. These buildings have been described as being proto-modern and pre-cursors to Art Deco, a style which embellished the world a couple of decades later.
I feel giddy at the thought of the little church in Middleton having a tentative but demonstrable link to the Art Deco buildings along Miami beach. With Wood, I had discovered an act of germination, evidence of the power of buildings to engender change, and also, the passing on of collective memory; how one idea transforms into another within the bounds of a building, passing on the baton, without letting go of the essence of the past.
It wasn’t until much later that I managed to catch this act of cultural germination happening in the present and gain further insights into its mechanics. In 2017 I travelled over to Anglesey to photograph a church located in the north east of the island. St. Eilian’s in Llaneilian is situated a couple of miles east of Anglesey’s most northerly town of Almwych and is named after Eilian who established the church after being sent to the island as an emissary by the Pope in the 5th century AD. On most of my photography commissions, I’m reliant upon meeting a householder or a manager or a keyholder and this visit was no exception. What was an exception was the unique insight into the idea of collective memory that my meeting with the St. Eilian’s keyholder revealed.
What struck me upon first meeting Roy Ashworth was his strong Lancashire accent - rounded burrs to his r’s and melodic and textured rhythm to his words that reminded me of my Grandad. Roy’s slim countenance was that of humble yet confident respectability - he wore collared shirt, pleated trousers and polished black shoes, as well as rounded glasses with transparent frames topped by bushy eyebrows and crowned with swept back hair as white as the driven snow. I felt at home with this man.
When we met in 2017, Roy was 83 years old and had been living on the island for 50 years after moving there with his family to work as an Engineer at the Wylfa Nuclear Power Station. After retirement, Roy found himself being drawn into the care and conservation of his local church at St. Eilean’s. Describing himself as ‘just a member of the congregation’ - he became a project manager of sorts from the 90’s onwards guiding the churches input into several conservation projects.
Roy gave me a tour of the church and whilst walking around an interior which looked untouched since medieval times, he started to show me some of the church accoutrements that he’d had a hand in making. Firstly a wrought iron candle holder fashioned out of a pizza tray and sweet tin, and then cross holders made from a holy amalgamation of copper pipe and billiard cue. It was so rewarding to see the emancipation of the mundane into the service of the church, but it wasn’t until Roy showed me the kneelers to the altar that I realised I was partaking in an act, which in my mind, instigated a temporary netting of part of the genius loci of the place - a form of trans-generational memory broadcast from the building itself.
Kneelers have been used in churches not only to provide comfort when kneeling in prayer but also as repositories of memory, often made in memory of a person or event. After the 90’s restoration a similar idea had been proposed - to create a set of kneeler’s for the altar steps which would mark the restoration - reminding others of the efforts made to keep the church alive. Roy noted that a design was needed to ‘re-inforce’ what was already there - to amplify key parts of the church that had relevance to them. The final design was born out of the historic fabric of the chancel - the vibrant colours taken from the stained glass, and geometrical patterns taken from specific elements of the chancel which included the genteel curve of a Georgian wrought iron candle holder, the pattern taken from a recently uncovered fragment of wall painting, a detail from the medieval chancel screen and finally - a geometric pattern from the encaustic tiles on the chancel floor : in Roy’s words used ‘to bring the Victorians in as well.’
To think that such a simple object as a church kneeler has been charged with meaning, not only incorporating a design that binds together relevant details of the church, but also a design that has a fizzing duality in that it references, celebrates and imprints the efforts of past incumbents, whilst at the same time, creating a record of the present community and its restoration. The candle-holder, wall painting, tiles and screen were nodal points inoculated with human intent like the Falcon Tap sign in Micklegate and Wood’s chevrons in Middleton. All have become eulogised into new material threads in the warp and weft of place.
I asked Roy to explain to me why there had been such need to create a design for the kneelers. He said that there was a need to ‘pass the baton on...for our children’s children.’ I also asked him why it seemed so important to take something from the old and place it into something new. His answer struck a chord: ‘I suppose that it is keeping it in the mind’s eye’.
The Mind’s Eye, that ever present multiple and collative consciousness, the cohesive chattering of multiple minds, whether it be a community, a region, a faith or a nation. Every day, small acts of this kind are taking place in our buildings, our streets, our communities. As Lily Bernheimer states: “The usability of the casement window, the beauty of Venice, and the durability of ancient stone walls are achieved thanks to the small and repeated contributions of many people over many years. We love old buildings because they envelop us in patterns we understand intuitively.” 224
Whether it be instigated by a national outcry or brought about by the vision of an individual, all these cultural nuggets are a significant part of the vast social glue that holds us together. In Worcester - the visual sampling of a church contributing to a new beat box sound, in Middleton etc.
At St. Eilian’s, with Roy, what I’d encountered at the church in Anglesey was a sonic boom in time, the physical crust of the collective consciousness before passing into the folds of shared memory. I’d been part of a momentary glyph in the creation of one of Britain’s cultural micro-nuggets - the instigated and the instigator rolled up into one. To add an extra dimension to such a heady mix I took a photograph of Roy in front of the chancel, kneeler in his hands - capturing a digital record of, and enabling others to peek at, the physical ratcheting forward of collective memory.
It’s places like this and the shops at Middleton that, in the words of Hugh Conway Morris “make our thinking possible, and leave our thinking changed”, and perhaps Roy is a singular example of a person “re-designing themselves” through their interaction with a building. When experiencing places this way I have found that it has brought the actions of the past so close that it has seemingly thrown the present into sharp relief and helped me see the pressing ‘now’ of things as if with the wisdom of hindsight.
The existence of such a hidden, instinctive and material presence of our forebears within the places they inhabited is intensely satisfying, educative and engaging. As well as vast resources, they are mirrors of human nature, an advocacy to the exertions of our ancestors and parables to our own actions. Nothing comes from nothing, and these places are part of the complex system of interconnectedness that we draw nutrients from, as St. Eilian’s in Anglesey is testament to.
To think that I used to visit such buildings as that at All Saint’s, Billesley, or walk along such streets as Micklegate and not catch the whisper coming from the facades. Because they were inanimate, I assumed that they did not change, and because they were silent I assumed that they did not have a voice. Percolating just beneath the surface are infinite renderings of the conscious and unconscious assertions of our forebears, the accidental and the deliberate, with the present status quo nourished in material expressions of collated memory.