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Posts tagged ‘Architecture’

House of Stone

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House of Stone – Anthony Shadid

My father was born in a house in a small village in the south of Lebanon. The sound of the wind in the grasses rushing down to the border with neighbouring Israel is deceptive and peaceful and it is a sound and a scene that I re-enact regularly when I am tired or ill or lonely.

In 1985, Israel militarised an area north of its border including the village to create what it described as a ‘Security Zone’. There are few places on earth less safe than a militarized security zone; the price of security is guns, landmines, soldiers and razor wire.

It was certainly not a safe place for my Grandfather’s house. As a young boy my family told me it had been used as a weapons dump. When I finally came to see it in 2002, it was a roofless shell of limestone blocks. My father could point to the places he had played as a young man, the room he was born in, the kitchen, the garden, not far away the well, in the distance the lake but it was clear that even if the spirit of that house was there, the body of it was nearly gone. We went down to his school where there was a class reunion. Everyone speaking, hugging, smoking after twenty, thirty and even forty years.

Over dinner with my cousin last week, I discovered that the house had also been used as a brothel. We met for dinner in a pub in Maida Vale, an area of London populated by large Arab and Jewish communities (ironies abounded). He had flown from Canada with work and was passing through London. We hadn’t seen each other for ten years before a bizarre chance meeting the week before in a pizza restaurant in central London. This is modern Lebanon to me – a globalised diaspora – rooted largely in memory and roaming, spread to far-flung places: Brasil, Oklahoma, Kansas, Canada, London to name a few.

House of Stone appears to take this fact as its cause. Shadid writes about his attempt to restore his family home. His family is from the same village that my father was born in, Jdeidet Marjayoun and he writes beautifully about the difficulties of life there.

“The availability of electricity dictated everything, regulating the day – when the small, satellite shaped electric heater that I called the Syrian radar functioned, when the three of five working bulbs dangling on a wire from the ceiling cast light, when the water heater scorched so aggressively that steam hissed through the shower head, when the mini-refrigerator kept what little was inside cool.”

There is no denying the deft depiction of the extraordinary characters recruited to his tale and the great rent torn open in him between loyalty to his mission in Lebanon and to his family – “so much of the house was what you might call memories of what I had imagined over many years.” The book belongs in the category of the good memoir – a genre seemingly created by books like The Hare with Amber Eyes, The Music Room, The Snow Geese. 

But one thing nagged at me. Shadid, who later died of an asthma attack escaping Syria, left a young family, a broken marriage, behind in Oklahoma to rebuild his house. Perhaps all of my generation of Marjeyounis are from a broken place, one that cannot be easily restored, one that has been scarred by war and violence that cannot be erased, even if it is plastered over. Shadid recalls how George Farha (my great uncle) would pray for his children each night during the civil war: “Hala in Dubai, Hikmat in Barbados, Rifaat in Switzerland.” Hikmat says: “I believe I am still living because of his prayers.” Perhaps if there is one lesson that I take from dinner with my cousin in London, abstract as it may seem; in 2014 home is not a place; perhaps it never was.

The Editors

The Poetics of Space

The Poetics of SpaceThe Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

I have recently started a new day job which has transformed my understanding of London. London, it transpires, looks like any other city I have seen from the top of a tall building when looked at from the top of a tall building. One of the chief most impressive aspects of London from a height is the height from which it is viewed. The other cities that I have seen from great heights have all had views that looked out across deserts which is why it struck me as a shame to view London (for viewing’s sake) from a great height. London is a charming, rambling, low-rise city to rival any other. It’s alleyways, nooks, churches are villages ossified into urbanity and are delightful because London is a place of so much narrative. To exchange London’s many stories – which reveal themselves best by feel through the soles of the shoes – for viewing from a great height (many ‘stories’) seems at first to disentangle oneself from the narratives of London and to view the city only for its bricks and mortar, impressive though much of that is.

I say these personal things by way of introduction to Gaston Bachelard’s sublime piece of literary, architectural and philosophical investigation: The Poetics of Space. Through this book he explores the psychological world that exists in the objects we, as a species, bring into being – their roots in nature and their reflections in literature: “wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed, without these “objects” and a few others in equally high favour, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy…a wardrobe’s inner space is also intimate space, space which is not open to everybody.”

In marshalling his arguments, which are both whimsical and carefully made, he calls on Rimbaud, on Spyridaki, on Caubere, on Michelet on a whole new palette of continental writers for the English reader to discover and to luxuriate. He tackles the house, first as a whole (‘the significance of the hut’) and then through a series of objects and psychological experiences: ‘nests’, ‘shells’, ‘corners’, ‘miniature’, ‘intimate immensity’ and finally ‘the dialectics of inside and outside’. This is a book that has shot to the head of my favourite books in a very short space of time. For anyone who has lived in a house, or a home, who has imagined as a child the existence of other beings inhabiting space with them, the presence in a wardrobe, a door handle, a cupboard of personality that is greater than the materials from which it is made then this book is a delightful meditation on the nature of those areas of the world that are to many comforting and largely unconsidered. By interpreting the house, by giving it narrative coherence Bachelard not only draws out the beauty of the most simple aspects of the spaces we inhabit, but gives his readers the tools with which to beautify the world they live in, to better understand how to make a home and why to live a life. The book is the antithesis of the Ikea catalogue. In Bachelard’s world the home stems first from the imagination and then from material objects. It is a place of perfection and beauty through self-restraint and not uncontrolled expenditure.

As he says of nests:

“when we examine a nest, we place ourselves at the origin of confidence in the world, we receive a beginning of confidence, an urge toward cosmic confidence. Would a bird build its nest if it did not have its instinct for confidence in the world? If we heed this call and make an absolute refuge of such a precarious shelter as a nest – paradoxically no doubt but in the very impetus of the imagination – we return to the  sources of the oneiric house. Our house, apprehended in its dream potentiality, becomes a nest in the world, and we shall live there in complete confidence if, in our dreams, we really participate in the sense of  security of our first home.”

Perhaps then, it is wrong to say that there is no narrative in height, my aversion to the height is to other places, other things, a rejection of something other than the height of the building which is, objectively, impressive – certainly someone has dreamed the building and burrowed deep and reached high to raise it from a dream into an edifice in concrete and glass – in my heart I know I am at root a creature of the ground and the sea.

The Editors

You can buy the book here.

In praise of shadows

In praise of shadowsIn praise of shadows – Junichiro Tanizaki
I turn 27 next week. Birthdays have always held a reflective fascination for me and as is often the case, I found myself perusing a few old notebooks and diaries to discover what had become of my former self – what was gone and what remained. The pages of these books are slightly dog eared and old. They have passed through time since they were written with less plasticity than me, with more traction in their present than I ever have in mine; being disconnected, as they are, from any past or any future and formed primarily from the fact that they were written and survived. The ‘I’ who wrote them is gone or is become the ‘me’ who reads them.There is nothing melancholy in a reflection on the transient and changing nature of the world around us – the thought that what is truth and life today may be surpassed and changed tomorrow is not a dark one. It is comforting in many ways that, on the eve of my 27th birthday, I am not the young man who, aged 21, wrote my journals and diaries – that he has not passed in tact through time with me, though the journals have. He is but a mirror for me to look in and to reflect upon – a catalyst for change. Yet I am the same person now as I was then: how much of me must have remained undocumented, unwritten, in shadow.This is the spirit of reflection in which Tanizaki undertakes his delightful essay on the importance of shade, shadow and natural light. The subtleties of shadow are echoed by the subtlety of the thought, ranging from the pleasure of “a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves” to the lost treasure of Japanese No puppet shows “a distinct world of shadows which today can be seen only on the stage but in the past it could not have been far removed from daily life.”

Self-reflection for Tanizaki is not a painful or unpleasant process but it is contrasted with the stark nudity of electric light which is become a destroyer of the subtleties that had been treasured by Japanese culture for centuries before (the essay was written in the midst of widespread electrification in Japan in 1933). The brightness of a lightbulb is in contrast to the traditional Japanese aesthetic that Tanizaki savours; its palette of tarnished metals, grainy wood and soft luminescent paper screens. The essay is a lament for a culture of tranquility and reflection lost out to the Western aesthetic of examination, of inquiry, which in brutalist, post modern, industrial architecture – the architecture not of design but of conversion – includes prominent display of vents and fans and piping; so much in contrast to the purist, gentle, Japanese aesthetic of perfection and beauty through extreme self-restraint:

What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he sets out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes, and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms […] The purist may rack his brains over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in a corner of the hallway.”

The essay is itself a mirror from another time and culture for us to look into, a lovely treatise on the power and importance of natural light, a challenge to the necessity of constant and increasing electrification. Re-reading my journals reminded me that writing down often hides more than it reveals but Tanizaki’s essay is a reminder that as we progress unrelenting into our future selves we may come closer to understanding our present selves and the world around us if “we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

The Editors

You can buy the book here.