Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Monolithic vision

When I walked out of my front door this morning to go to work (the culture of worklessness has not yet worked its way into my subjectivity) I was confronted by a monolithic dwellingscape of terrace houses. Rows upon rows of terrace houses. How unsightly, I thought. And far too standardised. Perhaps they need to be knocked down and a more surburban aesthetic put in their place as, indeed, the architects of housing market renewal have suggested.

Yes, what we need around here is the imposition of the 'suburban ideal' that, Goodchild describes in his latest book as, "mass housing [which] meant repetition of basic housing forms, notably the semi". Although, to his credit, Goodchild also points out that this standardisation was mitigated by the use of "slightly different materials - for examples tiles rather than slate for the roof or more or less rendering to the external walls". Wow! I am simply overcome by the sheer diversity of the suburban aesthetic as, I am sure, you are too.

Funny that, because when I was staring out of my window on Sunday - and as I walked down the road this morning - I noticed amongst the monolithic dwellingscape of obsolete terrace houses all sorts of differences. My road slopes downwards (new estates tend to be flat), there are all sorts of front doors that reflect the different history of ownership (new estates tend to have the same crap front doors), some obsolete terraces have attic rooms whereas others don't (houses in new estates are often built with such shallow roof space that this is not possible) and there are all sorts of different ways in which my neighbours decorate the front of their houses with plants and so on (new estates all have the same crappy postage stamp gardens with no plants in don't they). So it is absolutely clear, then, that my obsolete terrace house is surrounded by a real monolithic vision of terraces and this proves the case that what we really need around here is demolition of these obsolete terraces and their replacement with a monolithic dwellingscape of lovely little 'suburban' like semis with no character whatsoever.

What is really interesting is that the mass builder that got the work to redevelop parts of Liverpool (after all the working class people have been kicked out of their homes, which are being knocked down) paraded their credentials for undertaking this work by pointing to their resounding 'success' in redeveloping Hulme in Manchetser. Would this be the same Hulme that a report by Professor Alan Harding and colleagues describes as rife with dissatisfaction? And all because people did not like the houses they were put into. They were too small and too shoddy. Yet Professor Harding and colleagues referred to these as "teething problems" because, of course, living in a crappy shoe box is just a "teething problem". Let me quote Professor Harding and colleagues in full so you can see exactly what I mean:

"There is dissatisfaction with the design, quality and space standards of some of the provate stock .... These disappointments, though real for individual home owners, are best seen as irritants rather than fundamental concerns"

Now let us think for a minute: would these middle class academics consider it an 'irritant' if they were kicked out of their home and put into a shoe box that was too small and dysfunctional for them. Food for thought eh!

I could stop there but this 'monolithic' argument is an interesting one. Myself and a colleague, Lee, recently spoke at the Royal Geograhical Society annual conference in London alongside two people that have been kicked out of their homes as a result of the schemes devised by the architects of HMR. We suggested that it was important that our friends' voices were heard because the academy had, basically, ignored them (see my book for more on this).

Well, we received a response from some academics suggesting that we were wrong to suggest that the academy had ignored the likes of our friends that had been kicked out of their homes. BIt of a paradox going on here, I think. Difficult to claim you have listened to the 'little people' if you then carry on with your schemes regardless of the objections that the little people have to them.

Perhaps the bigger charge against us, though, was that we were accused of being wrong to have such a monolithic view of the academy, i.e. that "the academy" had ignored the little people! This is another interesting one so let's explore it a bit. The very people that apply the term 'monolithic' to describe terrace housing - despite the massive diversity that exists in the dwellingscape of obsolete terrace houses - are, incredibly, suggesting that it is wrong to apply the same logic to the academy. Their reason for this: it is too simplistic to represent everything as 'the same' when there is diversity within.

Well, having walked out of my front door this morning to be confronted by my lived experience of the terrace dwellingscape, which I love because it is so interesting, I can only say that I am in full agreement that it is wrong to describe my obsolete terrace house and those that surround it as part of a 'monolithic'. The terrace dwellingscape around here is actually very differentiated. In the same way that my writing about the 'knowledge business' (see various things I have published on this) suggestes that knowledge production practices within the academy are complex and differentiated - albeit there are dominant tendencies that overlay this which result in the institutional production of academic arrogance which is what has resulted in my friends being kicked out of their homes. Perhaps the academics that accuse Lee and I of having a monolithic view of the academy should read my work a little bit more carefully, and, perhaps they should try and live here and see that this is anything but a monolithic experience.

1 comment:

Dave Webb said...

This idea that terraced housing is obsolete is, as you say Chris, absolute nonsense. I would urge anyone who thinks there may be an element of logic in it to read the Centre for Urban and Regional Research's report 'Stabilising the Population of Liverpool: Employment Markets and Housing Choice' paid for by Liverpool City Council and the Liverpool Housing associations. This was the research which first came up with the idea of obsolescence. Compare for yourself the main body of that report's findings with the executive summary. What has in fact been done is this: a diverse list of likes expressed in a selected focus group have been summarised into the narrative 'the kind of residents we want to attract to Liverpool want suburbs'. This simply isnt want the research respondents said. Furthermore, they were only ever asked for their ideal type of environment. Had they known the use their responses were to be put to i am certian they would have given a lot more thought to their answers.

Dave Webb,
PhD researcher
Newcastle upon Tyne