Monday, 14 January 2008

Letter from Oxford

Dear Suzy,
I have just uploaded some pics to flickr (, set: Oxford10/07_postwar architecture). These are photos I took in October when I visited some colleges in North Oxford. I had a guide book listing some of the interesting post-war architecture in Oxford colleges, and followed a short route from Little Clarendon Street, down Walton Street and then round to St Anne’s and St Anthony’s colleges on the Woodstock Road, finishing at Keble college on the Banbury Road.

There is so much architecture hidden from view in Oxford as many of the colleges are surrounded by walls, or centred around courtyards and not clearly visible from the street. I remember that we managed to see some interesting buildings on a visit you and Matt made to Oxford about a year or so ago (a Smithson building in St Hilda’s college and the picture gallery at Christchurch among others), but it takes a bit of research and speaking nicely to porters to get access to some of these places. We’ve talked a bit about our relationship with different parts of the city, and how some areas, either explicitly or implicitly are not open access. It seems as though an important part of our research for this project is attempt to access areas that we might not normally go to and to gain a wider and more interesting relationship with Oxford and Paris.

I’m hoping that when we’ve finished unpacking our boxes I’ll be able to find my guidebook again and visit some more post-war buildings in Oxford. In the meantime I’m interested in exploring the area we’ve moved to in East Oxford. In his book 'Isolarion: a different oxford journey', James Attlee writes about how East Oxford was developed from marshland that was drained in the 19th century. The area was divided up by land societies and, as the land was broken up into small plots, there is lots of variation in the Victorian terraced housing. It seems like quite an organic and democratic way of developing. It would be interesting to find a map showing how the land was shared out. I'm planning to visit the city archives at Temple Cowley to see if they can help.

East Oxford starts from the roundabout at ‘The Plain’, the high street goes west into the city centre, and three roads go east, eventually crossing the ring-road. These are St Clements (which becomes the London Road), Cowley Road and Iffley Road. The River Thames gives another interesting route out of town. I've driven along the Cowley Road to Blackbird Leys which is just outside the ring-road (probably the closest equivalent Oxford has to the banlieu in Paris), but it would be interesting to walk to the estate and get a better sense of how far away it is from town, how accessible it is for a pedestrian, and the kinds of spaces I would pass through to get there.

Must go for now. How are things going in Paris?
Dear Rachel,

I really like your idea of walking out to blackbird leys.
There is something perverse about walking places that are not designed
to be accessed that way, which is also quite revealing about theorientation
and planning of a development. It is interesting to compare the organic
development of east oxford with more 'designed' estates.

I'm now reading 'Estates' by Lynsey Hanley. She has also given me alot to think about. Having grown up herself on an estate outside Birmingham, she is highly
of it seems, of almost all social housing in Britain (though very
supportive of the principles behind it). It comes across that the most
damaging aspect in her view is theghettoization or concentration of the
poorest people in society into areas where they don't encounter other
types of people, who might have a different outlook and aspirations. To
me accessibility and transport seem to be huge issues here, but she
uses the failures of huge out of town estates to argue against them for
other reasons.

She is particularly against modernism aurhh! and thinks everyone should live in low rise housing - presumably like the Barratts estates spreading everywhere like jam. She has a big go at Goldfinger who designed Balfron Tower and Trelic
Tower. This is how she describes his own house 2 Willow rd 'The house
is elegant, but more because of the exquisitely tasteful
furnishings.... Such was the influence of pure modernism.'She thinks
tower blocks are inhuman and ugly, but does not separate badly built
ones withmaintaence problems from the form itself. She does not explain why the barbican and trelick tower are now really desirable homes. I think the location is key.

For alot of people in the uk her view is the mainstream one, and they are not willing to give modernism and the visions of the 60's another chance. This book is really good though for tracing the history of slum clearances, and the different political influences which have led us to this point. Just after the war Bevan and Beveridge were intensley preoccupied with quality 'nothing was too good' but then the successive tory government just wanted to put up lots of housing quickly as there were lots of people homeless and they wanted to win the next election..but a unique opportunity was wasted.


Sunday, 6 January 2008

Dear Suzy,
The book you are reading sounds very interesting. Your description prompts me to think about Richard Billingham's photographic work about his family and their life on a council estate. He has access to images that would be hard to make as an outsider.
I think our position is very different to David Hepher's. Through becoming involved in an area, we've tended to become curious about it's history and it's inhabitants. Making work about Thamesmead prompted us to look at local archives, and in E8 we spoke to people. But if we were making work about the Barbican I think we'd be equally interested in the historical and social context. Is it about a more multi-dimensional sense of place?
But how far do we go before joining the troops of 'inauthentic do-gooders'? It is difficult territory to be on.