Monday, 28 January 2013

Architectural Ancestor Worship

A COUPLE whose home is 'so cold it's like living outside' have been refused permission to replace their ancient timber windows. The pair say that their old single-glazed windows are in such poor condition that they let in drafts, rain and, last week, snow. This winter, which saw a cold snap hit in mid-January, left them needing to wear two jumpers while they sat at home. (1)

This is, of course, a listed building, hence the reason for the rules. I have a great deal of sympathy for listing sites of special interest and buildings, as most of those that are of a particular interest to me, namely the dolmens and menhirs of the Neolithic era, are only preserved in part; the Victorian antiquarian drive to preserve history came too late for all of them as complete wholes, and only Hougue Bie still survives.

But people don't actually live in dolmens; they do live in houses. Most houses have been changed over the centuries, added to, build upon, as a reading of Old Jersey Houses makes clear. When the earliest old Jersey farmhouses were being built, as with the Great Houses in England, there was no electricity, no hot and cold running water, no telephones etc. All of these were intrusions into the original fabric of the buildings, and sometimes difficult ones, but ones that were felt to be necessary.

Apart from the light switches on the wall, and in the ceiling, and the hot and cold taps in the bathroom, these are buried deep inside the building, behind the walls, and we are so used to flicking a light switch, and seeing a light bulb come on, that for the most part this is invisible to us. A visit to the Jersey museum, where restored floors of a merchant's house can be seen, and there is flickering gas lighting, provides a very different picture. I don't think the most fervent conservationist wants to turn the clock back, and insist that a listed building, still lived in, have all the accretions of the centuries removed, gas lighting - or candles - reinstated, and plumbing torn out. That would be seen as a step too far. As long as it is hidden, it is fine.

But there is a prejudice against items that appear outside the building like windows, which has even extended, from time to time, to television aerials or satellite dishes. That windows they can be replaced sympathetically with modern materials is frowned upon, and permission is refused for double glazing. It is forgotten that the purpose of a house is that people should live in it, not that it should be preserved as some kind of mausoleum to the ancestors.

It is not as if these buildings are in danger of demolition; that is not the case. Buildings are for living in, after all, and that should be the fundamental importance, not a place where apparently there are icicles inside in cold icy weather. I realise that questioning the popular mantra is not a popular one, but I think it is important when fundamental human values get overlook because of a new kind of fundamentalism.

The common features of fundamentalism is that they are rigid, inflexible, unbending, and that they leave human considerations out of their equation. There's an interesting Father Brown story by G.K. Chesterton, called "The Doom of the Darnaways", which tackles this attitude to architecture head on. Chesterton was an artist as well as a writer, so he knew both the merits and dangers of a purely aesthetic approach to life, and why it was important to put people first:

'I tell you to think about something else,' replied the priest cheerfully. 'What has become of the rising art of photography? How is the camera getting on? I know it's rather dark downstairs, but those hollow arches on the floor above could easily be turned into a first-rate photographic studio. A few workmen could fit it out with a glass roof in no time.'

'Really,' protested Martin Wood, 'I do think you should be the last man in the world to tinker about with those beautiful Gothic arches, which are about the best work your own religion has ever done in the world. I should have thought you'd have had some feeling for that sort of art; but I can't see why you should be so uncommonly keen on photography.'

'I'm uncommonly keen on daylight,' answered Father Brown, 'especially in this dingy business; and photography has the virtue of depending on daylight. And if you don't know that I would grind all the Gothic arches in the world to powder to save the sanity of a single human soul, you don't know so much about my religion as you think you do.'

Chesterton has sometimes been called "the apostle of common sense", and reading the story in the JEP, I can't help be struck by how little common sense seems to have entered into the decision made. I can only hope that the people living there do not die of hyperthermia, and that is not what it takes to bludgeon some common sense into the heads of those refusing permission. A little imagination, a little compassion, and a lot of commonsense is needed, and better before a tragedy than after it.



Nick Palmer said...

I'm pretty sure that replacement wooden sash windows with double glazing are acceptable. The main objection to PVC ones is because the pseudo glazing bars and frames are much bulkier than the original Georgian thin ones. No doubt this person wants to install cheap PVC ones and P&E says he can't so he goes whining to the JEP with straw men arguments about cruel oppression and snow coming in to the house

TonyTheProf said...

You are talking 20 windows and old age pensioners who I imagine don't have vast sums of money to throw around. Yes I do think that is pretty cruel.

Maybe some of that wonderful contingency find that was going to Plemont could be used in these circumstances as a grant towards the cost. Or is such largess only available for glamourous projects?

It seems strange that buildings have changed and been modified over hundreds of years - just look at the Island's churches - and yet there is a fixation with keeping them in a way which past ages just would not have comprehended; for them, a building was for people to use, to live in, and not something to be treated in what they would have seen (with churches, for example) as an kind of idolatry.

Nick Palmer said...

P&E have quite generous funds available to uprate insulation standards "free" for people on low incomes.

When I lived in a house where snow and rain could blow through the holes in the window frames, I filled them with papier maché and waxed it.

TonyTheProf said...

You still haven't answered the philosophical point I raised.

Nick Palmer said...

I don't usually think philosophical stuff is worth the effort. Reality s like a Pointillist painting - the closer you look at it the less there is to be seen.

Perhaps in the past people didn't have quite so much of an existential sense of loss and helter skelter change. Perhaps nowadays that leads them to want to preserve some of what they grew up with as a means of comforting the holes in their souls.

TonyTheProf said...

My real problem is why a building should not continue to develop as it has in the past. I do agree that any changes should be sympathetic, but I think there is an uncalled for fixation about what is considered today modern materials; of course, some of the changes in the fabric of the buildings themselves were innovations.

Why we should somehow privilege the present as a static fixed position over the changes of the past is a philosophical point.

To look at an analogy from the other side, some French academics are trying to freeze the French language against change, and yet it has changed and evolved over centuries. Mediaeval French was much more akin to Jerrias, but with the bifurcation of paths of language, they seperated. So why privilege the present?

Latin is another example, which was an evolving communal language right past the Reformation - Newton's Principia was in Latin. But the 18th and 19th century grammarians decided to discard that in favour of the supposed "purity" of classical Latin.

So there is a philosophical question: why privilege the present form of a building in perpetuity when its past saw changes which made it into the very building it is today?

Is it a reaction to so many buildings being destroyed? Or the change from a largely rural population to an urban population, disconnected from the land and those very buildings they want to preserve?