Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Little England



Some dislocated thoughts about the relationship between architecture and literature...actually a two parter, the first on miniatures and the second looking at period dramas.....

Julian Barnes's England England is a fantasy in which the real England is replaced by a miniature version constructed on the Isle of Wight. This kitsch simulacra of the British Isles allows Barnes to caricature a whole range of British/English myths: Battle of Britain nostalgia, shady adulterous royals, ruddy faced yocals etc as well as the heritage industry, theme parks and branding culture. Eventually the miniature theme park version becomes more popular than the real thing and effectively replaces it leaving old England to lapse into a sort of pre-industrial idyll.

What's more interesting than the slighty wooden satire involved though is the lack of description (and thus belieavability) of the miniature recreation itself. There is something compelling about imagining how this world might have been manifested, its scale, its materiality, its level of detail etc. How small is miniature? Is it perfectly reproduced or stylised? Is it made of the same materials or fake? What happens in the space between the isolated landmarks (Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge)? You might say that this is an obvious comment from an architect, a specialist's criticism. Perhaps, but so much of the book hinges on the legitimate recreation of this miniature world that a more physical description of it seems vital. Barnes never mentions any of this though. He is more concerned with the conventional literary ideas of satire and in establishing sympathetic characters.



In this sense Barnes's book is both a typical product of British literary culture and at odds with it. It's often said that Britain is a literary culture rather than a visual one. How does this affect the kind of architecture produced? For one thing, the description of architecture in English fiction is often symbolic rather than experiential, visual rather than physical. Architecture is deployed as a symbol of status, taste and wealth. It is a vehicle for the narrative rather than the subject of it, a way to help tell the story and, crucially, tell us who the characters are. A sensation of space - in a physical or haptic sense - comes second to one describing signs and symbols. Take the role of architecture in Jane Austen for instance where the social nuances of cottages, lodges and stately homes are vital in establishing the character's wealth and status.

Somewhere that a sense of architectures physicality is described though is in the miniature worlds of children's literature. The creation of plausible miniature environments - in books such as Alice In Wonderland or The Borrowers - requires an obsessive description of their physical qualities. Here somwhat perversely it is our inability to actually inhabit these environments that means they must be described in a way that is hyper-real.



Miniaturisation is a different way of telling a stories through architecture. In it architecture is no longer used to act as a form of shorthand for social status but as a way to re-examine the everyday. Or to create an alternative world, one where the assumptions of reality are turned on their head. Miniaturisation requires an obsessive form of description, a series of constant reference points and size comparisons with our own world. This obsessive description mimics the attention to detail of the model maker. The model maker is in turn always satirised as being a kind of child, however old, and socially inept in the adult world.

While miniaturisation requires a detailed description of its physical properties it also involves a further distancing from the original referant. It is a kind of double fiction. If experience in literature is always mediated rather than real, then an experience of an invented world requires another layer of representation. Miniatures are always representational, never real. A miniature chair is no longer a chair just as a rabbit wearing a waistcoat is no longer merely a rabbit.



Miniatures worlds and model villages are often pieces of nostalgia in themselves. Bekenscott model village in Buckinghamshire for instance is a depiction of a time (the 1930's) as well as a place. Modifications and editions must now reflect that period despite the fact that when it was originally built it represented an entirely contemporary reality. Interestingly, Enid Blyton - the children's author and creator of miniature and fantasy worlds - lived in Beaconsfield, Bekenscott's real life counterpart. Her own house exists at both scales in Beaconsfield and recreated in miniature as part of the model village.

Julian Barnes's book concerns itself with nostalgia too. It is a satire of the way in which our hunger for images of the past can make contemporary reality unstable. The creation of a miniature England is an attempt to make an idealised version, a greatest hits of the countries own history. The Isle of Wight is itself a kind of miniature and an island that self consciously styles itself as an idealised version of England. You can fit the whole of England on the Isle of Wight goes the saying, meaning that, at the least, you can fit all the best bits.



The architect Alison Smithson once wrote an essay called Beatrix Potter spaces in which she suggested that the miniature worlds of children's fiction reflected a pyschological need for intimate spaces, nooks, crannies and alcoves. She saw this as a quintessentially English need, a kind of double nostalgia for the fictional spaces of books that were themselves deeply nostalgic. Whilst children's literature may escape the suffocating class obsession of Austen or Waugh (and hence the role of architecture in reflecting this) it creates an introverted need for nostalgic spaces. These spaces are miniatures themselves, smaller and safer versions of reality; little utopias.

They are also antithetical to modernist spatial conceptions which is why Smithson's interest in them is so interesting. Although the spaces of children's literature are usually based on pre-modern buildings their forms have found their way into much of our contemporary housing. Perhaps this is one reason why the UK's aversion to single floor apartment living bemoaned here* pervades our housing culture. The warren like spaces of the ubiquitous Barrat house contain miniature traces of much bigger and much older houses.

* This link has just been added and was missing from the original post.

6 comments:

Susan said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Susan

http://www.car-insurance-choices.com

BG said...

There's no immediate mention of secondary sources in this post, so forgive me if this is redundant info for you....

But I think you'd get quite a bit from this book -
On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection
by Susan Stewart.

In there, she talks about links between nostalgia and the miniature.

Charles Holland said...

BG. Yes, I know it and I am probably plaigarising it here appallingly. But I wanted to use ideas of the miniature to talk about architecture specifically and an idea of contemporary UK houses as being miniatures themselves. Hopefully the point might come across better in the second part when I am planning to talk more specifically about architecture.

BTW I meant to link to a piece written by Germaine Greer in the last para which I forgot to but have done now. All written a bit too quickly I think.....

owen hatherley said...

Great post, am looking forward to the next bit. Also I can't help but put the following picture up here, the absolute favourite of my extensive postcard collection...
http://flickr.com/photos/8971770@N06/2384043234/in/pool-c20society

Charles Holland said...

Owen, that is lovely! Miniatures of un-picturesque things are the best. Madurodam in Holland is a huge model village (sic) which, alongside the expected tourist spot recreations, features swathes of unremarkable polder land, deserted train stations, drab office car parks and light industrial estates. I once made a film for an art installation that was set there.

Krishna said...

Thanks for this great post. Miniatures of un-picturesque things are the best.