Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Architecture of Degeneration

Image: Karen Russo, via

The Mole Man of Hackney has become something of a North London celebrity in recent years, making an appearance as a typically Sinclairian anti-hero in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, as well as on TV and in numerous national newspapers. For anyone who hasn't heard of him, the Mole Man is William Lyttle, who for 40 years lived at 121 Mortimer Road, in Dalston (or De Beauvoir Town if you prefer). During that time he created an extensive network of tunnels below the house to the point where it and the surrounding pavements became structurally unstable.

Last year Lyttle was evicted from the house by Hackney Council and fined £300,000 to pay for work required to stabilise it. He is now, apparently, missing and the house has been preserved in a limbo state somewhere between dangerous and simply unlivable. I pass it every day on the bus and there appear to be large parts of it missing behind the scaffolding.

Image of 121 Mortimer Road, via

Whilst looking into the story I came across a number of photographs - the only ones that exist it seems - of the tunnels taken by artist Karen Russo. Last month she had an exhibition (here) which was partly about Lyttle's strange and obsessive creation. In an interview on Don't Panic Russo stated that her interest in Lyttle was his method, which she likened to of an artist: instinctive, sculptural, seemingly without functional or pragmatic justification. "I was amazed to discover the similarities between the thinking of Lyttle and that of the average artist", she said. "The creation of things that don’t work, without functional value, and the obsession involved in the act of making......"

Image: Karen Russo, via

Speaking as an architect there seems to me to be another way to look at it too. Lyttle's work is a form of anti-architecture, a dark mirror image of both architectural technique and its ambitions. Instead of creating gleaming towers Lyttle buried down, expanding his house outwards from below. Instead of careful, law abiding, Building Regulation compliant design he created a dangerous death-trap of a building, tunneling so close to the water tunnel that the house is in danger of flooding and propping up walls and ceilings with household appliances and makeshift supports.

Most intriguingly Lyttle's own description of the work act as a bizarre parody of architectural presentations. In an article in the The Times from 2006 Lyttle took the reporter on a tour of the tunnel layout: "This is going to be the leisure centre,” he said, sweeping his hand round a large cavern. “And this in here will be the sauna."

Image: Karen Russo, via

Apparently no drawings or sketches exist of Lyttle's designs because he never made any. Instead, his tunnels are like an architectural stream of consciousness, a seemingly unplanned, undrawn (and therefore undesigned, in conventional terms) building, where one bit links to the next instinctively and without any obvious overall order.

As he tunneled, extending the house downwards, Lyttle filled the rooms above ground with the excavated clay, rendering them literally uninhabitable. Not for him the glass walled, light filled extensions attached to any number of houses in the same area. Dark, dank and dangerous, his extensive modifications are the opposite of home improvement. The whole house in fact is like an inversion of the gentrification of Hackney and East London, a piece of de - rather than re - generation.*

* Despite this - and illustrating the immense power of land value over everything else - the house is valued at £1m.


N O R T O N said...

£1m!? So is the moral of the story "architectural stream of consciousness" and anti-architecture are quite successful? Also, the images remind me of Detroit where in the 1990's a local architect was quoted as saying "the act of deconstruction has surpassed construction as the primary architectural activity."

We have a rogue architect here in my town as well, haphazardly making piecemeal additions to his beloved cottage:

Charles Holland said...

I guess the moral is that houses don't matter, only land does. The mole man's house - which is big and obviously dilapidated - is in a highly desirable area now. It wasn't when he bought it 40 years ago of course. But equally, in the context of that area with its polite Victorian conversions and resale value additions, his behaviour was terrifying. Hackney council intervened because his neighbours complained so much.

Having said that, his house is probably worth less than Iain Sinclair's.

That tree house is great.

Markasaurus said...

A similarly strange underworld (although more elegant and structurally sound) exists in rural central California. Starting in 1906, an Italian immigrant named Baldassare Forestiere excavated 10 acres of underground rooms by himself with hand tools. It's now a tourist attraction I have yet to see it for myself, unfortunately.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks Mark, that looks great although, as you say, much less terrifyingly unstable! I like the picture with the little kitchen unit in it!

PsyArch said...

I have been trying to remember/track down details of the tunnels/tunneller (in the South of France?) who made similar basement excavations, though they were highly decorated, shrine-like. I have a feeling that the tunneller died and his work is being preserved. Any direction welcome.

Karen is part of group show Deceitful Moon at the Hayward's Project Space from tomorrow, 21st July.

Charles Holland said...

That rings a bell but I'm not sure either I'm afraid.

Will pop along to the show if I can - her previous shown sounded very intriguing.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you knew the man and have things to say about him, please visit the facebook page (William Lyttle, the mole man of Hackney); I'm undertaking researches about him and any comments will be helpful and highly appreciated !