Hope springs

‘And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows that the space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams.’ (Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, 1958)

I’ve been very sad recently.  My childhood home in India which was locked up, had been burgled. Not satisfied with not finding much there (yes, we were very poor), the thieves then ransacked the place, even ripping apart the mattresses.  Even if a home has been a very humble place, with not many things there, it still has its memories. It was also my first home and a place I always went back to.  I learnt to walk there and play with the children who lived nearby.  Our school was nearby.  So many people came there.  The address is forever etched my heart.  My beloved uncle and my father both passed away there. That place was the centre of my universe for decades until I left but I always came back to it whenever I visited India from the UK. My British born children loved it too.

Then this burglary happened- totally out of the blue. I felt violated myself because my home was so intimately connected to me- it was who I was, it was my body. The mattresses that had been ripped apart lay on the same bed that my father had died.  I was angry and helpless. But there was nothing to be done. When I was praying, the thought came into my head, ‘You need to concentrate on yourself. There is nothing to be done by getting angry or upset’.  And then I read about the people in Australia who had lost everything in the recent bushfires- and precious things like their pets, photographs of their childhood, livelihood, etc.  Tragically some had even died trying to save their homes. I began to feel grateful that such physical evidences of my life were still there- photographs, mementos, and my memories too.  No one had been injured during the burglary.  I heard a woman say about her home being destroyed during the floods in the UK, ‘After all, it is just bricks and mortar.’  And I thought about all those people around the world who had lost homes, left their homes fleeing wars or other disasters, or were even homeless.  Suddenly I began to see a brighter side to everything- and really how lucky I was.

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Black mountain on fire, February 2020 (image: Wikimedia commons, Saritha Balram)

Then today, I saw this- a little tiny shoot of a cactus plant.  Cactus plants are quite difficult to grow at home from seeds but somehow this little thing had managed to sprout. I felt like it was saying to me, ‘Don’t give up hope.’  It is still a long way from becoming a proper cactus plant but I thought this little thing has struggled and found a way to come out of the dark sandy soil, so could I come out my own dark place.

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My tiny cactus plant!

Kettle’s Yard: a reflection

I recently visited Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK.  Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede during 1958 to 1973 . Jim had been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London 1920-30s.  Collecting and curating art and nature in his home, became his cure for undiagnosed PTSD brought on by the Great War.  He became a patron, collector and buyer of works by then unknown (and some famous) artists- paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones and Joan Miró, as well as sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This work, called ‘Bird swallows a fish’ by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, made a profound impression on me. Very pertinent for our ecological crisis.

Jim did not distinguish between high art, naive art, and nature.  There are no labels, so the visitor enjoys the work as it is.  Surprisingly for a curator’s home, there no curatorial statements either.  Alongside carefully positioned valued artworks, we find broken and old furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects. The aim was to create creating a harmonic whole, not perfection. He was influenced by his visit to India after the war and his work reflects his interests in Eastern religions and folk art.  He invited students for talks at the end of each term and in the end, left the house to Cambridge University.  He meant this humble home to be neither ‘an art gallery or museum, nor … simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.’

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Humble collections of stones, arranged carefully, give a peaceful ‘zen-like’ calm to the home.

Looking and reflecting on the interiors, as an architect and home maker, I came to realise that to create a home you have to know yourself and your own needs deeply.  And to create such an harmonious home, you don’t need expensive things- just things that reflect who you are.  So Jim and Helen Ede’s home could be viewed by some as eccentric and unsophisticated but the abiding impression is that of a couple who consciously chose to eschew the materially rich for that which is soulfully rich.  A lesson indeed for these chaotic times and materialistic culture.  Such expression where someone’s inner life has been thrown open public gaze requires inner confidence, critical thinking and unwavering certainty.  This is the home of someone who has absolute happiness, not relative one.  In the end, the lesson for me wasn’t from the art but from the collection and the home as one.

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Works of art by famous artists are placed deliberately low on the floor so that the viewer can sit down and contemplate these.
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Light and shadows play a part in how sculptures are placed
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Plants also part of the display- a living natural art
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You are invited to sit on the chairs to contemplate the space and art

Lessons on design and interiors from Kettle’s Yard

  1. Make the design work for you, don’t follow others blindly.
  2. Choose things that enhance the spaces- these might be cheap things like plants, rocks, books and sea shells. They could be things that you love to touch and see.
  3. Follow the design through as you walk from space to space.  It might be simpler and cheaper to have a flow, rather than each space having its own ‘theme’.
  4. Remove and hide things seasonally.  This gives a sense of the home through the seasons.
  5. Eclectic collections have a charm of their own.  Many design magazines feature empty monastic looking spaces but as this home shows, you can have many things if displayed well.

 

Memory and Place: the phenomenology of space

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“Sometimes they come upon me unbidden, these images of places…At other times I summon them” (Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, 2006, Birkhauser)

Place and memory are intrinsically connected- a place gives us the experiential and behavioral intentions that drive our understanding of it.  But what is a place?  Is it simply a basic space for prospect and refuge?  Is it about the sense of place connected to the sense of security we derive from it?  Is a place about the sense of mastery we get from being safe? Does memory lead to the space? What happens to places when people leave and when voices are stilled?

A place is an experience- a space where we do something and that recollection forms, re-forms and informs our memory.  Without that experience, there is no memory.  ‘This the place where I felt sad because I remembered the good times I had there’- the emotion of the place becomes our memory or ‘I remember the fragrance of jasmine in the garden as I strolled across the lawn that night’.  That said memory is timeless or perhaps suspended in time. What you remember as a child, you can remember as an adult- when you recall that memory, it is as if you were a child again. People can bring memories with mementos to a space when they arrive. Places and memories are inseparable.

Memento mori

 ‘And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows that the space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams.’ (Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, 1958)

‘…it seems impossible to distinguish between architecture and life, between spatial situations and the way I experience them.’ (Peter Zumthor, 2006)

Spatial phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness in a space (as opposed to the Cartesian system, which perceives the world as a collection of disparate objects, influencing or reacting to each another). Our home is the first place of our memories. Often we seek to create what we lost as we grew up and as designers, often our output is the result of recollections- not deliberately, but almost subconsciously. We may not remember details because details are not important- impressions are.

In an age of technology, we can restore memory to a place through photographs and videos. When I look at a photograph of a wall in my house in Delhi, I remember that I picked the lime wash paint and the plaster from it one hot summer afternoon, while listening to a story. The evidence to corroborate that story falls bit by bit even today, swirling bits of lime flakes. I remember how the lime was mixed with water in empty oil drums, the loud noises as the lime slaked, the wiry brown men who climbed up ladders to get at an errant spider or gecko, making wet slapping noises with their straw brushes and the earthy smell of the newly painted walls. The naughty child’s hands, which plucked the walls have been replaced by an adult’s, but the memory of the lime washed walls remains. People who lived, loved and worked in that place are gone and the memory of their death lingers on.

Never tell them your children’s age

Here is a new one I found out- when out on date, never tell anyone your children’s age.  It is bad enough to get a date sometime when you tell a man you have children.  Even though you make look well and youngish, once they find out your children age, I can see it all on their forehead, trying to work out how old you are.  Even though this particular man may 1. already have children and is divorced himself; 2. does not want a family; 3. told you that he does not care how old you are- the way his mind works is that you still have to be nubile enough for him.  I still remember the shock and horror on a man’s face when he learnt that I was the mother to a teenager, although initially he professed a great love for children and dogs. Next!