Too Big and Too Small

English: More rooftops Looking over the roofs ...

Looking over the roofs of Muswell Hill Place and Alexandra Gardens towards Springfield Avenue and the Alexandra Palace TV mast, from the viaduct at St James’s Lane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British domestic architecture is largely made up of strange angles and peculiar proportions.  Or, at least that was the case in the kinds of flats I lived in during most of my twenties, when I was, first, a student and, later, a young academic with precious little dosh for rent.  One flat had soaring double-height ceilings, impossibly narrow hallways, and, in my bedroom in the back, an overly wide Georgian door that opened to show shelves 3 inches deep.  Even my hairbrush didn’t fit.  In a later flat in Muswell Hill in London, the most exciting feature was a tiny window, three-stories up, that opened onto a massive flat roof the size of the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, and bedroom below.  It was covered in gravel, but I spent many evenings there looking up to Alexandra Palace in the distance.

Neither of these flats were being put to the use they were intended, and the proportions of living seemed charmingly off-kilter because of that.  The former had been a Victorian boarding house in Leeds, before walls were shifted and latches were added to accommodate legions of Red-Brick students.  The latter began life as a middle-class family home in a leafy suburb that was neither then nor now serviced by the Tube.  But it has lately been carved up and made home to one middle-class family downstairs and several eager young career men upstairs, nearly doubling the original number of inhabitants.  From slim crevices to capacious outdoor landings, every feature of these buildings was always too big or too small.  Or, more regularly, both too big and too small at the same time.

My student flats have been on my mind recently while reading Rowan Moore‘s outstanding new work on architectural history, Why We Build.  His criticism is remarkably admirable, in the sense that research, observation, and insight have been pasted together in a perfectly plausible narrative, with all the joints puttied up neatly and invisibly.  The structure of his argument does rather bring to mind the distorted angles and Escher-like floorplans of a German Expressionist film, but it remains engaging and bizarrely uplifting.  Simply put, it’s an ideal book for a bedside table.  And, because I am also finishing a project on architectural Gesamtkunstwerk in modern British drama at the moment, it means that I have been thinking about buildings from waking to sleep.

In Hong Kong, architectural proportions are also uncanny and unexpected, even though the flat I live in now was most definitely built with the singular purpose of housing a young, perhaps-single, perhaps-expat with a love of skyscrapers and city life.  My balcony looks over one of the most famously ginormous skylines in the world, and at 20.00 every night I can see a small slice of the Symphony of Lights–the world’s largest light and sound show–while lying on my sofa.  But inside, the space has been divided into rooms so small that there must be serious consideration of geometric tessellation in every daily task; in arranging my furniture, I have drawn on skills gained from playing hours of Tetris as a child.

In London or Hong Kong, purpose-built or re-purposed, domestic architecture very often fails to ascribe to the proportions that feel natural or ‘right’ to the inhabitants.  Which is perhaps why the often unobtainable ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk–or the ‘total art’, in which everything from wall-coverings to crockery has been designed to suit that one specific place–has been so theoretically and popularly appealing.  Like the pioneering Omega Workshops before them, Terrance Conran and Laura Ashley (cf. Peter York’s outstanding article in this weekend’s FT) promise to offer a distinctly British Gesamtkunstwerk, but more often than not it’s a dream that cannot be realized because every element of the space will be both too large and too small at the same time.

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