• Thursday , 12 December 2019

Between Concrete and Chaos

Photo: Aisling McCoy.

We have been visiting homes in Dublin 7 and 9 for some time now as part of the public art project, Home on the Grange.

It is in the nature of my own architectural training, that I look for consistency, pattern and some order among the places and people encountered on these home visits. I seek common ground.

Architects are skilled at using one or other set of implicit or explicit rules or regulations. Very often we must do so in order to eliminate risk, to dispense with uncertainty and to quash anxiety.

Maybe, at times, this seems to work against our professions oft stated desire to realise buildings that might be open and generous to those that use them. The profession must fix things to fix things. We like concrete because we like all things to be concrete, to be certain, to be clear.

To build up, it can feel like we must shut down, and “common ground” appears on the horizon like a rhetorical place we visit to attain professional control and credibility rather than a genuine platform for collective potential.

Photo: Aisling McCoy.

On house visits, as an architect, it does take considerable effort to resist jumping to conclusions. Conclusions I seek so as to reassure my architectural mind that whether someone builds a squat or an award-winning house, lives above their workplace or avails of public housing, each of those individuals is just like you or me.

However, while each interior visited has consistencies, when you let your look linger longer you slowly start to see physical and spatial evidence of lives-lived and personalities formed through space, over time and across generations.

Homes and how people assemble and create them within the physical, built shell they occupy never fail to surprise; they are each exotic and eccentric, personal and particular.

Photo: Aisling McCoy.

So, as I walk away from each home, I try to reconcile two positions, two ways of considering some aspects of Irish domestic life. These are the binary positions of the fixed and the free, the tidy and the mess, the worlds of the concrete and the chaos.

On the one hand, one could say that certain communities of people appear fixed and stable. It is possible to put your finger on them and say, yes, that is both who and what they are depending on what form of housing they currently occupy. People who live in leafy suburbs are more or less the same; people who live in public housing in the city center are together for a reason, and so on.

This position nourishes the mind of the architect who needs that fixity so she or he can act, and it sustains the idea that building alone can build communities. It also feeds the production of housing. Once a community is conceived or identified, a lifestyle which can be marketed and commodified through built form is not far behind.

On the other hand, the second position I am considering after a visit is that people are all so very individual that, really, they do not have much in common at all.

Within a pair of homes divided by just a 250mm thick wall very different lives are being lived. Many neighbours are only that in principle but not in practice. People live beside each other but never meet or talk, nor want to. Individuals seem concerned only with themselves.

In as much as common ground is presented as some kind of socially-engaged promised land, this individuality is often discussed as a conscious opposition to community; we are labelled a nation of greedy property mongers, peoples’ craven consumption delcared an explicit rejection of the collective in favour of the collection of things, of objects, of stuff. And, the greatest of all the objects to collect is surely the house.

Photo: Aisling McCoy.

If you sit down and talk to people though, they rarely talk about their own home in these absolute terms. People tend to talk about how their home is the place from which they both step in to and out of the world, and this seems consistent, regardless of how individuals have secured their house or apartment, or how they believe houses or apartments should be provided for others.

When you talk to people about their home, what you find is that the individual experience of home is certainly framed by the physical and material form around it – be it an apartment, a house or just one room – but a homes’ existence is sustained by the people within it and who move through it.

The life of a home is nourished by the physical objects of family and memory that act as a kind of supporting cast in our everyday domestic dramas; a home is enriched by the difference found in the relationships we make in the outside world; a home is the place, from which, amid noise, and confusion and mess, emerges our confidence to go forth, to set out, to head back.

So, if the home is anywhere, the home seems both awkwardly and comfortably in-between.

We remain as uncomfortable to acknowledge the “in-betweeness” of domestic life as we do in many aspects of social and cultural discourse, embracing the binary, preferring to point to the concrete or the chaos absolutely.

This continues to polarise the discussion on house and home. Being unable to or unwilling to accept that most of life is lived in-between, we think public or private, right or left, and in doing so, we appraise, we make judgements.

We seem fundamentally attached to the idea that having and owning a house makes you a better citizen than those who may rent or decide to build a home from scratch in an abandoned yard.

If you are a citizen who needs to have the infrastructure of home provided to you by other citizens through the mechanism of public housing, somehow, we still consider this the failure of the individual rather than the collective.

We still talk about building “social” rather than “public” housing, implying each time the word “social” is used or spoken on the radio that housing is charity, kindly given by those who have more to those who have less, – housing as a gift, not a right.

Photo: Aisling McCoy.

Our crisis is not only about being able to afford rent or a mortgage but also that citizens are not being afforded their rightful opportunities to make home. We all need to be afforded this opportunity, as this enables us to find strength, to actively negotiate everyday life, and to move more easily between here and there and cope with the many extremes we each encounter.

We rarely give air time to a discussion about how opportunity is fundamental to the assembly and the social sustainability of our communities, and for our actual economic and cultural participation in society.

It is not the lack of provision of physical housing but the failure to secure the opportunity for all citizens to make home that is, arguably, our greatest political failure. The drive to build simply seems trapped in a back and forth, ping-pong discussion about market economics and ideologies, with us all watching and waiting in-between for the game to end, the ball to land, and the public pitch to be resolutely occupied.

Photo: Aisling McCoy.

When you ask someone “why do you want a home?” or “what does a home mean to you?”, people tend to focus less on the object of the house itself but on the opportunity having a home provides for them or for their family.

Some have imagined home as a place to build from scratch, from the ground up. Home, in both the action of its’ making and its physical and material reality, becomes a transient trace of a temporary collective. It is also a tangible permanent record of an emerging political philosophy.

Others find home in the adjacent, forgotten spaces that they find and appropriate beside their home-home, turning a disused pram-shed into a place of industry and local gathering. This affords a young man the chance to step out and step up, into the center of his family and community and, in a sense, out into that city that someday awaits all young men beyond the doorstep.

Others find home in this welcoming city. In conversation they recall, in a tone of voice so giddy with excitement, that their house, their home, is close to parks where it is possible for us to walk in the company of dogs.

Two home-makers, who on a talk show would be seated left and right, invited me outside to look at their world as viewed from their home terraces. Both talked about how they understand their home is a small part of a wider built-place, a built-place they feel a need to protect and sustain for themselves, for others and for strangers.

Glancing inside, then out, across rooftops and parks, watching the dance of the slow moving cranes, I have no doubt that home is where we want to be and that maybe, standing on this terrace, we are already there, just somewhere in-between.

Poster: Paul Guinan.

Home on the Grange is a public art project and a collaboration between Emmett Scanlon, Aisling McCoy, and Paul Guinan, and inhabitant-participants of the Grangegorman Neighbourhood. This text was written as part of the outcomes of this project. Photographs and texts from the project are on display in five sites in Dublin 7 and 9 from October 11th to November 12th 2018.

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