Update – This post is from September 2012. Today, in July 2013, Liverpool City Council decided to demolish the 440 homes in the Welsh Streets. Silenced.
Oh no they’re not. As of now April 2017, they’re not demolished and work has begun.
I’ve been reading, and it’s got me thinking.
I don’t know why it took me so long to re-read the book. It’s one of my favourites and it’s in no danger of being donated to a charity shop any time soon. But you know how it is, even if you don’t have all that many books, the ones you do have become part of the furniture very quickly, and you stop ‘seeing’ them.
So anyway, we’re out with friends last Saturday evening. And the subject comes round to why some buildings ‘just work’ – while others ‘just don’t.’ And I immediately ask them if they’ve ever read ‘The book.’ No.
Well it’s called ‘How buildings learn: what happens after they’re built.’ By Stewart Brand. And it’s what’s got me thinking.
So what’s this got to do with Stewart Brand’s book? Well, as you’d guess from the title, his theory is that all buildings learn, over time, from what the people living there do with them. That it’s impossible for a building to be perfect when its built. Even with goodwill, creativity and the close involvement and participation of likely residents, all new buildings are a best guess.
And yes, no building lasts forever. But what we see in Liverpool, like many other towns and cities are neighbourhoods of very similar houses being treated very differently. And I think we’re throwing knowledge away. The knowledge of the streets, the houses and the people who live in them. And I think, as well as being immoral, it’s a big mistake. In destroying these houses, we’re destroying a century of learning. Walk with me.
Where we live is fine. I’ve lived here since 1991, Sarah joining me a bit later. There’s never been a particularly strong community around here. Maybe because nothing so terrible has ever happened that it’s pulled us all together. Now it’s good at our end of the street because several little children have been born, and they’re pulling us adults together with their relentless curiosity and their determination to communicate with all humans and animals who cross their paths.
But mostly the story of these streets has been one of people quietly living their lives. The Silence of the Streets. Houses learning from their occupants, as dividing walls are knocked through, then later reconstructed. Loft extensions are done, kitchens too. Going into the houses now, no two of them are the same. A hundred years of learning from the people who’ve lived here. Workers, students, the newly arrived, the well retired, and the self-employed likes of me. Quietly living our lives. Lots of essential shops just round the corner. A good place to have lived for all these years.
While just along Smithdown Road:
This photograph is from 2009 and shows the work of the Housing Market Renewal Initiative. A Government scheme, to renew the housing around our inner cities, by renewing the ‘market.’ As you can see, it’s going really well.
The thinking behind this failed initiative was constantly explained to me by housing professionals as ‘People’s desire to live in houses like these, in places like this is now over.’ And their proposals would usually look like suburbs. Because, obviously most of us would like to live in neat semis like they do. Well, no we don’t. As we’ve already seen, and shall see again.
Past more ‘housing market’ fields along Kingsley Road, we arrive at the remaining four streets of Granby:
But as you’ll know if you’ve been around here before, the sixty or so people who do live here and are determined to remain, have been active.
And there is hope here. We’d been hoping something gradual could be worked out. So new people could move into houses where simple, basic renovations and retrofits had been carried out to properties left empty for years. Then carry out their own further works over time, as finances and their own needs and knowledge suggested. Just like the people in my own neighbourhood have always been able to do. Because that’s how buildings learn.
But the City Council tendered out the whole place anyway, and have appointed a developer. Who’s made encouraging noises about working with the existing residents and preserving the history and spirit of the place. But they were supposed to be on site by June and there’s no sign of them yet. So, who knows what will actually happen?
Next we cross Princes Avenue to the Welsh Streets:
The Silence of the Streets. One sunny day in the summer I passed a dog, fast asleep in the middle of one of these streets. It was completely safe from disturbance or traffic.
But here, there is hope. They Tweeted me, amongst many others, this morning with their news and the ridiculous fact that the City Council have given them from yesterday until the end of today to get them information and feedback that could save more than the 32 houses they’ve saved so far. Please do go and see what they’re proposing, but let’s not be run ragged by the authorities. They took years to blight the place. Let the people fix it lovingly and carefully over time. ‘One fix fixes all, and all at once’ never has worked. That’s just politics.
Then we conclude this virtual walk just down the hill, by the side of the Mersey:
How buildings Learn was also made into a 6 part TV series by the BBC in the late 1990s. Dated but inspirational, Stewart Brand has recently posted all of the programmes on YouTube.