Four Walls

Peter Campbell

  • Living Space: In Fact and Fiction by Philippa Tristram
    Routledge, 306 pp, £40.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 415 01279 1
  • Building Domestic Liberty by Polly Wynn Allen
    Massachusetts, 195 pp, £16.70, December 1988, ISBN 0 87023 627 X
  • Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820-1939 by John Stilgoe
    Yale, 353 pp, £25.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 300 04257 4

The Picturesque, with its cottages ornées and simulations of Tuscan rusticity, is hard to take seriously. Yet it accompanied a radical change in English architectural thinking. This happens to be easy for us to understand – a similar change in sensibility is going on now.

The buildings in Colen Campbell’s great 18th-century picture-book of British Classical architecture, Vitruvius Britannicus, are shown in plan, elevation or one-point perspective. But when Soane, in the first decades of the 19th century, makes a presentation drawing he is likely to show the building in oblique perspective. Time and weather are acknowledged – the building may even be in ruins. You do not understand the building so much as imagine what it would be like to stand in one particular place – the perspectivist’s station-point – at one particular time of day.

High Modernism, like Palladianism, was in love with the geometrical underpinning of architectural aesthetics. A favourite illustration in histories of modern architecture (originating with Colin Rowe) makes explicit the connection of the Classical to the Modern via the magic of proportion by showing how the same 2:1: 2:1: 2 rhythm underlies Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta (1560) and Le Corbusier and Jeanneret’s villa at Garche (1927). Modernism put the perspectivists, who had flourished while eclecticism reigned, out of business. Rendered perspectives became the tool of the developer and speculative builder. They were rarely used by architects of the Modern establishment. Space, it was argued, could be better imagined from a presentation which abstracted information.

When something more than a plan and elevation was needed, both 17th and 18th-century architects and their 20th-century Modernist successors, preferred to build models. In the Seventies of this century axonometrics – drawings which add an elevation to a plan which has been turned through 45 degrees – became fashionable. Some architects (James Sterling, for example) presented schemes using axonometrics which complicate things further by showing structures from below. Post-Modernism has changed all that and perspectives are once again respectable. Paintings, rather in the manner of Canaletto, by Carl Laubin were used to present Jeremy Dixon’s scheme for the extension to the Royal Opera House and were an important part of a concerted exercise in public persuasion. The same artist’s paintings of John Simpson’s ideas of how Paternoster Square would look if the latest Palladians were given control were a highly successful spoiling exercise which came very close to making people believe it was a real alternative to Arup Associates’ official scheme. An exquisitely pale perspective was used, rendered in watercolour, along with model, plans and elevations, in the presentation of Venturi and Rauch’s National Gallery extension – a belt-and-braces exercise in architectural presentation which allowed the various strategies to be compared. In order to keep alive some vestige of the viewer-must-contribute principle, the model is white.

Contemporary changes in methods of architectural presentation accompany what they prefigured in the late 18th century: a collapse in official taste. The norms which resulted in almost all 18th-century buildings being in some sense Classical worked no more thoroughly than those which resulted in almost all buildings constructed after 1950 being in some sense Modern. During the last decade things have changed. Now, before a structure begins to rise, the architect must do what novelists have always done: bring an imaginary space to life.

It seems possible that the new sensibility in architecture is only one aspect of a general cultural change. Philippa Tristram’s Living Space makes a convincing case for just such a general shift during the earlier Palladian/Picturesque transition. A particular example from the borderland where constructions of bricks and mortar and those of the mind coexist – a drawing of the Dairy House at Blaise, John Nash’s Picturesque hamlet outside Bristol – is her starting-point. The drawing is of a real building, but could easily be an illustration to a Gothic novel. To show how descriptions of living spaces, and the uses fiction makes of them, change as the certainties of taste disintegrate, Tristram has taken examples from canonical English novels published before her cut-off date of 1914. Scott, Richardson, Jane Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, Hardy and James figure largest. She argues that the early 19th-century collapse in norms of taste, and changes in fiction itself, opened many new territories for exploration: ‘It is not only that the social range of fiction becomes much more inclusive, allowing the writer to explore interiors that make no claim to architecture, but the living space itself develops individual character ... Great wealth can no longer disguise an absence of true values ... Conversely, vulgarity, if innocent, does not prevent the meanest of houses becoming a home.’

The differences of literary method she is interested in show up clearly in comparisons. ‘The fashion for formal description in Victorian fiction,’ she writes,

perhaps because it owed so much to painting, does not add as much to the fictional description of living space as one might expect. When a room is conceived as a picture it is apt to become a still life, a place to look at not to live in. In the novels of Richardson and Jane Austen, on the other hand, the reader is made keenly aware of the presence of four walls by the disposition of people within a room. Interiors in their novels thus exist as human situations, not (as so often subsequently) merely as arrangements of furniture like the scene on a stage before the characters enter.

The way Jane Austen and Richardson, and their characters, use space reflects both social and architectural change: ‘Where Richardson wrote his novels, and his heroines their letters, in little closets removed from the public eye, Jane Austen and her heroines spent their time in parlours which are anything but private. The apprehension of the house thus alters from the personal to the social: his drama is the inward one of conscience; hers, the outward trial by social ordeal.’ The classic detective story – the only fictional form which regularly includes house plans – falls outside Tristram’s period (and, I suspect, interest), but at least one critic has used plans to elucidate 18th-century plots in a way which brings to mind the time-and-space ingenuities of Crispin or Sayers. Nabokov’s essay on Mansfield Park in Lectures on Literature is illustrated with a page from his notes which shows what was involved in transforming the billiard-room into a theatre. Walls, fireplaces, doors, seem able to deflect the plot the way a boulder deflects the flow of a stream. If, to take one of Tristram’s examples, you do not know who is in the Musgroves’ dining-room in Bath, and where in the room they are standing, when Anne Elliot receives Captain Wentworth’s letter, and if you have not understood why she cannot ‘rush to her closet with it as one of Richardson’s heroines would have done’, you cannot understand the intolerable tension she feels. Northanger Abbey – mocking a more old-fashioned novel – does allow Mrs Morland a parting conference with Catherine in her closet – the exception rather proves Tristram’s point. Dickens requires a different use of the imagination. He describes scenes which must be brought to the mind’s eye, and it is for this reason that his novels can be illustrated so successfully.

Industry was a primary cause of the change from relational to pictorial thinking. As factory products filled homes, rooms ceased to be anonymous, undifferentiated spaces which add little information about individuals. Tasteful prosperity, affluence, vulgar superficiality, the threadbare and the tawdry were added to the earlier categorisation which allowed of wealth, prosperity, poverty and indigence – with slovenliness and vulgar display as exceptional extremes – and little else. Things began to speak of alternative, not just higher and lower, styles of living.

Superfluity of goods could lead to what would in the past have been a paradoxical conjunction of bad taste and good living. In the 18th century the problem hardly existed: ‘such words as “elegance”, “refinement” and “gentility” then spoke for themselves and needed no definition, a consensus which, in itself, does much to explain the absence of sustained description in pre-Victorian novels. The relationship of morals to manners – for the second, according to Shaftesbury, is on the same footing as the first, but in a lower sense – is also taken for granted.’ The perception that good people can be tasteless and viciousness lapped in beauty destroyed the belief in a unitary faculty of discrimination and multiplied the squares in the taste/morals matrix. The all-seeing novelist became more knowing: Tristram finds traces of condescension and apology towards their vulgar characters in the work of both Dickens and Mrs Gaskell, and points out that while Jane Austen’s details of working-class interiors in Mansfield Park are unsparing, similar scenes in Dickens are indulgent.

The presentation of character which allows the gaudiness of a tea-tray to stand for the vulgarity of its owner runs with the contrary notion that such surfaces may belie a ‘true’ goodness which has to do with feeling and behaviour. Dickens, a master of both kinds of description, proves how deep confusions could go, censuring, as Tristram points out, the kind of interiors in which he chose to live. Consciousness of the taste trap, and refinement in its analysis, reaches a peak in the novels of Henry James: Tristram’s commentary on The Spoils of Poynton is particularly illuminating on the matter of goodness and good taste. A quotation from Forster’s The Longest Journey puts the paradox of competing sensitivities precisely: Rickie ‘did not love the vulgar herd, but he knew that his own vulgarity would be greater if he forbade it ingress. Taste had acquired the stigma of class, rather than wealth, and was equally despised by those who did not have it and by those who knew what it was, but suffered from social conscience.’

Tristram has other themes, too: the reflection of growing divisions between classes in the increasing separation of masters from servants and workers from employers in the new building types of the 19th century; the way old buildings are presented as links with an easier, more natural past, and the way the structure of buildings resembles that of novels: ‘The plan of houses like Bearwood also has its relation to the structure of many Victorian novels, which are as rambling and intricate in their connections as Jane Austen’s, like the houses of her time, are frankly open and proportioned.’

The idea that buildings, like those Sussex manor houses which Kipling has seduce unsuspecting urban folk, can take people over in a supernatural way is demystified. She is able to show with some precision how people are controlled and described by their surroundings. Things which are primarily visual – the worn surfaces of a farmhouse kitchen, thick walls and small windows or high turrets and gloomy stairs – may take on values from literary contexts in which they are met. Because buildings seem so real it is rather shocking to find our response to them so fantastical. Living Space prepares one for readings of buildings and books which enliven one’s understanding of both.

The American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) took the same road in the opposite direction. She used fiction primarily to present ideas about better ways of building and living – to show how people might live rather than how they did. She wanted to show how much better things could be ‘if only’. When she wrote pure theory she became, Polly Wynn Allen says, ‘gridlocked in the toils of her synthesising’. In her fiction, on the other hand, she propagandised fluently against the trammels of domesticity. Allen’s synopses make most of the stories sound trite, but old advertisements, even effective ones, usually do. In Gilman’s imagined worlds men and women live as equal partners and women join in supportive alliances. Her circumstantial descriptions of communal apartment blocks and ideal towns were an alternative to architectural futures offered by many male architectural thinkers. Gilman wanted dwellings with no kitchens at all: only central catering and childcare could make women free. Not all women, of course – someone would have to staff the communal eating-hall, a matter which did not worry Gilman, whose élitism, racism and commitment to eugenics give Allen pause. Gilman wanted a world which would be right for people like herself. Allen’s book shows she had reason to believe the one she had been born into did not suit.

She married her first husband in her early twenties, after much indecision. They had a baby and she became deeply depressed, ‘a mental wreck’. She underwent the ‘rest cure’ of Weir Mitchell, the Philadelphia physician (and novelist), who specialised in a kind of intellectual sedation. His treatment for women who persisted in what he saw as a stubborn and unnatural imitation of men was to put the patient to bed ‘keeping her there, the intention being so to infantilise the sick person as to make her totally dependent upon the doctor’. When her time was up, Mitchell sent Gilman home with the following orders: ‘Live as domestic a life as possible, have your child with you all the time ... lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours of intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.’ Gilman tried this for a little, liked it not, and did the opposite – to the extent of freeing herself from her nine-year-old daughter by sending her off to live with her now-divorced husband. Gilman’s time in Mitchell’s clinic was the basis of her story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. It was the only one she set much store by as literature, but it too, she said, was preaching: ‘If it is literature, that just happened.’ She said, when told Mitchell’s treatment of neurasthenia had changed as a result of reading it: ‘If that is a fact I have not lived in vain.’

Gilman believed that the planning of living spaces put a limit on the advancement of women. Nothing which has happened since suggests that she was wrong in supposing that if there are kitchens women will be the ones expected to do the work in them. It also seems that there is no general desire to embrace Gilman’s communal alternatives. The idea of the domestic living space, which Tristram finds so important in novels, has proved stronger than that of room service. But then it is still men who design most dwellings.

Women, on the other hand, write novels. In Borderland John Stilgoe finds that ‘novelists have long understood the borderlands as distinct from the front-lawn suburbs’ and that ‘novelists writing largely for women seem to have understood them best.’ In their tree-screened houses, with only a distant prospect of the city, the borderlanders reckoned themselves healthier, morally and physically. In England, Port Sunlight, Bedford Park, Hampstead Garden Suburb, Metroland and the New Towns were inspired by ideas of rural gentility distinguishable from the frontier spirit that made your own place on your own land a romantic American idea. The end-result was not so different, however. The Saturday Evening Post covers and advertisements which illustrate Borderland, and the advertisements put out here to encourage businessmen to commute from Metroland, suggest the same benefits: to work in the city but live among trees and lawns; to rear children in a clean, safe, Picturesque place; to refresh the spirit. And the same problems arose. Being on the edge is something you can arrive at only at the expense of those who were on the edge before you. This history of borderland is therefore in part the history of privilege defending itself: it is not surprising that Stilgoe shows it as conservative, both architecturally and politically.