I remember—yes, I have clear memories of this—my childhood home. It dominated, blighted, my early years.
It was by no means a slum. Indeed, it was comfortable, in its bourgeois way, a large, ramshackle Late Victorian house with a vaguely Arts And Craft veneer—florid William Morris wallpaper, reproduction Voysey curtaining, Baillie Scott furniture—due mainly to the influence of my mother, who was considered “arty”. In fact she was: she’d studied at the Slade under Augustus John, which was as arty as one can get. What I objected to, grew depressed over, was the muddle attendant on artiness. An abiding impression of cats and wellingtons on the kitchen table. Even now, that is my sharpest childhood memory.
With an auditory component: my father attempting Bach on the violin in his study.
My father, in contrast to my mother, wasn’t in any way arty; he was a stockbroker. But he was, or considered himself to be, musical, in a limited way. Limited in his talent, but also in his taste. He only ever played Bach. Bach and balance sheets were his confessed pleasures. I would hear, sometimes listen to him as he picked his way slowly through the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.
He struggled hardest over the Second Partita, with its arduously long Chaconne. Even when he plausibly pulled it off, I never cared for the Chaconne. I found it heavy-gaited, not to my taste. But Chaconne á son goût, and in retrospect I realize that that was my father’s refuge, Bach and balance sheets, the dry dancing figures. As long as he had the austerity of those, he could turn a blind eye to mother’s muddle.
Which is why Eva made such an impression in my most impressionable years. She was Viennese, liberated, a thoroughly Loos woman; she introduced me in the most casual way to the work and credo which changed my life.
Her father was a lecturer at the L.S.E. She grew up in a suburb of Vienna whose name now escapes me. We met in, or rather outside, the Dorchester, where I was lunching with my father. I was lounging in the street, smoking. She came up, asked for a cigarette and if I was awaiting anyone. I said, no, having a rest from the décor.
She said, with a rather languorous vehemence, “ornament is crime.” I sensed quotation marks.
Prompted, she explained. It was an article by the Viennese architect Adolf Loos, the correct title being, I later discovered, “Ornament and Crime”. I preferred the vulgarized version; I wanted it tattooed on my forehead, on everyone’s forehead (this was the high tide of 60s Victoriana).
She was actually familiar with his work, his houses in Vienna, the Moller house especially. She said she used to pass it on a detour to the Vienna Woods. She described its street front elevation, a flat rectangle enclosing smaller symmetrical rectangles, one inset, one projecting. Two days later she sent me a photograph from a magazine pasted to a postcard. On our first date, she presented me with a book on Loos’ work, with an introduction by Pevsner.
It had the impact of a religious conversion. I resigned my junior partner-cum-dogsbodyship in the stockbroking firm secured by my father, enrolled in architectural studies, and on graduation took up a junior partner-cum-dogsbodyship in an architectural practice, again secured by my father.
Sadly, he died soon after. Of disappointment, perhaps.
In the meantime, Eva and I spent holidays and weekends scouting out examples of English Modernism, of which there were some surprisingly rigorous examples, all pre-War, within motoring distance: Chertsey, Angmering, Cambridge….
We even made the pilgrimage to Vienna, imposing on Eva’s distant relatives while we toured the Loosian sites: the Café Museum, the Goldman & Salatsch shop, the Lainz social housing, the Steiner, Scheu, and of course Moller houses. Eva insisted we have a drink, on the final day, in the American Bar. In fact, I had several, to dull the disappointment. Despite its acclaim, and the simplicity of Loos’ design, the exterior is unbearably opulent and the interior oudoes the Dorchester. I in turn insisted we go back for a last look at the Moller house, to restore my faith.
At work I preached a revivalist Modernism in its purest form. By the time I was entrusted with projects of my own, fashions were changing rapidly: New Brutalism, the first stirrings of Post-Modernism, High-Tech. My designs were professionally decried as anachronistic, elitist, old-fashioned. As if symmetry, mathematical beauty could ever be out of date. The latest fashion now appears to be “organic” or “green”. I’ve even seen a tree-house in the Architectural Review, for God’s sake.
Fortunately there was still the odd client who appreciated austerity. My father’s legacy meant I didn’t need to accept any commissions, but it was a vocation, not a job. It meant I could pick and choose. I was a dilettante, perhaps, but a diligent one. When the client and I were in accord, I went to the utmost lengths, in design details, materials, in planning battles, even compromising, trimming my sails if really necessary. The important thing was to see them built. For, truth be told, these few commissions were important. They served as dry runs for my real objective: to build for myself, with absolute integrity, the home of our dreams, Eva’s and mine. For she was still then my soul-mate.
She spotted the plot. We’d trundled out to see a Connell Ward and Lucas house in Wentworth (sadly, now demolished), cutting back to the A30 down Callowhill when she pointed up.
It wasn’t in fact a vacant plot; there was a ramshackle wooden chalet teetering on dereliction. Which made it perfect. A commanding site, no problems with demolition, and of course close to the A30. We bought it. I planned.
It didn’t go to plan. Planning consent for Modernism at its purest was even harder to obtain than in the 30s, as I knew. And the local planning committee more obdurate than most. I managed to win them round on the design by including a fictitious striped conning tower, which I then offered to forgo, but the surveyor had concerns about subsidence, being a hillside site, and the weight of concrete as opposed to wood.
I had to rethink it structurally, but was determined on the design. A perfect white cube. With the front elevation uncluttered by “holes for doors and windows” which, as Corbusier put it, “are the destruction of form.” So from the bend in the road below, all that would be seen was a pure, unbroken square.
I even had to convince Eva of that. Being south-facing, there would be a loss of light, sun, views. I argued that a solid wall would be cooler in summer, compensated for the windows with a central stairwell and large skylight, and wide ground-to-roof windows on the east and west walls. No compromise, our watchword.
Ideals exist to stretch us, morally, aesthetically. Ours was to be a house to live up to. It would out-Loos Loos, tighten up Loos. His interiors I always found a let-down, fussy, sensual, eclectic. Even his dress was old-fashioned English tailoring—in photographs he looked very much like my father.
I put the kitchen upstairs, with vents directly through the roof. That meant the ground floor could be completely open plan, with just spatial variations in the ceiling heights around the stairwell.
I aligned the left-hand side of the windows with the central axis of each wall, giving a diagonal asymmetry, and incorporated glass entrance doors within each window, giving a single unbroken column of glazed, black-barred panels in each wall. The black glazing bars I echoed in ladder-back dining chairs, which, together with white leather sofas, would be the sole visible furnishings downstairs. All the other essential furniture, including drop-down table, bookshelves, hi-fi, would be concealed behind sliding plywood panels spanning the two blank walls.
I allowed a little luxury with the panels. Three tiers, one behind the other, each half the wall length, and each in a different colour: pale lemon, pale blue, dove-grey. They could thus be paired in different combinations, altering subtly the mood of the room. (The parquet was silver birch.)
Eva eventually was as delighted as I.
We would sit watching the sun through the east window in the morning, trace its movement through the skylight, wait for it in the west. We rarely unpanelled the television. We would listen to music, not Bach but the Viennese classics, Brahms, Mahler, Zemlinsky, though I preferred Webern. But mostly we sat and talked.
We had house-coats and smoking jackets made to blend with the panels. We would decide jointly on the colours for the evening, and sit and talk well into the night, exploring every metaphysical avenue, every cultural cul-de-sac.
We would often discuss Wittgenstein. Eva’s granparents had known his sister and, briefly, his pianist brother. Eva told me how his sister had enlisted his help in building her new home, in partnership with the commissioned architect, a student of Loos’, but designing all details of fittings himself, even having a ceiling lowered by two millimetres to enhance the proportions.
I wondered aloud why he didn’t go on to build for himself, but as Eva pointed out, he lived in college rooms and rented huts, spartanly furnished: deck chair, camp bed; carpetless.
Yet despite, or maybe because of his monkish austerity, he would go to the cinema to watch Westerns or films noirs, in the front row with a pork pie and possibly a disciple.
She also told me he would recommend his pupils to apply for jobs in Woolworth’s. I assumed she was kidding me, but no. Woolworth’s. Not even Marks and bloody Sparks.
But his Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations—known to Eva—cued many of our conversations.
Apart from talk, much of our precious time together was spent in the upkeep of the house. Maintenance was a must. Despite adhering rigidly to my design, I had been forced to make concessions structurally. (Am I repeating myself? I possibly am.) With planning restrictions and the nature of the site, I had opted for a steel frame with blockwork infill, rendered in white Portland cement, with only the roof in concrete. Subsidence problems were minimal; nonetheless the roof and rendering needed periodic repair and, in the damp English climate, regular whitewashing, twice a year for the exterior, spring and autumn, once a year for the interior, early summer. We did it all between us, initially. Then I did the exterior, while Eva did the interior.
I found it satisfying, both in the mental refreshment of the manual process, and in the results. Eva found the same, or said she did. But I sometimes wonder if it was partly the painting….
She once suggested, out of the blue, putting up curtains. Jokingly, so I assumed.
But a little later she asked if we could put pictures up. This time she seemed serious. I explained that we could hardly hang them on the sliding panels, and on the window walls they’d be against the light. I allowed one in the bedroom, though—a Ben Nicholson monochrome relief. She was satisfied.
Later still though, she took to keeping on her outdoor dresses all evening. And they became, I noticed, continually brighter, more vivid, even primary colours. I began, I’m ashamed to admit, to suspect her of having an affair. But there was never evidence, and indeed she appeared to live alone after the divorce, in a nondescript flat in – where the hell was it? Quite closely nearby. I would have forgiven her for it, and forgave her anyway, for what I felt more was the intellectual betrayal.
I soldiered on. There were sequential helpmates; none stayed the course.
It was a curious experience; I can’t quite describe it. I had finished the autumn whitewash, so it would have been October, but gloriously warm, clear skies all day (I’d had to finish the south wall in sunglasses). I was sitting in the west corner, windows and door open, enjoying some wine and the setting sun. There was Bruckner on the radio—his Third, I think—and someone down the hill had lit a bonfire; I could see the smudge of smoke, smell the wood burning, mixed with the odour of the leafmould outside… I noticed tears on my cheek… I’m sorry.
I don’t remember how long I sat there, I’m not even sure it was the same occasion—the radio was off, I think. I revealed the TV and turned it on, went upstairs to the fridge, found some sausage rolls. I remember pulling my chair right up to the screen. I don’t remember what was on, some soup opera, I think, no, I mean soap… sorry, there was a point to all this….
There are views aplenty here, too: rolling hills, bracken in the grounds, corpse of birchtrees beyond the boundary. On one of my walks through the woods I discovered a holm oak, obviously old, evergreen amongst the rest. It had the remains of a tree house in its crown. Caretaker’s children, I presume.
Sometimes I climb up—I can reach the first branch with a little jump, pull myself up—when I have the energy, sit on the rotting platform, enjoy the silence, fragrance. Below me, generations of oakleaves are turning to leafmould. I’ve even toyed with the idea of finding some boards, repairing the tree-house. Pine perhaps, maybe birch. A home from home, a home from holm… in the sifting leaves… quiet… quiescent….
But no. No.
That perfect square.
White modern house interior image courtesy Shutterstock.