A Life in Buildings

I grew up in this place:

The first photo is the ‘Works’ Corner. Lurking on the left of the photo – across from what had been the library and houses and shops – is the old derelict shell of the Shotts Ironworks. A massive complex of sheds and furnaces and chimneys. All gone now.

Shotts Ironworks Corner taken by J Marzella

Mum says it was a good place. A thriving town when she arrived in 1964.

I don’t remember much of that.

It was on the slide by the time I was old enough to form memories of it.

But I had nothing to compare it with. It was home. And magic. No place like home.

We moved to a tin-roofed ‘Cooncil’ house in Thomson Terrace in 1979. Constructed from the left-over fusilage of surplus airplane technology in the post-war Public Housing boom.  Luxury. It was big – bigger than the two-up two-down schemie terrace we’d come from. And totally without central heating. That first winter the ice was half an inch thick – on the inside of the steel framed windows. We all cried with the pain of it and slept in our clothes, with huge piles of thick covers and patchworks. And Dad – unemployed and desperate to do something – dug up two Belfast sinks and a lot of scrap from the garden he was trying to make into something like from The Good Life. The root veg he planted got clubrot from the pigeon shit he inexpertly spread because it was cheap and we couldn’t get any better dung.

Thomson Terrace – 1950s -World Pipe Band Championship Day taken by J. Marzella (local and very highly skilled photographer). My home was three up on the left.

This was a happy home. Though money was scarce and the fights were legion. My Mother forever working nightshift overtimes in the local Mental Asylum. My Father visibly shrinking during the years of Nothing. A Car Manufacturer – a semi-skilled engineer casualty of the strikes at Leyland – finished off by Thatcher and castigated by Tebbit (‘get on yer bike’ Tebbit) and arriving at a place of shame where his rich siblings snubbed him. The heart attack came later. After the hidden half bottles in the garage and the tears. But before the good job and rebirth.

This next picture’s taken from the area of the Bing. The Pit Bing (Slag Heap for one of the Mines) which I scooted down sitting on a bread tray. Where we all lit the wee field fires and got a skelping for smelling of smoke. The vista is grim. But I could tell you every name for every door. And the football park still is the biggest in Scotland (just the field – not the stadium!).

This was also the Bus Stance. Where the buses finished their journeys from Airdrie and Glasgow and Motherwell and Wishaw. The prefabs went and were replaced in the late 60s/early 70s with a white all-electric (under-floor heating which nobody could afford to run) terraces.

It was when I was 19 years old that I realised that this was an ugly place. An architectural crime, perpetrated against people too poor to move away and too ignorant to demand more.

I began to understand the significance of our built environment.

I stayed in Crail for some time. And felt like one of the miners I grew up with – coming blinking out of the dark and into the light. A subterranean troll, I felt out of place and out of class. My beautiful boyfriend coaxed me into his world. But I really didn’t understand their language. It was the language of people who were the complacent owners of a transcendant beauty they took for granted. They were not tainted by dark industries. No factory workers. No miners. No steel workers. His people were hard working teachers and shop-owners and sea-people. Their horizons were wide as the world. They were free and outward looking, where in Shotts there was a grim and narrow insularity. And a sectarian violence.

This was his world:

 

 
Crail – The East Neuk of Fife
 
 

This remains a favourite place. The fossilised tree trunks on the shoreline. The ancient Pictish placenames. The Dark Age cross-slab in the Kirk. The Tolbooth. The Dutch red pan-tiled roofs.

But there was a time when it felt too sweet to be wholesome. A sugary confection.

It affects us – where we live. Buildings are signifiers. Why else build a Court that looks like this:

It is seeking to intimidate all those who come before it. The entrance doors are thick and heavy and bristling with security for this is the busiest court in Europe. They open into airport scanning. And then the highest reach of marble and steel and stone. And anonymous doors everywhere with the people like mites and ants and cockroaches.

For many years I moved between worlds. From Shotts to Glasgow University. I wondered why I often felt confused. And resentful. This formal institutionalising architecture which sought to impose and impress.

Between the Quadrangles – the Undercroft – the area I went to every day for tutorials and lectures. Glasgow University.

 

I was sometimes stunned into a silent worship – the buildings are so beautiful. Perfect. They spoke of privilege. Of donors seeking a fitting memorial which would bear their names into perpetuity.

At other times all I could do was remember the builders and labourers who had sweated over their carved grace and sometimes died. Though they would be happy for the work and accept their lot as life.

There was a point to this post. It was about how we build people into their lives. How we show them their place. And keep them there by constraining their vision. Or how we gift grandeur to others and show them their place.

I am not so far away from Shotts in miles and it will never leave me – its stain of memories is indelible. It was my home. In some ways, though, I could not be further from Shotts as this place is another beautiful Crail. Though it is a peasant vernacular and there is a great mix of people. New Lanark – here:

Looking down on the Village – Mum and Dad stay just under the Bell Tower

I wonder at my children and how this place will leave its mark on them. I think I see their openness. They have grown up in the sunlight.

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10 thoughts on “A Life in Buildings

  1. Beautifully written post – very moving. I was nineteen when I got out of my home mining town, too – I understand the loyalty forged with the bitterness, and the need to get somewhere with more light and less edges.

  2. A superbly written and moving post.

    Of-course we all feel that tug of love for the place we grew up in because we looked at it with the eyes of wonder.

    I grew up in a near derelict hotel in Sheringham which had been partly converted into flats. My mother was a divorced woman with four children and 1960s Sheringham was a very unforgiving place towards divorcees. We lived on the top floor and there were turrets at either end of the building. This gave us an entirely circular sitting room. The flat was always freezing, we relied on two paraffin stoves, but we all loved our high circular sitting room with its views over the golf course and the cliffs.

    I agree that beautiful buildings with high ceilings, large windows, gracious proportions lift the spirits of children and help them build dreams for the future. It makes me angry how many children are denied such beauty

  3. A splendid post – beautifully crafted and written from the heart. I grew up in a small quarryman's cottage (2 up and 2 down) but thankfully in a little village a couple of miles outside the grey east Lancashire cotton town where I was born. Having the space and beauty of the countryside around our tiny house made all the difference.

  4. Thanks Rachel.You are very kind.

    Your description 'more light and less edges' is just so apposite. I wish I'd written that!

    I'm really interested in the way that buildings or our built environment 'shapes' us…

  5. I'm touched by your words Chloe.

    Paraffin stoves! We had them too – procured that first winter!! And they stunk!

    I can't imagine life was easy for your Mum at all (nor for you or your siblings). I used to wonder how different I would have been if I'd been brought up in Crail, in one of the beautiful cottages or one of the 'big hooses'. I understand now that it's all part of what makes us – where we hailed from – where we began.

    I can see you in that high up flat looking out to the world – your imagination soaring.

    And yes, it makes me angry too – that we condemn so many to a life of ugliness.

  6. Thanks Perpetua. You are right – the space and beauty of the countryside is what makes this village I live in. The house is larger than I could have dreamed when I was a child – but it is in the landscape where the true wealth and worth of staying here lies. My children have grown up in a swallows and amazons type of world – free to make camps in the woods and fish in the river and watch the badgers and foxes, the deer and the peregrines, the heron and the mink. I've noticed they have great physical confidence and also a maturity and independance of spirit – and an optimism – maybe this place has helped foster that feeling.
    Your own begats sound just perfect to me.

  7. That's a valuable and heartfelt post….

    I remember going on the Docklands Light Railway years ago and thinking that I wouldn't house a dog in the poky flats we were passing, but someone clearly thought they would 'do' for council tenants.
    I bet they wouldn't have 'done' for the architect's own family.

    I agree with your point…we can categorise people as having or lacking power by their housing…and society can determine which category they will fall into.

    No power and it's impersonal and, usually, cramped.
    Power…plenty of light, soundly constructed and with space around it.

    I was lucky enough to always have space about me…though some of the houses were not exactly all mod cons…I can remember gas mantles in the bedrooms and frost on the inside of the windows!

    But I always had space and somewhere to be quiet and as I grew up I realised what a priceless gift that had been.

    Here, though, I look at the 'gated communities', especially the town house variety, and to me they are nothing more than tarted up back to back terraces. How have people been conned into accepting to live like that with all the space available here?

  8. Sometimes I'm not sure which comes first Fly – the lack of power leads to the 'powerless' house OR the 'powerless' house somehow encourages powerlessness… It's that cycle that's so hard to break.

    The current Coalition Government have made many statements that have angered me (so much so that it is a wonder I don't need pills for high BP) – but one of their more hideous moments came when they were discussing proposals to ensure that Social Housing tenants saw their tenancies as temporary measures only. I think the proposal was to limit the years which could be spent in Social Housing – with other proposals to move on tenants who were now under-occupying their tenancies.

    I felt such rage. That tenants were now no longer to be afforded even the illusion of having a HOME. They just deserved a temporary roof – and should be grateful for that. It wasn't bad enough that a great deal of housing allocated for those in need is of direst condition – but they had to be reminded of their powerlessness; their impotence underlined in a refusal to give them HOMES.

    There is such a hatred and contempt for people in the Tories at times. It still knocks me sideways and breathless.

    I am not ashamed of my beginnings – there's no need for me to be. But sometimes I am angry. Angry that the houses and places we were housed in were so shabby and poor. But I also know that the security of 'home' is essential. It encourages a sense of belonging and investment in the life of a place and desire to contribute meaningfully and positively to the society and culture surrounding you. Increasing insecurity will lead to nothing but unhappiness and further greater social breakdown.

    Mum and Dad paid rent all of the time we lived in that house (which for them was until 1991 – though R and I took it over and then bought it under the Right to Buy – and eventually sold at the same price we had bought because otherwise neither R nor I would have been able to live with ourselves). Mum and Dad improved the interior and exterior with central heating, new kitchens and bathrooms and a garage and landscaping and a new roof came later. The house was never theirs though. But that didn't matter because it was home and they had a secure tenancy.

    I think that your 'space' was very important. I had a room of my own in Thomson Terrace. Amazing! But it's the grim brutal ugliness of mean public buildings that depresses me.

    I've often wondered about those 'gated communities'. How awful that you would wish to live in a gilded prison. That you fear your fellow man so much that you would hide yourself away – or that you hold yourself in such high regard that you cannot pollute your air with the ordinary air of ordinary others… Ugh.

    I remember in the rush of 'Right to Buy' in the 80s that people moved from Council houses to 'bought hooses' – and that those bought hooses were far smaller than the ones they had rented. It astonished me that adults could be so stupid. King's new clothes.

    But they were programmed to the ugliness they bought into – and in many cases trapped themselves into, with mortgages and increasing debt.

    I have no answers. I just know that living and growing up where I did marked me. It marked my husband too. And I am convinced that the built environment is a big part of what marked us.

    Or maybe it was poverty that did that. For as long as I've been conscious, I try to take nothing for granted and have taught my children that lesson too – sometimes too stridently I think – despite the fact that they live in a household where the income exceeds £150k. An obscene amount that astonishes my Mum and Dad.

    I was writing an article re the Equality Act today – that's what's occupying me – the continuing struggle for equality of opportunity. How possible is it when some kids grow up in high rise flats infested with fungal spores and dampness – and even that hovel they can't call home?

    Right! I need to get off the soap box! Sorry!

  9. Excellent post, worthy of a much longer comment.

    The architecture of our past stays with us as surely as the buildings themselves – and sometimes longer.

    I'm sure this is why the books of old photographs are such popular sellers

  10. Beautiful, wrenching post. I can't imagine the ice inside the windows, that level of cold – as a child. I'm almost sorry to say we grew up on a comfy, fake-Californian estate in the Sydney outer suburbs, where everyone had a garage or carport, three bedrooms and spicy seventies furniture. We started out with plastic garden chairs, then came real furniture, curtains, gardens, swimming pools. It wasn't lavish, but it was a childhood. No violence, tennis lessons, a spaniel called Cindy from The Brady Bunch. No hardship, and I rarely ventured beyond. I don't think I began to feel that I came from a dull closeted place until I met students from other economic spheres. We were so sheltered. My parents' marriage stumbled but worked. I remember a lot of swimming training and piano practice..

    Your words make me realise how spoilt we were. And yes, how connected we are to the structures and contexts of our past. I've know I've sought out sun and space to bring up my brood.

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