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Backward glance into private places

Eleanor Young

With a sense of trespass, creep around the rear of a building and you’ll find another, often very different side of its character, says Eleanor Young. Where are the bins now?

The grubby back of buildings: where it all comes out.
The grubby back of buildings: where it all comes out. Credit: James Randall

‘Come round to the back door’ has always seemed like an intimation of familiarity. It might be garnered from Enid Blyton books but the idea of a place where muddy shoes are welcome, where a basket of rosy apples awaits hungry fingers (definitely Blyton), and where only air and graces are unwelcome is very appealing. It is a long way from the goods in/goods out of shopping centres or the get-ins of theatres but they share the function of moving the messy stuff. And they happen behind the scenes, often at the back of buildings.

Not having a back is one of the challenges of many large modern buildings (often because they hoover up the whole plot, street to street). So deliveries are driven under or through them into loading yards of bundled cardboard and oily puddles. Older, smaller buildings are less discreet and, frankly, a little more interesting. You see all the other things – the book-laden Volvo estate pulled up alongside the complex side return on the second-hand bookshop, the pile of salad waiting at the bottom of the steps for the chef to arrive and all the other gubbins too.

Those gubbins are equally concerned with what goes in and out of buildings. Foul air, exhausted air, rubbish and gutter goop are represented in the rusty soil pipe, the vents, the bins, the downpipes. Chip fat in aerosol form and pub fug are also available round the back, past the fire exit.

These expulsions make up much of the character of many backs of buildings and hold one of the keys to the circular economy – the reuse and recycling of our everyday waste products. MVHR heat recovery units, green box recycling, brown water tanks and water butts naturally cluster at (or near) the back of buildings too, enobling the drab business of waste disposal.

There is a sense of trespass when you see behind the displays of grander facades to the hidden backs of buildings, down an alleyway, glimpsing the private places of architecture. There are the build-it-cheap backs of rubblestone behind ashlar- or stucco-fronted terraces (quaint). Or it might be another way of dropping the pretence as those coloured glass balconies are left behind for simple render punctured with narrow toilet windows above a small residents’ car park (dreary).

Privacy, with a good dose of planning regulation, is why we see the backs of homes growing barnacle-like with loos and lean tos (perilously interesting), and then occasionally a dream project as the kitchen is extended towards the garden with a generous extent of glass and you are left asking – where are the bins now?

As we celebrate RIBA award-winning buildings, with the beautiful spaces made even better in beautiful photography, we should also revel in the hidden spaces for the necessarily messy business of life. Real life that is – not the one with a basket of rosy apples at the door.