Jane Rendell's May Mo(u)rn: transitional spaces in architecture and psychoanalysis, won her the History & Theory category of the President's Award for Research
May Mo(u)rn: transitional spaces in architecture and psychoanalysis – a site-writing
Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL
My research around May Mo(u)rn began almost 20 years ago with the salvaging of some abandoned photographs of buildings in a derelict Arts and Crafts bungalow in London’s green belt. The photographs lay in my collection, dormant, for many years, until on a return visit I found the building’s name plaque, ‘May Morn’, buried in brambles next to the broken gate. This prompted me to consider how the homonyms, morn and mourn, suggested the relation of beginnings and endings. In their deteriorating material states, all three – the house, the paper of the photographs, and the painted letters – pointed towards their own disintegration – or endings, and yet the buildings in the photographs were at the beginning of their lives, some with the construction scaffolding not yet removed.
Aided by the architectural qualities of the structures and some text-based clues drawn from the photographs, such as a street sign in one reading ‘Westmoreland Terrace’ and letters over two entrances with the words: ‘2-24 Edmund Street’ and ‘Witl-‘, I managed to track down all the buildings. They included The Elmington Estate (1957), Picton Street, London SE5, designed by the London County Council’s architect’s department; The Hallfield Estate (1952-1955), Bishops Bridge Road, W2, designed by Tecton, Drake and Lasdun for Paddington Borough Council; The Alton East Estate (1952-1955), Portsmouth Road, SW15, designed by the LCC architect’s department; The Alton West Estate (1955-1959), Roehampton Lane, SW15, designed by the LCC architect’s department; and Churchill Gardens (1950-1962), Grosvenor Road, Lupus Street, SW1, designed by Powell and Moya for Westminster City Council. I revisited each one, and took another photograph, from the same position as the original, showing how some were being refurbished and others demolished, depending on whether they were undergoing what Paul Watt and others have called ‘regeneration and state-led gentrification’.
Most interesting to me was the importance of the design of the transitional spaces
I became fascinated by the history of the variations in typology of social housing architecture, and the links – through different slab and point block designs – to Swedish and brutalist versions of modernism. It was possible to trace a history of the Alton West Estate back to Le Corbusier’s early work, Unité d’Habitation (1947-52) in Marseilles, and before that to Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’s Narkomfin Communal House (1928-9) in Moscow, whose design influenced, but was also influenced by, certain principles of the Unité embodied in Le Corbusier’s earlier work. Most interesting to me was the importance of the design of the transitional spaces of these structures, those neither public nor private, that lay between the apartments, such as the corridors for shared social activities; and the fact that Narkomfin was designed as a ‘social condenser of the transitional type’, whose transitional status came from its intended role in constructing a new soviet way of life. This made associations for me with certain psychoanalytic ideas. Consequently a second strand of research developed around, for example, D W Winnicott’s notion of the transitional object as the object of the child’s first relationship with their parent, and the transitional space this object occupies between the internal psyche and external world. Winnicott claimed that the ability to keep inner and outer realities separate yet inter-related resulted in an intermediate area of experience – ‘potential space’. He argued this was retained and later contributed to the intensity of cultural experiences. Winnicott’s notion of ‘potential space’, located between ‘the individual and the environment (originally the object)’, struck me as highly relevant for considering our emotional responses to the buildings that we design and build and in which we live.
I was also taken with Sigmund Freud’s reflections on how the first object is also the lost object, in his work on mourning and melancholia, and a striking recommendation made by the historian Dominic Capra. This was that the historian should avoid taking a melancholic position, facing back to the past in relation to attachments to potentially traumatic events; but instead mourn and write history as a way of working things through in order to approach the future. This encouraged me to take a more autobiographical turn in my own writing, and consider both the sites in which I had been conducting my research, as well as its potential to affect the future of social housing in London.
The final writing was conducted from my leaseholder flat in south London, where from the 18th storey of a point block designed by the architect of Alton West, I was able to see the transformation of the London Borough of Southwark, from the pointed end of the Shard at London Bridge, through the Victorian townhouses of the estate agent’s newly coined ‘Walworth village’ to the ragged holes where the Heygate Estate had been. My flat faced the western end of Burgess Park, its northern edge a battle ground, with the so-called ‘affordable’ new flats being built in place of the social housing provided by the slab blocks of the Aylesbury estate. Some had already been demolished; others lay under threat. I decided to use my research to inform the preparation of an expert witness statement for the Public Inquiry into Compulsory Purchase Orders to help leaseholders on the Aylesbury Estate