I haven’t updated this thing for a while and judging by the visitor stats, nobody reads it anyway. It’s mostly a chronicle for my own sake at the moment. The world is dark and monstrous and, selfishly, I need an outlet.
However, the aim of this journal is not political analysis; there are several thousand million journals and blogs and substacks etc (one of these days I will gather and share a reading list) out there that are far more insightful than I could ever be. I will bend this rule a little bit in the coming days or weeks or months (unavoidable in the present climate), but I will keep the analysis light as the last thing the world needs is one more hot take from a comfortable Brit looking on from the computer screen as the horror unfolds. Nevertheless, I will aim to keep any political chat relevant to the task at hand: trying to make sense of the urban environment around us.
I have a couple of dry book-review-y/recommendation-y type entries stacked up, but since it is International Women’s Day today I will write a little homage to a good international woman: committed communist, feminist designer, and architect-activist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky.
Recently I watched the film Sotsgorod: Cities for Utopia which merits its own entry. In a nutshell, it details a group of architects (known as the “May Brigade” led by the Dutch architect Ernst May) from the West – mainly Netherlands, West Germany, Switzerland, Austria, who went to the Soviet Union to help deliver panellised housing to create planned socialist cities in Magnitogorsk,Siberia during the USSR building programme in 1920s and 1930s. One of these architects was Schütte-Lihotzky.
Schütte-Lihotzky was the first female student at the University of the Applied Arts in her hometown, Vienna, and one of the first female architects in Europe. She studied under Oskar Strnad, who was extremely influential in the mass social housing projects in Vienna (sozialer Wohnbau). Vienna has long been an object of interest for planners, urban designers, and architects in terms of social housing (and this also warrants an entry in its own right).
In 1926, she was commissioned by the City of Frankfurt to support an effort to resolve the city’s acute housing crisis led by the architect and city planner Ernst May. Schütte-Lihotzky worked on the New Frankfurt project, bringing her humanitarian values to housing to create a space that was affordable, comfortable, and stylish.
Her work on the New Frankfurt project gave rise the Frankfurt kitchen in 1926 (insert cap from film clip) based on the principle of a small kitchen to maximise a housewife’s efficiency and reduce the amount of time spent on unpaid domestic labour. The Frankfurt kitchen model is extremely common in the mass-built social housing prevalent across mainland Europe.
Beyond her design activities, she remained a committed communist until her death in 2000. She became a member of the Austrian Community Party (KPÖ) in 1939 where she worked with the Austrian Communist resistance. She was caught by the Gestapo in Istanbul in 1941, and imprisoned by 15 years in Bavaria. She was liberated by US troops at the end of the Second World War, upon which she no longer wished to return to Austria immediately. She worked in Bulgaria for a few years before returning to Vienna, although her communist views prevented her from receiving any major public commissions in Austria.
To finish up, here is an excerpt from Schütte-Lihotzky’s work “Why I became an architect,” published by Juliet Kinchin in West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2011), pp. 86-96:
“What were the theoretical foundations and ideals that lay behind the Frankfurt Kitchen that led to its being reproduced in the thousands? For me there were two motives that led to the creation of the Frankfurt Kitchen. The first was the recognition that in the foreseeable future women would have proper paid employment, and would not solely be expected to be on hand to wait upon their husbands. I was convinced that women’s struggle for economic independence and personal development meant that the rationalization of housework was an absolute necessity. Foremost in my mind when working on housing projects was the idea that the design and, above all, the layout could save work. . . . Second, I felt the Frankfurt Kitchen—a design so connected to the architectural fabric and to the planning and built-in features of rooms—was only the very first step toward developing a new way of living and at the same time a new kind of housing construction.”
Anyone who has lived and/or worked in an environment dominated by British people cannot fail to have noticed the national obsession with property. By this I do not refer to housing, nor architecture and physical form. To the average Brit, property is considered an asset with an emphasis on ownership and increasing value. We are a nation of wannabe estate agents and small-time real estate developers. The specific nature with which property is discussed among friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers using the same casual tone with which one might discuss the weather, or the same earnestness as applied to the post-mortem of a Premier League football match, demonstrates the special place property holds in the national psyche. To Brits, property ownership is a sport. To inhabitants of other countries where the relationship between property, land, and society isn’t so perverted, this attitude is completely alien.
There are indeed active and lively resistance movements in Germany over rent controls, debates in Barcelona and other cities with a tourism-oriented economy on the Airbnb-ification of their neighbourhoods, discussions in Stockholm and other Scandinavian cities over the future of collective rent bargaining and gaining secure tenancies in the face of chronic housing shortages, and we all see widespread social displacement from increasingly unaffordable city living across in the face of a yawning inequality gap and stagnating economies in major cities of both the global north and south. While both the spectrum and root causes of these struggles are broad, they have one thing in common: all depart from the definition of housing as home, as a place to live.
In the Anglo world, housing is viewed from a different angle. Houses here are first and foremost treated as investments. Cue the continual cycle of modifications to increase property value: conservatories, extensions, loft conversions, patios, restorations, and so it goes. Once on the “property ladder” there is the never-ending quest to move up to the next rung. Buy small, extend, increase value, sell, upsize and upscale. Or make a sideways step by using the proceeds to build tiny empires: buy even more properties you can upsize, and upscale while extracting rent, to eventual sell and the cycle continues.
In the UK specifically, housing is so deeply embedded within the class system that I would argue that a house, or dwelling (in technocratic planner-speak), is first and foremost a social status signifier. Tower blocks are historically the domain, literally, of the working classes (side note: although in London this has shifted considerably since the 1980s). The middle-class ideal of the single or two-storey house in the suburbs with a private garden has withstood the test of time. For the upper-middle, gated communities and private estates continue to exist, segregating new and old money from the lower classes. The real old money continues to own land, unhindered since the last time this island was invaded in 1066.
Within each social class, there is even more granularity in the attitudes towards housing. The British middle class has a disconcerting talent for knowing exactly what each postcode means in relation not only to house prices and whether they are likely to increase significantly (an “investment opportunity” the aspiring British landlord will purr), but also the types of people who live there. This extends not only to which ethnic group, but also career, age demographic, levels of education, and even whether more people in the area were privately educated or attended state school. While the US is similarly configured, although more markedly along racial lines, this level of social segregation is unheard of elsewhere in Europe.
This attitude to housing is problematic, to say the least. If housing is considered an investment opportunity in a competitive market, what happens to those people who fail to step into the housing ladder? Here, the situation becomes complicated.
Previously, the gap was filled by council housing which was rented at affordable rates in relation to wages. In 1980, Thatcher introduced the Housing Act which saw a turbo-charged Right to Buy scheme. This saw a mass-scale transfer of ownership of council housing from the state to private hands where 500,000 council homes were sold off between 1980 and 1985. Today the renting classes continue to suffer the consequence of this action, while the rentiers of the world have increased their riches extraordinarily. There is an acute shortage of affordable housing, which pushes people into the unregulated private rental sector. High rents prevent workers on stagnant salaries from saving up a deposit required for securing a mortgage. Low deposits for first time buyers is no good either, as the monthly re-payments are often higher still than the already uncontrolled rents on the private market.
In the deregulated market of the 1980s and 1990s, mortgages were easier than ever before to obtain. This, coupled with the possibility of buying heavily discounted Council housing, created the perfect conditions for an expanding inequality gap to exacerbate the difference between those who own property and those who do not. Those who purchased their Council homes in the 1980s at heavily discounted rates were then able to sell them off at enormously inflated values a decade later. The proceeds with which were then able to either upsize significantly or purchase additional houses for the purpose of leverages rents on the private market. The expansion of Rent to Buy in 1996 formalised this structure. Since then, the housing market has become increasingly lopsided and the structural crisis is becoming increasingly entrenched. Without radical state intervention, the situation is unlikely to be rectified anytime soon.
Consequently, British society is very much organised into two groups: those who own property, and those who do not. Increasingly, those who own property own not just a roof over their heads but multiple properties that are rented out on the private market. Often, this alone can provide a household income – there’s no need to work a 9-5 job for an employer. The professional landlord now makes more money than would be possible working in a regular salaried profession, thanks to a combination of decades of wage stagnation, an affordable housing shortage and spiralling property prices.
Without drawing any further conclusions or speculations on what must, could, or should be done to resolve this flaming hot issue, this brings me to the main point of this blog: the understanding that housing, property, and land ownership in the Anglo-American world is at the very core of our political, social, and economic system. Our access to and relationship with property dictates our social values, who we are most likely to vote for, where we are likely to live, what our employment prospects might be. Our entire political system, at its heart, is based around the nature of property ownership: do we protect the interests of rentiers, or renters? Should housing be treated as a right whereby everyone should be granted access to a roof over their head, or as an asset from which to extract profit?
Understanding attitudes to social housing in the UK provides a picture of the political and social conditions and the likely trajectory in the decade to come. And we better strap ourselves in – it’s going to be a hell of a ride.
By way of introduction, I wondered how I should present myself and my blog. I decided then to conduct a little interview with myself. There are so many questions that need putting straight, in my own head as well, that can only be satisfied by answering in the third person. Right? Step forward. Let’s commence this thing…
Q: Why are you starting a blog now? Did I miss something or is it 2005 again…? A: Good point! The answer is no, it’s not 2005 but alas, let us bathe in the nostalgia from that golden age of internet for a moment. Back in my teens I used to be an avid blogger. This was in common with most of the nerds, and especially female ones I think. Livejournal communities were all the rage at that time. There were a bunch of other communities too that I no longer remember. It was a peculiar time. On the cusp of something huge, before Facebook and Twitter and when there were still multiple search engines to choose from (Altavista, AskJeeves, Lycos, anyone?) and “to google” had not yet verbed its way into every living language (and probably some dead ones too, how do you say “google” in Latin?) under the sun. The internet was still wet and half-formed, full of holes and blank spaces and bad fonts. Looking back, everything on the Old Internet feels embryonic. Forums and blogs were still written in long-form, in the manner with which we wrote emails, and letters before that.
In truth, I miss long form. I love words. And lots of them. I don’t like shortcuts. I don’t trust people who take shortcuts. I don’t endorse the move from words to images and all of the shortcuts encouraged by the format of social media on the New Internet. The condensing of text into a limited number of characters in Twitter is bad enough, but the absence of text entirely in Instagram, and Snapchat, and now TikTok I think makes our brains function differently. It’s like we’re all high on speed, all of the time. It’s draining. Everything has to be instantaneous on the New Internet, and I see that bleed out into real life too. I’m sure the average human attention span and patience thresholds have been dramatically lowered over the past decade.
The Old Internet was full of oddly intimate spaces, real virtual community and solidarity. There were creeps, sure, but people had not yet grasped that the virtual space was any different to real life so could hold their tongue (or, more accurately, typey fingers). The blogosphere, as it was called then, was filled with people spilling their innermost thoughts and feelings to an audience of complete strangers without the restraint that comes with the New Internet and the evolving etiquette and the need for privacy. In some ways, it felt far more private back then. Now the average human’s entire life is laid bare for all to see, or at least some form of virtual replication, controlled and edited to varying degrees. Back then, those of us who had an emergent digital footprint felt like we belonged to some sort of elite club which our parents’ generation were certainly not privy to. Blogs today still exist, of course, but they are mostly bland, heavily censored and depersonalised in today’s external-image-savvy (and, let’s face it, increasingly authoritarian) internet world. They are also tiresomely littered with product placement and are wrapped around the influencer culture for which they helped create the conditions in the first place. After reading most blogs today I feel dirty and manipulated, usually followed by a strange compulsion to buy pointless stuff that I really don’t need.
My activities on the Old Internet revolved mostly around music forums, trading bootleg CDs and cassettes (!) of illegally recorded concerts (I still have them somewhere, must dig out my archive) with an accompanying Geocities website, emailing, instant messaging, and blogging. This feeling of colluding in a secretive and collective liminal world was very vividly portrayed in Jenny Hval’s excellent novel Girls Against God – in reminiscing about this strange between-time, she refers to a downloadable word version of George Batailles’ surrealist erotic novel The Story of the Eye that someone, somewhere, had lovingly typed out, manually, word for word, to share with others for free. Reading Hval’s account of this I was ectastic – I downloaded and read the exact same file! I recognised the moment and the feeling of this time described by Hval. Wonderful. I want to recreate it, but I know that the world is a very different place now.
Q: Ok great. But what does this have to do with housing? A: So, unlike in 2005 my blog is not about music. It’s about my other love: the space around us. A bit general right? I just told you that my blog is about stuff. Let’s be more specific. It’s about the physical environment which encompasses everything from urban design, architectural style, forms and shapes within the cities we inhabit. It also includes the natural environment. And finally, it will include the social environment, and this will probably be mostly where the housing bits fit in.
Q: Right. Why so? A: Another good question! I’ve been thinking about undertaking this project for quite some time. The final push was the most recent U-turn in my career. On this I joined millions of others across the world who during the 2020-2021 lockdowns had too much time to think (a fortunate position to be in, I realise this) about the future and what a strange world we inhabit, and one that is becoming stranger by the day. Having studied a bunch of foreign languages and started my career as a translator, and then shifting into public administration supplemented by night school and a Masters degree, and then a stint in the private sector and consultancy, I think I have finally – finally! – found my vocation: Urban design and town planning.
It’s something I’ve skirted around since undergrad days. Following this came a 4-year job in public spatial management in London, then renewable energy related activities including wind farm consents and planning process, and much more deeply through my consultancy work in urban economic development. It was this final stint that persuaded me: I felt like I was circling around experts, but did not possess the dedicated knowledge or ability to devote myself to achieve any level of mastery in a specific field.
Cue starting the journey to a theoretical and then technical training: I signed up for a second Masters in nightschool, this time in Urban and Regional Planning, accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). Armed with student membership, I am reaping the benefits through attending as many events as possible alongside my studies. I am also reading as much as possible on everything I can get my hands on related to planning and urban design. And this is where the blog comes to the fore: I see it as a record of my thoughts and part of the learning process as I acquire more knowledge along my journey. I hope it’s also a space for me to explore concepts and ideas through dialogue with other interested parties. Hello! Please leave a comment if that’s you.
Q. Hmm this is getting boring now. Tell me 3 interesting facts about yourself! A: Uuuh, I hate these awkward ice-breaker-y questions. Next!
Q: Why does the blog have such a stupid name? A: As mentioned, I’ve been thinking about undertaking this blog project for a while. Although, originally, my idea was to track the history of old modernist cinemas. They were usually intriguing buildings. I know of three such examples within walking distance from the home in which I grew up. One was a beautiful and angular modernist 1920s building, since turned into a car garage. The second was transformed into a bingo hall at some point in the 1980s and is now a retirement home. And the third was turned into – lo! luxury flats.
The most notable North East example was also the old Odeon in Newcastle City Centre’s Pilgrim Street. This was a gorgeous art deco building which opened in 1931 and was still in use as a cinema up until the early 1990s. I remember going there as a tiny kid, probably my first ever cinema visit was there. It stood derelict until maybe 2015 (?), when it was (clumsily and sooner than planned, but that’s another story) dynamited. I watched the thing come down – unexpectedly, over a cup of coffee in the Tyneside Cinema café directly opposite.
So – this is the kino bit. Kino as in kinematograph, cinema. The sthetica is just a portmanteau (ish) from aesthetic, concerned with beauty or a set of principles in a stylistic movement. While this project is largely focused on the social, political, and environmental context of our urban surroundings, I also document things that I consider objects of beauty.
The whole project was also supposed to be a way to get me out of the house and walking around again, after a year of lockdown and all of the kilos and pent-up mental energy that have built up since our lives got put on hold. Things are starting to bloom again, in strange and uneven ways, so it seems like a good time to start afresh. And so, kinetics, movement – kinosthetica.
Anyone who has tried to find an unclaimed pseudonym, a pen name or a bandname or similar, will understand how cramped and crowded the digital world is these days. Over the decades layers and layers of fleeting ideas, ghosts, failed projects, and some that have even flourished have amassed on the internet, like space junk. Happily, I googled Kinosthetica and just one – one! hit came up. Just a faint trace. The word was included somewhere on a Russian pornsite called Kinkfish. I’ll take that.