Narrative building blocks

Students of architecture and urban planning know all about “reading” buildings – how their design and utility are matters not just of bricks and mortar but of time, space, place and communities. For me, not being schooled in those theories, buildings are anyway a source of fascination. I love to take pictures of whatever notable architecture I stumble across, finding it as interesting to photograph as people. Looking through a lens, you get a sense of what a structure represents at the same time as you interpret it subjectively. A combination of physical, elemental, and human properties affect how a building and its surrounding spaces are created, adapted, imagined, and used; these embed it within real and fictional narratives, which metamorphosise and mutate over time.

Carefully composed – but mutable

There are countless examples in literature of buildings given a (usually symbolic) life of their own – Miss Havisham’s Satis House, Kafka’s Schloß, Henry James’s “Bly”, and (a personal favourite) Castle Dracula, to name a few. Certainly the deeper characters of buildings are most obvious in Gothic literature and in ghost stories, murder mysteries and historical novels, where the locations, often dripping with mediaevalism, are full of trapdoors, tunnels, mirrors, secret passages and crypts: clear metaphors for human behaviours, psychologies, and the mystical. In 1987, Will Eisner, author and illustrator of the first graphic novel, published “The Building”. Evocative black pen and ink drawings accompany a story about the life of a building in New York city, interwoven with the ghostly tales of 4 of its diverse inhabitants. In its foreword he writes:

After many years of living in a big city, one gradually develops a sense of wonder, because so much that happens there is unexplained and seems magical. When I was growing up in the turbulence of city life, it required only a surface alertness in order to deal with the welter of changes and experiences that sped by. There was little time to reflect on the rapid replacement of people and buildings. I took these things for granted. As I grew older and I accumulated memories, I came to feel more keenly about the disappearance of people and landmarks…I felt that, somehow, they had a kind of soul. I know now that these structures, barnacled with laughter and stained by tears, are more than lifeless edifices. It cannot be that having been part of life, they did not somehow absorb the radiation from human interaction. And I wonder what is left behind when a building is torn down.

In The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories , Edward Hollis details the histories of buildings that range from the Notre Dame de Paris and the Berlin Wall to Manchester’s very own Hulme Crescents (where apparently, “the prophecies of the future are fulfilled”). Sadly I can’t check out their London-inspired curves – the crescents, shoddily built, leaky, rife with cockroaches, mice, and crime were torn down in 1992, just 20 years after completion.

The wind blows through and weeds grow all around…

You might go down into the depths of a beautiful Roman Catholic or Norman Cathedral and be provided with reams of information about former inhabitants; in these spaces, the sense of history and meaning is palpable. But what about the more modest or easily overlooked spaces that fill so much of our environment, used and then forgotten? Everything we build or leave behind is full of stories and unknown memories.Wandering through the Old Quadrangle at Manchester University I was impressed with the buildings. Back home, I decided to photograph the little hut that sits in the over-grown back-garden. Probably nothing particularly interesting has ever happened in there; but for some reason its presence is one that I like, as I look out my bedroom window.


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21 responses to “Narrative building blocks”

  1. Jemster says :

    Very interesting! Your post made me think of a documentary I saw the other day about the former ‘Royal Earlswood Asylum for Mental Defectives’, at Redhill in Surrey. It has now been converted into luxury flats and renamed ‘Victoria Court’. It was opened in 1855 and finally shut in 1997 “amidst allegations of irregular care and abuse” which had been going on since it opened, but only came to light in the 60’s when attitudes towards the learning disabled began to change. At one point in the 1900’s it was actually called the ‘National Asylum for Idiots’. Anyway, in the documentary a former staff member who had worked there and witnessed horrific abuse of the patients was reflecting on the building’s conversion ( and he wondered how much the current residents knew of it’s history. He said “I don’t think I’d want to live there knowing what I do.” He must have felt that the “soul” of the building and the “memories of it’s former inhabitants” were too dark and had somehow remained trapped inside it’s walls. I’m sure i would feel the same! I can’t help thinking this was the inspiration for the recent BBC TV series Bedlam ( which was a series “centered around a haunted insane asylum-turned-apartment building.”
    Here’s another link to a short history of the asylum if you would like to read more –
    Thanks for your post – really enjoyed it. x

    P.S – The documentary I am referring to was on More 4 and is called “The Queen’s Hidden Cousins.” Fascinating but very disturbing and upsetting.

    • musingfrommanchester says :

      Oh! Looking at the pictures I definitely wouldn’t want to live there either. And not just because it’s Β£1350pcm haha. Seriously, horrible stuff. I know it’s all part of a process…but the way people with mental health issues/learning difficulties were treated in the past makes your stomach turn, doesn’t it? These lines jump out at me: “Patients were admitted either for life or for periods of five years. Admission was by the payment of fees or by election, whereby candidates supplied details of their condition and circumstances and were voted for by subscribers.” Sounds like the basis for a C4 reality show….

      • Jemster says :

        Except you wouldn’t want to win the prize of a lifetime’s confinement!! Maybe that’s what we really mean when we talk about ‘ghosts’. People get a creepy feeling because they can sense that the stories and memories of long dead people remain in the fabric of a building, as a part of it’s history. And those stories are part of the reality of humanity and our society. That’s what makes us uncomfortable and afraid. We are being reminded (by our subconscious rather than by ‘ghosts’) how cruel people can be and how much suffering can occur as a result of that cruelty. The two opposite sides of the coin.

        That’s why ghost stories are always focused around prisoners or people in asylums or people who were murdered or killed in other tragic circumstances. We feel uncomfortable by these stories but are also fascinated. That’s why the Tower of London or old jails and old castles remain open as tourist attractions and always provoke such strong reactions. Certain stories can never be removed from the minds of those who knew about them and they get passed on down the generations until they become exaggerated and morph into ridiculous ghost stories.

        Does anyone ever go and visit a nice little cottage where an old woman died peacefully in her bed with her family around her and have nightmares about it afterwards? No. But do they go to an old mansion where a woman and her children were supposedly killed by her husband centuries ago and have nightmares? Yes, they do!

        I guess I’m much more interested by this post than I realized, until I started to type my thoughts. Thanks for stimulating my brain!!

        • musingfrommanchester says :

          Definitely agree with you. I know it sounds like superstition, but just because science doesn’t understand it all yet doesn’t mean that traces or “memories” of shocking events don’t remain behind in some way. I really believe in “ancestral memory” for one thing. I have no clue what the mechanism for it is but even the phenomenon of “superstition” must have a scientific explanation beyond just “human beings are weird creatures”. Right? Well, I look forward to the day when a paper gets published with a definitive answer on that one! Stimulating your brain….sounds a bit worrying in the context of a discussion on asylums. Ha. Ha. 😦

  2. Jemster says :

    Hahahaha. I hadn’t thought of that. Luckily for me I am talking intellectually, not electrically stimulated. Zap!! Do you have any ancestral memories you’d like to share?? I’m intrigued now!

  3. Anne Littlewood says :

    Kathleen, have you been to see John Rylands Library on Deansgate yet? That is a very interesting building. It was the first public building in Manchester to be lit with electricity, and the neo-Gothic design is based on one of the Oxford colleges. It looks like it used to be a church from the outside, but was actually built as a library, by John Rylands’s widow. I think it was completed around 1900. The interior is lovely too, with an elevated reading room (to get away from the noise at street level) and marble statues of John and his wife. Well worth a look if you haven’t already.

  4. mackenga says :

    I’ve always felt that the things people build, whether buildings or art works or machines, sort of capture some of their intentions, and because of that, some of their character. Maybe that’s part of the ‘soul’ Eisner’s talking about? The remaining intentions of people who might themselves be long gone. Maybe that’s part of the tragedy (slightly too strong a word I know) of demolishing old buildings – erasing the intentions of the people who designed and built them.

    Mind you, I still think it’s a shame that shed’s in such a state of disrepair, so I suspect that may be a rationalisation of my concern for the welfare of things, and the truth is far sillier. Somehow I doubt the designer would be heartbroken by its condition πŸ™‚

    • Jemster says :

      I think everything you’ve said is true Mackenga! I just think it doesn’t apply in the case of old sheds and out-houses! Lol. That’s why the National Trust put so much time and money into repairing and preserving stately homes, and why many building’s are listed. Even the likes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s old childhood homes are listed buildings with blue plaques. I doubt the old bin shed at Kathleen’s will be getting one of those any time soon!! πŸ˜€

      • musingfrommanchester says :

        You guys are such snobs, as if the old shed isn’t just as worthy of some TLC as some old stately home! I’m outraged! πŸ˜‰ Actually, that’s part of its charm, the fact it’s falling apart. Would be nice to go at it with a bucket of paint though…

      • mackenga says :

        “This shed, circa 1982, was erected to house miscellaneous items by Some Guy (who also assembled other noteworthy sheds in the area, and was involved in the construction of several monoblock driveways and garden fences in and around Manchester). It underwent a major renovation in 2012 by a team of anonymous shed enthusiasts in the dead of night.”

        I think the shed would need a bit more work than paint, sadly; it needs a window and the roof doesn’t look quite straight either. I’m slightly concerned now that I’m making a list of what it needs in my head, but fortunately the owners will probably save me from myself before I get to work on it πŸ™‚

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