Dear Theresa May,
I am a citizen of the world, a citizen of Europe, a resident and architecture student in the Netherlands, and, finally, a citizen of Britain. A little bit more about myself: My taste in food is both Italian and Chinese, my favourite art is from early 20th century Russia, my iPod playlist could teach George Osbourne a thing or two about the meaning of Northern Powerhouse, I won’t buy a pair of football boots that aren’t German, and black, my favourite architect is Swiss but most of my favourite architecture is Japanese, and my own architectural thinking is firmly rooted in Watermillock, Ullswater. My partner is Romanian, my mother lives in Spain and my father lives in Britain and over the past 18 months I have lived and worked in Ljubljana, Ploiesti, Bucharest, Malaga, Granada, Huddersfield, London and Delft. I was therefore intrigued by your interpretation of me as “a citizen of nowhere”.
You might think this is going to be a sarcastic rant, but it’s really not Theresa, I want to talk to you about how being a citizen of the world is simultaneously advantageous, challenging, empowering, humbling and inspiring, as well as being a great source of doubt about my own identity. More specifically I’d like to explain how all of this manifests itself in my own existence; one which is currently centred around thinking about and creating spaces for people to inhabit and experience. I will therefore be predominantly referring to Architecture, and I hope by doing this you will perhaps understand the importance of the spaces we inhabit daily as well as see how being a citizen of the world can enable me, with great care and attention, to enrich the specificity and character of the places through which we experience the world.
I mentioned my architectural thinking being rooted in Watermillock, Ullswater. If you’ve ever visited this area of the Lake District I’m sure you’ll agree that it is an exceptionally beautiful part of the world. My Grandfather was an artist and thought so too, so in 1957 he bought a plot of land at the foot of a fell for £250 after seeing an advert in the Manchester Guardian and set about building a house and studio. On the site stood a couple of barns deemed derelict by the planning authorities which he was ordered to dismantle. The stone from the barns was used to build the new structure. He applied his skills as a civil engineer to design a structurally stable building that he and my Grandmother could construct, with only the occasional help of work colleagues who would join my Grandparents, my dad and his two brothers on the buses and trains as they made the weekend return trip from Middlesbrough. By 1973 the building was inhabited, and a home.
My Grandfather was not from the Lake District but his small contribution not only fits into this precious landscape, but has now been enveloped by, and is almost indistinguishable from it. The building is not the same as the neighbouring farmhouses but this does nothing to detract from its sense of belonging. It is not a copy or an interpretation of what existed before, yet it has positioned itself within a line of tradition that is neither manufactured nor contrived, but authentic, meaningful and born of functional, practical and economical responses to the unique environment at given moment in time.
The main living area is the part of the house that was initially used as a studio. It is characterised by it’s steep gabled ceiling and large north windows which are supported by bowing timber beams that give the impression of being centuries old and fatigued by their unwavering supporting of the cedar roof shingles in their tireless battle against the Cumbrian rain. Small bedrooms adjoin this main space. Their deep windows carved from the structural stone walls filter and selectively distribute the little daylight missed by the trees, illuminating the room just enough so you can see what you are doing without being able to do it too quickly. It is architecture that slows you down. It’d be no good in London, or anywhere else for that matter. This building embodies a true sense of place, or genius loci. It communicates unmistakably where you are in the world and why it is in the world.
I have been visiting the house my entire life, and while I can’t be sure of my earliest memory of the house, the memories I do have are coloured with a feeling of excitement and adventure. It has never been just a trip to see grandparents, or Grandma since my Grandad died around 15 years ago, but also a trip to the house. People and place are inextricably linked. Sadly my grandma’s deteriorating dementia and mobility problems have meant she recently needed to move to a care home, but the house is still Grandma’s house. When she lived there I would sit next to her on the sofa under a blanket looking at the paintings on the wall as she told me detailed stories about each of one to the sound of the fire crackling in the background. It was remarkable how she could recount my Grandad’s frustration at not being able to capture the Manchester sky quite as he’d like in one painting considering she wouldn’t know who I am or what my name is, despite having asked me 5 times in the past 10 minutes. She no longer has any idea she built the house. Whenever I told her she’d be amazed at the news, unable to recall a time before she had arthritic knees. Nonetheless she was clear about how happy she was to be there, after watching the news and learning of more wars, atrocities and disasters she’d regularly comment “I’m very grateful we don’t have any of that around here, you know, those Americans starting wars with everyone”. As her memory got worse and worse she was still somehow grateful and aware of where she was, as if the narratives and memories embodied in the building could transcend the tragic obstacles presented by ageing.
It is probably clear now that this house is a piece of architecture that is significant to me. My interest in the house predates my interest in architecture as a subject, hobby or profession, so it was probably inevitable that as I started to design buildings I’d use my grandma’s house as the basis of a project or two. I’ve had more ideas about extending and renovating the more worn out peripheral parts of the house than I can even count, and I used a couple of these in my university application portfolio. I find these designs fascinating to look back on because they show how my mind was working before being weighed down with years of study, experience, history and theory (not that I have anything against experts). In these designs, which I now believe to be flawed in different ways, I see a subconscious awareness of context that reflects my intuitive understanding of the place at the time. While my design approach would be different from that 5 years ago and my own sense of identity, belonging and ultimately, citizenship has undoubtedly changed with my ongoing experience of the world, my understanding and feeling towards this specific place has remained stubbornly unflustered.
Just as my Grandma’s house in the Lake District defines my understanding of a dwelling, home or shelter and how architecture can position itself within tradition and the landscape using very ordinary means, the Costa del Sol has had completely different lessons to teach me.
Moving to Spain at the age of 11 was an efficient way to change my perception of the world. We moved to an apartment surrounded by construction sites. It felt like each concrete truck grinding its way up and around the wavy hilly roads was bringing utopia one step closer. It was probably not dissimilar to Britain in the 60s, only without the social intention. Capitalism doesn’t care about people or places. Once the market decided enough was enough, the developers were gone. So was any hope of the facilities and amenities they promised. Underground garages were built but footpaths were forgotten. Just like my Grandma’s house, this is architecture that defines how you move.
It turns out the way people move is very important to how communities function. Once your options have been narrowed down to having to travel by car, your immediate surroundings become little more than space to be travelled through. The architecture of the gated community boxes you off from the world and makes you travel from box to box in your own bubble. The fences that surround each block of apartments tell their residents that the outside world is a threat, and that those inside the cages are the free ones. Simple architectural gestures do a lot to shape how we perceive one another and the world we share.
The fragmented neighbourhoods of the gated communities sit only a few kilometres away from the more traditional villages where order is maintained by old ladies standing in doorways that open straight onto the streets. The space between buildings becomes a domestic area for all, locals and tourists alike, allowing spontaneity and serendipity to become regular features of day to day life. The model employed by the financially driven developers consciously rejected this context and tradition and has resulted in sprawling placelessness of the kind you might expect to find in a country like the United States, but not in one with a culture and history as richly layered as Spain’s.
The “citizen of nowhere” comment suggests that you believe expanding one’s existence across the globe dilutes their connection with specific places, but if anything I would say the opposite is true. Living in Spain has taught me a lot about how and why things area as the are in England, in the same way that learning to speak Spanish taught me a lot about English. It has been an eye opening experience unlike anything I could ever be taught in school or university and it’s something I’d definitely recommend for when you retire (maybe soon?).
Years beneath the Spanish sun make the fields of Watermillock so much greener, the post box so much redder, the rain so much wetter and the wind so much colder. I notice the milkman’s efforts and appreciate the taste of fresh milk in a cup of tea, and I see dry stone walls and the abstract patterns they draw on the landscape as works of art. I also see that Jo Cox was right when she said “we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”, and somewhere between the things we have in common and the things that divide us, are a lot of things that make us unique and diverse. Being a citizen of the world stops me from taking any of this uniqueness for granted, as well as highlighting characteristics we share. It’s similar to the technique astronomers use to detect asteroids and meteorites by overlaying images of the night sky and seeing which dots change position. The more images you overlay the more apparent the moving dots. The unique characteristics and traditions of a place reveal themselves like asteroids moving through the otherwise static sky. In order to be meaningful and connect people with place and heighten their experience of the world, architecture must be located within the trajectory of moving dots, and a citizen of the world has a lot more images of the sky to compare.
While I’m on the space theme; it took 6 billion kilometres of space between a camera and us to realise that our Earth is just a pale blue dot in a vast expanse of darkness. The United Kingdom makes up 0.0475% of the surface of that pale blue dot. We are all global citizens, but I think you might be right, perhaps we are all citizens of nowhere.