Just What is it That Makes Yesterdays Homes So Different, So Appealing?

maggie.jpgThe first time I saw them was in the Duty Free shop at Brussels Airport: A display of kitch mini-buildings set against a backdrop of Belgian chocolate and cigars. They are the visual equivalent of eating, drinking and smoking the entire contents of a duty free shop. Not being one for health food or abstinence, I was delighted sometime later, to be invited to Lilliput Lane.

Lilliput Lane make miniature models of vernacular buildings. The company was established in 1992 by David Tate, and now produce thousands of miniatures depicting buildings from the British Isles and more recently from other northern European regions and the anglo Saxon Diaspora. Lilliput quickly became the market leader in the miniature vernacular building field with collectors all over the world, Queens Award for exports and industry trophies. The company was bought by Enesco, a world-wide giftware conglomerate.

Lilliput Lane is based at Skirsgill, Cumbria, junction 26 of the M6 - 'gateway to the Lake District'. On the far side of the car park is the visitors centre. The visitors centre is called Honeysuckle Cottage. It is an almost faithful replica of a 17th century cottage in Hampshire, UK. Honeysuckle Cottage was one of the first miniatures produced by Lilliput Lane. There have subsequently there have been about 9 different versions produced at varying sizes (and prices).
The visitors centre is an exercise in the vernacular. No camping around for its audience, this is a building that uses authentic materials and construction methods. It is the antithesis of a themed thing. Its raison d'etre is not effect or experience, but rather, document. And its dryness makes its sigh of nostalgia eloquent and complex. The insistance on using real oak beams and peg construction, its compromises in the face of building codes, the battle with the planning officer over the appropriateness of thatch, its uncomfortable neighbours the car park and dual carrigeway noise bund, its programme of shop, museum, store room and board room. In its fabric we see the struggle of making the history present.' The house is an expression of desire for the past ? not just as image, but really, really.

These construction methods, once driven by necessity, available technology, ecology and economy are now used as a kind of hoodoo construction. Made physical like a voodoo doll of honesty and truth. Suprisingly at Lilliput Lane where one expects a crucible of kitch, the ever po faces of Middle England, Prince Charles and Modernists find themselves nodding in agreement: the enemy of civilised architecture resides in theming, with its associations of dishonesty and commercialism.
Lilliput Lane is industrialized production, despite the claims on its packaging to be handcrafted. The original modeling is done by hand and the rest of the process involves peoples hands. Nevertheless, there is a fine line between craftsmanship and piecework. It is a product and needs to be packed up and shipped off to duty free concessions and subsequently, mantelpieces around the world.

Since Le Corbusier published a picture of a Citroen juxtaposed against the Parthenon, architects have longed for a more fruitful relationship between buildings and mass production.The allure of mass production has seemed to them inevitable and impending. Though every time an architect talks about an industrialized process or spin off of car, airplane, or ship construction, they have just completed a highly crafted haute couture building (think of Future Systems Media Centre at Lords). And because the idea is so entrenched in modernist myth it almost seems plausible. Architects aspire to mass production. Lilliput Lane aspires to be hand crafted. There is nothing architects would like more than to really be a part of the modern world and there is nothing Lilliput Lane would like more than for us not to have to be. Lilliput Lane is mass produced because its popular, high architecture isn't because its not.

Lilliput Lane is driven by the personality of David Tate. His love, regard and knowledge of British vernacular heritage has been the inspiration for the company. David Tate gives us an insight into Lilliputs R&D: he can spot vernacular architecture while really pulling the G's in his XJ6. And perhaps Lilliputs miniature world is akin to the rural viewed as a motion blur from the white leather lined turbo powered sat nav interior of a performance sports car. A relationship between nature and the city Peter Smithson names 'ruburb'.
Tates interest in the historical vernacular has echoes of the Pre-Raphelite/Arts and Crafts groupings, as does the organization of the company - the association of craftsmen like Ruskins 'Guild of St George' or William Morris' company. Ruskins childhood love of the Lake District drew him to established a kind of education centre of excellence at Brantwood on Coniston Water. Both these characters were part of a Victorian movement that acknowledged the problems of industrialization and mass production. Both were concerned with the impact of industrialization upon society, cities and the soul.

Ruskin recognised and articulated the growing popularity of the picturesque in the 18th and 19th centuries as a reaction to industrialisation - and in particular the social and moral effects of industrialisation. He argued that the popular love of the picturesque indicates a vague desire for pastoral simplicities, and a vague dissatisfaction with contemporary life. He proposed that dissatisfaction is the natural condition of modern man in the modern cityscape and that the picturesque fills a vacuum we feel is forming within us as our morality shrinks: picturesque is about loss. The tragic narrative of the picturesque is told through the relationship of figure to building to landscape.

Ruskins social and moral consciousness pricked the sentimentality of the picturesque, like having John Lennon perched on one shoulder and Paul McCartney on the other. Better, a 'Day in the Life' "noble form", of which Turner was his favourite example, produced by "an expression of suffering, of poverty, or decay, nobly endured by unpretending strength of heart ... the picturesqueness is in the unconscious suffering". Where the moral conscience of the artists empathises with the social meaning of the scene. Worse, an 'oble de oble da'-esq "surface-picturesque", which concerned itself with texture at the expense of emotion. Or, as John Lydon put it: "a cheap holiday in other peoples misery". Both Ruskin and Lydon recognise the political implications of the picturesque.

While the Victorian impulse was to improve the future through social reform (using design as a media to materialise the future in the present). In an era of purpose and possibility Victorian reformers such as Morris or Ebeneezer Howard looked to create and design the society of tomorrow - to build a New Jerusalem as William Blake described. Having lived through ideologies whose roots lie in Victorian philosophy: Modernism, Socialism and Communism and still experiencing that Ruskin-esq Modern Life Is Rubbish feeling. Lilliput Lane suggests an equally creative but retro-active impulse to improve the past. Perhaps this is a more effective way of altering our present condition: to upgrade our heritage.

Of course, the reality of Ruskins rural life is different from ours. As the Lake District exemplifies a different relationship with nature. Living standards have improved: the welfare state, transport, communication, democracy, digital TV. Our misery is looks different. And so is our relationship to nature, especially what we do with it. Indeed, if Ruskin had still been around at Brantwood on Jan 4th 1967, his rural idyll would have been momentarily shattered by a thoroughly modern tragedy as Donald Campbells speedboat flipped while attempting a World Water Speed Record on Coniston Water. Incidently, there is a series of meaningless coincidences between Ruskin, Campbell and Lilliput Lane: a memorial to Donald Campbell was built by a local man, John Usher, whose hobby was building miniture houses. On his death, he bequethed his home-made miniture villages to Coniston. And its now displayed at the Ruskin Museum.
EM Forster described Surrey as a 'landscape of amenity'. In these terms the Lake District is a fully serviced wilderness. There's a Coke machine at the top of the Kirkstone pass to refresh ramblers who think as far as nature goes, this is it. In the Lake District there is nothing unusual in glimpsing an ex-military amphibious vehicle behind a dry stone wall carrying city-slicker outward bounders.

The technologies of English pleasure are scattered across the sweeping epic hills and lake shores. Pressurised calor gas forced through a nozzle frying up a Full English, piping hot sugary tea held between twin stainless steel walls of a vacuum flask, breathable fabrics, deckchairs and caravans. A landscape populated by a thousand holidaying Reyner Banhams. The only real nature is the geographical mass of the hills casting an electromagnetic shadow across the car radio reception and mobile phone conversations.

Lilliput models are concerned with surface - inside, solid and mysterious like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, the outside fragile and lovely like a donut decorated with hundred and thousands. The surface is intricately carved with narrative modelling. A world away from the abstraction of modernist architecture which regards space, not surface as its medium. High architecture attempts to produce meaning through the abstract manipulation of space. Though taste is the way we consume architecture. Taste sits on the surface, communicating social and political meanings. It connects architecture with a wider cultural sphere in ways which are accessible beyond the academy and the profession. Taste engages contentious issues of quality and value, matters of subjective deliberation, raising the awkward issue of class.

In Swifts 'Gullivers Travels' Lemuel Gulliver finds himself washed up on the shores of a succession of islands. And on each of these islands are autonomous worlds and societies. First miniture, then giant sized, and then just plain strange. The Lilliput Lane miniatures too have something island-y about them, rising up like a surreal atoll from their collectors polished mahogany veneered display case oceans. Perhaps this is a vision of a drowned world, preserving only the worthy vernacular heritage and washing everything else away like a architectural version of the deluvian myth. Islands connotatation of identity, utopia, difference.

When Lemuel Guliver finds himself in a land of giants, he lives at a farmers house. The farmer begins to show this tiny man as a kind of freak .. charging for views. Lemuel becomes sick and weak as his freakish size is exploited.

To get an idea about what scale can do, lets look at something else. The Moving Wall is a 60 percent scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Three of these Moving Walls now travel the USA from April to November, spending about a week at each site. Here, scale is a practical consideration - shrinking means its portable. But it does something else too. It makes us feel further away than we are by mimicking foreshortening, like blurred focus in a photograph. So our experience contradicts our physical relationship to the object, rendering our perception a kind of out of body moment: we are unworldly, as though we were looking at the war memorial through the ghostly eyes of a hovering spirit.

The title of this piece is cribbed from Richard Hamiltons 1956 collage where a domestic scene is built up using pictures of products cut out of magazines. Suburban architecture works like that, except that its raw material is the past. Its historical pop. The suburban template is like a best-of compilation of vernacular-isms, full of feel good golden oldie romantic jams. A collection of picturesque killer hooks. It is thousands of years of Anglo-Saxon mythology with a car porch: an Anglo-Saxon Blues. What Lutchens and Webb compiled shot us through our sentimental hearts as cynically as any love song. And like a great love song its subject matter is loss. The suburbs bleed across the land to heal our pain. Architects only hurt themselves when they mock mock-Tudor.

What David Tate and Lilliput Lane uniqueness is the a powerful combination of extreme visual obsession and over reaching desire for love. In Ruskins words: " .....the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. .....To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, - all in one." Its also what makes it culture, not art. And if architects hope to engage with anything outside the pages of the Architectural Review, they need to start loving more.


Perhaps the most convoluted Lillput miniture is part of the Disney range. The miniature of 'Its a Small World' of which there are already 4 full size versions in California, Florida, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo. The ride takes us on a boat trip around a miniaturised anamatronic world. The boat slips along a winding stream like an underground cavern past Ireland, where robot Leprechauns play harps drunkenly, past a place that is Africa-ish where natives in grass skirts thump drums wearing bones through their noses. The denouement of the ride occurs as the boat drifts under an arch into a open plan glimmering scene where races and religions join together in a chorus of the Small World theme song swathed in white, spinning and dancing bathed in a glittering white light. This can only be a Small Small Afterlife. While the geographic scene setting has up to this point been unmistakably precise drawing upon popular icons of national characteristics. Here we are in an unnamed place, beyond our definition or knowledge of the world. Disneys message seems to say: only in death do we escape racial, national, or religious sterotype. Through death we reach the promised land. I vote for the Blake/Tate vision: to build our New Jerusalem on earth, however small it may be.

First Published in 'Loudpaper'

Posted by sam at May 16, 2004 10:39 PM

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