:: Article

Housing Haunted Housing

By Matthew Turner.

Oscar Mardell, Housing Haunted Housing (Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers, 2020).

After finishing Oscar Mardell’s ghostly collection of poems Housing Haunted Housing, thoughtfully designed by Lucy Wilkinson and published by death of workers whilst building skyscrapers, I remembered the concrete finishes in London’s Barbican Estate. Originally cast smooth it was left to hundreds of construction workers to hand carve the rough, pitted texture with Jackhammers and pneumatic drills. This torturous hand-made process undermined Brutalism’s ambitions of quick, modular construction and it took years to complete the miles of surfaces around the structure, resulting in many of the workers developing white finger from the vibrations gradually restricting blood flow to their extremities. They lived with phantom reverberations in their hands years after the building was completed. They were haunted by its forms. Now, this is easily forgotten and its fashionable utopian ideas belie the traces of human sacrifice shadowing its facades.

It’s commonly held that buildings are inhabited by ghosts, less common, however, is the idea that buildings, and the contaminated ideas contained within their construction and political contexts, can also haunt us. As the title of the collection suggests, the haunter and the haunted is given an atmospheric exploration through a variety of well known Brutalist buildings, with their currently maligned positions juxtaposed against the optimism at the time of their construction. Chandigarh in India is rendered as a place of all seeing eyes with a ‘stairless well of limitless exchange’, spectres merge with the material substance of architecture on the Southbank with ‘concrete in [their] shins for proof’ and though physically an imposing building there is a prompt that the J. Edgar Hoover’s real power is the limitless ‘more virtual’ apparitions of paranoia and conspiracy it represents.

With a name suggestive of a precipitous lookout spot for approaching hazards, the theme of hauntology is established quickly in the first poem, ‘Crowsnests’, which riffs on Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation: ‘machines for living in/for hosting/not for riding out/the motions of existence’. Here, Le Corbusier’s dehumanising dictum ‘A house is a machine for living in,’ is skewed with the layering of ‘living’ with ‘hosting’ and its supernatural connotations, transforming the building into a vessel for a phantom parasite, namely Modernism’s subjugating ideals — a machine not for living but, as the closing stanza confirms, ‘dying’. Though the seeds of Modernism — and in turn Brutalism — have been shown as worryingly close, it wasn’t a production line for genocide, but a mechanical death of the individual by how the movement espoused architectures of modular repetition without space for personality.

After an amorphous and seamlessly integrated evocation of Modernism’s principles, such as the reminder it was ‘unfettered by traditions of the past’, other — more complex — presences emerge. Though the poems are varied in style, length, and layout, as one reads a through-structure soon emerges based on the use of concrete in each building’s construction. With a nod to the Anthropocene the ubiquitous material is portrayed as part of a ‘pastoral’ landscape, as a natural rather than man-made disaster. Concrete becomes some kind of endless glacial formation smothering the world’s surface, which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive.

With an emphasis on details rather than expansive scenes, each poem works as a snapshot in motion, which delves under the surface of architecture to glimpse the phantoms that dwell there. To great effect, the poems are not complete depictions of place as you might expect from other topographical poets such as John Betjeman and David Gascoyne, in particular the latter’s dazzlingly apocalyptic poem, ‘The Gravel-Pit Field’. Instead you get a ruin. Though the buildings featured in the collection are extant the landscape of the poems, when viewed as a whole, is fragmented. There are exit wounds in the ‘cheap old hostel where the outer walls/all perforated in the Uprising’, and, as people quickly realise in the wake of an explosion, the boundary walls between inside and outside are blown open and reversed at the suggestion of filling Boston City Hall ‘with the city itself’. The ruin imagery is underlined in perhaps the sharpest and best poem entitled ‘Hermetic Seal’: ‘no sleek facades around here just tomb on tomb’.

What is entombed in the layers of these facades? In the Baroque period the ruin represented decay but also the imagination required to fill the gaps between fragments and visualise what a structure once was, along with what it could be in the future. Haunting these structures, then, are the dreams of a better tomorrow that ultimately failed. On its best days, Brutalism was an optimistic way forward to house the masses in a cheap and efficient manner, and in the world as it stands now, with its monumental housing crisis and vast inequalities, the best we can manage — in our tiny, overpriced bedsits — is being haunted by this daydream. We are forever, like the crew of skaters and graffiti artists in the poem ‘Boneyard’ riding out ‘through the rubble of/the welfare state the space age dream’.


Matthew Turner is a writer living in London. He studied at University College London and is now working as writer and assistant editor for LOBBY magazine while also teaching at Chelsea College of Art. @MjTurner_

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 4th, 2020.