Monday, May 27, 2013


Years ago I purchased a pair of shoes that I was always very proud of. They were wonderful to wear and were always comfortable and uplifting, not just lifting me slightly in height, but also in spirit. They taught me a lesson I have never forgotten. It is a lesson that our culture seems to have neglected. Jane Jacobs has called ‘Forgetfulness’ . . . ‘the fifth demonic horseman of the Apocalypse’ (p.173, Dark Age Ahead). It is, she has argued, the root cause of all the dark ages we have known. It is forgetfulness that we need to attend to today if we seek enlightenment, along with its themes: the matters being forgotten. The shoes reminded me of this.

They were a pair of English ‘Church’s’ shoes, relics of an era when things were well made and well loved in their making: a real craft. Even the logo reflects a time when punctuation was considered, and considered important. William Morris might have worn ‘Church’s’, such is the philosophy of their quality. The shoes were all leather - uppers, inners and ‘unders’: the sole. They were real shoes, as my father might have said, all neatly stitched and welted, with the sole being beautifully branded with the ‘Church’s’ name embedded into the depth of sheen on the polished under surface in a way that declared an obvious pride in the objects that were being offered for the feet. Today the ‘Church’s’ name can still be seen on shoes and the London shop; and they still look as good – both shoes and shop - with the prices reflecting the quality. I paid forty pounds for mine in the early 1960’s. It was a fortune for shoes but I had fallen in love with the idea of timeless quality. Twenty years later I was still wearing the same shoes that periodically needed to be soled with a new wearing surface – some ‘Rubberoid’ product that was adhered to the lovely leather sole as a half sole. The branding remained clear and trustworthy on the inside of the shoe. Eventually the shoes had to be restitched around the welts, but they were always a wonderful fit and feel. One walked differently with the ‘Church’s’ on. They were made for wearing and walking.

The shoes would have been loved by the modernists who scoffed at the other pair of ‘Church’s’ I purchased some years later – the brogues, all beautifully decorated in exuberant layers of pinked and perforated leather. I still wear these just to nark the modernists, especially Bruno Taut. They still have the grand feel of purposeful quality that I experienced when I first put them on. But it was the original pair of ‘Church’s’ that remains the favourites, like first loves. These were plain, a surface of leather shaped up from (or down to) a sole with minimal piecing made possible by clever cutting, to be tied with laces that passed through holes that were a simple piercing of the sealskin, without any metal, grommet, backing or lining to decorate or support this orifice. Yes, the shoes were sealskin, dark (nearly black) with a beautiful rough texturing, not like alligator skin, but not unlike it either. The shoes, in the very best concept of modernism, relied for their expression on the materials and their functions: the form was the function; the function the form, as Louis Sullivan said it.

But let us not misread Louis because his was a rich poetry, not the mere mechanistic idea of fact and performance that it has become by lazy interpretation or misinterpretation – or is it just careless, mindless, ignorant repetition? His phrase is nearly always taken out of context in the way Rudyard Kipling’s ‘east is east and west is west, and ne’er the twain shall meet’ is, because it continues with ‘until . . ‘ One word suddenly changes the sense and importance of the whole, yet it is often ignored. Sullivan’s text is not as compact in its context to have its common interpretation so easily refuted, but the change in substance is just as dramatic. Sullivan spoke of the ‘function of the rose’ being the ‘form of the rose’ and vice versa: ‘the form of the rose is the function of the rose.’ This subtle understanding strips the commonplace interpretation of machine efficiencies promoted by Corb, (but rarely practiced by him), away and replaces it with a mystic gentleness and poetic frailty that is difficult to speak about in the everyday today, let alone in the world of the big, bold, grand and different that ‘Architecture’ has become – see Bilbao and recent work in China and Dubai.

My shoes reflected this Sullivan subtlety, even though they appeared to be brutally modern, especially when compared with the brogues and the other layered, but more simple patterning of classic shoe styling that emphasised the front, back and sides of the footwear with double lines of heavy stitching, if not extra or different pieces of leather. The development of the trainers, (or sneakers; once the simple sand shoes or plimsolls), has played more and more with this piecing of the uppers, (and lowers), in such an exaggerated way that it becomes difficult to understand how the footwear can be economically made. Perhaps this is why the assembly lines have moved into places where labour is cheap and workshop rules non-existent?

But the lesson in my shoes was not in their presence, experience and fact alone. In the very best Japanese manner that gives as much care and attention to the packaging as the product, the box of the ‘Church’s’ was substantial. The nice fit of the well-made top was a pleasure to remove from the equally well-mannered base. The graphics were tastefully placed on to a cream surface in a way that anticipated the perfect placing of the shoes inside. Removing this top was an action that was heightened by other senses. Apart from the obvious enjoyment of the compact rigidity of the box, there was the rich smell of new leather that oozed, welled up from the first opening and became stronger and stronger as the contents were revealed as mysterious objects wrapped individually in fine white tissue. The touch of this special frailty enriched the impression of quality and care in a way that made the revealed object even more beautiful. The weight of the shoe – the first physical experience of the contents – eventually became shared with the enjoyment of eye and hand - touch - where shape, firmness and finally the feel of the fit, completed the wholeness of the opening experience and its expectations. One was reminded of Henry Wotton’s (and Vitruivius’s) ‘commodity, firmness and delight’ further expanding the architectural interest in shoes that Taut began with his explicit critique of the brogues when he called for all decoration to be abolished as a mortal sin: yes, a crime.

But there was more. In the box was a small piece of folded card with a neat fine cotton tie that carried the now familiar, bold, left-handed, italic typeface of the ‘Church’s’ logo and, in the most polite fashion, thanked one for choosing their product and wished one all the very best with its future. It certainly was a far cry from today’s thundering hype where, in similar circumstances one is hammered with the cluttered logic of exaggerated spin that screams out the unique wonders of the product in a rude, egocentric and over-boastful manner, all without any manners or thought for the individual or any future. Yet the ‘Church’s’ card said more: it gave instructions for the care of these shoes. It was this text that changed me by restating the example of older times that we have forgotten. The polite note simply stated that the sealskin should be polished regularly with clear, natural polish, a surprise since the shoes were almost black and simple ordinary logic might have called for black polish. But no; it was as if this surprise was expected, as the text continued to respectfully explain that by using natural polish, the scratches and scuffs that are a normal part of shoe-life expectancy can be added to the rich texture of the sealskin markings and create a pair of shoes for the wearer that have a special quality and character of their own, all because of this wear and tear, not in spite of it. ‘Church’s’ had found a way to make ordinary wear and tear a part of the enriching of the object, not its demise.

This is what we have forgotten in our striving for perpetual youth. We are living in a culture that makes things that become less with wear and tear rather than better; and perceives aging in people in much the same way Those in the antique business know of this quality that is seen and admired by architects, and others, as tourists in old places: the wear by touch of the cathedral wall or rail; the wear by weather of the roof or the stair by use. This scuffing deterioration is all part of the enduring beauty of place and things that we know and love. But ours is an era of things that become less with a simple scratch or dent. Consider how the motor car with the gleaming perfection of its surface, like that of the perfect precision of titanium and glass architectural fashions, is spoiled by the tiniest mark or dent, even by the glimpse of a spider's web. ‘Touch up’ kits and cleaning materials are seen for sale everywhere in order to help overcome the concerns of this damage and dirt that changes the precision of gloss. Objects are made to look stylish rather than having any sense of real purpose in space and time, or an understanding of any future. The most perfect of taps becomes a scratched mess once the multigrips have been used to remove the cowl to access the washer. There is no understanding of how a tool will be able to maintain the function as well as the appearance in the original design; and there is no care either. Only the immediate urge to have and to hold and to display is addressed: the excitement of the presence of style. Perhaps the logic of this disregard merely sees a future where the object is discarded for the next fashionable upgrade? My shoes remained just as beautiful many years later, even with the constant wear and tear and maintenance: in fact they improved.

‘Rötring’ can be used as an example of this lack of interest in upkeep, and its eventual understanding. Yes, architects once used pens and ink to draw documents! The original ‘Rötring’ pen came with a beautifully sculptured conical, black plastic nib base that held the fine, nicely pierced tubes complete with a plunger that self-cleaned when shaken and controlled the flow the viscous, black Indian ink. But the drama of drying ink always eventually made one try to remove the nib for a good flushing, even with the very best care and attention. It was then that the battle began. As with the smartest of slick, smooth, satin chrome taps, one was asked to grasp a smooth, conical form and rotate it to allow access to clean and maintain the pen. Older architects will never forget these frustrations and the strategies used to overcome this impossibility. Numerous techniques were practised in order to force or conjure the release of the hard, almost insoluble, dry ink embedded deep within the threaded tube. Shaking, soaking, hot, cold - praying - were all used. Then sonic devices came onto the market to more savagely attack this problem with a scientific mysticism. The manufacturers of ‘Rötring’ must have known of these universal frustrations, because one day a new model came out. Instead of the original black fountain pen, screw-fill style of instrument, (like the car, the models of the objects that existed for older technologies established the patterns for the shaping of the new), the new object became a set of possibilities in red ochre that included a plastic nib base with truncated edges and a very magical little plastic doughnut with a matching hole with truncated sides and a heavily textured outer edge - all in bright red: the classic ‘Rötring’. This little tool became a simple spanner for the removal the nib.

This straightforward small object and the thoughtful reshaping of the nib meant that even the most stubborn of dried messes could have enough torque applied to make them give in without any damage or scratching or mangling. Without this tool, the cleaning of the pen often meant the breaking of it. The idea was so simple. It even enriched the brand image that was once only a styled, fine red line that ran around a joint in the stub of the pen. Here function and form made more sense of everything: the purpose, the maintenance and the brand. It was not long before I had the file out to reshape all my old nibs so that the magic circle could be used on both the old and the new pens. The tool continues to work well to this day, unlike those taps that were so subtly shaped into the organic silver-sheened oneness that is now defaced with a messy set of mangled scratches from tools that still refuse to remove the cowl, so solidly is it set in soap and grime, with are the natural messiness of such objects and their workings. The designers/manufacturers seem to care nothing about this. Yet there is no new wonder here. All older taps were shaped with fine hexagonal bases and edges that allowed for the spanners’ grasping, adequate enough to apply torque for the necessary regular repairs and maintenance without disfiguring the design.

‘Church’s’, like ‘Rötring’, knew about and cared for the life of the shoe and its expectant involvements and demands: its use. The scuffs and scratches were not to be disguised, patched up by a blinding mass of opaque black; they were seen as an opportunity to enrich the texture of the already naturally marked leather to create something that can become more personalised and loved in a future of care similar to that of its past, in its making. And it worked! The shoes never received the mucky, thick, Kiwi Black polish that deluded the eye and concealed the scratches. These were an essential, a natural part of the shoe. The shoes were always treated to the dull sheen of the fresh and natural waxes that would highlight all the markings, celebrate them.

There is another matter that has been forgotten: it is not only the nature of being polite; it is the understanding of things unique. ‘Church’s’ spoke of the pair of shoes gaining a special and individual character, using language that seems similar to that which might be used today when one has text thrust into the face declaring that the apparel chosen will be unique, making you – yes ‘YOU!’ – the only individual in the universe to have such an object. You and you alone will be made special by wearing, using or having such a thing, whatever it might be. It is the ‘YOU DESERVE TO HAVE OUR EXCELLENCE’ strategy. Here the issue of ego is raised. Today’s egocentric importance is highlighted aggressively as excluding all others, stepping beyond them: being better in a savagely competitively way - standing on and above all others and being noticed are the important issues here.

The ‘Church’s’ experience could not be more different even if it reads similarly as words. The ‘Church’s’ future spoke of a circumstance where one could happily exist in the crowd, could endure the wear and tear and be enriched, personally, with no exclamations or concerns. The shoes could carry this spirit without any public declaration of betterment, of being more or superior. The shoes just were. They accommodated a future that included rather than excluded; they allowed more to become part of the whole rather than insisting on less, or to be claimed better and more wholesome than all others; more sought after because of its special speciality. The ‘Church’s’ experience is one that we need to consider more carefully. There is no future in grand and singular design for designers’ or wearers’ egotistical stakes. There is a future in accommodating all that is whole and wholesome; being caring and inclusive. These may appear to be old-fashioned words and ideas, but they have been forgotten in the hype of the ever-changing new and newer – the bigger, better and brighter: the best of the unique best, now fashionably labelled ‘bespoke.’

‘Church’s’ way is forgiving, embodying an acceptance of difference and diversity and an accommodation of disruption, trials and tribulations: of misfortune, difficulty and distress. It makes no demands on a vision of perfection or excellence, but it is rooted in this. It does not bleat about the importance of an original vision or a personal preference, nor does it insist on any acceptance of these. It is not art forcing art for art’s sake. It is not design designing for designers by design for awards or rewards. It has no designs on anything but a view of subtle enrichment by ordinary natural existence, the everyday, allowing the various necessities to be incorporated into a whole that has yet to be – to become.

It is the care and attention given to the understanding of the rigours of the future that glow as the example to remember in the ‘Church’s’ shoes. This was the lesson that was learned and has never been forgotten. We have to find ways to accommodate the ordinary in the special and the special in the ordinary. We must remain humble and give more and more attention to the intimate detail that attends to real futures, real experiences and real people in ordinary living, and find out once again how diversity and difference can become whole. As Jane Jacobs has argued, (refer Dark Age Ahead, Vintage, New York, 2005.) the richness of a culture is in the detail. There is nothing in grand designs but grand voids if the details of necessity are neglected. And the issue may need only a very simple but inspired red ring to make it a wonder – a bit like a stitch in time. But do we have time to get things back on track? We must learn to manage the stress, distress, worries, difficulties, burdens, anxieties, tribulations, hardship, pain, suffering, troubles, and misery: all things that, like scratches on shoes, are a real part of the ordeal of living that must be accommodated before they engross modern existence with their stress that seeks only useless diversions, entertainments and distractions in design and living. Religion once played this role, promoting tolerance and contentment. We forget this at our peril because we are currently being torn by the wearing; and worn by the tearing. What must we do?

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