Having wandered the winding streets of York, and passed through narrow alleys in which the medieval and early modern miscellany of buildings loom over my head like curious bystanders, I have been inspired. A combination of factors have fed an increasingly strong notion that is working its spell upon my over-active imagination. Buildings, I fancy, are not simply inanimate structures, or products of human artifice. They are alive, they shift, they subside, they change, they decay, and they are renewed. Coming from a place like Perth with a history of shamelessly demolishing its art deco and Victorian heritage, it is hard to get a feel for buildings with real character. Even London with its array of Victoriana does not feel so much ‘alive’ as ‘monumental’. The great blocky shapes of its structures echo the gravitas of a phantasmal classical epoch, and yet they feel more like tombs than buildings, sepulchral monuments to the pride and confidence of an island nation at the nexus of a vast and global empire.
York, however, has a sense of growing old gently. Sigmund Freud challenged his readers to imagine the human psyche as the city of Rome. And yet rather than the modern metropolis, he saw this city of the mind as containing all of the buildings that have ever existed somehow occupying the same space, regardless of time and whether or not they are extant. Demolished Roman buildings coexist with Renaissance buildings and moderns edifices. All is simultaneous, time does not devour, the present is eternity.
An approximation of this physically impossible and yet eminently feasible psychic phenomenon exists in cities of great age and historical legacy such as York. Shiny glass buildings exist next door to concrete brutalist monstrosities, squat and looming. Airy Gothic churches are juxtaposed with white and black tudor houses. Vainglorious Victorian venues share boundaries with humble hibernating houses. There are numerous buildings that survive from as far back as the High Middle Ages, their curved and warped walls and rickety crook-backed roofs giving the impression that they have grown to their present shape in a fashion reminiscent of some bizarre coral. Surely buildings like this are not so much built as born, a product of generations of successive renovations, conservations and changes?
King’s Manor is a perfect example of this phenomenon, a medieval monastic building turned hunting lodge turned university campus. Long-vanished windows still lurk in the walls like ghosts, bricked over and yet still visible. Eroded medieval stonework battles for the observer’s attention with Tudor heraldry. Curtains from the seventies vie with gauche Victorian approximations of medieval wood carving, clashing with twentieth century telephone and power conduits and cutting edge computers and projectors. A delightful amalgam, to be sure. These buildings are both ancient and modern, past and present, living and dead. Like the manor, the city as a whole grows like a living entity, shifting, changing, growing and renewing. To my mind, it is like a constant exercise in reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, from which i’d like to quote:
Olinda is certainly not the only city that grows in concentric circles, like tree trunks which each year add one more ring. But in other cities there remains, in the center, the old narrow girdle of the walls from which the withered spires rise, the towers, the tiled roofs, the domes, while the new quarters sprawl around them like a loosened belt. Not Olinda: the old walls expand bearing the old quarters with them, enlarged but maintaining their proportions an a broader horizon at the edges of the city; they surround the slightly newer quarters, which also grew up on the margins and became thinner to make room for still more recent ones pressing from inside; and so, on and on, to the heart of the city, a totally new Olinda which, in its reduced dimensions retains the features and the flow of lymph of the first Olinda and of all the Olindas that have blossomed one from the other; and within this innermost circle there are always blossoming–though it is hard to discern them–the next Olinda and those that will grow after it.
York, like Olinda, has burst the constraining skin of its medieval walls, carrying with it the features of the original. Diluted and yet omnipresent, York is modern and yet medieval, larger than and yet encapsulated by its historical legacy. The Roman Eboracum coexists with medieval York, and the modern British city of that name. Constantine, Guy Fawkes and Richard III still stalk its streets, Ghosts haunt the corners and dark alleys, memories hide in the gaps between the bricks, imbued into the lithic heart of the buildings.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my little vignette,