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Unité d'habitation residential housing complex in Marseille, designed Le Corbusier (Photo by Iain Sinclair)

Buildings for better lives

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Review | 4 minute read
Iain Sinclair's exploration of how buildings affects our wellbeing takes him far from home terrain of Hackney

Iain Sinclair has spent a lifetime walking and writing. In that order. Beating the bounds of his beloved Hackney, tapping into the spirits of the place and bringing long-forgotten ghosts back to life. He is nothing if not prolific, having written over eighteen books about the capital from prose poems like Lud Heat (1975) to groundbreaking works of fiction like White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), Downriver (1991) and Radon Daughters (1994), along with numerous essays, films and poems. But he is probably best known for London Orbital (2002), the seminal work of non-fiction that saw him traverse the length of the M25 motorway on foot over the course of a year.

He is a student of the Beats, having come of age to Ginsberg, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti, and his idiosyncratic style is indelibly marked by their bebop cadences and stream-of-consciousness style. Living with Buildings and Walking with Ghosts: On Health and Architecture was commissioned in response to the exhibition of the same name curated by Emily Sargent at the Wellcome Collection in London. Like the exhibition, it explores the pivotal role of design and urban planning on human health by considering how buildings impact on our mental and physical well-being.

Charged with answering these questions, Sinclair begins his investigations, where else but east London. The opening section of the book is titled ‘Move’ and finds the author tramping the streets that he has called home for over half a century. The study and practice of medicine runs in his blood, he tells us: ‘I came from two generations of practitioners. I grew up with consulting room chatter as background noise.’ But any hopes his father may have had that his son would follow him into the profession soon disappeared. As Sinclair notes: ‘I was a prematurely failed medical student, my school science results were so hopeless that I never made it to the starting gate.’ In the end, he became a doctor of sorts, taking the temperature of the capital at regular intervals, witnessing its trajectory from a place of bohemian adventure to one of corporate blandness.

We stroll with the author through Spitalfields learning about David Widgery, the Hackney-based physician and radical who kept a fastidious record of his life in this corner of London. Hawksmoor’s Christ Church looms large in photographs of the homeless, taken by Jack London on a visit to London in 1902, which are embedded in the text. Sinclair is brilliantly observant of the changing make-up of the buildings, describing satellite dishes as ‘plague buboes of poverty’ and intercoms outside new luxury flats as ‘whisper boxes’.

But it is when we move from the familiar terrain of east London to the personal encounters he has with fellow artists, writers and film-makers that the book really comes to life, and he begins to unpack the idea of our relationships to buildings.

Iain Sinclair (Photo by Joy Gordon)

In the second section of the book, ‘Further’, we meet the artist, writer and film-maker Andrew Kotting and his daughter, Eden, former residents of the Pepys Estate in south London, who tour the site of their former home and reminisce about the creative magic that occurred there. ‘Everything began in that bedroom,’ Andrew explains. ‘The films, the book production, the performances…’ Eden was born with Joubert’s syndrome and requires Andrew’s constant care; Sinclair notes that ‘the atmosphere of the estate and the allied river did provide a nurturing element’.

While many of London’s post-war estates are now viewed as dangerous, unsavoury places to live, with a negative impact on health, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier is regarded as the having mastered the difficult art of providing better living conditions for those in over-crowded cities. Sinclair and his wife Anne set off on the trail of Le Corbusier, taking a train to Marseilles where they stay with Jonathan Meades, the English writer and film-maker, who has lived in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation apartment building since 2011. ‘Le Corbusier and Meades were always destined to come together,’ writes Sinclair, telling us that Meades has suffered ill health in recent years and that the building has played an almost medicinal function in aiding his recovery. Sinclair is clearly in thrall to Le Corbusier, marvelling at the building’s curved lines and ocean-liner proportions.

‘In thrall to Le Corbusier’ (Photo by Iain Sinclair)

The final part of the book, ‘Out’, takes Sinclair to Mexico on a British Council-sponsored trip with fellow writers Irvine Welsh, Philippa Gregory and Philip Hoare. His usual routine of walking is interrupted: ‘I tried to walk, but it didn’t work,’ he says. While Sinclair and Hoare do venture out from their hotel, the result of their encounters reads like a travel article, with a peculiar flatness of tone.

Even so, as a whole, this is a thought-provoking book in which Sinclair, as usual, raises more questions than he answers, forging links between people and places as he makes his inquiries. It is clear from his arguments that it is not a simple equation of well planned buildings leading to well balanced and healthy residents. It is the individuals inside the buildings coming together to form a community that ultimately leads to a healthier and happier existence.

Ian Sinclair’s new book, Living with Buildings and Walking with Ghosts, is published by Profile

Julian Mash’s book is Notting Hill: A Walking Guide