Kubler suggests that architecture is like an envelope. This is a useful, if partial, analogy. But let us take this idea of ‘envelope’ for a moment. An envelope suggests something that is wrapped around and contained, secure, private and that it prevents the contents being revealed. This is not actually what Kubler means, he is referring to aesthetics and art criticism. But we can explore the idea. If architecture is an ‘envelope’ then what we always see is the exterior. For someone ‘walking around’ looking at buildings that is the main visual imagery.
There is no insight into the interior of the buildings or any understanding of the political economy of the building, the power and profit making of the developers and construction companies, the everyday experience of the people who live here.
The relations of rent and landlord are not apparent from the design and planning of the buildings or the aesthetic relationships between mass and space. We learn nothing about title deeds, ground rents, land values, property speculation, mortgages, interest rates, rents (and their ratio to earnings) or tenancy agreements simply by looking at the buildings.
It is possible to observe the movement and interactions of people but a certain care is needed. These are people’s homes, children are playing in the streets, there may be squabbles and tensions between neighbours. There may be a suspicion and resentment of authority. Why is this unknown person taking photographs? Are they spying? Is this because we complained that the rents are going up? Discretion, invisibility, friendliness are all important mannerisms to adopt. What would you think and feel if you looked out of the window and someone was taking photographs of where you live?
A great deal has to be observed, sometimes quickly, whilst not appearing to be snooping. There appears to be a mix of people. Muslim women wearing headscarves and long dresses in a group who stop to speak to a young teenage man who has a sharp hair style and sharper clothes. They all clearly know each other. Some Asian kids who skip in and out of the road eating ice-creams. A woman who might be Vietnamese pushing a pram. A group of teenagers, some Black, some perhaps Turkish or Kurdish in a boisterous Saturday afternoon freedom sort of mood. A young man who could be Turkish or Kurdish gets out of Hermes van, with a Hermes t-shirt, delivering parcels.
I am well aware of the risks and mistakes of this sort of identification, but I use it for a purpose. The estate is multi-racial, and in all of the things I have read about New Frankfurt and its legacy, that’s something I’ve never picked up from books and journal articles.
I don’t get the sense that anyone here feels cowed or lacks confidence in who they are. That in itself is an important part of ‘atmosphere’ and ‘place’. Even if I have no idea what goes on between the people and I have no idea about what goes on within those envelopes.
But as I walked around on a sunny Saturday afternoon it felt peaceful and communal and just getting on with things. Because in one’s own experience that’s how it works. Where we live and work, most of the people, most of the time, get on. Particularly the workers.
I doubt that if a care worker, nurse, bus driver, factory worker, IT support worker or most other workers who lives on the Heimat Siedlung were introduced to people of similiar occupations on the Northworld Estate in Clapton, that they would have anything but good words about care workers, nurses, bus drivers, factory workers. And that could be expanded to introduce just about every city in the world.
The great practical and theoretical question (at least for me) is how we, on the left help to build that unity and amplify that basic class identity and potential solidarity and help turn it into something overtly political.
I walked around Frankfurt for hours and some of it felt propelled as if an unconscious power took me here and there. Why did I walk along this particular street in the Heimat Siedlung and stumble across these Stolperstein? Three Jewish people taken from their home. A modern, working class house, in a modern working class estate. And deported and murdered.
One can feel violence being whipped up which would repeat this once again. But so too are forces building to prevent it. And part of that force is an articulation of what working class life is actually all about. That can be found in every mine and mill (and housing estate); to paraphrase Joe Hill.