Thank you to everyone who entered our competition to win a copy of Shelley Klein’s See-Through House. The winners are Jenny Berrisford and Keith Miller.
As the competition closes, we are sharing a Q&A with the author of the book:
– What was the catalyst for writing The See-Through House?
The catalyst was the death of my father. Writing the book was a way of keeping both him and my mother (who died in 2008) close to me, until I was ready to say good-bye to the house.
– What are your earliest memories of your family home, High Sunderland? When did you start to realise it was more than just a normal family home?
I have so many early memories of High Sunderland, but the encompassing one is the physical and emotional warmth of the place, and the light and colours that poured into the house from outside. I don’t believe I realized how special the house was until I reached my late teens/early twenties.
– The book is structured as if on a walk from room-to-room in High Sunderland. Can you tell us a bit about this choice?
Before I started writing the book, I knew I needed a solid structure in order to hold all the different timelines and strands together. Given the story was essentially about why my father came to build High Sunderland and what the house meant to both him and the family, it suddenly occurred to me that it also provided the perfect form on which to build the book.
– The book is full of beautiful photos of the house and your father’s work. How did you go about sourcing archive materials and researching the finer details of your father’s life?
I was very fortunate in that most of the photographs in the book come from either our family albums or from publicity shots taken throughout my childhood, and of which we owned copies. In addition, my father wrote Eye for Colour (1965) from which I was able to glean details of his life as well as the many ideas he had on design. I was also fortunate enough to have spent time with him in later life talking about his childhood memories.
– High Sunderland was central to the 60s and 70s fashion world. What effect did this have on you as a child and a teenager?
The fact that our house was part of the fashion world never really dawned on me either as a small child or a teenager. The fashion shows and photography shoots were fun to watch, but they were very much part of my parents’ working lives and therefore didn’t feel exceptional. Really, it’s only looking back that I appreciate how special the house and that time was, and how lucky I was to have grown up there.
– You quote Virginia Woolf several times in the book, is her work an inspiration to you? Were there any other authors you found particularly inspiring while you were writing The See-Through House?
Virginia Woolf has long been a favourite author of mine: Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse in particular, and the subterranean vicissitudes of her characters. While writing the book I was also re-reading a lot of D.H. Lawrence, for example The Rainbow and Women in Love. Since university I’ve had an enormous affection for these two novels, particularly the way Lawrence wrote about landscape and nature and his use of colour. Gudren and Ursula’s coloured silk stockings, for example!
– How did it feel growing up with such an artistically prolific father? Did you find this encouraged or suppressed your own creativity?
Fortunately, it encouraged me. Both my parents were very enthusiastic when any of us made things or painted or wrote something creative. It was their way of life, something I watched my father in particular do every day, in one form or another. It therefore felt natural to incorporate that way of being into my own life.
– In the book you say that, in a sense, High Sunderland will always belong to you and your family – how does this sit with you now the house has been sold?
I use a quote from Emily Dickinson at the beginning of the book. ‘One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted/One need not be a house.’ I am haunted by High Sunderland. It’s with me wherever I go and as such I will always feel it belongs to the family, but I do hope the new owners love it as much as we did and that they are very happy there.
Thank you to those of you who tuned in to our third virtual event! If you missed Prof. Neil Jackson’s tour of Japan with photos by John East of our 2017 trip, you can re-watch it here.
If you donated £10 or more during the event, or up until Thursday 11th June, you will receive 4 greeting cards with different photographs of Japan architecture taken by John East.
Thank you to those of you who tuned in to our second virtual event . If you missed John East’s slide show about Indian architecture from our recent trip you can watch it here.
If you donated £10 or more during the event, or up until Wednesday 27th May, you will receive 4 greeting cards with different photographs of Indian Modernist architecture taken by John East.
Last week, we hosted our first ever C20 live online event which was a great success. Hundreds of you tuned in to listen to Catherine, our Director chat with Chad, one of the authors of Lair: Radical Homes and Hideouts of Movie Villains about the architecture of villains hideouts in movies. Thank you for tuning in and for your generous donations.
If you missed the event, you can re-watch it here.
In preparation for C20 Society’s first Zoom event tonight, I’ve been reading the book Lair: Radical Homes and Hideouts of Movie Villains, and (of course) also packing in some film watching.
I’ve also been talking to author Chad Oppenheim, to make sure the technology will run smoothly and plan the format of the conversation. Getting the right balance between rehearsing questions and ensuring spontaneity was a concern, but in practice both our work schedules has more or less enforced the spontaneous approach—which I think will be for the best.
The book looks in detail at 15 films, some of which I knew already, but some have been new to me and quite a surprise. I don’t think I would have picked a film described by The Telegraph as “a pornographic fiasco” for watching during lockdown without this prompt (although on reflection that combination of review source and assessment is at the very least intriguing) …. But Body Double, Brian De Palma’s extraordinary Hitchcock inspired shocker not only has John Lautner’s octagonal Chemosphere as a setting, but some superb scenes in a 1980s POMO shopping mall, which I’d love to know more about. Plus, the 80s hairdos are memorable, and the colours fantastic.
Much more muted in palate is the most recent of the films. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina dates from 2014 and combines two recent Norwegian buildings to give the impression of a single location – the Juvet Landscape Hotel and the Summer House, both in Norway, and designed by the practice Jensen and Skodvin in 2007-9 and 2012-14respectively. This is the film that had me Googling to plan a post-lock down trip—I’d love to stay at the Juvet Hotel—the expansiveness of the views over stunning mountain scenery, the sparse, austere beauty of timber and concrete construction are pretty far from my overstuffed home in SE17. I could do with a dramatic change.
A quote from Roman Polanski included in the book helped me realise why in fact the majority of the “lairs” are not real houses, but complex sets. He points out: “The light, it changes constantly… its doesn’t necessarily follow your shooting schedule. So it has to be built, and whatever you see through those windows, it has to be added.” Its obvious once you think about it, but I hadn’t really grasped that before. For Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, Art Director David Scheunemann built just the façade of the ex-prime minister’s retreat (which is meant to be in Martha’s Vineyard), on the German island Usedom. The modernist interiors were all constructed in a studio, and the two subsequently spliced together.
We’ll share the list of films after the event and let us know your favourites and in which “lair” you would most like to be locked down yourself. And if you would like to joint the conversation this evening, please sign up here.
Have you been thinking about becoming a C20 member and supporting our campaign to protect outstanding C20 architecture? Now is the time!
This month, in association with @vintagebooks we will be giving away a free copy of The See-Through House by Shelley Klein to one lucky new member to join before 1st June.
Join C20 Society here to be entered in the draw.
Are you already a C20 member? You could win a copy too! Look our for our social media announcements about the giveaway this week on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and either tweet or comment with a few words about why you enjoy being a C20 Society member before 1st June and we will enter you into the members’ draw.
Terms & Conditions:
It’s my turn now to report on the impact remote working is having on what I do. Whilst the caseworkers suffer the frustrations of not being able to get out for site visits, or to libraries and archives for research, lockdown is proving challenging across other aspects of our work too.
Perhaps surprisingly getting press coverage for threatened buildings has been achievable— in fact there’s a definite appetite for stories that have nothing to do with coronavirus, and journalists are used to contacting us by social media or over the phone. So we’ve had some good coverage, including mentions in The Times.
Our press officer Wendy Akers has been one of our loyal volunteers who has kept working for us even though the camaraderie of the office has been lost, and she has been joining in Zoom discussions on a weekly basis.
Pulling together the magazine has been a challenge— both David Attwood (Deputy Editor) and our designer James Hunter, have been extraordinarily persistent and resourceful, but it’s not been easy. Normally we review content and layout at full size, with pages laid out across the floor between us: this time I’ve been squinting at a laptop screen. Thankfully photographer Phil Sayer had managed to visit Margate on a sunny day before lockdown, so we had his lovely set of pictures for “Me and My House”, but with several contributors unable to leave their houses, sorting out the illustrations for the Ephemera section and some of the features was far from straight forward. Quite a lot of photo libraries are closed, postage has been erratic, and not everyone has been able to extract files from work place computers without a lot of hassle. Many people are now working around home schooling and other unusual commitments, and fitting us in has been one more task to add to the complexity. So a huge thank you to everyone who’s played a part, and yes, final sign off was achieved today, and so the printers should be rolling later this week.
I’ve also been planning some online events and governance has switched to Zoom, with Trustees meetings following a similar format to our online Casework ones. Right now we are working out what to do about the AGM— it’s a legal requirement to have one, but apparently that too can be virtual if necessary.
I’m really missing seeing my colleagues in the office at Cowcross Street, and keeping my daughter profitably occupied whilst I’m working has not been straightforward (I can’t say I 100% shared her joy at the cancellation of all her GCSEs!), but with everyone in the team really committed to what we do, making the switch and keeping the momentum going has been easier and more pleasurable than I anticipated.
Next month, in collaboration with Vintage Books, we will be giving away a free copy of Shelley Klein’s new book: The See-Through House. Competition rules will be announced soon but in the meantime, here’s a bit more about the publication and an extract to read over the weekend…
The See-Through House is a book about saying goodbye to a much-loved family home. It is also a very funny account of looking after an adored yet maddening parent and a piercing portrait of the grief that followed his death.
Shelley Klein grew up in the Scottish Borders, in a house designed on a modernist open-plan grid; with colourful glass panels set against a forest of trees, it was like living in a work of art.
Shelley’s father, Bernat Klein, was a textile designer whose pioneering colours and textures were a major contribution to 1960s and 70s style. As a child, Shelley and her siblings adored both the house and the fashion shows that took place there, but as she grew older Shelley also began to rebel against her father’s excessive design principles.
Thirty years on, Shelley moves back home to care for her father, now in his eighties: the house has not changed and neither has his uncompromising vision. As Shelley installs her pots of herbs on the kitchen windowsill, he insists she take them into her bedroom to ensure they don’t ‘spoil the line of the house’.
Threaded through Shelley’s book is her father’s own story: an Orthodox Jewish childhood in Yugoslavia; his rejection of rabbinical studies to pursue a life of art; his arrival in post-war Britain and his imagining of a house filled with light and colour as interpreted by the architect Peter Womersley.
A book about the search for belonging and the pain of letting go, The See-Through House is a moving memoir of one man’s distinctive way of looking at the world, told with tenderness and humour and a daughter’s love.
An extract from the book:
Ever since my mother died a year ago, I have known that Beri wanted me to come back and live with him. This is not because he can’t cope on his own, for despite being eighty-five years old he is still very capable. But he’s lonely and isolated and my older brother and sister (Jonathan and Gillian) have families to look after and jobs that they can’t just up and leave, which leaves only single, self-employed, childless me.
I jump out of the van and crunch my way across the front courtyard, where Beri gives me one of his great big bear hugs. There are thirty-nine years between us, one world war, five languages and two countries, but Beri and my mother, Peggy, have given me the only two things truly worth having: love and security.
‘This is nice, isn’t it?’ he beams and I nod because it’s true. It is nice to be back, for despite leaving High Sunderland nearly twenty-seven years previously to go to university in London and despite having lived in numerous rented flats throughout the city and more recently my fisherman’s cottage in Cornwall, I still consider High Sunderland the only real ‘home’ I have ever had. I was born here and I grew up here and every year since, no matter what was happening in the rest of my life, I have spent at least one or two weeks here during the summer and every Christmas with the exception of two.
I step into the hallway and immediately breathe in a mixture of familiar smells: paprika, woodsmoke and freshly ground coffee. It is the most relaxing smell in the world. A smell that says I am back where I belong. But ten minutes later, just as I am carrying all my stuff into the hallway from the van, my mood takes a turn for the worse…
BERI: Would you mind putting those somewhere else?
SHELLEY: Why? They look nice here.
BERI: Why don’t you put them in your bedroom? If you wouldn’t mind?
SHELLEY: But they’re herbs. They’re for cooking with –
BERI: They’d be better off in your bedroom –
SHELLEY: I’m not trotting through to the bedroom every time I need a bit of thyme.
BERI: Suddenly you can’t walk a little?
SHELLEY [irritated]: What have you got against herbs?
BERI: They’re messy –
SHELLEY: They’re plants –
BERI: They’re messy plants. Except for the chives.
SHELLEY: And the chives have what going for them that the others haven’t?
BERI: They’re vertical.
SHELLEY [through gritted teeth]: All plants are vertical.
BERI: But some are more vertical than others –
SHELLEY: You’re joking, right?
BERI: They spoil the line of the house –
SHELLEY: The WHAT?
BERI [patiently, as if explaining something to an imbecile]: The line of the house.
And that was that. I knew immediately there was no point continuing to fight the herbs’ corner (or, in this case, windowsill).
For as long as I can remember, it has been understood within our family that High Sunderland is not simply a house. One close friend, Jenny, described it as ‘a Mondrian set within a Klimt’ because with its series of colourful glass panels set against a backdrop of birch and fir trees, it is like living within a work of art. Not only that, but the house, which was built in the modernist vernacular, dictates how one should live, what one should pay attention to and what one should ignore. It is a deceptively simple structure yet ultimately a highly complex amalgamation of ideas and ideals, a timepiece and a time machine as well as a combination of two men’s ambitions: that of the architect – Peter Womersley – whose first proper commission this was, and a young Yugoslavian émigré to Britain – my father – who commissioned the project. Over the next fifty-six years Beri was to become so attached to High Sunderland it was almost impossible – to my mind, at least – to separate the two things out from each other.
My father was the house.
The house was my father.
Built in the late Fifties, High Sunderland makes no apologies for looking towards the future rather than gazing nostalgically towards the past. Like Beri himself, whom an acquaintance once noted was ‘far more modern than any of his children’, High Sunderland is more up to date than most contemporary housing. As you approach it from the driveway through a thick forest of pine trees, it appears at the top of the hill as a low-slung series of interconnecting boxes and grids. Planes of both clear and coloured glass are interlaced with white, horizontal beams that in their turn are balanced between sections of ridged Makore wood that because they don’t lie flat, lend each panel a tactile quality normally reserved for fabric. At night, when the internal lights are switched on and you are standing outside, the effect is of a light box effortlessly floating above the ground while during the day the various panels of yellow and green have all the luminosity of boiled sweets. But although as an adult I appreciate the unique beauty of High Sunderland, this was not always the case.
This is the first bit of studio pottery I ever bought. It’s by Mike Dodd and I had lifted it down from the shelf and handled it several times before I finally spent what seemed an enormous amount of money on it. It was for sale at the old Craftsman Potter Shop on Marshall Street, where I often browsed when checking out the Soho fabric shops I visited to feed my teenage dress-making habit. I think I was eighteen and I loved being in central London.
Why have I picked this object now? It feels right for the times we find ourselves in, it has a simplicity and authenticity which appeals, and it makes me feel nostalgic and reflective, so these paragraphs are unashamedly personal and associative.
I like pots. I went to pottery classes after school from when I was four, initially for the pragmatic reason that they happened only a few hundred yards from where we lived. Mary Park, who ran them, was exotic and arty, with four almost grown up and seemingly incredibly glamorous children of her own. The pottery was in a modern single story extension to her Edwardian house in Strawberry Hill. There was a library of art books to browse, all of them dusty and smeared with clay, whereas at home books were precious, and even turning over the corner of a page to mark your place was sacrilegious. If you forgot to bring your own overall, Mary leant you one of hers, usually an old sequin embellished dress, like the books, it would be heavy with dried slip where she’d wiped her hands on it, and at least initially, was floor length on me. One time an advert was filmed in her kitchen, and whilst my parents were focussed on academic success, Mary projected a been-there-done that attitude that there was more to life than formal education. I never asked her about it, but I knew that she was related to Virginia Woolf (who I’d seen photographs of, and knew wrote novels) all of which added to the mystique. Checking back now I’ve worked out that Woolf was Mary’s mother’s cousin, but in fact her mother was an almost equally remarkable woman. Mary had (in my mother’s opinion) “rejected her mother’s values”, her mother being Dame Janet Vaughan, physiologist and expert on haematology and radiation pathology. From 1945 to 1967, she was Principal of Somerville College, Oxford, when both the future Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher were there, and when I was potting with her daughter she was still publishing innovative research, and serving on committees. I wish I had met her.
When I was in the Sixth-form I started doing pottery at school, which was a glorious relief from the double maths and physics that filled most of my timetable. Our teacher also took our small group out to look at pots and introduced us to the Craftsman Potter shop. I think this jug was an eighteenth birthday present to myself. I loved its billowing speckled belly and the seemingly artless marks on its surface. Mike Dodd describes as these as “texture for glaze to hang in” and collects a miscellaneous selection of proper tools, appropriated objects (the meat tenderiser from his daughter’s cooking set, for instance) and self-constructed wooden bats and rollers to make them, liking the fact that its not obvious what’s been used where.
I didn’t know anything about Mike Dodd at the time I bought the jug, but met him subsequently. The jug travelled with me to University and back every term, which in retrospect seems obsessive. I think I was channelling William Morris’ “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, (and I was pretty convinced that “or” should be replaced with “and”). But although I have used it occasionally for parties, I always thought it was too big have around every day. Its real appeal was that it seemed to me to be a quintessential generous jug. In a film made in 2011 Mike Dodd describes his admiration for country pottery that is “strong and made with urgency”, which has an “inherent integrity”, and recalls himself “in tears” as an undergraduate in the Fitzwilliam Museum at “the vitality and quality” of pots he admired there. I don’t think I have ever wept over my jug, but I too sought solace and inspiration in the Fitzwilliam (which is practically next door to the architecture building where I studied in Cambridge).
For a while I bought a lot of contemporary ceramics, and sought out their makers. Now my house is too full, and my acquisitive urges have diminished, but although I’m increasingly ambivalent about the role of objects in my life, the jug still makes me feel grounded.
My jug always gives me a good, warm feeling, especially now when going to art galleries is impossible, and holding it afresh it now seems a good size to actually use as a water jug.
There is a great film where Mike Dodd talks about how the pressure of modern life and the “busy-ness/business” of life “closes us down”. His observation that “if that can quieten down, you can begin to see things that relate to your own inner vitality rather than intellectual thought processes”, That seems a good message for where we are right now. He also explains how in order to avoid a “disconnect from nature” he developed glazes ground from raw materials collected from local quarries and wood ash he prepared himself. In the jug the results are literally fused to add colour and lustre. That forming of direct links to nature also feels very current, and possible even locked down in SE17.