Facsimile Magazine
Model Settlement for Cats by Julia TcharfasModel Settlement for Cats by Julia TcharfasModel Settlement for Cats by Julia Tcharfas
Facsimile Magazine, published by Haoyan of America.
ISSN 1937-2116. Volume Five, Number One

Hello Friends,

The January 2011 edition of Facsimile brings together a diverse group of texts, images and videos centered around the idea of Housing Problems. Whilst trawling the archives, we focus our attention on ideas at the fringes of modern dwelling, from homeless people to peopleless homes, housing and housing projects, to self-built dream homes and utopian architecture. Although squatting, occupation, dwelling and construction recur often, the issue is by no means an exhaustive account, but rather a personal and associative montage of narratives, images and textures that point to the ongoing complexity of where to lay your head at night. We take as a given that the category of housing is a social construct, and that solutions to the "problem" of housing are always cultural and political. Housing is a stage for self expression in daily life, as much as it is an emblem of cultural value and the site of conflicts. Housing problems are emblematic of the ongoing battle to define the norms of everyday life - a concept that is tested at the limit by some of the ideas presented here.

- Tim Ivison & Julia Tcharfas

Housing Problems (1935)

Toward New Forms of Dwellers; Various Sketches and Model Settlements for Cats (1-3)

Sketch of model settlement for cats no. 1 by Julia Tcharfas Sketch of model settlement for cats no. 2 by Julia Tcharfas Sketch of model settlement for cats no. 3 by Julia Tcharfas

The Global One-Night House

"It was a notion held among the peasantry in olden times, that he who could in one night erect a 'Mushroom Hall' or a 'now-or-never', without hindrance from the officials of the manor, had obtained a copyhold right to the land."

- Richard Health The English Peasant 1

There is a belief around the world that if you can build a house between sunset and sunrise, then the owner of the land cannot expel you. There are many variations on this theme. The condition might be that the roof is in place, or that a pot is boiling on the fire, or that smoke can be seen emerging from the chimney. This last stipulation seems an impossible result of a single night's work, and it led me to wonder if the story was simply an account of events that could not really happen, like Birnam Wood's transplantation to Dunsinane.

Could this belief belong to the realm of fairy tale descriptions of the impossible, like Jack's fast-growing overnight bean-stalk? But collectors of fairy stories from many countries were unable to help me find one depending upon the magic of overnight house-building. Yet it is remarkable how, if you visit villages in many parts of rural Britain, your hosts will draw attention to a particular cottage, sometimes long and narrow and close to the roadside, but sometimes eccentrically sited on the village green, and will explain that it was said to be a squatter house, originally built in a night.

Sometimes searches into manor court rolls in the county record office show that the legend is well-founded and that the building of the cottage may have been legitimized by local definitions of "squatters' rights" or regularised by the imposition of annual fines which became converted into rents, or eventually, to freehold tenure.

The concept of the one-night house has an astonishing global distribution, sometimes as folklore, sometimes, it is said, as customary law, or even at statutory law. For example, in the self-organised invasions of land on the fringe of the cities of Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century, the occupation of the chosen site takes place once darkness has fallen, and token walls of straw matting or corrugated sheeting are erected. Sometimes, according to the whims of the ruling regimes, the police swoop in the morning, in which case another later invasion happens, and another, until the settlers are left in peace. Eventually, the dwelling is given a roof, as John Turner noted, "a common and heartening scene in villages and squatter settlements throughout Peru is the celebration of roofing a house, a ritual occasion that brings family and friends together." 2

Novelists and film-makers love the folklore of the one-night house for its dramatic possibilities, and they enjoy especially the symbolism of the local community pooling its efforts to provide a house for a new couple, celebrating not only the formation of a new family but the goodwill and solidarity of the village or neighbourhood. Thus the Cumbrian poet Robert Anderson (while forgetting the fact that clay or mud walls have to be built in stages and allowed to dry out), joyfully described the festive atmosphere of the construction of an earthen-walled house at the end of the 18th century:

"That everything might be done in order, and without confusion, a particular piece of work is assigned to each labourer. Some dig the clay, some fetch it in wheelbarrows, some heave it upon the walls. The rustic girls (a great many of which attend on the occasion), fetch the water with which the clay is softened, from some neighbouring ditch or pond. When the walls are raised to their proper height, the company have plenty to eat and drink: after which the lads and lasses, with faces incrusted with clay and dirt, take a dance upon the clay-floor of the newly-erected cottage." 3

Il Tetto movie poster

The Italian version of the folk-lore of the one-night house was the subject of Vittorio De Sica's film Il Tetto (The Roof) which appeared in 1956. The script was written by Cesare Zavattini, who based it on the experiences of a couple expecting their first child, whose income was not enough to buy them shelter, and who decided to build a hut in a settlement called Val Melaina. Apart from the use of their own labour, a builder specialising in clandestine building would have to be employed, and the materials would have to be purchased in advance.

Zavatini suggested to Rossellini that a film company should pay the cost of the materials, (about 60,000 lire at that time), in return for the right to film the operation. This proposal came to nothing, but Zavattini pursued the idea with Vittorio De Sica and eventually they made the film.

Michele Gandin's account of the making of the film provides us with details of the illicit house-building sector of the 1950s in northern Italy. Apparently, if the police arrived before the roof was laid, the builder was subject to heavy fines, and the building would be demolished. If the roof was there and the building occupied, security had been won. It became a matter for the endlessly protracted procedures of the civil courts, usually sympathetic to the plight of the young couple and their child. The convention of building in the hours of darkness with concrete blocks and cement-and-lime mortar, with no time allowed for the structure to dry out in stages, added to the difficulties and disappointments of this method, but also to the drama of the film. 4

A more recent film, La estrategia del coracol (The Snail's Strategy) made in Colombia in 1993, seeks to dramatise the belief that its director, Sergio Cabrera, describes as a remnant from ancient Germanic law, claiming that so long as there is no trace of a break-in to the site and that it is furnished with a table and four chairs, a house built in one night, if it has a roof, cannot be torn down. 5

La estrategia del coracol movie poster

In eastern France, a scholar, G. Jeanton, from the Bresse region around Macon, described how it was generally understood there that every individual had a right to appropriate a portion of the commune's land and to build a house between sunset and sunrise. If the house was finished by dawn, the constructor's right to the land was recognised by local custom, and "up to the present time (1923) none of the communes seem to have disputed that right." He explained how the younger members of poor families would sometimes spend the whole winter preparing the woodwork of their house with their parents and friends. On a fine night when all was ready, the family would assemble on a patch of waste land, and with great agility would erect the house "rustic, no doubt, but complete from its wooden threshold to its thatched roof," and "when the sun rose, its rays would shine on the bunch of flowers that the peasant architects had placed at the top of the roof." 6

Writing many years later, in 1939, Jeanton explained that a man who already had a house could not claim the right to build a one-night house, that the house could be inherited by descendants, that if it were sold the commune had to be compensated for the value of the ground, and that sometimes a small rent was payable to the commune. The legal position was uncertain, despite the Civil Code and a batter of lawyers. In some districts a man who wanted to build could apply to the commune and be granted permission without the obligation to build in one night.

It had been suggested that this right was a survival from Roman Law, but Jeanton remarks that the same custom is found in Cornwall where Roman Law had not applied. He suggests that it is more likely to derive from ancient Indo-European folklore. 7

Turkey has a similar long tradition of recognition for a particular special status for the house built between sunset and sunrise. A long time ago the authors of a study of global housing issues explained that "In Turkey, where perhaps half of Ankara's 1.5 millions live in this way, there are gecekondu -- acknowledging the fact that, to avoid instant legal destruction, any temporary dwelling has to be erected in a single night between dusk and dawn." 8 Their most recent admirer is the philosopher Roger Scruton who sees the contemporary gecekondu as "the happiest example of modern urbanisation that I know," and explains that, "These grew up as a result of an old Ottoman law which contains all the wisdom that a city needs. According to this law (the validity of which has never been tested), anyone who finds a plot of land that is neither owned nor used can establish title to it, on condition that he erects a dwelling the in the space of a night. (gece = night; kondurmak = to find lodgings). The result is a miracle of harmonious settlement: houses of one or two storeys, in easily handled materials such as brick, wood and tiles, nestling close together, since none can lay claim to any more garden than the corners left over from building, each fitted neatly into the hillside, and tracks running among them through which no cars can pass. In time the residents cover them with stucco and paint them in those lovely Turkish blues and ochres; they bring electricity and water, they light their little paths not with glaring sodium lights but with intermittent bulbs, twinkling from afar like groudned galaxies." 9

Similarly, in the case of squatter settlements in Latin America, favourable circumstances can enable those overnight adventures to form communities that evolve in about fifteen years into fully-serviced suburbs, providing livelihoods as well as homes, through people's ability to turn their labour into capital. This is something that neither government nor the market economy can do for the least influential of citizens.

The British equivalent of belief in the special qualities of the one-night house is explored in the chapters that follow. It has survived best in the memories and folk-lore of the Welsh, as can be gathered from chapters 4 and 5. One of those who celebrated it, particularly in the context of friends and neighbours building a next for a newly espoused couple was the Welsh author High Evans who described how he had never met a happier-looking woman than Ellen Richards, who had reared six children in her turf cottage, with it peat fire. "The poor cottage was her castle," he remembered, "and love transmuted everything into gold." Lest we should accuse him of sentimentality, he described the way she had managed, and explained that:

"The caban unnos, a squatter's cottage of turf, is a hut built in one night, hence the name. If a man put up a cottage between sunset and sunrise and if he lit a fire on a hearth and sent smoke through a chimney, it was a recognised custom that he might remain in possession of the house although it was built on common land. Sometimes this happened when a bachelor took it into his head to get married and to set up house. His friends would gather at twilight and work all night to construct the turf hut; it was one of the conditions that the house should be complete with the chimney smoking before sunrise the next morning, and if there was time and labour enough a turf wall would be raised to enclose a garden. Hundreds of such houses were built, and hundreds were filched from the rightful owners by the schemes and trickery of the landowners." 10

The intriguingly widespread folklore of the one-night house seems to be an attempt to find a loophole in the stranglehold of land-ownership to create an opportunity to change a family's destiny. And the fact that the examples I have cited of this tradition attribute its origins almost at random to old Germanic law, Roman law, old Ottoman law and Indo-European tradition, show very clearly that nobody knows where this ancient subversive legend came from, but that we all have an interest in claiming its legitimacy.

Peter Sparkes of the Faculty of Law at Southampton kindly suggested to me the links between the different legal traditions I had mentioned, speculating that "the universality of this supposed custom must mean that it derives either from Roman law (Ottoman law is Roman law as applied to the eastern empire) or from Germanic custom. Roman law basically applied to south-western parts of Europe and Germanic custom to the north-eastern parts. The case you discuss at Macon is interesting because in pre-revolutionary France this lay just about on the border between two laws..." 11

No authority I have consulted, however, suggests any legislation or example in case law that refers to this belief. All the same, in many human societies there is a belief that access to land, regardless of the kings, conquerors, robber barons or bureaucrats of the past, must be a natural right for the current generation of humanity. This was beautifully expressed in the 18th century by Thomas Spence in a work with a memorable title. It is: "A Lecture read at the Philosophical Society in Newcastle on November 8th, 1775, for Printing of which the Society did the Author the Honour to expel him." 12

Spence explained to his audience that the first land-holders were usurpers, and tyrants over "poor dependent needy wretches" and that the same must apply to those who have since possessed the land by inheritance or purchase,

"...And any of them still can, by laws of their own making, oblige every living creature to remove off his property (which, to the great distress of mankind, is too often put in execution); so of consequence were all the landholders to be of one mind, and determined to take their properties into their own hands, all the rest of mankind might go to heaven if they would, for there would be no place found for them here." 13

The Highland Clearances in Scotland were an immediate illustration of the point he was making, as were the side-effects of Enclosure in England. Over a century before Spence, Gerrard Winstanley declared that "the poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man." He held the view, widespread among the radicals of his day, that it was the Norman Conquest which had deprived the people of their land, and that with the deposition of Charles I, the ultimate heir of William I, the people had won back the land by the same right of conquest. He thus added the argument of a legal title to that of a natural right.

Many cultures around the world have a traditional belief that the land is naturally the common property of the people. "The landlord owns the peasants but the peasants own the land" is a Russian saying from the days when the rich measured their wealth in 'souls'. In England and Wales, most people assume that the pathetic remnants of the common land are in fact common property. This belief itself can be seen as a precious survival of ancient popular wisdom. For in legal fact, as the historians of the commons explain, "all common land is private property. It belongs to someone, whether an individual or a corporation, and has done from time immemorial." But they go on to conclude that

"Common rights were not something specifically granted by a generous landlord, but were the residue of rights that were once more extensive, rights that in all probability antedate the idea of private property and land, and are therefore of vast antiquity." 14

And in all probability, so too is the belief that, despite the claim by the powerful to be monarchs of all they survey, the poor and homeless can, overnight, win a place in the sun.


  1. Richard Heath The English Peasant, London: Fisher Unwin 1893 p.87.
  2. John Turner "The Re-education of a Professional" in John F.C. Turner and Robert Fichter (eds) Freedom to Build, New York: Macmillan 1972 p.133.
  3. Robert Anderson, cited in Anthony Quiney Wall to Wall, London: BBC Publications 1994.
  4. Michele Gandin (ed) Il Tetto di Vittorio De Sica, Milano: Cappelli Editore 1956 pp.29 and 53.
  5. La estrategia del caracol (1993), directed by Sergio Cabrera. (Information from Fancesca Leita of Centro Espressioni Cinematographiche, Udine).
  6. G. Jeanton in Maconnais Traditionaliste et Populaire Tome IV (1923) cited in 7. Below.
  7. G. Jeanton "Les maisons construites en une nuit" in Revue de Folklore Fracais Vol 10 No 2, Avril-Juin 1939 pp.33-39.
  8. Peter Wilsher and Rosemary Righter The Exploding Cities, London: Andre Deutsch 1975 p.19.
  9. Roger Scruton "Under scrutiny" Perspectives Issue 32, December 1997/January 1998 p.91. The standard account is Kemal H. Karpat The Gecekondu: rural migration and urbanization in Turkey, New York: Cambridge University Press 1976.
  10. Hugh Evans (1854 - 1934) The Gorse Glen, trans. From the Welsh by E. Morgan Humphreys, D.N. and E.N. Lloyd A Book of Wales, London: Collins 1953 pp. 153-154.
  11. Peter Sparkes, personal communication 26 May 2000.
  12. Thomas Spence "A Lecture read at the Philosophical Society in Newcastle on November 8th, 1775, for Printing of which the Society did the Author the Honour to expel him." Reprinted in N. Beer (ed) The Pioneers of Land Reform, London: G. Bell & Sons 1920.
  13. Ibid.
  14. W.G. Hoskins and L. Dudley Stamp The Common Lands of England and Wales, London: Collins 1963.

Il Trasloco (Moving Out of The Future)

In 1972, Franco Berardi, aka 'Bifo', moved with a couple of friends into a flat at number 19 Via Marsili, in Bologna's medieval city centre. In January 1991, a young man from Iran, one from Zaire and the 41 year-old Bifo were evicted from that same flat by the landlord. In between those two dates, not only 19 years had passed through those walls, but also an incalculable amount of people, stories, political movements, zines, free radios, police raids, and all sorts of poetic and existential experiments.

Leaving such an extraordinary place was surely not going to be an easy thing to do. A friend of Bifo, a psychoanalyst, Felix Guattari, made a precise diagnosis of what would have been the impact of this 'moving out' (in Italian, trasloco) on those involved. 'I am afraid, you will be depressed for at least six months', he said. It was almost shyly that Bifo dared to question his friend's prediction. In bumping into another friend of his, the filmmaker Renato de Maria, at the Termini train station in Rome, Bifo desperately sighed 'But I don't want to be depressed!' Renato, who had lived in the flat in Via Marsili for some months as well, didn't lose his calm. 'No need to be depressed,' he said, 'let's take this into our hands and turn it upside down. Let's make a documentary!' Bifo took one second to think about it, then did what he had always done any time he had encountered an idea that resonated with him. 'Absolutely! Let's do it,' he replied. Less than twelve months later, on Christmas night 1991, the third channel of Italian State Television, Rai Tre, broadcasted a 75 minute documentary entitled 'Il Trasloco' ('Moving Out').

There is an unmistakable, melancholic element in the film. One that is in a way also hopeful and lively, as if it was the double-faced feeling of that kind of death that is necessary in order to be born again. We can only wonder how this desperate and joyful feeling would have hit us if we had been in front of Rai Tre on the night of December 25th, 1991, when 'Il Trasloco' was broadcast a few minutes after the news had shown the red flag going down forever on top of the Kremlin. On that day, the Soviet Union disappeared, the First Gulf War reached its 145th bloody day and the world entered a new age which, maybe, is only starting to end today.

Watching 'Il Trasloco' in 2010 is indeed like looking into another universe. It is not a matter of distance in terms of chronological time, but of the unbridgeable distance between two different registers of time. The flat in via Marsili wasn't just a space in which a number of politically utopian and radical people had lived and worked, rather, it was an entrance to a time in which utopia was already happening. In other words, it wasn't an else-where, it was an else-when. It is this connection to what Walter Benjamin calls Jetztzeit, the messianic and revolutionary 'now-time' that breaks with chronology, that made Via Marsili one of the most vibrant places of life experimentation throughout the wildfire of the 1960s and '70s, as well as during the spiritual desert of the '80s.

While the rooms of the flat are slowly being emptied of all furniture, some of the people that lived there appear and disappear from the documentary, creating a uniquely disjointed texture of narrative, memory and performance. The famous history of the Italian Autonomia movement seems to fade into the background, outshone by the simple charm with which friends seem to be talking to each other through a camera, rather than to an unknown audience watching them on screen.

Yet, the experience of Autonomia in the 1970s is an important key to understand a place, like Via Marsili, that today almost seems impossible. Those were the years when the Italian communist party was the strongest of its kind in the whole of Western Europe, when graffiti used to say 'A thousand flowers have blossomed / they are a thousand armed groups', while the Metropolitan Indian movement were shouting 'It is the time today / to work only one hour a day!' and the Italian government was sending the tanks to fight against rioting students. Although entirely set inside the flat, 'Il Trasloco' is traversed by a myriad of images and echos of those happenings, as if that place had been, throughout the years, more a ship deck than a house. The street constantly invades the rooms, turning what could have been a small community of flatmates into an endless stream of lives that flow together for some time, disband, and then, perhaps meet again.

It must have been difficult, at the time, to try and represent this type of living. Maybe, the decision of starting a pirate radio station worked both as a poetic and therapeutic strategy, as well as a political statement. Bologna's legendary Radio Alice still represents one of the brightest examples of how 'counter-information' has the potential of becoming a means to create new worlds, rather than to describe the existing one. It is not just by chance that Renato de Maria decided to cover the screen with a violently scratched, funereal background, when 'Il Trasloco' plays the recorded live broadcast of the police raid that closed Radio Alice forever on 12 March 1977. In fact, the struggle that the inhabitants of Via Marsili and the thousands of Autonomia people undertook during those years was political in the purest sense of the word. It wasn't an attempt to take power, or to push social change. It was the ultimate expression of an exaggerated desire for freedom; of what Autonomia theorist Toni Negri calls 'the creative power of the multitude' (puissance), as opposed to the domination of capital (pouvoir). Truly, a matter of life or death.

Watching 'Il Trasloco' in 2010 is, for us, as necessary as it was for Bifo shooting it in 1991.

We should try not to be seduced by the ability with which Renato de Maria waves an intricate visual flow and Bifo arranges together splinters of narratives with its storytelling. Despite the wit and fun that run throughout the film, 'Il Trasloco' talks to us about something difficult, almost uncomfortable. Even if, at first, the people on screen seem to be playfully mourning the loss of a utopia, in fact, at a closer listen, their words hide the hypnotic power of a calling. It matters little that this calling does not come from the realm of today's life. Perhaps, the place that contains the most existential potential is not supposed to share the same register of time of our current lifestyles. This is why the strange feeling that we might experience, that of watching images that come from the future rather than from the past, is actually deceitful. The time of 'Il Trasloco' is not the past, not the present nor the future. Its space is not limited by the walls of a flat in Bologna. As it happens with the best cinema or literature, the stage where the action takes place is nowhere outside of ourselves. Differently from most films or books, though, with 'Il Trasloco' the curtain only opens once the screening has ended. This is because it is not even a film. 'Il Trasloco' is a map. The challenge is for us to use it to travel further.

The translation and subtitling of Il Trasloco (Moving out of the future) is by Federico Campagna (Through Europe) and Richard John Jones and was commissioned by Auto Italia South East as a part of the High Performance Dropping Out series.

Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD): Living With Jim Beame

Charlie Woolley

Hut Palimpsest, 2008, 100cm x 50cm, Giclee Print
Museum Palimpsest, 2008, 100cm x 50cm, Giclee Print
Dave's Palimpsest, 2008, 100cm x 50cm, Giclee Print
Grass House, 2008, 100cm x 50cm, Giclee Print
Road House Palimpsest, 2008, 100cm x 50cm, Giclee Print
Tree House Palimpsest, 2008, 100cm x 50cm, Giclee Print


Who's Guarding the Guardians?

52 Gordon Square, Secured by Occupation. Photo by Tim Ivision
52 Gordon Square, Secured by Occupation. Photo by Tim Ivision

Britain is undergoing a housing crisis. The MP Jeremy Corbyn recently highlighted that London alone has 353,000 families languishing on social housing waiting lists, and 52,000 in temporary accommodation. In one year alone, 12,000 families were categorised as homeless. Their chances of obtaining decent, secure accommodation are very small.

A report by the National Housing Federation underlined a startling and tragic disparity. The average income in England is £25,000 a year. The average house price is £220,000. The gross annual income required to gain a mortgage is £56,000.

In London, the situation is much worse. With average house prices now at £362,000 and average income at £26,000, the average Londoner can never buy a property. Only those with an annual income of £93,000 are able to secure a mortgage.

Renting is no solution. In the emergency budget debate, George Osborne announced his plan to deal with the issue of local housing allowance spending - he wants to slash the bill by £1.8bn. This will hit private rented tenants hardest of all. Corbyn described the likely result as "a form of social cleansing in central London - and the centre of other cities - as the poor are driven out of 'high cost' housing areas".

At the same time there were 75,706 empty houses in London and 651,993 in England as a whole in 2009, according the Empty Homes Agency (EHA). That number has not shrunk.

With so many buildings unoccupied, an obvious solution would be to use the large number of empty properties. Squatters have been doing this for years.

52 Gordon Square (mid zoom). Photo by Tim Ivision

Squatting is still not a criminal offence in the UK, and squatters have the right not to be evicted without a court order.

In a more recent response to this crisis, "guardian property managers" such as Camelot Property Management Ltd and Ad Hoc Property Management have appeared. These are commercial organisations that profit from the human need for cheap, affordable housing by selling themselves as protectors of vacant property. They encourage temporary occupation by "guardians".

The "guardians" make payments to these companies to live in empty buildings, and to protect the private owners of the properties from squatters. This is touted as the "guardian scheme" solution to the housing problem.

One serious problem is that contracts between the property managers and the "guardians" do not mention the word "tenant" at all. The "guardians" have none of the rights enjoyed by tenants or even squatters. Camelot advertises a "watertight legal framework" for property owners: the occupier is described as a "licensee" paying a "fee", with no occupation or other rights.

This means those guarding properties are paying these companies large amounts of money to be in receipt of minimal living conditions. In order to kick squatters out, people are renting with limited protection of their rights.

Given the amount of empty buildings that this country is faced with, combined with the no-doubt rising numbers of homeless due to future cuts in housing and housing benefits, squatting is a logical solution to the housing/homeless matrix. In the squatting case, it is interesting that in order to seek a roof over one's head, one has to proceed with the law, as Dante would say. And it appears that squatting is more within the law than any guardian property contract.

Last week, Birkbeck University's law school ran a series of lectures discussing social rights and the role of law within our contemporary society. In the session on housing, one notable missing attendee was the invited John Mills, managing director of Camelot Property Management. An email received only an hour before the event proclaimed that the topics that were due for discussion deemed it inappropriate for him to attend. Discussions centred around these issues of licensing and tenants' rights, and it would have been beneficial for Camelot and the debate for Mills to have been there. The event covered the most relevant of issues that we face today within housing allocation, homelessness, squatting and guarding.

52 Gordon Square, Secured by Occupation (full zoom). Photo by Tim Ivision


I just saw a English subbed documentary from The Netherlands. Carefree vacant property.

Following tenants of Camelot and Ad Hoc.

Not having any security of tenure has its consequences. This documentary shows it all!

The Sohoods Collective: Mike Smith, Open House, Excerpts (1999)

The Sohoods Collective screenshot

Charles Mingus Eviction and Arrest

How To Build A Bunker

9 November 1989 - A Third Way

"How is it possible to occupy a third position, when a second no longer exists?"

- Hakim Bey, 1996

"Just Do It"

- Dan Wieden, Nike, 1988

In the first days of November 1989 the sky above London became as grey as the buildings over which it was spread and for more than a week the wind swept the streets with rain and hail. Frost covered the cars and the railway tracks turned to the whitest shade of steel.

At that time, I was living in a squat in an old pub in the southeast of the city. It was an area overcrowded with first generation immigrants living in tower blocks, the ruins of Victorian buildings and deserted industrial units.

We shared part of the pub with an elderly Irish gentlemen, Clem, whose main occupations seemed to be the compulsive collecting of any sort of crap he could find on the streets, and a tormented love story with a Brazilian transsexual hairdresser called Consuelo.

Next to Peckham Rye station, in a long corridor of wasteland at the end of the slope that divides the trains from the houses, the people from the squat and I had a small clandestine allotment where we grew most of what we needed to eat. Through prosperity and scarcity, it had fed us for more than two years.

On a morning of that November, at the end of another hailstorm, I closed behind me the fence that kept the allotment hidden, and lit a cigarette.

I walked slowly through the streets of Peckham keeping my hands tight in my coat pockets, as if trying to hold my wounded farmer's pride. That was not a good day: the frost had found our plants and had massacred them all.

I passed through the African market, throwing around envious looks at the stalls full of ripe tomatoes and other vegetables, until the street opened into a square of concrete where our squat rose like a fortress in a desert, with its windows boarded up and a white flag hanging from the old pub sign. As usual, I forced the door open with a phone card and I entered what had once been the billiard room. All my comrades were there, gathered on the group of sofas that were the only furnishings in the room, smoking cigarettes and gazing at each other in gloomy silence.

'What's going on?' I asked.

'The wall is falling,' a voice replied from behind a curtain of cigarettes.

'Shit.' I said, taking a can of beer from the floor and sitting on a sofa.

Not that I wasn't expecting it.

'There was too much pressure from the other side and even the reinforcements couldn't bear it,' continued the voice.

'Is it all completely down?'

'For now there is only a breach, but it will all be down soon for sure.'

'And now what?'

'Don't know. Clem is in a freaky state and there's no way of talking to him. Consuelo dumped him again. Which is the reason for all this.'

I could imagine the story already.

After Clem's umpteenth tantrum, Consuelo had told him to disappear and not look for her again. Devastated, Clem had jumped into his car and on his way home had one of his bulimic attacks of rubbish collecting, loading his car with anything he could find on the streets. Then he had attempted to put everything in his flat, in those two over-saturated rooms where he pretended to live. Of course, one of the walls, already unsteady, hadn't stood the pressure and had given way.

I could also imagine Clem in that exact moment. Curled up in a hole, in the middle of his piles of objects, drinking a cup of tea and staring at the floor.

I had another sip of beer and, just to break the tension in the room, added: 'Anyway, our allotment is fucked too. The frost killed all our plants.'

The audience kept silent, wrapped in the cloud of smoke.

'I just thought I'd tell you.'

I stood up, feeling the hellish cold of the room already numbing my legs.

'I'm going to check out that wall,' I said, moving away from that gloomy gathering.

I walked up the stairs that led to the first floor where our rooms and the kitchen were. I walked slowly, already tired of that day, wondering about the state of the kitchen, probably filled with Clem's crap coming out of the woodwork. I skipped a couple of loose steps on the stairs and placed my hand on the wall to steady my balance.

I climbed one more step. Then I stopped.

The wall was boiling. I touched it again, until my hand started to hurt. I tried another couple of steps further up. It couldn't be a water pipe, as no one in the building had water heating. The wall was even hotter further up the stairs. I ran to the top of the stairs, brushing my hand against the paint, which was progressively rising in bubbles along the wall. On the landing, even the air was hot. And from the kitchen there came an orangey, intermittent light, strangely familiar.

'Fuck! Hey! Come upstairs!' I screamed down the stairs.

Clem was really doing it this time.

'Oi! Come upstairs I say! Clem's set everything on fire!'

He had been talking about it for months. To end it all, setting everything on fire and burning himself together with all his rubbish.

'Like a Viking king!' he used to say.

The others finally stood up from their sofas and ran up the stairs. I entered the kitchen, unable to understand which one was the original hole in the wall that was now falling down altogether, with flames spreading all over Clem's collection on the floor.

For a moment it crossed my mind that there was a fair possibility that at any moment the whole building would collapse on our heads. But, for us, there was not much choice. We had already lost our plants that morning and if we were to lose our house too we would have been really fucked. That tiny fortress in Peckham was our 'third way', the only one we wanted to go through, and it was worth the risk.

We ran to the bathroom, rummaged in the kitchen and improvised a water-chain trying to tame the flames. One of us went to get our bed covers, soaked them with water and made his way to the other side of the wall, waving the covers crazily through the fire. We all followed him, moving blindly through the smoke, looking for the windows hidden somewhere behind piles of stuff.

Clem was sitting on the floor, half-intoxicated, still holding a cup of tea in his hand. We dragged him outside before throwing ourselves back into his flat, trying to gain control over the fire. I felt on the verge of collapsing, sunk as we were in a dense, hot smoke, completely lacking oxygen and madly anxious about the roof falling on our heads at any time.

And then, there is a gap in my memory.

I can just remember a blurry image of us sitting on the kitchen floor, exhausted, staring at the last puffs of smoke coming out of the holes in the wall and trying to get back our breath. I remember Clem, too, squatting in a corner on the landing next to the stairs, still holding his cup of tea and keeping his eyes on the floor, as if completely unaware of what had happened.

I still don't know how, but we managed to extinguish the fire and for that day, miraculously, the building had the grace not to collapse.

We decided not to call the fire brigade or the police. After all, our 'third way' demanded a bit of consistency, and not one among us had any desire to see public officers roaming through our rooms.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and the night tormented by nightmares, in which the floor was sinking under our beds, Clem was trying to start the fire again and black uniforms, called by the neighbours, were breaking into our squat to secure 'our own safety.'

The following morning, unusually early, we all gathered in the kitchen. No one had dared to turn on the kitchen fire to make coffee, so we all just stood in the middle of the room, smoking cigarettes and eating bits of leftover bread from days before. Clem was still asleep, kept calm by the sleeping pills we had given him on the previous night.

We did another quick raid on his flat, looking for any possible hidden fires under the layers of objects. We moved old bicycle frames, parts of cupboards, lamps, TV shells, avalanches of burnt pans, rotten books, mirrors, but we didn't find anything suspicious. We came out of that smoky sepulchre and decided to start working immediately. Either we fixed that wall, or everything would really fall down soon.

Some of us went outside to get some bricks, concrete and plaster, while the others remained inside to keep an eye on Clem and the situation.

The morning air was freezing, but all the clouds had gone. There was a sharp breeze and a photographic light, as if coming from an enormous spotlight set up in the sky.

Passing next to the place where the frozen corpse of our allotment hid, I surprised myself thinking that maybe we could still manage to get a bit of a harvest in the spring, if I were able to replant everything quickly enough. Something in me felt like smiling.

We stopped at a DIY shop to buy cement and plaster, then we stole a few dozen bricks from a building site and we also took a pile of unsold newspapers left outside a newsagent. We went back home, forcing the door as usual, and we were welcomed by the smell of some hot coffee that someone had bought from the builders' cafe nearby. We drank it in one gulp and ran back to the kitchen, pushed by all sorts of paranoid feelings.

A couple of us started mixing the cement, others did some preparatory work on the wall, some others put together the tools and another just smoked next to the door, pretending to keep an external overview on the whole thing. I took the pile of newspapers and cut the plastic band keeping them together. They were all from the previous day, 10 November 1989.

I have always had a strange relationship with newspapers, the same relationship I have with TV too. I never read them, by principle, but every time I happen to have a copy in my hands, regardless of its date, I cannot take my eyes off it.

That time, though, I made an effort to keep a certain distance and to focus only on separating the sheets and putting them next to each other on the kitchen floor, to avoid cement and plaster spreading all over the tiles.

And then - whether on purpose or not I don't know - I took one of the copies from the wrong side and the front page jumped in front of my face. There was a photo of a wall covered with graffiti and a lot of people were climbing on top of it. The headline shouted 'The Wall Has Fallen!'

Shit. I thought. I can't believe we didn't know about this. This really changes everything.

I looked around for a moment, trying to catch someone else's eyes. Everyone was working, and even those who were smoking earlier were now helping to pass out bricks or make cement. The spotlight in the sky now seemed to have moved in front of our window and an oblique light was drawing the silhouettes of each one of us on the wall.

Someone raised his head from the cement bucket and threw a glance at me.

'Hey!' He said. 'C'mon, make a move. As soon as we've finished with this we'll go out for a beer. We'll get some seeds for the allotment too.'

I remained still another moment, holding the newspaper in my hands.

He was right, goddamn.

For us, in our tiny fortress in Peckham, had anything really changed?

Jaques Tati - The House

Russian House

Colonizing Space

De Stad Was Van Ons (1996)

Kowloon Walled City

kowloon Walled City cross-section view kowloon Walled City cross-section view kowloon Walled City cross-section view
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