29 April 2011
A few days ago, we sat down with Alice Honor Gavin, our new docent in London. We asked her a few question about her life, her career and her unique PhD research.
Q:You are originally from Birmingham, what brought you to London in the first place?
I first left Birmingham to do a degree in History and English at Oxford. Oxford was something of a contrast after ‘Brum’ – a city with an extremely diverse population and a rich industrial history – and after finishing my degree I was ready again to live in a big city. I played guitar and sang in a band for a while, something I still do when I’m not in the British Library, and while our rock-star ambitions spectacularly dwindled I started an M.A. in European Culture at UCL. From there I went on to begin a PhD at the London Consortium, a multi-disciplinary graduate programme that partners Birkbeck (University of London) with Tate, the Architectural Association, the ICA, and the Science Museum.
Q:You are a lecturer on the City course at UCL. Can you tell us a little bit about this course and what it entails?
The ‘City’ course is a cultural studies course, and explores a range of cities as they are represented in various novels and films. I have taught three different seminars on it: one on the impact of New York on the European imagination in the first half of the twentieth-century, looking at Franz Kafka’s Amerika and the architect Le Corbusier’s account of his American tour in When The Cathedrals Were White: A Journey to the Country of Timid People (‘timid’, because Le Corb thought NY’s skyscrapers were ‘too small’); one on Samuel Beckett’s early novel Murphy and its unBeckettian specificity when it comes to London road and place names; and one on Jacobean ‘City Comedies’ – plays, such as Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass, that take London as their primary backdrop.
Q:Your PhD research deals with material architecture and architecture of the mind, how did you pick such a unique subject?
I’m interested in how spaces shape us and our ways of thinking. The basic unit of the ‘room’ is something that has changed hugely through the years. In the past, before corridors became prevalent, rooms were often also thoroughfares, while in the Victorian period the emphasis was placed on insulation and privacy. These architectural alterations have an impact on the way we engage with each other and on the way we think of the limits of own ‘interior’ space. The architectural historian Robin Evans asks a question that’s essentially a version of the ‘chicken and the egg’ : ‘which became more private first, the room or the soul’? I think it’s a fascinating question, and it’s interesting, for instance, to think about how an exploration of the psyche such as is involved in psychoanalysis is so intertwined with the specificity of its setting – a room, arranged in a certain fashion.
Q: London is always associated with the Tudor period or contemporary architecture, not many people consider the post-war architecture…what is so interesting about it?
Everything! It was an incredibly ambitious period in terms of social housing. It’s easy to sniff at estates that have since become run down due to a lack of maintenance and investment, or that were built on the quick in the first place by the Conservative government that replaced Labour in 1951 – in the immediate post-war period, Labour introduced the concept of ‘general needs’ construction, with the idea that social housing would eventually overtake market-led development generally, but the Tories shifted the emphasis back to the idea that ‘council housing is just for the working-classes’. It’s also to easy to forget the kinds of conditions these buildings were designed to replace: many of the first inhabitants moved in from slums to discover their own personal running water, indoor toilet, and well thought-out – and often very beautifully designed – spaces for living.
Today, many of the new private developments that go up have the adjective ‘luxury’ slapped on to their hoardings. The irony is that too many of these apartments have nothing like the generous apportionment of space or sensibility of design that epitomize places like the Golden Lane Estate in EC1, or indeed even many of the less celebrated examples from the post-war period.
Q: Share with us some of your hidden spots of London!
Two of the best cafés are Paul Rothe & Son on Marylebone Lane, and, at the other end of town, E. Pellicci’s on the Bethnal Green Road. Pellicci’s is an East End caff with a difference – a Grade II listed Art Deco interior. Paul Rothe & Son have been going since 1900, seat you at formica tables, and do the most delicious mackerel pâté and rye bread sarnies around.
For tapas off the beaten track, the bars, delis and patisseries of Little Lisbon in the Stockwell area are definitely where to go. For cinema, nothing comes close to the art deco Rio in Dalston, especially when the balcony is open. If cemeteries are your thing, then the Highgate one is fascinating but Bunhill Fields, just north of the City, is ‘where all the cool people are buried’, as one of my friends put it. Bunhill is a Nonconformist cemetery and as such is the haunt of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, and William Blake.
Q: If you only had 36 hours in London, what would you recommend people see/do?
Begin by getting your bearings by climbing Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire, and follow it up with a walk along the Southbank and a wander into the Royal Festival Hall. Next, see the giraffes for free at London Zoo and then picnic on Primrose Hill. If it’s sunny, swim in one of the Hampstead ponds or in one of the modernist lidos; if it’s rainy visit 2 Willow Road, the architect Ernö Goldfinger’s 1939 home. Finish the day by soaking up Soho in the evening. In the morning walk along Regent’s Canal, either to Little Venice or towards Victoria Park; maybe brave some jellied eel at Clarke’s Pie and Mash shop on Exmouth Market. Visit the house of the eminent Dr Johnson in Gough Square and finish off by splashing out on a cocktail at the newly suited-and-booted Savoy.
Thank you Alice!