(Un)doing it Yourself

When Jonathan Hill asked me to contribute a chapter about DIY for a book he was editing called Occupying Architecture at first I declined. Then, at the suggestion of a colleague, Iain Borden, I decided to write about a place in which I had previously lived. My co-habitant of that house, Iain Hill, had been making our living space through an unusual mode of DIY, much of which involved the removal, rather than the addition, of building elements, as well as the use of objects for purposes they had never been designed for.

On a leafy street in Clapham, minutes from the common, is a terraced house which was my home for two years. Scattered all over London, all over England, all over the world, are other homes, houses where I once lived. In some still standing, I return and revisit past lives and loves. Others have been destroyed, physically crushed in military coups, or erased from conscious memory only to be revisited in dreams.

Through its fragile structure this house physically embraced my need for transiency, and it was perhaps this unhomeliness, which made it feel more like home to me than any other.

This was the first piece of writing where I juxtaposed my own voice with those of various critical theorists, and where I referred to my life as the subject matter for theoretical reflection. This incorporation of the personal into the critical had different kinds of effect depending on the reader. Other academics and artist friends loved the piece – they liked it because I was so ‘present’ in the work. But my retelling of events had disturbed two important people in my personal life. My mum was upset by my description of this house, as ‘more like home to me than any other’. Iain Hill’s response was more antagonistic. My description rendered the house unrecognisable to him.

This writing is the first of what I have now come to call ‘confessional constructions’. The responses I received made me aware that words do not mean the same thing for writer and reader. The text also raised many questions about story telling. While the subject matter and subjective stance of a personal story may upset the objective tone of academic writing, writing for a theoretical context repositions and interprets events in ways that may be uncomfortable for those involved in the story. Writing about the transitory nature of a house in which I once lived, and the questionable DIY of my housemate in order to question the authorial position of the architect and the permanence of architecture assumed by the profession is not simply the recounting of a series of events in my life. But it may appear to be so because the critical take is in the form rather than the content, the adoption of the narrative style itself, an implicit rather than an explicit critical act.

This paper was published first as Jane Rendell, ‘Doing it, (Un)Doing it, (Over)Doing it Yourself: Rhetorics of Architectural Abuse’, Jonathan Hill (ed.), Occupying Architecture, (London: Routledge, 1998) and then as ‘(Un)doing it Yourself: Rhetorics of Architectural Abuse’, Journal of Architecture, (Spring, 1999).

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