Living With Buildings: And Walking With Ghosts review – healthy building, healthy mind?

The Guardian
By Rowan Moore

There was, in the years of peak Blair, an organisation called the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe). (It still exists, shrivelled by cuts, as a department of the Design Council.) While it had the laudable aim of raising the quality of the places in which we spend our lives, it tried, in the spirit of the age, to make its case with reference to outputs and outcomes. It wasn’t, for example, sufficient to say that hospital patients should be in good spaces because good spaces are good. Measurable indices had to be sought, proving the link between design and health that common sense tells us must be there.


Now Iain Sinclair, a very different beast from Cabe, has been exploring (the blurb says) “the relationship between our health and the buildings that surround us”. He was asked to do so by the Wellcome Collection, a museum and library that “aims to challenge how we all think and feel about health”, in connection with a forthcoming exhibition called, like the book, Living With Buildings.


So he sets off, offering the things Sinclair fans will know well: the rhythms of urban walks that turn into sentences and paragraphs, the tracing and retracing of old and new ground, the eternal return to the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor that he has been performing since his Lud Heat of 1975, long before Peter Ackroyd got in on the act. Also the cadences of mordancy and mortality, the attraction to putrefaction. The streets and walls of Sinclair City have the odour and texture of things found floating on canals, but are iridescent with unexpected beauty.


Here again is a personal universe composed of deep knowledge of the arcana of London, of flirtations with the occult, a circle – if that’s not too regular a geometric term – of intriguing and irregular acquaintances. At the same time, he tilts his familiar preoccupations towards the book’s assigned theme. He addresses the question of health in part by introducing friends who have been touched by illness. He typically describes them and their environment before unfolding their sometimes devastating stories, presenting them as people before they are patients.


The book also breaks new ground by visiting new locations. He goes to Le Corbusier’s epic block of flats in Marseille, the Unité d’habitation, to see his fellow writer Jonathan Meades, who lives there. He goes on a British Council junket to Mexico. He tours outer regions of Scotland. He sees the spot in Southampton where the vast Royal Victoria military hospital, scene of the torments of the shell-shocked, once stood.


If you seek a conclusive answer to the question that Cabe so earnestly sought you will be disappointed. The blows that fall on his friends and their children – cancer, epilepsy, severe disability – tend to happen without reference to their physical environment, which has no ability to reverse the actions of malignant cells. It offers, instead, perhaps, solace and a series of possible meanings to which the experiences of Sinclair’s subjects and readers might be connected.


Easy conclusions are not Sinclair’s thing. He nourishes you well on insights. He leaves you gasping with the punch and pungency of his images. “Excess money, sick of its unlaundered bad-rep McMafia status, thirsts after solidity and substance” is how he explains the new, speculative architecture of London. “Like an owl fed on firelighters,” he for some reason also says, “I was burning up from the inside out.” But he combines an inexhaustible capacity for fascination with an equal resignation to disappointment.


There is, at the end of his narratives, usually a sense of something left hanging. Things are laid out but not assembled on to false wholes. It’s up to you to make of it what you will.

Iain Sinclair