When we stop interfering, nature can take our debris, our rubble and our scorched earth and imbue it anew with vivacious beauty, it’s what she does when we let her
We gathered for a BBQ one hot summer afternoon on my girlfriend’s permaculture infused allotment in Reading as the sun blazed overhead. Her brother and I, to stave off burnt flesh and sunstroke assembled a crude shelter from the array of materials available. We deployed an old ground sheet, bamboo poles and a league of twine and constructed a shabby though effective tensile shelter under which cool beers and charcoal laced food could be consumed whilst the red kites effortlessly wheeled overhead and a micro world of viridian peace lay before our eyes. It struck me that the humble allotment in many ways is a triumph of vernacular architecture. A callous writer might use the phrase boho-chic to describe the haphazard structures to be found on an English allotment, or even in the populist papers barrio-chic, as a thoughtless nod to the vast tumbledown favellas of Brazil. The architecture of the allotment is one borne out of utility, whimsy and a tectonic honesty. Materials are scavenged, repurposed and entwined to create entirely new bricolage compositions, whether that is a shed, bedding wall or protective cage. It is imbued with an authenticity which architect Lebbeus Woods when observing the Sao Paulo favelas says is ‘knowing a thing, just as it is known’.
At the heart of the humble allotment is the potting shed, which provides shelter from the inevitable rain as well as a secure warm embrace for sipping tea and nibbling biscuits, micro architecture layed bare without superstar architect or fashionable fabrication system. There are hints of Sir William Chambers’ orgin of Doric order primitive hut (with a conflicting nod to both Vitruvius and Marc-Antoine Laugier) of simple struts and rafters, composed to provide an elegant raw solution to habitation. Chambers (architect of Somerset House) was of the opinion that the complex layered Pentelic marble, abacus, pediment and echinus was a glorious abstraction of the original carpenter’s craft though there are a number of superfluous detailings which cast this concept under suspicion. None the less the hut is a sombre primal form and historian John Summerson observes that ‘the idea of primitivism, of searching back to the true, untainted sources of architectural beauty’ is at the source of this elegant simplicity.
Cult photographer Stephen Gill has explored and documented the vast fading allotments of London’s east end, his work is an archaeological excavation of wilderness lurking in the city, making reference to a process of renewal and decay. Christopher Schaden describes his notable series Hackney Flowers and writes ‘Gill confronted his own images with overpainting and chemical processes of decomposition, which in an almost Buddhist way evoke new, lively results. On the other hand, he covered other photographs with seeds, blossoms, and berries he had gathered at the peripheral location. In a second working step, he transferred these overlappings and processes back into a photographic image by photographing them again.’ For Gill the allotment is a hidden world, imbued with revenant mysteries, the layering of meaning and imagery within his work mirroring the dense strata of entangled structures and lush plant life.
Another photographer whose work also explores this mutable edge-land is that of my lovely girlfriend Sarah Wainwright. Sarah maps the edible wild and feral plants which grow in the urban and rural peripheries on her Skycarrots blog with beautiful and mysterious photographs. Keen forager and allotment lover, the realm for her is a chance to welcome vibrant and chaotic nature into the semi-domestic space. She muses ‘I enjoy finding self-sown herbs and unusual flowers, which I leave to grow on where they appear. My allotment has become a random jungle of curiosities rather than a collection of neat little rows of cabbages.’ The sliver of fertile land becomes an interface between order and entropy.
For some the sense of a close-knit community is an integral part of allotment life. Veteran filmmaker Mike Leigh’s many films have portrayed the beauty and melancholy of everyday mundane life. His recent output Another Year narrates the troubled lives of a group of people orbiting two complacent characters and features an allotment at its warm heart. The leads played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are a steadfast bastion of sensibility, patently trying to guide their distraught friends through the woes and trauma of loneliness and alcoholism whilst they tend their tranquil plants and sip from Thermos flasks. For Broadbent and Sheen the allotment is a glorious peaceful measure of their life, for Leigh it provides a suitably organic backdrop for the passing seasons, the fragile liminal quality part of what Richard Mabey describes as ‘the ambivalent power of touch’ reaching into the plenteous soil and detritus of the everyday.
Allotments and edgelands lie at the heart of writer Iain Sinclair’s current battle against the Olympics’ creeping corporate east end miasma. His book Ghostmilk is dedicated to the ‘huts of Manor Garden allotments’, the work is in essense a sad eulogy to the sterilised site by the River Lea. He celebrates these liminal spaces embattled against the omnipresent thrall of global money cults and writes of the east end clearances, ‘they’ve stripped out the middle-ground. If you don’t like grunge, amputate it. So the Regent’s Canal runs against the edge of the City and Spitalfields is directly overlooked by Hackney. The human mess that has been taken away, all those lives and awkward narratives, is our City of Disappearances. And that’s where we must go. To the territory in the dead letter box, the unwritten spaces.’ The humble allotment then is a fecund flash of inspiration, individuality, eccentricity, self sufficiency and curiosity. We can only hope that they continue to battle the privatisation of urban space, subvert agribusiness and inject our cities with witty misshapen buildings, blossoming plant life and hearty nourishment.