Just What is it that makes Yesterday's Homes So Different, So Appealing?
I remember the first time I saw them was in the duty free shop at Brussels airport: a tiered display of mini-cottages set against a backdrop of Belgian chocolate and cigars. I imagined them as the visual equivalent of eating, drinking and smoking the entire contents of the shop. Not being one for health food or abstinence, I was delighted sometime later, to be invited to tour Lilliput Lane. Lilliput Lane makes miniature models of historically specific vernacular buildings. The company, established in 1992 by David Tate, an ex-SAS–turned–GRP mould expert–turned–bankrupt–turned–vernacular guru/millionaire, now produce thousands of miniatures depicting buildings from the British Isles, and more recently from other northern European regions and the Anglo-Saxon Diaspora. With collectors all over the world, Lilliput quickly became the market leader in the miniature vernacular buildings and received The Queen’s Award for Enterprise. Consequently, Enesco, a worldwide giftware conglomerate, acquired the company.
The manufacturing center for Lilliput Lane is based in Skirsgill, Cumbria, off Junction 26 of the M6– Gateway to the Lake District. On the far side of the car park is the visitor’s center, commonly referred to as Honeysuckle Cottage. It is an almost faithful replica of a seventeenth-century cottage in Hampshire, England and a tribute to Honeysuckle Cottage, was of the first miniatures produced by Lilliput Lane. Since the initial miniature production there have been about nine different versions made in varying sizes and prices. Looking at the Honeysuckle 1 model, you can feel the scrape of David Tate’s tool in a kind of folk-art-man-shifts-matter way. Over the series the modeling is refined as if made by tiny elves. Each model also revises the original architecture: moving windows around, altering doorways, shifting the pitch of the thatch. These are grand experiments the picturesque. The plants around the house grow bigger and more important, making every English cottage defined as much by the roses around the window as the thatched roof and porch. Dovecotes appear, disappear, are replaced by wells. Sleeping dogs, cats pawing goldfish, a wandering old man with a wide brimmed black hat: all these elements work together to create a miniature meditation on the pastoral. What starts as a prosaic model of a building becomes an epic romantic poem on the aura of a cottage. It even looks hazy, as your gaze it captured by it; you are swept away to a summer’s day and a ploughman’s picnic. What begins as an architectural model eventually becomes a model of a place in time. This series of models argue that architecture is not as important as what you think of it.
The visitor’s center itself is an exercise in the vernacular. No camping around for its audience, this is a building that uses authentic materials and construction methods. The antithesis of a themed thing, its raison d’être is not effect or experience, but rather, impact as document. Its dryness makes its sigh of nostalgia, eloquent and complex. The real oak beam and peg construction, restrictive building codes that led to a battle with the planning officer over the appropriateness of thatch, the loud neighboring car park and highway—the whole project demonstrates the struggle of making history present today. The house is an expression of longing for the past—not just as image, but really, real.
II. Mass Production
Surprisingly at Lilliput Lane—where one expects a crucible of kitsch— one finds a place where both Prince Charles and modernists nod in agreement.
Despite the claims on its packaging to be handcrafted, Lilliput Lane relies on industrialized production. (Only the original modeling is done by hand.) Nevertheless, there is a fine line between craftsmanship and piecework. It is a product and needs to be packed up and shipped off to duty-free concessions and mantelpieces around the world. Ever since Le Corbusier published a picture of a Citröen juxtaposed with the Parthenon, architects have longed for a more fruitful relationship between buildings and mass production. The allure of mass production makes it seem inevitable and impending. Though every time an architect talks about mass production, the end result is a highly crafted haute couture building (think of Future Systems’ Media Center at Lords). Because the idea is so entrenched in modernist myth it almost seems plausible. Architecture aspires to mass production; Lilliput Lane aspires to be hand crafted. There is nothing architects would like more than to really be a part of the modern world and there is nothing Lilliput Lane would like more than for us not to be. Lilliput Lane is mass-produced because it’s popular; high architecture, because it’s not.
Lilliput Lane is driven by the personality of David Tate. His love, regard and knowledge of British vernacular heritage inspires the company. Tate gives us insight into Lilliput’s research and design strategies on a speed limit exceeding tour of the Lake District– he can spot vernacular architecture while pulling G’s in his XJ6. Perhaps his miniature world is akin to the rural viewed as a motion blur from the white leather lined turbo-powered, GPS-navigated interior of a performance sports car: A relationship between nature and the city Peter Smithson named ruburb. Tate’s interest in the historical vernacular has echoes of the idealism of Pre-Raphelite and Arts and Crafts movements. This is reflected in the organization of his company (in his eyes) as an association of craftsmen, just like Ruskin’s Guild of St George or William Morris’ company. Although Lilliput workers might also be described as minimum wage piece workers on a semi-Fordist production line.
Ruskin’s childhood love of the Lake District drew him to establish a kind of education center in Brantwood on Coniston Water. Both these characters, Morris and Ruskin, were part of a Victorian movement that acknowledged the problems of industrialization and mass production. Both were concerned with its impact upon society, cities and the soul.Ruskin recognized and articulated the growing popularity of the picturesque in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a reaction to industrialization; focusing on the social and moral effects of industrialization. He argued that the popular love of the picturesque indicates a vague desire for pastoral simplicities in the face of a general dissatisfaction with contemporary life. He proposed that dissatisfaction is the natural condition of modern man in the modern cityscape and that the picturesque fills a vacuum we feel is forming within us as our morality shrinks: the picturesque is about loss. The tragic narrative of the picturesque is told through the relationship of figure to building to landscape.
Ruskin’s social and moral consciousness pricked the sentimentality of the picturesque, like having John Lennon perched on one shoulder and Paul McCartney on the other. John: a Day in the Life "noble form," of which Joseph Turner was Ruskin’s favorite example, produced by "an expression of suffering, of poverty, or decay, nobly endured by unpretending strength of heart... the picturesqueness is in the unconscious suffering." Where the moral conscience of the artists empathizes with the social meaning of the scene. Paul: an "Ob-Le-Di Ob-Le-Da "-esq "surface-picturesque,"which concerned itself with texture at the expense of emotion. Or, as John Lydon put it, "a cheap holiday in other people’s misery."Both Ruskin and Lydon recognize the political implications of the picturesque.
The Victorian impulse to improve the future through social reform led to design as media. In an era of purpose and possibility Victorian reformers such as Morris or Ebeneezer Howard looked to create and design the society of tomorrow—to build the New Jerusalem that William Blake described. A blend of Victorian philosophy, modernism, socialism and communism and a Ruskinesque Modern-Life-Is-Rubbish feeling – Lilliput Lane suggests an equally creative but retroactive impulse to improve the past. Perhaps upgrading our heritage is a more effective way of altering our present condition. Of course, the reality of Ruskin’s rural life is different from ours. Living standards have improved. We are blessed with the welfare state, high-speed transport, telecommunications and digital TV. Our misery is different. And so is our relationship to nature, especially what we do with it. Indeed, if Ruskin had still been around at Brantwood on January 4, 1967, his rural idyll would have been momentarily shattered by a thoroughly modern tragedy as Donald Campbell’s speedboat flipped while attempting a World Water Speed Record on Coniston Water. Incidentally, there is a series of meaningless coincidences between Ruskin, Campbell and Lilliput Lane: a memorial to Donald Campbell was built by a local man, John Usher, whose hobby was building miniature houses. On his death, he bequeathed his homemade miniature villages to Coniston. They are now displayed at the Ruskin Museum.
The novelist E.M. Forster described Surrey as a "landscape of amenity." In these terms the Lake District is a fully serviced wilderness. There’s a Coke machine at the top of the Kirkstone pass to refresh ramblers who require refreshment in the wild. In the Lake District there is nothing unusual in glimpsing an ex-military amphibious vehicle behind a dry stone wall carrying city-slicker outward bounders.
The technologies of English pleasure are scattered across the sweeping epic hills and lakeshores. Observe the vista of pressurized gas frying up a Full English Breakfast, piping hot sugary tea held between twin stainless steel walls of a vacuum flask, breathable fabrics, deck chairs and caravans. A landscape populated by a thousand vacationing Reyner Banhams. The only real nature is the geographical mass of the hills casting an electromagnetic shadow across the car radio reception and mobile phone conversations.
The title of this piece is cribbed from Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage of a domestic scene created with using cut out magazine pictures of products. Suburban architecture works like that, except that its raw material is the pool of history. It is historical pop. The suburban template is like a best-of compilation of vernacular-isms, full of feel good golden oldie romantic jams. A collection of picturesque killer hooks. It is thousands of years of Anglo-Saxon mythology with a car porch. the Anglo-Saxon Blues. What Sir Edwin Lutyens and Philip Webb compiled pangs our sentimental hearts as cynically as any love song. And like all great love songs, it is about loss. The suburbs bleed across the land to heal our pain. Architects only hurt themselves when they mock mock-Tudor. What David Tate and Lilliput Lane offer is the powerful combination of extreme visual obsession and an over-reaching desire for love. In Ruskin’s words, "the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion– all in one." It is also what makes it culture, not art. If architects hope to engage with anything outside the pages of the Architectural Review, they need to start loving more.