CHAPTER IN ANTHOLOGY
An Architecture of Twenty Words: Intimate Details of a London Blue Plaque House
In Negotiating Domesticity: Spatial Productions of Gender in Modern Architecture, Hilde Heynen and Gulsum Baydar, eds. (London: Routledge, 2005), 181-95.
On a warm spring afternoon, I retraced Sylvia Plath’s route from the zoo in London’s Regent’s Park to her home in the North London suburb of Primrose Hill. Passing playing children, mothers with prams, nannies with their charges, young women hurrying home with bags of groceries, I felt like an intruder stumbling into the perfect domestic theatre of Primrose Hill’s Chalcot Square. The square is surrounded by late nineteenth-century terrace houses, cheerfully painted in pastel colours. Number 3’s façade is an all-too-sweet lilac that discreetly holds a circular ceramic blue plaque announcing (Figure 10.1):
lived here 1960–1961
On the second floor, in a tiny one-bedroom flat, celebrated American poet Sylvia Plath and her English husband Ted Hughes made their first London home. Here, shortly after the birth of her first child, Plath began to write a semi-fictional, feminist autobiography, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, laying bare the despair, loneliness, and vulnerability of a 1950s’ woman. Here also, she strove to become the perfect wife and muse to a husband who would with her, “romp through words together.” 1
Minutes away, around the corner of this green square at 23 Fitzroy Road, there is another house with another blue plaque commemorating Irish poet and dramatist W.B. Yeats. In Yeats’ house, Plath overdosed on sleeping pills, lay her head on a towel in a gas oven and took her own life after a cold winter in February 1963. Plath’s name on the façade of number 3 serves as a primal signifier for her poetic genius. It also points, albeit obliquely, to what is now the mythic scene of the crime – the mute, unmarked other house at number 23 where Plath met her end. The public’s interest in Plath extends beyond the literary into her biographical details. Her houses and their blue plaques have become part of Plath’s fascinating biographical paraphernalia.
The London blue plaque scheme was started by the Society of Arts in 1867 to mark the residences of celebrated figures and to raise public consciousness “about the architecture that was prevalent in a person’s time and the background against which that person lived.” 2 There are, to date, over 750 blue plaque houses in the capital, with approximately 10 percent of these once occupied by notable women. 3 The inscription is usually limited to 20 words. It weaves an intimate web between occupant and house – a relationship that escapes normative historical methods of exploring modern architectural domesticity. If the house is seen as structural, as an object legitimately called architecture, then the plaque is an excessive supplement that refuses to free this object(ive) architecture from the subjective life of its occupant.
The blue plaque constructs architectural meaning performatively by announcing the primacy of the occupant’s life in the history of the house – for example, Plath or Yeats – over architectural form, style, typology, or scale. Further, by performatively overwriting the temporal classification of a Victorian house with the duration of Plath’s twentieth-century occupancy, the temporal narrative associated with an architectural history of style is also challenged by the plaque. In Plath’s blue plaque house, the power to create architectural meaning is shifted not just from the architect to Plath as occupant, but is dissipated to each visitor who encounters the house through the plaque’s inscription.
I propose that an intimate method of reading Plath and her domestic environment might help to construct a fuller architectural knowledge of these houses. Intimacy gives a different kind of criticality to architectural methodology. It destabilizes the authority of knowledge premised solely on architectural intentions. By this I mean that the analysis of the blue plaque house based on architectural drawings, the architectural history of the house, the background/intentions of the designer, and the analysis of the building alone are no longer adequate to communicate the experience provoked by the blue plaque. The architectural nature of the blue plaque house, hence, resists conventional architectural analysis and conventional architectural archives. Instead, the biographical details, working methods, and spatial practices of the named occupant become central. These elements come together to generate a new method of reading and a new genre of the architectural detail.
This chapter expands my interpretation of the London blue plaque as a metonymical device of intimacy. We enter the interior of the house not through the masterly reading of a plan, but through the peripheral reading of Plath’s biographical documents and poetry. Through the blue plaque, the excessive motifs of surface, supplement, and femininity manifest themselves in a biographical architecture of the private house. This intimate method of reading, I propose, exceeds the hermeneutic possibilities of a conventional architectural document. To overread Plath’s houses is to transform these biographical documents into spatial ones.
1. A. Plath (ed.) Letters Home, by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963, London and Boston, MA: Faber & Faber, 1989, p. 235. Letter to Aurelia Plath, April 21, 1956.
2. E. Cole, Blue Plaques: A Guide to the Scheme, London: English Heritage Publications, 2002,p.2. This publication presents the most comprehensive material on the scheme and its history. It includes a section on the design, manufacture and placement of the plaques. A formal selection criteria was established in 1954. To be eligible for a plaque, the nominee must have been dead for 20 years or have passed the centenary of their birth. 3. They must "have made an important positive contribution to human welfare or happiness." Cole, Blue Plaques, p. 9.
3. Numbers interred from English Heritage Blue Plaques in London 2002 published as a supplement to Cole, Blue Plaques. It lists plaques installed between 1867 and 2002 in London.