Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

The Texts - Rosa Ainley

Open the doors and what do you find?

I hear that high hedges for security and privacy once ringed the grounds enveloping Orchard House. I hear that it's understood how protection can be deadening and alienating for the people with learning difficulties who live here, that greater openness - although bringing with it vulnerability to danger and criticism - can enrich lives in both communities, inside and out. Danger! Criticism about. Maybe that's what the protection was against. But hedges can only do so much, and now they're gone.

Nutley Hall is a village within the village, a community within the community. There are houses, shops, workplaces, venues for leisure and worship and exercise and entertainment and classes and festivities. There's a population. There are rules and norms and mores and currency and language and custom. It couldn't be easier to get in - no buttons to press, no CCTV; just a gate and it's not locked. Nobody polices it, and there's no reception so no border to cross to gain access to the interior. Surveillance is natural here - like everything else - and close and constant and benign. You're inside, not an insider.

But you are inside, confronted by the large Victorian pile that is Nutley Hall. From the driveway, perspective coupled with a little imagination gives the illusion that the roof of Orchard House, a raft of cedar shingles, swims in a sea of green. The shark's fin baffle top-knot on the roof has turned into a periscope giving views of some unknowable high ground, another dimension perhaps.

Really you need to be equipped with a long scarf to trail behind as you race towards Orchard House. Suddenly getting your bearings, you want to fly down that redbrick road. All that wood begging to be touched, and sniffed. But then the doors bring you up sharp. Unlike what you have seen of Orchard House so far - wood, roof, curves, more wood - the doors are ugly. All handles and hinges. They're cold in their institutional drabness; material, finishes, colour: nasty. You might wonder if the doors meet some kind of health and safety requirement because this is a residential home after all. They look like they come from another building, from somewhere else, not from Steiner town. The handles are probably not even easy to grasp or easy to open.

Has ever a building embodied so completely, so simply its client's tension between transparency and secrecy, connectedness and separation? Is this the secret of why it works? Looking in the main space from the outside there's a reflection of the lawn and garden bordering it and a view out of the windows on the other side to the greenness of trees and fields beyond. This design and orientation brings the outside in through the windows, and views and reflections are allowed to crowd in, but that's far enough. Orchard House feels very enclosed, muffled, safe: a space within a space, a house within a hall. The visual connection undercuts the separation from outside, says loudly that this is a space of perception and sensation.

But once through those doors and inside the main-apse space of Orchard House, something entirely different is happening.

Come in

Be here

Be part of this

Join in

There are no corners for anyone to get lost in, no shady recesses for hiding in. You're here in Steiner World with the in-house typeface and the curved brackets and picture frames and light fittings and banisters. 'You're coming back tomorrow,' residents shout when I leave one night, a statement to reassure. The welcome is no less enthusiastic the next day for the new visitor.

Maybe it isn't so different inside. Lots of glass doesn't add up to transparency, after all. Letting light in through the windows, keeping secrets behind the curtains at either end. The breastbone of the wooden skeleton is fixed to the back-of-stage wall, in a gap between the curtains which are keeping the highly confidential backstage storage out of the picture, keeping the space empty of distraction. A strange rectangle of light illuminates the curtain. It's a visitation, a portal, stigmata. It's a mark of pleasure, of approbation, the indication that Orchard House looks in the right direction, that its siting is accurate and true, that light shineth upon it. It turns out there's a window behind the curtain, and no reflection or projection going on (except mine).

The curtain behind the altar hides a fierce off-red wall, framed by two gangly bones of the building skeleton. There's no secret to the red wall. Colour plays an integral part in the Steiner sacred ritual, and this particular red signifies a gate or a threshold. Together with the catafalque of the altar, thoughts run to crematoria - the curtains part, a motor hums and the casket disappears into the flames, a sob is stifled with the gag of a tissue, an ironic eyebrow is raised at the rude mechanics of death ... - but no this isn't a funeral bier and it's oriented the wrong way.

The chairs line up across the front of the altar, sentries guarding secrets that you can't know until you've joined in. I pull a chair forward, out of line. I pull back the heavy silk curtains, discover the red and jump back. Leaving the curtains open so that I can consider the red next to the lilac of the rest of the room, I conclude that this rude red interruption is uncovered for the 'anything special' that I was told Orchard House is for. I felt as though I'd done something bad, disrespectful. So I returned chair and curtain to their original positions before I left.

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