Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

The Texts - Rosa Ainley

Taking the long way round

R is violet in colour, a minor key in sound, transparent, a little bit sad. R is for rhythm.

Orchard House is a space to play out the rhythms of the daily round, the weekly routine, to keep time throughout the turning of the year. It's about repetition, not monotony. As the year shifts on its planetary axis, Orchard House holds you within its own axes to give shape to the life lived here, to give it meaning and purpose. Seasonal change is observed inside by festivity to mark the passage of the year, but the building is designed so everyone who uses it sees the year turning too. The changes outdoors play their part in scenery and light, a backdrop always visible and safe and quiet beyond the glass.

This is no school hall to be buffed up with streamers and glitter and flowers for plays and discos. It's an extra living room for the people who live here, an annexe, a space to perform and learn and charm and meet and contain and let go and entertain and keep to yourself, and if they die here it might be the space for their funeral too. The ordinary and the special are equally valued.

Orchard House busily accommodates it all: a 70th birthday party, classes, meetings, a puppet show, a leaving do, a lyre concert.

Nutley Hall has been a residential home for 45 years, and one resident has lived here since 1966. Orchard House is so young and clearly designed not to be new in a pristine sense, though its design makes full use of the technologies at its disposal. Technology is purposeful, not for its own sake: laser measuring for perfection, a heat-recovery system to release stale air, 'breathing wall' construction to expel moisture from the air inside, acoustic modelling extrapolated on to the ceiling planking. The main apse has a wonder of a light fitting, its design based on the same geometry of interconnecting circles as the building. Each little shadelet sends out light. It could be an artichoke, a multi-apertured lens, a molten blossom of white heat, a hive formed of many elements. You'd expect photovoltaic movement, in accordance with the tides, the shadow and light, and the number of people present. Orchard House exhibits a kind of contemporary Expressionism, attempting to provide an aesthetic appropriate to its technology and materials.

E is created by crossing the forearms, mirroring the 'narrow angle created in the mouth when pronouncing the sound' and is helpful for clarity with boundaries and in decision-making. E is for eurythmy.1

Eurythmy is said to translate the soul's experiences into movement, to turn the body into a medium for sound, music, colour, expression. It's a way of making language and music visible through movements and gestures responding to noises, vowels and consonants that reveals to the eye what language and music bring to the ear, the inner qualities of speech and song. Watching it, eurythmy becomes a way of taking up space in the world, personally and socially (a powerful act for a person with learning disabilities), a way of measuring and assessing your place in the world through movement. A world where who you are is directly influenced by where you are and where you can go.

'A was a hard thrust.' A is green. A is for anthroposophy.

Anthroposophy is the science of the spirit, a philosophy developed by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) whose broad encompassing ideas about the interplay of the physical, psychological and the spiritual in human life underlie the practise of NH with its stress on the psychological value and therapeutic worth of creative activities.

Anthroposophy seeks to awaken the individual to their own spiritual experiences and investigations and finds many practical applications in professions and disciplines such as education, art, agriculture and, yes, architecture. There's no objecting to an idea formed from the Greek words for humanity (anthropos) and wisdom (sophia), is there?

Yet anthroposophy becomes the unmentionable A word. There's one exception to this, who doesn't retreat at the mention of a wider Steiner world and tells me that the workshops, across the lawn from Orchard House, were purpose-built by anthroposophical architects. These are for the making of bread and candles and crafts and musical instruments. Some activities contain their own purpose, some are made up or extended to keep people busy because time needs to be spent, rhythms need to be followed through. Many Steiner principles resonate in today's climate: a sense of spirituality including belief in karma and reincarnation; an emphasis on community; an alternative ethos; organic food and complementary medicine; a concern with ecology and the environment; and an understanding of how this affects the individual. This is what built Orchard House.

The same person talks of there being an 'element of struggle in building' it: a suggestion of opposition, hostility, vandalism.

O is, predictably, round and it sounds as a major key.

Instead of the 'but ?' my scepticism makes my mouth into an O.

The curative eurythmy room, with the pentagram and the infinity symbol drawn on the board, with the usual Steiner-design curvy shelves and brackets, and with the echo-y acoustic reminds me I'm in a place that's not for me, that something unfamiliar (to me) happens here - as if I've walked into a place of worship. Anthroposophy is a body of ideas not beliefs, but still, it's a mystery/unknowable until you know, at which point doubt becomes immaterial. There's a word for people like me: ahrimaric.

It's so simple: high notes, reach up; low notes, bend down.

1 'Eurythmy was a kind of dance where you always stepped toes-first. You stepped out rhythms and clapped your hands, and over years and years you learned to dance the alphabet with your feet. There were arm movements as well. A was a hard thrust, and B a wide circle where your fingers met and pointed back towards your chest. F flitted away from you like fire and for S you shuffled backwards in a curve.' The Wild, Esther Freud, Penguin 2001, p200

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