The Battle For Light

Growing up in a Victorian house with relatively small windows, thick brick walls and lots of shadows, in a country known for its low light levels can be a depressing thing, both physically and mentally.

England’s rows of terraced Victorian houses have lasted far longer than anyone could have imagined. They’re still the most striking feature of urban life from the air, and you only have to step off any London main street to find yourself surrounded by serried ranks of them.

In the last few years, ways have been sought to introduce more light into these dark boxes by removing walls and replacing the rear kitchens with large panels of glass. The Victorian terraces are still with us because in many ways they are masterpieces of design. Built longways on small plots, the show their least-used rooms at the front (the most visible end from the street) and keep daily life to the rear (nearest their gardens).

In Harry Mount’s ‘A Lust For Windowsills’ the brilliance of the Victorian plan is explained. He noted that when pillars are added to terraces, the columns bulge outwards in the middle. This is called ‘entasis’. The Greeks worked out that the human eye tends to squeeze the middle section between straight lines inward when we look at them, so the bulge compensates for the optical illusion. There are hundreds of other fascinating facts about English homes in the book.

But could the time limit of the Victorian terrace now have been reached? The other day we suddenly switched from wintry temperatures to a heatwave, and an entire row of terraced houses lost its rooftops after they suddenly collapsed without warning, leaving the writer Will Self, among others, stranded on the street. I’ve never heard of such a thing happening before. The effect was quickly marked down to ‘Diurnal Shifting’, which sounds like an invented catch-all to me, diurnal merely meaning ‘something that happens during the day’.

Many of these house are over 150 years old have have been ravaged internally by successions of buyers and tenants, gutted again and again. And now there is a movement to reinvent the terrace, with modern designs starting to replace homes in the backstreets. I’ve always admired the economy and cosiness of Victorian and Edwardian houses – they’re brilliantly mapped out, but they were specifically built to house a family of five or six and a servant or two. It’s incredible now how many people now have modern glass rooms built onto the rear of traditional Victorian houses, so that they have the best of both worlds.

Having been raised in such houses, I grew tired of tearing out walls to make things work better and moved to an apartment of glass and light. It’s a semi-circular glass box built on the roof of an old warehouse, surrounded by water, so that the sunlight bounces from the water onto the ceilings and walls.

This means an end to Seasonal Affective Disorder, but it’s a harsh environment for books and computers. The best part is a sense of living permanently outdoors, which makes me feel very connected to the city all around me. The worst part is the peak of summer, when it gets dark just before midnight and starts brightening at 4:00am, with the result that you get just four hours of sleep.

9 comments on “The Battle For Light”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    I wonder if diurnal shifting refers to the fact that everything expands as the air warms and contracts as it cools, causing those noises you hear in the night. I would imagine that after a hundred years of doing this and suffering from the “let’s take out this wall and have a bigger bedroom” alterations the rafters might just get tired, say “what the heck”, and let go. Very off putting for the current residents and I wonder what the insurance people say.

  2. Gretta says:

    I would just like to point out that your flat still looks like no-one actually lives in it, admin. :)

    That mass roof collapse intrigues me. I’m guessing one weak spot brought the lot down?

    I live in an Edwardian wooden double bay villa, which sounds grand, but is typical of NZ houses of the period, and many still remain throughout the country. The piles are incredibly uneven, nothing is level, straight, square or plumb and it’s falling to bits all over the show, but in the times where we were 3kph short of having a hurricane, had two 100-year-floods in the space of six years, regular earthquakes, 24h frosts continuously for several weeks, and snow which caved in the rooves of much newer(and supposedly technically more superior) buildings, the worst we have had in fifty years was a frozen/burst water pipe in the old wash-house.

  3. Vickie says:

    Hear, hear re: “I would just like to point out that your flat still looks like no-one actually lives in it…” (Gretta)

    Do you REALLY live like that or do you clean up prior to taking these interesting shots of your abode (great deck/view!).

    One of my sisters (Connecticut) was very unhappy about growing up in a gloomy basement room with only one window that faced a patio underneath an upstairs deck — when she grew up and bought her own house, her PRIMARY criteria was that the house have windows with clear views facing east, south, west and north. She found it…and has been happily living there for, oh, about two decades now.

    Light matters…

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    “Light matters…” Indeed it does.
    My good wife suffers from light deprivation and starting in December, excluding the entertaining holiday period, and running through late March, she becomes increasingly glum. The doctors say it’s for real.
    She has a special light, ramps up the vitamins C & D, hits the gym, teaches the most students, and I do flash-impov pieces and Snoopy happy dances at the drop of a sigh.
    Myself, I like the dark, but then I was the naughty child who went to bed as late as possible, waited for a quiet house, and then read much of Verne or Doyle under the blankets with a flashlight, a battery radio and my white rat, who slept after a while. The rat was a good buddy and the guard who kept my mother from tiptoeing in and wisking up the covers. She did that only once and scared the three of us.

  5. snowy says:

    Some years ago I was sent to do something “techy” on a bit of badly maintained victorian infrastructure. Went to drill a tiny hole in the wall, and the entire brick disapeared into the cavity behind. Thinking it a fluke I foolishly tried again, the next split/crumbled, the remaining fragment span merrily on the end of the now unencumbered drill bit before flying off too who knows where. This was considerably more than a “two pipe problem”, so we called it a day and dragged all the kit back the 2km to the road on foot.

    It was a very hot day and we made our displeasure abundantly plain to the responsible party, I seem to recall a few “vile oaths” may have been employed and an implied request to verify a birth certificate.

  6. snowy says:

    I knew I had a serious point to contribute before I wandered off in to way back when land.

    If anyone is suffering sleep deprivation in an over sunlit room. Hang something like a mosquito net over the bed from a ceiling hook. It will reflect/block about 50% of the incident light (depending on the size of the mesh). Keeps the sheets cool as well.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    One can always learn things here. I would never have thought of mosquito netting as a heat/light reflector. I don’t know that I’ll need the knowledge but I’d love to have the opportunity to drop it into a conversation.
    I am also learning to avoid the word ‘it’ when a noun is available and makes a sentence much clearer.

  8. Dan Terrell says:

    We use “mosquito netting’ to shade our pair of rollable, light-weight seed-starter houses that the wife uses to start our veggies in March-April.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    A whole world out there. A whole world, I say!

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