last summer, on certain days, steam trains were run on the line out from Copenhagen to Klampenborg for families heading off to to Bakken, the amusement park, and the beach at Bella Vista. These engines were used on this line through the late 20s and 1930s so if Arne Jacobsen, who lived first in Ordrup and then in Klampenborg, had come into town by train this is how he would have travelled. Realising that, there suddenly seemed to be an odd contrast between this technology and the clean, simple lines of Jacobsen's buildings. Not everything is modern at the same time ... or in the same way ... or at least not in retrospect
One summer, when I was still at university, I went back to the town where my parents lived and spent a month or so helping in the local museum, where I designed and made a few display cases for their loan collection that was sent around schools and I taught some school groups.
It was a new town … built under the New Town's Act as what was called an 'overspill' for London … a town for a bright new future, in bright new homes, as one way to replace the slums and bomb-damaged housing of the capital … or that was the plan. Through the 1950s and 60s the town spread rapidly across fields and open country to one side of a small but well-established market town that was on the main road from London to Edinburgh and had been there for well over a thousand years. Looking back, what was curious was that the newcomers had their own town centre and their own system of local government - a Development Corporation rather than a town council - their own new factories for new jobs - and few of the young couples who moved out from London had any interest in the old town. Most of their kids, the kids I taught in the museum, who were born in the town and by then in their early teens, had never even been into the old town.
For one group I was planning a walk along the old high street to point out ponds where, in the 18th century and probably earlier, cattle driven to market in London were watered for several days to gain a bit of weight after their long walk from either Wales or from Ireland before the last stage of the walk to the meat market and the same ponds were used to soak straw to make hat brims for the local hat-making industry in a nearby town. It was obvious the kids had little understanding of history or social history or any way of understanding why these things might be important - everything they knew about was less than twenty years old - so in the museum, where I could keep their attention rather better, I got them looking through old photographs before the walk, getting them to talk about what they thought about what they were looking at in the photos.
One photo showed an old timber house dating from the 15th or 16th century but it had actually been used as a garage in the 1930s, when the photograph was taken. Hard against the front wall of the building was a petrol pump with an upright and a long arm so that the nozzle for fuel could be swung out across the wide pavement to any vehicle on the road. In that photo was an amazing motor bike, that was being filled up by a man from the garage in overalls, and there was a smiling bloke in a leather jacket and with a tightly fitting leather hat with ear flaps and a pair of what were called flying goggles jauntily pushed up to sit on the top of his head.
One girl, probably 14 years old, sat looking at the photo for ages. She saw me watching her and said "Sir" and then there was a very long pause. "Sir" ……… and she pointed at the bike. "Was this old fashioned when it was first new?"
Out of the mouths of children …. and all that.
But that simple question actually raises a lot of interesting points about how really clear any of us are about history and what fashion or technical development or even change over time means. Obviously something is new. Full stop. Not first new. But for how long does something very new, in terms of its design, remain a novelty? Do we wait for the next new to come along and realise the old new is now old? How often do we just carry on with something because basically it seems to work - so wonder do we really need something new?
From television and films and from reading and half-remembered lessons from school, most people have a fairly broad view of history, so maybe the main big events in rough sequence, but certainly only a vague idea about everyday life for ordinary people even when our grandparents were small.
If you talked to a group of kids in their early teens in Copenhagen now and told them about many of the apartments in the city, in the fairly recent past, that shared a toilet out on the communal landing with at least one other family and used a wash house in the courtyard for doing laundry and went to a communal bath house down the street or otherwise washed in the kitchen, sink how would they react? Would they be surprised or shocked or slightly disgusted? Their parents might not remember apartments like that but their grandparents certainly would. And if kids don’t appreciate how different life was in the 1940s or 1920s how do they see change with any sort of context?
And, perhaps more important, judged by the standards of the day, a toilet on the landing, even if it was shared, was actually something to be thankful for, something strikingly modern, and much better than going down to a toilet in the yard like their parents … a toilet that did not flush but where you used ash or earth to cover over anything until the whole thing was emptied by a man with a shovel and a cart. Modern and convenient? Again all a matter of context.
It’s not nostalgia or any suggestion that the past was a better time but possibly just that it seems to be important to understand and remember how we got from there to here and why. Not just in political or economic terms but for the architecture and the design of the products we use every day.
But I'm also trying to understand why we are all so focused on now and so drawn to the novel and the new and the fashionable. Maybe it's just that I'm getting old and realising that maybe progress is not all it’s cracked up to be. Or maybe I was just old fashioned when I was first new.