2012-02-12

Black Magic

I was talking to Jerry Dunne the other day who was up at the house interviewing Lorrie and me for an article in the upcoming Ojai Quarterly. He asked me what kind of house I grew up in. I told him of the small brick semi-detached with the red-tile Norman roof - the typical austerity residence of the day - to which my family moved in 1952. These newly constructed houses were cheap, fast and, if not good, at least had indoor plumbing and, with their three coal fire places and one 'coal bunker', a rudimentary means of producing both heat and hot water (Apercu). Hastily thrown-up ribbon developments of this new two-story single family housing archetype were the British equivalent of the Levittown developments in the U.S. and served a similar population of recently returned servicemen and women eager to begin families.

In the South of England, this new housing was often created in the country where families had been relocated during the Second World War to escape the German air attacks on London which began with the 'Blitz' in 1940. Thus it was that I grew up deep in the Surrey country side, in an area that had not changed significantly since the Norman invasion of 1066, an event to which this new rash of red-brick semi-detacheds paid homage with their steeply peaked red-tile roofs - a thousand year old architectural form native to the northern lands of these French invaders.

In the US, new post-WW2 housing tracts were built in a highly favorable economic environment since this country, alone amongst the major powers, emerged from that conflict with its coffers reasonably intact and its industrial infrastructure entirely undamaged. Britain was enfeebled financially by the war, its industrial infrastructure critically wounded and it continued to labor under its unforgiven debts to the United States treasury. In England it was a grim, grey era of hardship and privation, particularly so in contrast to America's golden age to which the Brits were increasingly exposed via Television and the Movies.

While England had to wait until the sixties for a new architectural vision, with the work of the Archigram (1961 -1974), the US was producing, in the immediate post-war period, landmark works of modern architecture by a group of German and Austrian modernist architect-émigrés and its followers. While I wandered around the countryside looking for environmental inspiration in the woods, fields, ancient barns and Elizabethan cottages of rural Surrey, Lorrie was looking at the Eames house in the Pacific Palisades as detailed in a copy of Life magazine. As a child she jumped straight into the modernist stream. I lurked in the backwaters of vernacular agricultural and residential buildings of ages past.

Seventy five years earlier, from his home in Thursley, a village a few miles from where I grew up, Edwin Lutyens had similarly sought inspiration in Surrey's old buildings, and like me, was particularly struck by the black, weatherboard timber-frame barns typical of the area. Lutyens went on to become the preeminent country house architect of the late Victorian and Edwardian era. In his early works, he assimilated the traditional forms of rustic Surrey buildings, but his work changed dramatically when he met the landscape gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, who taught him ‘simplicity of intention and directness of purpose’ and he went on to become one of the great proto-modernists (April Showers).

Late in his career, he designed the Imperial capital of New Delhi (the most significant non-indigenous architecture in the sub-continent until Corbu's monumental efforts in Chandigarh and Louis Khan's parliament buildings in Dhaka, Bangladesh). In India all the Raj administrators from the viceroy down agreed that the new capital of India should look vaguely Indian: it was a matter of political tact; but Lutyens famously punned, "They want me to do Hindu. Hindon't, I say."

His majestic Indian buildings are a long way from the primeval black barns of Surrey, and while he left their influence behind, I remain fascinated by dark, inky buildings rising out of the land like the Rick Joy house whose owner I chatted with on New Years Eve and which features charcoal stained cedar siding in the Japanese tradition of shou-sugi-ban where cedar is charred to increase its resistance to insects and fire (The Great Predator). The Japanese create wonderful noir architecture, while starchitects David Adjaye, Stephen Holl and Philippe Starck have all recently designed murdered-out (black) buildings.

When I first met Lorrie she owned a dark graphite grey clapboard cottage, a former mule barn, in Echo Park. I knew then, we could work together. Prospect Cottage, film maker Derek Jarman's retreat in Dungeness has become, in the many photos of this tiny house from the early 1990's, an iconic image of the black-painted and here black roofed house. Lorrie murdered-out her house in 1980 - and in flat paint. Her curse, to be always ahead of the curve!

Lorrie and I have dabbled on the fringes of architecture for thirty years or more, never threatening to reach a critical mass of either work or critical approbation. Lutyens was both a unique and precocious talent and found immediate success and our only point of connection is our admiration for his work, the happenstance of my being born close to his birth-place and he and I both admiring Surrey's vernacular architecture, and.....Ojai. Let me explain.

Lynn Barber in her New Statesman review of The Architect and his Wife: a life of Edwin Lutyens, Jane Ridley Chatto & Windus, London, 2002, sets the scene:

"Emily Lytton was an aristocrat, daughter of a viceroy, brought up at Knebworth, and a self-admitted snob. But it was her dream to be married to a genius, and almost as soon as she met Lutyens in 1896, she knew he was her man. After they had had five children, she took up Theosophy, and started mooning over Krishnamurti and reciting: "I am a link in a golden chain of love which stretches round the world.""

She is the Lutyens link to Ojai. Although Lady Emily, as she became, never visited Southern California, preferring to moon over K in Holland, India, London and Sydney as he steamed around the world giving talks, they were in almost constant contact until her death in 1964, and to the end he called her mum. Her daughter Mary, fell in love with K's brother Nitya when she was a teenager, and later transferred her affection to K and went on to become Krishnamurti's foremost biographer. She felt honor bound to respond to Rhada Rajagopal Sloss's Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti, London, 1991, which Mary perceived to be a scurrilous attack on the great man.

Mary Lutyens' meticulously researched Krishnamurti and the Rajagopals, KFA, Ojai, CA., 1996, details D. Rajagopal (Raja)'s discovery by C.W. Leadbetter (occult leader of the Theosophical Society) as a back-up to his previous selection of Krishnamurti as World Teacher. Raja went on to become K's advance man and money manager. Eventually ensconced in Ojai with K, his wife Rosalind became K's lover in an arrangement that Mary suggests was engineered to give the Rajagopals a hold over the Indian mystic. Their only child is Rhada Rajagopal Sloss.

Raja robbed K blind, hi-jacked the transcripts of all K's talks (according to Mary) and in the process became a very wealthy man, necessitating at least one Swiss bank account. She tells the story of a thwarted crown prince, ever ready to step into Krishnaji's handcrafted English shoes, run amok. Lutyens goes on to describe the double attempted murder of K by Rosalind and suggests that Raja may have practiced Black Magic. Finally, she details the long drawn out legal process by which Krishnamurti, just before his death in 1986, finally regained control of his archives and finances which led to the setting up of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America.

Raja died in in 1993. Rosalind, long divorced from her husband, died in 1996. Mary Lutyens died in 1999. Rhada Sloss continues as joint chair, with her husband Jimmy Sloss, of the Happy Valley Foundation, set up by Annie Besant in 1927. The KFA continues its work as designated by K and his legal team and Ojai continues to be entwined in this strange story of spirituality, the occult and old fashioned avarice.

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