Fringe benefits – Colin Ward visit the house for Nicaragua [Article]

Article about the ‘Nicaragua house’ in Vauxhall, published in New Statesman and Society May/June 1989

Asked what the project meant to him and the others, Johnny said: “lt’s a chance to live your politics, learn skills, decide your own work routines, meet a changing network of 50 to 60 people. Some even came from Leeds to help. It’s been a focal point.” The house for Nicaragua began with Tod. He trained as an architect but dropped out as he didn’t see social usefulness in what he was learning. He and his wife bought a shed in Essex and slowly turned it into a house. she working days as a nurse and he on nights in a factory. It was too much and they parted. But selling the house brought them £20,000 each.

He moved to south London in a squat that arose because the GLC had compulsory purchased a street of old houses dispersed the residents and left the buildings to rot, to provide for an eventual extension to an ILEA school. As demographers could have predicted, the school has not extended. In fact it has since closed. The squatters had rescued the street and like several of the best squats, became legitimised as a housing co-op.

I would rejoice that direct action had enabled them to build their own nests. But Tod is a sterner character and saw them as simply feathering their nests. “Surely,” he argues, “some of the money made out of gentrifying areas like this should do somewhere really useful?” Six years ago he saw John Pilger’s TV programme about Nicaragua: the hopes of its people and the obscene horror of the US government intervention. This decided him.

He invested his particular nest–egg in buying a totally derelict two-storey 1860s house in Vauxhall, once a cobbler’s shop, and about its reconstruction with the aim of selling it and investing the proceeds in popular projects in Nicaragua on 19 July the Sandinista Nicaragua Festival that day in nearby Spring Gardens opposite the City Farm.

The house for Nicaragua won’t actually be finished this week, but it will be soon. In five years of work, using materials that the affluent society dumps in skips, Tod’s team have rebuilt the house with magnificent oak doors and lovely staircases. From the dump outside Bankside Power Station they reclaimed mahogany floor blocks, each one of which has been stripped of its bitumen screed by patient volunteers.

Most of the walls have been finished by a gang of trainee women plasterers’ from Camden. Helen and Ruth did the balustrading. Judy made the stained glass in the kitchen. Tod has added a light and airy top floor with a balcony’. The plumbing electrics and central heating are coming along slowly.

Bluefields, Nicaragua’s main Atlantic coast town twinned with the London Borough of Lambeth) was devastated by a hurricane last October. People front the twinning group, and from this particular project, have worked there. The money from the sale of the house will be spent on the projects there that Bluefield’s people think are most urgently needed.

My impression of the place? Well just because old materials have been used, it looks as though it has always been like that. An enveloping atmosphere of mellow brightness has been brought to a building that was derelict for a decade. It’s a creative transformation. If you’re a likely purchaser ring Trevor at [number deleted], leaving your number to make an appointment to view.

What will happen Todd when the job is clone? He describes his trade as that of a joinery refurbisher, so he won’t be short of work. I suspect that he’ll drift into some other ruined house and bunch of helpers around him to take on another hopelessly uneconomic, but beautifully enterprising job. He’s a one-man revolution. Standing out against the spirit of the idea of Britain in the 1980s. “l like idea of giving away a house,” he told me “and I enjoy the fact that people see it as something quite shocking and outrageous.” I hope he’ll go on shocking us.

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