Thoughts on the songs that railings could sing: tracing taste and law via wrought iron

Recent years have seen publication of a number of serious studies into the essence and cultural history of barbed wire (Razac, 2002; Krell, 2002). Here I want to sketch out some thoughts on a similar, but more mundane and far less signified, border technology: metal railings. I’ve been thinking semi-seriously about railings recently, and over recent days have paid more attention to them (or their absence) in my neighbourhood.  Thinking about railings can open up some interesting areas related to my ongoing projects on meaning-making, law’s role in normative replication and ruination in the built environment.

The following is presented in the spirit of Sartre’s realisation that phenomenology gave him licence to study anything and: “I was carried away: nothing appeared to me more important that the promotion of street lamps to the dignity of philosophical object… [for] truth drags through the street, in the factories…” (quoted in Kearney, 1994: 3). But as I’ve said above, ‘semi-seriously’. I’m fully aware that lingering over the mundane can seem obsessive, otherwise odd or pointless. By studies in this vein I’m not saying that the mundane is more important than conventionally foregrounded subjects of study, just that bringing the mundane under the spotlight too can be a worthwhile endeavour.

Replacing railings

I’ve always been fascinated by the wholescale removal of railings as part of wartime ‘scrap drives’ – and the way that the truncated stubs of railings, sit on many front terrace walls. That something the Victorians who built the urban terraces that I’m writing about here could invest with such significance and artistry could be rendered to commodity by the exigencies of war. What concerns me here is how and why there was (only) a partial return of these low level metal perimeters after the war.

Looking around my neighbourhood in recent days I see various patterns in how the railings repopulated my streets. This revival of railings was far from total, many walls remain in ‘stubbings only’ state. But where the railings have recurred we can see a wide variety of interpretations of what railings should look like – of heights and styles. But what I notice most is approximate uniformity – a vernacular defined by some awareness of how everyone else is expressing the railings urge, a general conformity to scale, colour and often similar echoes of a standard twisted (two swans kissing-like) motif. Few hedges or wooden fences have interceded. In particular I’ve noticed that identical railings seem to occur in adjacent pairs.

Thus, in fanciful mode, a street scene presents as a musical score – a sequence of code permutations around a fairly stable ideal-type, expressed in metal. If you translated the railings into musical notes, they would make a tune – there would be sequences. But it wouldn’t reach the top of the charts…

But, I’m more interested in the stories that lie behind the design, selection and emplacement of these ‘replacement’ fences. I wonder, for example, whether the pairs I’ve spotted reflect an effect of ‘keeping up with the Jones’, bulk-purchase discount arrangements or simple convenience of being able to approach a workman ‘on the job’ next door. In some cases perhaps notions of aesthetic order came into play – that the frontages of the two adjacent houses needed to be retained.

Much has been written in recent years about ‘gated communities’. Perhaps at a symbolic level householders have come to feel safer, more private by reinstating their railings. But these were only ever token barriers. Even in the Victorian era of their birth they were insubstantial. All they could do was symbolically delimit the tiny front yards of these houses as a private space. At best they were an aspirational echo of the actual exclusionary effect of identical style (but much taller) railings to schools, parks and cemeteries of the time. The railing replacement rate of the few local streets I’ve looked at here in northern Sheffield is around 40%. So, 60% of properties are railing-less, and have been in this state since the 1940s – so, this doesn’t suggest that absence of railings made many householders feel exposed.

It would be difficult to get to the heart of the individual stories that lie behind railing reinstatement (or non-replacement). Each house has had a succession of owners across that period, any one of who may have been instrumental in that decision to reinstate. What perhaps might be achievable is a study of those few houses where the original Victorian railings remain in situ – to try and account for why these railings weren’t surrendered to the scrap van in the 1940s, and what the legal and or community response to such refusal may have been .

Railings as ruins

Walter Benjamin and others in the German Romantic tradition saw ruins as having revelatory power – that we see the true essence of something in its moment of decline. I find this approach helpful to understand why I’ve always been captivated by abandoned railings. In particular I recall encountering rusting municipal railings on deserted seaside pathways. These railings’ decay is more than the physical effect of corrosive sea air, it also speaks to a possible municipal abandonment. The walks I’m thinking of have every appearance of paths dreamt up by a ‘parks department’ planner sometime during the leisure optimism of the last century. “Build it and they will come” – but they probably never did. That pathway is now surplus, unloved and far from the repair prioritisation of the Council (or more likely its outsourced ‘street maintenance partner’). I get a similar impression when I glimpse rusting roadside railings in remote areas. Someone thought these railings necessary once. Perhaps as a necessary adjunct to a proud new municipal road scheme. But now the lie of the land has changed, the railings are difficult to reach – off road the vegetation is too overgrown, and the road is now too busy for maintenance crews to stop there and maintain them from the roadside. Also, such features are ‘first casualties’ in public cuts – the time and costs of scraping down and repainting an extensive set of railings is unaffordable in a world of cuts that, in some authorities, is seeing every second street light bulb removed as a costs saving measure.

Yet, I’m haunted by the thought that those railings were part of someone’s life’s work – a whole sequence of municipal history lying behind them. A decision process through a ‘need’ being identified, a barrier being found as the solution, design decisions being made about what should be provided, and a team sent to install and maintain that feature. But then the money ran out. Upkeep is a different type of expense to instalment outlay (and perhaps a different department). Indeed the abandonment of these municipal railings may in part be down to local government reform in 1972 – the splitting of local authorities into ‘district’ and ‘county’ councils – perhaps these orphaned railings got forgotten through that process?

As ruin then, these railings remind me of the optimism of modernism, and the less confident (and less provident) eras in which we now live and walk.

Railings as safety

The modernist era also had a great faith in the importance of segregating pedestrians from vehicular traffic. In the era of the underpass the separation sought was total – but it was never achieved. Underpasses were soon unsafe for other reasons. Thus segregation was largely via street barriers to control the flow and interaction of humans and cars. The vogue now is towards removal of this “street clutter”, to follow Scandinavian studies that suggest that removing these railings and other physical devices will encourage pedestrians and drivers to take greater care for their own, and others’ safety. In time this may see the decline of pedestrian railings (but don’t hold your breath).

But whilst there has been a backlash against these features at ground level, recent decades have actually seen the proliferation of such barriers on the top of buildings. ‘Edge protection’ came to prominence via the implementation of EU derived safety laws in 1992. Flat roofed buildings to which public or workers are likely to have routine access now need edge protection. Look up at rooftops and you will start to notice this latest accretion there.

Whereas railings were a symbolic vestige of private space in the Victorian era, their municipal occurrence in the present day is more often justified by matters of ‘public safety’, and the design and selection of railings is shaped by technical codes and specifications of law. The spacing and width of balustrades is a matter of law rather than aesthetics alone (the minimum gap between railings is calibrated by reference to the average width of a young child’s head rather than by notions of design flourish).

Conclusion: what makes railings – taste, law or metal?

In the case of the reinstatement of railings to Victorian terrace housing we are looking at a taste driven process – the realm of the householder’s aesthetic sensibilities. The streets described above are not designated conservation areas therefore the law’s writ and concern is not engaged in the question of whether or not these features should be present, and if so in what style and colour. But there are patterns in the reinstatement – suggesting that law is not the only normative order shaping local behaviour here. Elsewhere, law is more to the fore, and can account for the form and emplacement of, and subsistence (or abandonment of) railings.  The survival of railings is a function of the interplay of taste, law and the material vulnerabilities of metal to rust, theft or requisition.

Kearney, R. (1994) Modern Movements in European Philiosophy, University of Manchester Press: Manchester.

Krell, A. (2002) The Devil’s Rope – a cultural history of barbed wire, Reaktion Books: London

Razac, O. (2002) Barbed Wire – a history, Profile Books: London


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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