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Learning from Leakiness:

Washing Lines and Atmospheric Practices in Somers Town and Vanbrugh Park Estate

As Carolyn Davidson writes in ‘A Woman’s Work is Never Done. A History of Housework in the British Isles 1650-1950,’ the threat of contamination of clean washing in industrial Britain was very real:

It was particularly demoralizing to dry linen in towns and cities, especially those with manufacturing industry. For their atmosphere was so polluted that the linen was soon covered with little specks of soot. In addition, there was the difficulty of finding space to hang it out of doors.[1]

The limitations to drying laundry outside that are voiced by Caroline Davidson - the risk of being rained on or contaminated - still remain obstacles that need to
be negotiated today, to varying extents. We can now begin to understand how city planning, housing policy and the practice of doing laundry intersect and relate to issues of spatial justice. Being limited by external air pollution will likely cause more washing to be dried indoors, which can in turn affect internal air quality. This problem was relayed by Farah, who I spoke to in Somers Town. She told me she doesn’t have any outdoor space so dries her washing inside. It caused issues with mould and damp in the past, she tells me, with particularly bad effect on

her son, who has a lung disease. Farah deals with the problem with the use of a dehumidifier.[2] For Siobhan Graham in Vanbrugh Park estate, on the other hand, drying her washing outside is out of question during spring and summer as she is allergic to pollen which wet clothes easily absorb.[3] On the other end of the spectrum, external drying can be a source of positive atmospheric negotiation, mediated by technology, such as in the case of Duncan Brown, a resident of Vanbrugh Park estate who usually dries his washing in his private garden and uses the Rain app on his phone to establish a good time to do laundry.[4]

Air-drying laundry requires a level of sensitivity, or attunement, not only to the weather, but more broadly to air quality. James Payne, another resident of Vanbrugh Park Estate, tells me how he uses the hot dry air around his wood burner to dry his family’s laundry indoors in winter. The ceramic tiles near the wood burner heat up too and they can be very useful for drying your socks on, he says.[5] Doing laundry is in this sense an ‘atmospheric practice.’[6] It requires a basic but specific kind of wisdom and active participation in the control of one’s environment. Daniel Barber calls these behaviours ‘thermally induced social practices.’[7]

Following Barber’s thought, it could be said tumble dryers were made for the fossil economy - and they do not foster individual agency over atmospheric practice. Air drying laundry, on the other hand, requires the development of climate intelligence and ‘thermally induced social practices’[8] - which are, according to Barber, the key to climate responsive architecture. Drying laundry outside is ‘active passive’ in the terms set out by Daniel Barber. It uses ‘passive’ solar heat and air but it requires active ‘thermally induced social practices’ - carrying, hanging laundry, then taking it down when it’s dry, all while paying attention to the weather.

Both Somers Town and Vanbrugh Park estate drying yards are sites of exposed intimacies and thermally induced social practices. Even if not designed with the environmental agenda at the forefront, they provide a useful precedent in the simple gesture of airing wet laundry. And they provide an infrastructure that requires active attunement to the weather and environment. They are sites that make visible the breathing of houses.

What does the knowledge that we are not immune to industrial pollution inside our homes mean? It means that the home is not the safe, private space we thought it to be, for one. The contamination found inside the home is derived from analogous industrial systems to the ones which pollute the air outside. It also means that

we can move towards understanding architecture as an assemblage of breathing bodies. ‘Buildings don’t breathe, we are told’[9] writes Helen Mallinson but if breathing is an exchange of gases and microentities then they do. So do damp clothes, mould spores, tumble dryers, dehumidifiers and so on.

Can we think of air-drying laundry as a low-stakes atmospheric practice akin to ‘weathering’ described by Hamilton, Neimanis and Zettel? It definitely facilitates
an embodied experience of weather and climate. One of the recurring themes in conversations carried out for this project was the speed with which laundry dries in the heatwave of 2022. To dry laundry outside is to have agency but it is also for air to have agency.

This can lead us to think about questions such as: Who and what is allowed to breathe? And what is being breathed in? Can the discussion about the feminist interior, as a site of reproductive labour of doing washing, aid the conversation about the ecosophic ‘invironment,’[10] as a way of ‘making the air conditions explicit’? [11]

Klaus Loenhart defines the task of what he calls ‘biometeorological design’ as
‘to conceive sympoietic processes and assemblies and to develop new aesthetic techniques that help to make the systemic entanglements tangible and public.’[12]
I think of laundry washed on dhobi ghat in India, where, hung up on river banks it creates cooling atmospheres. Or about La Borda, a cooperative housing project by Catalan architectural practice Lacol. There, drying laundry appears to be a continuation of the porous façade, which features openable louvres to adapt to external conditions. The residents also share communal washing machines, which sit displayed in an open lobby. The presence of washing lines in architecture (and architectural photography) is significant - it echoes the inclusion of linen in one of the photographs of Vanbrugh Park Estate in the AR. At La Borda laundry becomes public and atmospheric.


































































‘Where do you dry your washing?’ Poster advertising interview drop-in session in Somers Town.
Author’s Image, 2022.

[1] Caroline Davidson, A Woman’s Work Is Never Done: A History of Housework in the British Isles, 1650-1950 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1986). 

[2] Interview with Farah, resident of Somers Town, carried out on 29.07.2022.  

[3] Interview with Siobhan Graham, resident of Vanbrugh Park Estate, carried out on 30.07.2022. 


[4] Interview with Duncan Brown, resident of Vanburgh Park Estate, carried out on 30.07.2022. 

[5] Interview with James Payne, resident of Vanbrugh Park Estate, carried out on 30.07.2022. 

[6] Klaus K. Loenhart, ‘Beyond Gravity – Approaching Interwoven Atmostories’, in Breathe: Investigations into Our Atmospherically Entangled Future, ed. Klaus K. Loenhart (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2021), 53. 

[7] Daniel A. Barber, ‘Active Passive’, South Atlantic Quarterly 120, no. 1 (1 January 2021): 103–21,, 104.

[8] Barber, 'Active Passive', 104. 

[9] Helen Mallinson, ‘Air Rights’, in Agency: Working with Uncertain Architectures, ed. Kossak, Florian et al., Critiques, v.5 (London; New York: Routledge, 2010), 174. 

[10] Loenhart writes ‘there is no natural outside, […] every outside is another inside’ and uses the term ‘invironment’ to describe an ‘all encompassing inside’. Loenhart, ‘Beyond Gravity’, 51. 

[11] Helen Mallinson, ‘From City Air to Urban Space: Passion and Pollution’, The Journal of Architecture 19, no. 2 (4 March 2014): 235,


[12] Loenhart, ‘Beyond Gravity’, 68. 

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Drying yard in Vanbrugh Park Estate with posters advertising resident interviews. Author’s Image, 2022.

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