Sally Sutton


For centuries, dwelling on the water has been a traditional way of life for many cultures around the world. Ironically, although these indigenous communities are now in decline, residing afloat is nonetheless a growing phenomenon in the West. The popularity of living on water is viewed by some as a solution to the problem of affordable housing, particularly in large urban centres. Recent reports have highlighted a range of issues associated with the rapid increase in demand, whilst simultaneously reinforcing the precarious nature of this lifestyle. Focusing on London’s iconic and multifunctional River Thames, this study presents a timely examination of the contradictory nature of river dwelling. For many river dwellers, re-purposed working boats have been appropriated and re-imagined as a place to live. Even though boats are not legally considered dwellings, this thesis contends that converted boats are homes. It posits, therefore, that by extension they should be considered as a contemporary form of vernacular architecture, one that both resists and challenges the dominant practices of inhabiting the city. The dual nature of river dwelling is also examined in the thesis, through an in-depth investigation into the experiences and processes of everyday life on water. The framework of the ‘right to the city’ is used as a concept to evaluate urban problems from a riverine perspective. The thesis proposes the question, ‘what are the forms and moments of resistance used by river dwellers to challenge the dominant economic and political powers? Situated within the fields of Vernacular Architecture and Critical Urban Theory, the study draws upon the theories of Henri Lefebvre to reconceptualise boats as a vernacular form of housing. The intention is to reinterpret ideas of the ordinary and the everyday to examine how and why boats, once part of the working river, have evolved into a popular form of dwelling. Furthermore, it seeks to address the lack of critical evaluation into the problems associated with ‘built space’ at the water’s edge to consider the extent to which the river and its banks have been appropriated and contested as a place to live from a riverine perspective. A variety of methods, including a detailed field study of three river communities, panoramic re-photography, interviews, and archival sources were chosen to examine different aspects of life on the river. In addition, historic moments of struggle and creativity were documented to identify patterns and processes of change that have impacted on the evolution of dwelling on re-purposed boats. Re-thinking the river as a place to dwell affords the opportunity to examine the extent to which life afloat can be understood as a vernacular form that embodies the processes of change. By re-imagining the vernacular in this way, this thesis provides fresh insight into the production of riverine space. It contributes to knowledge by finding that the transformation of the built environment and its relationship with the River Thames, has framed the space at the water’s edge, influencing both the evolution and changing nature of life afloat.

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