Monday, 25 February 2013

Why buy a well planned home when you can have one that looks normal?

The quality of architecture is usually all of a piece - the awful-looking bog standard homes available everywhere are usually badly planned as well.

review by Rowan Moore in yesterday's Observer featured new houses at Harlow by Alison Brooks, which looked interesting and sounded as if they had had more thought put into them than most.  Referring to planning minister Nick Boles' stated wish to improve on the 'pig ugly' housing that homebuyers are normally offered, the review points out that well-designed housing like this is mainly about providing practical, liveable homes, and that architects as much as anyone else prefer to avoid discussions of difficult words like 'beauty' - 'some will find these houses beautiful, some not... but looks are not the main point.'

The point, surely, is that while the offerings of many volume housebuilders are indeed pig ugly, good projects such as this one at Harlow, by skilled, prizewinning architects, tend to look interesting rather than beautiful - and they are also quite likely, as these do, to look enigmatically 'different' (or 'Other') -  in a way that the housebuilders' commercial directors are likely to feel will actually put off some of their buyers, depending on the likely demographic.  They know the pig ugly stuff sells (only, in fact, because supply is rationed, but that's another story).

It takes a skillful architect to design a decent house layout within the minimal floor areas offered in this country - and a persuasive one to get the housebuilder to dump the default layouts 'based on something someone designed in 1958' that Alison Brooks rightly bemoans.  But on the whole, an architect worth their salt won't be content with sorting out the practical stuff without also leaving their personal mark on the looks of the thing - it is a complete package that is on offer.  Here at Harlow, the result is definitely a something rather than a nothing - but not one that every Essex buyer would be comfortable with.

Francis Bacon (the seventeenth century one) wrote 'Houses are built to Live in, and not to Looke on; Therefore let Use bee preferred before Uniformitie, Except where both may be had.  Leave the Goodly Fabrickes of Houses for Beautie only to the Enchanted Pallaces of the Poets, Who build them with small Cost.'   This Elizabethan politician's view persists virtually unchanged, four centuries on - albeit expressed today sourly, rather than wittily - in the views held by most politicians (e.g. Mr Gove), civil servants and housebuilders in our new Elizabethan age.

Nick Boles is out on a limb.  His call to arms is made even less likely than one might hope to be effective because today's architects, unlike Bacon's contemporaries, do not for the most part think that beauty is really the aim of architectural design.  The minister might be better advised to complain about the fact that many new homes are badly planned, and take little account of how family life has changed since 1958 (as well as being pig ugly).

Good housing design is the whole package - not Beautie only.  The houses that have been thoughtfully planned - in respect of everyday things like proper provision for multiple recycling bins for example - nearly always look better too.

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