Many of us can vaguely recognise the styles of homes built at different times in history, for example an 18th century Georgian terrace or a 19th century Victorian home. We might not be able to pinpoint precisely the age of a property but we can spot distinctive aspects of their appearance.
In the past, homes built around the country often reflected the local materials available for building at the time – adding to the diversity of the housing landscape and a distinctive sense of place.
Modern homes in contrast are characterised by their bland identikit appearance. In an effort to add some sense of aesthetics, new build properties often incorporate pseudo ‘period’ features. But the resulting impression is simply one of graceless imitation.
To be fair, houses from the past have often freely borrowed styles from different eras too. Pattern books for building houses with their pick-and-mix approach to features and appearance have been around for decades (notably in the US). But why do modern homes seem so artless and unrefined?
I realise it’s easy to slip into a nostalgic and misleading view of the past. While modern homes might be bland and uninspiring, construction techniques and technology keep on advancing. In many ways, it’s an exciting time for residential housing because we have solutions for building homes which are more environmentally-friendly than ever before.
How do we avoid the dull uniformity characteristic of so much new build property? Do we simply need more varied and imaginative designs? Or do we also need to return to local construction that reflects local materials? This is a challenge in particular for pre-fabricated housing which, while using modern methods of construction, may be designed without recourse to the character of the local landscape in which it will be assembled.
In his book Rubbish!, the author Richard Girling has this to say about domestic architecture:
Modern domestic architecture in Britain is a miracle of perversity. In a country with such a rich tradition of vernacular building and grand design, how could we have sunk to such a nadir? Given that variations in the form, scale, materials, colour and layout are so nearly infinite, how could we have settled for such dull and dispiriting uniformity? Once, not so long ago, houses spoke, like their owners, with local accents. Granite and slate; timber-frame; cob and thatch; clunch; brick-and-tile; flint; Cotswold stone – each material echoed the landscape from the which it sprang, and gave the buildings their colour and form. You could have parachuted blindfold into any any county in England and known where you were simply by looking at the houses.
Now we have homes for the hamburger age. The size may change, but the recipe is the same in Cumbria as it is in Cornwall. In place of Williams-Ellis’s ‘grouped architecture’ we have ranks of indistinguishable, computer-generated housing products facing each other across cul-de-sacs wider than most village high streets. The builders argue that not all the houses are identical, and of course they are right. Out of the dressing up box comes a pick-and-mix of architectural flim-flam – bottle-glass, leaded lights, ‘Georgian’ porticos, tudorbethan timbering, gabled dormers. All to be stuck on to this or that ‘dream home’ without regard for balance, proportion, architectural cogency or the house’s relationship with its neighbours. Architectural critics dismiss this kind of thing as ‘developers’ baroque’, but the builders themselves are nearer the mark. Their private terms for such adornments is ‘gob-ons’.
Girling, Richard (2005), Rubbish! Dirt on our hands and the crisis ahead, Eden Project Books (a division of Transworld Publishers)