Friday, 12 July 2019

Whose idea of beauty is it? Thoughts on why new homes don't look great.

My friend and former colleague, Huw Jones is your go to man for knowing about back-to-back housing and, in particular, the plethora of such housing in Leeds. It looks like this:

Most of these homes were thrown up to house the poor in Leeds and over 20,000 of them remain. Outside West Yorkshire (Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees all retain them albeit not so many as in Leeds and stone not brick) all the back-to-backs have gone except for a few specially preserved historical relics in Liverpool and Birmingham. Leeds, however, is the only place to have back-to-back housing built after 1909 (indeed the most recent of Leeds' back-to-backs date from 1937). There's a reason for this, of course, because the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909 prohibited the building of back-to-backs. Leeds found a loophole by claiming that the homes already had approval at the time of the Act.

When we look at these homes and especially those built, as in the picture above, in long streets, we see the classic image of England's inner city slums - narrow streets, homes opening straight onto the pavement, shared middens and little fire safety. But as Huw Jones was wont to observe, as a built form, these homes use land efficiently, were built well enough to last longer than many homes built more recently, and provided a not unattractive street scene.

This isn't an argument for us building back-to-backs again but rather a chance to raise a question as to what constitutes beauty in housing and to ask further why so many of the homes built today by mass house-builders are at best boring and at worst downright ugly. Here's some built, unlike the back-to-backs in Leeds, to house people well enough off to afford to live hard by the RHS gardens at Harlow Carr on the edge of Harrogate:

When I posted this image and asked these questions on Twitter, I received a variety of responses pointing to potential causes - greedy developers, planners and the planning system, the clunkiness of building regulations and that consumers care little about beauty preferring functionality. The thing for me is that, for all that these things might be causes, there is a depressing similarity between cheap homes for the poor built using a loophole in regulations and new homes for the middle classes in North Yorkshire.

Just as some people look immediately to the supposed greed of these developers, my instinct is to look at our planning and land supply systems. Builders cut corners (my Twitter question produced a lot of 'forget what they look like, look at how badly they're built' responses), use cheaper materials and have 'cookie-cutter' designs because it's the only way they can build the homes at a low enough price. Most of the development cost is sunk into buying the land, getting planning permission, paying exceptional costs demanded by planners or regulations and coughing up for the new development tax, Community Infrastructure Levy.

But there's another thing here - what we're told is beautiful (or great architecture or brilliant design) is what we believe is beautiful. And beauty matters because, as Richard Florida says, beautiful cities are more successful. But what is beautiful?
I go on to explain that they’ve been so propagandized to see it as the quintessential work of art that they never really look at it. “Do you know what ‘sfumato’ is? What makes La Gioconda (what its called in Spain) better than this (I toss up a portrait by El Greco) to you?” The classroom usually breaks out, mildly, into chaos, as students actually begin to think about what they are seeing.
Our aesthetic judgements are, like so much else, guided by received wisdom. And the received wisdom for the design of cities isn't the anonymous developers who built Parkside Terrace in Cullingworth:

No, our urban aesthetic is set by architects and those who write about architecture. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and the Smithsons - advocates of pragmatic, functional, utilitarian buildings. This approach - most obvious in America's ubiquitous 'prairie style' housing - is what we're seeing in those houses built in Harrogate: functionality, utility, value. To return to our example, it's not that the Mona Lisa is objectively the greatest painting but rather that we've all be told (over and over again) that it is the greatest painting.

The article with that Mona Lisa comment goes on to argue that places (Rational Urbanism uses is Springfield, Massachusetts) need to argue for their own beauty not simply try to copy the received idea of beauty. We're told that New York is more beautiful and that the weather's better in Florida but never step back and ask if this is really the case.

So perhaps the reason for those Harrogate homes is that design guides, the architects and planners beliefs - that received wisdom - lead us to this look: pragmatic, functional, utilitarian homes intended to meet the needs of middle-class homeowners in terms of parking, storage, heating, room layout and garden space. The consumer is not buying frills and don't worry about there being no chimneys, no bay widows and a more-or-less eaves free (and therefore sparrow and swallow free) roofline.

The way in which building design evolved in the 20th century led us to this place. It is driven by the manner in which Le Corbusier and others took an entirely functional view of humanity - folk to be stored, moved smoothly from workspace to homespace. The aesthetic wasn't scaled at a personal level but with reference to masses - how do we house millions efficiently, how do we make workplaces for thousands, not how do we make great homes for Mr & Mrs Smith. The result of this is our obsession - straight from Le Corbusier's soulless authoritarianism - with density and the sacredness of the countryside. Even when, as is the case with those homes in Harrogate, we take a small part of that sacred green belt, it's done as a minimum and as densely as possible to meet the dominant aesthetic yet cater to actual human desires.

The irony in all this - and the failure of the utilitarian approach - is that, given a choice and the opportunity, most people don't want to live in dense, crowded, impersonal spaces:
...the main finding of nearly every survey on the subject is that millennials mostly want to live in suburbs, and as they grow older that preference increases. There’s hardly any evidence at all suggesting that there’s a huge pent-up demand for city living that’s going unmet.
To better meet human needs and to repersonalise housing and development, we need to look again at the dominant aesthetic and perhaps to step away from the internationalist, skyscraper style that dominates our ideas of urban goodness. We need to stop speaking about sprawl and ask again how we build suburbs - you can call them garden cities if you wish - that work with the natural environment as well as with most folk's desire for a house with a garden somewhere nice. And that somewhere nice will, in our minds, look and feel more like those Leeds back-to-backs or Cullingworth terrace (for all their lack of outside private space) than it will resemble the great modernist towers that are their modern equivalent.

If you've to consider beaty in the built form, does it have to look like this?


1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

The archetypal inter-wars semi-detacheds are widely derided, but in fact those are the kind of houses people actually want to live in, and often command high prices nowadays. Planners all too easily forget that most people want individual houses with gardens and off-road parking, not modernist blocks.