Who should we hang?

The nineteenth century prime minister Benjamin Disraeli proposed publicly hanging architects for designing boring buildings. 

I found this out from a recent article in Building which, to commemorate its 180th anniversary, is running a series of archive articles. The one on Disraeli’s tongue-in-cheek proposal was published on 3 April, 1847. Ironically, some of the buildings mentioned are regarded as paragons of excellence such as the Victorian terraces of St Pancras, Baker Street and Marylebone.

“But how remedy the evil? What is wanted in architecture, as in so many things, is – a man. Shall we find a refuge in a committee of taste? – escape from the mediocrity of one to the mediocrity of many? We only multiply our feebleness and aggravate our deficiencies.

Architects would have their luckless fellow ever before their eyes would think twice before completing their designs, and lay every first stone with fear and trembling.

…it is very monotonous. All those new districts that have sprung up within the last half century, the creatures of our commercial and colonial wealth – it is impossible to conceive anything more tame, more insipid, more uniform.”

Although Dizzy was referring to 19th century London, he could equally well have been referring to any 21st century suburb where volume house-builders have erected identikit rows of houses, regardless of context. The population of my nearest town – Gorebridge, in Midlothian – has doubled in the last ten years from 5,000 to 10,000 people. 

Barratt Homes Harbour Place, Hampshire

Most of these additional inhabitants are housed on five sites, all of which were previously fields. Each one was bought by a mass builder enriching a local farmer or landowner. The swathes of uninspiring new homes, many with integral garages, are soulless. Compare this to the varied distribution and design of affordable housing in some European countries such as Norway. Unfortunately until we change the existing financial model for building homes with the disproportionate high value of land compared with building in the UK this is likely to continue.

However rather than hanging the architect (or unqualified designer, as is unfortunately so often the case with volume housing) for their lack of aesthetics, why not punish them for their lack of ecological design? Good ecological planning and design has the advantage of responding to its local environment and will therefore vary from place to place, rather than use the same template right across the UK. It responds to orientation (at present you would not know which direction is South from the layout of most mass housing developments). It responds to contours (mass house-builders avoid sloping sites, but instead build on good flat agricultural land). It uses local materials, therefore reflecting the palette of the area (mass house builders tend to rely on the ubiquitous brick outer skin, possibly rendered, and more recently with the added bonus of a square metre of timber cladding, as a gesture towards the environment). 

In a similar vein, ecological design responds to the local soil, flora and fauna, culture, climate, and topography (none of which volume house-builders do other than in the most tokenistic sense). However possibly more importantly is the scale of the development. It is too easy to develop disproportionately large sites alongside settlements that have grown organically over centuries.

It does not help that planning is an undervalued discipline or the limited number of housing models available in the UK. Again, compared to many European countries, planning does not have the status or funds it deserves and needs. Community Land Trusts, co-housing and housing co-operatives – models of self-managed forms of housing that are far more prevalent in northern Europe (27% of the total housing stock in Poland and 23% in Sweden) – create smaller scale, individually designed housing schemes. There are notable exceptions in Scotland, but they are far and few between, with housing associations usually leading the way in sustainable design and living.

Maybe the new Passivhaus standards (or similar) coming into force in Scotland in 2024 mean we can dismantle the gallows?

LILAC Mutual Home LILAC Mutual Home Ownership Society, West Leeds by White Design
Photo Sandy Liddell Halliday
Tübingen, Germany
Photo Sandy Liddell Halliday
Springhill Co-Housing, Stroud by Architype
Findhorn Ecovillage Community, Forres
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