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Culture House Daily

Will we learn to love our ugly houses?

29 August 2014

3:57 PM

29 August 2014

3:57 PM

What are the root causes of Britain’s housing crisis? The Philosophers’ Mail – which has copied the format of MailOnline but I suspect is not aiming at quite the same demographic – recently offered an alternative to the usual explanations. That most people are opposed not to building more houses, but to building ugly houses, and that this accounts for most of what we dismiss as a nimbyism that prevents much-needed development. As they put it:

‘Most of the large housing developments built in the South East of England in the last 25 years share one common and (in this context) generally undiscussed feature: they are very ugly. Or, to be more precise, they are far uglier than the countryside they have replaced.’

There’s a lot to be said for this line, but it raises the unsettling possibility that our denunciation of these building styles as visually unappealing might not be an immutable verdict. What if, though we revile their blandness and uniformity now, they one day become fashionable? What if we come to see their misuse of space and energy not as condemnably inefficient but as commendably eccentric? What if we eventually conclude they’re a charming and cosy part of our national furniture?

There are certainly precedents for this. Recall the outcry when John Prescott tried to demolish almost 100,000 houses on Victorian brick terraces in the north of England: residents, heritage groups and opposition parties united to block most of his plan. Yet Orwell, in Manchester en route to Wigan Pier, wrote of such streets that ‘nothing is needed but to tear down these abominations’, while J.B. Priestley, in his 1934 English Journey, had this to say about Gateshead:

‘The whole town appeared to have been carefully planned by an enemy of the human race. Insects can do better than this. … If there is any town of like size in Europe that can show a similar lack of civic dignity and all the evidences of an urban civilization, I should like to know its name. No true civilization could have produced such a town.’

What would Orwell have made of latter generations seeing these abominations as part of the backbone of Britain? What would Priestley have made of Coronation Street?

[Alt-Text]


Edwin Muir, following Priestley with a Scottish Journey, described his 1901 sojourn in a Glasgow tenement as ‘living in a lavatory’; 110 years later I handed over as much money as I could borrow for just such a flat. Ruskin, too, raged against the ugliness of the buildings of his time, most of which we now venerate. And we need say no more about Eric Gill’s views on buildings or anything else.

What about the other ubiquities of our architectural era? We can be confident that some of our most prominent buildings will weather the coming centuries: the Gherkin and the Shard are surely already admired enough in their own time that they’ll still be standing long after we’ve stopped caring about the excesses of foreign billionaires and their City enablers. Most of the other skyscrapers going up in London seem too crass, too derivative to last – but, as I say, fashions change. Perhaps future generations will preserve the best of these and bulldoze the rest; then, having forgotten about them, they’ll assume ours was a golden age.

Meanwhile, some of the ‘luxury’ waterfront developments that were somehow supposed to replace shipyards, and went for small fortunes at the top of the market, are turning into slums already – too small, too far from public transport, with too little greenery or space for children to play. It’s hard not to feel some schadenfreude towards the to-let buyers who find they can now only let to social housing tenants.

But look how quickly our view of the concrete monoliths of the 50s, 60s and 70s is changing. Many of these tower blocks, deeply despised until very recently, are now considered an important part of our urban landscape: London’s Barbican is Grade II-listed, Historic Scotland puts Glasgow’s Anniesland Court in category A. The worst of these experiments – the ones far removed from any of the things that make life bearable, never mind enjoyable – are being blown up, while the best of them are taking a permanent place in our gentrified city centres. Might the same happen in the decades to come to so many riverside apartment blocks and rabbit-hutch student flats – if they haven’t fallen down by then?

Perhaps every age is doomed to treat everything built in its own time as banal, but – like a tribe that worships its ancestors – to treat everything old with reverence. What one era sees as pastiche, the next sees as vernacular, and the longer ago some work of art was made, the more we trust that society’s preservation of it in the intervening years was merited. The most sophisticated critics are the most capable of trashing work that long predates living memory; but as we saw in that brutalist era, when we knocked down mansions to make way for motorways, it’s possible to take this spirit too far.

As John Huston’s character in Chinatown put it: ‘Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.’ So there’s hope yet for the Noddy box, and even for John Prescott.

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