Today's volume housebuilding may one day be viewed with affection
One of the truisms of the built environment is that the once-despised becomes accepted and praised while the once-accepted and praised becomes despised. Wait long enough and the cycle may even repeat. Happy the architects, such as Sir Denys Lasdun, who live just long enough to see their work, having fallen into disfavour, swing right back into fashion.
In his recent column Will Wiles noted the ever-shortening timescales between good buildings being built and moves being made to protect and preserve them. The record is surely held by Nick Grimshaw’s Waterloo International Terminal which was threatened by an air rights development before it was even built in the 1990s, leading to considerable protest which saw off the predatory project. Yes, it happened: a preservation battle for a building still at design stage, and I was one of the many signatories, at a time long before too-easy online petitions. The building should be listed now, of course, but we’ll have to assess the impact of the commercial development that eventually IS happening to this breakout building by Grimshaw, namely a two-level foodhall/entertainment venue below the tracks in the former international passenger waiting areas, not above them. It is due to open in 2021.
One consequence of the telescoping preservation timetable is overlap; one section of the commentariat continues to denigrate perfectly good buildings while another praises them to the skies. We see this with brutalism, we see this with postmodernism. So many people still regard certain now-listed buildings as crumbling hellholes simply because they happen to be council housing made of concrete. All concrete is not the same of course, any more than all brick is the same, but just try telling them that. And you still encounter sharp exchanges between the pro and anti when it comes to PoMo, though that is more of an intra-professional squabble: I get the sense that the general public is blithely unconcerned about that one.
Who are we to assume that today’s equivalent of Betjeman’s Metroland will not come to be loved for similar reasons?
So here is the next test: the identikit edge-of-town greenfield housing estates churned out by the volume builders. They vary in their quality but there is an average type of house involved – vaguely traditional-looking apart from the bleak road layouts. While in the 1970s and 1980s, say, neo-Geo or faux Regency were popular with the builders, for some reason these days they nearly all have to have a slightly Victorian air to them. Very seldom terraced, though: with rare exceptions the volume-housebuilding world is all about detached houses with narrow wind-channelling gaps between them.
However, this has happened before: Sir John Betjeman was the first to find merit in the endless semi-d’s of inter-war suburbia he called Metroland. Who are we to assume that today’s equivalent homes (though in some cases notoriously poorly built and usually not rail-connected) will not come to be loved for similar reasons? The only thing we can be sure of is that tastes change. Which is why anyone trying to codify ‘beauty’ as an aspect of home-building is on a hiding to nothing.