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Comment: Life gives a place its soul

Eleanor Young

It’s the details that people can latch onto that help new buildings grow into inhabitable places, says Eleanor Young

Why can’t a housing estate be more like an oak?
Why can’t a housing estate be more like an oak? Credit: Istock | Stephen Buwert

Brand new housing estates are often missing something: the fourth dimension, time. During the construction process time is about the struggle of sequencing and delivery up to completion. That moment is a triumph over the inertia of physical forces; change has been wrought. It has gone from field and farm to houses, but not yet homes. At this point even the best architecture is often hollow and soulless – empty tarmac, expressionless walls, dull doors. 

Then the clock starts again with the life of the building, the activity of the place and the people around it. Here is the grass starting to green, a tree coming into leaf, here is the buffeting wind and rain, now come the feet on the mat and the scuffs on the walls and the reimagining and extension. 

It is fanciful to say that design details can smooth the disconnect between the time before and time after completion, between the production of the building and its inhabitation. But they do. Remember – remember walking alongside reworked old buildings, the deep reveals, the worn bricks and lights inside draw you in, they don’t spit you out as an unwelcome visitor, an interloper. Compare it to a new street in extended suburbia, where you rattle around between mean front lawns and short drives. The forms are familiar, but how you fit into them is not, they are made not for the body but for the car. 

At Nansledan, on the edge of Newquay in Cornwall, I saw how the porches, little windows, flagstones at front doors, touches of tiles and lead, make a bridge between empty buildings and those full of life, between inside and out. They reminded me of the best of houses and streets, the human moments of comings and goings. The staircase on Archio’s Citizen House project for a local Community Land Trust in south east London does the same, inviting use, promising shared experience. Both schemes are drawn from meaningful community consultations; perhaps there is a link. 

The clock starts again with the life of the building, the activity of the place and the people around it

These details are the signature of design that is in touch with its future inhabitation. Not just Le Corbusier’s sound bite of the machine for living, but the more powerful manifestos that he built with sun decks and ribbon windows and a slim roof projecting over the door. 

A new housing estate has a blankness, something that repels haphazard life, like the defensive shine of a new acorn shell.  It needs to grow into a cracked and gnarled oak, where life can exist in crevices and a community of creatures finds sustenance, until it becomes a whole ecosystem unto itself. Architects can seed that with thoughtful design, with houses, flats and streets built with a sense of being imbued with life right from the start. They don’t need a future king as the landowner – although perhaps it helped at Nansledan with the Duchy of Cornwall – but they do need people who care beyond quarterly profits about the long term future of a place.