Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Looking at the Overlooked

I'm not the first to say it but speculative housing schemes are very odd places. The one pictured here (in fuzzy mobile phone technicolour) is made stranger by its moribund credit crunched status, but even so its pretty peculiar. What is its genealogy? Where do these forms and materials come from? Why does so much of the country look like this?

It's hard for architects to get past their visceral hatred of this kind of stuff in order to actually look at it. I'm not going to try and defend it here on populist grounds but I am interested in why so much of the world looks like this. Estates like this are a strange confluence of taste, economics, received wisdom and something altogether less easy to define. It is not simply that it is cheap, or efficient because in some ways it is neither, but then a certain pinched meanness is evident throughout.

The ruthless application of market principles often leads to illogical weirdness. So here the bits of buildings that architects usually fuss over, such as things lining up or random eruptions of services and lighting conduits, are left to run amok. The builder's standard details combined with the aspirant tropes of a debased Georgian/Victorian pattern language result in all manner of deformities. Bits stick out, lumps protrude, a pedimented doorway collides with a band of expressed stone.

One could approach something like this not as a moral arbiter of taste or an offended aesthete but as a detective trying to establish motive. Somebody somewhere designed this and design always involves active choices however restricted. It's not the headline issue of historical pastiche that is most problematic, or even the kind of urban design ambition to make CABE shiver, but the sheer peculiarity of the design once you start looking at it.

This is default building, the everyday everyday rather than the rarefied everyday beloved of architects. You could describe it as a kind of slang architecture - full of malapropisms and tautologies - in comparison to the received pronunciation of contemporary modernism, although this makes it sound more exciting than it actually is. It is also the reality of much Bad British architecture, although rather than a poor piece of design by a practice trying hard to be interesting, here the services of architects have probably been entirely dispensed with.


Paul said...

I was very taken with the pointlessly wobbly path in the fourth photo. The designer seems to have decided to insert some picturesque variety at this point, for no good reason.

Conservation Officer said...

You'll find the "pointless wobbly path" was decreed by a cack-handed highways engineer with a tick-box form to fill and a greater degree of control over the whole planning process than the architect (and yes, architects do design this crap, and get paid fairly handsomely for it).

Charles Holland said...

Thanks for your comments. Probably a bit of both is it not? The highways engineer said widen the road out at the end and the architect managed this demand with admirable artistic chutzpah. or maybe not.

Conservation officer, I was very taken with the post you had about the McMorran and Whitby building which is just around the corner from where I work and has always been a favourite of mine. A very odd building I've always thought. It also featured once in a 1960's crime caper starring Micheal Crawford but I can't remember the title, although I'm fairly sure I didn't make it up!

Conservation Officer said...

The Crawford film was probably "The Jokers" (1967) about a plot to steal the crown jewels.

But I've looked at FAT's work and wondered if perhaps the slight cardboard cut-out (or at least, the "the finished building is actually only really a model of the finished building") nature of a lot of M and W's buildings might have been an influence. Until now I'd discounted it in favour of the equally excellent Clough Williams-Ellis.

Charles Holland said...

Wow, thanks for the jokers information. I didn't expect anyone to actually know what film it was!

Yes, Clough Williams-Ellis is an influence. I don't know anything about M and W's work but I know what you mean about that building. It has a remarkable lack of detail, like a model. I shall check out more about them.