Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Farrow and Ballification

Farrow and Ball Paint Swatch

Ordinary things contain the greatest mysteries, someone once wrote. Yes, and the strongest ideologies. One of the things that makes English Heritage’s urban gentrification guide (see previous post) so odious is the way it assumes a position of complete normality, as if no one could possibly argue with its premise. And yet it represents a very specific cultural position behind which lurks an intersection of taste, class and politics.

The obsessive desire for preserving particular aspects of our built heritage (or rather certain versions of it) is, paradoxically, a recent thing. English Heritage itself was set up in 1983 with wider powers than previous national conservation bodies. Membership of the National Trust has trebled since 1981, growing to 3.5million by 2007. Both these institutions represent a marked shift in our attitudes to heritage since the early 1980's, a situation that parallels Thatcherism's rejection of the post war welfare state and the technological optimism of the 1960's.

Using paint to brighten an exterior, taken from the Reader's Digest DIY Manual.

If you look at interior design and DIY books from the late 1960's and '70’s one of the things that strikes you is the lack of interest in preserving the original features and historic detail in Victorian/Edwardian houses. The 1974 edition of the Reader’s Digest DIY Manual (a fine thing and about the same size as a Victorian terrace) for instance happily suggests ways to place MDF panels over old mouldings, rip out Victorian fire places and paint garishly over exterior brickwork (usually in dark brown and/or orange). Apart from a certain invigorating lack of taste the manual is significant in illustrating the way that attitudes to historic architecture have changed over the years.

Transforming A Victorian Home to Suit the '70's, taken from the Reader's Digest DIY Manual.

The manual suggests in its own how-could-you-possibly-argue-with-this way for a different concept of living in traditional housing than English Heritage's interactive gentrifier. Completely un-hungup on notions of authenticity, nothing could have been further from the mind of the mid-‘70’s home improver than unearthing and fetishising period features. Lowered ceilings, conversation pits, T&G cladding and hammocks (for some reason) predominate.

How To Improve a Victorian Hallway, taken from the Reader's Digest DIY Manual

The section on refurbishing a Victorian hallway is particularly salutary. With an admirable lack of deference the manual suggests removing every feature that might be found desirable today: timber mouldings, high ceilings, original paneling. Elsewhere, pebble dashing, oversized dormer windows and other crimes against English Heritage's taste dictats are described in a series of lovely 'how to' diagrams.

Ultimately though English Heritage's sanitised version of the urban streetscape with its heritage paint shades and expensive bread shops is as historically suspect as any other era's. For all its assumed sensitivity it is ultimately more about a certain kind of pervasive middle class aspiration than it is about conserving the past. It's just that right now the two things have converged.


Hugh said...

EH notwithstanding, ripping out period features a la 1970s was back in a big way in the 2000s, with everyone chasing the Grand Designs modern look. That Readers Digest hallway makeover was estate-agent-approved right up to the Crunch.

I found myself rescuing original Victorian balusters and tiles from skips once again. I blame Kevin McCloud.

Charles Holland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Holland said...


Maybe I am making a false distinction between then and now but I think the point was to contrast two different eras rather than chart trends in interiors more generally.

I agree though, the minimal modernist interior that descends from John Pawson and others and became popularised by Grand Designs is very different to the heritage approach which I described.

I suppose a bigger point is that EH's conservationist approach denies its own moment in time claiming something more historically accurate.

My real interest though is with DIY as a kind of anti-architecture, or a sort of parasite that always messes up the host which hopefully will be the subject of another post shortly.