Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Kitchen Sink Realism

A couple of weeks ago I took a trip out to the wilds of East Anglia to look at some architecture. I was accompanied on my rural odyssey by Matt Wood, the writer of this blog*, and Adrian Friend, the head of the new Norfolk School of Architecture. So, a pretty learned trio is what I'm saying....

The object of our obsession was the work of Tayler and Green, two architects who uprooted themselves from the demi-monde of the Architectural Association and London in the late 1940's and settled in Lowestoft of all places. From here, their practice developed an impressively consistent body of work, some 700 houses for a single client - Loddon District Council. These houses, unremarkable in some ways, still stand as an exemplary way to build sensitively and well in the countryside. What's more they represent an itinerant strain of modernism that embraced decoration and ornamentation as well as an interest in everyday life. Built largely in the 1950's and 1960's you could call them an architectural equivalent of the kitchen sink realism prevalent at the time in British films and literature.

We began here, with a terrace of simple, two-storey houses and a small number of detached bungalows hiding behind dense hedgerows. The bungalows have a couple of mannered touches in the form of their too-tall chimneys and cat-slide roofs that slope down almost to the ground.

There are Scandanavian touches here and there and an obvious debt to architects like Asplund and Utzon in their most social realist mode. Having spent too much time lately watching Scando-Noir thrillers such as The Bridge I cheerfully imagined a particularly grizzly murder occurring inside this one. The exaggerated cookie-cutter barge boards suggest the more thorough embracing of decoration that the pair would later adopt. 

Many of Tayler and Green's housing schemes are now listed meaning that people need to apply for permission to replace windows or paint them different colours.....

...but not thank goodness, to embellish them with the fine details of English domestic life. Oddly, the fastidiousness of T&G's approach, the evident sense of care in their work, seems quite at home with the accumulated clutter of garden ornaments etc.

Almost all of their schemes are dated, usually in brick on the gable end walls. I particularly liked this one though which had a kind of dry, utilitarian abstraction all of its own.

Elsewhere, decoration and ornamentation crept steadily onto elevations, becoming increasingly self-assured and unashamed as time went on. Bear in mind that this was the 1950's, when Robert Venturi was yet to stick some timber mouldings on an abstract facade and thus enrage an entire profession for generations. 

Windmill Green in one of T&G's best known and most ambitious schemes. Simple terraces form three sides of a large grass covered central space, something between a recreation ground and a village green. The houses clearly borrow from the tradition of pastel-coloured East Anglian farmhouses but are corraled into much more formal arrangements. They slip past each other nicely at the corners too in order to create subtly hidden spaces for garages and parking. This informality would no doubt fall foul of the secured-by-design freaks but seems to work just fine here. 

For unassuming types there's a lot of branding on T&G's work. Their name pops up a lot, not just on formal plaques but carved into special bricks or inserted subtly into a decorative wall, as if they were making it easy for architectural pilgrims to seek out. Despite the seeming modesty of their designs, the architects were very aware of its quality. 

The thing about T&G's stuff is that it is very normal. Not just in the sense that it looks familiar and unremarkable - which it does if you aren't looking at it particularly closely - but also because in this part of Norfolk it's everywhere. If you drive around without particularly looking for it you still notice random outcrops of their work. They built a lot in a small place and it has in some senses become that place. Other people have copied it too, normally fairly badly because for all its everydayness it is sophisticated and clever architecture. 

It's quiet and unassuming but in a generous rather than austere or hairshirt way. It convinces you that if you plan things intelligently and with beauty and care you can leave the rest to itself. The houses seem to cater for life rather than prescribe it, which is something that modern architecture finds incredibly difficult to do generally. 

To say that the work is a form of modernism inflected by localism - a kind of proto-critical regionalism - seems to do it a disservice. Damned with faint praise perhaps.  It is more interesting than that sounds and less puritanical. For a start there is a highly developed compositional sensibility behind their work, a scenographic interest in how it reads as a whole. These are artfully composed pictures of village life, slightly mannered and a little camp, although none of that seems to stop them from working in a more basic, functional way. 

The subject of rural housing and of how to build in smaller villages and towns interests me a lot. Partly this is because it seems so difficult to do. The default setting when hearing about new rural development is to suspect the worst. Quite rightly so I guess, because in most cases new architecture in such places is usually rubbish. 

There's also the suffocating myopia of things needing to 'fit-in', a banal and meaningless term that is bandied around as some kind of unassailable truth. Building, and in particular housing, in the countryside has almost entirely negative associations,  regarded always as a loss (of nature, of views, of character) rather than a gain.

Looking at Tayler and Green one can imagine a much more invigorating kind of rural architecture, one that borrowed freely from modernism as much as the arts and crafts and took on the ad-hoc roughness of plotland developments. A sampladelic, surreal vernacular that avoided the pitfall of preciousness that architects often fall into when faced with the rural landscape.

But maybe that isn't Tayler and Green's style either. Their architecture suggests a relationship to a place and to a (municipal) client that now seems almost positively arcadian. The possibility of evolving some simple house types and decorative ideas over the course of a career and of not having to take part in the endless scramble for work, well,  I wish, basically.

* My thanks to Matt for generously offering to show me around Tayler and Green's work. I have deliberately not expanded this post into a more general survey of their work, mainly because Matt has already done it perfectly well. 


David Knight said...

Just writing up my notes from a recent reread of no less than Nicholas Taylor's 'The Village in the City', and on p.181 he suggests (approvingly) that the only architects who preserved the gaiety of the Festival of Britain in British architecture were Tayler and Green. He calls their work "variegated" and textured...

Charles Holland said...

Thereby neatly seamlessly joining the last two posts. Thanks for that! Variegated is a nice word, not used much by architectural critics these days, perhaps because variegation is the norm rather than the exception.

Matt Wood said...

A nice piece, Charles - glad you enjoyed the trip!