Saturday, 10 December 2011

Housing the 99%

The front cover of architectural magazines are often graced by the latest Rogers, Foster or Hadid building.  This is no surprise, just as Vanity Fair prefers Lady Gaga to Joe Public.  Glamour projects often grab the headlines as they tap into human nature’s interest in the exciting and the daring.  This also goes for politicians, as Sir Simon Jenkins has recently shown (see here), who often become obsessed with glamourous skyscrapers from big name architects. 

But the majority of people do not live or work in these types of buildings.  Even those who do work in London’s signature office towers will jump on a commuter train at the end of the day to their 2 up 2 down in the suburbs.  So why doesn’t architectural and planning commentary in the media focus on what really matters – run of the mill family housing?  Or to borrow a phrase, the homes of the 99%.

This issue came to my attention following this review of Kevin McCloud’s foray into house building.  For those readers outside the UK, McCloud is a designer who has gained fame through his Grand Designs television programme.  In the show he documents the construction of a house from initial plans through to construction and completion.  Through this exposure he has become in the last 10 years one of the most prominent talking heads on issues of architecture and planning.  So it was interesting to see him attempt to undertake a housing development by himself. 

The fact that it took a so-called celebrity to insert regular family housing into a national newspaper is both depressing but not surprising.  At a time when the UK and other countries are facing a stark crisis in housing supply, the design of appropriate family housing should be far higher up the agenda.  Currently, urban extensions across the UK are dominated by cookie-cutter houses from the textbooks of the big housebuilders – Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes etc.  It is no surprise that locals object to new development when it is so ugly and lacking any design quality.  So the big questions is whether the development sector can deliver a large quality of housing at a cost that is beneficial to them and the buyer AND incorporate good design and placemaking.  McCloud has shown that it can be achieved on a smaller scale and it will be interesting to see whether the bigger housebuilders learn from this.

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