On our way back from holiday, feeling not gloomy on account of the weather but favoured by the rain’s perfect timing, we passed a large construction site on which a new housing development was going up. It appeared to be a greenfield project, judging by the wood to one side and remnants of pasture round the edges. I always find it depressing to see yet more of the natural world torn up to meet our needs, and the familiar depression settled over me now. But from that sentiment a well-trodden path winds through the debate on our housing crisis and its possible solutions.
People need roofs over their heads, it is rightly said, the crisis urgent, a solution long overdue. My objections are those of les satisfaits whose own needs have already been met (to which sanctimony our house, being converted from a barn, adds an extra pinch of double-standards). It is also pointed out that the proportion of the country which has been built upon remains astonishingly small (6% in the latest survey). And besides, there is little natural about the British landscape. The field whose fringes alone have escaped this latest uprooting is the result of clearances and deforestation stretching back two thousand years. My lamentations, in other words, delivered from the comfort of a passing car, are crocodile tears. Bring on the diggers. Let new estates rise.
All of which is true, or at least important to acknowledge. My response is an emotional one open to obvious refutation. Will brownfield sites really provide the space we need? Can building upwards be justified after Grenfell Tower? Am I not primarily concerned to preserve my own cosy, semi-rural way of life?
But on this occasion it is not the ravaged greensward that affronts me so much as the giant hoarding which advertises the homes rising from the fertile but expendable mud. To begin with, judging by the dwellings pictured, they do not address the need for social housing, our most pressing area of deprivation, no matter how many rabbit hutches are squeezed, at least notionally, into the plan. Secondly, they conform to all the blandest and most outmoded stereotypes of domestic architecture whose references always seem to be backward-looking, down to the obligatory splashes of Tudor black-and-white. It might serve as a metaphor for the national predicament. Unable to imagine a future for ourselves, we turn to the past for solace and solutions. Thirdly, there is no foregrounding of energy efficiency, two decades after the full menace of climate change became clear. Double-glazing-as-standard is so far short of what is needed it may serve as our epitaph.
Original, environmentally-sensitive buildings with cutting-edge design: are these to be found anywhere? Of course they are. A recent (perhaps still current) series on ITV tours the most astonishing houses in the world, self-indulgent palaces occupied (or sometimes just visited as a second home) by the obscenely rich. The architects, with their Thunderbirds dress-sense and tortoiseshell glasses, talk of inspiration, partnership with the client and innovative materials. Not once, that I have seen at least, does anyone query the lavishing of so much talent and treasure on the foibles of the uber smug and well-heeled. Why can’t the discipline of architecture, and the distribution of wealth, focus instead on the urgent tasks facing mankind in its social and environmental extremity?
Of course, it will be argued that people don’t like modern architecture. Charles Windsor is their guru in such matters, not Richard Rogers. And it is part of my case that architects should descend from their shards and gherkins, their phallic symbols and ivory towers, to engage with popular taste and needs. But in this, as in so many areas, a younger generation is less wedded to convention in all areas of life, only to find its outwardness and optimism squatted on (as in the Brexit vote) by those of greater age and smaller imaginations. It is also true that few of us are educated in or about design. Taste does not arise spontaneously, nor should it be imposed from above. Something so important to both public and private spheres should be on the curriculum along with other forms of creativity and appreciation. Instead of which our schools are being turned into businesses with over-rewarded management, cramped syllabuses and Fordist methods of learning. It is from the visionary, as well as from each other, that we have become, like our houses, semi-detached.