Beauty in the spaces in between
Our wellbeing is enhanced by places we like and diminished by those we do not. What we like isn’t merely taste. In our collective desire to build better homes, the focus on binary or overly simplistic words such as “beautiful” or “ugly” are not helpful.
British grime artist Tinie Tempah grew up in a post-war housing estate and suggested it was almost as if they’d been “designed for you not to succeed”. The estates typically contained buildings that didn’t have any design investment or understanding of how housing might collectively form good neighbourhoods. All other things that make a nice house were forgotten, such as the space between the houses or how the houses might look. Through design, the neighbourhood and estates quickly became ghettos of deprivation and disadvantage rather than visions of a brave new world.
Historically, most housing was beautiful because there was a culture that recognised it had a civic responsibility
We haven’t learnt from this. Volume housebuilders continue to supply us with cynically designed new builds where the bottom line is one of maximum profit for as little outlay as possible. They invest as little as possible in the space between houses, thinking they add little value. It isn’t just that most new houses are badly and cheaply built – resulting in mold, damp and draughts – but they are designed without consideration for placemaking. Attractive places aren’t merely a matter of taste or stylistic prejudice – research shows that most people have a poor experience living in new build housing estates, regardless of style. The solution is not to focus on beauty or the individual house, but building better neighbourhoods.
Historically, most housing was beautiful because there was a culture that recognised it had a civic responsibility. Many housebuilders still think a way to make housing attractive is to focus on the individual unit and add features such as porches, dormers or changes of materials – all of which cost little. This is misguided. What we need are houses that are beautifully designed and add to the cohesion of the community.
Most beautiful homes are cohesive in a way that goes beyond the building: they are bound together – modern, traditional or eclectic. For example, new developments in Holland are diverse in their design but are well-liked by the community irrespective of style. Most dense towns are beautiful because they have squares, streets, shared green spaces, better transport, higher energy efficiency, and surveillance making people feel safer. Generally, too, these places are walkable, with shops and services that are vibrant and mixed use, which makes a place feel alive.
Compare this to most British housing estates – they are typically low density and the buildings don’t form streets and squares. They have no hierarchy. In contrast, a traditional village might have a terraced high street leading on to a market square. Many new builds in London are fairly plain, but form beautiful and cohesive places by recognising that the house itself is just one building block.
Until we stop focusing on individual homes or one particular style at the expense of the neighbourhood, we will be trapped in a constant and elusive quest for unattainable beauty.
Piers Taylor, British architect and presenter of The House That £100k Built and The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes
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