Wednesday, May 12, 2004

I know I shouldn't laugh, but...

One of the groups involved in the aftermath of the Glasgow factory explosion, is called International Rescue. So there's assorted BBC News presenters earnestly discussing the casualty figures, and then they move on to discussing the role of International Rescue, and all I can think about is people called Scott and Virgil[1] wobbling and swaying, and trees made from bits of sponge.

[1] Hands up if you can name the rest of the brothers in the Thunderbirds. Name of their dad? Name of anyone who isn't Lady Penelope, Parker or Brains? Cheating and looking it all up here - no wonder the other sons' names are blanks - would you remember John, Gordon and Alan?

According to the Guardian, it's really the International Rescue Corps. And what is it about Scots titles? What elsewhere would be called Chief Firefighter, Senior Fireman or whatever, is, in Scotland, the Firemaster [twisted firemaster?].

But then I thought the picture of the maltreated Iraqi (the one hooded, on a box and with wires attached to each hand) looked like the all those Catholic models of the Virgin Mary (and so was half expecting some random outcry about that). I obviously handle news differently to everyone else.

Continuing the news theme (ish): Truman Show inspires strict housing design rules. My initial response to this is "eek!". American zoning and codes have always scared me. I can understand the need for safety-derived rules, but so many treat homes as assets to be maximised. They seek to create a homogenous area, where no house damages the price of any other house. There's rules banning hanging washing outside, leaving a boat on the drive or lawn, leaving cars on the drive, using the garage for anything other than parking a car, altering the external appearance of the property in any way, using the property as anything but a residence... It just seems so stifling and restrictive. Presumably it's great if your own shares in self-storage or industrial units, or you have property as a liquid asset. But it's not so great if you actually want to live in such a place.

And so the rant continues, until I bother to read the article. Using the Seaside and Poundbury models to manipulate developers into building varied interesting buildings: fine. Using the rules to restrict the continued development that naturally occurs after occupation by the residents: not so fine. Buildings change, if they can't [either through poor design or restrictive regulations] things start going wrong. People seek out better options, and so the values stagnant, and so does the area. Houses full of people waiting to leave tend not to do well. Maintenance and improvement slumps, the only work done is the minimum possible to increase sale price. So cracks literally get painted over, problems covered up. This leads to a cycle of rapid sales, as people move in, and then quickly out again. Eventually a surveyor does his job properly, and suddenly there are many huge problems that need sorting. This kills off the sale price, so either it doesn't sell, and the owner resents the house forevermore, or it gets sold cheaply and treated as something cheap. Meanwhile the rules are still demanding external finish is maintained, and someone is trying to work out how to enforce those rules in the face of widespread laxity.

Either the area turns increasingly into a fading echo of the intended image, as the live drains from it, or the council give up and let a developer in to revamp whatever they feel like (and suddenly the area is all 5 bedroom executive homes or loft-style apartments), or the council give up completely, the developers are distracted elsewhere, and the area goes through the cycle of utter decline, innovation and then gentrification (property gets very cheap or abandoned to squatters, then the creatives move in: artists, some fringes of students, people who set up semi-legal companies. Money dribbles in. The companies grow and interlink producing spin-offs, some of the artists gets successful, some the students stay after graduation. Money starts coming in quicker, more people move in seeking an area with a creative vibe (but preferably one that's quite safe). The estate agents start trumpeting it as "the new wherever". Bars and cafes and assorted chain-stores spring up. More people come in, children start appearing, A new Sainsburys is built just down the road. Suddenly a suburb is starting to look like a town. A community has sprung from this desolate place. And community is what the planning rules were supposedly about in the first place).

So which scenarios will happen in the trail areas? Will Prescott's new houses end up forming mini-towns, or merely ersatz villages that remain trapped as twee investments [2], a model village right down to the wooden pretence of community?

[2] Because the property market would never let them die enough for rejuvenation to occur. It may be Aldershot [3], but there'll always be someone who'll point out the transport links and the near London buy-to-let potential.

[3] An army town in northeast Hampshire. No-one ever comes from there [at least, no-one ever admits to it]. Driving through usually consists of driving somewhere near the speed limit and never stopping [ok, so that includes the time we managed to drive through the town centre without realising it was the town centre]. Maybe it's the people wandering round with guns visible that does it [and the fact the people with guns are the only people visible, and there's remarkably few cars around too], but there's always some menacing feeling there. There must be a ring of sighs round the outskirts, from the all the relieved people heading back off into the countryside.

So it's not just Casino Avenue doing the lambasting: In this article from the end of April, the chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association doesn't sound too pleased with the Millennium Village in Greenwich. He also isn't too impressed by Will Alsop [um, I must have mentioned the Channel 4 thing a while ago, by him and about building cities along transport corridors. Seems to think car-parks and quirky things are always the answer]. I agree with the TCPA guy, but I'm not sure if this is a good thing. I have a hunch he may be too conservative for me [which is different to preservationist].

I think architecture needs to explore. That isn't to say that all innovative architecture is good, merely that derivative buildings, that verge on plagiarism aren't necessarily good by virtual of similarity. Building replicas, building repetitions, building rehashes: these aren't the way to make a building liked. It may be designed to minimise damage to an area, but damage-limitation is a long way off improvement.

For example, one detail I've seen repeated on many new houses near here, is to build what amounts to a box, and then when doing the roof to put a mini-gable directly over one of the windows at the front (the main gable is on the side wall).

The only examples of this I've seen on non-recent buildings are when the peaks occur over every window, and the front of the building has several windows, and each gable has much wooden ornamentation [think Edwardian railway stations], and on one other building that must have undergone incredible changes to it's structure [I think the mini-gable was once the peak of the main gable, and the roof has grown and rotated]. But the mini-peaks occur once on a house [no pattern to which side], and the houses are in a haphazardly staggered terrace [as they were built on the bit of the land the previous developers thought too precipitous to build on].

All they are a bit of cheap decoration to break up the lines of what is very obviously a cheaply designed and built box. And they're not even substantial enough to do that. Now factor in them being in the middle of a unabashedly 1960s housing estate. They are surrounded by nearly unadorned boxes. Yes, they make passing reference to a feature that occurs elsewhere in the town [but now the instances of reference greatly exceed the original instance, as houses of the same design have appeared in two other locations in the town. They've created a new local vernacular], but apparently none to their neighbours [oh sorry, the mini-gables are clad in the same white wooden panels that run between two windows on the 1960s houses. The originals were used by the developers to save money on bricks. I suspect the modern ones are too, despite saving much less money through this].

But then architecture is treated as a fashion by society, and so it acts like one. Buildings get kitted out in the latest look, or designed to match the look of their peers. Looks change, opinions change. Will the buildings celebrated now be equally as reviled in 30 years time as those of the 1960s and 1970s are now? [And can there ever be a comeback for the buildings of the seventies?].

The subverted Modernist version and the modern version. Sorry for the odd choice, but I was trying to show like-for-like, and avoid famous examples (which are mostly famous for somehow being good). So, they are two buildings, each styled to the modern fashion. One is now deeply unfashionable and the other supposedly much more so [though personally, I'm not sure it quite carries it off]. Is it all just the ravages of time, or is one innately better than the other?


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