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Tuesday29 July 2014

Hands off Noddy, man of the people

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Poor old Noddy. The camp, bell-hatted man-boy never hurt a soul but he is being slandered again by the architectural establishment. “No more shoddy ‘Noddy’ boxes,” crowed the RIBA as it launched its latest fusillade against housebuilders earlier this month.

I have better things to do than read the institute’s Better Homes and Neighbourhoods policy paper, but however worthy its arguments may be, the Noddy-bashing headline merely highlights how out of touch the profession is.

As any parent knows, Noddy lives in a large, detached, postmodernist villa in Toy Town. By far the biggest home in the neighbourhood, Chez Noddy looks robust enough. Yet the term “Noddy box” has somehow become shorthand for everything that architects perceive to be wrong with volume housing. And while the RIBA’s press release bangs on about space standards and energy efficiency, the use of the N word gives the impression that this is yet another argument based predominantly on anti-suburban aesthetic snobbery.

Sure enough, the RIBA report is illustrated with photos of slattedtimber brises soleil, razor-sharp balconies, windows that don’t line up, and stone-filled gabions — suggesting that “good design” depends on such lite-modern tics.

The makers of successful children’s TV programmes such as Lazy Town, Backyardigans, Balamory and Postman Pat are far more attuned to contemporary taste, and I cannot think of a current series from either the UK or abroad that is not set in a low-density, rainbow-hued, retro-hamlet surrounded by rolling hills — precisely the kind of housing that ordinary people like, and the RIBA hates. You have to go back to those seventies’ tower block dwellers Mary, Mungo and Midge to find kindergarten role models living in anything urban or high density.

If elite automotive designers adopted the same condescending tone and railed against Noddy cars, they would be laughed out of town. In the new series Noddy drives a red and yellow cabriolet with the nostalgic curves of a Buick. The designers of the new-look VW Beetle, Mini and Fiat 500 have taken the same approach, imbuing their vehicles with nostalgia, to great acclaim (and sales).

Today’s avant-garde furniture designers recognise this craving for retro, creating lights decorated with rococo swags (Marcel Wanders) or sideboards with Spanish Inquisition heftiness (Studio Job). Fashion designers plunder history too. Among the creative disciplines, only architects persist with the fallacy that referencing anything designed before 1960 amounts to criminal pastiche.

To my knowledge, Fat is the only contemporary architect with any credibility brave enough to translate this spirit of historic appropriation into housing: it and the cad monkeys who churn out Poundburyesque Ruritanias for Barratt are far more in tune with the 21st century zeitgeist than those who sneer from Portland Place.

If the RIBA top brass really want architects once again to play a meaningful role in housing provision, they should see Noddy as their ally, not their nemesis.

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