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Thursday31 July 2014

People like old houses for a reason, Alain

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Alain de Botton’s comments perpetuate the rift between the public and designers

Hank Dittmar

Hank Dittmar

Alain de Botton is to be congratulated for his new venture building holiday homes, and I hope the publicity he has received attracts people to stay at Living Architecture’s one-off buildings in the country. I am particularly attracted to the Essex house with Grayson Perry and Fat for which he has just secured planning approval. It looks as if it will be charming, fun and well made.

But I think the underlying theme of his campaign may perpetuate rather than heal the rift between the British public and designers. For at the core of de Botton’s approach is a belief that it is the job of architects and critics to educate the public in matters of style.

As he said in a recent article in the Telegraph, “The salvation of British housing lies in raising standards of taste.” He argues: “For too long in Britain, our buildings have suggested that the past is the only worthy realm, that we have to dress in the clothes of yesteryear and that technology is bad and the future terrifying.” This is the old “zeitgeist” cant from the middle of the last century dressed up for the iPad era, and it is terribly condescending. Very few people can afford to commission an architect to design them a detached house, so the choice is generally between older homes in established neighbourhoods and newer houses by the volume builders.

‘De Botton sounds frustrated that the public hasn’t bought the ideals he embraces’

Hank Dittmar

People tend to value historic homes more than new ones because they are adaptable, gracious and comfortable. Indeed, the RIBA and Ipsos Mori’s research for the recently released Future Homes Commission report found that people preferred Victorian and Georgian homes because they offer more space, light and flexibility — exactly what de Botton markets in his new holiday homes.

The idea that the past is verboten belies the fact that most of us like both old things and new things, and that the present really faces both ways. Most people see no problem with vertically proportioned doors and windows, roof pitches that shed rain, and wall surfaces that use natural materials. Nor is living in a traditional home inconsistent with wireless streaming of music and TV, working from home or dressing in skinny trousers.

He seems to think the answer lies in bespoke houses with open plans and floor-to-ceiling glass by signature architects in stunning locations. Actually, what people consistently say they want is privacy from their neighbours, the kind of floor-to-ceiling heights and room sizes found in older houses, storage space, and light, airy rooms. For the most part, I fear that people will have a hard time extrapolating from Living Architecture’s country homes to streets in Reading or Ipswich as these are fundamentally not homes meant to form neighbourhoods.

De Botton sounds frustrated that the public hasn’t bought the ideals he embraces. Hence the conviction that we must herd the British people towards the light.

This misses the target, which is that improving the quality of British housebuilding has little to do with taste and a lot to do with organising the home-buying public into an effective consumer lobby so that new houses — of whatever style — have the same characteristics we value in older houses.

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Readers' comments (14)

  • It's frustrating to me that modernists and traditionalists spend so much time lambasting each other or their work. I'm sure there must be plenty of common ground as Hank suggest. Light, Space etc.

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  • I completely agree with Hank. He's just being whipped up into a 'debate' by the indefatigable journalists at BD, who love nothing more than to invent some kind of battle between old and new. As is abundantly clear, the only battle worth having is between good and bad.

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  • Hi Alain,
    I think it's important to state that Hank chooses his own topics for his column. But we do like being described as indefatigable...
    Anna Winston,
    Online editor

  • Bourdieu's critique on notions of style and taste is pertinent here. Should be taught at schools of architecture so that they cease this tired notion of ultimate style & truth. Design from a technological standpoint is one way to exit this tiresome belief so widely subscribed to in the profession.

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  • It is not just about raising the standards of taste, Architects need to win back the British public's trust to deliver attractive and well designed houses. People want to live in beautiful environments and the modern era has delivered too little of that sadly so they look towards Victorian and Georgian architecture. It has nothing to do with De Botton's ideals or old vs new.

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  • Living Architecture is setting a great precedent and should be encouraged.

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  • Alain, I was responding to your recent Telegraph column and your comments about taste and 'Old clothes,' that said, I do like what Living Architecture is doing. Agree there is much common ground, also room for friendly debate.

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  • Artistic preferences, according to Bourdieu, are very much linked to a person's social status...architects should be educated not only on trends & fashion, but also how their profession is perceived and why.

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  • "people preferred Victorian and Georgian homes because they offer more space, light and flexibility" is, perhaps, the key rather than style. I live in a Victorian house for precisely those reasons: larger rooms, higher ceilings and generally more square metres/£100 000 than I would get if I bought a modern property for the same budget.

    The apparent appetite for design based home and interior design programmes on TV suggests that the public is possibly rather less wedded to the past than the typical speculative housebuilder believes, but if you want a new-built house you are more likely to get faux-Victorian, faux-cottage or faux-just-about-anything-else than at any time since the Second World War. You might as well buy the real thing and get more space for your money.

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  • I wonder how the comments above regarding space, light and flexibility in older housing stock relate to Amanda Baillieu's recent enthusiasm for abandoning space standards in the provision of new housing?

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  • Way to build a straw man and knock it down there, Hank. The point about Living Architecture is not about trying to 'force' people into commissioning iconoclastic contemporary architecture; it's just about showing that there can be alternatives to the dross offered by mass housebuilders. The state of housing in the UK now could be compared to the state of, say, restaurants here in the seventies: you could have Little Chef or you could have Wimpy. Living Architecture says, 'You might want to consider sushi'. And that's good. 100%, unreservedly good

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