September 25, 2006

Two houses or ‘the perils of poor imitation’

I have no problem whatsoever with wholesale copying of traditional / pre-existing / vernacular forms by current developers/owners. The cult of ‘originality as authenticity’ is an empty and bankrupt as the romanticist reverie in which it is rooted.

More practically, while any competent engineer can copy (and possibly improve upon) a 19th century building, almost no modern architect can build a quality house ‘inspired’ by those form the past.

My contention is that in general we have become worse, less talented architects. I don’t know why, but the evidence is everywhere.

Let’s look at two houses in Fisher’s Lane, Chiswick, London. They are two sides of a semi-detached unit. On the right is a house built in pre Bauhaus days. It is a modest house, built with inexpensive material. The white plaster moldings raised brickwork string courses enliven its simple appearance. The cove in the entrance is certainly handy on a rainy day. The bow windows let in a lot of light. The forecourt is occupied by a small but attractive front garden.

To its left, I watched as this was built from the ground up. The scale and materials are almost identical – perhaps this mandated by the council, perhaps the owner is a decent person. The most obvious difference is the fact that this façade is dominated by the ugly garage door. Given its pre-eminence and the value of land in Chiswick you’d think they could have invested a few hundred pounds to put in a less disconcertingly industrial door. The Front entrance is made out of good material but, as is the fashion, it is flat, with no relief around it and no depth. It is less practical and less attractive than the older doorway. The French windows on the first floor certainly will let in a lot of light, but, again, they are devoid of most detail (the flat lintel is a valiant exception) and the framing looks cheap. Conversely, they seem to have invested some money in non-functional balconies. The dormer is larger than the one in the old house and not badly designed but, again, the cheapness of he detailing lets it down. Note also that the front of the building is effectively a paved parking spot. How many damn cars do these people own? How many do they need?

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