Modern house in traditional setting – why not here

Checking out Dezeen (one of my favourite sites) the other day I saw this item on a startling modern new house built in Norway – Villa Wot is a Brick Cuboid..

What impressed me, along with how much I was taken by the house itself, was the fact that it’s not like the other ones in the street, in fact it says in the article “The plot in the Tåsen neighbourhood to the north of the city centre is surrounded by traditional timber-clad houses from the 1930s” which it clearly is in the photos. Villa Wot is just not like it’s neigbours, and why the hell should it be? I know I’ve blogged about the aspic nature of the UK’s attitude to building design before but I want to revisit it in the context of this because it’s just not the sort of thing which happens here. Here it’s all about homes fitting in, and even if the planners would let you build something very different somehow people opt for not doing so.

It’s all so exemplified by the Prince of Wales famous comment about one of the proposed extensions to the National Gallery being a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”, which for some reason seems to have contributed to the proposed design being scrapped Now I’m not denying that HRH had, and continues to have, the same right to comment as any other citizen; unlike some people I don’t think his role in our society should mean he can’t express an opinion on whatever he likes. I don’t agree with him, heck I don’t agree with the idea of a Prince of Wales, but I reckon he shouldn’t have been slated for having said it. What he said seems to have struck a chord deep in the society of the UK which believes that somehow modern is something which has it’s place…and that place isn’t where anybody seems to be! Buildings have to fit in with other buildings in a supposed harmonious whole.  Which brings me to, and I give myself the same rights as HRH here, to his own driven development of Poundbury outside Dorchester. Dear God what a place, it’s one of the most soul devoid places I’ve ever seen. It’s like being in ‘The Prisoner’ only somewhere less imaginative. There’s nothing wrong with any of the individual buildings (though the huge building visible from the Dorchester bypass always seems to me like something Albert Speer might have designed if he’d lived in rural Britain) but it’s all just so clearly a one-hit pastiche of the sort of towns which develop over years and which have far more variety of building types than HRH possibly thinks they do. Historically we didn’t do this, houses were built in whatever style the builders were comfortable doing: now we worry about them fitting in rather than being visually interesting and a pleasure to live in. When they had the huge fire at Hampton Court Palace they spend lots of time and money lovingly recreating it the way it was before: Christopher Wren would have pulled it down and built something new. 

We’re busy building houses in the UK, though not as many as we need, and they’re very much out of the HRH school of thought. They’re very much like every other house built for years. Is the house-buying public really so locked into this view, and they are pretty much like the pictures of houses kids learn to draw at nursery, that they wouldn’t buy something different? The modernist estates which grew up after the war weren’t bad in themselves, the flats were big and the buildings were striking in their own way. What let them down was that they were built to a price which sometimes wasn’t high, and then run by councils who both penny-pinched and didn’t really care about them. If they’d had the money spent on them, and on-site staff who cared, and they had mixed communities, then they might well have worked. I suspect none of this helped modernism in the UK, but I’m sure loads of young aspiring professionals would be more than happy to consider modernist housing if only people built it.

Which brings me back to Villa Wot, which sits among 1930s homes and looks nothing like them: and you know what? It doesn’t matter. Just because every other house in a street looks the same there isn’t the slightest reason that one can’t put something very different in an empty space should one appear. It doesn’t matter that it’s a similar house, it just has to be a good house: a house which would make a good home. 

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