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September 21, 2015 / Leo Hollis

London Vernacular

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(This article appeared in Icon Magazine, September 2015)

Getting off the train at Stratford, you are offered two very distinctive versions of the newly regenerated neighbourhood. Head southwards, take the bridge that crosses over the tracks and within five minutes you reach the Carpenter Estate, a collection of council houses, organised around three 1967 tower blocks. The estate has been earmarked for demolition and today looks the worse for wear. The streets have been decanted of people in order to make room for new housing. The locals have not gone without a fight, arguing that the fabric of the traditional streets of brick houses is sound and that this place can still be home to a thriving community.

Return to the station and make one’s way through the bustle of Westfields towards the new housing areas within the Queen Elizabeth Park; here one finds a different story. This is the fastest growing housing development in the capital. By 2030 there will be homes for over 10,000 people. Each area has been renamed to infuse the once industrial ground into a buccolic idyll: East Village, Chobham Manor, Sweetwater, Pudding Mill. Much attention has been taken on the fabric of the new housing, according to the marketing material ‘contemporary homes taking lessons from London’s traditional Georgian and Victorian squares and terraces, looking out over parklands and waterways’.

Both places – the discarded Carpenters Estate and the new Olympolis developments – are expressions of London Vernacular. While one is criticised for being unfit for purpose, the other is raised as the answer to the modern Londoner’s desires for sophisticated design, public planning and convenient urban living. Why are they being treated so differently?

In the recent pamphlet from Urban Design London, ‘A New London Housing Vernacular’, authors David Birkbeck and Julian Hart, identify a change that has occurred in the last 5 years, wiping the colour and variety from the faces of the capital’s recent new developments. There are subtle additions and features: more homes on the ground floor with their own front doors, as well as less shared access space for the other residents. The elevations are predominantly faced with brickwork, punched with featureless, recessed windows. If there are balconies, they are also recessed and in brick. There is often semi-public private space in front of the building, but designed as shrub beds rather than a garden or play areas: green, planted non-space.

One of the principles of this new vernacular was a return to the Georgian syntax of the London street. This was partly dictated by City Hall. While Ken Livingstone encouraged increased density and large developments, Mayor Johnson was concerned that the drive for numbers reduced quality. This culminated in the 2009 London Housing Guide, that co-incided with the housing based credit crunch that swiftly double-downed into the Great Recession. The Guide emphasised the honest typography of traditional 19th century street, replacing the colour splash facades, barcodes, and wave feature roof with a restrained, almost blank face, ordered fenestration, and a parapet that often topping the recessed penthouse.

Was this a return to more simple or honest times – where new developments take on the utilitarian signature of interwar council housing? Perhaps, but also remember these were buildings created by developers, and as a result the London Vernacular is an expression of their reading of the market. What are they telling us about the future of the city?

Most clear is the importance of the reduction of risk, of sales, as well as design and construction. These new blocks are easier, and often cheaper, to build. This is an important factor as land prices continue to soar. These are buildings that offer satisfactions on the computer screen, the brickwork picked out in pixels, as well as in the marketing brochure. From the outside, it is impossible to say how the interior is organised: the size of the units, the number of bedrooms, therefore avoiding the embarrassments of luxury, in contrast to the flashy non-dom investment empty towers elsewhere in the city. Some of the flats might even be affordable housing, but you can’t tell from the outside.

The New London Vernacular is dictated by the developers to mitigate risk, rather than offer the ‘hard working Londoner’ the home of their dreams. Rather than appeal to homely desires of the buyer, its prioritised the developer’s ability frictionlessly to shift product. And this gets to the heart of the paradox of the neoliberal city. This doctrine suggests that the London of the 21st century is being redeveloped according to principles that offers the consumer infinite choice, but in fact we are offered acres of the same. As political economist William Davies noted when he walked around Stratford in 2014, it is not arbitrary that while the Carpenters Estate is deigned ‘inefficient’, its modern incarnation – new, regenerated East Village- fills the windows of the estate agents, marked as a good investment.
This is not laziness in the normal sense of the word. There is nothing lazy about the developer’s pursuit of a design that mitigates risk in pursuit of a 20% return for their investors. But their goals are longer aligned with those who have to live there afterwards. Rather, the developers display a sloth that Dante revealed in the fourth terrace of Purgatory: the moral laziness found in the failure of will or courage to pursue virtue. Rather than ‘city-making’, the idea of rebuilding the city, the New Jerusalem that inspired the Carpenters Estate (however flawed and unachieved), we are being sold the small beer of place-making, a short term strategy with narrow horizons.  London deserves more than that.  

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