After the womenfolk in the household have gone to bed, I like to spend a minute trawling a few porn sites. In my case it may be either www.privateislandsonline.com (the estate agency most beloved of James Bond villains) or more commonly www.savewright.org, with its section ‘Wright on the Market’ listing all the properties currently on sale that were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
It is a senseless dream, of course. There are no Wright buildings outside the US (bar a handful in Tokyo) and those on sale are usually either a) priced at $4 million, b) in need of ruinously expensive restoration, or c) located seven hours’ drive from Des Moines. I am slightly tempted by the $750,000 Lindholm Service Station in Cloquet, Minnesota, ‘the world’s only Frank Lloyd Wright gas station’, but I suspect my family might not be too keen on the move, even though the bright lights of Duluth are a mere three hours’ drive away.
Among the more elaborate Wright buildings, however, you sometimes find a more reasonable property, what Wright called a ‘Usonian’ home (Wright’s own coinage, as was the ‘carport’ that often formed part of the design). Aimed at servantless middle-income Americans, these single-storey homes look fabulous and undated 70 years after they were built. They also make innovative use of space, having a very large communal living area and small bedrooms — unlike many British homes where rooms are of an identical cramped size.
The democratising idea behind these designs was that people would pay Wright for plans and then build houses themselves. Would it be impossible for the best modern British architects to offer something similar today? Can a newspaper not fund a competition to create a template for the British version of the Usonian home?
I write about this because it seems that residential architecture is one area where innovation has stalled in Britain. Why? Perhaps planning laws need to change, to diminish the role of developers in residential housing. If so, now is the time to change them. One essential first aim of the ‘post-bureaucratic age’ should be to make it much easier for individuals to act for themselves. And, if the internet ‘stands for’ anything, it is for disintermediation — cutting out the wasteful and distorting layers between creation and consumption.
A trend towards self-build has many benefits, as you see in Germany, where modern housing is varied and interesting. In a seller’s market, intermediaries, in this case developers, reduce this diversity — by applying a standardisation at odds with what most people really want. Five years ago, when selling two-bedroom flats to overseas and buy-to-let investors was lucrative, there was no incentive to build the decent-sized three- and four-bedroom houses people ultimately wanted to live in. As a result, the UK’s housing stock is now strangely at odds with demand.
It would help if we actually had some land to build on, of course. So why do we actively subsidise an industry which requires 80 per cent of our available land to generate little more than 1 per cent of economic output? Half of British agriculture is literally a waste of space. After all, it’s not immigrants who are overcrowding Britain, it’s farmers. Perhaps we should impose a cap on them too?
Until then, I suppose there is always www.themodernhouse.net and Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.