The Government’s commission on how to make new houses more beautiful – yes, that one – is set to publish its first report in the next few weeks. It no longer has a permanent Chair and it will be reporting to a different administration and a new prime minister, but its advice will be crucially important. In order to get new homes built in areas where opposition is most vociferous – which tend to be the places new homes are needed most – the house-building industry needs to change. Monocultural housing estates, once labelled the “turkey twizzlers of architecture” by the philosopher Alain de Botton, are simply not what the public wants.
But there will be opposition. When the commission was first announced, a band of Z-list architects lined up to criticise ministers. Sam Jacob, who runs a small firm, said it was “a front for the continuing attack on progressive ideas about cities.” He accused the government of “seek[ing] to enforce a singular, a-historical fantasy featuring a few fragments of architectural reference that appeal to blinkered, quasi-fascist old white men.”
The architectural critic Owen Hatherley, meanwhile, suggested that the government’s ideas were in hock to an “alt-right fringe”. The Evening Standard’s Robert Bevan completed the bingo card by comparing the commission to Hitler and the ideas of his architect Albert Speer.
This reaction was bizarre, not least because it completely missed the point of what the commission was set up to address – that architects are irrelevant to the building of almost all new housing in this country. Instead, we have homes that are designed by spreadsheet, with fewer than one in 10 new homes seeing the inside of an architectural studio. The result is a country whose fields are being littered with identical boxes that are given labels in a feeble attempt to invent a sense of local tradition – The Townhouse, The Harrogate, The Copplestone – and a public which opposes new homes built anywhere near their own.
To build more houses, more beautifully, we have to look at why public policy makes it so easy to build ugly and soulless housing estates.