Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Home truths explain the monstrosities around us
‘New houses are universally horrible,” ran a recent Germaine Greer headline, “and eco-houses are the most horrible of the lot.” It’s not quite up there, limelight-wise, with black rage. But it should be. And here’s why.
Greer’s piece was as rambling and irrational as the McSprawl it dissed. Starting with a lament for the lost vernacular of rural Ireland, she notes, “everyone who lived in a whitewashed grass-roofed cottage with a dung heap steaming before the door” knocked it down, the second EU money kicked in, and “built himself a hideous villa”. Lovely-but-uninhabitable being thus replaced by comfortable-but-vile.
From there, Greer argues that “houses grew uglier as the proportion of architects in the population and their share of the new-build budget grew”. Then that “the British, like other timid animals, are neophobic”. And then that, if it’s an eco-house you’re after, it should at least look eco – with a flat roof for solar panels – rather than faking sameness by tricking out a house made of “hemp and sheep’s wool” in crowd-pleasing stone.
Greer then knots her creaky string of non sequiturs with the proposition that Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie – stilt-legged, pancake-roofed and pigeon-chested, damp, harsh and uninhabitable – is a better eco-model than your standard Devon fisherman’s cottage.
It’s the same magnetic miasma we’ve come to expect from latter-day Greer, making you wonder what she sips, bashing away all night in that old Cambridgeshire millhouse, or what magic vapours her doorstep dungheap might be emitting. But, while the string may be arthritic and discombobulated, Greer’s individual points merit a look.
Most hideous villas, of course, never come within cooee of architecture, whose share of new-build remains, as ever, minute. And though there is a compelling argument for authenticity, Greer’s example is an own goal, since cladding a lightweight house in stone enhances its thermal and ecological performance in most climates.
The neophobia point, though, stands. Have you ever wondered why architects don’t just give up on design? Why they don’t see they’ll never build anything to compare with Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, Charreau’s Maison de Verre, Greene and Greene’s Gamble House or Schindler’s house for two couples? Why they don’t relax, forget the new and, now they’re out of copyright, cookie-cut the known-to-work houses of the past? Why can’t you pop into Kellyville and take out a decent repro slab hut or fishing lodge?
Sure, technology has changed. But what’s good about old houses is that lovely louche way they had with space. Tolerant. Lived in, even. So that the extra tubes and wires needed for modern life are easily accommodated; easier still as modern life starts to u-turn towards old wisdoms. But there’s the nub. Architects wouldn’t dream of the cookie-cutter approach; partly because they’re innovation-addicts, and partly because it would unemploy them, but especially because architecture as we know it is intrinsically wedded to progress. Thing is, is it making any?
Progress, says economist John Gray, is “the post-Christian faith that humans can make a better world than any in which they have so far lived”. So ingrained is this idea, in our lives as well as our architecture, that we barely notice its existence, much less question it.
But Gray does question, pointing out both that pre-Christian Europe took for granted “that the future would be like the past,” and that “human life … is not a cumulative activity”. Progress, if we’re still calling it that, can shift into reverse. Civilisations can, and do, collapse.
This may explain why, for thousands of years until the advent of secular humanism – which for Gray is just another form of delusional religiosity – architects, both plodder and genius, worked happily within the constraints of tradition. Why the urge, in Mies van der Rohe’s words, to “invent a new architecture every Monday morning” came only with the blinding idea that the world might be perfectible after all.
Ironically, though, it was traditional architecture that proved a cumulative art, progressing through incremental proddings and tweakings from Bramante to Raphael to Michelangelo. While a-historical modernism seems endlessly compelled, even in its dotage, to re-enact its own mistakes.
None of which might matter were we not facing the crisis of our lives; a crisis that will demand progress, no buts, no exceptions. So if there was ever a moment for architects to offer up their succulent, mouthwatering imaginings of a creative and sustainable future – to prove that progress and architecture are not, after all, inimical – this is it. But do they?
Not at all. We have more control over our cities than ever, more individual and collective wealth, more sophisticated and accessible technology. And yet we build cities and houses that most of us see as uglier than ever.
They’re not ugly because they’re new, or architect-designed, or eco-aware. I wish. They’re ugly because buildings, like people, go irredeemably hollow without core principle. And principle cannot survive the faux-Phoenecian, pseudo-Spanish or microwaved Modern beloved of that over-cautious and under-threatened creature, the lesser-spotted Ozzie developer.
Principle, like progress, must be real, heartfelt and necessary.