Fakery in Durham

These houses are in Durham. Do you like them? What do you make of them?

When do you think they were built?

They are in fact only a few years old. The roofs are all different heights and angles, and the bricks all different types, and the architectural styles suggestive of Georgian and Victorian houses, but actually these buildings were all built at once. The architects contrived a differentness of each house from its neighbour. One might say that these are “fakes”.

One could not for a moment argue that these houses are completely original designs, uninfluenced by the past. They are very clearly based on old designs, although I’m sure that these match up to modern building regulations. I bet they even have indoor loos. The architects clearly wanted to come up with a housing estate that looked as though it had grown up over a long period. I’d say that the biggest clue to the fakery is that the roof lines are just a bit too pristine, and there are no signs of roof repairs. Real old roofs sag a bit. Also, real old roofs are covered with television aerials, but that's a detail I'm glad they left out.

Not many years ago, this idea of faking an old housing estate in Britain would have caused such outrage amongst architects that it would have been very difficult to get it built. I dare say that there are architects today who are frothing with outrage that this estate got built. So, should it have been built? Yes, say I.

If being an architect is your calling, then you may feel that we should never go back and reuse old designs, but should instead always seek original designs. An architect who just revamps old ideas may feel that he is a craftsman rather than an artist, or just a glorified builder. Yes, some people should be pushing the boundaries, trying out new ideas. Many studies using mathematical modelling and then observing nature come up with the figure of about 15%. For example, when a bee discovers a new source of nectar and goes to the hive and tells the other bees about it, about 85% of the bees follow the directions to the new source, but about 15% don’t. They fly off all over the place, and one of these will discover the next source. If all the reward, all the kudos, honey or whatever, went to the bee who found the next source, then every bee would fly off in search of novel sources, and no one would be harvesting the known sources, and the hive would starve. Perhaps 15% of architects should be experimenting, but that leaves 85% to get on with the job of harvesting known good designs.

I was talking to an architecture student on a train. We passed a town on the way to Manchester, and looked out and saw a huge Victorian industrial mill building, and not far away a modern housing estate. The old mill was exactly the sort of building that could be converted into loads of good flats, with huge arched and interesting windows. The modern estate was the usual thing: bright orange bricks, low ceilings, pokey tiny rooms, void of nooks and crannies. The student, in defence of the new estate said that the converted Victorian mill would create more expensive flats than the modern estate, and affordable housing was important.

I don’t think her argument works. The marketplace decides the price. If people can sell flats in converted Victorian mills (and they certainly can), and get high prices for them, this will be because people are prepared to pay more for them, in preference to cheaper modern stuff. Even if converting an old building is cheaper than building flats from scratch, developers are not running charities, and they will try to get the highest prices they possibly can for their flats, so these conversions may sell at higher prices. What this shows is that people prefer old architecture to new.

I have looked round hundreds of flats in Edinburgh. Most were Victorian or Georgian, but some were modern. After a while I decided that I really was wasting my time looking at the modern stuff because I had never seen anything built after the 1930s in which I wouldn’t hesitate to kennel a dog. I’m not claiming that there are no good modern houses, but I am saying that are at least as rare as good reality television, historically accurate Hollywood movies, or tolerable rap music. The modern flats I saw were so very bad that they made me angry. I ended up thinking that it should be illegal to use a modern design if it cannot be shown to be better than an old one.

A ramshackle collection of houses, with an interesting skyline made up of differing heights, attic windows, and chimneys, with old-style soft-coloured bricks in several shades, is pleasant to look at. I don’t think that the exact architectural style is relevant for this to be true. In China, the same thing done in a Chinese style would look pleasant for the same reasons. In Durham, it is fitting to use British vernacular styles. This Durham estate has buildings each with its own character and face. People like living in their own personal castles, rather than identical boxes. a housing estate designed on a grand scale, where the many similar houses are part of a pattern of epic proportions, may look good on an architect’s drawing-board, or as the backdrop to a ski-fI adventure film, but to appreciate the pattern and grandeur one has to be flying overhead in a balloon, or be a god. For the home-owner coming back from the shops in the rain, the sight of his own house with its familiar character is more of a comfort than knowing that from a mile up the estate is very impressive.

The test of whether these houses are good is commercial. If the houses sell quickly and for high prices, then they are a success. So far as I know, this estate sold very well. The absolute best possible housing estate would perhaps be more original, but if a design is good, use it, and until you come up with a better design, keep using it.