Keeping Up Appearances
OMMX (London) and James Taylor-Foster (London, Rotterdam, Venice) were placed in the final shortlist to curate and design the British Pavilion at the 2016 International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, Reporting From the Front.
Keeping Up Appearances examines the British Volume Housebuilding Project: an immediate, untapped, unchecked suburban eco-system which is rapidly defining—and will continue to demarcate—the appearance, quality and viability of housing in the UK.
Using dioramas and dollhouses, abstracted through a single material treatment and presented at different scales (from 1:1 to 1:160), coupled with a collection of commissioned portraits of the homes, residents and their inhabitation, the exhibition encourages a fresh, unbiased review of a phenomenon so ordinary that it deserves—and warrants—closer examination.
Volume and Suburbia
The opportunity to acknowledge, study and assess volume housebuilding as a presentation of Britain’s housing stock is more pertinent now than ever before. As the discourse surrounding the “housing crisis” finds itself in a maelstrom, with suburbia at the heart of a growing debate on housing in the United Kingdom, architects—who have, on the whole, surrendered this ground—can no longer afford to ignore and disparage the impact and value of the Volume Housebuilding Project as it currently stands. Its built legacy, not only in terms of dwelling but also in relation to plot boundaries and urban arrangement, is rapidly defining—and will continue to demarcate—the appearance of Britain’s suburbs and exurbs.
These developments have generated an immediate, unchecked and untapped ecosystem which has so far eluded concerted appraisal. Over the preceding three decades volume housebuilders have developed a neo-vernacular architecture of ‘non-style’, embodying a distilled reflection of the British mindset. The most prolific of these housebuilders in Britain have the infrastructure in place to build en masse, and quickly (though are not necessarily compelled to do so). In spite of their size, they are able to rapidly respond to market demands and consumer feedback and, consequently, fine tune their stock portfolio to shifts in living patterns as soon as they spot the trends. Their concentrated marketing campaigns are able to sell the smallest houses in Western Europe to a large portion of British homeowners, who are seeking the suburban grain of detached and semi-detached typologies. The attraction lies in the freedom and independence that they offer.
Metropolitan areas the world over are experiencing rapid urban migration and the need for more homes is a widely accepted reality. With urban density comes suburban growth, existing together in a bilateral, symbiotic relationship. Compared to the city, modern suburbia is a relatively recent phenomenon and although in its infancy, there is a great deal to be learnt from the peculiarities of its development in Britain. This exhibition will adopt a combined architectural and anthropological approach, departing from the exclusivity of architectural critique, in order to make sense of this condition and its impact.
A New Deal
The ‘home for life’ mentality is no longer a reality, and the volume housebuilders’ product reflects this shift. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries empowered a more mobile population who were able to choose different types of settlement depending on their life stage — be they a student or young professional, a parent or retired. The traditional ‘deal’ offered by suburbia, and catalysed by the railways, was one of compromise. It catered for people’s desire to escape the squalor and labour unrest of the city’s industrialised and polluted core in favour the image of the idyllic country enclave (‘a piece of England to call one’s own’) and the freedom and independence it afforded. It was the construct of suburbia that initially created the middle-class, governing and governed by their lifestyle, aspirations, routines and rituals. This construct, having evolved into a highly successful, heterogenous landscape of cultures and cultural contributions, now accommodates four fifths of the British population.
This traditional ‘deal’, and its corresponding social contract, is now unravelling and becoming increasingly out of reach. As a housing problem has tipped into a housing crisis, the dialogue between city and suburb has developed into a dialogue between city, suburb and exurb. A comprehensive lack of affordable housing has removed the choice for generations to prescribe to the traditional, aforementioned, ‘deal’. As such, they are now compelled to migrate to the exurbs, creating a new level of demand for dwellings which the Volume Housebuilding Project has absorbed. In short, the traditionally fluid relationship between suburbia and the inner-city has become a privilege of the few.
To add to this, the demands placed on sub- and exurbia are now intensifying. Young adults, for example, are living with their parents until well into their twenties and the elderly, who are living longer, are needing greater care. Politicians and volume housebuilders have already started to adapt: the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme and David Wilson Homes’ Downsizers range, for instance, are active responses to these types of demographic shifts. Subsequently, the rich diversity and accessibility of suburbia—often overlooked, misrepresented, misunderstood and rarely celebrated—is at risk. Rather than passively allowing market forces determine the future of British housing, a new ‘deal’ now needs to be negotiated to provide the quantity of new homes at the required density.
A Biography of the Home
The most under-acknowledged success of the Volume Housebuilding Project has been its capacity to cede authority to the homeowner, offering the chance to complete the house through their own transformative activities. In contrast to the architect-designed home, the volume housebuilders’ model facilitates the homeowner’s need and desire to co-author domestic space—in terms of the exterior, interior, and on the level of furniture and objects—to form a biography of their life. People feel comfortable within this framework, which accounts for its success. As a commercial force, the volume housebuilders’ product is empathetic, accommodating and inclusive.
The volume housebuilders’ neo-vernacular collection of collapsed, nostalgic styles—from neoclassical plaster columns to Tudor Mock—caters for people’s desire for ‘character’. This quintessentially British inclination cannot be bracketed as postmodernism, nor can it be simply labelled as pastiche: the homeowners’ aspiration for historical reference (or ‘character’) is, in itself, an authentic pursuit — a condition which the anthropological discourse has long understood. Whereas architects, critics and educators treat ‘originality’ and ‘material honesty’ as among the deities of design, anthropologists take a different stance. They understand and appreciate the pursuit of ‘character’ as indiscriminately accessible and part of who we are, not to be sneered at nor passively disparaged.
Nevertheless the volume house, as it stands, is not without fault. When asked about the image of new homes (earlier this year) the three most strongly perceived disadvantages among the 2200 people interviewed was the size of their rooms and overall spaciousness, coupled with the amount of green space and garden. The RIBA’s 2012 Future Homes Commission report echoed these sentiments, citing the amount of interior space, natural light, privacy (both visually and acoustically), flexibility and provision for outdoor space as “key issues” in relation to the quality of new dwellings. When sense would suggest that surpassing minimum thresholds for space should be a fundamental ambition for a housebuilder the RIBA’s Case for Space report, published a year prior, found that the average new home in England is only 92% of the recommended minimum size.
The British Pavilion will house a series of highly polemical installations—using the communicative devices of the diorama, the dollhouse, and the false perspective—to encourage a fresh, unbiased review of a phenomenon so ordinary that it deserves, and warrants, closer examination. With the UK poised to increase homebuilding targets there is an immediate urgency to investigate ways of dwelling which can accommodate new and existing patterns of living, able to absorb sociological and demographical shifts.
The suburban Volume Housebuilding Project, a petri-dish of successes and failures, is precisely where our attention should be focused, and this exhibition will highlight its unique, undiscovered potential to an audience with the capacity to enact change. The global, highly visible nature of the Venice Architecture Biennale is the perfect place in which an alternative discourse about the future of suburbia could be positioned and catalysed.