Anthony Jelley has mixed reactions to the Housing Design Awards for public housing
The photos of the winning projects of the Housing Design Awards brought on a depressingly familiar heart-sink feeling – that we've been here time and time again and nothing changes. On offer is the usual mix of homogenous Orwellian blocks or anywhere houses.
Then on closer inspection of the individual projects, it became clearer that there are indeed some encouraging signs of change to the slavish modern practice of configuring new development to minimize cost and maximize profit. Some architects and developers seem to be becoming aware that new development needs to be knitted into existing towns and cities.
This is illustrated by the scheme at Tibby's Triangle in Southwold, Suffolk, (pictured) which is well permeated with public through-routes. I would like to find someone who would not welcome the demise of the 1960s' sink council estate, the 1980s' suburban housing estate and noughties' quasi-exclusive gated compound, which are united in their common characteristic of separateness from the place in which they exist. Routes into them are either blocked, guarded or lead nowhere, or are designed to look ambiguously private and unwelcoming.
It is to be argued that 20th century planners' and architects' enthusiasm to continue Le Corbusier's experiment to re-design french towns and cities along modern, rational lines in order to revolutionize society into a utopian ideal has done more than anything else to encourage atomization and isolation within society.
One thing the Housing Design Awards do again bring into sharp focus is that in their rush to take advantage of economies of scale, developers and architects have abandoned the hand-made and have instead embraced only building components that are mass produced. In order to gain acceptance from the public for these low cost, factory-made products, the design industry has cleverly re-branded them, not as cheap and devoid of craft, tradition or decoration, but instead as minimalist and modern, and far more trendy than those unattractive hand-made elements that were once so popular.
Developers and architects will argue that hand-made craft elements are expensive and would increase the cost of development. But surely if they were offered, buyers could choose if they want to pay a bit more to live in a building with some humanity built into its fabric? And if enough buyers like that sort of thing? Well, the developer might just need to accept that buyers are demanding a higher standard, build costs are therefore higher and the price of land must be necessarily negotiated down to accommodate.