David is an A-level politics student at a Kent grammar school. He will start studying philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Essex in September 2006.
General Well Being (GWB) is the latest phrase in politics. Hot on the heels of BBC2 series “The Happiness Formula” and “Making Slough Happy”, happiness has shot up the political agenda at lightning speed. But what makes us happy? These programmes all offer solutions, ranging from the quite insane suggestion of tax rises, through to various therapies. But what I am going to say is more provable, easier, and doesn’t damage economic growth – a good environment.
The term ‘environment’ brings up connotations of the rainforest, polar ice caps and global warming. But it should also bring up the image of our streets, houses and offices. This is our built environment, which we control. Churchill once said “we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.”
It can be summed up in one building; the London Zoo Penguin Pool. One of the big architects of the 20th Century, Berthold Lubetkin, designed it in 1934. It was hailed by architects as a marvel, and today it is in fact the only listed penguin pool there is – but penguins hated it! Today they are in “a more natural environment”, to quote the zoo officials, the pool recognised as “unsuitable for penguins”. It changed their behaviour.
For humans, being living creatures, it’s the same. Much of our built environment was designed as “machines for living in” with the aim of changing human nature. It was very popular in Russia, and it worked, except the change wasn’t as intended. It is not natural, and the result is unhappy people. Lack of space and privacy make us anti-social, and worsen disputes. Bleak characterless design dehumanises us, destroys identity and civic pride.
Buildings aren’t machines for living in, they have got to be homes, places of work, and leisure space. They must represent us, our dreams and aspirations, likes and wants. Our nature as living beings. Churchill’s quote relied on a perpetual and two way process of evolution; we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us, then we shape our buildings, and so on, ad infinitum.
In order to create a happier country, we must
accept the failures of post-war design, which replaced this evolution
with a modernist revolution, and learn from the past. Our urban areas
are mostly bleak and unwelcoming. The environment alien to nature.
Modernism tried to be modern for the sake of it, everything had to be
entirely different. But if you reinvent the wheel, and insist it be
entirely different, it ends up square.
By and large, modernism
only caught on among architects, planners and politicians – the “bold
statement” too often merely an architectural ego trip. An often
forgotten result of Thatcherism and rolling back of the state was a new
individualism and freedom in architecture. Yes, Thatcherism helped kill
modernist architecture. But our planning laws are still hopelessly out
dated and modernist council planner in their feel, some resembling
regulations of a backward socialist state than modern Britain.
more than 60% on enlargement, permission needed for conservatories,
windows and any extensions; yet you can paint your house a ghastly
colour and make it a total dump, knocking thousands off neighbouring
properties, with no restrictions. The laws put everything into debating
size, but not quality. Often they’d rather a small ugly house be built
instead of a larger, beautiful house. With major new developments
looming, we need a new planning act desperately.
I do not
accept the terms ‘pastiche’ or ‘bold’ in architecture. To me what
matters is if it’s good or bad. A good design calms traffic, provides
car parking out of sight, puts pedestrians first, has plenty of green
spaces, uses natural materials which blend with nature, has buildings
that complement each other, uses and develops a local character,
reduces the need for car use by mixing development, and is a place
people want to live. It is a place with a social mix, open spaces,
light, and lacking vulnerable points such as alleys. All these things
bring out the best of human nature, creating lively, safe and pleasant
communities; and are vital to lasting happiness. It is built around the
people, to a human scale, and it doesn’t attempt to plan and design
every detail of people’s lives – it trusts them.
A bad design
brings out the worse in society. Overpowering and bland style, lack of
privacy, monopoly of the car, social segregation, “bold statement
architecture” that rebels against nature instead of working with it. It
is a top-down, “we know best” sort of architecture that treats people
We must give greater protection to pre-war buildings,
good enough to last this long their quality is assured, but greater
freedoms over post-war ones. Planning approval should only be needed if
the changes damage the area, proven by say a panel of local estate
agents. On a post-war house, what does a conservatory or porch matter,
even an extension, if they improve the area or have no impact. But
something that damages the area, that’s another matter, and needs
We should ensure good design for new developments
through a new planning act, whilst totally redeveloping the post-war
sprawl, perhaps with an X-List of worst offenders for fast track
demolition. Good, new buildings can be done, nothing has to look bad
(even a multi-story car park can look good built of brick and nicely
styled). The model of the sadly derided in Britain but globally
renowned Poundbury, along with Port Sunlight and Welwyn, should be our
basis – but we can do even better.
We must learn from the past
and improve on it. The penguins have moved on from their modernist
“modern for modern’s sake” experience, now so should we.