A Sassenach Soliloquy

Wednesday, September 15

The trials of flathunting: #3 in a series that's making me think about housing issues

When I was writing about Berlin earlier this summer I said that England - and by extension, in this case, Britain was "..a population that doesn’t know how to live in cities". I also pointed out that "Flats are considered a poor man’s choice..." and these ideas are now firmly entrenched in my mind after wandering around another British city and some of its flats.

Fed on a diet of mythical British ideals, we insist - and I make no apology for repeating this - on living in houses with gardens. Rather than designing and developing flats we instead build compromised houses. The distinction is one of the perception of living styles. Houses, with their seperate living, dining, cooking and sleeping rooms retain echos of a timeless Britain, when our genteel company would accompany us to the dining room where dinner would be served (by servants?). The ritual is repeated after the feast upon return to the living area, and is mimicked by all stratas of society; how often have you heard the phrase "Shall we adjourn..."? British flats are built in this mould, with walls continuing to seperate our cooking, eating, living and sleeping, as if each were a seperate life. Yet the reality is, moreso today than ever, that these activities are increasingly mixed, and the distinctions between them blurred. The architecture of apartments should recognise this, creating imaginative yet viable ways of making maximum use of the space; with their necessarily reduced area, flats are not well-served by walls, and even less so by other trappings of the British man's house: hallways and baths, corridors and porches. Indeed, even the balcony is treated as a miniture - compromised - garden, and is often stuffed with plant trays or other garden ornaments.

Our refusal to release our grip on our rural dream stiffles original use of our urban spaces. Our instinctive conservative nature places high emphasis on private initiative, and distrusts public institutions. This means that we place our lived identities in the institution of the house, which remains the default housing choice. However by doing so we necessarily reject, at least to some degree, the immediate locality (in contrast, it's interesting to note, to many continental Europeans; indeed, the Spanish word barrio, meaning area or suburb, but yet neither of those words exactly, doesn't have a direct translation into English).

Consequently, through politicians responding to the electorate's interests, we instigate the neglect of our public spaces, and especially our communal town squares. But these places are the centre-pieces of urban living which, it is worth emphasising, is the lifestyle that most of us live in 2004, and will continue to do so. As long as we continue to build walls and halls in houses with gardens we will continue to experience urban living miserably (numerous surveys continue to tell us that urbanites are unsatisfied with their quality-of-life) and urban spaces as dangerous. Yet so often we travel abroad and bathe in marvellous piazzas and plazas and long for the same back home.

A living manifesto for the 21st century should recognise that, within our towns and cities, we must dispense with attempting to live an unimaginative, sterile rural fantasy. That dream remains healthy in the place where it grew and continues to thrive: the countryside. However it should have no place in the town-planning of the 21st century. Instead we should make our urban environments something to enjoy by embracing their vibrancy and creativity, and putting that flair to productive use. And we should begin by recycling that very idea, and directing its energies exactly at where it came from: society's building blocks, housing.


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