We Wanted You to Break the Mould!

Article excerpt

Byline: SEBASTIAN O'KELLY

The house building industry can be a little oversensitive to criticism, however well meant. When, at the awards lunch some years ago, Michael Manser, chairman of the judges for The Mail on Sunday National Home-Builder Design Awards, ventured a few remarks which were taken to mean that people might prefer to live in welldesigned houses rather than anonymous boxes, someone threw a bread roll at him.

'Fortunately, it missed,' Manser recalls, and we are fortunate that the distinguished former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and member of the Royal Academy, has continued to chair the judging of the awards for a sixth year.

Since he took on the burden, Manser has seen some improvements - but there's plenty of room for more - with volume house builders increasingly willing to employ architects rather than reaching into the bottom drawer for a 'standard house type' design which can be put up on an estate anywhere.

The aim of the National HomeBuilder Design Awards is to champion the cause of good architecture and design for ordinary people, which is why The Mail on Sunday is happy to be associated with them.

Today, people work in offices that are often sophisticated spaces, spend money in shops made to look as appealing as possible - where the goods are only part of the attraction - and fill their homes with design-literate furnishings.

So do they want to live in monotonous boxes, with a few cod vernacular touches - such as brick walls that aren't loadbearing - which are nothing like the quality of the Victorian originals that inspired them?

'You only need to look in an estate agent's window to see what people are doing to the interiors of their houses,' says Manser. 'People want wide open spaces, where they can change the internal walls as they like and let in the light. It's as though they have finally learned the lessons of the Twenties modernists.' But though Manser made his reputation designing large houses in plate glass and concrete in the Seventies - the kind of houses that feature in the style-bible magazine Wallpaper - he has a deep respect for traditional British design.

'In the Georgian age we actually invented the best residential architecture the world had ever seen,' says Manser.

'Copied from pattern books, it was a design that spread throughout the world, from Cheltenham to Calcutta to Charleston. But since then it has been downhill somewhat. …