Magazine article The Spectator

Still an Outsider

Magazine article The Spectator

Still an Outsider

Article excerpt

How many times can you reinvent the wheel? In competition for the Concept House 1999, architects were invited `to reinvent the speculative British urban terraced house' and some of the results are on show at the RIBA Architecture Gallery, 66 Portland Place, until 10 April. The winning design, by Pierre d'Avoine Architects, called `The Slim House' has been built for real at the Ideal Home Exhibition (until 11 April), in succession to the newsworthy `Oyster House' by Nigel Coates of 1998.

The change of emphasis from last year is welcome, since the Oyster House was so open to outside viewers that in real life it would have needed a secluded plot in grand suburbia of exactly the kind that urban theorists have said for years is wasteful of land. The terrace house is a building form that still roofs a large proportion of the English population, and has often been admired and emulated abroad. During the 20th century, the house-buying public's preference for the suburban semi or detached house has been hard to dislodge, and, despite being reinvented several times, by modernist and traditional architects alike, the terrace has remained an outsider. Visits to places as unlikely sounding as Croydon and Hatfield New Town will reveal the creativity of architects in the 1960s who reinvented the terrace, and some of their ideas, such as courtyards and stepped terraces, have returned, conscious ly or not, in 1999.

In the winning design, Pierre d'Avoine proposes a raised communal garden terrace into which are sunk individual private spaces. In our age of privacy, the fear of observing or being observed in either of these places suggests that they would not be used as much as they deserve. Housing is frequently invoked as a means of chang ing people's behaviour, but, although architecture can often be a contributor to the problem of social isolation, it seems unlikely that this trend can be reversed by architecture alone.

Architects love a blank street elevation such as d'Avoine provides to separate the long rows of Slim Houses from passers-by. The contrast he proposes between `urban(e) front and DIY back' is appealing in principle, a valuable formulation of the way terrace houses have always been selectively modified by their owners, but while the hard-standings and net-curtained windows of new housing developments may not exactly generate street life, this windowless scheme goes a long way to kill it off completely. …

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