Quality is not an act – it is a habit*

whitechapel-block-m-044And the winner of the Stirling Prize is… 75% of the new build housing in The Netherlands! There’s no-one more delighted than me that Peabody’s Darbishire Place in London E1 is a nominee for the Stirling, but what’s sad is how rare neat little interventions like Niall McLaughlin’s block are in the UK. Five days cycling through The Netherlands is enough to show me that their (substantial) new build housing output is simply outstanding compared to ours: Darbishire Place would look ordinary (in a good way) in Holland. I’m talking specifically about the quality and appearance of the built product, which some people in the housing development business think is ‘the icing on the cake’ rather than the sponge. IMG_0322Of course ‘quality’ can encompass everything from the resident’s daily experience of their home through to energy efficiency, from the spec of a door handle through to the distance across a street, all of which matter. But most people’s experience of ‘housing’ is as part of their background environment, part of their city, something to walk amongst and somewhere fleetingly to glimpse other people’s lives. For that reason, the built quality of that everyday fabric must be as good as it possibly can be. Housing is not all about the individual resident. It is not all about the landlord and their preoccupations. It is about both of those, but also about what these buildings offer their city, and what they say about the aspirations and values of that city. On the day that the government launches its somewhat slender £26m bidding round for ‘starter homes‘, the quest for quality has never been more urgent. I am frankly not surprised that UK citizens are turning more and more to NIMBYism when what they see going up and then what they have to look at every day for the rest of their lives is not only unaffordable but also ugly. (Can there be a worse combination?) The recent Res Publica ‘Community Right to Beauty’ report says that

‘Perhaps the biggest barrier to a ‘pro-beauty’ policy framework is the general mind-set that sees beauty as costly and unaffordable.’

starter homes
A government-backed starter home

I agree, but the authors then propose that the solution might lie in planning instruments. I’m not so sure about that. So what is the problem in the UK? I have a view, but I would like people to comment first please. You may even disagree with my basic premise that UK new build housing is 80% plain ugly (and I don’t mean characterfully ugly – I mean cheap, tawdry, flimsy and crass). But if you agree, how would you apportion the responsibility amongst: the government, architects, planners, builders, developers, the public (in general), the house-buyer (in particular)? And what do we do about it? Thoughts below please…

For some reason Elizabeth David comes to mind: ‘She was deeply hostile to second-rate cooking and to bogus substitutes for classic dishes and ingredients.’