Culture House Daily

Will we learn to love our ugly houses?

29 August 2014

What are the root causes of Britain’s housing crisis? The Philosophers’ Mail – which has copied the format of MailOnline but I suspect is not aiming at quite the same demographic – recently offered an alternative to the usual explanations. That most people are opposed not to building more houses, but to building ugly houses, and that this accounts for most of what we dismiss as a nimbyism that prevents much-needed development. As they put it:

‘Most of the large housing developments built in the South East of England in the last 25 years share one common and (in this context) generally undiscussed feature: they are very ugly. Or, to be more precise, they are far uglier than the countryside they have replaced.’

There’s a lot to be said for this line, but it raises the unsettling possibility that our denunciation of these building styles as visually unappealing might not be an immutable verdict. What if, though we revile their blandness and uniformity now, they one day become fashionable? What if we come to see their misuse of space and energy not as condemnably inefficient but as commendably eccentric? What if we eventually conclude they’re a charming and cosy part of our national furniture?

There are certainly precedents for this. Recall the outcry when John Prescott tried to demolish almost 100,000 houses on Victorian brick terraces in the north of England: residents, heritage groups and opposition parties united to block most of his plan. Yet Orwell, in Manchester en route to Wigan Pier, wrote of such streets that ‘nothing is needed but to tear down these abominations’, while J.B. Priestley, in his 1934 English Journey, had this to say about Gateshead:

‘The whole town appeared to have been carefully planned by an enemy of the human race. Insects can do better than this. … If there is any town of like size in Europe that can show a similar lack of civic dignity and all the evidences of an urban civilization, I should like to know its name. No true civilization could have produced such a town.’

What would Orwell have made of latter generations seeing these abominations as part of the backbone of Britain? What would Priestley have made of Coronation Street?


Edwin Muir, following Priestley with a Scottish Journey, described his 1901 sojourn in a Glasgow tenement as ‘living in a lavatory’; 110 years later I handed over as much money as I could borrow for just such a flat. Ruskin, too, raged against the ugliness of the buildings of his time, most of which we now venerate. And we need say no more about Eric Gill’s views on buildings or anything else.

What about the other ubiquities of our architectural era? We can be confident that some of our most prominent buildings will weather the coming centuries: the Gherkin and the Shard are surely already admired enough in their own time that they’ll still be standing long after we’ve stopped caring about the excesses of foreign billionaires and their City enablers. Most of the other skyscrapers going up in London seem too crass, too derivative to last – but, as I say, fashions change. Perhaps future generations will preserve the best of these and bulldoze the rest; then, having forgotten about them, they’ll assume ours was a golden age.

Meanwhile, some of the ‘luxury’ waterfront developments that were somehow supposed to replace shipyards, and went for small fortunes at the top of the market, are turning into slums already – too small, too far from public transport, with too little greenery or space for children to play. It’s hard not to feel some schadenfreude towards the to-let buyers who find they can now only let to social housing tenants.

But look how quickly our view of the concrete monoliths of the 50s, 60s and 70s is changing. Many of these tower blocks, deeply despised until very recently, are now considered an important part of our urban landscape: London’s Barbican is Grade II-listed, Historic Scotland puts Glasgow’s Anniesland Court in category A. The worst of these experiments – the ones far removed from any of the things that make life bearable, never mind enjoyable – are being blown up, while the best of them are taking a permanent place in our gentrified city centres. Might the same happen in the decades to come to so many riverside apartment blocks and rabbit-hutch student flats – if they haven’t fallen down by then?

Perhaps every age is doomed to treat everything built in its own time as banal, but – like a tribe that worships its ancestors – to treat everything old with reverence. What one era sees as pastiche, the next sees as vernacular, and the longer ago some work of art was made, the more we trust that society’s preservation of it in the intervening years was merited. The most sophisticated critics are the most capable of trashing work that long predates living memory; but as we saw in that brutalist era, when we knocked down mansions to make way for motorways, it’s possible to take this spirit too far.

As John Huston’s character in Chinatown put it: ‘Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.’ So there’s hope yet for the Noddy box, and even for John Prescott.

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  • Jacques Strap

    Thank god my victorian terraced house is worthy enough to be in a conservation area

  • tjamesjones

    I agree how buildings look is very important. But I don’t think you’ve really made the case that says today’s ugly building is tomorrow’s respectable old building. I’m pretty sure people liked (what we call) Georgian buildings today for the same reasons they did so 200 years ago. You can always dig up some quote to suggest that there is a progression from hated to loved, but, really, nobody is ever going to love much of this nasty accountant designed housing.
    (The Barbican belongs in a different category – it might well be love it or hate it, but at least it wasn’t designed by an accountant to maximise the flats squeezed into some nasty and unlovely facade).

  • Freedom
  • Richard Ferguson

    The Barbican is appalling. I worked nearby for four years and I never fully understood its workings. Anniesland Court is also a dismal building – no sense of urbanism.

    I think it was Roger Scruton who described our schools of architecture as the “repositories of the talentless”.

  • Ron Todd

    For those of us on a budget size is more of a problem. I was shown one house the estate agent told me that the living room looked small because of the large furniture The furniture being a average sized wardrobe; there was a wardrobe in the living room because neither of the bedrooms was big enough for both a bed and a wardrobe. .

  • AndyB

    Having written a few myself, I recognize a first class Oxbridge essay when I see one. Especially the gobbet at the end. V. ‘History Boys’. Nice enough, though. Also, one of the smartest pieces of writing on the British housing problem I’ve read for some time. Should be recycled into the next available issue of this newspaper in my – hopefully – modest opinion. Isabel? Fraser?

    • Nicholas Mayes

      Thanks. Just Glasgow though; never actually been to Oxford or Cambridge. I really should some time: I’m told they have some quite handsome buildings…

  • Dissavowed

    UNDER 80 GRAND……

    Thats how much the national average house price should cost today.

    The individual national average wage was always able to buy the averagely priced house, all throughout the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.
    For no more than 3.5x individual income.

    [Thats the long term median. On a couple of occasions it touched 5x salary, but went back down again quickly enough. At other times, it was just 2.5x salary]

    The average mortgate rate over that same period was 7%.
    Average Downpayment was 10%

    That was the definition of affordability for the last half of the twentieth century.


    1997 was the last year, that the individual average wage could buy the average house, for no more than 3.5x individual average salary.

    [From 1997 to 2007, house prices tripled whilst the median UK wage rose by just £6.5k]

    [In 1997 the national average house price was £55k.
    The national average wage was £16,666
    55/16,666 = 3.3x……So In 1997 it was 3.3x salary.]

    So If the priced out generations today were able to buy a house, relative to the same levels of affordability vs earnings that previous generations enjoyed, then the national UK Average House Price today, would cost no more than 3.5x the national averge individual wage of £26.5k

    26.5 x 3.5 = £79.5k

    The average house price today should cost no more than £79.5k.

    UNDER 80 GRAND…..

    Yet according to the ONS the national average house price today is 250 Grand.


    • Blindsideflanker

      The salary multiples people have to go to buy a property must be pushing us to a monetary crisis, for higher interest rates have been swapped for higher salary multiples, which in turn makes the normalisation of interest rates an impossibility.

    • Barzini

      I wonder what the impact of women joining the workforce on mass has had on these trends?

      I remember how my grandfather, on a very modest salary, could afford to buy a house, a car and raise four children, all with my grandmother never working a day in her life…..

    • Barzini

      I wonder what the impact of women joining the workforce on mass has had on these trends?

      I remember how my grandfather, on a very modest salary, could afford to buy a house, a car and raise four children, all with my grandmother never working a day in her life…..

    • Pacificweather

      I bought my first house in 1971. Borrowing had just been raised from twice income to 3 times. My employer lied about my salary, raising it by 50%, so I could get a mortgage on a very run down house. You are fooling yourself if you think someone on average salary could buy a house much before the mid 1980s, if then.

  • Blindsideflanker

    “What are the root causes of Britain’s housing crisis?”

    Gosh I am stumped on that one.

  • rtj1211

    It might be a better idea not to allow planning permission for ugly housing, insisting instead that if you are presumptious enough to wish to make money from building houses, the least you can do is provide a service to society through the use of architectural refinement and beauty, allied to energy neutrality and successful sound-proofing.

    It never ceases to amaze me why houses are designed by those who are not going to live in them and those who are are required to buy from what is put before them, rather than what they might actually like to live in.

    Capitalism really hasn’t done much service to the housing market, I”m afraid.

    Time for some extremely destructive ‘innovation’ leading to planning permission being given solely for functional homes, rather than architecturally safe rectangles in 3 dimensions.

  • Kitty MLB

    There is no excuse for an ugly building and atrocious skyscrapers
    This is a historic country and
    Its a total monstrocity to create concrete jungles and characterless modern homes.I much prefer a 200 hundred year
    old cottage of which I abode and I like period properties.As well
    as excellent architecture such as St Pauls…instead of the awful
    London Eye.And Bath also has the most magnificant buildings.

  • kle4

    I used to live in Opal Court, Leicester, as featured in the photo – I detest a lot of modern buildings as just plain ugly, or forgetting that while a building can also be a work of art, it needs to fulfill its function as well, but I never considered Opal Court to be particularly objectionable. On the contrary, it seems pretty decent as these things go. In general I would say designs have gotten better in the last couple of decades, not worse. Have people seen the atrocities constructed in the 60s and 70s?

    • ryongsong

      I would tend to agree with this, though it is the sheer awfulness of the stuff from the 60s and 70s (and beyond, arguably) that makes today’s stuff seem not quite as bad. Room size and ceiling height is still a big problem, though.

  • Ron Todd

    If the location is right, where people want to live people will put up with ugly buildings as long as they are functional ugly buildings.

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