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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Brickbuilt, bland and breaking out all over town: welcome to the New London Housing Vernacular

Observers of the built environment have been debating a suitable name for a newish style of low(ish)-rise domestic apartment block architecture that is rampant in every borough of London, and in every town and suburb within commuting distance of the Great Wen.

Use the word "style" advisedly, since these ubiquitous erections appear to have been designed to be as stylistically anonymous as possible. The one truly defining feature is that they are nearly always faced with old-fashioned bricks. London stock bricks, not the yellow ones but the dull brown variety, the drabber the better. Bricks made out of Thames mud. That these bricks are no longer really structurally necessary - they're a skin, an adornment to a steel-framed block, hardly matters. What word usually follows the phrase "brick-built"? Precisely.

Recently one London website asked readers to suggest names for this  unexciting new architectural look. They came up with some good suggestions, my favourite was along the lines of "Buy-to-let-brutalism". Oddly I haven't been able to find this piece since.

In February, the FT's Edwin Heathcote also picked up on the style, and he made it sound like something quite important: "Are we seeing, for the first time in almost a century, an architecture that says something about the capital?"

Like others he noted that the real trend was to fit in with what is already there and generally loved: Georgian and Victorian terraces made out of London bricks. Hence, his name for the new style: Brickism. He gives some useful background on how this style developed, and notes a big influence from (ironically) European architects - but strictly those of a north European, chiefly Belgian protestant persuasion.

And yet to me most of these buildings seem far shallower. They look like the same old blocks, just
New London Vernacular reaches Railton Road, Brixton: note that, however
bland and restrained the building, the agents cannot resist keeping on
with their garish hoardings...
given a layer of scabby London bricks instead of polished aluminium or primary-coloured plastic or whatever was the previous fashion.

Well, for better or for worse, the architectural establishment seems to agree that there has been a real change. The name that has stuck, however,  is New London Vernacular (or New London Housing Vernacular) - and this naming has been sealed by a lengthy and learned article on the Urban Design London website.

The style was pinned down in 2012, when the extent of London's need for new housing finally hit home with the biggest developers. They needed something that was palatable, economic, and - perhaps most important of all - a style that could be adapted for both low and high-end buildings, social housing and luxury homes for the super-rich.

Writing on the Icon website, architectural writer Leo Hollis attacks the new style for its "moral laziness".

"The new London vernacular is dictated by the developers to mitigate risk," he writes. "Rather than appeal to the homely desires of the buyer, it prioritises the developer’s ability to shift product without friction."

A good place to get a sense of this usually bland but easily recognisable style is in the property agents' ads in the Wednesday edition of London's Evening Standard.

Block after block of them, all boasting that same dirty brown or fawn brickwork, the evenly spaced windows,  the text-book rules of proportion. Very often there'll be a branch of one of the well-known supermarkets taking up part of the ground floor.
NLV without bricks - but still distinctly part of the style, in this large new
development on Landor Road, Stockwell. Note the Costcutter at street level:
whose costs are we cutting here, though?

They are much politer buildings than the stuff that was going up five years earlier with thier multicoloured or powdered aluminium panels and weird shapes and angles, the bonkers mini-balconies sprouting from every wall and corner.

This new look is smart, smooth, restrained, anonymous,  inoffensive, frankly dull - and almost classless.  It is used both for luxury and "affordable" apartment blocks, although there are often noticeable differences in window size and quality of materials. Often you can't tell from the outside anything about the living spaces inside.

 At its best it echoes the elegance of the late Georgian terraces it so often shares streets with, following the classical rules of scale and proportions. That is, at its best.

High-end NLV houses in Macaulay Road, Clapham. Note how the
houses neatly pick up the roof, front door and window lines of the existing
Victorian terraces, as well as their brick colour, even though everything
 else is on a very different scale.
At its less good, the style is precisely as dismal as bad Victorian or Georgian speculative building, but without the occasional outburst of fancy brickwork which even the meanest of those old slums would often exhibit. There's no longer room for the pride in craftsmanship and bricklaying skills you can find in many a Victorian slum.

Instead you get big blank tracts of these bricks, bricks made out of the bones of old bricks, ground down, re-used, the ghosts exorcised. Window spaces punched in at regular intervals, as if on a BMW-owned assembly line. The new brickism faces the world and its lack of colour or spirit simply drains the life, the light and the colour from everything around it.

There's nothing intrinsically bad about this style, and in some cases it seems just right. The rebuild of the Lansdowne primary school in Stockwell adapts the brick-faced London vernacular look and
seems to make a decent job of it - so the style is by no means limited to residential property.

But at its worst, and in the sense in which it seems to be shutting the door on more adventurous design for all but the richest, the style stinks.

 It's the style for Brexit London. It's a style that says, look we don't need your foreign materials, your marbles and your eastern-bloc concrete and what have you - we're happy to be made out of the mud under our feet, yes, even including the filth we all drop into it every day of our lives.

If this is the new London vernacular style, it's speaking in the drab nasal monotones of a would-be UKIP councillor on the election trail, appealing as always to the basest desires and fears of a downtrodden, depressed and frightened public.

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