On Architecture

A new take on Arts and Crafts

Private housing design has been neglected by architects

I was brought up to loathe the suburbs, in spite of the fact that my parents lived in them: they moved to Farnham, Surrey, when I was four, driving in a straight line from Salisbury to London and buying a house in the first town they arrived at with a commuter train.

My mother, a lover of deep countryside, never disguised her dislike of the bracken and heath surrounding us, the proximity of the military at Aldershot, not to mention the life of the daily commuter which my father had become, lined up on the platform every morning in his Anthony Eden hat.

But as I have got older, I look back on the houses owned by the parents of my childhood friends with more affection: the tile-hung, half-rural vernacular of the Farnham suburbs, built between the wars; spacious houses laid out in big-ish gardens, some of them on private roads or in the villages nearby.

So, my eye was caught by one of the houses which has been long-listed for this year’s Stirling Prize: 1, Middle Avenue, on a corner plot in the middle of the so-called Great Austins Estate on a steep hill immediately south of Farnham is conveniently close to the railway station, but has an illusion of deep rusticity behind the laurel hedges, helped by wooden gabling and the absence of too much formal planning.

Great Austins was laid out in the first decade of the twentieth century with houses designed by Harold Falkner, an architect who had been brought up in Farnham, educated at the local grammar school and, after training in the office of Reginald Blomfield, became a versatile architect in vernacular neo-Tudor. He was a contemporary of Edwin Lutyens and friend of Gertrude Jekyll, but far less well known.

the owners of 1, Middle Avenue, Ben and Claire Macland, had lived nearby and bought an old bungalow in the heart of the Great Austins estate. After an extensive search for an appropriate architect, they found one based in west Wales — Niall Maxwell of Rural Office.

Maxwell trained at the Bartlett, worked briefly for John Pawson and as project architect on the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. But, in 2004, he decided to move out of London to Carmarthen, where he has concentrated on teaching himself about craft skills, rebuilding a farm and rethinking his practice, whilst undertaking a small number of commissions.

These include Caring Wood in Kent, based on an the design of an oast house and RIBA House of the Year in 2017. It was a shrewd choice, because Maxwell was willing to work so closely with his clients, designing and adapting the ground plan of the house to fit their very specific requirements — modern, but not doctrinally so, designed in such a way that it would fit comfortably in its surroundings, but not historicist.

This is a legacy of Modernism, which treated private housing as self-indulgent

In fact, it’s unapologetically contemporary — open plan, treating its arts-and-crafts origins as a new game, part-Voysey, part-Frank Lloyd Wright, open plan on the ground floor, but with three highly individual, top-lit or side-lit bedrooms, which give the house its steeply roofed, neo-Arts and Crafts character and irregularity on the outside, with a little office in the attic looking across to St. Thomas-on-the-Bourne, the adjacent church.

Seeing the qualities of 1, Middle Avenue — both spacious and complex, with a beautiful, hand-made, oak staircase, built by joiners in Carmarthenshire, and organised in such a way that it reflects so precisely how its owners want to live — makes me wonder why more people don’t commission houses for themselves. It is the ultimate expression of personality and a creative act in itself for people who are perfectly willing to splash out big money on buying yachts, historic houses and second homes.

Part of the problem seems to be a lack of good models to follow,and the time and commitment involved. Most grandee architects — the big shot, well-known practitioners, — look down on private housing as beneath their dignity. The Stirling Prize almost invariably focuses on big public projects, mostly in London, and treats private housing as a side-show. The RIBA no longer runs the Manser Medal to reward imaginative private housing, and instead has inaugurated the Neave Brown Award for social housing.

This is a legacy of Modernism, which treated private housing as self-indulgent. And many architects are unwilling to be tainted by consumer choice. And yet it is in private housing that most people encounter and either enjoy or, more often, have to endure the effects of modern architecture, so it is odd that architects don’t pay more attention to it.

It would obviously help if the RIBA paid more attention to private commissions. The Stirling Prize looks tremendously London-centric as if the prizes are awarded every year by a group of architects sitting in a committee room of the RIBA headquarters in Portland Place, drawing up a shortlist of work by their friends, most of them trained in the conceptual traditions of the Architectural Association.

Yet, at the moment, it feels as if some of the better work is being done by smaller practices, not necessarily in Shoreditch. They are taking an interest in issues of sustainability, adaptability and re-use, the craft skills which are required to produce long-lasting architecture, and are preoccupied by issues of modesty and longevity, not just a short-term, self-important big bang.

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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