Sunday, 9 January 2011



I reckon my dissertation was probably the part of my degree of which I was proudest, because it kinda felt like I was exploring something like unchartered territory, even if it wasn't strictly as relevant to my ~professional development~ as it was meant to be (errrrr). It certainly reads like it was partially written the morning of hand-in and it's defo light on theory, but it was fun to do. For your pleasure, I'm gonna serialize it, like how they do Princess Diana bios in the Daily Mail. This bit is THE INTRODUCTION. To preserve people's anonymity I'm going to substitute their names with mysterious abbreviations and get rid of street names and the proper accompanying photos. (My currently neglected FACADE HUNTER was part of the original inspiration for this as a subject.)

PS I'm trying caps out for size and it feels rly awkward and weird and like I'll be judged like when I wore my fave Kappa tracksuit to non-uniform day at school and it wasn't considered appropriate to my rep as an unusual nerd. I'm totally trying to be mature and businesslike and professional but you know me, I'm an anti-capitalist at heart :'( Just kill me if I ever write PayPal or eBay or Lol.



Walking around any inner London suburb, even the most passive observer cannot fail to be struck by distinct changes in atmosphere from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and street to street. Here, a row of Georgian houses, their front doors running the gamut of the soberer end of a Farrow and Ball paint chart and framed by clipped bay sentinels; around the corner an artisans’ row which must once have been as pristine and homogenous as any new estate but whose facades and front gardens are now astonishing in their diversity, from the stone clad with plastic swan planters, to the one boasting reproduction double-glazed sash windows, its Helvetica number rendered in stainless steel and architectural agaves squeezed in next to the recycling box. What motivates their owners to spend time and money painting, pointing and planting, and what lies behind behind something we may consider to be vulgar or twee? What are these houses trying to say? Can we learn anything from these houses and is there an approach to exterior decoration which is ‘correct’? What do these converging tastes collectively add to the urban fabric?

My first childhood home was in an inner suburb of west Glasgow, a city as famous for its Victorian sandstone tenements as for its 1960s concrete tower blocks, many of which are now being replaced with individual houses with ‘their own front and back doors’. In our area everyone lived in a flat where exterior self-expression was limited to the occasional window box or, in less strictly policed buildings, replacement or painting of the window frames themselves. Essentially, the outward appearance of the entire area had changed little since it had been built a century before. Perhaps my unfamiliarity with them explains why I became fascinated by terraced houses and the myriad ways in which people adapt them. The Englishman’s home is, of course, his castle and in London I found that self-expression through the facade was a more complex and subtle art form than I could have imagined.

It was my frequent walks around south-east London, serving no purpose other than to satisfy my growing curiosity about the ways in which certain streets and houses made me feel, that sowed the seeds of this project. Of course, I was unwittingly carrying out my own psychogeographic procedure, mirroring Debord’s (1956) definition of the dérive, in which “one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Debord, 1956).

The areas of Camberwell, Peckham, Denmark Hill and Catford I plan to focus on are suburbs in the sense that they are residential districts adjacent to a major centre, even if many residents would argue that they are far from being suburban in spirit. Each of the areas has architectural similarities, but the variety of facade treatments is endless. I will be concentrating on the terraced houses so integral to these areas, along with the ______ Estate ‘prefabs’, which, though detached, still form a very high density streetscape.

In as much as this dissertation has a theoretical framework, it is derived from semiology; we are on the hunt for signifiers. I will begin by outlining the unique status of the home in England, before providing some detailed portraits of particular houses based on my primary researches. This is followed by analysis of the influences at play in the customisation of dwellings, including consideration of the ‘working class’, the ‘urbane aesthete’, conservative ‘middle class’ approaches and the roles played by snobbery and kitsch. Finally I will assess the problems inherent in trying to analyse taste, and discuss the contribution that individuals’ home improvements make to the urban sphere.

It is important to understand the unique relationship the British, and the English in particular, have with their homes. In 1896, the German architect Muthesius (cited in Hunt, 2004) reported on English housebuilding, writing that ‘no nation is more committed to its development, because no nation has identified itself more with the house.’ He suggests that this commitment can be traced to the Anglo-Saxons’ ‘reverence for individualism.’ But this individualism is tempered by the ‘decidedly conservative sense of the Anglo-Saxon, who seems scarcely to recognise the charm of change .’

There is an irony in the fact that many of these peculiarly ‘English’ qualities are attributed to Germanic invaders. Kemble’s The Saxons in England, emphasises ‘the Germanic tradition of worship ... for the mistress of the house.’ (cited in Hunt, 2004) Paul Oliver argues that this tradition continues in the symbolism of more recent houses; he provides a picture of a curvaceous 1930s entrance porch accompanied by the caption ‘The front door as orifice.’ (Oliver, Davis & Bentley, 1981 p.175) An uninvited step into the hall would be a violation. Human characteristics are routinely employed to describe houses, as on ITV’s House Gift (2010) where Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen observes that a particularly anonymous semi has ‘one of the best poker faces i’ve ever seen.’

Hunt (2004) describes how the postwar DIY boom meant that home improvement became the nation’s favoured pastime: ‘the celebrated individualism of the English was now expressed not through architecture but a particular shade (of paint)’. The contemporary house obsession continues to manifest itself in property prices making front page news, and the popularity of TV shows focusing on the home. In the past decade, many of these shows have switched their emphasis from the interior, as in Changing Rooms or Home Front, to the exterior; Property Ladder and Location, Location, Location have introduced ‘kerb appeal’ as a measure of the impression one forms of a house upon encountering it from the street into popular parlance.


1 comment:

  1. You write so well Colin. I find it hard to ~express myself~ in an academic format, everything comes out sounding so convoluted and regurgitated or something.