In discussion with a member of the housing team at City Hall recently, we talked about ‘replicability’, something which is pretty important if we are going to also investigate modern methods of construction (MMC). How do you replicate 50,000 homes a year without creating new districts of unutterable tedium?
The idea of repeating a simple model isn’t new – the houses built in London after the Great Fire were all just about the same and available only in four sizes. Regency terraces played the same note time and time again, as did the terraces of the Edwardians and the suburban semi-detached of the thirties. The London Estates often exhibited high levels of repetition, from the Georgian layouts of the Dukes of Bedford to the white classicism of Grosvenor’s Belgravia. All of these turned out to be pretty popular, so why can’t we replicate the quality of replicates our predecessors produced?
These days we worry more about site and context. The modern movement told us we needed to think about orientation and topography; recent theory tells us we need to be more aware of location, character and sense of place; new developments are frequently designed to look as though they have been built over time so you get a zoo of architects or a gallimaufry of styles – as at Poundbury. At King's Cross the scale of development is controlled but each building is by a different designer using different materials and different colours. Everyone is afraid of places looking boring. The replication to be found in new Chinese cities is frequently used to illustrate the inhumanity of large scale identical development.
I live in Bedford Park in Chiswick built in the 1870s and 80s, dubbed the ‘first garden suburb’, where the developer Jonathan Carr bought a series of designs from his architects – mainly Norman Shaw, and mixed the various types in a random manner along tree-lined streets. All the houses, Queen Anne in style, are built in the same red brick from the Acton brick fields with distinctive white external joinery, the materials providing a coherence to the whole estate of nearly 400 houses. In the first years of the 20th century a couple of mansion blocks were added in similar brick providing an increase in density that sits comfortably in the context of the three storey homes. The whole area maintains a highly satisfactory order in diversity. Such mixing and matching has been followed by house builders in the ensuing years, yet rarely with the sophistication managed by Carr.
Today the London Housing Design Guide has helped to deliver a certain level of replicability in the New London Vernacular style using simple facades, variegated brick finishes, punched windows with inset balconies. These can be found across London, from Hounslow to Horton, illustrating a remarkable level of similarity for this day and age.
Although clad in brick these blocks are built in a variety of methods, from concrete, laminated timber, steel or stacked volumetric units. The facade and the structure are separate, allowing enormous freedom, potentially, to external designers. This separation – which has been evident in office building for a number of years – when seen in conjunction with the economic variations permitted by digital design and manufacturing technology means that traditional concepts of style and permanence are all but dead. While we might all occupy an identical box produced by modern methods of construction we can download printed facades of any look we like – vernacular, classical, Modern or decorated.
We need to investigate new thinking in housing if we are to create desirable, higher density cities. We need to find ways of delivering new housing more efficiently and in a way that is acceptable to local communities. Digital technologies could provide the ability to deliver customisation, variety and replication, but how will the planners react? How do you maintain quality? How do you create a structure in which individual expression coexists with a coherent urban fabric?
This article first appeared in On Office magazine