A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, July 07, 2006

From Pooter to Lowry: saving the humble British house from wheelie bins and solar panels.....

If some latter-day Nikolaus Pevsner were to arise with a penchant for recording the Victorian and Edwardian terraced house and villa, every book in the series would, sadly, have to contain the following entry: "Anytown: Victoria Street - a road of humble, but honest, terraced houses, once with noteworthy polychromic brickwork and sash windows, now defaced by inappropriate cement renderings, ill-fitting uPVC windows with flat, lifeless glass, ill-constructed breeze-block walls, satellite dishes, DIY monstrosities, and 'Green' garbage." The uncontrolled destruction of this precious, if simple, heritage is one of the most depressing failures of postwar Britain, a scar on the urban landscape that should bring shame to government and to local councils alike.

From the 1830s onwards, with industrialization, urbanisation and the advent of the railway, Britain witnessed the mass expansion of the small villa and the terraced house. Some of these were inevitably jerry-built, and, particularly in the notorious 'courts', created slums of nauseous squalor that have been rightly cleared. Most, however, constituted good, sound, solid, housing stock, often characterised by surprising detailing in the brick and stone. In the North and the Midlands, houses of red-pressed Accrington brick were enhanced with lintels and window sills of Runcorn sandstone or millstone grit, while their leaded windows mirrored the stained glass of the 'steeplehouse' and the chapel. In the South, late-Georgian plaster yielded to polychromic yellow-orange London stock brick, with darker-red window and door arches and two strings of red brick, one below the upper windows, the other below the eaves. Elsewhere, dwellings were built of regional stone, as in Yorkshire, or highly-localised brick, as in Cambridge.

Some terraces bore plaques proudly declaring the date of their construction, while others would carry pretensions just that little bit further with names, like 'Rathvale' and 'Lindisfarne', carved in funereal sandstone above the front door. And then there were the tiny front gardens, tended with loving care, their 'hostas' and roses peeping around and over a deep-red corniced wall, or through smalt blue or dark green metal railings (not shiny black and tarnished gold, councils please note).

Lowry painting 1927At the top end of the market, there was 'The Laurels', Brickfield Terrace, Holloway (1892), home of George and Weedon Grossmith's unforgettable Mr. Charles Pooter, and his dear wife, Carrie. At the lower end, there were the 'ungardened' terraces of Salford and Oldham, and of L. S. Lowry's 'matchstick' people [Above right: Lowry's Coming out of School (1927, oil on canvas, 34.7 cm x 53.9 cm: photo Wikipedia, public domain)].

But all had a dignity that is today ruined by the junk of modern life, not to mention by the 'Green idealism' of the council jobsworth. The old Victorian town in which I live illustrates this far too vividly. In the 1950s and 1960s, the heart of the borough was ripped out for stark modern buildings, including a town hall and a theatre of no architectural merit. Yet, the few terraces that remain are Victorian gems, and, where their wooden sash windows have not been replaced, they are 'alive' with character and style. Unfortunately, dignity has, in the main, been turned into an urban battlefield of every manner of DIY surgery, butchering the architectural body politic, with pockmarked plaster, television aerial wires hanging limp in the breeze, rough modern pointing and cement instead of softer lime mortar, satellite dishes, some rusting and defunct, but, above all, rectangular uPVC window frames forced into once distinguished, rounded, windows. uPVC was invented for underground piping; it is a great pity that it ever came out into the sun to disfigure the world. Windows are the 'eyes' of a house, and nothing destroys the innate quality of a property more than ill-chosen frames and glass. It is even important to have the right sashes, with thin glazing bars and no horns, or thicker glazing bars and horns on later buildings.

Unfortunately, the myths of 'global warming', and the drive for energy saving at all costs, are likely to vandalise some of these properties yet further. Recently, in Ipswich and Cambridge, I just despaired to observe once-lovely streets totally disfigured by overflowing, plastic wheelie bins of every hue (all in the name of 'Saving the Planet', of course). What rubbish! And now we have the threat of ill-fitted solar panels and laterally-stressed wind turbines on the roof.

In the 'Preface' to his masterpiece, Das englische Haus (1904), Hermann Muthesius wrote that to understand the English house meant to grasp: "…English domestic life, its mores and, indeed, the Englishman's whole philosophy of life." Without unravelling cause and effect, this is surely all too regretfully true of the dilapidated state of our Victorian and Edwardian terraces, where dysfunctional individualism, combined with current civic 'Green' vandalism, has been allowed to run riot at the expense of any sense of urban harmony. Unlike Prince Charles, I value modern architecture, but this does not prevent my utter despair at the brutalisation and 'uglification' of our fine domestic industrial past. Moreover, vandalism begets vandalism - even when it is labelled 'Green'.

Philip, there is so much talk of 'the rural'; but people live in the towns and cities, and increasingly so. That is where real 'conservation' is needed - and in the poorest sectors. Let's drop the twee and the romantic, and focus on the habitats where we live. Lunch.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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