Monday, 30 April 2012

Use of space

I found myself wondering the other night what architects from the past would think of our building uses these days. I live in a town full of big old late Victorian and Edwardian houses, too small for the aristocracy but still very large for the newly aspirant middle class. High ceilings, several floors, and a reasonable amount of outdoors space.

They would have been family homes, I think. Family in the pre-war sense; husband and wife, several children, spinster aunts, housemaids, governesses, whatever else was needed for a suitably genteel house. Most houses in that period would have kept servants – it was a very common thing to do, mostly because of the sheer amount of work involved in keeping such a big place running. Think Mary Poppins, if you will.

Nowadays very few of the houses are still run like that. A large chunk of them have been converted into nursing homes, charming buildings but a buggar to run on practical terms – staircases simply can't be widened all that much. Perhaps these are closest to the original purposes, although the staff come and go, rather than live in. People thrown together and living together in essentially the same household, while the staff snatch meals in basements with leftovers. (Yes, that last part really is personal experience.)

Some of the houses still have families in, of course. They don't have extended families – granny flats, and perhaps a cleaner and a gardener, but just one family. These days they're even more likely to just be an elderly couple rattling around together in a few rooms. Although I have nothing but sympathy for people who wish to stay in their own homes, I do sometimes think that the architect would bite through his drawing pencil when looking at this use of the space – empty, unused, and criminally helping to keep house prices inflated while young aspirant families shrink into smaller and smaller buildings.

What about where I live? The building I live in was (apparently) built in 1898, so still just about Victorian. What must have been astonishingly beautiful interiors have been ripped out and replaced by some quite shonky flats with thin walls and ceilings, and given the flat above us used to be a cannabis farm then probably quite severely changed. The buildings around us are all newer buildings – I suspect we live in the oldest on this side of the street. I think that maybe the architect would be unhappy as we live in our segregated areas, nodding on the stairways and only banding together to complain en masse about some difficult neighbours. (This may make us sound monstrous, but it wasn't your front door they were fighting with drug dealers in front of and on a few cases banging against it. Fading gentility, sometimes very faded, is the name of the game in this town.)

And yet, the other night, I wondered if maybe that was what he would have wanted. We're all very different people here, but we all constantly encroach on each other's spaces. There are at least three different nationalities represented in this buildings, with a wide variety of jobs, but we all walk up the same stairs and through our same front doors. I know the names of three of the four people living upstairs from the shouting – the fourth appears to be called 'Mummy' and very little else. We don't talk, and frankly I don't want to, but we all essentially share a house and we make it still work together.

So I wonder what the architects would make of the houses in this town today, and the way we use space as a community.

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