A few years back my Dad was out at the pub with my Aunt when an old school friend of his walked in. It transpired that the friend had recently bought and moved into my Dad's childhood home.
A few drinks later they decide to invite themselves back to the friend's place for a nosey. The jovial walk from the pub to the old street brought back memories of a happy childhood in North West England.
Once at the old house, through the front door they went, turning into the front room as though they had never left. After a few seconds of eerie silence my Aunt pointed across the room and exclaimed, "Oh my God! That's where Mum stood when she threw the Fish and Chips at Dad!"
Not only does this story describe a slapstick row during what was an otherwise happy marriage between my grandparents; it also shows that while architecture provides the 'containers' for human activity, it is people who attribute memory and meaning to it.
We take huge pride in home ownership here in the Britain, to the despair of some urban planners, who believe that our housing market should seek to learn from the European countries where a stable model for long-term rental dominates.
However this trend is supported by the open geography of continental Europe. Comparatively Britain is an island nation obsessed by ownership and boundary, where our proximity to neighbours exacerbates our need to compare and measure ourselves in relation to others. This goes some way to explaining our deeply engrained class system. In his book 'How England made the English,' Harry Mount considers the "unnoticed backgrounds" of England and how "it is no coincidence that 'insular' comes from the Latin word for island."
But the fish and chips episode proves that housing in the UK cannot be viewed in a purely physical or economic context. Margaret Forster's memoir, 'My Life In Houses,' is a deeply touching book about what bricks and mortar come to mean to us as we progress through life. Forster admits that it is really quite silly; that one un-special dwelling can hold such sentimental value for a person and their family. Particularly in a city like London, where there are thousands upon thousands of near identical containers. Why is it that we only call one of these places home?
Some friends of mine bought their first house 12 months ago and they have started thinking about what improvements to make now that they have had the chance to live in it. We got talking over some dinner one night and I was struck by how thoughtfully they had worked through their priorities and needs. I made some suggestions but they were politely rebutted, as they weren't in line with what the core changes they wanted to see in their new home. This got me thinking...
A skilful architect respects the client's decision process, and hones it using their own design sensibility. We are there to guide clients through an unfamiliar process, to create a strong brief that steers the overall direction and success of a project. But we are not here to tell people how to use their home or how live their lives.
With property prices so over-inflated in England, clients tend to make decisions based on their economic position as opposed to the lifestyle they wish to lead. The task for architects is to create a balance between asset management and lifestyle improvement.
The culturally engrained need of the English to compare and measure threatens our ability to create sincerety and warmth. How are the younger generations to build lives for themselves in a future where short-term rental is king? This is compounded by the pressure of buying into an unattainable and over-valued asset class.
The frustration here is that initiating a nationwide house price correction would be an electoral catastrophe for any ruling political party. As ever, the political incentives are stacked against common sense, three cheers for democracy.