I have long been envious of the quality of housing in continental countries such as Switzerland and Germany. As with many things, a more controlled construction sector, coupled with a greater discernment on the part of clients and perhaps less aversion to modernity has produced new housing stock of a quality far superior to that in this country.
It may seem mundane, but given the centrality of home in most people’s lives, the quality of fixtures and fittings, the sound-proofing of floors and walls, the adaptability and ease of maintenance of those spaces can make a significant impact on the quality of life. And that is before we consider the psychological effect of the spaces we inhabit.
Sick building syndrome was identified some decades ago, where large artificially-lit and poorly ventilated office buildings were literally making people unwell. I think this is evidence enough to support the theory that the quality of our built environment is of major significance for our well-being.
Perhaps a little more contentious is the aesthetic impact of such spaces. I find that having a home which is pared back and calming is beneficial to the state of mind – and the use of pleasing materials and forms brings a daily uplift to my state of mind. While many in Britain still apparently see modernism as bleak and unwelcoming, I find well done modern design hugely optimistic and buoying. The freedom it presents from out-dated social forms releases the designer to respond to the needs of the present day without being a slave to convention.
I recently spent a day touring some of the recent residential developments that have been built around Cambridge. This city has long been associated with architectural innovation, and still today it seems willing to entertain visions not welcomed elsewhere. The presence of a highly-educated population no doubt helps.
We toured three developments, which I describe in this and the subsequent post.
This development of 378 dwellings was completed in 2008 on a Ministry of Defence-owned site near the University Botanical Gardens. The master-plan was developed by Felden Clegg Bradley architects, and it won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2008.
It includes a mix of types, both private and housing association properties in a range of contemporary styles. Much care was put into developing a pedestrian-friendly street plan, energy-efficient buildings, and well-landscaped grounds. The retention of a large number of mature trees helped in this respect.
The principal practice designed about 65% of the buildings, but several other architects were commissioned to provide an input, which has resulted in an eclectic range, mostly of terraces and apartments.
Inspiration was imported from the Netherlands, from where high-quality bricks were sourced, in a colour not dissimilar to the local brick colour. Much use was also made of shared street space communal facilities such a play areas for children, as widely seen in Dutch towns and cities.
In contrast to many modern British developments, the houses are mostly positioned right on the street, thus providing strong street lines and a good ‘sense of place’. Roads are mainly straight, though with chicanes to slow traffic and provide dispersed parking spaces. The corners of many side roads are blind, which in effect forces drivers to proceed slowly. Street furniture is high quality, and the traffic management is subtly done.
Cars in general are subordinated to pedestrians, with parking largely integrated within buildings, or beneath apartment blocks. Vehicular access is often at the rear of the properties, with the front doors giving onto well-planted pedestrian streets. There is a car-sharing club, which seems made for dense inner-urban developments like this. There is a range of street widths, from a generous main spine road to narrow mews-like off-shoots.
I have watched this development from its late construction stage as my sister in law has her home there. Ten years on, the development is well into the maturing stage, with the buildings increasingly softened by climbing plants. Accordia has been so successful that it spawned a number of other developments in the Cambridge area, all of which are apparently in great demand. These will be shown in the following post.
It is quite unnerving to see something of this quality in the U.K. I can’t pretend I like all of the individual buildings – but that is of course fine. The really impressive thing is the coherent master-plan for the site, which has successfully created a new residential quarter not far from the historically sensitive core of the city – in a style that is ‘of its time’ and yet which will hopefully enhance the city’s architectural inheritance rather than – as is so often the case with new-build houses – the opposite.