Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Perfect Home?

The Perfect Home is a three part series which first aired on Channel 4 in the UK in 2006

The themes which Alain de Botton raises in The Perfect Home, which is based on his book The Architecture of Happiness, are very important and highly relevant to residential architecture in the UK and US. Be sure to watch all 15 parts on YouTube, about 2 hours in total. Originally aired in 2006, I hope many Britons watched it, though I fear many may have had quite a hostile reaction, seeing as it is quite critical of their home buying choices and in a rather condescending manner. Similar issues exist in the US, perhaps even more so as at least mass-produced British homes are solid brick rather than flimsy timber frames.

The issue of build quality is something the program ignores. In fact, de Botton's modern choices seem to suggest that modern homes must be prefabricated timber homes, as if brick is somehow incompatible with modern values. The program also reinforces one of my pet peeves, that of suggesting that modern homes must be clean, minimalist spaces. Although de Botton mentions the cozy feeling a traditional cottage exudes, where are the cozy modern houses? Do modern people no longer seek coziness and is modern design incapable of providing such feelings? Of course not.

It should also be said that some of the examples of modern development, even those in the Netherlands, are really rather ghastly. They are the very sort of thing which turned the public off modern design in the first place. Lacking creativity and built with cost-cutting in mind, they're definitely nothing to admire. Of greatest concern is the complete lack of proper urban planning. Quite frankly, some of them do look a bit like an out-of-town office park, a confusion of pedestrian and vehicle zones, and random parking and greenery. No mixed use is evident, but there's plenty of cars. It seems to be a car dependent suburb like any other. Bottom line, this is nowhere near to being a modern version of a beautiful village. De Botton clearly admires Norman Foster in the program, the architect of choice for generic office buildings globally. Little wonder his "taste" is suspect. In interviews he has also both said he bought his 1890's Victorian terrace home because of its "style and history" and that he'd prefer to knock it down and build something contemporary! Quite a contradiction.

Despite my reservations, I highly recommend the program. I must congratulate de Botton for raising the issue of beauty, about which a greater public debate is sorely needed. The very term is still taboo in the architectural world, the very people who should consider it most. Frustration with mock, pastiche styles has been a lifelong grievance of mine, even if my focus on historical neighborhoods on reCities has led some to believe otherwise. I don't agree with de Botton's conclusions, however, or its recommended solutions. I believe he should have placed far greater emphasis on planning and streetscapes, which is where the true beauty of living environments is, not so much in individual buildings as the program suggests. A populist tv program about streetscapes could yield a much more relevant debate about the environments we build for ourselves, and for the post-car existence.