Towards a Twee Architecture in the Kent Commuter Belt

A proposed new development on a prominent site on the main road into Sevenoaks from the north has been described by one local resident as “a cross between a Kensington mansion block and the Disneyland hotel,” the Sevenoaks Chronicle recently reported. A cursory glance at Berkley Homes’ plans for the site on London Road suggest that this is indeed an extremely apt description.

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Berkley Homes’ proposed development on London Road

It presents two staggered wings to the main road, each made up of one element of four bays, the outer two of which consist of bay windows tastefully picked out in stone from the red-brick facade, with another element to the left made up of two bays, one of which consists of more bay windows, which is surmounted by a plain brick gable. This broken composition is, presumably, an attempt to disguise the enormous mass required to fit 66 one, two and three bedroom flats into a 0.83 acre site. These two wings frame a central elevation, finished in what appears to be a mix of stone and stucco, surmounted by a slim portico above the central topmost bay. In its elevation, and in its plan, which is an H-courtyard with the crossbar pushed far to one end, the designs evoke Jacobean country houses such as Ham House and Hatfield House, perhaps a nod to the residence in the town of James I’s first Lord High Treasurer, in spite of the fact that his house, Knole, looks nothing like this.

This sort of building is nothing new to the burghers of Sevenoaks. Recent weeks have seen the long-awaited opening, to a grand fanfare, of the new M&S on Bligh’s Meadow, the hulking brick-skinned, hipped-roofed, stucco-porticoed mass of which looms over another part of London Road roughly a hundred yards from Berkleys’ proposed development. Across town, in the leafy residential area of south-west Sevenoaks, a new development of Tudorbethan executive homes has been nauseatingly dubbed ‘Floreant Place’ in anticipation of its new residents, they who will presumably be flourishing. Meanwhile, at the Vine, Sevenoaks’ cricket pitch, the gargantuan sandstone and stock brick mass of Sackville Place, a building containing “the most exclusive apartments in Sevenoaks”, has, in recent years, risen to dominate the surrounding area, like a gaudy Neronian palace displaced to the Weald.

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A Neronian Palace displaced to the Weald

In other words, Sevenoaks has developed a problem with twee. New building in the town is invariably pitched roofed, invariably made of brick, invariably evocative of historical styles. It is becoming a steroidal Poundbury for stockbrokers and tax lawyers. The one recent building which has dared to attempt to join something like the mainstream of architectural culture in the rest of the country, the housing development on the site of the old Railway and Bicycle pub, built in the brick rectangular grid style so popular since the Stirling prize win of the Accordia development in Cambridge, sits with flats unsold and shop units unlet in a town in need of a lie down and a wet flannel so feverish is the local property market.

This is all very appropriate for a town which has, like its neighbour Tunbridge Wells, become a by-word for a certain class position in England. It has become the archetypal town of the upper lower middle class, one of the first ports of call for aspirational young professionals looking to settle down in comfortable domesticity and raise a family in an area chock full of ‘good’ private schools. It is the sort of place about which you overhear people in suits and open-necked shirts talking on the train, proclaiming their intentions not to move anywhere else since they’ve got the garden, the dog, young Annabel gets on so well at her school, the commute is actually not that unreasonable and where else would one find all of these things at such a relatively affordable price, especially now even zones 5 and 6 are getting so expensive?

Indeed, it is this position of Sevenoaks, as a place to which to move from the city in order to start a family for young professionals, which seems to inform this dominance of overt, borderline ridiculous twee in the town, and it places this twee in a very interesting relationship to inner city architecture. In recent years the term ‘inner city’ has had many of its negative connotations scrubbed from it as, in the wake of Richard Rogers’ pamphlet ‘Towards an Urban Renaissance’, as well as of the Good Friday Agreement and the cessation of IRA attacks on central London targets, urban living has once more become fashionable. Thus the move to a flat in London has become a rite of passage for the middle class twenty-something.

It is this trend among the young professional class, away from commuting from suburbia and towards an urban lifestyle, which has precipitated the boom in apartment buildings in zones 1 to 3 in recent years. The train journey from Lewisham to London Bridge has become something of a museum exhibit of the progress of the architectural expression of this boom. This architecture has been well documented by Owen Hatherley in his Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, but to give a brief summary of it: it tends to take the form either of high-rise point blocks or large massy slabs of apartments; during the Blair and Brown years these buildings were often finished in garish, brash coloured panelling, in more recent years zinc and brick have begun to predominate; decoration, beyond the choice of either loud materials or a signature and curious shape, is minimal. It is, in Hatherley’s terms, pseudomodernist architecture: that is architecture which, although it has very little in common with modernist architecture proper, either in formal or political terms, gives the appearance of being modern by dressing itself in a vaguely modernist veneer.

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A pseudomodernist museum exhibit in Bermondsey

This flimsy skin-deep modernism of recent developer-built architecture in inner cities stands in an interesting relationship to the architecture built under the Welfare State, what we might call ‘real modernism’ to distinguish it, which surrounds it, but which has increasingly been demolished or renovated beyond recognition. This was an architecture which was self-conscious about its own plans to build the society of the future. The forms of the past had to be discarded if the society of the past wasn’t to be reproduced, generation after generation. A failure to do so would, in Brecht’s words, be “a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables.” This was meant to be an architecture for those who do not sit at golden tables, and it was meant to be bad news for those who did.

What typified this architecture? It was often constructed from concrete, either poured in situ or assembled from prefabricated panels, which gives many housing estates their repetitious monotony, but, especially in the case of buildings poured in situ such as Camden Architect’s Department’s Alexandra Road estate, which contributes to the manner in which each individual unit of housing is a single cell in a larger whole. They are often austere in appearance, lacking decoration, and bely an interest in the notion of the existenzminimum, in the minimum amount of space necessary for a comfortable and fulfilling life, which is evident in their compact plans. This isn’t the miserly boxiness of contemporary developer-built housing; rather it is the least amount of space required by a citizen of a dense and busy city to live a convenient and fulfilling life in a space carefully designed to match their needs. There is also a sense, visible on some of Southwark Architect’s Department’s tower blocks which you pass on the aforementioned train into London Bridge, of taking a real interest in the quality of light available to each residence. In these point blocks, each of which contains four flats per floor, the balconies are arranged so that two are on the south face of the building, while the flats which take up the north-east and north-west corners of the building have their balconies on the east and west, ensuring that each flat has a balcony in sun at some point in the day. It is an egalitarian architecture intent on providing as many people as possible with a home which is sufficient to their needs and which enables their self-fulfilment.

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Alexandra Road

Now this is clearly divergent from recent speculative apartment blocks, topped as they are with luxury penthouses, with so-called poor doors for housing association tenants begrudgingly ceded space by avaricious developers. Indeed, these new, pseudomodern buildings appear to be the antithesis of their ‘real’ forebears, obsessed as they are with individuality, iconicity, aspiration, exclusivity and luxury. It is an architecture for an age “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, in a country where “there is no such thing as society”. That at least explains the tendency for these buildings to be luxuriously appointed, have clear and visible gradations of status between units in a building, and for them to be relatively cheaply built so as to insulate the developer’s bottom line.

But it doesn’t explain why these buildings should be aping the stylistic traits of their radical forebears, even in the sterilised manner in which they do so. Instead, this emerges from the capture of the inner city by moneyed young professionals and the need then to render these areas no longer dangerous, poor, dirty or dodgy. It is the product of three decades of a concerted attempt to scrub the inner city of any connotations of the working class communities for which it was built, and to remake it as private and luxurious. That is to say that this architecture is attempting to capture some of the cultural cachet that goes with the image of the modern city and all the chaos and creativity which has taken place therein in the recent past, which is an architecture deemed fitting and appropriate for the ‘cool’ inner-city neighbourhoods into which rich young professionals are flocking, ‘aspiring’ as they are to fashion themselves as urbane and modern, but without any of the realities that have historically come with it. It is modernism reduced to an icon of itself. Radical architecture as lifestyle choice.

Sevenoaks, however, stands in stark contrast to this recent trend. It is not a town that could in any way justify having the label ‘cool’ appended to it. It is, instead, comfortable. It is a fantasy of the petit-bourgeois good life. It has rows and rows of detached ‘executive’ houses, flotillas of German 4x4s, and two Waitroses. It’s a theme park for the upwardly mobile in which they can live an imagined existence of country wealth, a simulation of the life of the landed gentleman.

Instead of the decaying modernist architecture of inner-city cool, this suburban historicism offers the young family looking to settle down the chance to aspire to the life of the old English countryside, of luxurious domestic comfort, in an architecture which apes that of the landed ruling class. As they abandon their edgy and self-directed twenties and begin to settle into more traditional patterns of domestic life, not unfamiliar to their parents, this young professional class has waiting for them in green and pleasant surroundings an architecture which evokes the old world, of traditional values and social forms, an architecture which evokes and reimagines the domestic arrangements of the historical beneficiaries of the English class system.

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Every aspirational Englishman’s house looks like a castle. Or a manor. Or something. Floreant Place.

In many ways, this isn’t surprising at all. This country has developed an intensely dysfunctional relationship with modernism, and with any view of the future as malleable and improvable, as we wallow in imperial reminiscences and xenophobia, progressive governments of the state-educated a blip in an otherwise uninterrupted tradition of the calm passage from Eton to Downing Street, in which the vast majority of recently built housing takes the form of small pitched-roof boxes on out of town estates. What is interesting, however, is the manner in which it is the offspring of the ruling classes, and the young who aspire to join them, who are moving into the cities and adopting the architecture of the urban poor and of the welfare state for a brief period of self-direction and experimentation in their young years before retiring to a detached house doing its best to pretend that Le Corbusier had remained plain old Charles-Edouard and had never picked up a pencil. It’s a pattern of migration which belies just how shallow is the recent revival in the stock of modernist architecture in this country, a mere youthful dalliance, and how far out of reach remains the world for which much of the modernist architecture of the Welfare State was built.

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