Centreless and useless: let's enjoy the pleasures of living
When designing apartments for people you have never met, it is essential that ideas of living come to the fore - and not just ideas of how a space will cope with different social arrangements, or shifting patterns of use, over a day, weekend, week or year. That can lead to an obsession with simple-minded cradleto-grave ideas. In this instance, there is much to be learned from the televisual obsession with remaking home and holiday home; the most important lesson is that the distinction between the provisions of temporary delight (holiday) and permanent accommodation (home) is no longer useful or acceptable.
We need to assess how projects have accommodated the aspirations of their occupants; we can no longer rely on the cartoons of Osbert Lancaster to describe different ideas of home. Despite the drawbridge mentality, where home is castle, we also need to consider address: an image of home in the context of the city that can be shared by all but is particular to the individual.
The perception of an address is, after all, what inspired the invention of the semi-detached:
an early 19th-century Palladian villa with a party wall dropped along its axis, an idea so surreal that no pattern book homebuilder has since got anywhere near matching it.
So we are required to develop a greater interest in Grand Designs and the domestic interior. Currently the only evidence of private lifestyles and tastes comes from the odd photographic exhibition, party walls as revealed by demolition, and the personal paraphernalia of car-boot sales.
The importance of the consumer/customer/ investor angle in relation to this national preoccupation with home is evidenced by the plethora of property and lifestyle magazines, and by the windows of estate agents. The latter look ever more like bookmakers, offering the current odds on your lifetime stake.
Alarmingly, in architecture this particular facet is rarely discussed. Housing is only the conclusion of efficient construction. There is smart talk of wall-to-floor ratios and efficient plans; the extraordinarily crude definition of private and public space/circulation and amenity; of long-life/loose-fit designs to accommodate future refits and of what this means for fixtures and finishes. But there is not much talk about pleasure - yet we know that occupiers have a limited interest in procurement. Even the word 'balcony' is often preceded by the inappropriate adjective 'Juliet', a romantic title for a value-engineered compromise. We need to refocus on housing as homes, offering freedom and fantasy.
Studies of inhabitation will only ever tell part of the story. They offer insights into the social history of detailed design and layouts, but this is a history of a city living only in plan. What we need to develop are ideas for a city living in section - not simply in terms of the pleasure of volume and light within apartments, but of a sectional city of different uses. Currently trapped in commercial leases, we are condemned to design cities with 'centres' (residential, commercial, retail and industrial):
non-places defined by investment models and enshrined in antiquated use-class orders (that themselves exist only in plan).
We should abandon the word 'centre' and the non-places it prescribes, then reinvent lease-and-funding structures. These would allow us to produce buildings where different uses exist - flourish even - cheek by jowl and, ideally, stacked on top of each other. Then, finally, we could dispose of our obsession with defining 'use' and get on with the pleasures of living. Far better to ban the words 'use' and 'centre' than the activity of driving; as architects we have more to learn from the pleasures and fantasy offered by cars than from their method of production.