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Housing is taking a bad turn toward the singular

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I noted three issues from last week's aj which seemed to bear upon each other. The first was Peter Ackroyd's insights into continuity of land uses and activities over time within Clerkenwell and other historic areas; the second was Marco Goldschmied's critique of the depredations of excessive privatisation over the past 20 years; and third, the announcement of yet another innovative housing competition to rethink the home for 2020, or thereabouts.

These issues are brought together for me by the hypothesis of formative causation described in The Presence of the Past by Rupert Sheldrake, in which he sets out powerful arguments for the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent, similar structures of activity over space and time. Although written from a biological perspective, the hypothesis has a pertinent relevance to human societies and cultures.

After years of neglect, housing has re-emerged as a legitimate interest for our profession; however, from recent built examples, despite some stylish flourishes, the formal emphasis of 'building as object' reinforced over the past 20 years, does not sit well with the notion of 'housing as programme', as exemplified by the best examples of social housing completed more than twenty years ago. This discrepancy becomes more explicit, both in the current dominant private market and diminished social sector, with the perception of 'house as product'. The undue emphasis upon the individual home, rather than as part of a housing group, has deflected current housing thinking from real areas of innovation. These include the organisation of activity areas within the home; dwellings in groups at all density ranges to meet a low-energy scenario; and the positive design of shared spaces between dwellings based upon greater insight into human activities, rather than just the movement and storage of motor vehicles.

The activities to be accommodated within the home environment have not changed fundamentally, because human beings have not changed their living habits fundamentally. Entertaining visitors and sitting around; cooking and eating; reading and working; conjugal relations and sleeping; washing and bathing; and raising children or not - all these have remained 'core activities' for centuries. Accordingly, the habits set by repetition of those same activities have an indelible imprint upon expectations for house design. Unfortunately ossification of those activities, in cost- predetermined enclosed room sizes, has become an undesirable habit on the part of all recent housing designers and providers based upon a pragmatic commercial agenda rather than one that engages past habitual expectations with a creative interpretation of human uses for the present and future.

Innovative constructional materials and methods, sexy form-making and integration of communication technologies within housing design, are part of an adaptive process, but are not substitutes for the real creativity needed for designing and building housing environments for the next century which can enrich all residents' lives, whatever their financial means, and not just the commercially led profit margins of the 'design build' house-building industry.

Vincent Hastwell, Hastwell

Associates, Surrey

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