A massive gulf persists between the buildings that win architecture awards and those that the public prefers, suggests research by Create Streets
In 1987 a young psychologist conducted an experiment into how repeated exposure to an image changed perceptions of it. A group of volunteer students were shown photographs of unfamiliar people and buildings and asked to rate them in terms of attractiveness. Some of the volunteers were architects; some were not. As the experiment progressed, a fascinating finding became clear: while everyone had similar views on which people were attractive, the architecture and non-architecture students had diametrically opposed views on what was or was not an attractive building. The architecture students’ favourite building was everyone else’s least favourite and vice versa. The disconnect also got worse with experience. The longer architecture students had been studying, the more they disagreed with the general public over what was an attractive building.
The young psychologist was David Halpern, who now runs the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights team (often called the Nudge Unit). Two decades on, he is very clear that ‘architecture and planning do not have an empirical, evidence-based tradition in the sense that sciences would understand. There are very few studies that ever go back to look at whether one type of dwelling or another, or one type of office or another, has a systematic impact on how people behave, or feel, or interact with one another.’
Professionals are, empirically, the very worst judges available of what people want or like in the built environment
If he is right then surely the very last arbiters of what we should be building – certainly as homes – are architectural prizes or design reviews. Professionals are, empirically, the very worst judges available of what people want or like in the built environment.
But is he still right? Perhaps more than two decades of ‘market pressure’ since the state largely removed itself from house building has obliged the profession to value what their clients appreciate rather than what their training has led them to appreciate.
A glance at the criteria of architectural prizes is not reassuring. Few if any place value on evidence of popularity or provable correlations with wellbeing. The RIBA Awards specifically demand evidence on sustainability but not on what members of the public think.
To investigate this, Create Streets recently conducted two polls.
In the first, we asked our Twitter followers and the members of our email distribution list (about 4,000 names altogether) to take part in what we termed a ‘pop-up’ poll. In total 283 took part.
We asked respondents: which of these would you most want to see built on an urban street very near to where you or a close friend live?’ and presented four options whose order was randomised. We also asked them their profession – 37 per cent of respondents worked as architects, planners or in creative arts.
We were not surprised to find that, among our overall respondents, 87 per cent preferred the two options that most clearly referenced historical housing forms and that had a very strong sense of place. This was nearly seven times more than the 13 per cent who preferred the two more original forms, which prioritised a sense of time over a sense of place.
We also found that, almost three decades on from Halpern’s research, a sharp distinction still existed between what design specialists and non-design specialists wanted to see built. Among the ‘design-savvy’ respondents who worked in planning, architecture or the creative arts, just a quarter favoured the more popular two options, whereas 46 per cent of this group favoured the less popular two designs.
The melancholy consequence of this is that architectural awards are a good indicator of popularity – but only if you invert them. To our knowledge the least popular two options have received nine architectural or planning awards. We are not aware of any such awards for the most popular option (the second option has not been built).
The least popular buildings in Create Streets’ Twitter poll won the most awards
We also commissioned a MORI poll, which confirms these findings and also shows why they matter. Although we did not ask people’s professions, we did ask a representative sample of the public what buildings they would support being built on brownfield land near where they live.
This survey found that 64 per cent of British adults supported the building of new homes locally on brownfield land, while 14 per cent opposed it. Respondents were then shown five photos illustrating different types of housing and, for each, asked if they would support or oppose the building of 10 similar-style homes in their local area.
And it turns out that, in winning support for new homes, design does matter, though not in a way that most of the architectural profession would wish. The most conventional in form, style and building materials won 75 per cent and 73 per cent support. Less conventional, more innovative homes won 23 per cent and 34 per cent support.
Popular design can change attitudes as well. Among the 64 per cent who supported building ‘in principle’, 61 per cent did not support the building of the least popular house type. Conversely, half of those who opposed building changed their mind for the most popular house type.
To the best of our knowledge the ‘winners’ of our poll (some houses in Poundbury) have not won any architectural awards; indeed they are widely reviled by the profession. The two losers have won nine between them.
The response on social media from some professionals to these findings was predictably vicious – and completely missed the point. One architect went so far as to complain that you could not run the Man Booker Prize by survey. No doubt he is right. But there is not a shortage of books, and public support is not essential to the writing of literature.
The brutal fact is that a substantial majority of the British public like the type of conventional home that a child would draw but which too many in the design and planning establishment condemn. It is worth stressing that such homes do not need to be strictly traditional to win support. In both polls an option that respected historic forms and materials but did not follow them slavishly came a very respectable second. The public are very open to variety and novelty but ideally within a familiar pattern. But, in aggregate they do know what they want. And this matters. The UK has a housing crisis and France has overtaken Britain as a homeowning democracy. The ultimate reason for this is that politicians have been too timid to face down the public’s support for the planning system.
We have a housing crisis because new housing, new neighbourhoods and new multistorey blocks are consistently, unambiguously and predictably unpopular with most of the public most of the time. Older homes are larger and normally worth more per square metre (despite staggeringly lower insulation standards). Until we make homes more popular with their neighbours as well as their residents this problem will not be fixed.
The question then is not ‘how do we build more homes?’ but ‘how do we make new homes more popular?’ The planning system needs to change to give much greater focus to what people want and like. The disconnect between prizes and people must be fixed for all our sakes. And neighbourhood plans should be but the first step in a direct planning revolution that removes power from property funds and city officials and returns it, where it belongs, to the rest of us.
Nicholas Boys Smith is director of Create Streets