As we visit the most important house in a generation Richard Waite asks why only one Europan-winning scheme has been built in the UK
This week we go back to visit Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till’s groundbreaking home in north London. It is a melting pot of ideas and, judging from the shots by AJ contributing photographer Ben Blossom, has aged well in the 15 years since it was built – certainly internally.
For many, including Piers Taylor, it is the most influential house of a generation. But who, exactly, has it influenced? Wigglesworth has not built another house like it and there is no evidence that the main housebuilders have stolen the key elements and repackaged them in any straw bale-lite format. What’s more, gauging from new research, the marriage between the big house deliverers and architects remains cool at best. More than a third of the UK’s largest housebuilders don’t have a single ARB-registered architect on their books. They are happy doing what they know. In a market where there is undersupply, there is no need to chase innovation. As the equally conservative estate agents will testify, what is built will sell.
Housebuilders are happy doing what they know
Meanwhile, those working at the smaller scale, on the trickier hand-me-down sites which require an architect’s thoughtfulness and skill seem to hit a glass ceiling. There isn’t enough money nor turnover for the design-savvy risk-takers to bid for larger plots. Which brings us to this country’s dismal and unconvincing flirtation with Europan.
The genuinely pioneering European housing and urban design contest is embraced across Europe. Aimed at architects under 40, the biennial competition is a test bed for emerging talent, allowing aspiring residential stars to look afresh at ‘the social and economic changes occurring in towns and cities’, matching them with site promoters for ‘cross-cultural learning’.
Only one Europan-winning scheme has ever been built in the UK. And again in 2015 no sites will be offered up for these boundary-pushing experiments, which look at housing on a large scale. The last time this country put forward a site in the contest was in Europan 9 2008. Our failure to participate has meant blinkered UK developers never get to a see a ‘different way’. It also means home-grown design talent misses out.
As the AJ’s More Homes Better Homes campaign stresses, if ever there was a time for architects to prove they can do mass housing it is now. But, despite what this and previous governments, have said about innovation, there is an embedded risk-averse culture in this country. And that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon.