Friday, 26 August 2011

The Ways We Live


I once lived in a Victorian suburb in a Victorian villa which, although grandly conceived, had subsequently suffered degradation as a result of socio-economic and demographic change- in short it had been converted into bed-sits in the early 1960’s. I spent several years fondly restoring it to something like its original condition only to find (to my surprise) that the end result was a house that was perfectly suited to middle class, Victorian family life - but not to my own lifestyle.

I had this in mind recently when I took a trip down Memory Lane, hopping aboard the newly-opened tram service from the city centre to a similar suburb, Chorlton, five miles out. Returning to this once-familiar place I was struck by how ugly it now looks. I mean no disrespect to Chorltonites, as I am sure the same can be said of many such suburbs around the country, but the harmoniously conceived architecture of the late 19th century has been rendered un-harmonious by successive generations of inhabitants. Progressive layers of modernisation clash visually with each other and with what remains of the original architectural aesthetic. Redundancy of purpose and change of use sit unhappily on many formerly handsome edifices.

I suspect that, to those who live there, the place is comfortable like a favourite old coat and the visual aesthetics do not offend in the same way. But, walking around those streets, I saw shabby, run-down villas subdivided into flats, their unkempt front gardens mostly paved over and littered with big rubbish bins, their decorative features chopped up or painted over, their graceful proportions ruined by cumbersome extensions and all the streets crammed with cars, vans and motorcycles. I imagined what it must have looked like in the heyday of its development when the integrity of its design was intact: the rows of houses intended for family life, the parade of shops built to accommodate all the specialist retailers, the schools, the churches, the library and the pubs all conveniently positioned within walking distance of the houses. It had been designed for a society with shared values and a uniform way of living but what I now beheld was the messy result of haphazard adaptation to different ways of living.

Of course the evolving ways we live are recognised and addressed by architects and urban planners with myriad ideas and varying degrees of success: the process of change is as old as society itself. On my return to the city centre I visited an exhibition based on the theories of Charles Fourier who, in the early 19th century, devised a very detailed scheme for living. His grand plan depended on a communal approach and revolved around a standard building design which would serve as a live/work unit for groups of individuals – a sort of urban version of the classic village. His acolytes did subsequently establish some communities based on his plan but none of them lasted for more than a few years, the essential weakness with this type of idea being that it depends upon co-operation and concern for the interests of others.

Fourier wanted everyone to live a lifestyle defined by his ideals, in a dwelling tailored to fit those ideals but he was doomed to failure because he could never persuade everyone else to agree with him. To his credit, though, he had a vision of living which was not defined by inherited housing stock and, in that respect, he was ahead of the pack. Some of us might aspire, as he did, to a different lifestyle, one which manifests itself in another type of dwelling - a country cottage, a town house, a Mediterranean retreat or a narrowboat on the canals - yet, believing it to be beyond our reach, make do with what we have; and thereby run the risk of remaining trapped in the Victorian villas of our minds. 

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