Camille Pissarro, one of the great but less celebrated impressionists, sought refuge from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 in suburban Norwood, in London. While there, he painted many of the street scenes in and around the area, venturing as far as Croydon. The paintings depict a semi-rural area, with quaint houses. They are at the very edge of the urban environment, but not yet quite overrun with dwellings.
If you go to those same roads today, something very stark confronts you. The same viewpoints are no longer paintable. They’re too ugly. They are crammed with poorly constructed, poorly designed houses, big industrial sheds and warehouses, and electricity pylons. The scene is jarring to the eye.
If you travel around Great Britain today, in just about every town or village you will encounter the same thing – tiny, identical, cheaply constructed houses crammed into too little space. There is no provision for their cars, so these sprawl anywhere the opportunistic motorist can cram them. The colours are drab. The design of one development is not in context with its neighbouring development. Big, anonymous, grey metal sheds sit uncomfortably next to miniature houses. There is little grass, few concessions to gardening and few trees.
Go inside one of the houses and you notice that much of the construction is sheer facade. There is no substance or quality behind the fixtures and fittings. Everything is plastic or glorified paper. The wood is poor quality and poorly crafted. Everything was done in a hurry, at the lowest cost, by the lowest priced contractor. Nobody cared too much about the house or who would have to live in it.
The places of work nearby are minimalist to the point of discomfort. Utilities and pipes are exposed, as if this is still, in some perverse way. chic and not a cynical cost cutting measure. The sheds are windowless and poorly lit. They are too cold or too hot, depending on the season. There has been little attempt to disguise the fact that this is a cheaply and quickly constructed shed, made of the lowest cost materials possible and thrown together in no time at all.
These ugly, cheap, poor-quality constructions, thrown together with little thought or sensitivity for their context, is all there is. We live in an aesthetic disaster zone. The ugliness and untidiness is everywhere and the beauty and balance is not. We live amongst junk.
How did this happen? It happened because every individual plot owner, every builder, every town hall, every politician sought to throw whatever they could on these pieces of land, as quickly as they could, to maximise profits. They have always told us there are too many people or that demand cannot be met with better housing stock and commercial premises, but that doesn’t explain it all. We’ve tried to kid ourselves that cheap and cheerful is beautiful and attempted to make a virtue out of inadequately finished buildings. It’s all a big lie; a lie that we tell ourselves.
What we are seeing all around us is the manifestation of our half century obsession with greed. Everybody that had a way to do so milked the property market to get the most out while putting the least in. We didn’t care whether or not what was being built was good to live and work in and fit for those purposes. We didn’t care what those places looked like or how they would function. Traffic was not the concern of the property developer, nor was the aesthetic appearance of the skyline or the street scene as a whole. Only artists have an eye for such things.
With some vision and determination, we could have built sensitively, acknowledging the wider environment and constructing premises that were well built, of high quality and which made an effort to be beautiful. We still could. What prevents it is the desire by property owners and developers to make massive, instant capital gains on their mortgages. Nobody has the strength or will to resist the markets and the banks.
For the urban and built environment to become beautiful, first we must change the entire basis of financing and ownership, with the costs that are currently externalities (i.e. the destruction of the view, the ugliness, the traffic congestion, the lack of greenery) counted as part of the construction. We’ve paid a heavy price for our self-obsession with getting ahead and making our own pile. It’s a dead end. It leads to chaos. It has to be rethought, or the next generation will live amongst the rubble of our cynical efforts to enrich ourselves.
The urban landscape needs to become picturesque once more.