When it comes to house and home, fashion can be a dangerous thing. The cost of fixing rapidly dating architecture and interiors by designers following the fickle hand of fashion can be eye watering when it becomes more than a matter of paint colours and wallpaper patterns. At worst, dated spaces become a liability – an architecture of unhappiness that can drag down both the spirit and property prices.
Architecturally speaking, one can look back to houses that are barely two decades old and see prime examples of failed spaces where fashion has played a part. During the Nineties and Noughties, for instance, structural glass came into vogue and was adopted with careless abandon for staircases, internal landings and bridges, as well as other internal architectural solutions. Today, a glass staircase feels way out of step, especially in the context of a period building.
The same can often be said of copycat Mies-ian glass box extensions, tacked onto the back of period houses with little thought to whether or not they might have any business there. It’s fascinating that so many 21st century updates to period homes begin with a process of stripping away unsuccessful and inappropriate additions grafted on to them back in the Seventies and Eighties. Despite some hard core supporters drawn to its playful but questionable charm, postmodern design of a similar vintage looks like a postcard from another age beginning with the words ‘the past is a foreign country’.
Having documented residential architecture and interiors in books, newspapers and magazines for the last twenty years or so, the difference between ‘the fashionable home’ and ‘the timeless house’ has often been on my mind. I can see, looking back at some of my earlier reportage, prime example of fashion-centric houses that have not lasted the test of time. But others shine out almost as freshly and originally as the day they were born.
What, then, is the secret of the timeless home and one that delivers a lasting architecture of happiness? It is a question that steps well beyond the tiresome argument between classicists and modernists about the relative merits of each. The truth is much more complex than such a dialectic can ever deliver, while any worthwhile architect now recognises the multiple delights to be found in classicism, modernism and so much in between.
It seems to me that thoughtful architects, of the RedBook variety, seek a degree of timelessness by ignoring fashion and focussing – for a start – on context. In a rural setting that context will be the landscape and surroundings, but also the local vernacular with its unique palette of materials. In an urban setting, the context becomes more complicated but, similarly, a respect for one’s neighbourhood and neighbours is not only good manners but a sensible way of achieving a house that belongs. As well as respect, successful architecture and interiors are possessed of order, discipline and an emphasis on functionality. Timeless spaces tend towards materials with character, texture and individuality, while craftsmanship, detailing and finish are all key considerations.
The notion of respect – or integrity – is one that should and must carry through the architectural and design process from start to finish. For adaptations, extensions and reinventions the context of the period building itself has to be the vital starting point with solutions tailored accordingly to the spirit of Georgian grandeur or semi-industrial Victorian warehouses.
Fortunately, contemporary design is more eclectic and open minded than ever, to the greater good, drawing on a whole range of influences and points of inspiration from oast houses to the multi-layered masterpieces of mid-century masters such as Gio Ponti or Alvar Aalto. Good, timeless design has a welcome degree of eclecticism, as well as contextuality. Like any great story, there are multiple layers and discoveries along the way, as well an occasional surprise or plot twist, while the narrative is held together by a consistent, disciplined and intelligent voice.
It could be that we are actually entering a golden age of architecture and design. Certainly, there is striking evidence that 21st century designers are more thoughtful than ever, exploring spaces of depth, texture and subtly, while drawing on a broad and exciting frame of reference. They recognise that innovation and fashion are not the same thing, seeking to create intelligent, layered and timeless homes.
Dominic Bradbury’s latest book is Modernist Design Complete, published this autumn by Thames & Hudson.