Architecture and domestic housing

Posted on 24 June 2007 0 comments

“The ultimate goal of architecture…is to create a paradise. It is the only purpose of building a house…Every house, every product of architecture…should be a fruit of our endeavour to build an earthly paradise for people.”
Alvar Aalto, 1957

I came across this quote by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) at an exhibition of his work at the Barbican Centre in London. It represents a humanistic and inspiring approach to architecture and to housebuilding in particular.

And yet the quote also sounds hopelessly idealistic. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because the reality of domestic housebuilding in the UK is so far removed from the ideal Aalto describes.

Aalto is one of the twentieth century’s most famous architects and yet it was a surprise for me to discover that most homes aren’t designed by architects at all.

In the Introduction to his book, The Prefabricated Home, author Colin Davies has this to say about the relationship between architecture and houses.

“In the developed world the great majority of buildings, 80 per cent by value, are not designed by architects and fall outside the architecture field. Yet inside the architecture field, in schools of architecture for example, it is normal to speak and act as if all buildings were designed by architects. It is a fiction tacitly maintained to preserve the illusion that architecture is a real force for change in the world.

Ironically, this self-delusion is one of the reasons why architecture is not a real force for change in the world. Most of the non-architectural 80 per cent of buildings are houses. Very few ordinary houses count as architecture. This is another of architecture’s guilty secrets: that it fails to have any effect on most people’s most intimate experience of buildings.”

Architecture can be a force for change in ordinary people’s lives. A good example is the non-profit organisation Architecture for Humanity whose aim is to promote architectural and design solutions to global, social and humanitarian crises.

But I agree with the essential point that Davies makes about domestic housing and its distance from architectural practice. This seems particularly true of mass housebuilding in the UK. One would hope that greater architectural input in the design of new homes would improve their quality and design but it’s not a guarantee.

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