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England, says historian David Starkey, enjoys a “semi-detached relationship with continental Europe”. The phrase is revealing. First, the reference is to “England”, not “Britain”. Second, the metaphor he uses is architectural. What more English archetype is there than the semi-detached house? That strange hybrid that doesn’t stand on its own — it is inseparable from its neighbour — yet somehow still embodies a dream of suburban independence.
The paradox of the conjoined semi, the Siamese twin of architecture, as a symbol simultaneously of British independence and dependence, perfectly encapsulates the contradictions at the heart of British, and more specifically English, difference. But it is only one. British dreams of domesticity are characterised by peculiarly native typologies: the semi, the bungalow, the Victorian terraced house, the chocolate-box country cottage. Why dream of a cottage when, in your fantasy world, you could just as easily have a villa?
There is a peculiarly modest level of ambition at play here. London is experiencing a boom in building high-end, city-centre condos, but it is not one necessarily driven by British desires. Rather it is catering to a global elite seeking urban toeholds in the world’s best postcodes and places to park their cash. The trickle-down effect is embodied in an urban landscape pockmarked by apartment towers divorced from their architectural, social and civic contexts. Beyond the centres, suburban expansion is almost exclusively dim and devoid of a sense of place or of architecture as the tissue of culture and society. There is a sense that the British have forgotten how to build the decent domestic fabric for which they were once famed.
It is difficult today to imagine but in 1896 the Germans were so impressed with the British lifestyle that they sent an envoy, Hermann Muthesius, to study the architecture and design of British domesticity. The result of his work, published as Das Englische Haus (1904), is the finest document of Edwardian architecture and the Arts and Crafts movement, and proved hugely influential on the emergence of modernism in Europe — even if the British themselves remained more cautious.
What Muthesius found was an architecture perfectly suited to the particular conditions of English domestic life. This was something very different to the continental apartments that formed the housing stock of Germany and central and much of northern Europe. On the continent apartments were arranged for effect. Sequences of enfilade rooms, grand chambers and halls overlooked the (often noisy) street while mean service spaces and servants’ quarters backed on to dingy courtyards. Prestige was imparted by scale and location — not convenience. There was little privacy and rows of interconnecting rooms were impractical and inflexible.
In Britain, on the other hand, Muthesius found houses that were tailored to their inhabitants’ needs. Corridors and halls provided separation between rooms and privacy for their occupants (from each other, from servants and from children). Larger rooms accommodated dining and billiard tables, while bedrooms, studies and drawing rooms were intimate and cosy. There was space, but not an excess of it. Location appeared slightly less important to the Brits but the garden — front for separation, back for relaxation — was sacrosanct. The difference lies in what was sacrificed: the British might sacrifice a place within the streets and squares of the city centre for a leafy suburban site, whereas the continentals gave up space and greenery for a prestigious location.
British domesticity was raised to an art. The suburban dwelling was comfortable, well-appointed, plumbed and ventilated by a garden so that when a window was opened the air had a chance of being genuinely fresh. Yet in this withdrawal from the centre, the life of the street was sacrificed. For continentals, cramped, uncomfortable city-centre dwellings meant life was lived more in the public than the private realm. Coffees were taken in cafés and bars rather than in parlours, conversations took place on communal stairs and the street rather than over a hedge or in the withdrawing room. The piazza and the street, which are so admired by northern tourists to the Mediterranean, with their passeggiate and rich theatre of social interaction, are at least in part the result of poor and dense accommodation. Generations are squeezed together in undersized apartments, so they take their conversation and their flirting out into the city.
The deal was that Britons traded that rich urban life for the comforts of home, for a pipe, slippers and a hobby. There is still a sense that living outside is slightly alien to the British city — that the city itself is still rather alien to a culture in which 84 per cent of the population live in the suburbs. Sure it’s changing, but those city-centre apartment towers are aimed largely at foreign investors.
How then would Brexit affect British architecture? Probably in a tangential way. Many British students study in Europe, returning with a more nuanced view of architecture. And many UK offices are stuffed with European staff. That exchange has made Britain arguably the world’s most dynamic exporter of architecture (even if its own buildings might not be that good). Add this to the possibilities of competitions — a regular fixture on mainland Europe but a rarity in the UK — which give young practices opportunities to build on a scale they would never have in the UK. This is not an argument about regulation but about opportunity. The great British architects all got their early breaks abroad — Lords Foster and Rogers, Sir David Chipperfield, the late Dame Zaha Hadid and Sir James Stirling. Brexit would make this exchange more difficult and denude our cities of some of their best young architectural talent. It probably wouldn’t change the fabric of our cities that much but would make architectural culture less interesting and cosmopolitan. British architecture at home may often appear banal — London’s skyline is hardly its greatest advert — but it remains a hugely successful export.
Britain is not in the eurozone or Schengen area. It is already semi-detached rather than terraced. Perhaps that is the position that suits it best. Not the ostentatious freestanding villa of Los Angeles or the grand apartment of Paris, but a suburban house, bonded to its neighbour but with the appearance of independence. It is the paradox that embodies the modest British dream.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Illustration by Robert Ayton/Bridgeman Images