Why are Modern Houses so Ugly?

The majority of one-off houses built these days could be described as, at least vaguely, classical. Their problem is that it’s easy to compare them with their cousins built two or three hundred years ago, and in 99% of examples the comparison is not flattering to the twenty-first century.
There’s a wide variety of reasons. Here are some of them.

  1. MODERN TECHNOLOGY. During the last sixty or seventy years there has become available a huge range of cheap mass-produced materials that previously didn’t exist. Many years ago house builders just had to use natural materials and traditional craftsmanship, there was no alternative.
  2. ECONOMICS. It’s possible to build a house for £200 per square foot, or £500 per square foot (or a lot more). So, given a budget of £500,000, you could build 4200 square feet to a low standard, or 2250 square feet to a high standard. The trouble is that, in modern Britain, the larger cheaper house would probably be worth more than the beautiful house. And that concentrates the mind of even the most sophisticated enthusiast for beautiful architecture.
  3. THE PLANNING SYSTEM. Buildings were more attractive before the advent of the 1948 Town & Country Planning system, and it is not just a coincidence. The Planning system restricts the availability of land making building plots expensive. When a plot becomes available the owner will accept the highest offer, and the highest offer will be from the builder planning to cram in as much as possible at the cheapest possible price.

    You might think that planners would be well trained in architectural design in order to promote only high quality proposals, but the planning system was devised during the Second World War, when Britain was at its most socialist phase, and the idea of ‘planning’ was to give a broad direction to industry, commerce, housing, etc. It never quite worked out like that, and the Planning system fails to achieve what most us would like.
  4. MODERN SOCIETY. We’re still under the influence of the Modern Movement. And ‘Modernism’ is a socialist art form, which evolved (at least on this side of the Atlantic) at about the time of the First World War. As with most socialist movements it wanted to turn the clock back to ‘Year Zero’. ‘Period style’ became a thing of the past (- and we still think of period styles ending in 1914). We were introduced to the view that good architecture was simply the result of a rational response to the demands of the site and the brief; yet the resultant buildings were more irrational and stylised than ever before. The genius of the Modern Movement was to purloin the word ‘Modern’, as it’s easier to think in sound-bites. Hence, there is the idea that if you’re not ‘Modern’ you must be old fashioned, fake, or pastiche. Wholly ridiculous of course. If only Neo-Classicists had the inspiration to label their architecture ‘Modern’ we’d still be building with stone columns

How is it best to brief your architect? First be sure to select your architect carefully, and do not try to design the house yourself, but let the architect inspire you. Remember you’ve selected him because you like his work. Give the architect a broad direction; tell him what is important to you in the new house. Perhaps give his some photographs of styles, or aspects of buildings you admire, and question the architect as the sketch schemes evolve.