This week’s Design File is about the Sacco bean bag.
It was hard for me to write about the bean bag without reflecting on my own experiences, craving one and then making one when I was about 12. I can remember the laborious process still and the acrid stink of polystyrene fumes filling the house. When I eventually managed to make enough of the beads to fill a bean bag, I left them to dry in a muslin bag hanging in the garage while we went off for our summer holiday. They were still damp when we returned but a few weeks later my mother sewed the casing together which I filled with those handmade beads, and then I sat and looked at it in my bedroom, thinking it was the best thing ever.
Like many children I was always trying to ring the changes in my own bedroom, asserting my presence. After an awful wallpaper that had vintage cars on it (my parents choice), I opted for walls painted in Geranium Red, which probably explained why I was bouncing off them at times. A window took up most of one wall and looked across the road to a large Victorian house in lovely grounds that was being used as a children’s home. I could see right into the large sitting room where children were always playing. I don’t think we ever played with them – they seemed to be kept securely apart, playing outside around the back. My mother forbid me from lining up my Easter eggs on my window sill because she didn’t want the children to see them and be jealous (which is why I needed to be told, having a child’s insensitive desire to show off).
That large house was built of the rough brown stone of that part of South Wales and had a shallow slate roof with lots of chimneys. Paler stone was used as contrast for window balustrades and keystones. All the houses on that side of the road were huge and all quite different. Ours, on the other hand, was one of many, a plain modern box as architecturally uninspiring as you could find, although it was bright and sunny throughout the day. My friends from school lived in a variety of homes, from anonymous modern boxes like mine and tiny Victorian terraces to farms and old cottages. One friend lived in a sprawling house that was said to date back to Norman times although it was probably Elizabethan. In those days large houses were cheap, seen as far too expensive to maintain and heat, and certainly this one had rooms that were entirely empty (perfect play areas for rainy days). There was a beautiful wood of towering beech trees whose trunks looked to us like gigantic dinosaur legs and there were orchards, one of which housed an ageing swimming pool in which leaves and dead mice floated. I saw recently that the house had been turned into a hotel and that its grounds were now completely covered by new houses, the stable block torn down, the tennis court gone. It makes me feel very old, like someone who remembers cows grazing in Hyde Park…
But the thing that came from those early years in South Wales was the experience of so many different types of house. Children are classless and couldn’t care less what you live in so long as you’re fun to be with. It’s only later that you realise that some people were quite poor and others much richer, and that their homes reflected that. I relished the experience of being in small houses that were warm and snug with the smell of cooking wafting through the rooms just as much as I did the grand Victorian houses that had galleried hallways and ceilings encrusted in what looked like white icing. Even then I think I liked the diversity of it.
(And it was here that I first came into contact with a proper architect: Architecture though the eyes of a child)
It is one of the things I missed most when I came to Australia. The architecture felt relentlessly bland as well as insubstantial – brick veneer walls, aluminium window frames, wooden lean-to’s. Suburban houses seemed to look more-or-less the same, whether gracing a waterfront or squeezed along a street. Even the term used for flats – units – seemed so functional, so unpoetic, so bored. Beginning to think that no one cared much about architecture in Australia, I fell on a book called The Australian Ugliness the moment I saw it.
I didn’t realise it was already a classic, in Australia at least. Its opening pages give a glorious critique of suburban Australia as relevant today as it was when first written in 1960, reflecting on the view from a plane as it crosses the country, and it is as much about Australia’s culture as its architecture. Its author, architect Robin Boyd, coined the term Featurism to describe the fancy things people seemed to crave for their homes such as ornate stone veneers, gratuitous gables and boomerang-shaped coffee tables. Funny though it is, it’s a crushing critique, which is something you’re not meant to do in Australia.
Things have gradually improved, or maybe I have just become used to it. Besides which, my condescension in Australia seemed to forget the many horrible little housing developments in Britain such as the one I had lived in that added little to their environment except ugliness. What I miss is that diversity that comes from older countries, the layering of history which only time can bring, and you can’t really blame a ‘new’ country for not having that. And anyway, you find it often in the centre of cities where grand warehouses still lurk along seemingly forgotten laneways, old terraces remain, and new buildings are inserted that are sometimes ingenious and creative. What I lament most about the suburbs is the seeming lack of care – the mindless regurgitation of current trends, the replacement of older houses with larger ones that over-supply space that isn’t really needed. It’s as though living space isn’t appreciated, that you can only get what you’re given.
Occasionally, though, you glimpse a little touch of Featurism and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Is making your mark so bad?
Change takes a long, long time in architecture but it does happen. We may lose vernacular styles as our tastes become global rather than local but seeing the world has the benefit of making us more aware of the existence of better design and higher qualities. And that will trickle through although, who knows, we might even appreciate what we have already.
I think of Le Corbusier and his fervent schemes for renewal – his workers’ housing estate at Pessac, his Plan Voisin for central Paris, his vertical villages at Marseilles and elsewhere. Some worked, some were condemned and still shock (that Plan Voisin still makes people angry nearly a hundred years later) and others, like Pessac, were famously changed back into the type of housing people were used to, complete with window boxes and pitched roofs. Le Corbusier aimed to create homes that were light and bright and in touch with their surroundings and that’s every bit as relevant as it always was.
His quote about a house being a machine for living in is often taken at stark face-value so it’s interesting to look at his plans for the redevelopment of Algiers in the 1930s. He came up with a housing structure that could accommodate whatever style the people who lived there wanted. A flat with Moorish arches could sit next to one with the spare lines of Modernism. This high-rise building snaking through the landscape (with a road running along on its roof, no less) would have looked like nothing on earth. What it shows, though, is that he understood that what people needed and that was diversity.
Living in or among interesting buildings helps people demand interesting spaces for everything, including workspaces. Diversity in our surroundings is nothing more (or less) than the expression of diversity in our culture. Surely that’s a good thing?