28 May 2007

I had the great pleasure of spending the best part of my time since the last Dispatch travelling around the United States. It was all part of a television series called Ultimate House which I'm presenting and which will be broadcast on the Discovery Network later this year. Basically, it’s just an excuse for me and the producer Keith Duddy (the grumpiest man in England and, therefore by definition, the grumpiest man in the Milky Way) to travel around the world and visit the most amazing houses ever built, hang out with the A list architect who designed it, say something gushy to camera about what a fantastic house it is and how nice it is to be there and then jet off some place else even more exciting.

The relevance of this information to the Planning Dispatch is flimsy, I’ll grant you, but it goes like this. Most of the houses we went to see were absolutely exquisite, including the house pictured above which is located on the coast of Maryland and was designed by a company called Kieran Timberlake. The point is that when Steve Kieran lodged his planning application, the local authority had no say in its design or aesthetic, they were only interested in compliance with building codes, etc. It means he was able to build the house exactly as he wanted to without the interference of some planner whose contribution was hardly likely to improve on what is almost perfection.

Fair enough but, I hear you argue, for every Steve Kieran masterpiece, there are a dozen architect designed disasters.

But my response to this is that we must always take a risk on creativity, especially where it comes to the design of houses. It seems to me as unhealthy to exercise censorship on the design (of private houses in particular) as it is to censor expressions of other forms of thought, creativity or behaviour. And it isn’t as if there’s any proof that the input of local authority planners into the design process raises overall standards. Most one off houses in the countryside are based on ‘vernacular design’ guidelines published by County Councils. And having struggled to stay awake through every council published design guideline available I can confirm that (except for Mike Shanahan’s guidelines for Cork which contain some beautiful designs but which shouldn’t be considered obligatory (and I suspect Mike agrees with me on this)) they take no inspiration from the vernacular tradition.

Suggestions that Irish houses should be single storey with small, vertically proportioned windows, raised verges, and so on, are no more than a formula for a pastiche of what the uninformed think traditional buildings are supposed to look like. A more accurate definition of ‘vernacular construction’ is, in my view, the type of building which results from the use of locally available and inexpensive materials (I have to thank Leitrim architect Dominic Stevens for this idea) which might mean that truly vernacular structures might look nothing like the childish concepts the councils force upon us.         

Check this out. If this constitutes good design advice, I wasted five years of my life getting an architecture degree. It's simply pathetic. 


What I'm going to do when it comes to filing my tax return this year is deduct €10 for every housing design guideline published within the relevant tax period and send an explanatory note to the Revenue Commissioners. They can imprison me. I won't mind.

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