Urban Design Library

The Castles on the Ground

Urban Design Library #33
J M Richards

This book, despite being over 70 years old, contains a number of compelling arguments that remain relevant to how we approach the design of new communities today. It is essentially a book about the differences in architectural taste in housing between that of communities and that of architects and other professionals. Written at a time when there was concern amongst professionals about the perceived lack of taste in the architectural style of the suburbs being built, The Castles on the Ground takes the reader on a journey through suburbia to explain its values, from the perspective of the resident.

Richards explains that well-designed suburbia is not a hybrid of town and country but has instead its own unique typology; in order for us to understand it, we need to see it from the perspective of the people who desire to live there. Importantly, he makes a distinction between a successful suburb, which is compact in design with the required community facilities provided and the ‘unworthy’ suburb comprising uncontrolled sprawl.

He identifies two reasons for the popularity of well designed suburbs. Firstly, they provide for a sense of escape (he suggests that the the ‘fantasy’ and ‘make belief’ of the period architectural references contribute to this) and secondly, they provide for the creativity, freedom and individuality of residents. Richards explains how in suburbia, the individual buildings are less important than the whole scene, which is revealed along gently winding tree-lined streets with front gardens, hedgerows and other landscaping, together with beautiful homes featuring traditional rustic-inspired detailing to create an appealing backdrop to people’s lives. For Richards, a ‘romantic instinct’ inspires the treatment of the suburban landscape, and the tradition of scene-painting ‘where the products of nature and of the builder are each made to play their part in producing in an apparently casual way, an elaborately synthetic picture’ can be traced back to the English Picturesque movement.

In a chapter entitled The Voice of the School Teacher, Richards warns against the imposition of taste from the ‘superior station’ of architects, authorities and professional organisations (the school teachers). He explains how the appeal that suburbia holds to the ‘90 out of a 100’ is not based on architectural values, and it is therefore not appropriate or in any way helpful to seek to impose a particular style on them. The fact that the suburban style has a firm foundation on what ordinary people like and that it remains almost universally popular across generations is, Richards suggests, evidence that suburbia is a true vernacular, because it is rooted in people’s instincts.

Richards argues that ‘If democracy means anything it is deciding to pay attention to the expressed preference of the majority’ and he suggests that building programmes should be based on a ‘true analysis of people’s needs’. In response to the argument that people do not really choose the suburban style because they have no choice as to what is being built by speculative builders, he explains how the house builder is responding to a demand and that it ‘instinctively reacts to the nature of the demand’. He says that there is nothing to be gained by condemning the housebuilders’ traditional style when the thing that is most valued about it is ‘its cosiness and familiarity which makes a secure anchorage in a changing world’. It is for this reason that Richards believes that successful suburbia will always continue to contain an element of fantasy and make-belief.

He explains that we should avoid enforcing a finished design, style or typology that people have to passively accept and that ‘we must not expect people to settle down… in an environment designed from the outside and on the basis of someone else’s idea of what ought to be given’. He argues that rather than trying to ‘put the brakes on’ the suburban style, the focus should be on creating good, compact suburbs that function well for residents, and suggests that professionals should be encouraged to create great, beautiful suburbs comprising well designed homes that meet the needs and tastes of the people who will live there.

The Castles on the Ground contains lessons for how we approach the urban design of new residential-led communities today and in the future. We know from the 2018 Policy Exchange survey of 5,000 people, and their report Building More, Building Beautiful, that there continues to be a very strong preference for traditional and period architectural styles for new homes in suburban settings. Housebuilders too recognise a continued desire from their customers in many locations for a traditional style of homes, and the enduring appeal of attractive landscaped settings for them. As designers, we should seek to understand the values, instincts and style preferences of the communities who will live in places that we design. As we deliver ever better and ever more sustainable places comprising well designed homes for modern living, we should remember that the sense of belonging, security and happiness of the communities depends to a large extent on whether the character and appearance of the homes and the place reflect their instincts and values. If, as the evidence suggests, there continues to be a preference for new homes with traditional and period detailing, we should help to deliver this through thoughtful and responsive designs. Otherwise, we will overlook the many qualities of an enduringly popular typology for housing that when done well creates beautiful, charming and sustainable places to live that get even better with age.

URBAN DESIGN 154 Spring 2020 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 154 Spring 2020

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Read On

Barker, Paul, 2009 | The Freedoms of Suburbia | Frances Lincoln Limited
Barrett, Helen and Phillips, John, 1987 | Suburban Style - The British Home, 1840- 1960 | Guild Publishing
Lewis, Phillipa, 2014 | Everyman’s Castle - The story of our cottages, country houses, terraces, flats, semis and bungalows | Frances Lincoln Limited
Oliver, Paulet al, 1981 | Dunroamin - The suburban semi and its enemies | Pimlico

The Castles on the Ground Publication Urban Design Group
Architectural Press
Reviewed By
Kevin Parker, Group Masterplanning Director, Redrow Homes