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Constructing an Ordinary

Part 1 Dissertation 2003
Anna Mansfield
University of East London, UK
Architects create backgrounds. Taking Walter Benjamin’s comment that architecture is most often seen ‘distractedly and in passing' as a starting point, this essay wonders what happens if we begin to cherish the un-designed and ordinary as well as the fantastic and smart, transposing theories of The Everyday into a real cultural context.

The ubiquitous semidetached house is a main constituent of the background for many, yet it has evolved its own highly specific form language outside the parameters of architectural critique. The imagery of even a newly built suburban home is invested with myth and ritual, which although entrenched in the social situation of a different era has been codified into an accepted norm.

Though derived from an Arts and Crafts tradition founded in beautiful and rigorous building, newer house forms are essentially modernist standardised boxes, ready for repetition but fashioned with a diverse imagery of ‘traditional' house symbols. The fabric has separated from decoration, utilising the cultural associations of gables, porches, front gardens with paths, cladding and separate dining rooms freely to create a set of understood and recognised forms, establishing a sense of ‘Englishness'. The house then becomes part of the scenery, a small piece of a public façade. Once it is acknowledged as skin and screen, architects from Robert Verturi to Ron Herron begin to play games with the typology.

Architects assimilate. Including the Smithsons and Sergison Bates, those discussed are all concerned with taking familiar pieces and making them seem new again, rather than constantly searching for newness itself.

This process of assimilation also informed the methodology for writing the essay, grouping a range of theories and buildings by ideology rather than chronology, resulting in some unlikely conspirators.

The final debate lies in how to ensure that architecture is included and registered in the field of experience without falling into over-aestheticization. The tactics used to highlight imagery of the ordinary often have the converse effect of rendering it almost invisible.

Currently, we are guilty of taking an unquestioning stance; society has changed yet our homes have not.

Anna Mansfield

Although long a target of mockery, the humble 'SemiD' offers an unusually rich subject for investigation as it gathers together a series of different kinds of enquiry. The rich identities of house and contents and the web of subtle suburban relationships make them an especially sensitive register of the changing Middle Class imagination. But the universality of house and suburb make them also a natural focus for the more generalized study of changing architectural ideas and the various critiques of the Everyday.

While the study emphasises the stark and peculiar reality of room, house and garden, each with its characterising furniture, banal or strange, this close detail is qualified by its rambling suburban setting that seems to reduce this heterogeneous collection to an indistinct background, experienced in state of distraction.

However, the immediately experienced is underpinned by a more theoretical enquiry. Both the constant shifts in architectural ideas, that have left their successive imprints on the malleable suburban house type, and reference to a growing literature critiquing the Everyday, add a layer of theoretical dimension to the enquiry.

Finally, in the concluding 'Second Glance Architecture', the essay leaves detached enquiry behind to engage in the ongoing debate about the status of the ordinary, criticizing misplaced and alienating aestheticism.

Although it is relatively short, the essay succeeds in suggesting the breadth of the field and variety of issues at stake, while retaining a direct, matter of fact style that seems appropriate to the study of the ordinary.

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