Saturday, 1 October 2011

Continental Dovecots

I’ve been travelling around Europe a bit recently – sort of a research expedition, in a way. I have to say I was amazed to see in every town, a version of Dovecots.

For those of you who have forgotten, or who are new, Dovecots was the term I gave to nasty developer designed, low-rise newbuilds, because when they are being built they look like Dovecots: as if layers of humanity should live on top of each other in purpose built boxes, which of course they do.

But here’s what I have noticed about European Dovecots. They are larger inside, that is, they have more than one or two rooms – sometimes three, or four.

Outside is where the biggest difference can be seen: they have playgrounds. In the UK, you could easily imagine the Pied Piper of Hamelin, or the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had been round to hoover up all the stray toddlers. I saw children playing. I saw older people looking after the children. I saw knots of people outside having a natter.

People rent for years rather than months, which gives a sense of a stable community, not of folks just passing through as they strive, hopelessly to become owner-occupiers. They have children, and become grandparents in the same block. There is a sense of continuity.

The other difference is, they are taller (those of you who said: what, taller people? Hang your head in shame.)

I know developers are on a mission to concrete over the south of England with nasty, mean-spirited little Barrett-boxes, but surely, adding a few extra layers is more economical, and might even permit higher ceilings, so you don’t bump your head. Seriously, I had friends whose flat was so small that I thought they had spiked my tea with the potion from the bottle in Alice’s Wonderland marked ‘Drink Me’ and that I’d end up with all my limbs poking out of the windows.

These Euro Dovecots were sited both in suburbia and city centres. I know I am repeating myself, but most major cities have varied and diverse urban population, with schools and sheltered housing and everything, so why can’t we build this into Dovecot development meetings?

I know that overseas and even continental architects now associate the massive estates of brutalistic flats dreamed up by Le Corbusier with heroin and deprivation, and dread their export to places like India, but when done with diligence, care and foresight, they could be the perfect solution to space and cost issues.

The difference might also be in the acceptance of urban living: that is people need to live within cities if we are to avoid having the world seen from space as a massive concrete island with green dots which are pay-to-enter private parks that is all that remains of the green-belt.

Don’t get me wrong: there was still so much to despise about these places. They were bland, and anonymous, and had no design philosophy they weren’t little boxes, they were BIG boxes, and they do all look just the same.

Euro-dovecots are far from perfect. All I’m saying is: they got something right.


Neil80 said...

I'm living in a Dovecot right now. In 18 months I'm something of a veteran- though I too will soon be moving.

In this time I haven't had a conversation with a single neighbour. In total I'm on head nodding terms with two.

I put this down, not to any lack of social skills, but to the design and transience of the place.

Far cry from the victorian suburbia I grew up in where everyone stops for a chat and residents of 20 years were regarded as newcomers.

RenterGirl said...

It's always like that. Hope you find a better, nicer place!

Anonymous said...

Yet again more stuff interesting to read, particularly your thoughts on community and the transience encourages by these dovecote 'developments'. Thanks RenterGirl, I'm always stopping by here and share a lot of your opinions and there's very few places to hear commentary online about these important issues. Housing issues affect everyone but so few think about them, least of all our politicians. We should all do what we can to change that.

Anonymous said...

I think it's just the attitude of the UK population as a whole.
I talk to my elderly neighbour, take his bins out even invite him over for a beer.
The neighbours the same age as me would probably walk past me in the street without recognising or saying hello.
People are just unfriendly these days, and the dovecot tower attitude encourages this.

RenterGirl said...

Thanks for the compliments Anon.
And yes - people can be disdainful of neighbours who do not 'fit' and to knock on someone's door and introduce yourself is good thing. But also, as I discovered in Dovecot Towers, don't expect them to answer.
Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

In much of Europe (well in Germany at least) tenants have security of tenure and rents cannot be arbitarily raised.
I think a lot of people in Britain buy just to have a home they know they can stay in.

RenterGirl said...

So true Anon. Retaliatory evictions and notice given on a whim ruin any sense of security.