During August bank holiday, I went on a tour of Swindon, population ~200,000. Its a town (not a city – cities in the UK have cathedrals) in between London and Oxford in the southwest of the UK. A friend of mine grew up there, and when she organized a birthday-weekend camping trip outside her hometown, I made the trek and was rewarded not just with a weekend of hiking but also with a tour of Swindon’s architectural highlights. It was great to tour the city with a native, who showed me the best (and worst) of the new and the old. Not only did she ferry me around Swindon all day, she agreed to do a point-counterpoint on some of the schemes we saw.
We decided to start with The Triangle, a development I first encountered on the internet. I was really excited to see the project, which was built into a triangle of land that had been a truck parking lot:
Point: The parking lot was replaced by 43 social/affordable units with low environmental impact and some beautifully considered details. As you can see from the aerial above, the houses are jammed in to the existing neighborhood, and its amazing to realise how constrained the site actually is – because when you’re there, the corners feel awkward but the whole development feels spacious and open. In addition, the Triangle has kind a shtick – there are allotment gardens at the points of the triangle and every resident gets a recipe book when they move in.
The site has a central plaza with drainage and play space artfully worked in; there is a large community garden at one of the points of the triangle, and wooden details in front of every door add visual interest to the houses.
There are definitely some redeeming features of the development, which makes use of what was formerly overlooked land; has visible and beautiful drainage features; and the housing is all eco-sensitive and low-carbon.
So what’s the problem? Simple: U-G-L-Y. The open space, at least the central open space, is beautiful. But the houses are boring and awful. The whole place is painted slightly variable shades of beige in a repeating pattern, and the facades are totally unbroken except for a dull gray panel below each window that I think is intended for air-conditioning units (in the UK?).
The other issue I have with the site is also a challenge to the whole ethos of the project. I have nothing against gardens; they’re great. but the gardens at the points of the triangle are jammed into overlooked space. One corner has a bank of raised beds with no indication what belongs to whom; there were tons of delicious-looking vegetables but it wasn’t clear who owned them, if anyone. The other corner had a couple of awkwardly arranged, mostly-empty greenhouses without any overlooking windows or lighting:
The area was also gated and locked. I was not impressed.
IN SUMMARY: I appreciate that the architect, Kevin McCloud, did what he could with a constrained site, and I fully endorse the garden and environmental components of the project. I just wish the houses weren’t so boring.
Dear readers of this wonderful blog, so far you’ve seen my face and my gingerbread biscuits and now, you lucky things, you’re about to get some of my words too. Unlike Franny’s educated and considered entries, mine will be mostly opinion with a slight tinge of conjecture. Please enjoy:
Swindon is my hometown, so of course I have strong feelings about it. Having not lived there since 2004, my nostalgia is now greater than the desperate frustration I felt when I decided to leave. I still love it even when I return home to find the Old Town Corn Exchange has been set fire again and the Town Gardens Bandstand lead roof has been stolen by gypsies. Swindon occupies so much of my mental map that it comes up a surprising amount in conversation with Franny. It seemed that for every traffic-calming scheme she’d studied or drainage system she’d designed I had an example in Swindon. After a few months it was clear I had to show her this maelstrom of town planning initiatives. A rainy bank holiday Monday was the perfect day for us to do our Grand Town Planning Tour of Swindon!
First stop on the tour bus was the Triangle.
“You two better watch out wearing those anoraks in Pinehurst; someone’ll do you in!” Thanks, mum, for those words of wisdom. Childhood memories flashed through my mind: driving through ‘tin town’ with my dad and he central-locks the car doors; my postcode-challenged schoolfriend complaining that no-one would visit him because he lived in Pinehurst… Hey, mum, the Triangle’s not even in Pinehurst!
Walking off the main road into the Triangle was like walking into a different country. No more double -fronted semis with pebble dashing: there are balconies on the flats and wood on the houses; we can’t be in the UK! I like the Triangle. Unashamedly. It was quiet. It was pleasant. There were children’s bicycles. We saw a few people talking to each other. There were trees and greenery in the central common. It wasn’t dominated by cars. There was no litter or graffiti or broken things. Then we poked our noses into the corners and there were greenhouses, with things growing in them; and allotments, with things growing in them; and an unused space with nothing growing in it (I was expecting needles and nappies). It was nice.
I consider Franny’s criticisms a bit unfounded. As they say in Swindon ‘you’re not from round ‘ere are you?’ She says the houses’ repetitive pattern is boring. All terraced housing in the UK is like this. I’m used to it. I even said that I liked the different shades of grey! (Ahem…) And it didn’t occur to me that the window-panels might be for air-con because we don’t do air-con in the UK. She then complained that the gardens are not overlooked by anyone. I think this relates to the fact that the end terraced houses do not have windows on the outer walls. But not many end terraces do; it wouldn’t be fair to those in the middle! And as for the point that there is no indication of who gardens which plot of the allotment: so what if it wasn’t clear to us whose are the massive pumpkins and who’s pruning those apple trees; the residents clearly know because it’s in order. I was just amazed that the allotments were being used at all.
In fact, that sums up my feelings about this site. I’m amazed that Swindon is the site of an award-winning eco-development and I’m even more amazed that people are using it as it is intended.
To balance these unsubstantiated observational comments, I must include some tenuous anecdotal evidence. A friend of a friend actually lives in one of the houses (that means she probably saw Franny and I playing on the decorative log-and-water-pump sculpture). She says they are nice houses (it’s not just me!), despite a few simple design no outside handles on the patio doors so you get locked out easily and the eco paint comes off when you clean marks off the walls. My favourite oversight is that the lovely cork floor insulates so well that the underfloor heating system has to be cranked up to 11 to work! Her heating bills are huge!
Despite these small teething problems (which are being sorted out) I think this housing project was a success. Perhaps this is an indication of my low standards, but I thought it had a good atmosphere. In my opinion, the buildings didn’t look boring or ugly or fashionable enough to date quickly (however Franny thinks they are already dated). The communal use of the allotments impressed me. I wish more building projects were built to these environmental standards (obviously not with insulated flooring and underfloor heating). And at least it’s not Pinehurst.
Thanks so much to Lauren, both for the day and for the thoughts. If I can prevail on her to keep this up, this will be the first in a three-part series, since we also visited Wichelstowe, a new town on the edge of Swindon, and the old railroad works (now a shopping mall and a low-income neighborhood, because it covers a huge area).