This week Alain de Botton contrasts a playful estate north of Amsterdam with new housing in this country
My wonder is a sequence of buildings in the docklands north of Amsterdam called Borneo Sporenburg. It’s a whole region that has been redeveloped; it was a wreck and now it’s a successful attempt to build a community from nothing. The streets feel liveable, neither alienated, windswept, twee or retrograde – it’s a modern environment that just works. They are all family houses and not particularly expensive – it’s an ordinary community but architecturally of an extremely high standard. There’s one particular street where they asked a whole series of young architectural firms to design houses – they all had to be the same size, but within that they could do anything. It’s wonderfully playful – good playful, not silly playful. Some houses have wood facades, others concrete, others weird shiny plastic. What they’ve pulled off should be a model for how you could build new housing in the Thames Gateway, for instance, without going down the reactionary pretend-village route.
The flipside is pretentious houses that pretend to be selling a vision of 18th-century England that probably never existed. These “modern” housing estates aren’t modern at all; they’re nostalgic without any understanding of what the past really was. They pretend to be in tune with country life, yet they destroy huge tracts of it.
Alain de Botton’s most recent book, Status Anxiety, is published by Hamish Hamilton