Thursday, April 14, 2005

Grand Designs

As most of my friends know, I am a bit of a TV junkie...Last night I was watching Grand Designs, a Channel 4 series about people who design and build, or have built, their own home. In part I like it because the homes are so creative, and in part I like it because the presenter, Kevin McCloud, is so enthusiastic about the people and projects he gets to observe.

Generalisation, I know (who, moi?), but housing in the UK tends to be somewhat lacking in imagination. Most houses are built around the idea of a series of box-shaped rooms, often with only one entrance/exit and too few/small windows, so that there is no continuous flow of movement - either of the body, or the eye; and if you are richer, you have larger boxes, and if you are poorer, you have smaller boxes...Most houses are also built out of inappropriate materials - e.g. brick in a wet climate, a porous and inflexible material, that sucks up the rain and erodes, and is a major job to repair/replace...

In contrast, some choose to create a home that is tailored to their own needs, creative in the use of space and light, often making use of innovative materials, to provide new answers to the questions that have grown up around house design, whether by convention or planning regulation. And the most ambitious projects - the projects that always go over timescale and over budget, almost breaking those who set out on them, financially, relationally, emotionally - are show-cased on Grand Designs, which follows the builds from conception to completion. When the dust has finally settled, the usual response is "well, it was worth it; we love the house; but, if we'd known then what we'd have to go through to get our dream, we'd never have embarked on it..." Sometimes, though, the response one year on is "regrettably, we've decided to sell the house and go back to something more conventional; we won't be going through this again..."

Anyway, last night's episode of Grand Designs featured someone who wanted to build a home in London, but could only afford to buy a thin strip of wasteland. Moreover, they had to build on it with certain major constraints: they could not build higher than a ground floor, and the house must not be visible from the road at the front of the plot...The solutions were creative: a steel-framed structure, long, flowing, with two 'mezzanine pods' that gave extra height without breaking the height restrictions. But the approach to building was even more creative: a scaffold was erected, and the roof beams hung from it, so that the house was built from the top down rather than from the ground up...This breaks every convention!

Life is a parable, and God speaks to us through everything if only our eyes and ears are open to him. If we are to create expressions of church that engage with, challenge, and transform postmodern society*, we need to break out of the box mind-set and have Grand Designs - and be prepared to risk everything for them. We will have to build on marginal strips, not only with innovative materials (including rediscovering old ones), but also with building approaches that defy conventional wisdom, flying in the face of 'how such things are done.' The results will not necessarily be reproduceable, though they might be. 'Success' is not measured on reproduceability alone. Frankly, it isn't for everyone; on so many levels, it will be too costly for many. But, deep down inside, don't you have a dream?

*Please don't misunderstand "postmodern society" to refer to some kind of intellectual elite. High on the News agenda at present is the end of the line for the Longbridge car manufacture plant in the Midlands. Industrialisation was one of the marks of Modernity; the information revolution one of the marks of Postmodernity. Here we see workers who are both skilled and experienced - but the world has moved on, and they will need to be 're-skilled'...That's just one example of postmodernity for all.

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