Wednesday, 20 October 2010

'Traditionally Built' at Willowburn

We regularly use the mostly splendid Westhill Cycleway which allows travel from Queen's Road to Skene on dedicated cycling facilities, mostly. We go mountain biking on Kingshill and Brimmond Hill a lot and like to explore the off-road forest tracks and farm access paths which the Westhill Cycleway gives us quick and safe access to along its entire length. We've written a few posts with lots of stuff about good (and bad) cycling facilities in Aberdeen over the last months.

On part of the route of the Westhill Cycleway, where it passes the Fourmile Lounge at Kingswells, we've watched with interest while, over the last year, Barratt Homes have built their 'Willowburn' dormitory exclusive development of executive suburban homes.

On their marketing materials they use the words "all traditionally built". But when we look at the developing plots, we see timber frame and rendered breeze block construction with new-tech vapour barriers and insulation membranes. Hmmm. That's not really "traditional", is it? It's a great method of construction; sustainable, ideal thermal and sound insulation properties, quick to build, partially pre-fabricated, etc. Very good, naturally we approve. But it is not traditional; the history of that type of timber frame construction on any sort of commercial scale in this country goes back only about 30 years. It is modern.

Yet the first thing you notice when you look at a plot nearing completion is that Barratt have done their usual thing; the thing that they are know for, they ape the local vernacular. So, we see brand-new homes which are high tech and modern in their construction, but which look like ghillie's cottages from an Victorian sporting estate in Aberdeenshire. What looks like painted wooden fascia is self-coloured plastic. What looks like slate tile is ceramic. What look like cast iron guttering and downpipes are extruded polymer. What looks like a compound sandstone lintel with an accent keystone is a single-piece moulded block of coloured concrete.

So, when Barratt say "traditionally built" what they really mean is "as modern as cost efficacy allows but traditional-looking". This bending of meaning in pursuit of pastiche confuses us. We are nonplussed. It is as if Richard Branson were to dress up his Virgin Galactic spaceship to look like the Kon Tiki Raft

Even more confusing; Barratt - being Barratt - also offer the houses in 'move-in condition'; decorated and furnished in the prevailing 'contemporary moderne' aspirational style. You know the look; like a chavvy motel room or mid-market themed restaurant in an out-of-town shopping mall. Why the contemporary interior when the exterior looks so "traditional"? Who does this appeal to? And why? 

My grandmother, god rest her soul, used to live in one of the 1960's skyscrapers at Stockethill. An ultra-modern flat in an ultra-modern building, which she filled with frills and lace and anti-macassers and chintz and paisley and velvet and Victoriana. Even as a child, I noticed that this juxtaposition provoked an odd feeling which I now know to be called cognitive dissonance. What's going on now at Willowburn (and elsewhere) is like an opposite or inverse of this. My grandmother was an old woman, surrounding herself with the familiar possessions and artifacts which had followed her through all the various homes of her life. The people who will move into the Willowburn houses will doubtless be modern people living modern lives with modern jobs. They will, perforce, have all new cars and possessions and artifacts - the latest available on the upgrade cycle we're sure. Yet they will chose to live in a suburban simulacrum of a rural residence once occupied by people who led a bucolic way of life which is now long gone. And even then they will likely make the interior of that residence look like that which would be better fitted to an ultra-modern urban apartment.

Pretense upon pastiche, imitation upon hyperreality.

Our heads are spinning.


Paul Taylor said...

Truth is, even if those people moved into a genuine 'traditionally built' house, they would probably gut the interior and transform it into the same ultra-modern home. So the cognitive dissonance is a given, one might almost say. Is it an improvement to waste a genuinely traditional building for such an exercise? Conversely, even if the exteriors matched the interiors, that would tick only one box (your craving for 'integrity'), and that only temporarily until the next interior decoration fad comes along - which could well be faux Victoriana all over again...

Other Aberdeen said...

Hiya Paul, you've put your finger on the paradox. I think this little quote from Wikipedia touches beautifully on the issues...

Hyperreality is significant as a paradigm to explain current cultural conditions. Consumerism, because of its reliance on sign exchange value (e.g. brand X shows that one is fashionable, car Y indicates one's wealth), could be seen as a contributing factor in the creation of hyperreality or the hyperreal condition. Hyperreality tricks consciousness into detaching from any real emotional engagement, instead opting for artificial simulation, and endless reproductions of fundamentally empty appearance. Essentially, fulfillment or happiness is found through simulation and imitation of a transient simulacrum of reality, rather than any interaction with any "real" reality.

If you're interested, I'd recommend Umberto Eco's "Travels in Hyperreality". I'll be discussing hyperreality in an Aberdonian context a lot more in the future, so keep coming back...

Truth is, we're not obsessive enough to really care whether exteriors match interiors or vice versa (my own taste is chaotically eclectic). We're just freaked out by the fact that the new-build homes don't match the 21st century itself. We can't really work out *why*, notwithstanding the treatise on hyperreality quoted above. It's a paradox which goes to the heart of the Aberdonian condition.