A reflection on the cause and effect of dark painted stucco terraced houses in London.
This thought came about as I walked through Clapton on a mildly sunny weekend afternoon. It asked, “why do people paint their buildings black?” What does this obvious marker achieve and what does it say about those that wanted it and the wider context in which it sits?
It need not say anything, of course, and be merely a fashionable choice just as any other colour can be in a particular time. The multicoloured terraces of Portabello and Notting Hill go some way in reflecting the rich Caribbean vitality of the area and it’s carnival. Yet the predominant colour of choice for this most ubiquitous and long-lasting London house type is white. Whether good, bad, historically accurate or due to the whims of fashion, this is the case. I’m rather more in favour of a range of colours rather than white as it is both more interesting and white does show the dirt somewhat.
The need of owners to individually choose this tonal reversal is the main concern I have here. Is it a reaction to the predominant whiteness in a show of individual independence? A need to paradoxically stand out of the crowd and be visible? A paradox, indeed, as in that case as black houses in London usually riff on the ‘stealth’ or introverted vibe with names to match. David Adjaye’s Dirty House (2002) or Liddicoat and Goldihill’s Shadow House (2011) use black to at once recede into the corners and stand out dramatically. This oxymoronic desire plays with the building as an object, an actor of the street scene, temporarily performing the ritual of the lifestyle desired.
As a piece of theatre it lends itself to the narrative that can be coaxed from the brief into a design that adds that extra value to a building specific to architects. Yet these are renovations and not new builds. They might be gutted and mightily remodeled but they retain the defining slot of land between party walls, fronted by a bay window, that is their heritage. It is through the cycle of home improvement that a more obvious social commentary can be made.
The renovations to terraced houses that use a dark colour to describe their front also describe their owners – not just taste but aspiration and cultural identity. It is an updated Booth map in real time, highlighting the ever-shifting movement of people that condense and congregate in particular places. In the case of Clapton, it seems to be predominantly young families. Yet, though it shows a level of affluence needed to undertake such renovations, it marks a tide line in what lifestyle is desired. A lifestyle that further defines the surrounding area in the choice of bars, pubs, restaurants and shops. It seems obvious a connection to make though harder to get to any real evidence. The only evidence that does come to mind of linking dark-painted terraces with these new venues is their proximity and the knowledge that the price tag for a 3 storey house in Clapton is a million, with the assumed spending power that this indicates.
The spread of this fashion might be, in part, due to the spread of fashion. Fashion has always stalked architecture and it’s creation but none more so than the fetish making of the home improvement industry. Domestic bliss though acquisition and application of new devices to accommodate new functions. An indoor cinema and hammock, bar or small pool, are all achievable. Perhaps, with that, comes the need for pre-packaged thought too. The illusion that the walls are clad in burnt pine defining the simple shed, peeping through close-knit trees in some northern tundra, away and secluded, a private sanctum; the need to be subliminally reminded of a privacy that the terrace typology doesn’t quite afford.
This possible need of a psychological distance could be a reaction to the city itself. The widespread publication of newly designed and built holiday huts, whether in the Swedish north, Australian bush or upstate New York, has perhaps incited an air of retreat: a need for greater solitude in this increasingly connected world. With expanding populations together with the ever-cycling and increasingly desperate migration issues seen in the deprivation of refugee camps, is this a simple human reaction to stamp one’s claim on a small piece of land?
In this increasingly anthropological understanding of choice and the reasons for painting a newly-acquired house a dark colour, it seems to return to the small gesture rather than the macro-strategy. Yes, more will no doubt beget more, but in the end it is probably of no more consideration that the choice of new curtains or bed sheets.