The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Should we be arguing that the buildings we care about have “emotional durability”?

I was listening to Jonathan Chapman, who runs the MA in Sustainable Design at the University of Brighton, on the Today programme last week, and got hold of his book, Emotionally durable design to ponder further if any of the very sensible stuff he was saying (primarily about the design of white goods and IT) was useful or relevant to our work.   Understanding why many people are turned off by C20 architecture, and want to throw it out before it’s worn out, is crucial to successfully reversing such opinions, and Chapman’s expansion of the idea of sustainability beyond just physical endurance or ease of recycling is fascinating.

Chapman argues “against the ‘box-fresh’ ideal”  noting that  “from grandma’s walking stick with the worn handle to the key chipped paint around the car door handle, ageing material surfaces narrate tell-tale signs of life by embodying the user within the object.”  He argues in favour of “ objects with potent sensory and emotional resonance”, and for ones that can gradually accumulate growing stories.

Surely  many of the buildings we care about could be said to have these attributes, albeit that they are frequently overlooked?  Maybe many fall from favour because we think modernist objects (including buildings) are meant to look crisp and totally new?

“Perhaps the inefficient motor in the 1950s fridge simply needs replacing with a newer and more efficient one which, like a heart transplant, might afford the old fridge a new lease of life” suggests Chapman.  This is much the same as calling for new services and kitchens/bathrooms at Robin Hood Gardens or the Heygate Estate.  If we now know the history of that fridge in the family (the meals its held over the years etc), and the  curvy shape we associate with that passage of time make us feel good, can we begin to realise that buildings like these may have a similar “emotional durability” which we squander to our great dis-service?



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