Is the cookie-cutter housing estate trend creating a depressed society?
We’ve all seen them. Scores of housing developments in which the design of every house is replicated throughout the estate.
And it’s not only the design that reinforces the uniform sameness of each home. Often, every exterior wall in the complex is painted in the same colour, including the guardhouse and the boundary walls around the complex.
“Hello?” you respond, “We’ve known about these sprawling housing complexes for decades. More and more are being built every day.”
Have we become too accepting of the housing offerings dished up to us as consumers? Certainly, as lay people, we are inclined to look at the less esoteric implications of mass housing developments.
Anton Campbell-Harris of Chas Everitt in Somerset West, a popular location for large housing estates as are certain suburbs in Johannesburg, Midrand and Pretoria, is adamant that the proliferation of medium-density housing developments is predicated on market demand for affordable housing at the right price. In his view price is the principal driver, followed by security.
“Sameness of design and the use of the same colours is not a consideration if you’re a buyer in the price bracket up to R1,5m,” says Campbell-Harris. “However, such variables tend to play an important role once one moves into the R5m price bracket.
“Our town council (Somerset West) tends to favour neutral colours. I believe that the use of multiple colours in a housing estate can create a Legoland environment and that must be avoided. The use of bold colours tends to emphasise the density in housing complexes. And in practical terms using lighter colours on external walls helps hide building imperfections.”
Right. But once we begin drilling down into the complexities of urban design and its impacts on the human condition, we find ourselves in deeper waters. Are there psychological impacts of which we are not consciously aware? Internationally, what are some of the better-known examples?
Among the best-known works on city planning and design is the book Image of the City by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) academic Kevin Andrew Lynch. He spent five years researching what elements in the built structure of a city are important in the perception of that city. His concept of legibility is the ease with which individuals understand the layout of a place by making mental maps of the layout.
The reality is that a number of 20th Century concepts of urban and architectural design – some of which were based on uniformity to meet the need for speed of construction arising out of housing shortages after two world wars in Europe – have fallen out of favour in modern times (countries such as China and Korea excluded).
A few notable exceptions from that era continue to draw plaudits, among them Bruno Taut’s Hufeisensiedlung (translated as Horseshoe Estate as a result of its horseshoe layout), a massive housing estate in southern Berlin built in the 1920s. Taut is considered a forerunner of the well-known Bauhaus architecture. Colour played a big part in the design. Even today, Taut’s imaginative design for medium-density housing is considered exceptional. Hufeisensiedlung was named part of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008 celebrating Berlin’s six modernist housing estates.
There’s no question that a wide range of designs, often within an overall theme, is the norm in more upmarket housing estates. Nevertheless, millions of suburbanites have made their homes in housing complexes in which uniformity of design and colour is a sine qua non.
Well, here’s the key question I put to a range of experts in the field: What are the psychological and physical impacts on residents and are such impacts taken into account when designing these complexes?
Erky Wood, director of GAPP Architects and Urban Design in Johannesburg, had this to say: “The fundamental psychology of these estates goes to a deeper thing than belonging, identity or being part of a group (i.e. expressing a ‘sameness’). I think (and emanating from the USA but very acutely felt in South Africa by mostly enfranchised people) there is a fundamental feeling of losing control at all levels and in all walks of life to authorities (national, provincial and local) and the feeling that whatever is reported to the authorities doesn’t or cannot be acted on through lack of resource, competence or caring.
“There is also the feeling of how to perpetuate separateness (‘economic apartheid’) and the fear that we’re not in control of the value of our properties and their appreciating value into the future.
“The issue of security is among the biggest drivers of living in gated estates. Only about 23% of people who buy into golf estates are golfers. The other owners are buying into the security lifestyle, separateness, cocooning themselves from a wider society they fear and, very importantly, the prospect of being able to protect property value and appreciation of value.”
Wood adds that controls are needed in order to protect property value and appreciation.
“As is the way with controls, however, complexity is difficult to prescribe and even harder to manage so there’s a natural gravitation to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ and this invariably means finding a ‘blah’ common denominator,” says Wood. “This is often and very easily achieved through an identical house type repeated over and over or a stringent architectural code that is so confining in style, theme, colour and materials that the entire development ends up looking like a cookie-cutter Noddyland.”
Nikki Jinka, head of the Cape Town office of the Indigo Kulani Group (IKG), a multi-disciplinary infrastructure and development practice, says repetition in typologies creates a sense of universality, alienation and placelessness.
Until the end of last year Jinka was head of Cape Town University of Technology’s Department of Architectural Technology & Interior Design.
He tells HomeTimes in a joint statement with CPUT former colleague, Dr June Jordaan, that repetition in typologies “become geographies void of meaning and significance”.
“One cannot orientate oneself in these environments as they have no edges, landmarks or clear nodes, creating a sense of alienation,” they say. “These ‘non-places’ do not allow for self-expression and therefore strip us of our individuality. They compromise our most rudimentary existential need of feeling rooted in ‘place’. It stands to reason that these non-places cause depression and anxiety – existential angst.”
Urban planner and affordable housing consultant Jill Strelitz takes the view that overplanned environments are “quite contrived – there is a consequence to the overplanning of such environments”.
“What you see is the dead hand over over-planning,” she says. “Residents can feel trapped. It’s not so much the issue of the same design but it’s the sameness of every house. There is no diversity. The environment in which you live must be supportive in order to enhance your well being. People don’t feel competent in their everyday lives in sterile environments where there is only one land use.”
Regarding the use of the same colour throughout a housing complex, Jinka and Jordaan place the proliferation white buildings as one of the tenets of ‘modernist’ architecture advanced during the 20th Century.
“Environments that eliminate the variation of colour are static, artificial and contrived, and leave us with an anaesthetised sense of homogeneity.”
Maggie Rowley, marketing and communications manager at the Rabie Property Group, says that “as developers we usually take the lead from the architect as to which colours are used in a scheme”.
“We generally don’t employ a palette of more than three colours,” she says. “The exception is the award-winning, mixed-use Quays development in Century City. Designed by Chris Bam Architects, different colours were used particularly on walls facing onto the street to try and create the impression of a village streetscape that had evolved over time.
“Colour is a useful tool to visually break up the facades and create a personalised individual identity for each unit giving the scheme a human scale.”
Kansaiplascon’s Claire Bond, a colour specialist and a graduate in colour therapeutics from Britain’s Iris School of Colour in Devon, says that “some developers specify uplifting colours that are warm and welcoming rather than grey and deeply muted muddy colours that drain a space and people of vitality”.
She says that limited research has been undertaken into the use and impact of colour on buildings but adds that there is heightened interest in undertaking more theoretical and empirical work in this field in order to give architects evidence-based guidelines.
“My experience, teamed with knowledge of colour psychology, has led me to believe in colour as a wellness tool,” says Bond. “My observations, backed by literature, tell me that depressed people like to select dark muddy colours or dull lifeless colours that push them further into that emotional state. An exterior colour like tan is not as emotionally supportive as a terracotta, peach or sandy apricot hues that help alleviate feelings of self-pity and lack of self-worth.”
Conversely, GAPP Architects and Urban Design’s Wood sees unedifying outcomes in some estates in which there are little or no controls over design and use of colour.
“The results are often horrendous, particularly when they occur at a moderately higher density than suburbia and so do not have some of the saving graces and scale of suburbia in terms of space, boundary treatments, gardens and vegetation,” he says. “The result is often a mish-mash of styles and fashions resembling an architectural showroom. There is a tendency to go over the top in order to outshout one’s neighbours in a garish display of conspicuous consumption.
“If one accepts the need to escape into a gated community from a security point of view, why doesn’t one use that opportunity to break from the tyranny and mediocrity of suburbia? Why not take the opportunity to make a place less ordinary where the streets, parks, greens and public environment become social spaces used less for cars and more for meeting and socialising; where kids can walk or cycle down to the stream and catch tadpoles and climb trees and skin their knees? That is, why don’t we take a shot at normality?”
Written by: Blake Wilkins