The Mayor’s “new London vernacular” was never intended to be a single architectural style, but that is what has emerged — spare, brick-built blocks that are now edging outward from their east London origins
As Boris Johnson enters his final year as Mayor of London, one might wonder what will be seen as his chief legacy to the capital. The Olympics? The Garden Bridge? The new Routemaster? In the longer term, when Stratford has been absorbed into the new urban structure of the East End; when Lumley and Heatherwick are identified with the new Thames crossing rather than Johnson; and when buses have given way to driverless pods, it will be the new London vernacular (NLV) that he will be remembered for.
The concept of the NLV emerged from the Mayor’s London Housing Design Guide, first drafted in 2009. The report suggested that the capital’s terraced houses, apartment buildings, streets and squares have created highly successful residential environments with enduring appeal. The guide aspired “to encourage a new London vernacular that can take its place in this rich fabric” and “housing that has a clear and sophisticated urban intention, and improves and civilises the streets and public spaces around it”. It discouraged ‘iconic’ architecture, and suggested architects should focus on great background architecture made of durable materials that weather well.
Although the guide did not propose a singular architectural style, that is pretty well what we are getting. The buildings come a variety of shapes and sizes but utilise the spare architectural style of the post-Great Fire housing, of plain brick punched through with regular portrait-shaped windows with reveals. They are characterised by the number of homes which have their own front doors looking on to the street, although these may be maisonettes at lower levels. Elevations are generally faced in brickwork and topped with a parapet. Balconies are often recessed.
Ironically, the popularity of brick has created a major shortage of the material. Although that doesn’t mean a boom for British brickmakers – not only is 94% of what we imagine to be the British brick industry owned by overseas companies, but architects these days seem to prefer to specify continental bricks. I judged the east London section of the RIBA Awards this year and all the projects we looked at (many of them NLV) seemed to use either Petersen (Danish) or Wienerberger (Austrian) bricks.
Which rather flies in the face of the reason why London is a brick city in the first place, as it sits on massive beds of clay. Although the Romans made bricks, most housing in London up until the Great Fire was of timber construction. The Rebuilding of London Act of 1666 laid down that all houses be built of brick or stone and required parapets and window returns.
It seems likely that this year will see a substantial increase in the number of homes being built in the capital and the NLV is making its presence felt outside of east London, where it has been in common use for some time. In the right hands the NLV produces some fine background buildings – but we need to be careful. One should not forget that large swathes of Georgian London were really boring; it was only after the Victorians weeded out the worst of it that we learnt to love it so much.