In search of ‘Good Ordinary’ in new development

30 May 23

It leaves me wondering how one elevates a scheme from the ‘generic’ to the ‘beautiful’, and whether that is actually an aspiration we should hold.


Seven years ago, in April 2015, the late Hank Dittmar called for the return of “Good Ordinary” buildings, for a focus on “getting better at the mundane”, before producing another article, in 2016, on the idea that beauty ‘shouldn’t be a dirty word’. The debate that has raged since has become increasingly fixated on ‘beauty’, a word that is no longer just not dirty, but a requirement for all developments, it would appear, always. We’ve most recently Michael Gove’s refusal of the Called-In Berkeley Homes scheme in Tunbridge Wells for having a ‘generic suburban’ design. The scheme, to my eyes, shows a clearer response to local context than most, with a focus on landscape and the classic Wealden palette of red brick, hanging tile and white weatherboard.

It leaves me wondering how one elevates a scheme from the ‘generic’ to the ‘beautiful’, and whether that is actually an aspiration we should hold. I recently visited Sussex and North Norfolk recently, places that absorb new development surprisingly easily, because of the strength of the local vernacular. North Norfolk’s steeply gabled pantiled roofs, flint walls and red brick detailing create a dizzyingly strident sense of place, a real gut punch of genius locus, that a lot of infill developments have graciously accepted. Strikingly, these new infill schemes are not individually ‘beautiful’. They’re just, well, fine. Obviously new, less intricately detailed than their older neighbours, but excellent wallpaper, fitting easily into the background.

Because intellectually, we, like Hank Dittmar, should be able to understand and communicate to the wider world, that ‘beauty’ exists only in contrast. Our villages, towns and cities are largely made up of ‘good ordinary’ buildings. They are the workhorses of our towns and cities, simple, unpretentious buildings that create a canvas onto which genuine beauty can be applied. The great buildings in a city or village are of note because of their ‘outstanding’ quality, their ability to rise above the rest. “The rest” doesn’t have to be actively bad for those buildings to be outstanding.

The beauty agenda squeezes out the opportunity to have a sensible, grown-up conversation about creating good ‘wallpaper’ and pleasing town- and village-scapes in favour of weaponizing NIMBYism with another soundbite. If we’re going to build the homes we need, the debate needs to grow up, ‘beauty’ has to be used as a genuine exception, and we need to find new contemporary vernaculars. It’s time to ‘build better, build ordinary’.

Laurie Handcock Director,Built Heritage and Townscape