Vandals at work – the death of the bungalow

There soon won’t be any 1930s bungalows left. While conservation groups, local authorities and investors, watched closely by the likes of English Heritage, take pains to preserve ancient cottages as well as properties from the Victorian and Georgian eras anything built between the First and Second World Wars, notably during the thirties, will either be demolished or refashioned in such a way as to be rendered completely unrecognisable.

This appealing yet ridiculed moderist architectural era, cleansed of the pompous garnitures of the Victorian period and inspired by the geometric simplicity of art deco (the affecting designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and notably William Morris’ Red House in Kent) 1930s houses and bungalows will soon be forgotten. Those garden suburbs of bay windows, sunrise garden gates and oak  front doors with inset bottom-of-the-bottle windows, red bricks, diamond shaped leaded window panes, gable ends, and garages with verdant drives, will be consigned to the historical dustbin. Their replacements bland anonymous structures created by expediency.Where once there had been well proportioned rooms with tiled fireplaces and parquet flooring there are now ‘living spaces’. It’s as though the gods of evolution have decreed that we should look at the dishes in the kitchen zone while we watch tv in the relaxation zone. The millenial take on refurbishment is all about space, unadorned floor to ceiling windows, and white walls.

In some ways the 1930s bungalow, a relation of the Californian Hollywood home, often with metal ribbon windows and curved ‘pantile’ tiled roofs, is a victim of its own success. Single story and built upon on large plots of land by proud home builders they lend themselves to property vandalism. Off comes the roof, often low hung in that appealing mansard style, to be replaced by a taller ‘A’ frame structure thus creating a first floor and more rooms. An increased value but at what cost? Diminished style and in many cases rendered unaffordable for the retirees and cultist 30s adherents who traditionally lived in them. 

The majority of 1930s bungalows have been bought not by people who enjoy their design cues and provenance but by bourgeois philistines who want to enjoy something else.

The architectural website Bricks and Brass states: “…this is a tragedy because in one aspect they have not been ‘neglected’; they have been the target of several decades of do-it-yourselfers who have ‘improved’ them to suit the demands of life…without preserving their character.”

This destruction is happening everywhere but non more so that in my patch of Cornwall. As each elderly owner moves on (single story buildings have an obvious appeal to the elderly) new money moves in accompanied by architects behind expensive Nordic spectacles muttering the same nauseous mantra – “more light, more entertaining space and low maintenance garden.” Encouraged by columns in national newspapers and online builder’s websites these genuinely modernest bungalows, often within classic English gardens, are remodelled into structures reminiscent of airport departure lounges with interiors boasting as much personality as a squash court.

Some four million homes were built in the 1930s, most of them in the suburbs or by the sea. I grew up in a 1920s semi-detached house wearing many of the design cues that would mark out those built a decade later. On a recent visit most of the Tudorbethan (mock Tudor) style houses in that estate now have plastic windows and clumsy boxy roof extensions. And where there were once gardens there are now, by and large, low maintenance concrete or brick car parks stained with sump oil. This is especially galling as nearly all 1920s and 1930s developments had access to garages to the rear via communal alleyways. The idea being that nothing  so vulgar and utilitarian as a car should be permitted to undermine the synchronicity of good urban design.

I had hoped to buy a 1930s bungalow some years ago. It was painted in that soft eau de nil, with a red pantile roof, nestling in its garden with the period elegance of something from Beverly Hills. In fact I think Jack Nicholson may have stepped inside one just like it in Chinatown. The only fault with it was a cheap plastic door porch. With that removed and some tlc it could, in my hands, easily have been upgraded to a pristine example of art deco coastal architecture. Sadly I couldn’t sell and so couldn’t buy and today that bungalow is unrecognisable. Like many others of that era it has sprouted extensions and windows and in so doing become another casualty of the war against the first truly modernist movement in British architecture.

As each 1930s bungalow is sold it is transmogrified into a bland domestic living/rental unit existing in a sort of architectural vacuum. I have black and white photographs taken 30 years ago of the estate near me. Each bungalow with a garden at the front. Most still retaining their original metal windows and bays. Each has a chimney and not one has a car on the front garden. Bungalows to be proud of? Only if you happen to live in Richmond-Upon-Thames. There the Conservation Area – Rosecroft Gardens no.46 (https://www.richmond.gov.uk/media/4077/ca46_rosecroft_gdns_lr.pdf), a triangular shaped estate of semi detached and detached 1930s bungalows, is enjoying a level of protection absent elsewhere. Among a raft of intentions that include a ban on front facing dormer windows and an insistence that metal windows be replaced like-for-like are the sentences – ‘…preservation, enhancement and reinstatement of special architectural quality and unity. Retain original detailing or ensure that replacements are of sympathetic design and materials…”

I have a hunch Richmond-Upon-Thames’ appreciation of 1930s garden suburb bungalows is out of step with the pervading ethos of originality bad, pumped up blandness good. In this way  a small but integral part of our British cultural heritage is vanishing.

Dilapidated and insanitary cottages have been saved in their thousands. As have endless rows of unloved Victorian terraces. The red bricks painted in pastel shades and fireplaces and ceiling mouldings reinstated. Just maybe, as a generation of young house buyers is driven ever further from city centres into the still reviled 1930s suburbs some of those currently overlooked art deco gems will be ‘discovered’. I hope so. If not we’re in danger of erasing an an entire era from the architectural history books.

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