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Village Buildings of Britain by Matthew Rice

Category: Books September 23rd, 2011 by mbc

This is a compact and tidy little book with a plethora of information in both pictures and text. If you have an interest in vernacular architecture then you’ll find plenty here to while away an hour or two…

…but my feelings toward this book are ambivalent…

The artistic diagrams are pleasing on the eye, the text well written and informative, but at times I just cannot agree with Matthew Rice and his opinions.

In an enlightened age, a constructive attitude to the conservation of villages should encompass responsible expansion with harmonious new building and a sensitive and well-informed approach to restoration. Happily this is a responsibility that falls on the individual householder or developer and not on government or local authority bodies. In this lies the greatest hope for Britain’s vernacular architecture.

From my experience the vast majority of self-builders just can’t be trusted to respect the vernacular architecture of the locality of their site. I only have to look at the cut-price Palladian mansions springing up around Carmarthenshire to evidence that.

However I name myself a hypocrite as last year I was proclaiming self-builders to be a force for good when moaning that self-builders-need-some-encouragement so a big fat raspberry to me!

In my defense, I think that’s what Matthew Rice does to you (or at least to me), with his somewhat superior tone your opinions are reinforced and crystallised, even to the extent where your opinions (admittedly not very strongly held ones) are reinforced down an unusual track that Mr Rice has opened up to you.

I also found the content somewhat incomplete – close to home Wales seems to consist of the North and little else… nothing in my part of the world.

Then we come to barn conversions:

Barns have proved an irresistible temptation to farmer and developers who found in the late 1980s that these redundant buildings were worth more than the rest of their land. The countryside is scarred with the results of the work of these speculators. All too often […], the stone roof is pierced with shining skylights, the architectural form of the doorway is broken up […] and an unsuitable feature, such as this ‘Victorian-style’ conservatory is added. The new windows, with which the walls are dotted, are in a style with no architectural antecedents and stained a particularly nasty treacly brown, much favoured in new developments. By demolishing the lean-tos and altering the overall shape of the building, much of the character of this barn has been lost while charmless fencing and straight-edged driveways have suburbanized the yard. […]

In theory the conversion shown below [pictured] is a better one but, although there are fewer architectural incursions – the outbuildings have been kept and the grounds are less manicured – the appearance of the barn has been altered to such an extent that its original purpose as a farm building has been lost. Rather than becoming a country house, it is now an awkward hybrid.

Barns are as important to the look of the English* countryside as churches and houses, punctuating the fields and hedges. We are historically an agricultural population and these buildings are its monuments and should preserved as such.

[*Much as I hate to be picky this sloppy geography is a particular bugbear of mine, the book is about Britain, so this reference to English is either wrong or Mr Rice is discounting the importance of barns in other parts of the country!…]

I wish Matthew Rice and his ilk (one of whom has passed by here recently) would remove the sepia glasses that provide them with a view of the supposed historic agrarian idyll to which barns are a monument – monuments for which I and other barn owners are responsible. Whilst I agree with sentiments about ‘Victorian-style’ conservator[ies] and particularly nasty treacly brown window frames, these are details, personal choices that we should respect even as we dislike them. Converting a barn is hard and expensive work, to add to that an additional requirement of treating the barn as a monument is unrealistic. I’m all for sympathetic conversions, but to expect them all to be monuments to their former purpose just doesn’t sit easily with me.

…I think I’ll leave further comment on that to another post…

But, don’t get me wrong, this is a pretty book of strong opinions and that’s a good thing. You may not agree with everything in it, but it’ll give you something to think about and I’d much rather that than a bland, fawning read. Just don’t expect to be able to live up to Mr Rice’s exacting standards unless you have very, very deep pockets, are willing to put the past on a pedestal and largely disregard modernity.

If you’re interested in British vernacular architecture then this book is recommended.

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