Friday, August 10, 2012

Social climbing and The Old Custom House

click photo to enlarge
When Margaret "there is no such thing as society" Thatcher was prime minister the Conservative Party came up with a wheeze to increase the number of people who voted for them. The idea was to sell off local authority housing at a very generous discount to the tenants who currently rented them. The theory was that once such people became property owners they would transfer their political allegiance from Labour to the Conservatives and, if they didn't currently vote, they would begin doing so, favouring the Conservatives out of gratitude and because they now saw themselves as one of "our people". Forgetting the political ramifications for now, the policy had  a number of unintended consequences, one of which was to change the visual appearance of local authority housing.

Britain's local councils were given permission to build housing for rent in the early part of the twentieth century because the low cost housing erected by the private sector was so indaequate in almost every respect. Councils often hired socially aware architects and built some of the better properties in this sector of the market. They were, for their time, well designed and relatively spacious. The building density was reasonable and the layout was well considered. A downside that some people saw was that individual developments tended to be quite uniform in appearance. Others thought this often gave areas a better appearance than if deliberate differences had been incorporated. However, when from the 1980s onwards, they were sold to tenants one of the first steps some new home owners took was to replace the front door with something different that signified their possession of the property. It seemed that intuitively people knew of the importance of the front door in making a statement about a building, and a proclamation of the change of ownership was needed. Over the years windows were replaced, porches and extensions - all different - were added, as were fences, hedges and much else. The result was that the modest but agreeable style of the individual house was usually lost, and so too was the visually satisfying homogeneity of the area. In an attempt to elevate the building, quite often the reverse resulted produced by a jarring heterogeneity.

I was thinking about this after I'd photographed The Old Custom House in Aldeburgh recently. This building from the early nineteenth century is essentially the same as many of the other small, gault brick and pantiled residential houses that line the town's older roads. However, in order to make it imposing and more distinctive, to stress its status as an office of the government's Customs, and to impress upon the seamen visitors that they are dealing with an institution and people of importance, the main door and offices were located on the first floor and reached by a really quite ridiculous, overblown, flight of stone faced stairs. One wonders if, on seeing it for the first time, a ship's skipper smiled at the pretentiousness of it, as I did. Today it is a residential building, probably quite an interesting dwelling to inhabit, and one that poses a few questions to an observer of its exterior. For example: when was the ground floor door to the right of the steps inserted, at what level is the ground floor ceiling/first floor floor, and what happens behind that main door? Is it a narrow corridor, are there further steps? I can't imagine.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 32mm
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/640 sec
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation:  -0.33 EV
Image Stabilisation: On