Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A photogenic and tongue-in-cheek look at the commonly reviled design trend that signifies London’s luxury housing boom.
On first glance, the plates in Pablo Bronstein’s new book look like a set of yellowed reproductions of 18th-century architectural prints. The Anglo-Argentinian artist’s drawings of elegant, apparently Georgian buildings lie framed with lavish curlicues of scallop shells, serpents, and swags of heavy fabric. Look closer, however, and incongruous details start to emerge—a contemporary drugstore sign on one page, or the thicker modern window frames currently spreading across London on another. On closer inspection, some of the old buildings don’t look all that old.
That’s because they aren’t.
Bronstein’s book, Pseudo-Georgian London, looks not at London’s 18th and early 19th century architectural heritage, but at the buildings constructed in recent decades that seek to imitate it. If you haven’t visited Britain recently, it might be hard to imagine just how numerous such buildings are. Nearly every city, town, and village in Britain now has buildings less than 30 years old that are nonetheless adorned with cornices, stone cornering, sash windows, brick lintels, and neoclassical porches. The antique effect is brought together with a facing of yellow brick veneer.
The book offers a photogenic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at the trend. It’s also a re-appraisal of—or at least a rare invitation to truly look at—a critically reviled architectural style that is both one of the most ubiquitous and least commented on of recent decades.
British Pseudo-Georgian has some distinct aesthetic and social differences from historically-informed styles in North America. It sits within an urban setting where it is often cheek by jowl with the originals it superficially imitates. And it caters to a public who, within just a few generations, lived in the historic housing it’s modeled upon, particularly in London, where pre-Victorian neighborhoods are relatively common. And while such neighborhoods are now astronomically expensive, they were nonetheless places that many poorer residents were desperate to leave not so long ago.
“In the 1920s and ‘30s you had many working class families living in Georgian housing that had essentially become slums,” Bronstein told CityLab during an interview in London. “In the postwar period, these families moved into Modernist, sometimes Brutalist public housing, and were delighted—they got proper kitchens, bathrooms, plumbing.” That delight was nonetheless somewhat short-lived. “Just a single generation later, these people's kids start already moving into housing that simulates the Georgian architecture their grandparents left,” Bronstein added.
Pseudo-Georgian homes thus partly reflect one of the most significant forces in the reshaping of contemporary London—the selling off of public housing units at reduced rates to their tenants. Started in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, tenants-turned-owners sell the units they bought at a profit. Those that stayed in the city often moved into Pseudo-Georgian homes, returning to buildings that strove to resemble the rundown housing from which their grandparents had escaped. These new buildings seemed to pride themselves on their clearly visible difference from the modernist public housing that often surrounded them.
This housing may have suggested to its new tenants a tradition of family domesticity, but the reality of life in Georgian housing had actually been rather different.
Bronstein points out that 18th and early 19th century townhouses were typically shared by several families and were “a very hierarchized form of building, with large grand rooms on the ground and first floor, but tiny rooms with low ceilings on the top floors or in the basement.” Designed to emphasize the different social ranks of their tenants, the interiors of these original Georgians bore little resemblance to Pseudo-Georgian’s more equally-sized rooms with a nondescript aesthetic of plasterboard and fiberglass cornicing.
Does this clothing of contemporary housing in the lightest, filmiest of 18th century dress-up mean such buildings are inherently meretricious? Not necessarily. Placed next to brand new developments in the currently popular brick modernist style—invariably touted as “limited edition,” “unique,” or “exclusive,” by its developers—there is at least a studied restraint to the Pseudo-Georgian.
“While the real estate market at the moment is all about difference and exceptionalness,” says Bronstein, “[the Pseudo-Georgian] was always sold for its elegance. It doesn't aim for high luxury. It's not exceptional, but its non-exceptionalness is part of its interchangeability as goods.” There’s even a degree of wit that creeps in here and there, like the Pseudo-Georgian building using the gel joint between its two sheets of brick veneer to suggest a non-existent division between what appears externally to be two houses.
Bar a few developments known for their size or royal connections, Pseudo-Georgian architecture of this type is unlikely to end up heavily featured in any histories of this era’s architecture. This serviceable vernacular is an interesting marker of London’s recent transformations, even as its popularity as an agreed marker of middle-of-the-road good taste wanes.
Pseudo-Georgian London, published by Koenig Books, is available to buy here.