Tag Archives: London terrace houses

The Brussels Skyline is Like a Heart Attack (in a good way)

26 Mar

A sure-fire sign that you’re in London is those long streets of identical terrace houses, like this and this. On the train past Clapham, you see row after brown-tiled row of them, the same terracotta chimney clusters repeated over and over again, the same white-framed windows and tiny rectangular gardens, the streets lined with trees spaced out at precise intervals and blobs of glinting-roofed cars. The houses curve and slope across the landscape like a magic-eye blanket, most of them crammed full of identical groups of drunken Australians. Well, maybe not completely identical groups. Some flats have 10 Australians in them, some only have 8.

If it’s possible to find something both appealing and unappealing (F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was a sign of intelligence to be able to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time, but I’m pretty sure when he came up with this idea he wasn’t thinking about how people might judge the state of housing in the UK), I think that’s how I feel about these rows of sameness. I can’t lie and say that my sense of symmetry and neatness never sighed with satisfaction at the sight of such set-ups. It’s not even true to say that these places are completely unmodifiable; when I lived in Maida Vale (one of London’s heavens of terrace housing) there was a lady down the pea-pod street whose tiny front garden was an oasis of fluorescent fake flowers and fairy lights. In Notting Hill some of the houses are painted in rainbow colours (though I’ve heard that the owners don’t have a choice in what colour they are, so if you’re lumped with brown you can’t pull out your fuchsia and lime paint buckets and go for it).

Terrace houses can be undeniably classy looking, but in certain areas you can fall into the trap of believing that the people living inside of them are pretty much interchangeable too. In Notting Hill you can imagine countless glossy black front doors opening and countless mothers-who-lunch pushing their black prams out onto the sidewalk. In Clapham and Shepherd’s Bush, it’s the inebriated antipodeans spilling out onto the street.

Of course there are all sorts of reasons why people live where they do, and I know that choice doesn’t always enter into it. I’m also aware that there’s plenty of studies about this ‘same housing = same people’ idea (and even creative stuff. Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes springs to mind). Streamlined suburbs are common the world over, but I never really intended to go into all that. Really all this was just a convoluted way of making it to the point that I’m about to make it to. In about 17 minutes; I just need to talk about pre-revolutionary Russia and the two main forms of abiotic pollination first. You’ll see; it’ll be a rollicking read and it’ll all come together in the end.

No, the point was that sometimes I like the idea of living in a place where it’s not only the inside that is unique. And at the moment, I am.

In central Brussels I find it very difficult to imagine who might be living inside the hodge-podge of flats lining the streets. Tall ones, short ones, skinny ones, fat ones (the flats, not the inhabitants, but I suppose it could be both), art deco ones, brick ones, ones with iron balconies and ones with peeling plaster (that’s ours), all rammed up next to each other, with few visible height, colour or style standards. They do tend to be the same width, and they generally have big windows to let in the fleeting winter sunshine, but on the whole it looks as though the copy/paste function failed in this part of town. Okay, so there aren’t necessarily skyscrapers next to dinky cottages with wind chimes out the front or anything, but the line of the rooftops looks like that created by an ECG machine attached to someone experiencing multifocal atrial tachycardia. In other words, the irregular heights make tough going for parkour runners. See for yourself:








There’s a process called ‘Brusselisation’ which refers to a time in Brussels where historic buildings were pulled down to make way for fandangled high-rise ones, but I haven’t worked out whether this term also explains the heart-attack style of old inner city flats or not.

Of course I’m not a fan of medieval cherub sculptures being pulled down to make way for fishbowl office buildings, but – for the houses around where I live at least – I kind of like the strange mishmash.