Growing up in a Victorian house with relatively small windows, thick brick walls and lots of shadows, in a country known for its low light levels can be a depressing thing, both physically and mentally.
England’s rows of terraced Victorian houses have lasted far longer than anyone could have imagined. They’re still the most striking feature of urban life from the air, and you only have to step off any London main street to find yourself surrounded by serried ranks of them.
In the last few years, ways have been sought to introduce more light into these dark boxes by removing walls and replacing the rear kitchens with large panels of glass. The Victorian terraces are still with us because in many ways they are masterpieces of design. Built longways on small plots, the show their least-used rooms at the front (the most visible end from the street) and keep daily life to the rear (nearest their gardens).
In Harry Mount’s ‘A Lust For Windowsills’ the brilliance of the Victorian plan is explained. He noted that when pillars are added to terraces, the columns bulge outwards in the middle. This is called ‘entasis’. The Greeks worked out that the human eye tends to squeeze the middle section between straight lines inward when we look at them, so the bulge compensates for the optical illusion. There are hundreds of other fascinating facts about English homes in the book.
But could the time limit of the Victorian terrace now have been reached? The other day we suddenly switched from wintry temperatures to a heatwave, and an entire row of terraced houses lost its rooftops after they suddenly collapsed without warning, leaving the writer Will Self, among others, stranded on the street. I’ve never heard of such a thing happening before. The effect was quickly marked down to ‘Diurnal Shifting’, which sounds like an invented catch-all to me, diurnal merely meaning ‘something that happens during the day’.
Many of these house are over 150 years old have have been ravaged internally by successions of buyers and tenants, gutted again and again. And now there is a movement to reinvent the terrace, with modern designs starting to replace homes in the backstreets. I’ve always admired the economy and cosiness of Victorian and Edwardian houses – they’re brilliantly mapped out, but they were specifically built to house a family of five or six and a servant or two. It’s incredible now how many people now have modern glass rooms built onto the rear of traditional Victorian houses, so that they have the best of both worlds.
Having been raised in such houses, I grew tired of tearing out walls to make things work better and moved to an apartment of glass and light. It’s a semi-circular glass box built on the roof of an old warehouse, surrounded by water, so that the sunlight bounces from the water onto the ceilings and walls.
This means an end to Seasonal Affective Disorder, but it’s a harsh environment for books and computers. The best part is a sense of living permanently outdoors, which makes me feel very connected to the city all around me. The worst part is the peak of summer, when it gets dark just before midnight and starts brightening at 4:00am, with the result that you get just four hours of sleep.