Not quite architecture: Spirited sheds foil the planners

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHAT'S this? A fashionable Tokyo office block designed by some silk-suited Deconstructivist architect? Seen from the road it could well be. Close up, this office tower turns out to be no more than about seven feet high and botched together in a manner that no architect or planner - from Tokyo to New York - would begin to consider. No, this glorious amalgam of plastic components is a potting shed in an allotment by the railway tracks in the shadow of the gas works at Ponders End, north London. Its one of those unclassifiable buildings that dot the British landscape - from beach huts to tree houses - that are not quite architecture. Each month examples these curios will be featured on this page.

Its siblings include every variety of organic, low-tech, free-form and generally lashed-together buildings. These spirited sheds make up an extraordinary miniature cityscape, free from the dead hand of planning committees and conceptual rigours of professional architects.

The allotment shed is one of the only building types left in the hands of owners to shape more or less as they please; farmers can still get away with more or less what they want to build, but for most of us the building process if a bureaucratic nightmare. Few sheds are self-consciously styled, yet most have something of the nave charm of a seascape by Alfred Wallis or the flowerscape of an English cottage garden. They are made out of whatever materials come to hand: packing cases, plastic panels, window frames, doors recovered from builders' skips and anything else that can be pressed into the service of an organic, horticultural architecture.

There have been po-faced attempts to clean up the design and architecture of allotments. In 1969 a report by Henry Thorpe of Birmingham University's department of geography criticised their shanty-town appearance. The professor recommended that allotments should be treated as leisure gardens, with curved paths and trees. Sheds should be designed according to prim guidelines.

Birmingham City Council adopted the Thorpe report with enthusiasm, weeding out the very vernacular qualities of city allotments that make them such a relief in a world of interfering, dead-hand officialdom.

Fortunately, most allotments are owned by councils happy to let people tend narrow strips of fruit and vegetables as they see fit. Allotments have yet to be deregulated and turned into profit centres. Their ramshackle architecture remains, however, grit in the eyes of those who see them as anomalies in the ordered fabric of our cities. For others, they are places of escape and relaxation as well as a cheap source of fresh food.

Allotments date back to the second half of the 18th century. Agricultural labourers swarming into cities in search of work also needed somewhere to grow food. Allotments appeared on flood plains, on the fringes of housing estates and factories and on land between railway tracks.

During the two world wars, they played an important part in Britain's attempts to be self-sufficient in food, and have recently become much feted by the youthful middle classes.

Approximately 50,000 acres of British soil are given over to 500,000 individual allotment plots. These are rented cheaply - an average of pounds 8 to pounds 15 a year, up to pounds 50 in London.

Allotments give everyone the chance to build, make functional hideaways, places to escape while doing something useful and enjoyable. For the most part, no one tells you what you can or cannot do. An Act of 1922 does insist that only fruit and vegetables can be grown, and the same Act also prevents commercial exploitation of allotments.

Safe - so far - from the Government's plans to commercialise every walk of life, the allotment remains a delightful and useful oddity: not quite urban, not quite rural, and not quite architecture.

(Photograph omitted)