Grand facades and little boxes, beloved of a million Pooters

Big or small, the terraced home is where the British heart is
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The Independent Online
Robert Jones sounds like a Coronation Street fan. The planning minister's image of terraced streets emptied of cars, a road fit for children kicking a ball about, conjures up the land of the Rovers Return, where a sense of community thrives. Terracing is probably the single most important reason why this is the most intimate of television soap operas.

When Channel 4's Brookside was launched in a close of semi-detached houses, none of the characters initially knew each other. Even EastEnders feels like a more fragmented place than its Granada rival. The reason: it's in a square, whereas Coronation Street is rooted in the terraced row.

We feel nostalgic for ways that spring from living at such close quarters. Coronation Street is where people from different classes can mix. "Ken Barlow may be head of English at a secondary school," says Paul Marquess, story editor of the series, "but he can still live three doors down from Gary and Judy Mallett, who are very loud, very common, lots of fun and living in a different world."

This is Britain at ease with itself, where alienation and breakdown are thwarted by architectural design.

Or perhaps Mr Jones has been listening to Radio 4's readings this week of The Diary of a Nobody, fictional reminiscences of Charles Pooter, whose efforts at social climbing from his Holloway terrace have amused generations. His witterings chime with a London middle class busily refurbishing run- down terraces, stripping doors, cherishing "original features" and creating grandeur in homes built for Victorian aspirants. There is an enduring fascination with this peculiarly English form of housing, which has dominated the urban landscape for two centuries.

In continental Europe, urban dwellers contented themselves with flats. In Britain (apart from Scotland) we wanted that little house with a garden. By 1911, nearly nine out of 10 Britons lived in some sort of row or another after a staggering period of building designed to accommodate a rise in the population of England and Wales to 36 million from 9 million a century before.

The terrace was the perfect solution. Most important, it was, says Martin Pawley, former editor of World Architecture, "fast and cheap to build with only two external walls and a roof that crossed from one house to another". The term "terrace" covered a great variety, from the grand classical facades of west London, Bath, Brighton and Cheltenham to the slums of the East End and the northern industrial cities. But they made it possible for all to live close to the booming cities.

The arrival of the suburban railways at the end of the nineteenth century signalled the end of the great boom in the terrace. Cheap fares and the car enabled workers to commute to the cities while living in semi-detached or even detached homes. Likewise, the appalling conditions in back-to- back terraces, home to the poorest, lent support to the post-war modern movement's desire to demolish the poorest housing which the Luftwaffe had not already bombed.

The middle-class variety also became the subject of disdain, as the folk singer Pete Seeger sang: "Little boxes, little boxes/And they are all made of ticky tacky/ Little boxes, little boxes/ And they all look just the same."

But the alternatives have won few hearts. For the poor,system-built concrete high-rises have been so abysmal as to prompt a rethink. Among the middle-classes, taking over the better terraces, there has been an appreciation of the flexibility of older housing. "We have the technologies," says Mr Pawley, "to make pretty unbearable housing bearable in the centre of cities. We take out chimneys, install central heating, convert attics in rooves, put in dormer windows."

Ben Derbyshire, partner with London-based HTA Architects, says he is a "serious enthusiast" for the terrace. "When we are asked to replace demolished high-rise estates, the first thing we do is examine the nineteenth- century street plans showing what the area was like before slum clearance. We often reintroduce old streets. When you look at our schemes and those in Victorian times, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference."

Terraces, he argues, are safer because they are hard to burgle from the back and because so many other homes look on to the front. Schemes in London's East End, Islington and Coin Street are largely faithful to Victorian principles. Ironically, in Hulme, a Manchester district near the area upon which Coronation Street was modelled 35 years ago, the Sixties concrete crescent blocks are being demolished.

The replacements look remarkably similar to where Ken Barlow and the Malletts continue to thrive.