Bliss or blight? The jury is still out
Published 20/05/2015 | 02:30
There are many differing opinions regarding what type of building design is appropriate for the Irish countryside. A clean, simple, unfussy look is generally accepted as best but residences of all appearances, shapes and sizes continue to spring up along our minor roads and lanes, often in the most unlikely places.
Some are unobtrusive, well sited and attractive and some are, shall we say, less than ideal.
In 1970, the late Jack Fitzsimons published the now famous, or according to some critics, infamous book Bungalow Bliss which became a runaway best seller.
Whatever one might think of the designs, there is no doubt that Jack provided a great service by supplying house plans at a very modest cost. Naturally, the architectural profession objected, but then what is good design? Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.
Much of the criticism that was heaped on the new houses dotting our scenic rural areas was due to the habit of building them on hill tops rather than within the landscape. In the 1970s a rash of bungalows undoubtedly diminished many areas of great natural beauty.
More recently the Celtic Tiger years produced some awful 'McMansions' which were not only large and intrusive but were often located in the most prominent positions possible.
Presumably this was to announce to the rest of us that their owners were now wealthy, a bit like the British did in the 17th and 18th centuries. Just in case we might miss them, some even had their exteriors floodlit at night time.
Facebook currently hosts a page titled 'Ugly Irish Houses' which introduces us to what they call "hideous Celtic Tiger mansions" and it is amusing to scroll down the images.
Most of them have in common a multitude of clashing architectural features, an absence of natural materials such as gravel driveways and a shared insistence of surrounding the exterior with tarmacadam, cobble lock, concrete or a combination of all three.
Do rural houses really need Grecian-style columns, fake ornate balustrades and large, very obvious entrances?
What might be just about passable in a suburban setting isn't necessarily suitable in the countryside.
Tarmacadam is low maintenance and useful if you are running a shop or petrol station, but along with concrete and other impervious materials, is not environmentally friendly and creates run-off flooding which can cause huge problems when multiplied over the area of a populated townland.
I do note, however, that a permeable form of asphalt is now available, but surely gravel driveways, and lawns with gardens that actually grow something, are best.
They support wildlife, absorb heavy rain and slow its movement to drains and groundwater. They also look good and are natural and productive rather than sterile and manufactured.
Michael Viney wrote some years ago about the blight of bungalows in the west of Ireland and argued that they represented a celebration of our escape from poverty.
He suggested that given time and some sensitive landscaping, these houses would eventually blend in to their surroundings.
This is really the core point of the whole issue relating to rural housing and the planning authorities may be partly to blame for the problem.
They often insist on the removal of roadside hedges. Walls are then usually erected in their place.
What should be mandatory is to immediately plant trees and hedgerows that will enable the house to become at least partially hidden and gradually blend in with the countryside. Virginia creepers, clematis, roses and a whole host of other climbing species work wonders on bare walls - they can turn a stark building in to a thing of beauty while also providing nesting sites for songbirds.
Wisteria wandering along an outside wall or across a roof looks stunning, especially in May when its scent and flowers enhance any home lucky enough to have one.
I must here mention the sad practice that some home owners engage in of knocking down the nests of house martens and swallows so they won't "dirty" their precious walls and tarmacadam.
Think of the pleasure of sitting out on a summer's evening watching swifts, swallows and house martens as they swirl across the sky, catching flies for their young.
Then imagine a poor swallow returning to Ireland all the way from Africa only to have its new home knocked to the ground as soon as it is built. Bungalow bliss indeed.