Naming Places | a stroll through the houses

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

I started off on a post-lunch walk today, wanting to process a lot of jumbly thoughts I'm having around ethics and morality, social justice and activism. There is loads of important and interesting things I'm mulling over and want to thrash out, but its heavy and complicated and still very mushy... In the end, I got distracted by some of the familiar but forgotten houses that line one of the well-trodden walks close to my Devon home - or more specifically, by their naming.

Prospect Place in Exeter - care homes for the elderly but with little architectural merit and poor design

I've always found it pretty funny how developers can get away with 'designing' cul-de-sacs of monocultured, minimum standard Bloor Homes for roll out across the country, then cover it over with an address like 'Hope Street', 'Prospect Place' or 'Some day you might not have to live here Walk'. I guess its a lot cheaper than building places that do create prospects?

This week I'm back in Devon however and today's walk followed an estuary through some fairly affluent areas - the kind of place where plots of land with views over the water tempt people to get a local architect in and design a one-off, show-off and often fenced-off detached house. I'm not exactly excited by the architectural merit of many of the dwellings, which often go for either a twee pastiche of rural bungalows and farmhouses, or a slightly under-detailed modern-look - more often an elaborate showing off of 'how big is your sea view?'

What's not to my taste in terms of individual design choice, however, also comes together to do a pretty poor job of placemaking, basically dividing space into portions of privately owned, fenced off land and property strung along the road and estuary. Often set back from the road, or otherwise screened via dense hedges, fences and security gates (despite being far from a crime hotspot); these dwellings then announce their presence to the public street via what I today noticed as a pretty funny collection of house names.

People have funny little ways of social peacocking...

Stile Cottage front door featuring gothic style detailing and windows

Stile Cottage

We name things for a reason and a lot of our names originate as descriptors of their function or occupation.

Though I couldn't see a stile anywhere near this cottage, I assume it did have one once upon a time and the name isn't merely a cover up for a taste in witchy gothic windows...

Bungalow set back from road with conservatory featuring signage to driftwood cottage


The most common naming process in Devon seems to want to show off how leafy, green and quaint we are.

Detached house with large paved turning area at front signed orchard vale

Orchard Vale

Despite removing all the trees for the big wall that guards our (decidedly not green) tarmaced driveways. Oh and to put our sign on to show we're quaint and green.

Large front gates with security to bar access to private interior, signage for orchard glen

Orchard Glen

Or really going all in for that 'secret garden mystique' (spoiler: there is no orchard or glen in their driveway)

bland white house with large driveway and three cars but whimsical sign for The Wurlie

The Wurlie

If the house name still jars with the dwelling behind, we can always resort to a whimsical font to help paint over the lack of architectural inspiration...

sea view house with large glazing and fancy front gates for security

Heron's Reach

Then there are those showy houses, the ones that like to put their money where its seen. I like the semi-permeable gate detailing for peeks at that manicured lawn reflecting off the glazing. And a jolly good British name on a shiny silver plaque out the front - 'Heron's Reach' somehow aspirational yet attainable?

garage door, closed, little life, named Exe View

Exe View

Much as I do prefer a bountiful veg garden to a manicured lawn, I can't help feeling sorry for their neighbours who clearly decided to direct the outsider's attention away from the house...

foregrounded flowers with view through fence to estuary behind

... though it is a good view to be fair

entrance to house named catkins via front gates and green hedge. Stuffed toy cat on sign


It is hard to pass up the opportunity to capitalise on those cutesy house names though isn't it? At least it feels a bit more inviting!

closed gates to house named halswell with lavender planted in front of wall


The public realm?

No worries, we've planted some lavender - Hall's well


The Language of Space | divide to conquer?

"the image of man becomes an image for man"

- Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics

Language is important and something I think about often. It is key in the way we communicate ideas, how we identify ourselves and eachother and it shapes our thoughts and perceptions.

I wonder whether house names are a subconscious reflection of our intentions at place-making, a bit of lazy last minute design (we've all tried to rescue that bad project with a good pun or title) or actually a pretty powerful component of separating our myths from reality. Physical and spatial separation, linguistic separation and cognitive separation are all interlinked, feeding one another to create and reinforce our beliefs, ideologies and behaviours.

If we feel like we can create a nice environment simply by calling it a nice environment, without considering process or impact, then I think we have a long way to go before we even scratch the surface of creating meaningful places. Yet without the spaces and connections we need to live sustainable and fulfilling lives, we'll face a hard challenge to make the behavioural changes required of us in time to meet the demands of the 21st century world.

Place-making - the reality of rurality

We love to think of the countryside as a picturesque idyll of 'nature', objectifying and aestheticising it as a romanticised picture of tranquil community life and happy farms. Yet the reality of both of these is pretty different.

53,260 new houses need to be built across Devon to meet the government's targets for new housing provision by 2040 (GESP, 2019). Yet this effort is dominated by developer-led pockets of inefficient cul-de-sacs and individualised dwellings, stringing out existing towns and peripheries along the roads. It creates car-dependent, mono-functional living conditions with little community or common resource.

This model is a highly inefficient way to build our landscapes and lives, with 40% of land use within developed areas going to parking and roads, plus a further 27% to private gardens or lost in negative space between geometries (VeloCity, 2020). There is little to no provision for common resource such as playgrounds, parks and community buildings, giving little opportunity for social connection or sharing of common resource. It is a highly individualised and neoliberal response with no regard for place-making and makes for loneliness, intensive resource use and unsustainable living.

Particularly with growing trends of remote working, commuter towns and an aging population; our approach to rural development will be just as crucial as that for urban densification if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century. VeloCity are among those forming really interesting research and strategic approaches to embrace this issue and I'm excited to see what we could change going forwards.

The reality of the countryside surrounding these developments is just as divorced from the quaint, agricultural vernacular we like to imitate for our "Driftwood Cottages"s and "Orchard Vale"s.

Farming today is overwhelmingly intensive, monocultural and animal-based, producing living conditions that are far from idyllic for human and non-human animals alike. Devonshire walks outside of towns reveal endless fields, filled with sheep bred to use for their wool, cows packed into sheds and paddocks lined with rows of veal crates rearing surplus dairy calves.

Just like examples pictured above, these are most often hidden from sight behind hedges and gates, at the outskirts of development and far separated from the consumer. Instead, their interaction with the animals who produce their breakfast items is reduced to a branded package on a supermarket shelf. This spatial separation has such damaging impacts for so many - human and non-human - and is something I explored for my thesis within the context of dairy farming in the UK. The power of spatial planning intersects with our use of language to reinforce distorted perceptions, becoming key enablers for us to live in denial and continue to perpetuate damaging behaviours.

It's not what we imagine when we think of 'Countrylife Butter' or 'The Laughing Cow Cheese', but I suppose that is the power of names?

If we continue to live in the myths of rurality; in isolation, individual meritocracy and denial, we continue to live in separation. Detached from each other, from the environment and from reality. Dividing public from private, wealthy property owner from outsider, consumer from producer and human animals from all other animals allows us to continue telling narratives of entitlement, denial and superiority. I see both the way we shape places and the way we present them as fundamental to our experiences, which in turn shape our behaviours - it's why I see architecture as a core part of our activism. If we are serious about changing the inequalities we live in, we can't continue to segregate, exclude, hide and re-present tied up in a neat brand, behind a suggestive title for the public street.

I guess, much as I enjoy their quirks, I think there is a lot more than we realise in a name.

taylor wimpey development of copy and paste developer housing in Devon

I guess at least 'Wimpey Homes' is effective use of language

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