In the seventeenth century, a new form of housing emerged in London: the Georgian “townhouse”.
The townhouse’s emergence was fuelled by the vital interaction between ever more sophisticated approaches to property finance and contemporary architects’ increasing access to classical Roman and Greek styles of architecture. The ease with which speculative builders such as Nicholas Barbon could replicate some of the obvious markers of the style helped create the conditions for such townhouses to be churned out at a remarkable rate from the 18th century onwards. As John Summerson notes in his classic study Georgian London, this system of leasehold tenure supported by hereditary landlords “brought half of London into being”.
Given its persistence up to the present day, the Georgian townhouse would appear to be a peculiar candidate for architectural failure. But it is in its persistence that we can locate a lamentable over-emphasis on exchange value in the contemporary housing market. In London, this is expressed in two particular ways: in the pale imitation of the Georgian façade in new-build properties; and in the preponderance of basement extensions in areas where the original houses stand.
Hastings Street was built as part of the first phase of regeneration of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich in the early 2000s. “A flat, suburban neo-Georgian style, scarcely lifted by white quoining” writes the Woolwich edition of the Survey of London. Yet this sop to the Georgian style has not prevented the leasehold for these “highly sought after” houses from selling at nearly half a million pounds. The summary for one house proudly emphasises its “mock-Georgian” style. This really only amounts to the façade, inside it has none of the trappings that of the original townhouses. ….