Sunday, August 24, 2003
A consistent style
One of the problems buying property in the UK, I know, is that sometimes houses look, well, sub-standard. There are old charming cottages that everyone loves. There are modern houses that work very well, but nobody loves very much. There are Victorian houses which look good and substantial and everybody mucks them about (and then restores them). There are 1960’s houses which everybody says they don’t like but many live in. There are all sorts and all sorts of quality.
Here in the South of France, almost all houses look the same, whether they were built yesterday or a hundred years ago - possibly three hundred years ago. They all look equally charming, all equally liveable-in and all almost exactly identical.
No, to be a little more realistic, there are three distinct sorts of dwelling here. The ‘villa’ (like ours) - cream, orange or pink or any colour in between. The bâtiment - block of flats (or apartments) - generally the same colour as the villas but toned down and eye-wateringly repetitive and boring. And there’s the ‘old town’, stone and cement and tightly packed across cobbled lanes.
Nobody gets to live in the old town. Forget it. We all live in villas and apartments built in the last… well, who knows. They all look the same with no hint of a nod to fashion or technology.
When we first came here, we were due to move into a brand new house in a small lotissement (an estate really but with a nice French word). On visits here, I watched it being built and became less and less enthusiastic about our moving in.
The standard construction method these days is to pile up cement blocks (the lightweight, pebbly variety - not the diamond-surfaced ones we had in Switzerland)… loosely. Then they bash holes in them for the services.
(And in one memorable occasion down the road from us, they bash doorways in the newly set cement blocks when they appear to have misread the plans.)
They then have a few problems with project management, financing, human resources, perhaps and leave the naked blocks for a few months. They weather nicely gaining a beaten, rustic look… and more holes.
Doors and windows are cemented in place and the whole shebang is covered in a sort of plaster daub. This appears to be the source of all structural strength. When drilling into such a wall, it is clear that this outer shell is indeed much harder than the core.
This coating is allowed to dry and is painted - orange! There are variations. Within a lotissement, you’ll get cream (pale orange), rust (dark orange), even lavender (bluey orange), pink (embarrassing orange). Over the windows (which are often doors as well), they attach shutters. These are generally in a contrasting colour: blue, grey, green.
The whole landscape has a sort of toyland look which, if it were anywhere else in the world, would have the Disney Corporation suing for copyright infringement. Here it looks exactly as it should… except for the sneaky feeling that we’re not actually in Provence and we should have a vernacular architecture of our own.
Perhaps, indeed, the old town look is the true local architecture but this cartoon version has taken over and has been the norm for decades.
Anyway, we didn’t get the house. There are laws in France that allow a builder to declare a project delay if it rains. It’s something like that. Anyway, the date got put back and back and back. We found this house, finished - so I didn’t have to see its innards.
Long after we moved in, we could take a trip to the original house and watch it being beaten into the oh-so-familiar shape.
Inner walls in houses down here are slightly thicker than cardboard. Slightly.