I don’t know whether you caught the item on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday morning on what apparently is called “emotionally durable design”. Jonathan Chapman, professor of sustainable design at Brighton University, was talking about designing items that people would still want to own in say 20 years time. One example was some trainers designed by Emma Whiting, with a stain resist pattern, so that as they pick up dirt the pattern emerges. You can find the interview here.
This got me thinking about buildings. To generalise, traditional building materials and detailing are all about ageing well, whereas buildings in the modern era are all about the pristine photographic image on Day 1. There is a whole sub-discipline of conservation that deals with rescuing modernist buildings, which often fall out of favour and are difficult to rescue – Dudley Zoo is one example.
Another example from the interview were a set of wooden coasters, which are allowed to stain through use, but where the stains become part of the design. The current fashion in architecture for unprotected timber boarding which is allowed to weather naturally is perhaps trying to achieve the same thing. This is fine where the material is matched with appropriate detailing which allows the timber to weather equally, but usually one ends up with unsightly staining between areas that see the rain and those that do not.
So what does ‘Emotional Durability’ have to do with churches? We live in a culture where we are encouraged to crave new things, and where it is the poor that have old, second hand objects. So to see value in old churches is quite counter-cultural; yet if the gutters are kept clear and if cement mortar is not used for repairs these buildings are amazingly durable, and in general people love them for still standing there, often at the centre of their community. They provide a sense of rootedness amidst the newness of the objects we surround ourselves with. And for new church buildings, we should think beyond our own immediate needs, and think of the ‘lovability’ of the work we do for future generations. By doing so we can put our present functional needs in the context of the bigger story of which we are a part, of those who came before and those who will follow after.