Semi-Detached: The Architectural Roots of Brexit

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 12/09/2016 03:05:00 PM
Look closely enough and you might find the roots of Brexit.
I almost forgot to post this interesting architectural analogy made in the Financial Times in the wake of the dreaded Brexit. With all sorts of thoughtful commentary of the "I knew this was going to happen all along" variety made referencing British history, this was the best of the lot. For instance, in 1534, Henry VIII famously renounced the Catholic Church and created the Church of England for the main purpose of facilitating his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. So, the 2016 Brexit was simply another move towards isolation from the continental cousins. This is your British divorce to paraphrase Steely Dan.

Even more intriguing, though, is the idea that Brexit has architectural roots. Instead of being at the center of action at all times, the British supposedly prefer a modicum of isolation from their near-neighbors--while not being entirely too far away. Proximate but not very close, in other words.
England, says historian David Starkey, enjoys a “semi-detached relationship with continental Europe”. The phrase is revealing. First, the reference is to “England”, not “Britain”. Second, the metaphor he uses is architectural. What more English archetype is there than the semi-detached house? That strange hybrid that doesn’t stand on its own — it is inseparable from its neighbour — yet somehow still embodies a dream of suburban independence.

The paradox of the conjoined semi, the Siamese twin of architecture, as a symbol simultaneously of British independence and dependence, perfectly encapsulates the contradictions at the heart of British, and more specifically English, difference. But it is only one. British dreams of domesticity are characterised by peculiarly native typologies: the semi, the bungalow, the Victorian terraced house, the chocolate-box country cottage. Why dream of a cottage when, in your fantasy world, you could just as easily have a villa?
Good question. Again, the point is that reasonably prime accommodations will require compromises among those who are not exceedingly wealthy.  In Britain, this often involves abutting the wall of one's neighbor to save on building expenses as a sacrifice--but not to the extent of regular interaction with him or her. It is a profoundly middle-class ideal. A German sent to investigate the virtues of British architecture relative to that on the continent had this to say:
What Muthesius found was an architecture perfectly suited to the particular conditions of English domestic life. This was something very different to the continental apartments that formed the housing stock of Germany and central and much of northern Europe. On the continent apartments were arranged for effect. Sequences of enfilade rooms, grand chambers and halls overlooked the (often noisy) street while mean service spaces and servants’ quarters backed on to dingy courtyards. Prestige was imparted by scale and location — not convenience. There was little privacy and rows of interconnecting rooms were impractical and inflexible.

In Britain, on the other hand, Muthesius found houses that were tailored to their inhabitants’ needs. Corridors and halls provided separation between rooms and privacy for their occupants (from each other, from servants and from children). Larger rooms accommodated dining and billiard tables, while bedrooms, studies and drawing rooms were intimate and cosy. There was space, but not an excess of it. Location appeared slightly less important to the Brits but the garden — front for separation, back for relaxation — was sacrosanct. The difference lies in what was sacrificed: the British might sacrifice a place within the streets and squares of the city centre for a leafy suburban site, whereas the continentals gave up space and greenery for a prestigious location.
When I am feeling less charitable, I attribute Brexit to racism and xenophobia. However, can it be that there are less sinister reasons for preferring this sort of living arrangement with the rest of Europe--semi-detached? 

I guess there's little point in guessing by now.