Like a beige, banal biscuit tin: why London’s new buildings

If you’ve walked through redeveloped parts of London recently you may have noticed an eerily similar type of building. Every edge is so crisp and flat that staring at it face-on gives you the weird sensation the world has temporarily turned 2D. This single style has emerged as the hegemonic default for housing developments in London. Dubbed New London Vernacular (NLV), it has three key markers: lots of brick, deep-set portrait windows and flat facades. The name is utilitarian, to match its attitude: new London to mark its age and location, and vernacular to describe its defining purpose, which is to speak broadly the same dialect as some of the capital’s most valuable properties.

NLV is catnip to planners, who have had to abide by the London Housing Design Guide since 2010. This guide spells out exactly what the NLV should be: “great background architecture”. It came from the desk of the then mayor of London, Boris Johnson, whose mark on the face of London’s contemporary housing stock will long outlive the expensive wallpaper on the walls of No 10. Developers are drawn to the discretion offered by NLV because everything from a studio flat to a penthouse can be slotted into these facades, meaning they can appeal to a variety of buyers.

The style entered the mainstream architecture discourse in 2012, in a report by Design for Homes and Urban Design London (UDL). The report drew a direct link between the identikit buildings that were appearing in architecture competitions and the political and economic conditions of the period. UDL director Esther Kurland, who co-authored the 2012 report, first heard about this new style when listening to Johnson give a talk at City Hall. Slowly, every new development and competition entry she saw started to look the same.

There is a certain level of fakery involved in all this. Writing about London’s rediscovered love for brick in the Financial Times in 2016, Edwin Heathcote wondered if all these grand facades wrapped in brick are “just a ploy”. Bricks and mortar are associated with solid dependability, but brick towers are an illusion. Brick walls can only climb up to four stories without support, whereas the new brick facades towering into our skies are glued on to brackets and held up by sections of steel. “I often wonder, if you got a good run-up with a few friends, if you could push a sofa out through one of those walls”, says Andrew Waugh, the co-founder of Waugh Thistleton Architects.

East Village, on the former London 2012 Olympic Village site in Stratford.
East Village, on the former London 2012 Olympic Village site in Stratford. Photograph: Anthony Palmer/Alamy

London’s mayoralty insists that its new homes must look like old homes – just new, and more of them. So the city has ended up with endless variations of a Georgian terrace that looks like it’s been rendered in Minecraft. “It is the perpetuation of the status quo masquerading as sensitivity,” says Adam Nathaniel Furman, who creates colourful architectural interventions for London. To them, the style celebrates an “imaginary shared past that is really only a false nostalgia”.

It also leaves little room for innovation. NLV was partly a reaction to the preceding decades, where every developer was after a landmark. After the 2008 financial crisis developers, worried they might be left with something they would struggle to sell, became increasingly conservative. While the idea of houses not selling seems laughable in today’s superheated London property market, the brick-by-numbers nature of NLV has endeared itself to developers by protecting their bottom line. And it works well for developers looking to cap construction costs, because these buildings all have similar details, so it means subcontractors don’t need to start from scratch with every different building scheme.

This cookie-cutter approach has not gone down well with critics. Peter Cook, the architect renowned for his daring designs for fantastical cities as part of the radical collective Archigram, dispraisingly referred to the trend as architecture by “beige and banal biscuit boys” in a 2016 speech given at an Architects’ Journal awards. Six years later, London resembles an entire biscuit tin. But the blame doesn’t rest entirely with architects, particularly those early in their career who work long hours for low pay on unfulfilling projects. Increasingly, studios compete to undercut each other, attracting developers with the lowest fees and fastest turnarounds.The copy-and-paste aesthetic of NLV is a necessity for a design team working to breakneck deadlines; it also appeals to clients, by keeping costs low for subcontractors who don’t need to learn new techniques to execute each project.

At least biscuits can be dependable carbohydrates, even if they’re a little bland. Brick weathers well, and does not look tired and old. It’s better than skin-deep and potentially dangerous cladding, at least. The style is also conscientiously human in scale, with doors opening on to the street and a focus on balconies and well-proportioned windows. We might as well all get used to it; NLV appears to be spreading outside the bounds of the capital in an unstoppable biscuity tide. “I am seeing more of it outside London than in now,” Kurland told me. Britain’s next architecture trend may well be wall-to-brick-clad-wall of Conservative Biscuit Vernacular.