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Saturday, 4 July 2009

Plastic window-frames will rot your soul

Mary & Jerry recommend Christopher Howse's article in the Telegraph

A Personal View! Everyone needs protecting from UPVC, not just architectural snobs.

Plastic windows are an abomination. But they do not rot. Hence their meretricious allure. A "plague" of these window-frames has swept, like plastic pig flu, over our grey and pleasant conservation areas, according to Simon Thurley, the head of English Heritage. "It's a very big issue," he says.

To which you might be tempted to reply: "Come off it." Yet even if it is not quite as big an issue as Iran, he is right. Indeed, it is worse than he says, for no street, be it never so humble and miles from a

conservation area, should be blighted by plastic windows.

If the eyes are the windows of the soul, windows are the eyes of houses. Our sight is drawn to them; if they're wrong, the whole thing looks ugly. It is like trying to make eye contact with a man who squints.

On television, the great defender of proper windows was Alec Clifton-Taylor, who changed the way a generation looked at the streets around them with his series Six English Towns
(followed by six more). "What could be more agreeable?" he would ask, leaning sideways at the corner of Broad Street, Ludlow.

Pity the foolish freeholder who had done away with the glazing-bars of his windows, leaving dark expanses of flat glass that made the facade look blind. Clifton-Taylor's reaction to double-glazing merchants was much the same as that of the owner of a riding stables might be to a request by the protagonist of Equus
for a night's lodgings.

The forces acting here, though, are not purely architectural. It being England, snobbery comes into it. An elegant Georgian construction is the most des res, and such houses had nicely formed bars to hold the glazing. So these features became a shibboleth of domestic architecture, not met in debased Victorian Gothic, or worse, 1950s Modernism. Anyone who doubts this only has to consider the neighbours' reaction to Lord
Rogers's designs for the Chelsea barracks site.

Ah, you may say, UPVC doesn't mean ugly windows. It can be moulded to look like the finest work of William Kent. But even if it could be, it isn't. It is given horribly sharp-edged, flat-profile, lifeless finishes. It discolours, becomes brittle and cracks (although the makers insist that this is not now such a problem). You can spot a plastic window at 50 paces. It is what nylon shirts were in the 1960s - easy-care and cheap, and they looked it.

Perhaps it is going too far to say that plastic windows are inevitably fatal. Greenpeace calls the material they are made from "killer plastic", as it produces toxic waste. But a similar argument would ban granite cellars in Cornwall, which fill up with poisonous, radioactive radon gas. No one minds that.

Worse than shortening your life, however, is that plastic windows rot the soul. They are part of the degradation of the humane, along with ready meals, ballpoint pens,
fleeces, bacon that oozes white stuff, air-conditioning, gangster rap, chewing gum, digital cameras, floodlighting, MP3 players on trains, cellophane-wrapped flowers, microwaves, air-fresheners and UHT milk.

At a residents' meeting, my neighbours debated whether we should get plastic window-frames to replace the century-old wood. They might have done it, too, but for the rules of the conservation area where we live.

In a free country, everyone would be allowed to tear down their house and build up anything they wanted. Such were the freedoms that left us some of the most glorious treasures of our architectural inheritance. But householders cannot be trusted any more, let alone architects and councils. So if we do need constitutional reform, a beneficent measure would be to outlaw plastic window frames throughout the land, in perpetuity. Christopher Howse