By Fiona Walker
I REMEMBER, back in my days as a radio presenter, asking an architect why we didn’t create a modern ‘Jersey style’ for use when new buildings and, especially, new estates were being designed. After all, we have some sensational houses and delightful country cottages around the Island, built over centuries with beautiful Jersey granite, many of which could surely be used as inspiration for a contemporary vision. At the time – and I’m talking about 25 or so years ago – a number of small estates were springing up, comprising an overabundance of characterless little boxes, all blandly similar. The reply was that to introduce a pseudo-traditional style would merely be a pastiche. It was far too late to initiate something like that anyhow, and it wouldn’t enhance the local landscape in any way.
A quarter of a century on, and I’m wondering how different Jersey would look today if that policy had been introduced. There were around 35,500 households in Jersey according to the 2001 census; the 2021 census recorded 48,500. Clearly not all of those dwellings are houses, and not all of the houses built in the intervening period are characterless boxes, but you only have to look around the Island to know that development has continued apace over the past two decades, generally without any recognisable, cohesive style.
I also remember being in France around the turn of the century and marvelling at how the smallest new-builds in Brittany reflected the style of the region. French windows (not surprisingly) were a common feature; other windows were framed by shutters, whilst natural stone was used to adorn properties, either banding a doorway or window, as cornerstones or to create a feature chimney. Promoting and updating the traditional style was a successful means of reinforcing the region’s cultural identity, and, more importantly, it was also a means of creating attractive, distinct, noteworthy homes. A pastiche? No, just a contemporary regional style.
The French also have a knack of combining the old and the new. Many traditional houses had a well-designed, modern extension, often comprising swathes of glass to maximise any views. Somehow, despite the difference in age between each part of the house, they blended in harmony to create a visually pleasing hybrid.
We may be a part of ‘Les Iles Anglo-Normandes’ but when it comes to Jersey architecture, it seems we’ve often aligned ourselves to the worst of the British, instead of adopting the best of the French.
That’s not to say that France hasn’t made its fair share of architectural errors over the years. There are plenty of carbuncles, those buildings that make you wonder how and why planning permission was ever granted or why anyone would take pride in designing such brutalist monstrosities. Sadly, those mistakes are repeated worldwide.
We all have different opinions of what is attractive and what isn’t when it comes to development, but I still believe that to introduce a ‘Jersey style’, even at this late date, would be beneficial to the future Island landscape. It is hard to understand how using themes that have been a part of our traditional design for several centuries could be considered a pastiche, and while we may no longer have the resources to build our houses solely of granite or to include dormers with glass side-windows, even to pay lip service to these features would create a contemporary version to blend with our ancient heritage; occasional granite features such as quoins, lintels or date stones would be a good starting point. Perhaps even a pastiche, when interpreted with sensitivity to the surroundings, can eventually evolve into an acceptable and, ultimately, valued traditional style.
That’s not to say that we should abandon innovative and exciting architecture; we have some exceptional new-builds around the Island and – although what is beautiful to one person may be an eyesore to another – unusual and pioneering design still creates interest and variety and, crucially, showcases the style of a new generation.
Currently, many planning decisions in the Island appear to be made on the whim of an individual. If we adhered, at least in part, to a more cohesive style of architecture, those boring little boxes could become a thing of the past. Personal planning applications would also be simplified if potential applicants had a clearer idea of what may or may not be considered acceptable before drawing up their plans.
To replace bland and featureless architecture with more focused and appealing development, including a modern interpretation of our own heritage, would both enhance the local landscape and promote our island identity.