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The psychopath is in the detail

British architects have been gripped by wood mania

A mania for wood detailing has gripped British architects in its tongue-and-groove. Ouch! It doesn't matter how dark or twisted the urban alley you wander down is, at the end of it you're bound to find a spanking new block of "luxury" flats, its façade a chequerboard of plate glass and outsize Venetian blind slats. More often than not, this gallimaufry will be dubbed with some spurious-sounding pseudo-place-name, such as "Viking Wharf" or "Visigoth Quay".

Not, you dig, that all this wood detailing is the same - and nor, of course, is it all real wood! There's vertical tongue-and-groove such as you would expect to be cladding a sauna; there are rough-hewn planks horizontally ranged; there are the inevitable slats; and there are cod-Kyoto battens arranged in grids like the pieces in a permanently frozen game of Jenga, that hip version of spillikins that was all the rage a couple of decades ago, and to which I was introduced by (you guessed it) an architect.

Indeed, when I first noticed these timber wedges being hammered into the whory old faces of British cities, it occurred to me that perhaps the artificers' inspiration had been Jenga itself. After all, if Hollywood can make films out of theme park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean) and Jordan can "write" bestselling novels, why shouldn't the built environment become the aftermath of a W11 dinner-party game writ horribly large?

Factory Girl on Methedrine

My nephew Jack, who did his first three years at the University of New South Wales but who's now transferred to the Architectural Association in order to qualify as a Jenga player, has a different take on our reforested cities. He cites the influence of the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, who, despite winning the Pritzker (the Nobel of architecture prizes), still operates out of a one-man practice and espouses a philosophy characterised as "touch the earth lightly": the use of indigenous materials, and careful apprehension of climate, topography and site, to produce holistic structures, often of great beauty.

Poor, dear, deluded Jack - we'll learn 'im. I doubt the Brit woodentops have heard of Murcutt, let alone been influenced by him. No, their sylvan bastards are undoubtedly the result of an unholy, and unconscious, miscegenation: one of the progenitors has to be the mid-1980s concept of "riverside" and "loft" apartments that owe their genesis to the death of the London docks. Having reached an early and complete expression in Canary Wharf, these have since spread like some sinister virus from the defunct industrial and dock sectors of most British cities until they infest even the leafiest of 'burbs.

This kind of housing, which owes its origin to the colonisation of Manhattan's defunct industrial and warehouse spaces by trendy arty Sixties types, carries with it a subliminal message: it doesn't matter if you're a City wonk who spends his days spoofing the pensions of millions for billions; you can still aspire to the libidinous and freewheeling condition of a Factory Girl bombed on Methedrine. Sadly, judging by the current impasse of the British economy, this exercise in psycho-ergonomics has worked only too well.

The other partner to this splintery equation is the environment . . . stupid. During the first half of this decade, Britain experienced an unprecedented run of hot summers; architects and developers rushed to respond to global warming by tacking bits of wood on to every little box of ticky-tacky they assembled. Just as the half-timbering on a 1930s Tudorbethan semi spoke of Shakespearean solidity and olde worlde charm, so the new timbering spoke of a deep, sensitive and emphatically sustainable response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's forecast of a 3° rise in global temperatures by the middle of the century. Unfortunately, they should have consulted with the Factory Girls in their wharves and quays before shouting "Tim-berrrr!" because, as anyone from the financial services industry could've told them, the value of stocks and shares can fall as well as rise.

No one really knows what the impact of global warming will be on Britain's temperate island climate: the hot years of 2001-2005 have been succeeded by the wet ones of 2006-2009. Hell, some householders in Tewkesbury have probably had to tear the blinds off the façades of their luxury flats and build rafts to escape the deluges of the past three summers. If, as some predict, the Gulf Stream is "switched off", and Britain plunged into a new Holocene, the sight of its citizenry huddled in their manifold layers of Gap woollies around fires made from useless wooden architectural detailing will no doubt become commonplace.

At the very least, we can expect to see these pseudo-green embellishments weathering to a silvery-greyish hue, and streaked black with the toxic rains of our conurbations, since most of the wood used is either cedar or iroko, which doesn't require regular creosoting.

Our woeful postmodernism

Adolf Loos (1870-1933) viewed architectural detailing as "criminal" and coined the slogan "Form follows function" to describe the kind of technologically inspired, Promethean architecture that would come to characterise modernism. So, for the past two decades, this "discourse" of twaddle has all been Terry Farrell kiddie-geometry, or Quinlan Terry classicism-nouveau - and now comes the woodiness, not so much criminal as outright psychopathy. Modernism may have had its brutal consequences, yet what can we make of our woeful postmodernism, where form seems to follow nothing but a lack of gumption?

Madness of Crowds will appear fortnightly. Will Self's new column on food, Real Meals,will appear in the new Critics section on alternate weeks

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter