A love letter to the conservatory, a useless hangover from our wildest suburban dreams

Families spent the 1990s attaching these big glass rooms to their homes, only to quickly discover they were useless for most of the year. What a fitting parable for the weirdness of suburban life
November 10, 2020

Recently, I found myself reading about conservatories. Not musical conservatories—far be it from me to guess at what the New York Philharmonic gets up to. No, I mean the other kind of conservatory: the big glass rooms that suburban families spent the 1990s attaching to their homes, then occasionally using between the months of April and May—after that, it’s too hot—and September and October—after that, it’s too cold. In my deep dive on conservatories, trawling through architecture websites and interior design blogs to understand these daft little glass structures we were once obsessed with, I kept discovering facts that made me laugh. “The conservatories of the 1980s and ‘90s promised a lot but didn’t quite deliver,” says an article by Guernsey-based practice Create Architecture. “If you have one attached to your house, it could be transformed into a valuable asset that works for the way you live now.”

Everything about this sentence tickles me. There’s the exhausted sense of failure in “promised a lot, but didn’t quite deliver,” as though the conservatory was an ill-advised first marriage. “If you have one attached to your house…” positions it like a brain tumour, and not a thing you planned and paid lots of money for. The kicker, for me, is “could be transformed into a valuable asset.” Which, if you actually have a conservatory, must be a real kick in the arse. I mean, weren’t these things originally added to our houses because someone convinced us that they were valuable assets in the first place? Just how on earth did we get stuck with these white elephants?

I have my theories. First, I think the invention of double glazing in the 1980s gave people in the UK and Ireland a false sense of how much time they could spend around huge walls of glass. We were told that double glazing could keep the cold out, and we interpreted this message as “double glazing keeps you warm, raises your children, and turns your home into a tropical island paradise.” Second, I think there was a general obsession in contemporary interior design with adding rooms to your house. Everyone had a grand plan, whether or not they ever acted on it, and it usually involved converting the loft into a spare bedroom, the shed into a games room, and the garden into a glass prison. It’s hard to imagine a millennial homeowner with the same concern, as gardens become more prized than ever and most of us shrink at the idea of the kitchen and the living room being in separate parts of the house.

Here is what you found in the average, middle-class conservatory: slightly clammy deck-chair coverings. A wicker chair. A stack of very old issues of Hello! magazine. Two board games. A half-dead bee. One piece of portable gym equipment, like an exercise mat, or a weird metal bracket you use for sit-ups.

But when the conservatory was first erected, you invited over your neighbours, and all of you sat in the shining new glass atrium. A new conservatory, before the gym equipment and dead bees, was a thing of beauty: gleaming double glazing, plump cushions, leafy plants. The conservatories in my neighbourhood were designed by stay-at-home mothers whose homes were overrun with children and pets, and who erected these structures as temples of adult female solitude. Every time you wandered in, your mum and her friends would be there, hosting a highly localised talk show concerned chiefly with Who’s Getting A Divorce and Whose Son Is On Drugs.

If you grew up in suburbia, I’m willing to bet you will find everything suburban… well, a bit funny. We lacked the drama of the city; we didn’t know the depth of the countryside. What we had instead was… stuff. On the street I grew up on, each house hosted its own fantasies, becoming grist for the gossip mill. The house that transformed itself into a showroom for dancing plastic Santa Clauses every Christmas became the neighbourhood’s star attraction. The house that got a water bed sparked rumours for years that the couple who lived there were perverts of the highest order. One house spent thousands building a pool and banned local children from going near it. The tacky, terrible, tender ephemera of the suburbs is the stuff that haunts my dreams the most.

I’m moving soon to an outer south London borough, on a street that can only be described as a suburban one. After years of flats above high streets, I will now live on a road where children learn to ride their bikes. I visited the other day to sign contracts, and glimpsed my new neighbours through a window. Only, it wasn’t a window. It was… you guessed it.

People in glass houses, eh?