Promising future? We British love our homes — even when they let us down
Considering Britain's wealth and brain bank, it is amazing how long it took us to learn how to build decent homes. However, our newest homes still have some of the smallest room sizes in Europe and we are currently building them at the slowest rate since the Second World War.
Margaret Thatcher's ill-conceived right-to buy scheme, the scrapping of size standards in the Eighties and John Prescott's destructive Pathfinder programme (which swept away rather than restored Victorian streets), have all taken their toll.
And London and other cities are still blighted by unloved high-rises, born of untested social engineering by post-war architects who, instead of a brave new world, created a brave new hell.
Yet our love of home soars above all these problems. We have one of the highest rates of home ownership in Europe; most of us aspire to a place of our own, however long it takes, and however hard it is to raise the funds. Home ownership is a major status symbol and, because status always implies aspiration, fashion, and style, we have some of the world's most varied housing.
"We spend more time at home than anywhere else," says TV presenter Sarah Beeney, guest curator, talking about the Royal Institute of British Architects' new exhibition, A Place to Call Home. It features 100 photographs, models and posters covering nearly 300 years of housing design in Britain.
One of the earliest drawings on show is of Banqueting House, Whitehall, in 1717. Its Italianate frontage suddenly makes sense when you look at later Georgian designs for Surrey Square in London, in 1795, and beautiful West Cliff Terrace in Brighton in 1825 (sadly never built). West Cliff Terrace has a classic Regency look, with a bit of Selfridges thrown in: big windows rhythmically spaced in a stuccoed brick façade, pretty pilasters and delicate wrought-iron balconies.
These ingredients became the benchmark for desirable British housing right into the 20th century. The Georgian four-storey terrace townhouse soon became the most flexible model for economical, space-saving and desirable housing. It could be just 14ft across, yet hold a family.
The townhouse was revisited in the Fifties and Sixties — and again today, when most of us admit that we want our own front door, a bit of land and a higher floor from where we can look down on people passing below.
The RIBA show takes you along a fascinating timeline. Here are the homes that developers built, that people either loved, or had to put up with. The first speculative builders were Georgian, responsible for many of London's greatest squares and terraces. But by the Industrial Revolution, whole cities were being thrown up to accommodate workers.
These dwellings were basic and the proportions mean — though the developers made huge profits. A grim picture of Hartlepool shows street after street of identical brick houses. This was the squalid, cholera-inducing brick-box housing that Victorian reformers, wealthy do-gooders, revolted against.
Their bucolic plans saw the development of garden cities such as Letchworth — green, well spaced, airy places with houses built on rural-looking models, with pantile roofs, whitewashed walls and gardens. For the first time, homes had their own water.
By the start of the 20th century, even philanthropic builders were building upwards to save costs, creating blocks such as London's Peabody and Guinness Estates and (on show) Shoreditch's famously stripy Boundary Estate, complete with bandstand.
MORTGAGES MEANT MORE
In the Thirties, lending rules changed. At last ordinary people could get mortgages relatively easily, which marked the beginning of a consumer-led boom and more choice. A glossy 1943 block of flats shows a desire for elegant living, while an amazing mini kitchen of 1945 offers a glimpse into the mind of a postwar housewife. She had worked in a factory, she knew what streamlined meant — and she wanted it. One diagram shows how a well-designed kitchen reduces running around. We find it funny, but it was a revelation.
Here, too, are the fateful experiments with high rise. Today, some, such as Keeling House in Bethnal Green, are considered highly desirable, yet other housing types are less appealing: compare the soulless, chimneyless new houses in a windswept field in Corby with a pair of new cottages in Poundbury, the Duchy development in Dorset. It is as if one is looking at two sides of the same coin — but if you tossed it, you'd know which is "heads".
* A Place to Call Home runs until April 17 at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, W1. Admission free. It is a shame there is no catalogue but Home Season is a series of films and talks accompanying the exhibition. Visit www.architecture.com/WhatsOn/Exhibitions/At66PortlandPlace/2012/Spring/APlacetocallHome.aspx