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20th Century British Housing At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 26 June

A testament to failure

This riba exhibition, coinciding with the publication of Ian Colquhoun's RIBA Book of 20th Century British Housing (Architectural Press, £24.99), is superb - superb, that is, if all the visitor wants is a simple run- through of the received wisdoms and prejudices which have guided the riba Housing Group for the last few decades.

It is clearly laid out, with well conceived boards, and concise but informative captions; easy to transport, easy to erect and easy to understand. But it is banal beyond belief in its conceptualisation of housing. Anyone who wants to understand why architects play so small a role in creating the images and aspirations of homes need look no further.

Here are all the old architectural favourites: some people might go to such an exhibition in anticipation of meeting old friends; I think of it more with the dread of a family reunion attended by aged and undeservedly venerated relations. Hampstead Garden Suburb and the early LCC estates take their ineluctable bows; Ossulton Street and the ubiquitous walk-up, gallery-access blocks receive their expected credit; and so through the architecturally approved canon of Tecton, post-war LCC and the new towns.

Dividing the period into 'the early years' (1900-18), 'homes fit for heroes' (1919-39), 'years of ambition' (1945-51), 'pursuit of an ideal' (1951-79), and 'new directions' (1979-97) ties the peaks and troughs of housing to political periods and further reinforces the sense of a teleological progression, with state-provided, universally applicable housing solutions being what the organisers really admire.

The remarkable coincidence that almost the only private developments are Modernist - as if the private sector's only purpose is to demonstrate Modernism's potential, an argument used by FRS Yorke in 1934 - underline this impression. Perhaps someone should tell them that SPAN went bankrupt.

It's easy to conclude that this is just a well-intentioned if simplistic summary of housing design, but the truth is far more sinister. Embodied within this innocuous and superficially plausible show are all the failings of the riba's approach to housing over half a century.

The exhibition suggests that merely repeating best practice is enough; it does not acknowledge that the what is needed is more on the scale of a paradigm shift. It suggests that a gentle Modernistic and limited architectural perspective is enough to produce decent housing, a belief that cloaks its hubris in the language of the 'people's detailing'. It fails to acknowledge the fact that housing is about aspiration, and that conventional architectural thinking simply cannot cope with the diverse personal tastes which arise from it.

Instead the exhibition gives a few illustrations of the least bad examples (and some of them are not bad at all). To be sure, if everyone had employed Chamberlin Powell and Bon or Phippen Randall and Parkes there would have been less contingent misery. But architects would still be seen as irrelevant adjuncts to housing. It is depressing that as important a section of the riba as its housing group still seems wedded to using old, discredited and failed tools to address a problem which those tools themselves have created.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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