The RIBA’s exhibition is an entertaining and accessible retrospective which hopes to engage the public with 300 years of British housing, writes James Pallister
Sometimes the most familiar stories are the best. The RIBA’s new exhibition, A Place to Call Home: Where We Live and Why, focuses on telling the story of everyday homes in Britain. It won’t hold many surprises for architects familiar with British housing history, but it’s a tale well told.
The show sets out to explore ‘why our homes look the way they do, who they were built for and how they were sold to us’. It takes up the whole of the RIBA’s front gallery and has made the most of an awkwardly long, thin space by criss-crossing its eight boards across the room’s length. The display panels are rather handsome, painted black and shaped in the shorthand for home used by children and monopoly houses alike – the gable end.
We start in the era of Jane Austen and the large townhouse, and move quickly through Georgian London to the Victorian period. A horizontal timeline acts as a datum guiding visitors through the show, reminding them of who was on the throne and who was at war with whom, keeping them abreast of the context of the drawings, photographs and advertisements which detail the latest in desirable residencies.
The years are marked out by key themes. So after the 1848 revolutions in Europe pop up on the timeline, we’re soon into REFORM and the Morris and Pugin-inspired Arts and Crafts movement, and the introduction of a domestic language we can still see today. Then there’s Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and we’ve approached the 20th century and COMFORT, marked by the 1930s relaxation of credit regulations and the more widespread marketing of mortgages. The influence of European Modernism shows in the post-war diagrams and photographs in EXPERIMENTATION. Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower and Denys Lasdun’s Keeling House mark the show the ambitious experimentation of Modernist schemes. That picture of Ronan Point’s collapse marks the earlier schemes’ damnation through association with the cheap, mass-produced versions, which, stripped of their predecessors’ human details, became a byword more for urban blight than the lofty ideals of Modernism.
ASPIRATION tackles the early 1980s and the peeling back of the state. Margaret Thatcher is pictured with a family who have bought their own council house, and the austere language of thrift associated with the mortgage advertisements of the first part of the 20th century gives way to aspirational fluff featuring laughing couples and champagne flutes. Byker Wall and Brookside Close are the stars of this period, which segues nicely into URBANISM: the move back to the cities, Richard Rogers’ Urban Renaissance, riverside living and the gentrification of down-at-heel parts of towns – like Shedkm’s Chimney Pot Park in Manchester for Urban Splash, represented in model form along with Lasdun’s Keeling House and Goldfinger’s Rowlett Street. It’s recent history, but we’re sufficiently far away to look at it with some clarity, and it’s a strange experience. The marketing imagery of couples in coffee shops near their pristine flats of the mid 2000s, thin at the best of times, seems especially vapid post-crash.
The exhibition closes with UNCERTAINTY. And how! We’re left with a few stats on the parlous state of housing – not enough of it and much of it too small or too expensive. Home ownership is at its lowest level since 1988, and there are 4.5 million people on social housing waiting lists. The exhibition ends by asking visitors to reflect on what they would like in their home, and to complete a survey on the pros and cons of their current abode.
If this was the sum total of the RIBA’s contribution to the future of housing, it’d be a pretty sorry state of affairs: a competent, interesting story – and one pitched at the level to meet its stated aims of opening Portland Place up to the public – but not one which offers many answers.
Thankfully it isn’t. This is the populist bit of the strategy: get people into the RIBA, get them thinking about the houses they live in, and hopefully raise their aspirations about what they demand from the housing market. If the awkward guest curatorship of Sarah Beeny – who has been allocated a few boards, helpfully decorated with a cut-out of her head in case visitors are in any doubt they are party to the musings of someone off-the-telly – is what it takes to get people to expect more from their houses, then so be it. Better, though, was last year’s RIBA report, The Case for Space, and the ‘Shoebox Homes’ headlines it generated. Among the report’s key findings was that the average new UK house was significantly smaller than European neighbours, and that almost a third of people surveyed would not consider buying a home built in the last 10 years.
Raising expectations won’t be enough though. And this is where the research and propositional part of the RIBA’s plan comes in, in the form of the Future Homes Commission. Due to report in the autumn, chair John Banham stated at its launch that, ‘Crucially, we won’t just be analysing the problems of the past. We want to look to the future.’ He’s calling for all interested parties to join in the submission of evidence on how we can improve housing in this country. You should let him know your suggestions; all your gripes, mad proposals or constructive criticism. It’s a great opportunity for architects to show their value to the public.
A Place to Call Home: Where We Live and Why, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 28 April 2012, free
Future Homes Commission The deadline for submissions to the Future Homes Commission is 23 March www.behomewise.co.uk