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Pride of possession

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review

Palaces for the People: Prefabs in Post-War Britain By Greg Stevenson. Batsford, 2003. £12.99 It's odd to think that 'prefabs', a term that ought to conjure up a world of mass-produced, cheap and characterless housing, can be used with delight. But this is the case when considering the products of the emergency housing programme that ran from 1945 until 1949. Delight was clearly the reaction of many on being allocated their new homes, despite their supposed temporary nature.

Greg Stevenson, the author of this new study, appreciates the nostalgic tide of emotion that carries the few remaining examples of the nearly 154,000 prefabs built during these years into a century they were never meant to see. Constructed to have a design life of 10-15 years, some are still on active service 50 years later.

There is an earlier book on prefabs - Brenda Vale's Prefabs: A History of the UK Temporary Housing Programme (AJ 26.10.95) - which, as Stevenson concedes, is far superior. Unlike his predecessor, he attempts to delineate all of the different makes of prefab, even when there is little to say on the more obscure. But while he has gone some way to addressing the lack of a 'trainspotters' guide' to the 11 different makes, and 13 different types, of prefab adopted by the government at the end of the Second World War, this is still not the comprehensive view we need.

Though Stevenson writes intriguingly of the Swedish experiments in wooden housing during the 1930s and of the projects for emergency housing being promoted before the end of the war (559 in the first eight months of 1943 alone), regrettably, he does not take this any further. He refers in passing to matters that should have been pursued more determinedly, and dissipates what he has by delving into the surrounding popular culture (recipes for bread-and-butter pudding, ration books, transistor radios) - much of which could be lost without any detriment to the book. Increasingly, the emergency temporary prefab becomes confused with any prefabricated post-war system and the focus of the book disappears.

But it is worth buying nonetheless, for its use of anecdote, personal testimony and contemporary photographs - though all largely unreferenced. 'It was fabulous - just like living in an outsized caravan, ' reported one resident. Though one may question Stevenson's assertion that prefabs 'offered a reminder of the flat-roofed Hollywood villas that millions would have seen on their weekly visits to picture-houses', it becomes more plausible when we read of the labelling of them as 'Americans'.

While a few of the prefabs had flat roofs and thus seemed to be a step closer to the Modernist 'dream of the factory-made house', it was the regressive imagery of the pitched roof that damned them in the eyes of the architectural profession. Accepted only because they were temporary, their modern layout and high standard of services may well be the cause of the increased appetite for modernity in housing among the baby boomers of post-war Britain.

Playing contemporary photographs against more recent images is one of the joys of the book. To be strictly accurate, the old fuzzy black-and-white photos are more of people than of prefabs and are, one suspects, the real reason for compiling this pocketsized book. They remind us of a time when owning a camera was as exciting as turning on a tap to find hot water gushing out. If people are to the fore then it is always the prefab in the background - a process by which they reinforced its image as 'home'.

The recent colour photographs of prefabs going, going, gone, are more plaintive in the pride of ownership evident in their cleanliness and customisation.

The original photographs also remind us that prefabs were the backdrop to many young lives during the reconstruction period - Stevenson mentions Neil Kinnock for one, though Michael Caine was another. Not many people know that.

Julian Holder is coordinator of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies

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