Time to shed the language of mystification

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The Independent Culture
Not so long ago I went to an open day in west London where local architects got to meet local people and to design, there and then, an ideal home for them. An old couple - couldn't have been less than 80 - sat down in front of a beady-eyed and well-scrubbed young architect dressed in immaculately pressed casuals, hair swept back, faux motorcycle boots with buckles gleaming fresh from Kensington Market. Mrs Local put down her plastic shopping bags. Mr Local sat arms folded and clearly unimpressed by the goings-on. After much discussion between bright young architect and Mrs Local, a sketch emerged of what looked like a very fetching miniature of Sir Norman Foster's new terminal at Stansted Airport. The bright young architect removed his steel-framed glasses, smiled a family doctor smile, and said in an expensive voice, "I conceive your ideal living space as a shed."

"Ah?" said Mrs Local. Mr Local unfolded his arms and leaning over the desk thrust his face within inches of the bright young architect. "You won't catch me living in a bleedin' shed, sonny."

As if. Imagine the moment. Forty years in a council flat, a war fought and won, and this, this architect wants to stitch you up in a shed. Well, there's language for you. Or at least the way professionals forget that the language they employ to mystify their job is at odds with popular understanding of particular words and phrases. To an architect a shed is a large single-storey building in which walls and roof do nothing more than contain empty space inside. When architects see an air terminal, a railway terminus or the airship hangars at Cardington, they think "shed". What they are not thinking of, unlike Mr and Mrs Local, is a small and usually half-rotten timber structure standing forlornly at the back of the small garden. Nothing wrong with potting sheds: they make excellent dens, playpens and a place to doze away afternoons with cat, dog, mice, spiders, ciggies and pots of tea. But never call a shed home, particularly when speaking to people who have lived in cramped conditions for most of their life.

Architects however have more words than shed for home. Unit remains a favourite. While most people use the word meaning a measure of alcoholic drink, architects use it to mean house or home. So, such and such a block of flats contains 50 units. It was a word that came into general use after the Second World War when mass housing was needed and mass production made it possible. This was the era of scientific optimism, of Time and Motion men, of New Towns, slum clearance and government ministries that interfered at every turn of our lives. They measured the world mathematically as if it and its people were truly cogs in some vast machine; and so homes for heroes became units.

Units have held sway with architects and planners ever since, although there were some diversions in the Sixties. Pop culture gave us "living pods" and "domestic capsules", designed for a 2001-meets-Barbarella world in which we all wore tin foil and ate pills instead of food. Inside their living pods, future people chilled out in "conversation pits" and "trip boxes". Box. Pit. Unit. Shed. Sad names really. We have better ones that have been used for much longer and for good reason. First there is house and there is home, an ancient German word that means both a place and a state of being. And one place Mr and Mrs Local will never want to be in is a unit. Another is a shedn