Doctor on the house: The modern movement - a wall to wall soap

Do you remember when knocking through was the thing to do? Jeff Howell gets glassy eyed
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There is much talk of modernising at present - modern democracy, modern monarchy. What does it mean? In architecture they started talking about the modern movement in the 1930s and got stuck with it. So now if you talk about modern buildings to architects they think you are referring to ones 60 years old and falling to bits. Tip to budding authors: never use the word modern in your title as it will look stupid in a surprisingly short space of time.

But there are huge commercial interests trying to get you to "modernise" your home, and estate agents are their apologists, as in, "This interesting period property, in need of complete modernisation...". Never mind that over the years modernisation has involved the introduction of asbestos cement sheeting, organo-chlorine timber treatments and polystyrene ceiling tiles, things we now cannot wait to remove from our buildings, we are currently cajoled to install uPVC double glazing, plastic guttering and MDF kitchen worktops, all things that the next generation will remove.

Still, these may come to be seen as minor amendments to buildings compared with the structural alterations of the 1960s that came to be known as the "knocking through" movement. Knocking through meant totally or partially removing the spine wall of the standard British home, be it Victorian terrace or 1930s semi, so that the front room and the back room became one. In my family, anyway, they were called the front room and the back room. Older people called the front room the parlour and in company ours was sometimes called the sitting room. At some indeterminate point in the mid 1960s it became the lounge, and then it disappeared because it was knocked through into the dining room, to suit the trend for open-plan living.

Almost every house in every street in every British town was subjected to this ritual disembowelment between 1960 and 1975. The technique was crude but quick: prop the floor above on half-a-dozen Acrows [adjustable supports], bash out the one-brick-thick spine wall with a lump hammer, brick up the reveals and slide an RSJ in to pick up the joists. In quite a few cases the debris, plaster, mortar and broken brick, were not even taken off the premises; a couple of floor boards were lifted and the whole lot was shovelled underneath.

Nowadays you are not allowed to treat buildings like this, not since the insurance companies started getting hip to claims for cracks in buildings. Because if you just knock out a load-bearing wall like that, you transfer the load to the smaller areas of foundation that remain at the sides, and the increased stress on those areas can mean settlement and building movement. So now, if you remove a wall, you have to replace it with an over-designed steel frame to ensure the even spread of the loading down to the ground.

Needless to say, the smart move now is to buy a "modernised", knocked- through period property and restore it, rebuilding the spine wall and giving yourself two downstairs rooms instead of one, not to mention all that extra wall area for your Ikea shelving. But why did knocking through become so fashionable in the first place? Personally I blame American sitcoms. We saw the I Love Lucy show and we thought the Yanks all lived in huge open-plan living rooms with a staircase going up the back. We didn't realise it was just a television studio. The greatest American architectural influence on Britain wasn't Frank Lloyd Wright, it was Dick Van Dyke.

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