EXHIBITIONS / Looking forward to a past that never was: The history of the Ideal Home reveals an image at odds with reality. Tanya Harrod reports

'THE FOUNDATIONS of the national glory are set in the homes of the people.' The words of George V became the slogan for the Daily Mail's most successful publicity exercise, the Ideal Home Exhibition, which this year celebrates its 70th birthday. To mark the anniversary, the Design Museum is mounting a show of its own, Ideal Homes, a brave attempt to survey and analyse the history of the exhibition. Although it fails to reproduce the tacky energy of the real thing, Ideal Homes is worth a visit for the remarkable insight it gives into the construction of our national identity through consumerism.

For years the Ideal Home Exhibition has been a bit of joke, an opportunity for 'educated' people to fulminate over the poverty of British popular taste and the poignancy of lower middle-class aspirations. In fact, it is a social historian's dream. The old Ideal Home catalogues and photographs of crowd-pulling show- houses exhibited at the Design Museum reveal how over the years the exhibition has mirrored the mood of the country - from the high- minded paternalism of the inter-war period to the optimism of the Fifties and Sixties. A visit to the real thing at Earl's Court (until 12 April) suggests the mood has changed: there's a new blindness to reality, a fin-de-siecle escapism more complete than the roses-round-the-cottage-door aesthetic that annoyed high-minded design propagandists in the Thirties.

One abiding constant of every Ideal Home Exhibition, however, is romanticism. Throughout this century we have had a national self- image that is at odds with the truth - a self- image in which England was ever a garden, a village, a land of squires and spires. This is why year after year the show-houses that form the main attraction of the exhibition are invariably clustered round a fake village green, complete with mossy stone bridge and babbling stream, and predominately built in a hybrid style accurately dubbed Tudorbethan. What becomes apparent is that the concept of an ideal home is a selfish one. It ignores the problems of urbanism and is the antithesis of planning rationalisation and public good. Between the wars, for instance, Ideal Home Exhibitions underpinned the housing boom of the Thirties, and this took place not in the context of true village life but as a great sprawl of ribbon development that disfigured the countryside.

But despite the Tudorbethan fantasies and the ludicrous labour-saving gadgets aimed at keeping housewives busy - 'Oteg egg preservative: dip 500 eggs an hour]' - the first Ideal Home Exhibitions did have some educational value. An element of social concern was built into the exhibition during the depression of the Twenties and Thirties. In 1922, probably on the initiative of the Daily Mail's proprietor Lord Northcliffe, a Lanarkshire miner's cottage was transferred, in its entirety, to the exhibition to expose 'the worst kind of human habitation'. In 1924, an East End slum tenement was recreated to highlight the effects of a deprived environment on young children. And in 1936 a Next To Nothing Bungalow was built as an exercise in recycling, showing the less well-off how to improvise furniture from sacking, fruit- boxes and inner tubes.

Until relatively recently there was also a certain amount of optimistic, sci-fi-inspired modernity that balanced the dominant Olde England themes. The 1928 exhibition saw the first of a series of Ideal Homes of the Future, a Cubist affair with lifts instead of stairs, a swimming pool on top of the aerocar garage and a scientific kitchen. To publicise the house, the sponsors produced a spoof Daily Mail dated 1 January 2000 with articles on colour television and the unusual case of 'The Baby reared by its Parents'. The 1936 House Of The Future, inspired by W C Menzies' film, The Shape of Things to Come, was even more daring,

without windows and made of an as-yet-

uninvented material.

It is revealing that true Modernism, as opposed to sci-fi fantasy, has always been half- heartedly represented. The 1934 Village of Tomorrow, all flat roofs and steel-frame windows, was superficially informed by the continental Modern Movement. But the exhibiting building companies - Post-Modernists before their time - were careful to explain in their publicity material that an identical house was also available in brick with a traditional pitched roof. In fact, the immediate post-war period was the only time when a thorough-going belief in a contemporary style dominated Ideal Home Exhibitions.

By the Seventies there was a demonstrable loss of faith in progress, while the exhibition of today seems to have severed all links with dreams of national glory and the high culture of architecture and design. Today all show- houses are beamed and have quasi-rural pitched roofs. All interiors are exaggeratedly historicist - dado rails, Doric columns on kitchen units, reproduction furniture in the dining room, inchoate piles of leather-bound volumes, whole fields of dried flowers.

In the past the exhibition was sensitive to social conditions, even if determinedly on the side of a culture of 'getting and spending'. But today there is no longer a Lord Northcliffe to inject an element of philanthropic concern. It is hard to imagine a reconstruction like his miner's cottage showing housing at its worst - typical bed-and-breakfast accommodation, for instance, or a selection of tents and boxes from Lincoln's Inn Fields. Nowhere does the current Ideal Home Exhibition suggest that homelessness and unemployment are at their highest levels since the Thirties.

A more inspiring, timely response to this 70th anniversary has been provided by the Architecture Foundation which, together with Shelter and the Housing Corporation, is displaying plans and models by 12 finalists in a competition to design a 'foyer' for homeless people under 25.

The function of a foyer (a French term for a philanthropic cross between a hotel and a short-stay hostel) is to provide accommodation that is firmly integrated within a specific community. Foyers have safe, private bedsit-rooms but also cafes, public rooms and public spaces; they seem a humane way of protecting those most at risk. This modest but thought-provoking show is given an extra poetic dimension by its title - The Real Ideal Home.

Yet, as I've said, the Ideal Home Exhibition always provides an accurate reflection of consumers' aspirations, even if the Daily Mail has been too unimaginative to exploit the symbolic value of its anniversary. At Earl's Court this year the emphasis is on defensible personal space, on panic buttons and security systems. Thus, the 1993 exhibition has admitted, albeit inadvertently, that things are getting tougher and nastier as the gap between the haves and have-nots widens and deepens.

Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Earl's Court, SW5 (0891-100220), to 12 Apr. Ideal Homes, Design Museum, SE1 (071-403 6933), to 22 Aug. The Real Ideal Home, Architectural Foundation, SW1 (071-839 9389), to 16 May.

(Photograph omitted)

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