RIBA's latest exhibition charts the changing face of the British home


Oliver Bennett
Friday 10 February 2012 01:00 GMT

Home, as historian Witold Rybczynski puts it in his book Home, brings together the "meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection". Somewhere, this vision turned into a two-bed edge-of-town starter box: but nonetheless, the noble sentiment stands. As a campaigning exhibition at RIBA in London confirms, Britain has led the way in home-ownership and, to an extent, in good quality mass residential architecture.

A Place to Call Home, curated by Mike Althorpe of RIBA, with television presenter Sarah Beeny, is a romp through the history of the British home, concluding that we are a nation with an undying affection for owning property and a deep love of houses.

"The exhibition charts the history of an obsession," says Althorpe. "For about 250 years, the British have been extremely interested in owning their own homes." Since then, developers have provided homes for us: from the good, to the bad and downright ugly; and always somehow summarising the concerns of the age. From John Nash's Georgian terraces came Thomas Cubitt's 19th-century London terraces, offering palatial aesthetics to those on clerical incomes. Homely Edwardian red-brick terraces with arts and crafts touches, preceded semi-detached 1930s homes with Tudorised gables: both of which harked back to a pre-industrial age, but at the same time started to cater for the motor car. Indeed, as we unpeel the onion rings of our towns and cities, they tell the story of how British homes express the tensions between progress and the reassurances of historical style. "The industrial revolution, garden cities, commuting, the car and contemporary housing developments – all have had an impact on our homes," says Althorpe. "The aesthetics of the home reflect those developments, while betraying a certain hankering after the past."

This point of view is echoed by estate agents. "Research has shown that Victorian properties are popular with the youth of today," says Julian Lilley, of Fine & Country, Mayfair. "They no longer seek the standard, thin-walled modern-type home and prefer authentic features such as high ceilings, Victorian fireplaces and ornate cornicing."

Geoff Wilford of Wilfords in London, agrees. "The British are fascinated by period properties," he says. "Generally speaking, Georgian and Victorian architecture creates greater demand from British buyers than new build homes."

And Georgian remains the style of choice for the wealthy. "Approximately 75 per cent of our clients prefer Georgian-style property," says Mark Lawson of The Buying Solution, while Rupert Sweeting of Knight Frank's country department says: "The most popular architectural style requested by buyers at is Georgian."

Oddly, although Georgian houses are the peak of grand British residential style, Lillery says that they "were often shoddily built behind the elegant façade, while Victorians houses required much less maintenance".

"Even Nash houses were considered draughty and poorly constructed," says Althorpe. Still, we forgive them because of their elegance and, as many footballers will attest, you can always build new in Georgian-style. Then there are the Victorian houses, still the most fruitful stock in the country for the middle classes.

"Victorian homes tends to be the most popular around here as their size is usually great for families," says Jamie Lester of Fulham agency Haus Properties. Original features like cast iron fireplaces, coving and ceiling roses add to that appeal – and yes, we all know about estate agents and their blessed "period features". They know what we like, for better or worse.

Yes, but what of now? Well, "A Place to Call Home" has a lobbying agenda: to campaign for greater quality and space standards in contemporary British homes. "The average new-build home in the UK is nearly half the size of the average new-build home in Denmark," says Rebecca Roberts-Hughes, policy director at RIBA. Thus, the exhibition ties in with RIBA's HomeWise campaign to improve the quality of Britain's new build housing and to push for greater space, via a RIBA research report called Case for Space. Visitors to the show can make their mark after taking in the exhibition, by feeding their comments to the Future Homes Commission, an independent enquiry seeking to examine the quality of British housing, which will lead to an important report to be published in September.

With all this going on and with the earlier housing on show, the exhibition is a bit of an indictment of our current housing stock.

For, despite our glorious residential past, there's a bit of a character-shaped hole in our new-build housing.

"We even lack a language to discuss new-build homes," says Althorpe. Brookside Close? Poundbury? Blairite? There doesn't seem to be an adequate, epochal sobriquet to describe them.

The big house builders are not helping either. "Small developers and creative competition would help to drive quality," says Althorpe.

But the very structure of development is a brake on innovation: from mass builders that insist on bland design so as to appeal to a wide market; to planners that insist on "in keeping" pastiches of earlier domestic technology leading to superfluous additions such as stick-on fake chimneys; to local authorities that trouser huge payments for enabling developers to throw up flats rapidly.

There are good models. RIBA likes the Accordia development in Cambridge, led by architects Feilden Clegg Bradley, which took the Stirling Prize in 2008 and Althorpe is looking forward to Swedish multinational Skanska entering the market this year.

But in general, and despite our national obsession with property and mass ownership – now running at about 68 per cent – the exhibition subtly hammers home the point that British home design is in need of improvement.

"We hope it's a great talking point," says Althorpe. And we all hope developers listen.

A Place to call Home: Where we live and why, RIBA exhibition with guest curator Sarah Beeny, 16 February-17 April, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London, W1. Free entry, architecture.com

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