A Better Life

Peter Campbell

  • Homes fit for Heroes by Mark Swenarton
    Heinemann, 216 pp, £14.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 435 32994 4
  • The Shell Book of the Home in Britain by James Ayres
    Faber, 253 pp, £8.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 571 11625 6

The ‘homes fit for heroes’ of Mark Swenarton’s title – or some relation of them – can be found on the outskirts of almost any British town. Yet they are more seen than noticed, and it may take a description to bring them to mind: ‘two-storey cottages, built in groups of four or six, with medium or low-pitched roofs and little exterior decoration, set amongst gardens, trees, privet hedges and grass verges, and often laid out in cul-de-sacs or around greens’. They enter architectural history as a footnote, to the English vernacular and Georgian revivals, or the Garden City movement, but appear in social history as an impressive statistic: one family in 20 still lives in this kind of inter-war council housing.

Homes fit for Heroes tells how they came to be built, and why they took the form they did, but Dr Swenarton also intends to ‘contribute to our understanding of design in general and especially of its relation to ideology and the state’. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, garden cities (like Letchworth) and company towns (like Port Sunlight) showed how low-density developments could give the benefits of semi-rural living, and, by producing healthy and contented workers, or by adding to the value of surrounding land, make economic sense. The architects of the fully-fledged garden cities and suburbs replaced the then universal working-class dwelling-type – long terraces of deep, narrow-fronted houses – with cottages built on a compact wide-fronted plan. Living-rooms were placed to catch the sun, and the houses, built eight to 12 to the acre, were grouped in short terraces. There was some evidence that the tenants would have exchanged opportunities for healthy digging for the chance of a cheerful night out, but there was no doubt that, in terms of space and amenities, the garden city ideal was a huge improvement on anything speculative builders had provided, mainly because the rent which would have represented an economic return on the capital required to build houses like these was beyond what the majority of workers could afford. The garden cities were no answer to the problem of housing the poorest classes. Legislation progressed – from a duty to clear slums to the duty to rehouse, and finally to provide housing, not just replace it. In the early 1900s, it became clear that subsidy in some form would be necessary, although the hoped-for rise in wages which would justify higher rents, and make the provision of unsubsidised housing of a reasonable standard possible, might still be just round the corner.

By the outbreak of the First World War, housing had become an important political issue. During the war, government housing for munitions workers, built along garden city lines, set standards which were confirmed in the recommendations of the Tudor Walters report in 1918. Housing became an important part of the promised post-war new order: ‘habitations fit for the heroes who have won the war’ were to reconcile those heroes to an unchanged social order and to stand as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Government ‘looked to design to carry the ideological function that lay at the heart of the programme’: it was the style and quality of what was offered, not just the idea of investment in housing, that was potent.

Half a million houses were promised, but competition for labour and materials, together with rising prices, saw to it that only a fraction of that number were built. Standardisation of parts, mass-production, trimming of specifications and simplification of design were all tried, but the kind of subsidy which would have been needed to meet the targets of 1919 was not forthcoming. By 1921, the boom was over, with heroic promises forgotten.

But housing had become a government responsibility. The principle that the rent a man could afford must determine the amount of capital invested in his house had been broken, and the responsibility of central government for the prescription of plans, room sizes and standards had become enlarged.

This is the story Dr Swenarton tells. Throughout, he argues that design was a central part of policy, not an added administrative function which was necessary to implement agreed measures. The historians of high architecture draw family trees which trace ideas back from master to master. The historians of vernacular building describe the evolution of house-types in biological terms. Dr Swenarton has written a history of a third sort – one which looks for explanations of the form buildings take in politics and social administration. The promise of a better life involved finding a convincing image of what that better life would be. A cottage, a garden, a sunny living-room, clean air and space – the garden city ideal – this was ready and waiting. It contrasted tellingly with the close-packed decaying terraces of the existing industrial landscape. Yet, just as the garden cities were a dilution of the kind of vernacular building which inspired them, so state housing on garden city lines was a poorer thing than its models. Densities were higher – twenty or thirty, not 12, houses to the acre – and quaintnesses – gables, dormers, and other details which made houses (albeit in a rather mechanical way) individual – were abandoned. Sometimes this was done in the name of neo-Georgian honesty and simplicity, but anti-fakery and economic necessity are hard to distinguish on the ground.

The story is a depressing one, architecturally. One cannot expect council houses to be as interestingly complex as Victorian country houses, but the serviceable elevations of the Tudor Walters report also lack the authority of the vernacular tradition, the charm of the early revivals of that tradition, and the seemly neatness of Georgian cottages. That they should do so is sufficiently explained by Dr Swenarton’s description of how they were arrived at, but it makes one question whether studies of the kind he has produced will often have much to say about innovation in design. One guesses they will always tend to deal with adaptations for performance, not original plays. In the case he examines, the kind of house built was the expression of a political promise, but understanding just why that kind of house should have seemed so attractive takes one back to the kind of compartmented architectural history of which Swenarton disapproves.

In the illustrations of Homes fit for Heroes there are no interiors, and one is given no notion of what life in the English council house was like. One would have to go to home-makers’ magazines, kitchenware catalogues and illustrations to children’s books to get much idea of how people then – or indeed now – have lived in mass housing (architectural journals rarely show an interior, and almost never an occupied interior, of a council house). The situation is not much better for earlier periods. James Ayres’s The Home in Britain can claim to be the first book on ‘Decoration, Design and Construction of Vernacular Interiors, 1500-1850’: this would be surprising if, on looking through the illustrations, it did not become clear how fragmentary the evidence is. Almost all the complete interiors are reconstructions in museums, and what were commonplace items – painted floor-cloths, for instance – exist only as fragments preserved by chance.

Ayres is necessarily concerned with inconsequential information: but stencilled wall patterns, loaded dressers and cupboard beds say much more about how people made themselves at home than the quoted speculations of politicians. Parker and Unwin’s 1902 designs for cottages for Rowntrees at New Earswick are illustrated in Homes fit for Heroes. The logical deployment of space had the tenants going out the front door every time they visited the lavatory. This result of rational planning was understandably unpopular, and complaints were heard. In Dr Swenarton’s admirably lucid account of the years that followed, the consumer hardly makes another appearance: one gathers there was no reason for him to, he had too little effect on what was built. In Homes fit for Heroes one sees how a comparatively effective and long-lived prescription for public housing came into force; in The Home in Britain, how people, over some hundreds of years, liked their rooms to look and made things convenient. Studies of the ideology of design will probably go on being depressing so long as what is described in books like Ayres’s has no reason to appear in them.