A city made of glass and other shattered dreams

Architecture and Design for the Family in Britain, 1900-70
October 4, 2002

David Jeremiah's exhaustive study of the development of the British home in the first three-quarters of the 20th century usefully extends the Manchester University Press series Studies in Design, which encompasses fashion, domestic life, gender studies and furniture production. Jeremiah's strength lies in the diversity of his sources. His study "has balanced the popular with the official, periodicals with reports".

The result is a taut text that contrasts the aspirational images of home life and domestic architecture, promulgated by the media and exhibitions, with legislation intended to improve the social fabric of Britain. Both were longings for a utopia in the reality of the poverty that persisted for many in this period.

A recurring theme is an idealised rural England, which the patrician ruling powers persisted in believing could be recreated to solve urban poverty. This was realised in schemes to re-house the urban poor on self-sufficient small-holdings, or by the replacement of inner-city slums with service-free garden suburbs that so often declined into sink estates. Many housing schemes failed to provide satisfactory sanitary, laundry or heating provision, overlooked new energy sources such as electricity, or disregarded community infrastructures.

In contrast, the modernist vision of a new Britain before the second world war saw a brave new world constructed as an efficient machine, with the streamlined, energised and minimised home. It is interesting to note a peculiarly British result of mechanised modernism: prefabricated homes were styled as country cottages rather than as international-style workers'

dwellings. We also learn that the 1930s craze for caravanning included using them as permanent homes as a result of housing shortages.

As the century progressed, new forms of heating and lighting began to affect domestic planning. Conventional rooms gave way to multifunctional spaces, with each family member accorded his or her own privacy. The effect of such change on the role of women in the home is one particularly interesting theme of this book. Similarly, the social transformation wrought by the advent of motoring is fascinating.

Shopping and the consumerist postwar age (or absence of it under rationing) appears to shape the 1950s and 1960s just as much as modernist architecture. Down-playing exhibitions such as "Britain Can Make It" in 1946 and the "Festival of Britain" in 1951, which have been covered in detail elsewhere, Jeremiah instead records lesser-known exhibitions - the proposal to build a glass Sea City for 30,000 people moored off Great Yarmouth, which apparently received serious ministerial support in 1968.

Jeremiah's book is best when it gives space to the disparate voices that shaped British architecture and design in the 20th century, from trade exhibitions to politicians, architectural magazines to department stores. The footnoted wealth of detail often threatens to overwhelm the reader. But as a source for students of design and architectural history, for those interested in the history of consumerism or gender studies, the book is welcome. MUP could have provided more and better illustrations, but this is a small criticism of an otherwise valuable piece of work.

Gareth Williams is curator of the architecture gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Architecture and Design for the Family in Britain, 1900-70

Author - David Jeremiah
ISBN - 0 7190 4928 8 and 5889 9
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £19.99
Pages - 229

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