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Behind closed doors

Two new books document the substantial changes to our homes

Houses currently built in Britain are the smallest in Europe, almost 10 per cent smaller than current recommended minimums. Homewise, the RIBa’s recently launched campaign for better housing, suggests that instead of rushing to provide more, much-needed ‘shoebox’ housing, we curb our haste in order to focus on quality. The campaign has set out to collect information from the general public to compile a survey of lived reality.

However, ahead of them, two recently published books, The Life of the British Home: An Architectural History by Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren and Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours by Emily Cockayne, might contribute something to this research. Both attempt to give some understanding of the development of the particularly British ‘home’. The Life of the British Home charts a chronology of domestic building that ‘explores the forces that have shaped our homes and examines the attitudes and innovations of each age’. It is a very wide-ranging survey starting from the Neolithic period with the Knap of Howar (around 4000 BC) in Orkney, the oldest standing structure in Northern Europe, and ending in the last decade with BedZED (2002) and the yet-to-be inhabited Shard (2012), with a very varied depth and focus through the centuries.

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Long before Mock tudor and the double garage, a circular neolithic dwelling opens the story of British domestic architecture

Almost half of the book is devoted to the period between the mid-15th and mid-19th centuries where the emphasis shifts from the ordinary to focus on the great houses, royal palaces and stately mansions familiar from architectural histories and TV period dramas.

More enticing is the first part, with four chapters covering the period from Neolithic times to the mid-15th century. Stone buildings little more than caves, and the intricacy of timber roof structures, demonstrate the ingenuity needed to create shelter in a tough climate. The Roman period, as the well-restored remains illustrated here make clear, brought civic order to the previously largely rural dwellings, only to be replaced eventually by the great halls of early Medieval times.

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The period from 1830 to today is covered, sometimes with frustrating brevity, in the two final chapters. The ‘life’ of the title is only occasionally glimpsed. This book presents, rather, a history of typology, with little description of the interior or the use of spaces. The servant question is mentioned and there is, of course, much written about the plumbing and sanitary innovations in the 19th century. ‘Open plan’ is identified as the only significant change to the British home in the 20th and 21st centuries accredited to Modernism’s use of concrete frame structures. For fans of timelines, lists inside the covers compare types of homes with major historical events.

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Cheek by Jowl, A History of Neighbours by Emily Cockayne is written from an entirely different sociological perspective. An entertaining read, it uses court records and newspaper stories to report how the behaviour of neighbours, resulting in prosecution for noise, indecency or anti-social behaviour, has influenced housing design and vice versa. It too covers a lengthy time period, starting in 1200 and ending with the present. It deals primarily with the development of what is now considered the norm, the idea of ‘home as haven’ through tales of the consequences of a lack of privacy − when the most intimate details of our lives might be exposed − in communal lavatories and bathhouses, in shared bedrooms, through paper-thin walls, and overcrowded lodgings.

From a design perspective, housing legislation that was introduced, in part no doubt to deal with problems between neighbours, has clearly also played an important part in defining the shape of the urban environment. Defining minimum distances between houses to avoid overlooking, improving sound insulation to prevent eavesdropping (literally), and phasing out shared laundry and bathroom facilities, have had both a physical and social effect on the neighbourhood. as we have gained more privacy inside our own homes we have become separated from the surroundings, the street, or the estate, and from our neighbours.

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The neighbour no longer has the role of helpful close resource, ready to lend a cup of sugar or babysit the kids, but plays a different role. Physical proximity means they might see us half dressed in the backyard, or on the doorstep as we open the door to a visitor, and the ‘Joneses’ are still the benchmark of social status. For Cockayne, the neighbour reminds us of the fine line between our private self and our public persona.

What emerges from these two books is that the shape of the urban environment − rather than merely the shape of the individual dwelling − is key. Privacy and space are both vital ingredients for a good lifestyle but so too is society and community. Outnumbering the rural population, the urban population in Britain is still growing, and whether in suburbs or more dense environments, is still changing. The significant shift in the early 20th century that saw a division between work and home that separated industry − and with it hubbub, noise and dirt − from housing, has now come full circle. At the beginning of the 21st century, advances in technology and changes to employment mean more and more people are now working at home again.

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Looking to the future, these two volumes represent the seemingly incompatible and contradictory requirements for housing. On the one hand, Denison and Ren suggest that with improved performance in a high density urban environment the primary goal of ‘comfort and convenience’ will be achieved. On the other hand, Cockayne suggests that we have already achieved a reasonable measure of privacy and identifies ‘society’ as the key desirable goal now. She refers to Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space (1972) and a need to readdress the collective spaces around our homes, the neighbourhoods or communities.

Architects may spend a lot of time designing dwellings, perfecting plans in pursuit of the ideal aesthetic object, but anthropologists would argue that the architecture is merely the container, the vessel for life and must be able to accommodate change in all its myriad forms as life goes on in unpredictable fashion. These books don’t offer solutions to the housing problem but they might offer some ideas for the documentation and communication of the Homewise research.

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Architects designing housing live (mostly) in very different kinds of homes and rarely meet their audience who in turn (probably) know little of architecture and construction. Denison and Ren have used easily accessible buildings, and include in the endmatter a list of featured sites including as well as existing buildings, historical reconstructions such as the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, in Sussex, the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire and the West Stow anglo-Saxon Village in Suffolk. Equally, Cockayne draws us in with engaging narratives, vivid descriptions and lurid details of repulsive yet riveting aspects of intimacy. Both could go some way to communicate to a broader audience the experiential quality of home.

The Life of the British Home: An Architectural History

Authors: Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren

Publishers: Wiley

Price: £24.99

Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours

Author: Emily Cockayne

Publishers: Bodley Head

Price: £20

Read an RIBA blog on their exhibition A Place to Call Home

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