While I was up in London recently I wanted to take the opportunity to go to an exhibition and was drawn to RIBA’s A Place to Call Home, guest curated by Sarah Beeny, which charted ‘the story of the design of everyday homes in the UK, exploring the advent of mass building from the late 18th century, through to the present day via suburban expansion and post-war experiment.’
The question of ‘what is home?’ seems to be fundamental to much of the way we live our lives. How much and in what way we earn money, who and where our friends are, how we interact with our family and what we aspire to be are all tied up with the place we call home. And yet, home means so many different things to different people, so how has the British concept of home developed and who has the ultimate say over what our homes are like?
Periods of massive population upheaval in history – for example, the Industrial Revolution, WWI and WW2 – and the way governments, planners, finance providers, architects and construction companies have responded to those upheavals, have obviously had a profound effect on housing in Britain. The idea of what represents the height of innovation and progress has changed with the times: in the late 19th century it was providing a water supply and sanitation to all homes; after the horrors of the Great War it was building homes for heroes with their own back gardens on tree-lined streets; after WW2 ‘modern’ mass housing meant cleanly designed tower blocks with fitted appliances; in the late 20th century the availability of credit saw the rise of the cult of the individualisation of homes, filling our personal spaces with as much of our own personality, through possessions, as possible. Now, environmental concerns and different ideas about what a community can look like are bringing new developments. But what is the reality of what home means in these tightened economic times, what do we actually need a home to be and what are we led to believe it should be?
Experiencing this exhibition at RIBA – the very grand, central London home of the Royal Institute of British Architects – made me wonder if we’re living in OUR idea of home or THEIRS? I have often dreamt about designing and building my own home, but it’s nothing like the one I actually live in. If we did all have the power to decide exactly what our homes were like, what considerations would we prioritise? According to the exhibition, the top three things people look for in a home are outside space, size of rooms and proximity of local services. But as the exhibition pointed out, this only tells half of the story, home is often as much about taste and fashion as family size or comfort. Something that really struck me as I was taking this journey through the history of British homes was just how recent a trend owning our own homes is. It was only really in the mid-1990s that buying houses became the overwhelming national obsession, until that time renting a house for your whole life was perfectly normal. I’d say that the obsession with amateur interior design and spending our weekends at B&Q and IKEA really exploded at around the same time, but I’m sure that being house proud isn’t a modern invention.
As I wandered around the displays I found myself wondering how ordinary people made their house a home before the advent of standardised housing. There are probably records of how wealthy people adorned their homes to make them stand out from the crowd, but what of the hoi polloi? They must have made their own little touches with a handmade quilt or a carved piece of wood. To me, it’s the aspects of where we live that haven’t been designed by someone else that make it special. A row of terraced houses might look the same from the outside, they might even all have the same front lawns and windows and doors if they’re newly built, but as soon as you step inside, it’s what someone has done with the space and the way you feel when you’re there that really makes it a home. Architects and town planners can set out the foundations based on how they think people will live in a certain space, learning from the past and trying to mould the communities of the future. Advertisers and estate agents can sell us the dream of how we think we should be living, or what we imagine our lives could be. But it’s only when real people with their own ideals move into a space, that we get to see what home really means.