Socialist Worker

A Place to Call Home

A new exhibition by a TV property developer goes all around the houses but fails to hit home, says Alex Sayer

Issue No. 2293

Much of public housing stock is now in poor condition, such as the Gascoigne estate in Barking, east London  (Pic: Smallman ).

Much of public housing stock is now in poor condition, such as the Gascoigne estate in Barking, east London (Pic: Guy Smallman).

Over five million people in Britain are currently on the waiting list for social housing—and most of them will probably never be offered a place.

Despite this the government has launched a savage attack on council housing. Its Housing Strategy for England pressures local councils into selling their remaining housing stock to privately run associations.

The new Localism Bill introduces time limits on secure tenancies that force residents into the private market after just two years. Meanwhile fewer people can afford to buy their houses, and private rents are rising significantly.

There is no sense of this crisis in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ new exhibition, A Place to Call Home.

It is curated by Sarah Beeny, presenter of Channel 4’s Property Ladder and a property developer herself.


The show reflects the point of view you’d expect from someone who has made money and fame from negotiating the property market.

The exhibition is organised along a timeline broken into segments with vague thematic titles such as “Speculation”, “Aspiration” and “Uncertainty”.

It begins in the 18th century. Georgian property developers pioneered speculative building with a new kind of standardised home.

The expansion of a class willing to “spend, acquire and entertain” created a market for these catalogue homes, often built in terraces. Beeny credits the prettiness of the houses on cheap labour and low costs of building an attractive row of properties.

The show highlights some key moments in Britain’s social history and how they came to influence how we constructed houses.

Legislation such as the 1866 Labouring Classes Dwelling Act and 1875 Artisan and Labourers’ Dwelling Act came as a response to concerns about disease after the industrial revolution’s unregulated building boom.

The most interesting part of the exhibition is its description of house building after the Second World War. This is the one point in the show that tries to understand how architectural style is influenced by social necessities and the thinking of the era.

The British government needed to rebuild quickly after the bombing. Public housing had to be provided fast—but the scale of the project also gave people the chance to rethink how we might live together in cities.

Stacked tower blocks were built with shared outdoor spaces. England’s first tower block estate, The Lawn, is juxtaposed with designs by the Swedish modernist pioneer Le Corbusier.

It highlights a short period where European design had a major influence on British architects, an influence that waned in later years.

Beeny mentions Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” scheme which led to the mass privatisation of council housing. But she is otherwise silent, neither criticising it nor praising it.

Nevertheless it is telling that she dubs the 1980s as the “age of freedom”. Individual choice and rising incomes have allowed homeowners to rediscover “the charms of historic housing”, Beeny argues.

The show ends with “Uncertainty”—and on an uncertain note. Beeny sees a bright side to the recession and lack of housing. Positive changes and opportunities, she claims, emerge in times of crisis. But there is a deafening silence when it comes to supplying examples of these positive changes.

Ultimately this exhibition is neither fish nor fowl. It highlights interesting moments in architecture over the past 300 years. But it fails to go into much detail or offer an opinion on anything. It ends up being little more than a glorified timeline of property development.

A Place to Call Home: Where we live and why is at the Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD, until 28 April. Free admission. For more information go to

But post-war mass housing was inspired by modernist ideals, such as 1961’s Park Hill estate in Sheffield (Pic: RIBA)

But post-war mass housing was inspired by modernist ideals, such as 1961’s Park Hill estate in Sheffield (Pic: RIBA)

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Article information

Tue 6 Mar 2012, 18:39 GMT
Issue No. 2293
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