Housing, Memory and Everyday Life in Contemporary Britain

In the most famous discussion of domestic space in cultural criticism, Gaston Bachelard celebrates what he calls the house of ‘dream-memory’. Bachelard makes much of the everydayness of a house which is ‘physically inscribed in us,’ of our day-to-day interaction with solid materials such as bricks, slate and timber. But he also argues that ‘habit is too worn a word to express this passionate liaison of our bodies … with an unforgettable house’ (1958/1994: 15). He associates houses not with habit but with the ‘primary function of inhabiting,’ (1958/1994: 4) a kind of organic and timeless connection with the earth and universe. By arguing that the house promises ‘far distant voyages into a world that is no more,’ (1958/1994: 143) Bachelard connects the house to an eternalized ‘poetics of space’ which denies its more quotidian realities.

This tension in Bachelard’s work is a familiar one in the cultural economy of houses. Houses are where we spend most of our quotidian lives, and the basic tasks of daily maintenance and sustenance take place there: cleaning, cooking, eating, washing, sleeping. But the mundane everydayness of the house tends to be unacknowledged because, more than any other quotidian space, it has become entangled with a logic of privatized consumption. In modern western societies, the house owes its cultural and emotional power to its capacity to separate itself ideologically from the public spaces of everyday life – what Marc Augé calls the ‘non-places’ such as motorways, subways, commuting trains and office parks, which encourage functional, transient behaviour and produce a peculiar mix of alienation and liberating self-erasure (1995). The extent to which the house has come to be seen as a refuge from the non-place requires a great deal of symbolic work to conceal the sameness of houses, and their connection to these collective routines and temporary communities. Within the house, the everyday has become a project associated with social status, cultural capital and, above all, the careful management of memory. The association of the house with nostalgia, in particular, represents a denial of what Henri Lefebvre sees as the repetitiveness and ‘residuality’ of the everyday, the way in which people’s ordinary lives lag behind the more dramatic transformations of industry, technology and business (1991: 192). In order to explore these questions, I want to focus on three of the most common types of housing in contemporary Britain, which are all based on a serial repetition and collectivity which is often denied – urban terraces, high-rise flats and suburban housing estates.

The Terraced House 

In Britain, houses have been arranged in terraced rows since the middle of the eighteenth century, when Georgian townhouses were built for aristocrats and merchants in cities such as Edinburgh, Bath and London. But from the early nineteenth century onwards, terraces began to be built for artisans and workers which were determined less by an aesthetic concern with symmetry and proportion than by economics and government regulation. New methods of controlling housebuilding developed, with even speculative builders having to work to precise specifications and accurate estimates. Since detailed plans now had to be drawn up, it was much cheaper to repeat the same plan indefinitely. The gradual development of building legislation to prevent substandard housing also meant that there was an ever-closer relationship between this legislation and standard building types. The most basic regulations – that houses had to have a common ‘building line’ at the front and that the ‘party wall’ between the houses was not allowed to be broken through – determined that houses built in rows were almost always of the same length and width as their neighbours (Muthesius, 1982: 30, 5). The key piece of housing legislation was the 1875 Public Health Act, which sought to do away with the worst of the slums by granting local authorities the right to introduce by-laws controlling the layout of new streets. The new by-law terraced house of the late nineteenth century was no longer built back-to-back or randomly in courts and alleys: every house now had to have rear access, and the width of the street had to be at least the same as the height of the building’s front wall.

Although the building of this type of housing virtually stopped after the First World War, when new building took the form of council estates or suburban semi-detached homes, the surviving by-law terraces still account for the landscape of much of Britain’s (particularly northern) towns and cities. Here there are endless parallel streets running off main roads, with rows of virtually identical houses save for a few minor variations such as dormer windows, stone-cladding or double-frontage. Raymond Unwin, in a pioneering work on town planning of 1909, argued that this monotony was the result of a concern with regulations rather than integrated planning: ‘The truth is that we have neglected the amenities of life. We have forgotten that endless rows of brick boxes, looking out upon dreary streets and squalid backyards, are not really homes for people’ (1909: 4). Surveying the same landscape fifty years later, Richard Hoggart referred similarly to its overwhelming uniformity, its ‘street after regular street of shoddily uniform houses intersected by a dark pattern of ginnels and snickets (alley-ways) and courts; mean, squalid, and in a permanent half-fog; a study in shades of dirty-grey, without greenness or the blueness of sky’ (1958: 58-59).

The monolithic sameness of the terraced house has become part of the iconography of the everyday in contemporary Britain. A good example is the opening titles of the popular British soap opera, Coronation Street, with its panning shots of parallel terraced streets and back alleys, and its final homing in on the eponymous, soot-stained terraced street with a pub and corner shop at either end. Ever since the terraces were built, photographers and filmmakers have exploited the capacity for panoramic immensity in the long, repetitive rows. In E. Chambré Hardman’s well-known photograph, ‘The Birth of the Ark Royal’ (1950), for example, a schoolboy with a satchel is seen walking down a street in Birkenhead near Liverpool, dwarfed by the rows of terraces and a half-built HMS Ark Royal at the Cammell Laird Shipyard, the economic magnet which has allowed these houses to be built. These pictures could be seen as part of what Chris Waters terms ‘urban pastoral’ – an aestheticizing of working-class environments which renders the repetitiveness of everyday life a source of anthropological curiosity (2000: 131).

The work of the artist Rachel Whiteread has often focused on the deceptive sameness of the terraced house, its capacity to retain experiences and memories even within its monotonous façade – most notably in House (1993), a concrete cast of the insides of a late-nineteenth-century terraced house in Bow, an ungentrified area of London’s East End. With its impenetrable white concrete and roofless, angular shape, Whiteread’s work looked from a distance like a piece of avant-garde sculpture. But closer inspection revealed pockmarks and imperfections in the minimalist facade, signs of the daily life of the house: soot-blackened fireplaces, exposed joist ends slightly rotten from damp, the indentations left by light switches, old plug sockets and door latches.

The freestanding ruin of Whiteread’s House served as a counterpoint to two common phenomena of contemporary urban landscapes: the blank areas of wasteland left by cleared slums, and the modern-day slums, the whole streets of burnt-out or bricked-up terraces located in the deprived areas of British towns and cities. In these areas such as Salford, Burnley, Newcastle’s West End and the old mining towns of South Wales, properties have been exchanged in pubs for as little as a few pounds. The demolished terraced house and the surviving slum cut to the heart of this tension between the quotidian ephemerality of what goes on inside houses, and their relation to much longer-term, structural phenomena. Houses are cherished both for being repositories of, and for being more resilient than, our everyday, habitual lives. The appeal of owning one’s home is partly based on this notion that the house survives as more than simply a space for repetitive, unsalvageable routines. Middle-class, owner-occupied houses point not to the mundane present but back to the past and into the future: they are nostalgic signifiers or slowly accruing investments.

This point about cultural memory – that the rich can afford to leave no traces, while the scattered remnants of real history are contained in unnoticed, vernacular ruins – was first noted by Walter Benjamin. In Marseilles, for example, Benjamin finds evidence of the city’s past not in its landmark buildings but in its inner streets, the monotonous rows of houses of people who have lived there for years – those places that ‘give nothing away to the traveller’ and where ‘the whole world shrinks to a single Sunday afternoon’ (1979: 211-12). Because such places are relatively resistant to heritage commodification or individual nostalgia, they are opened up to concealed histories. This is particularly significant in relation to houses, which are enduring features of everyday life, containing and outliving our daily routines. Such physical permanence can be reassuring, but it can also point to the reality of uneven development, as our surroundings become out of sync with the needs of the present and we muddle through with outmoded layouts and dilapidated systems. The survival of the house, its residuality, makes it open to nostalgic recuperation but also to involuntary memories of irretrievable experiences.

The Refurbished Terrace 

But what of the many terraced houses that have survived and flourished in Britain? The development of an unfettered private housing market in the post-war era, which was accelerated in the Thatcher years as the encouragement of homeownership became a firm policy objective, produced an inevitable process of self-selection and zoning. This created massive variations in house prices, which have risen spectacularly in certain areas while going into freefall in others. It accelerated a process in which many of the terraces have been dismissed as ‘slums,’ while others have been refurbished and reinvented as ‘town houses’ for middle-class families.

These town houses might be a cut above the conventional by-law terrace. Rather than opening out directly onto the street, they might have a pocket front garden, or at least some form of setback, such as iron railings or steps up to the front door. There might be some decorative cresting or scroll pattern in the brickwork or lintels. The conventionally harsh, denatured streetscape might be enlivened with a few birches or sycamore trees. But it is also often the case that, apart from the external evidence of refurbishment – replacement windows, concrete tile roofing, repointed brickwork – these town houses are structurally identical to the ‘slums’ which have been demolished or allowed to fester as modern-day ruins.

The main reason for their survival, in fact, can be found in the Estate Agent’s mantra: ‘location location location’. In a classic text outlining a theory of rubbish, Michael Thompson traced this process by examining the power struggle between two groups in Islington in the mid-1960s: the middle-class ‘knockers-through’ and the working-class, rent-controlled sitting tenants. Prior to this period, Islington was a down-at-heel North London suburb, its once grand houses split into poorly-maintained, multi-occupation tenements. This situation was now being complicated, though, by the arrival of a ‘frontier middle class’ which was buying up slum properties and transforming them into attractive period dwellings by, for example, knocking through the dividing walls and laying down hardwood floors (1979: 42-3). In a process of gentrification which was later to be duplicated in other areas of London, this class was attracted to Islington by its relatively low house prices.

For Thompson, the house is the best example of a commodity which actually appreciates in value as it gets older, if it has been lovingly restored or happens to be located in a gentrifying area (1979: 36). While the ‘knockers-through’ are successfully transforming their houses from rubbish into durable objects, the working-class tenants have neither the economic nor cultural capital to enable them to do this. The greater knowledge of the middle classes about the housing market, and in particular about which areas are ‘on the up,’ gives them the ‘power to make things durable’ (1979: 52). Anyone familiar with the current demographic of Islington, now one of the most expensive and desirable places to live in the capital, will know who won this particular battle. Thompson’s account is of a concerted effort by the economically and culturally advantaged to translate the physical qualities of houses into socially valuable forms.

The refurbished house, though, often conceals these broader structural relationships. It has become a theatre for what Lefebvre calls the ‘pseudo-everyday,’ in which the repetitions and routines of daily life are ‘reconstructed in caricature’ (Lefebvre, 2002: 84, 44). One of the characteristics of the ‘pseudo-everyday’ is that it rarely exists in the routine present, alternating between a commodified past and a self-promoting futurism. The house has become a kind of stage-set for new electrical gadgetry, streamlined surfaces and designer décor, but also a repository of heritage and nostalgia, evident in the trend for what Raphael Samuel calls ‘retrofitting’ (1994: 51-82).

The main area of the house in which the everyday has been re-imagined in this way has been the kitchen, which brings together this dual emphasis on nostalgia and modernity. In the post-war period, the kitchen, formerly seen as the domain of servants, was repositioned as the control centre and emotional heart of the middle-class home. The continental ‘country kitchen’ look, pioneered by design stores such as Habitat in the 1960s, combines the comforts of mass consumption with rustic signifiers such as untreated wood, quarry tiles and earthenware. Contemporary fitted kitchens seamlessly combine the modern (Smeg fridges, chrome surfaces, touch-button technology) with the retro (cast-iron range cookers, batteries de cuisine, fireclay sinks, square butcher’s blocks). They often bring together labour-saving gizmos with gadgets such as juicers, coffee grinders, pasta makers and balance scales, which actually increase workload but promote culinary ‘authenticity’. For Peter Halley, who identifies a similar trend in America in the preference of the white middle-classes for colonial furniture, this nostalgia for the everyday life of the past functions as ‘a signifier for the identity of a powerful class’ which no longer has to assert its pre-eminence so forcefully, and can now embrace simple lifestyles through choice rather than obligation. This reflects ‘the desire of that class both to hide its existence with an anti-iconography and to claim its connection to an earlier industrial materiality whose reality it has effectively usurped’ (1997: 191).

And yet this nostalgia for homeliness is not usually allowed to penetrate into the messiness or mundanity of the everyday. Integrated appliances are concealed behind doors, extractor fans take away kitchen smells, disposal units incinerate waste in a second, surfaces are easily wipable, catalytic liners keep ovens clean, ‘servosoft’ drawers glide silently open and shut, and dishwashers are quieter than a ticking clock. Everyday life must be low maintenance to sustain the often-mentioned ‘busy lifestyles’ of middle-class homeowners. In a sense, the remaking of the kitchen has allowed the middle classes to embrace a comfortable version of the below-stairs lifestyle of the servants they might have employed in a previous era, while contracting out more mundane tasks to low-wage workers. Pleasant activities are re-appropriated from servants, as part of the performance of everyday life; unpleasant ones are robotized or offloaded to cleaners and au pairs.

Perhaps the most significant characteristic of the ‘pseudo-everyday’ in relation to the house is that it is almost entirely interiorized. The DIY and interior design industries which emerged as by-products of the homeowning boom have left the outside of the house relatively untouched. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a huge wave of home makeover programmes in the UK, a format which was exported successfully to other countries. Sometimes these programmes were about grand designs, building new homes from scratch or converting unusual locations such as old industrial buildings or barns into modern living spaces. More usually, though, as in the classic of the genre, Changing Rooms (1996-), they focused on redesigning one room of a house, often in a terraced street of a nondescript suburb. The emphasis has been almost exclusively on the interior of the ‘dream house’ at the expense of its more predictable, routine façade.

The No-Frills Tower Block 

The idea of tower blocks as social housing originated at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, and there followed a number of housing projects funded by Social-Democratic governments in Germany and Holland. The paradox of the modernist project lies in its commitment to equality of opportunity in housing and its simultaneous suspicion of the notion of houses as everyday, lived-in spaces. Le Corbusier famously attacked the ‘cult of the house’ in Western culture, with its ‘sickening spirit’ and ‘conglomeration of useless and disparate objects’ (1923/1946: 18, 22). He argued that the small rooms and cluttered interiors of the traditional, gabled house made it a kind of private museum to the insular preoccupations of the middle classes, a place in which people gathered together ‘gloomily and secretly like wretched animals’ (1923/1946: 18).

As an antidote to the claustrophobic, class-ridden refuge of the traditional house, modernist buildings aimed to provide transparent, spacious environments, with their undivided interiors, clean lines and floor-to-ceiling windows. Paradoxically, though, this transparent functionality was often achieved through the concealment of the building’s functional ‘underbelly’ – the wires, pipes, drains and toilet facilities which allowed it to function in an everyday context (Dutton et al, 2002: 138). Modernist architects also often imagined a building as ‘a finality that manifests itself upon the completion of a construction,’ and its quotidian afterlife as one of detraction and deterioration. On the outside of the building, they preferred to stop time through weatherproofing, rather than manage it through traditional weatherings such as pitched roofs, sills and downpipes (Mostafavi and Leatherbarrow, 1997: 36, 82). On the inside, Le Corbusier argued that clutter and dust should not interfere with the overall effect of light and space. He called for the strict enforcement of the ‘law of Ripolin’ (a coat of white enamel paint) which would get rid of dust and ‘dirty, dark corners’ (1925/1987: 189).

The relationship of this modernist aesthetic to the building of multi-storey blocks in Europe in the post-war era is a complex one. In Britain, tower blocks were pioneered by the architectural department of the London County Council, which certainly included a number of avant-garde architects interested in working in the area of mass housing. Once the design formulae of the tower blocks had been established, though, and they began to be built in other areas of Britain, a much more complicated relationship developed between avant-garde design and mass production (Glendinning and Muthesius, 1994: 3). The result was what Edward Relph has called a ‘no-frills modernism,’ an ‘architecture reduced to degree zero’ which borrowed the angular forms and uninterrupted lines of the avant-garde but underplayed its aesthetic and political concerns (1987: 198-200).

There is not enough space here to go into the reasons for the almost universal adoption of tower blocks as social housing in Britain in this period – which has been variously attributed to the unprecedented institutional power of architects and planners, the corrupt collusion between local councils and contractors, the honest attempt by local authorities to solve chronic housing shortages, and municipal pride in landmark projects (for competing accounts, see Dunleavy, 1981; Power, 1999; and Glendinning and Muthesius, 1994). What is clear is that this universal adoption produced a number of common features in high-rises across Britain, which were the consequence of a sometimes uneasy fit between modernist aesthetics and mass-production expediency.

The widespread adoption of system-building meant that the tower blocks looked remarkably similar wherever they were built. Most tower blocks were constructed using the same basic elements of a reinforced concrete or steel framework, infilling or cladding, and prefabricated sections. One of the cherished ideals of modernist architecture is universality, the notion that all residents should have equal proportions of the most valued amenities, light and space. In the earliest post-war British tower blocks, named Zeilenbau after the German estates of the 1920s, blocks were arranged in parallel rows, guaranteeing maximum and equal light for everyone (Glendinning and Muthesius, 1994: 39, 11). After the blocks were built, though, their standardized layout was more likely to be criticized for its crushing uniformity, a quality exacerbated by the inflexibility and homogeneity of concrete.

Many of the high-rises were also true to the modernist aesthetic in treating the quotidian life of the building as something to be concealed or as an improvised afterthought. In point blocks, everyday services such as plumbing, heating and electricity were usually all confined within an internal ‘service shaft’ in the hidden centre of the building, along with the bathrooms and toilets, the only rooms which were not opened up to light and space. The size and height of the tower blocks created enormous problems with daily routines such as drying clothes and rubbish disposal (Glendinning and Muthesius, 1994: 68). Just as modernist architects did not always consider the mundane life of the building beyond its dramatic moment of completion, local authority budget cuts tended to fall on the everyday maintenance of the tower blocks. These problems were exacerbated by the enforced communality of the high-rises, particularly in the deck-access blocks with their aim of creating ‘streets in the sky’ which would reproduce the community spirit of the demolished terraces. While the communal green spaces around the flats were rarely used, the shared services such as lifts, postboxes and corridors were often damaged through vandalism or anti-social behaviour.

Only a few decades after their construction, then, the tower blocks are the most obvious manifestation of the residuality of the everyday, its capacity to fall behind the more spectacular transformations of other areas of modern life. As Britain’s chronic housing shortage lessened from the early 1970s onwards, the people trapped in high-rise estates were those who were excluded from the now universally-lauded ideal of owner-occupation. In Britain, for example, tower-block apartments were almost never sold under the policies introduced by the Thatcher government in 1980, which allowed council house tenants to buy their properties (Power, 1999: 46). These difficult-to-let estates have become dumping grounds for those people – immigrants, asylum seekers, single mothers, unemployed workers – who cannot be accommodated elsewhere. Buildings designed to bring about roughly equal standards in housing, and to lift their occupants out of the mundanity of the everyday, have done exactly the opposite.

This residuality is obvious because the high-rise estates represent a highly visible intervention into people’s everyday lives. The ‘non-places’ of everyday life (motorways, out-of-town supermarkets, office parks) tend to be far less visible because our mobile, transient, habitual relationship to them does not encourage concentrated forms of looking. The high-rises are different: they were designed to make a definite mark on the landscape, with their towering height and conspicuous display of new building technologies (Power, 1999: 35). They were built during a period of post-war reconstruction when the necessities of everyday life, such as housing and subsistence, took on an unparalleled political importance, and were the subject of determined interventions in a way they have not been since. The confident post-war belief in large-scale housing created unwieldy constructions which could not be easily replaced without incurring huge expense and creating massive rehousing problems. The tower blocks now have an embarrassing visibility, which is commensurate with the lack of political will to intervene in these intractable problems of everyday life.

This uncomfortable conspicuousness is encapsulated in the decrepitude of the new brutalist architecture which, inspired by the béton brut (raw concrete) used by Le Corbusier in his later buildings, leaves its rough surfaces exposed. Notoriously, untreated concrete ages badly. It provides an absorbent surface for car fumes and other forms of pollution; it is a nicely flat and expansive canvas for spraycan graffiti; it stains, streaks and blisters in the rain, a problem exacerbated by the absence of weatherings on many tower blocks. Such visible signs of dilapidation allow the tower blocks to function more readily as purveyors of myths about the inadequacy of all forms of social housing, in a way which often belies the surprisingly good interior state of the flats. The tower blocks are a signifier of the everyday as the banalization of modernity: they show how quickly the confidently modern is assimilated into a residual, quotidian landscape. This transition is all the more quickly achieved in those environments which began by announcing themselves so assertively as state-of-the-art. And it is worth noting in this context that, in the area of housing, it is generally the working-classes who have had to live in these ‘state-of-the-art’ buildings, built by local councils and housing associations, while the better-off have bought more durable products with stable resale values.

In recent years, the way in which the demolition of the tower blocks has been represented is an attempt to deny this residuality, to consign these buildings to the dustbin of history. Patrick Wright notes how these ceremonious demolitions have become a common visual trope in inner-city areas since the mid-1980s, with local authorities often placing adverts in local papers and arranging seats for onlookers (1991: 95). Such events serve to reinforce the notion of the tower block as ‘a generator of infernal meanings for people who only look at it from outside .… a monstrous emblem of the futility of all State-led social reform’ (1991: 68, 90). Wright focuses in particular on his home borough of Hackney, which in the 1980s was demonized as a case study in the problems of the inner city but which achieved new notoriety in the 1990s for dynamiting more tower blocks than any other borough (Pile and Thrift, 2000: 261). The demolition of the tower blocks serves as a kind of visible cautionary tale for those who might seek to provide planned solutions to everyday problems.

Despite the dramatic images of demolitions, only a small proportion of high-rises in Britain has actually been blown up: most have survived because local authorities have calculated that demolishing them would create a still greater housing crisis (Power, 1999: 3-8). Charles Jencks’s celebrated statement that ‘Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm’ (Jencks, 1992: 23) – a reference to the blowing up of the notorious Pruitt-Egoe housing development – thus needs to be qualified with the knowledge that many of the ‘no-frills’ high-rises have remained. The residuality of everyday life means that housing survives as living space long after it has ceased to be part of a fashionable architectural project or movement.

The Americanization of Suburbia

If the high-rise block was partly envisaged as a counter to suburban sprawl, then the low-density suburban estate has found a new lease of life in Britain in recent years as a reverse-image of the high-rise. As housebuilding by local councils tailed off from the early 1970s onwards, the trend swung back to private builders, suburban sites and traditional vernacular styles. The new suburban housing estates in Britain can therefore be seen as part of the belated development of tract building on the American model. While the tower block is based on a kind of compulsory communality, the suburban house is characterized by its articulation of individual difference within structural sameness. Dan Graham’s art project, Homes for America (1966-67), explores this tension with its photographs and commentary on a tract development in suburban New Jersey. Graham shows how each house has a simple structure to or from which elements can be added or subtracted, and how the houses are then placed in plots of exactly the same size and in uniform sequences, either regular rows or staggered setbacks. He also examines how the sameness of these environments is offset by a rhetoric of consumer choice. The wooden shell of the house is concealed, for example, by some form of cosmetic cladding such as vinyl or half-stone brick; the different-shaped boxes are given nostalgic or evocative names such as ‘Cape Cod,’ ‘Ranchhouse’ or ‘Colonial’; and the names of the developments (Fair Lawn, Greenfields Village, Pleasantville, Pinelawn) give the impression of well-established communities rather than hastily-established tracts to fill up dead land (Graham, 1993: 14-23).

The British photographer Paul Graham pays tribute to Homes for America in his House Portraits (1980), a series of metre-high colour photographs of houses on modern estates in Britain (see Wilson, Wearing and Squiers 1996: 9-11). The deadpan aesthetic of Graham’s photographs, with the houses captured head or side-on in the strong light of early morning, brings into sharp relief their boxy uniformity and blank newness: the paint and putty stains still on the windows, the square lawns with no flowers or plants, the surrounding earth, rubble and waste not yet covered up or cleared away. The tension, as in Homes for America, is between the idea of ‘home’ and the clearly commodified, serial nature of suburban housing.

In its nod to Dan Graham’s earlier work, House Portraits refers implicitly to the globalization of the building trade and its increasing domination by international, corporate players. Housebuilding is one of Britain’s most profitable industries, and a wave of conglomeration over the last few years has created a small number of housing companies with centralized offices and global supply-lines. Of course, the planned suburb is not an American invention. In the 1930s, British authors such as George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence and Osbert Lancaster attacked the monotonous Stockbroker Tudor houses of Metroland (Oliver, 1981: 11, 46) in a manner similar to American critics of suburbia such as David Riesman, William H. Whyte and Lewis Mumford a few years later (Riesman, 1950; Whyte, 1956; Mumford, 1961). British interwar suburban houses, though, were more various than their reputation suggests. In Britain in 1930, 84 per cent of housebuilders had less than 10 employees and built only a few houses each year, which ensured different designs for windows, bays, porches and roofs even when the builders were using similar pattern books (Oliver 1981: 98; Relph 1987: 172).

Suburban houses built in Britain more recently, though, have been closely tied to systems of mass production and consumption. As in America, social housing (which dominated the market between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s) is now seen as a safety net, property-owning is a virtually compulsory definition of citizenship, and meteoric house price rises are seen as an indicator of a buoyant economy. New housebuilding on suburban sites thus provides a key insight into the ways in which the everyday is being imagined and lived in contemporary Britain.

It was in the enterprise-conducive 1980s that housebuilders really began to consolidate and produce houses on a massive scale. The homeowning boom of the Thatcher years was partly fuelled by the starter homes of firms like Barratt, which created small, relatively cheap houses on new, edge-of-town estates. The famous TV ads of the late 1970s and early 1980s, featuring Patrick Allen, an actor from the 1960s TV series ‘Crane,’ promoted the merits of new homes from a helicopter flying over Barratt estates. Just as the Levittown houses threw in televisions and Bendix washers as part of the sales price, Barratt’s came with virtually everything included. The brochures claimed that all first-time buyers needed to bring was the crockery and bed linen.

Apart from a few local embellishments, the houses built by Barratt and other major housebuilders are essentially the same throughout the country. The style is pitched-roof neo-vernacular, and the colour scheme is usually white and orange: white-painted glideroll garage doors, window sills and skirting, combined with orange bricks (often in two colours) and pantiled roofs. There are many reasons for this sameness, such as the increasing consolidation in the industry which creates standard housetypes, the conservative tastes of the housebuyer (who must, unlike the more innovative councils and housing associations, consider resale), planning restrictions, and what Martin Pawley calls ‘minimalisation’. This means that housebuilders will often build to the minimum specification required to comply with building regulations and to sell the house: they will use the thinnest possible walls, the least amount of building material and the smallest dimensions. (Showhomes on new estates are sometimes fitted out with undersized furniture to make their rooms look bigger (Pawley 1992: 146-8)). So basic starter homes, in particular, tend to be of fairly standard scale and proportions.

The main reason for the homogeneity, though, is the increasing sophistication of industrialized building methods. Almost all new houses have machine-made bricks, synthetic rooftiles and factory-produced windows. The development of modular, off-site building, also pioneered in the US, has exacerbated this trend. Centralized housebuilding factories, often employing former car workers, now make precast panels which can be assembled on site like pieces of flatpack furniture, leaving only the outer walls to be clad with brick and the roof tiled (Hetherington, 2003). With this form of volume building tied to the increasing use of computer-aided design, housebuilders can plan a layout on the available land and fill it with new houses in a few months.

At the same time, there seems to be a particular resistance in Britain to the idea that a house can simply be ordered from a catalogue like any other consumer product. It is as though quantity building is an embarrassment to a housing industry which sells its homes on their access to carefully managed forms of tradition and memory. Perhaps indicatively, Britain has been slow to adapt to prefabricated housing; although increasingly common, it still only represents about 1% of the market, in contrast with countries such as the US and Japan where it is widely practised (Hetherington, 2003).

In Patrick Keiller’s fictionalized documentary, The Dilapidated Dwelling (2000), the narrator, Tilda Swinton, assumes the character of a researcher and designer who returns to Britain after two decades in the Arctic. She is dismayed that few of the innovations in building technology introduced in the 1960s have been widely adopted. Although Britain is one of the most electronically advanced economies in the world, its houses are the most rundown in Western Europe. While consumer technologies have become cheaper in real terms, the price of housing has risen exponentially. The problem, Keiller suggests, is that houses are seen as durable investments rather than everyday commodities like cars or domestic appliances. Unlike other countries where prefabricated housing is the norm, Britain is in thrall to a commodified version of the past which values renovation over innovation. Keiller calculates that, at the existing rate of replenishment, Britain’s current stock of housing will have to last 5600 years.

Just as American tract houses are dismissed by critics as ‘cookie-cutter houses’ and ‘McMansions,’ there are similar anxieties about the development of an identikit Britain of homogeneous estates. To middle-class city dwellers who would not dream of living in one, a ‘Barratt home’ has become shorthand for a monotonous suburban tract house. In this context, it is often hard to disentangle anxieties about cultural commodification from aesthetic disdain and nimbyism. It is perhaps worth pointing out that these ‘Barratt hutches,’ ‘Lego Homes’ and ‘Toy-Town Houses’ are much better equipped than comparable housing a generation ago, and to an extent they fulfil the original dream of suburbia, which was to give affordable, pleasant housing to all, not just the rich. Arguments about the sameness of these houses are potentially ahistorical: Georgian terraces, which employed the rhythmic repetitions of classicism, were as boringly repetitive to Victorians as tract housing is to contemporary sensibilities. Perhaps it is not the sameness of these houses that is the problem, but the way in which this system of mass production is obscured behind a rhetoric of individualized consumption. The houses are built in ‘timeless’ vernacular styles and sold as well-equipped interiors for exclusively privatized use, in a way that conceals their links to each other and to the broader structures of everyday life.

Building the Everyday 

I want to explore some of these issues with specific reference to one of these ‘toy-town’ developments: Chafford Hundred, ‘Britain’s most coveted address’ in 2001 according to the London Evening Standard (Curtis, 2001). This area’s status as a property hotspot derives not from its exclusivity but its availability. It provides relatively affordable homes in an otherwise stratospheric London housing market, fuelled by housing shortages, low mortgage rates and the over-dependence of the British economy on the Southeast. Chafford Hundred, inaugurated in 1986 when Thurrock Borough Council gave planning consent for the reclamation of 600 acres of ex-industrial land in the Essex marshes, now has over 2000 houses and will eventually incorporate 5000 houses built by nearly every major housebuilder in Britain.

Developers and buyers are attracted to Chafford Hundred for more or the less the same reasons that Levitt was attracted to Long Island – acres of unused land, government subsidies, proximity to the metropolis and the promise of good transport links. Chafford Hundred is part of the Thames Gateway, an area recently pinpointed by the government for new building to solve the Southeast’s chronic housing deficit, in the most ambitious housebuilding programme since the period of post-war slum clearance. But governments can no longer make confident claims, as did post-war politicians, about the building of ‘homes for heroes’. Voter opposition to new housebuilding in key marginal seats in the Southeast means that they have had to develop selected areas, often on recycled land which costs millions of pounds to decontaminate. The aim in the Thames Gateway is to create a ‘linear city’ along the river into Essex and Kent, on the largest area of brownfield land in the country. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has promised ‘sustainable communities’ rather than soulless commuter housing (‘Sustainable Communities,’ 2003) – a claim somewhat undercut by the fact that the whole point of building the houses here is that they are close to London.

Estates such as Chafford Hundred are interesting because they clearly reveal both the reality of commodification and the housing market’s embarrassment that the house might be just another disposable commodity. The first thing one notices, when being shown around the ‘starter homes’ (small terraced houses or two-bedroom flats) in the town, is their smallness: poky rooms, tiny windows, with window ledges so small that one resident has had to bracket a window box to the wall rather than place it on the ledge. When housebuilders work with massive economies of scale, this apparently insignificant miserliness over a few square feet makes a huge difference to profit margins. Market mechanisms are very evident in Chafford Hundred because houses are still being built and sold in quantity. All the major housebuilders have showrooms and sales offices, and everywhere there is evidence of houses being constructed, particularly on the periphery of the development: factory-made bricks and roofing tiles packed in squares and wrapped in polythene, giant mortar dispensers, half-built timber-frames, breeze blocks. The recently completed houses also advertise their newness with their ‘For Sale’ signs, unfurnished interiors, recently planted saplings and bare trellising.

Not all the houses look the same. There is some variety in the form of American-style clapboard houses and stuccoed mock-Georgian terraces. But most of the houses in Chafford Hundred are built in the orange and white neo-vernacular style, with timber frames concealed by brick casing, redundant chimneys, and occasional nostalgic signifiers such as old-fashioned coaching lamps and artificially archaized bricks. There has been an attempt to create a villagey feel in the form of streetnames such as Saffron Road, Swallow Close, Rainbow Road and Maunder Close. Most houses also have plaques, standardized for each street, with names like the Briars, the Vicarage, the Brindles, Haystacks or Sundial Cottage. This evocation of a bucolic past not only conceals the logic of serial repetition in quantity building, it underplays the connection of these housing estates to other everyday systems.

Chafford Hundred highlights the problems of forming instant communities, with none of the planning of the new towns, to address an issue which is essentially an effect of economics: a runaway housing market which has left many prospective owners priced out of even modest accommodation. It is not that Chafford Hundred has no sense of community or communal facilities. Apart from a few enclosed areas with security cameras and Keep Out signs, there has been an admirable attempt not to hive off residents into separate little income pods, as flats, starter-homes and double-garaged executive homes are sometimes situated on the same street. There are two sets of shops, a ‘Chafford Hundred Campus’ which provides education from nursery to adult level, a library, a medical centre, a Chinese restaurant and other facilities.

But there is no doubt that one of Chafford Hundred’s main attractions to residents is its closeness by car to the Lakeside shopping centre, a nearby mega-mall, and London. The dependence of residents on their cars is clear from the fact that every house has either a carport or a garage. The layout of the town seems designed to segregate traffic from the houses by access-only streets with speedbumps, and then to facilitate ease of movement by cars around the town through the deployment of perimeter roads and endless roundabouts.

The residents I speak to in Chafford Hundred, walking their dogs, washing their cars or trimming their lawns, are London cab drivers, self-employed builders, office managers: the semi-mythical ‘Mondeo Man,’ the most famous of the ideotypes of key swing voters identified by New Labour as essential to their electoral success. Indeed, I did spot several dozen Ford Mondeos, along with many cars of the same class such as Volkswagen Passats and Rover 75s. ‘Mondeo man’ is supposedly the backbone of middle England, an aspirational figure who likes his car, his three-bedroom, semi-detached Barratt home and his family holidays in Florida, and who is virulently opposed to rises in income tax and petrol prices (See McKibbin, 1999). This focus-group characterization, which confirms governments in their refusal to make bold political decisions involving taxation and regulation, fails to see how the location of Mondeo man (and woman) is based on a forced peripherality, as London houseprices stretch the commuter belt ever further outwards. New-build communities like Chafford Hundred arguably have all of the disadvantages of gated communities (segregation from the rest of society) with none of the perks (special privileges and amenities). Boxed off from the facilities and diversity of the city, they are often the enforced choice for those prospective property-owners who want good housing but who cannot afford the refurbished older properties nearer the centre.

Walking around Chafford Hundred as field research, it is not long before I am hopelessly lost. It is partly that the sameness of the houses provides no landmark, and partly that the curvilinear streets are completely disorientating. Invented in American tract developments to close off the vista and protect the viewer from the potentially depressing sight of an endless line of subdivisions, the curvilinear street has the unfortunate side-effect of destroying any sense of direction. In a sense, this disorientation is significant because it serves to conceal the relationship of Chafford Hundred’s houses to the broader structures of everyday life. One really needs to view a map of Greater London to make sense of these patterns which are invisible from the ground. It is only from above that one can see how the crescent and horseshoe shapes of the town’s streets lead out into the arteries which provide its lifeblood – the snaking A13, one of the busiest trunk roads in Europe, which follows the Thames from the City of London into Essex; the M25 London Orbital Road; and the railway line into London’s Fenchurch Street. Widening the net still further reveals more dispersed connections. Since it reaffirms the government’s commitment to maintaining the Southeast as the country’s economic powerhouse, there is obviously a link between the Thames Gateway development and the bulldozing of thousands of ‘slums’ in the deprived areas of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, a pattern confirmed in the Sustainable Communities paper which provides millions of pounds to convert these areas into parkland (‘Sustainable Communities’, 2003).


It is worth returning, in conclusion, to Bachelard’s house of ‘dream memory’. I hope to have shown in this article that, despite Bachelard’s insistence that this dreamhouse is a cultural universal, it belongs to a very particular political economy. His house has ‘space around it,’ its ultimate embodiment being the thatched cottage or hermit’s hut first encountered as a distant glimmer of light on a dark night (1958/1994: 31). This clearly excludes certain sorts of house, such as the urban terrace or the high-rise flat, which have a much more visible relationship with a collectively experienced everyday life. The problem with the high-rise, for Bachelard, is that its living spaces are rootless ‘superimposed boxes’ in which ‘the number of the street and the floor give the location of our “conventional hole,” but our abode has neither space around it nor verticality inside it’ (1958/1994: 26-7). Similarly, we cannot experience dreams of shelter and protection within the townhouse, because we are

no longer aware of the storms of the outside universe. Occasionally the wind blows a tile from the roof and kills a passer-by in the street. But this root crime is only aimed at the belated passer-by … In our houses set close against one another, we are less afraid (1958/1994: 27).

Leaving aside Bachelard’s disregard for the unfortunate pedestrian, these comments suggest that his ideal house is one which retreats from the forced communality of the everyday. He implicitly champions the privately owned, detached house over the ‘house on streets where we have only lived as transients’ (1958/1994: 43). After all, he writes, intimate space is ‘space that is not open to just anybody’ (1958/1994: 78).

What is unacknowledged here – just as it is unacknowledged more generally in the cultural economy of houses – is the disjointed pace of progress, and the ways in which our carefully refurbished or shinily modern homes are achieved not only at the expense of the homeless or poorly housed, but other everyday spaces. The key issue is not our existential connection with bricks and mortar, as Bachelard suggests, but money and ownership. In Britain, houseprice rises have been so dramatic that some homes actually earn more money in equity and capital gain than their occupants do in their jobs (Pawley, 2002: 34). But while houses are clearly tied in with a legal and economic system of deeds and mortgages, we tend to see the other spaces of everyday life as unplanned and unowned. In these ‘non-places,’ according to Augé, the primary activity is one of transit, and we engage in faceless, unquestioned operations governed by abstract ‘instructions for use’ whose provenance is rarely explicitly stated (1995: 96). We accept that someone is looking after the roads, railways and underground systems, but our own relationship with these non-places is habit-forming, ephemeral and unreflexive.

The problem, though, is that the house is a place surrounded by non-places. In order to get from our dream house to work, we might need to drive along clogged collector roads, suffer the claustrophobia of the underground, or wait forever on a railway platform for the delayed train to Fenchurch Street (the London to Essex service is widely regarded as one of the worst in the country). We rarely think about the collective logic of houses, their increasing connection with global systems of production and consumption, and their crucial relationship to the other spaces of everyday life. As Benjamin wrote, people use the home as a counterweight to a public life which has come to seem alienating in its boredom, lack of controllability and forced communality: ‘Living space constituted itself as the interior. The office was its complement. The private citizen who in the office took reality into account, required of the home that it should support him in his illusions’ (quoted in Katz, 1999: 141). There is now an ever-greater incentive to escape from the collective everyday, to retreat into our equity-accumulating homes and lock the door.


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