British domestic design in the 20th century is a story of architectural vandalism committed by the very rich and eagerly emulated by the middle class
The way to study the development and history of 20th-century British domestic architecture is to get in a car or, even better, on the top deck of a bus and to trust to serendipity. The way not to study this rich, diverse, endlessly fascinating subject is to read Alan Powers’ The Twentieth Century House In Britain, a book which I recommend as an anthology of the exceptional. In certain instances, the exceptionally dire. Such surveys often define themselves by what they omit. That’s the case here. The photographs are drawn from Country Life’s archive, and the text is partly a commentary on articles that appeared in that magazine, whose taste was, in most eras, stylistically eclectic and whose inclinations were seldom prescriptive.
One would, however, never deduce from this volume that in the 1930s Country Life published such titles as Houses For Moderate Means, Seaside Houses And Bungalows, Timber Houses, etc. This book is concerned with houses that only the very wealthy could realistically aspire to. Here’s where things get interesting. Its unspoken message is that apart from the very wealthy, only two marginal segments of the British populace enjoy a standard of domestic design to match that which surrounds them in the workplace, in shops, in bars, in stations:
1) Architects who design their own houses, typically on cramped, awkward plots.
2) The low-paid who inhabit whatever fragments of affordable/social/council accommodation remains in the public domain.
There is an evident correspondence between what architects build for themselves and the public housing they (used to) create – resourceful, extemporised, done on a shoestring.
Equally, there is a drip-down from the houses of the very wealthy to the middle British house. They are obviously quantitively different, yet there is only a narrow qualitative gap between them. The very wealthy inhabit a ghetto where an all-too-British false modesty is expressed through codes of unostentatious ostentation. They espouse a gamut of styles that are mimicked in arterial semis and neo-vernacular closes and outer suburban villas and executive estates – in those dwelling places whose owners do not subscribe to Taupe, Wetroom, Blueprint, Carpetshagger, Wallpaper*, Loofahman, etc. Whose owners, incredible as it may seem, do not even know of those publications, but swarm in their beige legions over National Trust properties every weekend. Design, in the way it is understood by specialist magazines, is a minority interest.
The majority subscribes to designers who belong to the history of ingratiation and sycophancy
It is another sort of design that the silent majority subscribes to. It derives from a cadre of “society” architects and interior designers who belong to the history of ingratiation and sycophancy rather than architecture. Now, in more distant centuries, the process of de haut en bas produced everyday work of genuine merit. Look, say, at Blandford, which was burned down, then reconstructed in the 1730s by the enterprising Bastard brothers, who drew their stylistic inspiration from two great houses lately built in the vicinity by John Vanbrugh and Thomas Archer.
In principle this forelock-tugging has much to commend it. But from about 1930 on it ceased to have any value, for the example of the very wealthy was no longer worth following – though as is all too evident it was followed …
Hermetical isolation, caste solidarity or lack of imagination caused the very wealthy to commission vacuous classicists and exterior decorators. The country house, which had been one of the glories of British art, became a reactionary backwater. It was not, however, stagnant; one generation of fifth-rate architect was succeeded by another. And nor was it irrelevant, much as the aesthetically sentient might have wished it to have been. This drip-down has been catastrophic.
Sod’s – or someone’s – law is at play here. For we live in age when more people have more money than ever before. And money expresses itself through houses. To see what sort of houses, I’d recommend OK! or Hello! magazines. Gape at the plastic pilasters and meretricious neo-Georgianisms favoured by footballers, the role supermodels of our day.
Gape and weep. Or giggle: for here is proof that money doesn’t buy you everything.