"… and on BBC9, Harlan Davis' How Did We Get Here examines social change in the first three decades of the 21st century; this week its the turn of the built environment".

A 3D image of Harlan, looking a bit of a prat in his trademark leather trousers, appears on the wafer-thin transparent digiscreen. So select a soundtrack option – with Italian subtitles for credits in your lifelong learning account – pour yourself of glass of chilled Shropshire Chardonnay and settle back to watch the screen, which is now showing aerial tracking shots of British towns in 1973, 2003 and 2033.

Harlan's point is that, on the surface, nothing much has changed. We still build and live rectilinearly and horizontally: there are no Buckminster Fuller domes, no Norman Foster vertical cities, no communities raised on Seacrete stilts over the encroaching North Sea. Statistics on the age of the country's building stock confirm that the new-build replacement rate has continued at the 1% per annum established in the 1990s.

Harlan takes us back to 2003 to take a closer look at the social currents blowing in the air then. Select the onscreen stats option and you can check out census returns, figures on household formation and housing demand, data on economic migrants entering the UK and affluent life-shifters escaping it; the cyclical graphs of GDP and economic performance tell part of the story, as do the figures on climate change and productivity growth. Finally, Harlan turns to softer issues. Advertising clips from a bygone era illustrate shifting aspirations; artefacts from press and media reveal our changing desires, identities, dreams …

OK, we're back in the here and now. Harlan hasn't been born yet and the digiscreen is just a project in a Japanese laboratory. Did his programme continue with a tale of shrinking southern cities and northern ghost towns, their populations departed to pursue the good life in networked live–work rural communities? Did global travel and multidirectional migration bring us a multicultural outlook, the melting away of nationalism and the nation state – or did we become a nation cowed by security and health threats, an island fortress?

Was social fluidity reflected in mixed communities and multi-tenure housing, or did social division take built shape in gated communities for the wealthy and babel blocks for the economic migrants?

Did we continue to worship at the altars of finance and technology, building high-rise temples to commerce and intelligent buildings with integrated circuitry to anticipate our every need? Or did we retreat from the techno-age and scale back our consumption of resources, turning to organic farming and construction with reclaimed, recycled or locally produced materials?

The final possibility is that these opposing trends managed to co-exist, because they reflected the relaxation of society as we know it into groups of like-minded individuals free to follow dramatically different lifestyles. In other words, the society of the future – and the built environment it has shaped for itself – could be a patchwork populated by different self-selecting "tribes". The evolution of the Techno-kids, Hip Urban Swingers, Rural Downshifters, Third Agers and more could all have an impact on the built environment through the lifestyle choices they exert.

The economic, political and global forces that could give us the end of Harlan's programme are unknowable, and attempts to speculate risk looking as foolish as 1960s' predictions of nuclear winters or interstellar colonisation. But, if we look at all of those 2003 statistics, we can see that the scenario built on choice and desire is the most likely, because that is the direction our society is already heading in.

A snapshot of life in 1973 allows us to take a bearing. Compared with today, we see less freedom of movement, less access to education, a stronger sense of class divisions and inequality between the sexes. In other words, the past 30 years have seen a demise in the factors that bound us together and an upsurge in the areas of our lives where we could exercise choice. Medicine, technology, communications and rising affluence have all changed our lives – and can be expected to continue doing so.

First, let's take a look at some of that data. Between 2001 and 2021, the UK population is expected to rise from 59.9 million to 64 million. Within that total, the number of over-45s will rise 6.3 million, whereas the number of under-45s will fall back by 2.1 million. By 2020, half the adult population of the UK will be 50 or older. Longer, healthier lives and later retirement will mean we will remain economically active into our 70s. We are also likely to be richer in 2033 than today: financial thinktank the Future Foundation estimates that, in 2020, the average household income will be £47,000 compared with £29,000 today.

Over the same period, we will see an increase in household formation, driven by the establishment of non-traditional households that also reflect greater personal choice. In 2000, the UK had approximately 24.5 million households, rising to a projected 27.5 million by 2020. According to the Office of National Statistics, the increase is made up of single person household and child-free couples in every age-group, and multi-generational and extended families. The number of couples with children will go into decline, and the number of single parents will stay roughly static.

But although these projections suggest a nation living in ever smaller groups, other factors will help to make us more connected. In the 21st century, technology could restore the personal bonds broken in the more mobile society of the late 20th century. Think mobile videophones; domestic digiscreens to talk to friends or family all over the world; technology that supports long-distance relationships or international friendships – all adding a border-blurring personal dimension to globalisation. Technology could makes us more secure, more mobile and more willing to take personal risks.

A society with greater longevity, rising affluence and fewer family responsibilities can also rewrite the rigid timetables that regulated our personal and working lives in the 20th century. What's Next?, a report from the Future Foundation, portrays adult life as a ladder of multiple stages and career shifts, punctuated by returns to education for qualifications. In the near future it predicts that students will launch business enterprises and delay graduation until their late 20s; first marriages will be delayed until our mid-30s, coinciding with a first career change.

Our televisual historian might conclude that it all adds up to more varied lifestyles and greater personal choice, where individuals increasingly live and identify themselves under "tribal" identities instead of the traditional fixed categories based on salary, status or educational attainment. In terms of the built environment, these trends suggest we will demand more diversity and flexibility in living, working and educational environments to meet the needs of existing and newly-emerging social groups.

In addition, on-demand communications will have profound implications on where we live and on the built environment.

In the ever-growing services sector of our economy, it allows niche companies to compete with large multidisciplinary consultants. Rural communities, which suffer today from a lack of access to transport and services, could be restored to economic viability, and cities would be for those who choose them [Love the car, page 21]. E-learning and telemedicine will reduce the need for vast, landmark schools and hospitals, and allow education and healthcare to be delivered direct to communities.

In general, applying greater freedom to choose working and lifestyle options to the design our homes and workplaces, town centres dictates greater building flexibility and the option to change a building's use if the need arises. Thoughtful consultants become nervous when they see buildings with E E 50- or 100-year lifespans. "We're putting up monuments to our own time and anticipating the needs of our successors," says one. "Urban environments need a more creative, flexible approach …"

Our freedom to exert choice begins with our living environments, a trend reflected in all the domestic makeover schedules of 2003. Clearly, the role that the home plays in constructing our identities is changing. When the Henley Centre asked people what they wanted to change about their lives, transforming the home comes close behind losing weight and stopping smoking. People, it seems, like to project their identities on to their homes – for one thing, it's easier, more achievable and less risky than other life changes.

Home design as a component of individual identity means owner–occupiers will become less willing to accept someone else's idea of good design; it could result in a new generation of domestic clients, commissioning bespoke homes. Others will seek designers to work on the smaller canvases of kitchens, conservatories and attic conversions. Smaller, more mobile households could start to move house more frequently, leading to a demand for agile design to suit different occupiers, such as demountable interior partitions and freestanding kitchens.

We are also shifting our ideas towards work. The prolonged post-2000 stock market slump and growing pensions gap has accelerated our decline in faith in jobs for life and the single-profession career. Already downshifting, four-day weeks, job sharing and career breaks are the strategies adopted by the salaried to reassert their choice and personal identities. Here, personal aspirations will meet state legislation, with greater rights to flexible working, maternity and paternity leave and unpaid sabbaticals.

These trends have already made the home office an fixture in housebuilders' marketing plans and interior decor supplements, and another argument in favour of loose-fit, flexible housing. In the coming years, purpose-built home offices in attic space and garages will be increasingly valued for their ability to combine economic activity with personal space.

In response, employers and developers may need to increase the appeal of the office environment. Offices will need to offer a range of facilities, either in-house or accessible nearby, to convince people that the daily commute is worthwhile – expect gyms, relaxation suites and a range of bars and restaurants [2033office, pages 14-15]. For the tribes that choose this lifestyle – individuals who thrive on social stimulus and fast-changing environments – the business districts of our future cities could become noisy urban playgrounds.

An alternative approach for people pursuing the elusive work–life balance is to create hybrid live–work developments: not just dedicated live–work apartments, but new homes and business units in the same location. The Urbed consultancy – involved in the BedZED sustainable housing development, one of the first green shoots of this trend – points out that the approach dramatically reduces the eco-footprint of our living and working lives, by cutting out commuting and equalising energy use day and night [Environment160, pages 38-42].

Meanwhile, the pensions problem could also impact on the built environment by intersecting with changes in privately financed public sector projects. Insurance companies and pension funds are looking for alternatives to equities, and construction contractors are selling off their PFI portfolios.

In 30 years' time we could invest those retirement funds in hospitals, schools or social housing – and demand design excellence as well as financial performance.

Our lifestyle choices are linked to our spending habits, so changes in the way we organise our lives and seek personal satisfaction impact strongly on the retail, leisure and entertainment sectors. For instance, consumers freed from chore shopping by communication technology, and released from status shopping by a looser society, will shop for stimulus, novelty and new experiences as much as consumer goods. High streets and shopping centres will increasingly have to offer an integrated retail and leisure experience: hands-on sporting activities in sports shops, cookery lessons in supermarkets, driving simulators in car showrooms.

Retail Futures, a research report from Jones Lang LaSalle and market research specialist Sociovision, points to increasing retail segmentation to match social segmentation.

It suggests we will see themed centres grouped around home accessories or high-tech gadgetry, traditional centres aimed at the mature consumer; or leading edge centres aimed at shoppers seeking change and stimulus. Planning restrictions suggest the repositioning of existing centres rather than the construction of new ones.

In terms of leisure and recreation, a society that has more choice is less likely to be satisfied with passive spectating, and more likely to seek interactivity. We may need to build indoor ski slopes, inland surfing pools, family activity centres offering parents and children new skills, arts venues and super-high-tech museums. According to the Future Foundation, the mature population will seek more diversions to fill a longer, more active retirement, and learning for leisure will also increase. The sales of books, newspapers and magazines jumped 52% between 1997 and 2002.

An increased appetite for learning will meet government policy in the continued its drive to expand higher education. But the university experience is no longer about 18-year-olds living in purpose-built residences on mono-use campuses. Twenty-first century campuses, such as the new de Havilland campus at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, will be sited in town centres, or linked to business parks. Halls of residences will be adaptable as affordable housing if demand changes. Multipurpose concert and conference halls will bring revenue and create a shop window for the local communities, from which the universities draw most of their students.

In compulsory primary and secondary education, the emphasis will also be on the school as community resource. Current Department for Education and Skills design thinking links schools to the communities beyond their gates: for instance by moving library and IT suites to the ground floor where parents and children can work on projects or homework, and local residents can make use of the facilities. This principle may lead to a recognition that learning takes place in a variety of environments: in the home, in sports clubs, in shops.

The result of that will be a move away from schools as exam factories, mass-producing a standard component in batches of 30. Classes will be of mixed ages, schools will be more flexible, with open-plan, multi-activity classrooms, pupils working hard in one place, relaxing in another. Parents and grandparents may arrive at school as their offspring are leaving. In general, with less need to draw a critical mass of pupils, teachers and subjects within one building, individual schools will be smaller, perhaps sharing some facilities with others in the neighbourhood.

In the classrooms themselves, the emphasis will be on dismantling physical barriers to learning and accommodating learning technology. Pupils will no longer be forced to follow a single activity, face a single direction, or study IT in suites with monitors banked round the walls. Future System's Classroom of the Future, a prototype for the London Borough of Richmond and the DfES, has the curved shape of an intimate theatrical performance space, networked laptops for pupils and a whiteboard that allows lessons to be delivered electronically or from another site.

In the health sector, similar principles of flexibility also apply. 2020 Vision: Our Future Healthcare Environments, a report from Building Futures, a thinktank established by the RIBA and CABE, foresees the steady demise of the community general hospitals. Instead, its functions would be split between smaller specialist care centres offering high-tech interventions, and community care centres offering many of the outpatient services of today's hospitals.

In general, hospital buildings will be come smaller, with less need for in-patient care and less impact on the built environment than today. In fact, the report suggests our homes will become healthcare environments, assuming they have been designed to accommodate periods of ill-health and disability, and are wired up to support monitoring equipment, telemedicine and email consultations with GPs.

Our first impression of the television documentary of 2033 was the anti-climactic realisation that 30 years of social change will only have roughly the same impact on the built environment as the past 30. But, a glance back at 1973 shows that society then was very different to the one we live in today, and the next few decades will bring equal or greater change. As technology widens our horizons, traditional social and career expectations continue to break down and rising longevity and affluence give us more opportunity to exert our choices, the built environment will have to evolve to meet the demands of a more flexible, mobile and self-confident society.


The Crown at Cricklewood
There are stories going back to the Middle Ages about the symbiotic relationship between building workers and taverns. And more work has been planned and bragged about in the pub than has ever been carried out on a site. The pubs are the nodes in the building network, where you go for contacts and contracts. They are also a surrogate home for people working away from home, for people who have nowhere else to go in the evening, and for people who want to drown the sorrows of the day. Or, at least, take them swimming. The pre-eminent – legendary – building trade pub was The Crown at Cricklewood. This was immortalised by Dominic Behan in McAlpine’s Fusiliers, his fanfare for the Irish building worker. The original Crown on Cricklewood Broadway was sold in 1873 for £2000. Over the next 30 years, it was sold four more times, then went for auction in 1898, where it went for the truly enormous sum of £86,000. The buyer was the Cannon Brewery, a small company based in Clerkenwell, and the price reflected the late Victorian boom in the price of pubs. Many of the large ornate establishments that are still landmarks around the country were built in the 1890s. The Cannon Brewery had The Crown completely rebuilt between 1899 and 1900; that created the pub that we know today. The rebuilding was carried out by the architects Shoebridge and Rising, who worked on all Cannon’s outlets – others included The Rising Sun in Euston Road, The Red Lion in Whitehall and The Great Northern Railway Tavern in Hornsey. Most of the design work on The Crown is supposed to have been done by a 43-year-old architect called Henry Whitebridge Rising. He had started work as a joiner in Lowestoft and his pub designs were always noted for their excellent woodwork and complex bar fittings. The original clubroom at The Crown was infested with cherubs. During the early 1970s I was working as a carpenter for Hosier and Dickinson on a site off the Caledonian Road. The job was a children’s day centre, and I was working as “self-employed” labour, which meant I was paid by cheque every Thursday afternoon, whereupon I would take my precious piece of paper to The Crown to get it cashed. At that time, The Crown was a real Irish pub – that is, not an Irish theme pub. When it was my turn to cash the cheques, I used to travel from work to Cricklewood station and walk down onto the Broadway. The front of The Crown was an impressive sight, and still is. Inside were large rooms with bare floors and formica-veneer tables. On Thursday and Friday nights, it was full of mostly Irish drinkers. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish controlled most of the subcontracting in London’s building industry, and on pay nights, hundreds of people had their cheques cashed in The Crown. Around the back of the bar was a small hatch in a blank wall. It was made deliberately small, so that you could not reach through and grab anybody on the inside. The point of having cheques cashed here was to avoid paying tax. At this time the rate was about 30%. The Crown charged 5% of the value of the cheque to cash it. If the cheque did not go into your account it was possible to deny that you had ever received it. There must have been hundreds of cheques cashed, involving tens of thousands of pounds. More money must have been made cashing the cheques than selling beer. And only cheques from the established subbies were accepted. The procedure was to go into the pub and buy a pint of Guinness, then go round to the hatch and knock on it. You then endorsed the cheques by signing them on the back and handed them through the hatch. There were always several large men behind the bar keeping an eye of cash on the premises. It was policy to keep you waiting at least an hour for the money in order to ensure you had another two or three pints. The bar was full of workers swilling down beer and talking loudly while they waited to get their money. Many returned once they’d received it. The bar filled up with make-believe brick walls and roofs created by Herculean imaginations and fuelled by drink. Most weeks a woman would come in collecting money for the IRA. I always managed to manoeuvre myself around the room to avoid been seen to refuse to contribute. A visit to The Crown was always an experience, but I always left as soon as I got the money. When the job was finished I moved on to another company and did not visit The Crown for years. One hundred years after The Crown was purchased by the Cannon brewery, it was bought in 1998 by the Moran Group, an Ireland-based pub and hotel company. Tom Moran runs the group and the pub is run by his son Tom Moran Jr. The Crown is a listed building but the inside was completely gutted and rebuilt. The intention was to “renovate The Crown to its previous glory integrating modern Irish design” (sic). In December 2001 the pub was reopened. I can only describe the interior now as semi-posh with polished wood floors, large and spacious leather settees and trendy low-level tables. The floor layout has completely changed and I cannot recognise the pub I knew in the early 1970s. But some things have not changed – The Crown has been mentioned in connection with two murders over the past year. Right next to the pub the owners are now building the Crown Hotel, which will be a four-star, 120-bedroom glass and concrete structure that is due to be finished in late 2003. Possibly, plans for a Crown theme park are well in hand. The distinctive facade outside Crown remains the same but the pub seems to have moved on from its position as the premier building pub in London. But other upstart establishments have taken its place to maintain the link between the industry and its precious pubs.

Socio timeline

Invention of the bustle

Sigmund Freud coins term “psychoanalysis”

Edward Bernays founds public relations industry with “Torches of Freedom” campaign to promote cigarettes to women

The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard

Contraceptive pill becomes widely available

Beatles release Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Election of Margaret Thatcher

AIDS identified; Britney Spears born

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent is published

The Berlin Wall falls; triumph of market capitalism and “death of history”

Bluewater, the apotheosis of the British shopping mall, opens for business

First cloned human is born

Tobacco smoking prohibited in UK

Legal restrictions on “designer babies” lifted

Virtual sex becomes single most popular leisure activity

In utero conception outlawed


A centenary celebration is a reckoning, where the past, present and future are examined. The direction of time’s arrow that most excites imagination is the future – envisioning what might be. In literature, there is a long tradition of writing books about the future, usually nightmarish and apocalyptic – George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, and more recently Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised. Given that the future is unknown, it is interesting to visit the past to see how people foresaw it and, with hindsight, assess how plausible those predictions were. Are such prophecies – as the American satirist Ambrose Gwinett Bierce maintained – “the art and practice of selling one’s credibility for future delivery”? Take the Festival of Britain of 1951, held within six years of the ending of the Second World War and designed to mark a watershed between a period of barbarity and a return to optimism and belief in the future. The epicentre of the festival was London’s South Bank, between Waterloo Bridge and the old County Hall: on this 27 acre site ware built 19 pavilions, 13 cafe-restaurants, a concert hall, cinema and administrative offices. The festival opened between May and September and attracted 8 million visitors. Although the aims of the festival have been much debated, the official intention appears to have been to boost the morale of a nation wearied by war and the rigours of post-war austerity, and to restore faith in the future by demonstrating, in tangible form, that Britain could survive and prosper. Brian Aldiss, the science fiction writer, described the festival as “a memorial to the future”, implying that it anticipated what was to come and helped shape it. If we consider architecture and building, how did the festival unveil the future? In many respects, not very well. The world that created the festival – government patronage, welfare architecture, council designers, the dominant architect (Sir Hugh Casson was design director) – all liberal and left wing in ideology, failed to foresee the coming of an assertive right-wing politics. This aimed a mortal body blow at what Michael Frayn called the “do-gooders” – the readers of The Guardian and The Observer, the signers of petitions, the backbone of the BBC. Nowhere is there a hint of what lay in the future – privatisation, outsourcing, the PFI, partnering, subcontracting, short-term contracts and deregulation. One exhibit that did hint at the future was the Skylon (pictured), a vertical “feature” consisting of a 300 ft high silver pencil of aluminium and steel that seemed to hover in the sky without visible means of support (“just like Britain”, quipped a contemporary Punch cartoon). The disembodied effect was achieved by resting it on three twin cables that passed over the tops of three pylons and down to foundation anchors, with additional support from guying cables. The Skylon was a big structure that took up little space and the main structural system was in tension. Surely this was prescient of the mast-and-cable structures that now grace Britain? None of the buildings at the festival used innovative structural systems, but many were clad with aluminium (including the roof of the Dome of Discovery), which hinted at a light, smooth, exotic modernity. The future was more mundane, and resided with traditional steel. However, one building – the Thames-side restaurant by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew – embodied the past, present and future. It had a roof of double-skin aluminium with a cork sandwich that was entirely prefabricated and used methods typical of aircraft manufacture. The structure is an example of the continuing debate on how to make the building industry more productive – like Sir John Egan’s car industry. Exhibitions about the future, like those about the past, are often about the present and contemporary concerns. Although the future can be dimly perceived, accident, chance and contingency combine to obscure the view.