Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Everyman's Castle

MoDA's Head of Collections, Zoe Hendon, reviews a new book about domestic architecture.

Philippa Lewis’s new book Everyman’s Castle (Frances Lincoln, June2014) achieves the remarkable feat of covering the whole history of British domestic architecture from ancient times to the present day.  Divided into chapters which take each housing type in turn, from cottages and country houses, through terraces, flats and semis to the bungalow, Lewis examines what each kind of housing type has meant, for both their inhabitants and – in some cases – their detractors. 

Everyman's Castle, by Philippa Lewis, Francis Lincoln, 264pp
In doing so Lewis puts her finger on the fact that ‘home’ means much more than simply a roof over one’s head; but rather the choice of where to live has numerous social, psychological and class-related meanings, perhaps particularly in a British context.  The country cottage, for example, has connotations of rural poverty, but also of a pleasant weekend retreat for busy city-dwellers in search of a simpler life, at least temporarily: 
“ ‘All we wanted was a country cottage, with decent water to drink, reasonable sanitation, and above all a garden, a bit of untouched earth if possible,’ wrote HE Bates of his search with his newly wed wife in the late 1920s, but ‘every cottage in England seemed to be either sordid or arty’.”

This habit of wanting the best of both worlds, urban and rural, is one of the themes of the book. In the chapter on flats Lewis notes that the English (unlike the Scots) were resistant to the idea of vertical living, in part because it meant lack of access to a garden: “Existing horizontally, sandwiched between others, lacked  appeal when compared to living in a house with its own front door standing on its own patch of ground.”  And in the chapter on Suburban Villas and Semis she shows with great clarity and economy how the appeal of the suburbs was related to the attraction of that domesticated semi-rural space, the garden.

Brochure for flats in Hornsey Lane, Highgate
Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, BADDA 4162
Lewis successfully blends discussion of the impact of new domestic technologies (the invention of the lift, for example, which made high-rise living more attractive); with perennial questions of class, taste and propriety.  She draws on numerous sources, from novels and popular culture as well as more ‘official’ reports and documents, and has included a number of well-chosen colour illustrations, making it a lively and enjoyable read.  It’s the kind of book which wears its scholarship lightly; it has an extensive bibliography, but is not encumbered with endless footnotes or references to obscure academic arguments.  If I have any criticisms it would be that some of the illustrations are rather small, and that it’s therefore difficult to see some of the detail; but the publishers should perhaps be congratulated for  allowing the inclusion of as many as they have. 

We're pleased to note that Philippa Lewis did some of the research for this book at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, and used items from our collections as some of her illustrations.  
If you would like to visit for your own research or creative inspiration, please contact Maggie Wood to make an appointment.  To discuss reproducing images from MoDA's collections in a publication or elsewhere, please contact Claire Isherwood.

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