Having indulged ourselves in the clothing of the 1930s, the next stop on our post-Xmas whistlestop tour of current exhibitions took us up to the Euston Road and the Wellcome Collection where the galleries are always guaranteed to set you thinking and where the underlying medical theme can produce a surprisingly diverse range of subjects. On this occasion, our interest had been piqued by a listing in the Twentieth Century Society journal offering fresh insights into the relationship between health and architecture under the title ‘Living With Buildings’.
I would argue that anyone genuinely interested in the culture of the past, particularly that within or just outside living memory, has to be interested in how the ordinary people of that time lived to properly understand the context of the music they listened to, films they watched and clothes they wore. And, by definition, nowhere tells more about the lived experience of ordinary men, women and children than the homes they occupied. In some environments – small towns perhaps – that’s relatively straightforward; the buildings are still there, performing roughly the same function they always did in terms of shape, size and status. Cities, though, are more complex and, for someone from a London family, the constant evolution of homes within the capital is fascinating – involving in some cases a cycle through aspiration, decay, poverty and gentrification and in others a more linear progression through industrial architecture to residential, sometimes combining elements of the two. In both cases, that journey has been interrupted or accelerated by the devastation of the Blitz and subsequent mass redevelopment which always begs the question as to why one stretch of older housing survived while another – often only yards away – has disappeared without trace. We are also, though, sometimes misled by the relative affluence of areas of the city that we know well, and need to be reminded that the existence of those who occupied the same buildings a century or more ago would have been very different to that of the current occupants.
Living with Buildings provided an enlightening window into how London’s housing has evolved since the 19th Century, beginning with the masterpiece of the Booth Poverty maps compiled at the end of the Century, colour-coding every street to show the level of wealth enjoyed by the primary occupants – a snapshot of course, but giving us the ability to see at a glance where the million pound property of today would have fitted into the social landscape of the past. For those of us to live in older houses, there were illuminating (and occasionally frighteningly familiar) diagrams of the inherent health hazards of poor design, particularly a cavalier attitude by some builders to the separation of soil and domestic water drainage that must have made the crowded tenements a foul-smelling and disease-friendly environment.
There was understandably a major focus on the post-war rebuilding plans of the 1940s and, in the light of the Grenfell fire tragedy of 2018, on how those plans had and had not been realised. Whilst Grenfell and Ronan Point half a century earlier provided the starkest examples of where the vision of a new approach to mass housing had turned sour, there were also examples of where once-derided blocks have, after refurbishment, been sold as high-status redevelopments. Although this reflected well on the quality of the original designs and generous space allowance, it was depressing that the housing once intended to provide for those lower down the income scale was now being colonised by those nearer the top – likely themselves driven from more affluent areas by the super-rich treating our capital’s housing as an investment rather than a home.
On a more positive note, we stepped away from the city for a display on the various garden city concepts, including Bedford Park in London, Welwyn, Birmingham’s Bourneville and Wellcome’s unrealised design for a similar town for their workers. Given that Mrs M’s parents met while working at the Cadbury factory, we were already well acquainted with Bourneville, but were intrigued to learn that Cadbury deliberately did not reserve housing their for their own workers as they were keen to show that the benefits of good housing would bring results whatever the occupation of the head of the household.
Of course, given the principal business of the Wellcome Trust, there was a major section on hospital architecture, from pre-NHS cottage hospitals, through former workhouses, emergency establishments to deal with epidemics, to the New Jerusalem vision of 20th Century settings such as the Peckham Pioneer Centre and Finsbury Health Centres. With Mrs M’s background in London hospital administration, there was much to inspect, from a poignant film depicting the abandoned interiors and subsequent redevelopment of the Royal London in Whitechapel (where her office was just along the corridor from John Meyrick’s former quarters), to a massive dolls-house scale model of the modern hospital of 1932 (bearing a spooky resemblance to the now long-gone military hospital where I spent a few days in the 90s). Ending on a note of optimism, we were treated to the ground-breaking designs for the Maggie’s charity, creating spaces for those affected by cancer and embodying individuality, humanity and empathy.
Often free, and always thought-provoking, the Wellcome Collection’s exhibitions are complemented by an excellent café and a wide-ranging bookshop which will inevitably have you seriously considering books on subjects you’d never get near in a conventional store. Living With Buildings runs until 3 March, so you’ve still got a couple of months to spend a couple of hours immersed in what home meant to those from the eras that so fascinate us. You can find all the details here.