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Dilapidated Dwelling, The (2000)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

An unnamed narrator returns to England after twenty years abroad. Her employer gives her the task of investigating 'the predicament of the house in the United Kingdom'. In a supermarket, she falls in love, and settles down with her partner in an Edwardian house on the outskirts of a university town, to pursue this research.

She discovers that at the current rate of house-building, every home in the UK currently standing will have to last for 5,600 years, and that the cost of housing in real terms has doubled since the 1930s. She wonders why, when the digital economy is transforming both work and leisure, and the mass-production has made consumer items many times cheaper, homes are still built poorly, slowly and expensively.

She discovers the utopian architecture of Constant Nieuwenhuys, Buckminster Fuller, and the UK's Archigram. She interviews architects, economists and architectural critics. Michael Ball, an economist, thinks that housing remains unavoidably labour-intensive. Martin Pawley, an architect, suggests that the housing market defends itself against mass production. James Dyson, a design engineer, thinks research and development are missing. Eileen Meiksins, a historian, says that England's early development as a capitalist nation, rather than its current backwardness, is responsible for the peculiar state of its housing market. Doreen Massey, a geographer, wonders whether modern capitalism is incapable of adequately providing for domestic life. Cedric Price, an architect, sees hope in the fact that people are now less frightened of change.

The narrator notices that in Japan, many more new houses are built, mostly as replacements for existing dwellings, and that mass-production enables Japanese homebuyers to custom-build a home from manufactured elements. She discovers that though prefabricated houses have been made in the UK since the 18th century, and were produced in large quantities after the second world war, they have become unfashionable. Only the Peabody Trust, a housing charity, is developing housing based on capitalist mass-production techniques. Where private developers adopt them, apartments remain almost unaffordably expensive.

She considers that the cottage houses of anti-industrial and socialist Arts and Crafts movement gave rise to the very form of the home adopted by speculative house builders in the 20th century. Architects now are considered less well than they were in the 1960s, and their attention as a profession is now directed more towards large public buildings than accommodation. She reluctantly comes to the conclusion that the UK is simply incapable of improving its housing stock or applying modern methods to the production of homes, and that the houses of the future will be the ones we already live in.