Let’s talk about loos. Internal plumbing. Ventilation systems. Running water. Double-glazed windows and all the other things that make where we live helpful to our health. If you’ve ever found yourself with a household emergency, a bust boiler two days before Christmas or a hole in the ceiling ten mins before a thunderstorm, you’ll know that it’s oh so easy to take a functioning home for granted until the moment it stops working.
But we should probably spend a little bit longer praising things like the humble household bog. Because, as the Wellcome Collection’s new show makes clear, sanitary living conditions aren’t a luxury we’ve had all that long.
Spread across two floors, the exhibition starts with the horrors of the Victorian slums, as told through cholera maps and the writing of Charles Dickens, dedicated chronicler of the nineteenth-century poor.
It then moves on to Modernist attempts at revolutionising housing with tower blocks, plus newfangled garden cities and model villages. It’s a tick list of famous social reformer and architect names: Goldfinger, Cadbury, Le Corbusier – even Henry Wellcome (original owner of this very collection) had a go at designing a new way of living with the never-realised Wellcomeville.
After homes, it switches to hospitals, again showing how scarily recent medical care of the standard we’re used to is. There’s a giant scale model of a hospital, a painstakingly detailed creation that’s basically a very fancy dolls’ house, but with more operating suites.
In the gallery upstairs is a mobile clinic commissioned specifically for this show (after which it will be taken to a location where it is needed) and designed in collaboration with the charity Doctors of the World. It’s an impressively weird structure, like a giant flat-pack wooden dinosaur.
As a whole, the ideas behind ‘Living with Buildings’ are fascinating. But like the Modernist dream of social housing, the reality doesn’t quite live up to the theory. Too many of the glass cabinets are filled with books, letters, pamphlets and plans, plans, plans, which doesn’t always make for the most interesting, or easy-to-view display.
But don’t be dissuaded from visiting. It’s a massive geek-fest, yes, but it’s one that will leave you with a new appreciation for the world around us – including the toilet block.
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The ground floor exhibits focus on the history of healthy buildings (or lack of). Fascinating but felt very sad too. It is extremely interesting for those involved with designing buildings for habitation or health and there is plenty of content to study, including the development of the garden towns and an amazing facility in the Netherlands. However, despite the upper floor focusing on a positive solution for healthcare in the field, the overall sense is that there is still much to be done to improve living conditions and health facilities.
Well worth a visit as it is very thought-provoking.