A Britishman’s home is his English castle

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This is the third edition of Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, (ISBN 9780113413409) published in January of this year. The book is the UK government’s “only official handbook for the Life in the UK test” (although others, while not claiming to be “official,” are available online and in bookshops with various overtures to a similar kind of authority). The Life in the UK test has to be passed by any individual applying for citizenship or leave to remain in the United Kingdom. The test consists of 24 questions drawn from the material in this handbook, and applicants have forty five minutes to complete the test.

Consisting of about 180 pages, the handbook covers a variety of subject areas considered important for prospective British citizens. These include “the values and principles of the UK,” “a long and illustrious history,” “a modern, thriving society,” and “the UK government, the law and your role.” There’s some history, some politics, some geography, some religion, some sport and some culture.

As part of our “modern, thriving society,” about five hundred words are dedicated to the discussion of architecture (alongside music, theatre, art, fashion, and literature). These five hundred words are, therefore, about as close as you could possibly get to the UK government’s public representation of British architecture. The handbook is, after all, published by the Stationery Office on behalf of the Home Office. No author or authors are credited, so we must assume the book is the work of anonymous civil servants deep in Whitehall.

It is, in that regard, a fascinating record of what elements of our architectural heritage the UK government does not regard as being significant. The handbook summarises Britain’s architectural heritage in eight paragraphs that cover:

  • Medieval cathedrals and castles
  • Elizabethan country houses
  • Classical architecture
  • Neoclassical architecture
  • Gothic architecture
  • Architecture of the British empire
  • Modern British architecture
  • English garden design

There is no reference to any British architect or building from Lutyens’ 1919 Cenotaph up until “Modern British architects including Sir Norman Foster, Lord (Richard) Rogers and Dame Zaha Hadid.” There is no mention of the Industrial Revolution and its material and structural revolutions, nor of early British modernism, nor Brutalism. There is no mention, for that matter, of Britain’s vital twentieth century history of social housing. Of the seventeen buildings mentioned in the chapter, all but two are in England, and of the two outlying examples, one is in India. There is no mention of any building in Wales or Northern Ireland.

This is the official (and presumably bipartisan) line. British architecture is represented by cathedrals, country houses and their gardens, the classical, the neoclassical and the Gothic. The twentieth century isn’t worth knowing about.

Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents and its contents are © Crown Copyright 2013.

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