In the 1980s, Barratt was the housebuilding firm which became indelibly associated with new houses, especially small ‘starter homes’ for young couples. Its emblematic status was confirmed when the chief architect of the homeowning boom, Margaret Thatcher, bought a Barratt home in 1985, albeit a more upmarket model in a gated development in Dulwich. Paul Barker suggests that Barratt’s transformation of Britain’s vernacular landscape is of much greater cultural significance than the more critically acclaimed, flagship architecture of regenerated city centres. ‘When the social history of our times comes to be written,’ Barker writes, ‘he [Lawrie Barratt, the company’s founder] will get more space than Norman Foster. You can search out Foster masterpieces here and there. But Barratt houses are everywhere. Foster buildings are the Concordes of architecture. Barratt houses fly charter.’
Barratt reproduced many of the working methods and marketing tools of American tract housing developments. Like Levitt & Sons, who built the US Levittowns, Barratt altered the basic features in its houses each year in response to market demands and technical innovations; it made extensive use of showhomes, marketing suites and glossy brochures; and it bundled all the elements of buying a house (such as the mortgage, solicitor’s and surveyor’s fees) into a single financial package. Barratt homes came with almost everything included, even white goods and furniture. All first-time buyers needed to bring, the brochures claimed, was the crockery and bed linen. Barratt was a pioneer in using market research in housebuilding, scanning census data and government statistics for emerging trends. In Lawrie Barratt’s words, the company sold and built rather than built and sold, seeking to match Fordist production methods to consumer needs.
Barratt’s name recognition, though, was always greater than its impact on the housing market. It became synonymous with new houses largely because of an aggressive national press advertising campaign and famous television commercial of the late 1970s and early 1980s, featuring Patrick Allen, an actor from the 1960s series Crane, who promoted the merits of new homes from a helicopter flying over Barratt estates.
The British photographer Paul Graham made the Barratt home his subject in his House Portraits (1980), a series of metre-high colour photographs of houses on modern estates in Britain. Graham’s deadpan aesthetic, which captures the houses head or side-on in the strong light of early morning, brings into sharp relief their boxy uniformity and blank newness: the paint and putty stains still on the windows, the square lawns with no flowers or plants, the surrounding earth, rubble and waste not yet covered up or cleared away.