Last edited 24 Oct 2016

British post-war mass housing

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[edit] Introduction

This article focuses on housing constructed during the decade or so after the end of the Second World War as part of the progressive, experimental establishment of the Welfare State in Britain.

Housing provision by the end of the war, particularly in urban centres, was considered inadequate, not only in quantity, but in quality as well. War damage had impacted on the quantity of housing stock, but additionally, much ‘obsolete’ housing had been earmarked for demolition before the war. Nicholas Taylor, writing in the AR in 1967, in a discussion of what he called ‘the failure of housing’ in the postwar period, cites the ‘...negative [postwar] reaction to the boom towns of the industrial revolution’ as the reason for this. ‘In particular’, he says, [we] ‘...have aimed to prevent epidemic diseases cholera, dysentery, rickets, scurvy, typhoid’, all diseases which were ‘propagated by overcrowding, by bad sanitation, by inadequate facilities for the preparation of food and by the pollution of homes from adjoining factories.’

It is important to understand that the politically progressive nature of housing policy in the period, embedded as it was in the establishment of the Welfare State, was “...based on the principles of, equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.”(1)

Architecturally, the modernist desire expressed by Le Corbusier was to “...provide an environment that was spiritually fulfilling, creating harmony between people and their surroundings and freeing communities from the misery of poor housing” (2). This was perfectly in sync with the prevailing political commitment to decisively break away from unsanitary, overcrowded slums.

There were a handful of iconic and notorious case studies of 50’s and 60’s mass housing, that polarised opinion and acted as symbols for the wider debate.

[edit] Park Hill

Park Hill in Sheffield was built in 1960, and according to the Architectural Review (in 2011) “...marked the peak performance of Sheffield’s city architects office as run by J.K. Lewis Womersley, regarded by [Nikolaus] Pevsner as an outfit of national importance.” (3)

This building “...proved popular with its residents, who loved their flats and soon formed an effective association. It was also much lauded in architectural circles… Its size and hillside location made it the prime example of ‘streets in the air’ nationally, and for a decade or so it thronged with international visitors." (4)

Following the election of a Conservative government in May 1979, the withdrawal of subsidies for nationalised industries, subsequent unemployment and introduction of right to buy, decline set in “ the ideal of equality was eroded [and] social housing became the ghetto of a suppressed underclass, and the more active, capable and employed were encouraged to buy themselves out, leaving the disadvantaged in possession.”

A recent initiative to redevelop the building provoked fresh debate. A blog on the Guardian website (5) typified the views expressed “...As a "foreigner" from Leeds who has lived in Sheffield for 30 years I can support those who report that the people of Sheffield did not want Park Hill kept, and were mystified by the listing and bemused by the amounts of money, some of it public money, being spent on this eyesore. The bright coloured panels are not an improvement. Anyone in Sheffield with the money to buy one of the penthouses would be much better advised to spend it in one of Sheffield's leafy and affluent suburbs, of which we have many, which also often enjoy superb views, as Sheffield is very hilly.”

This neatly expresses the popular view of dense, large scale urban social housing projects of the period, in which as long ago as 1967, “...It [was] easier to count the few unbroken panes of armoured glass on the staircases than the multitude which are cracked and splintered”, and where “...economy on materials and inadequacy of detailing can be assessed as objective weaknesses, but what is perhaps more important… is the subjective hatred of the tenants for the rough shuttered concrete that is thrust upon them.” (6)

Descriptions of inhumane proportions, ‘undefined wastes’, and, “women return[ing] from the shops to be blown about amid the appalling dinginess of rough shuttered concrete" (7) crop up again and again in discussions about schemes like Park Hill, Robin Hood Gardens, Red Road etc. The belief in the preferability of “leafy and affluent suburbs” to dense urban apartment typology also reflects a lingering psychological scar in the popular psyche left by the memory of the descent of estates like Park Hill “...from source[s] of intense municipal socialist pride to dilapidated sink estate[s]” (8), as though by their very nature they preclude the presence of a functional, prosperous community.

This is in stark contrast to surveys at Park Hill that “ show that through the 1970’s residents remained consistently loyal and generally happy.” (9)

The homebuilding drive, founded on the vision of spiritually uplifting accommodation for all, continued, but “…the vision was damaged by lack of reform in the 1960s. Rather than opening up [the] low cost-balanced rented sector to supply the needs of a more wealthy and mobile population, it narrowed to serve the restricted needs of welfare housing.” (10) This precipitated a vicious circle of decline.

The 60’s was a period of economic optimism, in which comparative affluence was accessible to an increasing number of families. An aspirational desire grew among those in social housing to graduate to home ownership. “Very large council estates, tower blocks in the cities and restrictive letting policies contrasted with the variety of choices available for home ownership. From the 1960’s, the welfare characteristic (residualisation) of council housing began to develop as a stigma from which home ownership was the natural escape.” (11)

The original dream of social housing as “a living tapestry of a mixed community” (12) was replaced by welfare housing, which established a low cost rented stock but created deep social problems.

Pre-war restrictions, limiting public housing to the working classes had been repealed in the 1949 Housing Act, opening up a universally accessible rented council house sector. But as this 'public housing' became 'welfare housing', a vicious circle of decline set in. With Park Hill and its cousins populated increasingly by those on welfare, ‘ structures of dependency’ [were] deliberately imposed on social housing” (13) and an alienated quality grew as residents of the schemes were cast adrift.

A further strand to this narrative was playing out in the form of a shift in the structure of the economy in Britain. “Sheffield grew up producing steel, in the 18th century knives and tools, in the 19th century heavy industry, with a high population of low paid but skilled manual workers.” As the 1970’s drew to an end, the shift in policy away from the provision of affordable social housing accelerated against a backdrop of an increasingly deindustrialised economy. The original inhabitants of the Park Hill and schemes like it, who had once been a proud working class, found themselves without the prospect of employment.

In the public imagination, the built fabric of the postwar years not only became synonymous with social failure and breakdown, it was perceived as a cause of it.

NB in July 2013, the revamped Park Hill was short-listed for the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize which celebrates the year's top buildings.

[edit] Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens is a serpentine, high density block, this time inserted into an area of bomb damaged terraces (the standard grain of working class England) in London. “What the Smithsons [architects] wanted to achieve was intended to maintain community dynamics [of the bombed out terraces] rather than to replace them with something entirely different. However, what they had not expected, as Kenneth Frampton pointed out in his book 'Modern Architecture, a Critical History', was that three principal features of the by-law street would be absent in their proposed blocks (14):

  • The dynamics associated with dwellings on both sides of a street.
  • The community life associated with the street at ground level.
  • The backyard.

Robin Hood Gardens, then, contained inherently flawed logic. But these flaws were shared by Park Hill, which prospered during a period when it wasn’t handicapped by other factors. “[Park Hill] is commonly described as the ‘largest listed building in Europe’ and the largest listed brutalist or 60’s building. In fact”, says Owen Hatherley, “'s none of those things, with all those titles being taken by London's Barbican estate: a place that, like Park Hill, is full of bare concrete, open space, urban density, walkways, social and the separation of pedestrian and car. One is a problem that apparently had to be solved; the other one of London's most prestigious addresses. Why? The obvious reason is that one is council housing and the other, from the very start, was built as private housing. Accordingly, the Barbican has always been cleaned and cared for; Park Hill has been left to rot." (15)

[edit] Modern comparisons

Park Hill is also similar to many of today’s ‘luxury’ apartment developments. The recent speculative redevelopments of inner cities have been described as “... the new ruins of Great Britain. These places have ruination in abundance: partly because of the way they were invariably surrounded by the derelict and un-regenerated, whether rotting industrial remnants or the giant retail and entertainment sheds of the 80s and 90s; partly because they were often so badly built, with pieces of render and wood frequently flaking off within less than a year of completion; but partly because they were so often empty, in every sense. Empty of architectural inspiration, empty of social hope or idealism, and often empty of people, Clarence Dock and Glasgow Harbour had a hard time filling their minimalist microflats with either buyers or buy-to-let investors.” (16)

Although marketed and branded differently, contemporary developer led, aspirational urban regeneration, may in fact suffer from similar problems relating to its context as the maligned social schemes of the postwar period. Think of Glasgow Harbour, stranded by the Clyde and cut off from the city by the Clydeside Expressway, and with worse space standards than 1960’s schemes.

“The logic was straightforward” says the Architectural Review in its analysis of Park Hill’s original planning principles: “a slab block up to 13 stories high and about 10m wide would permit a habitable room each side and centrally serviced bathrooms, while gallery access was preferred to a double loaded corridor. By making maisonettes with internal staircases it was possible for one gallery to serve 3 floors. Greatest design ingenuity went into planning interlocking flats of different sizes, making best use of the limited space…. [space standards] now seem generous, in relation to the products of mass house builders” (18). This, they note, is “still valid logic” if you accept the inevitability of flats for high densities in urban situations.

Even much admired contemporary schemes, like the Panter Hudspith development at Bear Lane in London, feature double loaded internal deck access, permitting only single aspect flats, with cramped accommodation – yet their skin is considered attractive, and they are praised, despite inferior circulation and planning principles.

Park Hill is no simple monolith inserted carelessly into Sheffield­. Its very form is a response to specific topography, with its horizontal roof datum capping a 13 storey structure at the bottom of the hill and nuzzling into a street of Victorian villas at four storeys at the top.

The fact that mass social housing in Britain ultimately failed is, in the end, not due to design, but to policy.

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