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British Post War Mass Housing Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2695 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this essay, I will focus primarily 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. Although housing was constructed speculatively by private developers on a fairly wide scale with varying degrees of success (Span schemes like New Ash Green in Kent, by Eric Lyons being an obvious and commonly cited success story), it is social housing which is linked most fascinatingly to the evolving socio-economic landscape in Britain, as I shall demonstrate.

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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 the quantity of housing stock, but additionally, much ‘obsolete’ housing had been earmarked for demolition since 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.’

Clearly, a commitment to addressing these public health issues must be commended – what I will be discussing is whether the attempt to do so through the medium of housing, and specifically social housing, can be considered successful.

It is important to understand at the outset the politically progressive nature of housing policy in the period, embedded as it is in the establishment of the Welfare State, which “is 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 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] was perfectly in sync with the prevailing political commitment to decisively break away from unsanitary, overcrowded slums.

I propose to discuss a handful of iconic/ notorious case studies of 50’s and 60’s mass housing, as they excite passionately polarized opinion and act as symbols for the wider debate.

The first is Park Hill in Sheffield, built in 1960, which 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]

However, decline set in “as 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.” This is the key trend not only in this case, but across the country, and my desire is to understand whether this was a reflection on poor architecture, changes in society, or both.

In the case of Park Hill, a recent initiative, privately funded by the developer Urban Splash, to redevelop the building, has provoked fresh debate over its merits. A blog on the Guardian website[5] on the subject exemplifies this. One poster expressed typical views (my italics):

“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 poster neatly expresses a popular verdict on 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, above all, “women return[ing] from the shops to be blown about amid the appalling dinginess of rough shuttered concrete”[7] (my italics) crop up again and again in discussing schemes like Park Hill, Robin Hood Gardens, Red Road etc. The poster’s views on the preferability of “leafy and affluent suburbs” to dense urban apartment typology for “those who can afford it” also reflect 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. Is this the case? If it is, how could “surveys at Park Hill show that through the 1970’s residents remained consistently loyal and generally happy.”[9] What caused the slide of schemes like Park Hill into dysfunctionality?

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 was a key error, and precipitated a vicious circle of decline.

The 60’s was a period of economic optimism, in which comparative affluence was accessible to many more families than previously. An aspirational desire among those in social housing developed 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 instead by welfare housing, which established a low cost rented stock but created deep social problems and lost the affections of the electorate. A different political vision could have avoided this. 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. If public housing had remained just that, rather than seguing into welfare housing, the vicious circle of decline would have lacked the conditions to come into being. The ‘living tapestry of a mixed community’ could have remained.

With Park Hill and its cousins populated as a matter of new policy increasingly by those on welfare, however, “‘financial structures of dependency’ [were] deliberately imposed on social housing”[13]. An alienated quality grew as residents of the schemes became increasingly cast adrift from mainstream society.

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 and Thatcher came to power, the shift in policy away from provision of affordable social housing accelerated against a backdrop of an increasingly deindustrialized economy. The original inhabitants of the Park Hill and schemes like it, who had once been a proud working class, increasingly found themselves unemployed and without prospects of employment. It is certainly arguable that problems in residualized estates in decline, like Park Hill would have been exacerbated by the scale of social problems developing independently of housing policy.

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In the public imagination, then, the built fabric of the postwar years has not only become synonymous with social failure and breakdown, it is perceived as a cause of it. ‘Failed’ buildings are pulled down, and it is easy to speculate that they are being made scapegoats for wider problems. Can an architectural defense be mounted for schemes like Park Hill, or Robin Hood Gardens?

The latter is similar to the former – 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: first, the dynamics associated with dwellings on both sides of a street, secondly, the community life associated with the street at ground level, and thirdly, the backyard, which played a crucial role in by-law housing and the life of its communities.” [14]

Robin Hood Gardens, then, contained inherently flawed logic. But the 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, “it’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]

Physically, the Barbican is a close relative of a Park Hill, or a Robin Hood Gardens. Socially, though it bears more resemblance to Park Lane. This constitutes evidence against the argument that the decline into dysfunction of large, dense postwar urban social housing developments was an inevitable consequence of poor design.

Further support from this position comes from a comparison between Park Hill and many of today’s ‘luxury’ apartment developments. Park Hill was accused of being disconnected from the surrounding fabric, isolating its inhabitants from the life of the city at large – but what of the urban regeneration of the last few years in the light of the financial crisis? What do the speculative redevelopments of inner cities look like now? “They have become 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]

We can begin to see that although marketed and branded differently, contemporary developer led, aspirational urban regeneration, may in fact suffer from similar or worse 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. Worse, analysis of the flats themselves reveals a shocking inferiority in terms of space standards in contemporary developments compared to the 60’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”[17]. This, they note, is “still valid logic” if you accept the inevitability of flats for high densities in urban situations, as exist in cities worldwide.

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.

Before concluding, I wish to note that whilst I have tried to demonstrate that it is impossible to blame the general failure of British postwar social housing on its architecture, there is still a world of difference in quality between the Red Road scheme, for example, and a Lasdun or Lubetkin scheme. Lasdun, even within tight budgetary constraints and a density target set by the local council of 200 people per square acre, managed to apply intelligence and subtlety to his designs for Keeling House, Bethnal Green in 1958 for example: “the scale of the 14 floors was purposely designed to reflect the two storey brick terraces around it, essentially like a row of houses tipped up on its end.”[18] This is architecture as we are taught it – thoughtful, embedded in context. We should remember as well that Park Hill is no simple monolith inserted carelessly into Sheffield­. Its very form is a response to specific topography, with its well – known 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.

In conclusion, there is never an excuse for bad design – although the fact that mass social housing in Britain ultimately failed is, in the end, not due to design at all, but to policy.


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