Whilst in the UK earlier this year I checked out a mini-exhibition at the V&A Museum in London; the topic of which was something that I have been interested in for a while now and which was sparked during my final year of my degree course. The topic being the design and architecture for social housing; the exhibition: ‘A Home for All’.
“The challenge of providing ‘a home for all’ is one that has faced governments and architects for over a century”.
The history of social housing may seem like something that began during the 1960s when councils looked to create and supply housing to those displaced by slum clearance and whose houses were destroyed during the war but state-led social housing has been around since the late 19th-century and does so to this date. All throughout history there have been periods where there aren’t enough houses for the amount of people–particularly today where the UK faces a new housing crisis due to a lack of availability and affordability.
The idea of ‘a home for all’ is something that is possible, through the right design and politics of course, it is achievable and should not be simply dismissed as a “utopian dream”.
Whilst studying at university, my collaborative partner and I explored several aspects of social housing for our final major project during our graphic design course. This project entailed researching the history and specifially the rise of social housing in the 1950s and 1960s where councils where creating incredibly ambitious housing projects and then the subsequent fall in the 1970s and 1980s when these same idealistic projects and estates became seen as no-go areas, rife with crime and trouble. Our project was sparked by the then prime minister, David Cameron, announcing his government plan to “bulldoze” 100 of the UK’s worst council-owned ‘sink-estates’, to replace them with shiny, new private homes for the wealthy.
We saw this as an attack on the ideals of social housing and as critics to David Cameron’s politics and policy, an attack on British culture which is known to thrive and grow in social housing estates. We explored this cultural phenomenon and the general high-rise aesthetic by looking at specific examples of social housing in Leeds: our university city and comparing them to similar styled estates in London where there is a big difference in appreciation and portrayal.
This project was documented through photography, using found and re-appropriated, periodical ephemera, writing and interviews; compiled together into a 100-page book, titled ‘BY ORDER’: a reference to the signs found on many social housing where the rules of the building or estate are enforced and are ‘by order’ of the council owners.
This project was something that was carried out the way it was, not because it’s trendy or topical but because it was something that we really got into. Personally, the challenge of social housing and this idea of ‘a home for all’ is something that fascinates me from the literal perspective of seeing how we as a society manage this but also from a design perspective; how can design facilitate and enable (or disable) the idea of ‘a home for all’.
This exhibition at the V&A presents six pioneering projects, — five historical and one contemporary —each one demonstrates a different approach and experiment in design and architecture for social housing design. All six were designed for and built by local authorities, demonstrating the role of the state in being the ones to provide housing for all.
Berthold Lubetkin/Tecton Group – Spa Green Estate, Clerkenwell
Designed 1938 | Construction 1946–49
The Spa Green Estate in Clerkenwell is the most complete, post-war realisation of a 1930s radical plan for social regeneration as well as one of the finest examples of Modernist architecture used for social housing in England. It was designed by the Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin in 1938 with his architecture firm, Tecton.
Lubetkin believed strongly in using architecture as a tool for social improvement and declared that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. The Spa Green Estate is named as such as it was built on the site of a popular 18th-century spa; the Estate’s three blocks were named Sadler, Tunbridge and Wells after other famous spas.
Quality of living and principles of health and hygiene were parts of the Modernist ideal and something that Lubetkin took into consideration for the design of the Spa Green Estate houses with each of the flats spanning the width of its block there for providing sunlight, air and views on both sides. Balconies and living spaces overlook the outside/street-side and bedrooms overlook the inside/courtyard. The façade of the building is decorated with a chequerboard design inspired by Lubetkin’s study and passion of textiles.
The Estate now comprises of council tenants and private owners and was awarded Grade II* listing status* in 1998. Previous underinvestment and lack of care and maintenance had led to cosmetic and structural deterioration and a major refurbishment was undertaken in 2008.
Denys Lasdun & Partners – Keeling House, Bethnal Green.
Designed 1955 | Construction 1957–59
Denys Lasdun’s name is synonymous with Modernist architecture in London as he is well known for his design of the vast National Theatre on London’s South Bank. His social architecture work often focused on what he termed “homes not housing” with his design for Keeling House in Bethnal Green an early experiment in ‘cluster block’ housing.
This example of cluster block housing was an innovative form: placing four 16-storey blocks, linked together through around a free-standing service tower where residents can interact; creating a community similar to that of a street but with a sense of seclusion. Privacy in Keeling House is achieved via short access balconies which only serve two flats and face each other at oblique angles. Shared central platforms, designed and envisioned as ‘hanging gardens’, provide a tower’s alternative to the backyard.
While designing Keeling House, Lasdun spoke extensively with the future residents, leading to a scheme that south to re-establish the importance of human scale in mass housing design. Following years of neglect and vandalism the building was hit with a £4-million repair bill in 1984 and was threatened with demolition until in 1993 it was awarded Grade II* listing status and was the first tower block to receive protection like this.
Keeling house has been unoccupied for almost a decade and today is privately owned.
Neave Brown – Alexandra Road Estate, Camden, London.
Designed 1972 | Construction 1978.
The Alexandra Road Estate is a pivotal example of high-density, low-rise housing designed by the late Neave Brown for Camden Council’s Architects Department as part of Sydney Cook’s vision for the borough. It is one of the most notorious and yet triumphant examples of British social housing.
Brown was very much opposed to the idea of high-rise residential towers as a method of housing many people affordably and instead proposed a ‘social street’ for this awkward site alongside a major railway line. This social street comprises two large concrete ziggurats of four and six stories facing a pedestrian thoroughfare which includes shops, a school, a community centre and youth club. The 500+ homes in the large Estate are of varying sizes with the shared street encouraging a sense of community and neighbourliness.
The Estate received much criticism during and after its construction because of its very high cost caused by the complicated nature of its construction and a public enquiry was launched to investigate to reasons for overshooting the budget and timetable. There was a significant delay and it cost four times the original commissioned cost; the enquiry may however have been politically motivated. Despite being no findings of a mismanagement on his part being the subject of a public enquiry however destroyed Brown’s reputation in the UK.
The Estate was awarded Grade II* listing status in 1993 becoming the first post-war council housing estate to earn this protection. Brown and his design of Alexandra Road was recognised by its residents and the architectural community in 2017, winning the RIBA Gold Medal almost 40 years after the scheme’s completion. Brown died recently in January 2018.
Ralph Erskine Arkitektkontor – Byker Estate, Newcastle.
Designed 1968 | Construction 1969–82.
The Byker Estate in Newcastle is a great and ambitious example of participatory design in architecture and housing. Architect Ralph Erskine set up his design office on the Estate with an open door, allowing residents to drop in to examine the plans and discuss the project directly.
The Byker Estate replaced a neighbourhood of old terraced houses which were demolished and replaced over many years, enabling neighbours, families and communities to be re-housed together. Erskine intended Byker to be a “complete and integrated environment for living in the widest possible sense”, made up of 1800 homes with schools, shops, churches and community facilities.
The Byker Estate was described by the architecture critic Reyner Banham as “a tidal wave of sheddery and pergolation”, reflecting the lively and somewhat improvised appearance of the Estate because of its unusual use of materials like timber, plastic and polychrome brick. The Estate didn’t look like other estates, it’s design and construction was a clear break from the cold, concrete image that defined post-war social housing; it remains a powerful example of an estate embodying the complexity of a community. The Estate was awarded Grade II* listing status in 2007.
Nabeel Hamdi & Nicholas Wilkinson – PSSHAK, Camden, London.
Designed 1971–1979 | Construction 1971–1979
PSSHAK stands for the ‘Primary Support System and Housing Assembly Kit’ and began as a student project by Nabeel Hamdi and Nicholas Wilkinson at the Architectural Association in the 1960s. The pair developed a flexible and adaptable design for housing and enabled occupants to play a part in the design of their homes.
Hamdi and Wilkinson put their PSSHAK concept into practice whilst they were working at the Greater London Council Architects’ Department in 1971. A pilot scheme was followed by a larger development of eight, three-storey blocks in Camden with each block a shell that could be sub-divided to contain different combinations of individual dwellings with help from the architects as well as a handy instruction manual.
Tenant’s feedback suggested that they found the experience of designing their own homes empowering but the system has since been criticised for lacking real flexibility. Other models, such as one by Dutch architect N. John Habraken, allowed residents to express individuality through the exterior of their homes which was lacking in something. Although it wasn’t a massive success, the PSSHAK project established the potential for a participatory form of social housing.
Mary Duggan Architects – Lion Green Road, Croydon, London.
Designed 2017 | Construction ongoing.
Lions Green Road is a residential scheme in Coulsdon, South London, designed by Mary Duggan Architects who has been commissioned by Croydon Council’s ‘arms-length’ private development company, Brick by Brick. The ambitious housing project represents a new direction in council-led social housing.
Mary Duggan Architect’s design imagines five residential blocks as sculptural pavilions, irregular in shape and configured to provide flats of various sizes for both private ownership and affordable social rent. These two forms are visually indistinguishable and all common spaces are shared. The landscape is intended for communal activities; the aim here is to blur boundaries between private residences, shared spaces, and publicly accessible parkland.
A pinkish brick has been chosen for the façade to both complement and contrast with the local urban fabric of yellow London stock brick. Lion Green Road sits within the tradition of Spa Green and Keeling House, also displayed here, in prioritising access to nature, light and air.
A listed building or structure, is one that has been placed on one of the four statutory lists maintained by Historic England in England, Historic Environment Scotland in Scotland, Cadw in Wales, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in Northern Ireland.
Other Modernist and (once) social-housing estates which are listed in the UK include:
Chamberlin, Powell and Bon – The Barbican Estate, London: Grade II
Erno Goldfinger – Trellick Tower, London (1968): Grade II*
Neave Brown – Fleet Estate, London (1977): Grade II
Philip Powell & Hidalgo Moya – Churchill Gardens, London (1946): Grade II
Berthold Lubetkin/Tecton – Bevin Court, London (1954): Grade II
Jack Lynn & Ivor Smith – Park Hill Estate, Sheffield (1957): Grade II*