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Outrage : ‘The destruction of social housing has been legitimised by conservative urbanism’s useful idiots’

Children play pepys estate deptford london 1970 tony ray jones

As we attempt a return to low-rise, high-density streetscapes in our cities, those on middle and lower incomes are each time displaced

Amid the UK’s post-referendum chaos, David Cameron seems a lame duck, his legacy one of failure. But we should not forget the very real impact his government has had on architecture. The most pernicious element of this, the Housing and Planning Act passed in May 2016, has been called the death-knell for social housing. It will end lifetime tenancies of council properties, encourage housing associations to offer tenants the right to buy their homes, and force councils to sell off properties to remunerate the housing associations. 

Most disturbingly, it allows housing estates to be categorised as ‘brownfield’ sites – a designation usually reserved for contaminated post-industrial land. Furthermore, it grants automatic permission for building on them as such. Far from combatting the housing shortage as is claimed, this legislation will turbo-charge the displacement of people on middle and lower incomes from British cities – so how did we get to this point, the logical culmination of the illogical campaign against the state provision of housing? Two snapshots set the scene.

‘The Housing and Planning Act passed in May 2016, has been called the death-knell for social housing’

1977. A photograph shows a figure hiding in a doorway, his arm raised menacingly as if waiting for a victim. A grin is visible on his face, but it is hard to tell what is in his hand – a rolled-up architectural journal? This association between postwar housing and violent crime may have been a harmless joke to Charles Jencks, in whose book The Language of Postmodern Architecture it appeared. But remember that the building in which this figure lurks – the Smithsons’ famous housing project Robin Hood Gardens – is on the verge of demolition, partly thanks to this pantomime, and it begins to seem less funny. His victim, it turned out, was the urban working class.

1985. A housing campaigner crouches over a turd, attempting to determine its provenance: canine or human? Satisfied, Alice Coleman rises and notes the results of her olfactory investigation. The pages of her notebook also record handwriting analyses, for she is a contributor to the British Institute of Graphologists’ journal. The two passions are not unrelated: both trade in wild leaps of interpretation where no causal connection can legitimately be asserted. The turd is not there because the architecture commanded the shitter to drop their pants and squat. The absence of ‘starting strokes’ in graffiti does not indicate a lack of affability on the part of its authors. And yet, to this overactive imagination, there is an ineffable bond between one and the other.

‘You might have thought this logic died out in 1945 but, no; it is used by those currently trying to evict most of working-class London’

That these scatomantic ideas were, and are still, being used to justify one of the greatest expropriations ever visited on the British people might lead one to view their authors as devious, even dishonest. It would be kinder to see them as not entirely sane. Their irrationalism is part of a long tradition of magical thinking about architecture. Like them, reactionary German critics of the Weimar period saw strange connections between buildings and bodies: Paul Schultze-Naumburg complained that Modernist houses are ‘faceless’, an accusation often and eerily repeated in Coleman’s work. You might have thought this logic died out in 1945 but, no; it is the pseudoscientific rationale used by those currently trying to evict most of working-class London.

I do not suppose Jencks or Coleman intended this. Nonetheless, their thought turned out to be extremely useful to the crusade against the postwar social settlement. The results speak for themselves: although by 1969 there was a housing surplus, this great success in rehousing all of our people adequately (if not without some missteps) was denigrated as a failure, even labelled antisocial. 

This is not doublespeak. Two fundamentally opposed notions of the social good are at work here: one demands maintaining arrangements that benefit a single stratum, the other is egalitarian. No wonder the latter was hated by the proponents of the former. But the triumph of these solitary critics in converting an entire culture to their way of thinking, even against its own interests, should not be attributed to the brilliance of their ideas or the lucidity of their arguments. Rather, Coleman and Jencks’ work was music to the ears of the embattled establishment, who picked up their ideas and ran. And if the 1970s presented the image of an enormous supertanker being slowly halted in its course, today it is travelling backwards at full steam.

Neither Coleman nor Jencks can be directly blamed for this situation, but we should hold them accountable for the illogicality of their own works. Both proceed by what is essentially – and rather ironically – a modernist practice of juxtaposition. Rather than cogent arguments, Coleman presents a startling collage of intense shock effects and sober statistics – turds and tables – designed to move the careless reader to rage. Who could be unmoved by the story of a woman raped in her own flat while neighbours listened through thin walls and yet did nothing? But, on closer inspection, what has this to do with architecture? Would Coleman have preferred it if the neighbours hadn’t been able to hear? In fact, you could almost draw the opposite conclusion from this case: inadequate soundproofing is preferable as it seems more likely that unwilling auditors of crime would call the police. For Coleman, however, it is proof that modern architecture has caused a total collapse in public morality. 

‘The peculiar confusion of aesthetics and morality espoused by Create Streets has been summarised as the “right to beauty”’

This is grotesque silliness, but Coleman was feted by Thatcher, who made her an advisor to the Department of the Environment, and her specious ideas became cross-party orthodoxy. Likewise, Jencks’ theatrical staging of architectural violence was lapped up by those bored with tedious tasks such as social housing. These prejudices were never effectively challenged and, although over time they became invisible and unspoken, they had been grafted to the root of our architectural discourse. 

Since the last election they have returned with a new vigour. Coleman is the guiding spirit behind Create Streets, which agitates for the return of low-rise, high-density streetscapes in London. The principle would be unobjectionable if the result of estate rebuilding in the current climate weren’t the displacement of those on middle and lower incomes. This can hardly have escaped the notice of  its director Nicholas Boys Smith – former head of the International Affluent arm at Lloyds Bank, parliamentary candidate for the Tories, interviewer of Coleman for Conservative Home in 2014, and appointee to the government’s Design Panel in the same year.

‘Heroic campaigns against demolitions are being fought’

The peculiar confusion of aesthetics and morality espoused by Create Streets has been summarised as the ‘right to beauty’ by another right-wing thinktank, ResPublica. It comes as little surprise to discover that the author of this phrase, Caroline Julian, is not so much a neoliberal as a neofeudalist who has previously suggested the model of ‘ecclesial governance in the Middle Ages … be deployed as a critique of modern constitutional models’. Such interventions would be harmless were they mere musings of reactionary cranks, but they lend support to David Cameron’s crusade against ‘sink estates’ like Broadwater Farm. He blamed this site for the 2011 London riots, with the same logic of juxtaposition and disregard for socioeconomic factors propounded by Jencks and Coleman. In fact, it has one of the lowest urban crime rates in the world and only two per cent of residents – the lowest proportion in London – deemed it unsafe.

Far from remaining mere rhetoric, these ideas have crystallised in the Housing and Planning Act, under which people’s homes are to be legally redefined as wasteland. A jurisprudential erasure of human beings is under way and the result will be the evisceration of our cities. But while the situation is grim, the emergence of these long-invisible ideas into the light of day also presents an opportunity to hold them to account. Heroic campaigns against demolitions are being fought by groups such as Architects for Social Housing and the residents of estates including Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill. Occult beings like Nosferatu fade on exposure to the sun, and the creature from the black lagoon can only be killed when it rises from its excremental swamp.

Lead Image: Children at play on the Pepys Estate, Deptford, London, 1970. Photograph by Tony Ray-Jones