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Outrage: ‘until the Grenfell tragedy, the housing crisis has mostly been slower and more grinding’

Is a historic crisis what will prompt action over the dire housing shortage for the under-privileged? 

In just a few hours of horror, the fire at Grenfell House (pictured here under construction 1972-74) in June sickeningly brought to the surface the inequalities of housing in the UK. With the number of deaths still unknown, the difference in treatment and protection afforded to tower dwellers in the new, sprinklered, mineral-wooled apartment blocks, and to ordinary, mainly ethnic minority people who became the victims in their polyethylene-coated council block, was shown in its true extremity.

But until this singular outrage, the crisis has mostly been slower and more grinding. Dwindling numbers of social housing units, lost through curtailed construction and progressive disposal, combine with worsening living conditions and lower maintenance budgets. In the private sector, rising house prices and rents, land banking and overseas investment are inflating the market. It’s all so familiar, we know the story, but for the most part it’s something glacial, tectonic.

The geological metaphor is appropriate: the housing crisis is a fundamental one, embedded deep in our political culture. Property is one of the easiest ways to make people feel rich, and sufficient numbers of us have been bought off in such a way that successive governments of different colours have seen it as their duty to keep house prices rising. If we were to ‘solve’ the housing crisis, a lot of powerful forces in our society (housebuilders, landlords, the bourgeoisie in general) would have to be made a lot less wealthy which, let’s face it, means some kind of revolution.

So why are we forever told that someone has had such an ingenious idea about supply that they may well have found the solution to the housing crisis? A few derelict houses spared here, a couple of self-builds round the back of some Georgian terraces there, a smattering of ‘co-living’ towers converted from office blocks, with just a little twist of new council dwellings in the neo-modern mode, and everyone gets dizzy proclaiming that this is the way to overturn the deliberately manufactured scarcity.

Of course, the basic culprit is the way media operates, and if someone’s being innovative, you might as well use hyperbole to bring attention to it. But this attitude can pedal half-truths that actually might make it harder to make a difference. To take just one celebrated example, the Granby Four Streets project, a challenging and hard-fought collaboration with local residents in working-class Liverpool, took young studio Assemble all the way to a surprise Turner Prize. Upon receiving the award, the breathless media response repeatedly asked ‘is this the solution to the housing crisis?’ Well, while the sophisticated consultation process is to be lauded, the procurement, which essentially entailed a friendly investor agreeing to knock a couple of percentage points off their usual profit margin, all to refurbish 10 houses, is not likely to be scaled up any time soon, so, no. 

In a similar manner, we’re often encouraged to look back at the work of Walter Segal, whose self-build methodology helped some creative families build a grand total of perhaps a few hundred houses, as something that can somehow make a difference to the crisis, and we’ve been told that some middle-class families coming together to build clusters of private homes is a model just waiting to be rolled out. Elsewhere, it’s Community Land Trusts, the idiosyncratic culture of bespoke Japanese single-family residences, Aravena’s half-built houses in Chile, or recent commissions to develop unfinished ‘shell-houses’, that have all been given the impossible task of undoing generations of phoney debt-riches. 

On the one hand British architecture is in quite a good position, as there are currently a surprising number of developers and local authorities looking to build creative new housing projects, for whom high-quality design is for once a genuine priority. This means that a small number of our young architects are finding opportunities to design high-quality buildings, often with programmes that challenge existing dwelling conventions. This is a good thing, and should by all means be celebrated.

But conversely, I recently took part in a sobering panel discussion about ‘The Future’, where nearly every question from the audience was about what architects could actually do about the housing crisis. It was a sombre experience, as all the panel could say was that the answers are not likely to come from any particular design innovation, but from tectonic shifts in political attitudes, themselves driven by a variety of overlapping crises.

And this is the point. The housing crisis is so far-reaching, and the solutions so challenging, that it seems there’s little that can be done. We should always celebrate great new work, but should also remember that the last time architecture was both radically innovative, of good quality – and most importantly – widely built, was in the ruins after the Second World War. It took historic crisis and destruction to make society look around for new solutions, and at this point the best architects had been rehearsing answers at the right scale.

Something to bear in mind, perhaps.