Dramatic images of metropolitan mixed development have dominated architectural journals, with too little attention being paid to the vast, provincial majority of the nine million homes built in Britain since the war
First published in the AR in November 1977
When it comes to be written the architectural history of housebuilding during the years 1952-77 will be dominated by two issues: the question of public sector comprehensive redevelopments incorporating high rise flats, and the quality end of the private housing market commonly identified with the Span estates. This is certainly the historical perspective conveyed by the Jubilee Issue of the RIBA Journal and its housing contributions by Kenneth Campbell and Eric Lyons. The public sector examples illustrated in Camp bell’s article included Churchill Gardens, Roehampton, Lillington Gardens, the Canada Estate, the Byker Wall and Worlds End. Private enterprise was represented by Span schemes at the Parkleys and Templemere, Royston Summers’s Lakeside Drive at Esher, Stirling and Gowan’s housing at Ham Common, flats in St James’s by Sir Denys Lasdun and the houses on Hampstead Heath by and for the architects Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis. Other members of the profession would probably have concentrated on the same issues and chosen similar, if not identical, examples to illustrate them; and it is no fault of Camp bell or Lyons that architectural history tends to be constructed on issues and images of these kinds. By doing so, however, architectural history signally fails to present a true picture of the housebuilders’ contribution to British life in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. One could go further: the picture presented is as misleading as that of the ’30s emanating from, say, Yorke and Gibberd’s Modern Flat or Modern House.
Although normally playing no part in architects’ history, some basic statistics are helpful to an appreciation of the scale and character of mass housing. Just over nine million houses have been built in Britain since World War II, all but one million having been completed during the years 1952 to 1976 (the last year for which figures are available). Almost one quarter of these units are terraced houses, a quarter detached and just over a third semidetached. Flats amount to some 20 per cent, the great majority of them council-built. Most of these flats are not genuine high-rise units: indeed, even at the peak of flat-building in the mid-’60s, almost 60 per cent of the local authority flatted output was in blocks of four storeys or less. Pitched roofs were used for 85 per cent of the postwar stock, flat roofs for only 6 per cent. Simple cavity brickwork was used as the walling material for 93 per cent, while 2½ per cent employed solid 9in brickwork (dating, one hopes, from the early years of the period). Industrialised building systems made a valuable contribution to the public sector programme: at the height of their popularity during the late 1960s accounting for about 40 per cent of output. Here, too, it was the least fanciful systems that prospered. Wimpey No-Fines, developed in the ’20s, provided 14 000 of the 59 000 industrialised units in approved tenders in 1969.
It is, in short, a highly conventional picture. Of course, nothing is said about quality, and nothing is said about concentrations of particular building types in certain cities; but the basic statistics give little support to conceptions of postwar housing gleaned from glossy journals or the daily press. The broad perspective view is nothing if not ordinary.
Half the houses built in our period are owner-occupied, the overwhelming majority of them built for sale by speculative developers. Here, ordinariness is an important quality, appealing to planning committees and building societies and – most important of all - to customers who value their ability to re-sell the basic unit without difficulty (giving them freedom of movement) and to modify it in a host of different ways to meet special needs or merely to express individuality. Sometimes a kind of individuality is built into the estate by varying the units and the surface finishes - weather boarding, slate and tile hanging, panels of different coloured brickwork - or by incorporating conceits such as random rubble chiinney stacks or false shutters. Even the most restrained products of the best ‘private sector’ builders - Wimpeys, Wates, Laings or Taylor Woodrow - will in the space of a generation sprout roof-rooms and dormers, storm porches, garages, car ports and sunroom extensions-a profusion of adornment which by a strange paradox causes particular offence to professionals to whom ordinariness is anathema. My own professor saw fit to express his personal distaste for coach lamps and noddy panes in his inaugural lecture (to the evident embarrassment of a number of senior university functionaries) . By doing so he, placed himself in the rather select company of architectural critics to take note of what to many people is one of the most obviously endearing aspects of postwar private sector housebuilding.
These remarks are not designed to provoke those who will point out, quite rightly, that the aggregate effect of individual expression is by conventional architectural standards frightful (and frequently made worse by the ‘prairie planning’ resulting from the application of main road traffic standards to the site). In this context it is enough to record the facts. Qualitative judgments, let alone censure, are redundant in the face of such evident market satisfaction.
In designing for tenants and for urban renewal the public sector architect faces altogether more difficult tasks and, to be charitable, has perhaps been over-conscious of failure in a game where the rules changed faster than the techniques. Even before our own period was properly embarked upon, the strategic context of housing changed to frustrate the ideals of the immediate postwar architectural generation. The long term plans formulated by Mr Attlee’s government were predicated on the assumption that – once the supposedly short term postwar shortage had been overcome – a large proportion of state-controlled building resources would be directed towards the revival of the slum ·clearance drives interrupted by the war. Such a policy would not add substantially (if at all) to the housing stock, but it would provide considerable opportunities for the reconstruction of urban areas on the ideal lines described by Kenneth Campbell: the provision of light, air, grass and trees at densities sufficiently high to prevent further urban sprawl and to provide room for a range of house types – high rise blocks (up to 12 storeys), fourstorey maisonette blocks and houses. In the event, extensive slum clearance was postponed to the 1960s. By the early ’50s it had become clear that a greatly increased output of new units was needed to meet demographic demands and, under the Conservatives, it was the private sector which was expanded to become by the end of the decade the major provider of housing. The mixed developments featured by the journals became typical only of the almost separate world of London. Throughout the rest of the country local authorities built low-rise terraced or semi-detached houses, often on scarcely modified inter-war layouts, with sub-Festival of Britain shallow-pitched and gabled roofs (the impact of prefabricated roof trusses), Z-windows and flat front door canopies. This, in Harold Macmillan’s celebrated phrase, was the ‘People’s House’.
During the ’60s the mixed development ‘ideal’ of the late ’40s became progressively unworkable for quite different reasons. The drive for increased production continued, culminating in the target of 500 000 new houses a year promised in Labour’s 1966 General Election campaign and the highest postwar total of 413 000 achieved in 1968. Between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the public sector programme now replaced losses from the slum clearance campaign, which had finally found its stride and was bulldozing between 7 5 000 and 90 000 houses a year in an orgy of well-meant destruction. It was from this period that most of the mixed developments date, together with some of the worst examples of tower blocks (by now 22 floors and over) used on inappropriately restricted sites. Densities had been raised to such an extent that they excluded the open spaces and alternative housing types provided in the best of the LCC ’50s schemes. When Ronan Point collapsed in 1968 the more advanced local authorities had already turned towards alternative forms: medium or low-rise high-density solutions. Lillington Street provided surprisingly generous open spaces at a density of over 200 persons per acre and originated in a competition victory of as early as 1961. Low-rise high-density schemes of two or three floors, it is often forgotten, had been advocated before the war by Trystan Edwards as a compromise between 12-to-the-acre cottages and five-storey walk-up blocks.
By the late ’60s, however, all forms of redevelopment were under attack. Most of the unfavourable publicity, of course, was directed at the high flats, their inherent unsuitability for families with children, and the related problems of vandalism and breakdowns of refusehandling equipment and lifts. But for many ex-clearance area residents the shortcomings of a particular type of rehousing scheme were secondary to the circumstances surrounding their enforced removal - the ·uncertainty, the progressive run-down of services, closure of shops, loss of jobs - in short, the destruction of the social and economic infrastructure of an entire urban community. Such by-products of clearance had not escaped the attention of sensitive Medical Officers of Health in the nineteenth century, had been rediscovered during the ’30s, but had to be chronicled once again during our period by Wilmott and Young, Vereker and Mays, and Jane Jacobs. It gives no pleasure to record that the first response to these revelations was often a stiffening of resolve, which found expression in statements reading strangely like a mid-Victorian defence for some railway project pushing its way through the breeding grounds of cholera, chartism and crime.
‘In a huge city’, wrote one influential apologist in 1963, ‘it is a fairly common observation that the dwellers in a slum area are almost a separate race of people with different values, aspirations and ways of living… . One result of slum clearance is that a considerable movement of people takes place over long distances, with devastating effects on the social groupings built up over the years. But, one might argue, this is a good thing when we are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride. The task surely is to break up such groupings ·even though the people seem to enjoy an extrovert social life in their own locality.’
The reverse of this coin was the belief - crude, but firmly held for all of its crudity - that modern housing architecture could in some way condition human behaviour for the better. Sometimes this belief was reinforced by the most simplistic word associations – neighbourhood units, for instance, with neighbourliness. When words failed, new jargon was fabricated. Paths became ‘communication links~, taking people from place to place ·in the ploddingly pedestrian sense, but also occasioning opportunities for beneficial social intercourse. It was a beguilingly flexible concept, used by designers of the stricter Radburn persuasion (who, sensing the boredom of their ·schemes, sought to enliven them with pathway crossings known as ‘communication nodes’) as well as by the advocates of high-rise projects in which the access-galleries became ‘streets in the sky’. The profession smiled as Professor Broady derided such foolish notions. But many found the faith of architectural determinism a comfort as they went about the necessary work of comprehensive redevelopment.
Current attitudes on renewal, while by no means revolutionary, represent a •marked softening of the frequently intolerant idealism of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties. Slum clearance itself is becoming more selective and has been considerably reduced (although how much as a result of better selection than of spending cuts is not always clear). The grantaided improvement programme is now established as a major component of urban renewal. Officially, at least, renewal is seen as ·a gradual process involving both infill and improvement, -and it seems reasonable to suppose that new schemes in urban areas will continue to be small in scale. Potentially the most far-reaching changes are in attitudes towards the users of mass housing which, at root, have always been the most potent division between the two sectors of the industry. Ralph Erskine’s efforts at Byker to involve residents in a humanised rehousing operation, the development of PSSHAK, the growth of tenants’ management co-operatives, project ASSIST in Glasgow, Rod Hackney’s community-based improvement scheme at Macclesfield and the gradual renewal scheme in the Jericho district of Oxford are all products of thinking radically different from that of 25 years ago. They are mentioned here as symbols of the latest, and the most encouraging, trends rather than as representative examples of public house building in recent years. For a truly representative scheme one has to search further back in the records.
Between 1961 and 1964 the Development Group of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government built a small scheme in Ravenscroft Close, West Ham, as a test bed for the standards recommended by the Parker Morris report, Homes for Today and Tomorrow (1961) and for the then advanced ideas about the flexible use of space by means of ·tenant-controlled demountable partitions and rooms sized to allow alternative furniture layouts. The site and type plans of Ravenscroft Close were immortalised in the Design Bulletin, Space in the Home, which can now be seen as a seminal influence on the low-rise, medium-density council housing built in all parts of the country since the mid’ Sixties. It will serve very well as -our final manifestation of the People’s House.
Editor’s Comments by Lance Wright
Simon Pepper’s title has caused him to look chiefly at the public sector and thence to miss the great drama of the period in the field of homes which is, surely, the confrontation between the ‘Council Estate’ and the rest. And, in missing this, to miss also the great discovery of the period which is the importance of volition-that is, of the householder’s will, informed or uninformed, in home choice and design. This is not a question of ‘function’ but of identification. Arguably, if we think in terms of averages and leave out of account the lush pads at the top end, the housing stock made available in the public sector during these years is of higher standard in terms of material function than the housing stock available outside. The great difference, of course, is that if you live on a council estate, the implication is that, in this matter of a home, you are someone who cannot look after yourself; but that, if you live elsewhere, you are someone who can and does. This great social divide becomes more glaring as housing estates become bigger during the period – and therefore more isolated from the rest - and as more communal housing forms are adopted.
Architects were deeply aware of this problem throughout the period. At the beginning they sought to give public housing a new sort of compensating beauty. Where, in the country as a whole (and as Simon Pepper rightly points out) councils were happy to make their estates look as much like spec builders’ estates as possible, architects (particularly the ‘best’ ones) were going .all out to make them look as different as possible. This not only threw a desperate population of home-seekers into accommodation which did not suit them at all, but made this problem of identification worse.
Towards the end of the period the architectural effort is turned upon trying to reduce the difference between the council estate and the rest of the built-up area, but the ‘model’ which architects choose is not that of the spec builder working for owner occupiers on suburban sites but that of the tight, close-knit town centre prior to about 1850. Are they merely exchanging one kind of illusion for another? Meanwhile the notion of the householder as a free agent gathers ground, as witness the growth of the housing association-and, indeed, of squatting. The squatter, like the cuckoo, puts his egg into a nest of his own choosing. Better discomfort and freedom than every mod con and servitude… .