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Overcrowding and Oversprawl

Elizabeth Darling looks back at Elizabeth Denby’s use of the AR as a mouthpiece for her hard-hitting campaign with the Kensington Housing Association

Among the many contributors who made The Architectural Review the mouthpiece for the development and promulgation of Modernism in Britain was a rare woman: Elizabeth Denby (1894-1965). During her long career as a housing consultant − a polymath expert who advised on all aspects of social housing, from design to management − the AR offered her a space to promote ideas that, then cutting edge, have much resonance for current debates about the form and location of urban housing.

Denby’s expertise came from 10 years’ working for the voluntary housing sector in what was then the slum area of north Kensington. Here she learnt the realities of slum life, and how to draw attention to them in her role as campaigns officer for the Kensington Housing Association and Trust. Kensington and the AR came together in March 1933 when Denby contributed an article, ‘Overcrowded Kensington, In the Royal Borough’ to a special issue, ‘Replanning London’. In it, she established two core principles that would inform all her subsequent work: the hard-hitting tone of the prose (akin to the voice of the 1930s documentary film movement) and the meticulous use of statistics to support her case.

She opened her discussion by contrasting comfortable south with squalid north Kensington. Overcrowding was rife: up to 30 people in a 10-roomed house, 13,000 basement dwellings of which 400 (housing 5,600 people) had the ceiling ‘at or under the street’. Health figures drove the point home: notifications for diphtheria were three times as high in north as south Kensington (172:50) and the infant death rate double (86 to 44 per 1,000). Illustrations reiterated the point: a gloomy shot of Portland Road showed a disused brewery at its end (the high cost of the site precluded redevelopment), and the close-up of a pavement grille beneath which lay someone’s home.

The solution, she suggested (acknowledging the useful model of Ladbroke Grove itself), lay in a coherent programme of urban planning. Here she referenced a plan for north Kensington that the Trust had produced with an RIBA committee of unemployed architects. This, she wrote, showed how ‘more people could be rehoused … than can be accommodated in the present jumbled rookery’, if the site were zoned, and ‘industry … no longer allowed to spring up among dwelling places, blocking out light and air’. This left two-thirds of the area as open space, allowing provision ‘for schools, playgrounds, allotments’. Although the plan was not very sophisticated, its significance lay in the fact that a voluntary organisation had taken the initiative to investigate how to resolve the slum problem, so showing government what it ought to be doing. It was a model that Denby would emulate through her career. Indeed, that AR article was in many respects her launch pad; by October 1933 she had resigned from the Trust to work full-time as a housing expert.

The themes outlined in ‘Overcrowded Kensington’ were refined in two major articles for the Architects’ Journal. In these, Denby argued that three core principles (none of which had yet penetrated state policy) should underpin government practice: the need for research and planning before any major programme of clearance; the adoption of advances in technology to reduce costs of production; and the need to develop new types of flat accommodation and amenities for rehoused slum dwellers.


‘Overcrowded Kensington’, a full-page image of a grate

Such ideas were embodied in the two blocks of Existenzminimum flats that she co-designed with Maxwell Fry: RE Sassoon House, Peckham, 1934, intended as a complementary domestic environment to the nearby Pioneer Health Centre (Owen Williams, 1935), and Kensal House, Ladbroke Grove, 1937. The latter, largely thanks to Denby’s advice, represented the definitive statement of contemporary progressive thinking on social housing. Conceived as an ‘urban village’, the estate provided not just well-built and well-equipped family flats but two social clubs, a nursery school, playground and allotments; in its early years the day-to-day running of the estate was by tenants’ committee.

By the time Kensal House was complete, however, Denby had begun to revise her ideas about the best form of urban dwelling for rehoused families. These were introduced at an RIBA talk in November 1936 and rehearsed in her book Europe Rehoused (1938). This was the outcome of a Leverhulme Trust grant, in 1933, to research social housing across Europe and the lessons it might have for British policy. In it she returned to the theme first referenced in 1933, of the model of high-density planning offered by Georgian and Regency speculators, arguing for mixed-use schemes in urban areas. These would combine flats for couples or singles, with terraced houses for families built at high densities alongside extensive amenities. A prototype of the house was exhibited at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition in 1939. This concept, which she was among the first of British theorists to advocate, was vital, she argued, not only for accommodation best suited to family life, but because high densities kept redevelopment within the city, preventing suburban sprawl.

It was this pre-war pro-urbanist call that chimed so well with the next wave of vanguard writing in the AR. In what turned out to be a book-ending of her career with articles for the periodical, Denby’s last major text was included in the second of Ian Nairn’s special issue polemics against the ‘Subtopia’ that he contended had emerged because of post-war planning policy. This, he explained in Counter-Attack against Subtopia (December 1956; Outrage was published in June 1955) blurred the distinction between town and country to create what we might now call non-places; a photo of traffic-clogged LA was included as a sign of the future if the blurring were not stopped. Nairns’ contributors offered the ammunition to prevent this happening in articles that included the principles for a new approach to planning (‘A Visual ABC’); the types of environment (‘Wild’, ‘Country’, ‘Arcadia (not Suburbia)’, ‘Town’ and ‘Metropolis’) that should exist, and the equipment (such as street furniture) apt to each, and a conclusion ‘A Plan for Planning’.

Denby’s text, ‘Oversprawl’, preceded this and offered a critique of the wartime Barlow Report and its guidance for decentralisation and the rehousing of overspill populations. Again, statistics were her weapon. Through analysis of population change, overcrowding and census figures, she argued that densities in existing towns were rarely above 22 people per acre, and so were not sufficient to demand the decanting of population to new towns, thereby creating ‘nationwide sprawl’. She urged that this was ‘our last chance to “stop” “look” and “listen”,’ and that ‘the time is ripe − overripe − for looking back into towns, and particularly into the old industrial areas, redeveloping according to human needs − that is, planning with, nor for (or against!) the people!’

Such ideas resonate strongly now, though not sufficiently at the time. It took 20 years for urban infill and rehabilitation to be practised, and more for brownfield development to become part of state policy. It is worth remembering that such ideas owed much to a woman prepared to speak against mainstream policy and that the future of our cities could well be woman-made if we listened to her ideas once again.

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