From the green quadrangles of medieval almshouses to towering banlieues, the history of mass housing represents architecture at its most high-minded – which makes its failures all the more painful
The housing estate, whether it is built by a charity, developer, government or cooperative, is essentially a collection of dwellings disposed in space. The design of this negative space is as significant as that of the individual unit – a precept that has not always been sufficiently acknowledged. From the medieval almshouse to the blocks of Pruitt-Igoe, estate-space has changed in function and texture, coagulating and thinning with and against the space of the city and the wider territory.
Other significant variables include the scale and variety of the housing components – towers, terraces, slabs, single-family dwellings and bungalows for the elderly – as well as the type and cost of tenure. These determine the social composition of the estate, while the provision and maintenance of amenities contribute to its long-term vitality.
Jean Renaudie, drawing for Cité des Etoiles at Givors, Lyon (1974-81)
Source: Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine /Archives d’architecture du XXe siècle
In its earliest forms the estate was a disciplinary mechanism in the service of the penitent aristocrat and the meddling bourgeois. This function was ensured by conditional tenure and the clarity of interstitial spaces: the lawn at the centre of the almshouse quad, overlooked by the master’s lodging, or the bare courtyards of Peabody tenement estates. The earliest housing built by a British municipality, London’s Boundary Estate (1900), gives this panoptic planning a focal point in the form of a raised bandstand constructed on the grave mound of rubble from the slum that formerly occupied the site.
‘Being morally improved and surveilled for signs of dipsomania is better than dying in a tubercular slum’
The growing rail network encouraged British speculators to lay out garden suburbs from the 1880s in the quest for inexpensive anti-urban utopias that would appeal to the new middle classes. The format was quickly adopted by paternalistic employers such as Cadbury and Lever who wanted to maintain a productive and strictly supervised workforce.
Estates have retained this disciplinary aspect through many of their permutations, but being morally improved and surveilled for signs of dipsomania is better than dying in a tubercular slum. The introduction of bathrooms, running water and central heating isn’t to be sniffed at either.
Bruno Taut, Hufeisensiedlung (‘Horseshoe Estate’), Berlin (1925-33)
Hopton’s Almshouses (1752), overlooked by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners Neo Bankside (2013), London
Very often, however, the people cleared from slums could not afford their replacements and so were pushed further from the centre or into other slums, making them even more crowded. Under capitalism the provision of housing tends to have this social cleansing effect, which is only mitigated by concerted action.
After the First World War the fear of insurrection forced European governments to provide dwellings on a large scale for the first time, with the aim of creating employment as much as housing. In England the preference was for suburban ‘cottage estates’ that subscribed to garden suburb planning principles. These were priced for the more affluent working classes with the intention of encouraging nuclear insularity away from the crime, sickness and radicalism thought to be fostered by inner cities. The largest of the cottage estates, indeed the largest estate in the world, is Becontree in Essex. Completed in 1935, the dreary 26,000-home suburb has neither topography nor centre.
Prefabricated housing built under the leadership of Wolfgang Urbanski, Groß Klein estate, Rostock, mid 1970s
Higher densities had already been proposed in the 1920s by figures such as Le Corbusier. His city plans comprised more than just housing estates, but their strictly zoned residential components – parkland studded with perimeter blocks, slabs on pilotis and zigzagging à redent blocks – were to have a marked effect on later construction.
In terms of realised designs, Germany took the lead in this period. The many Siedlungen constructed in and around Berlin arrange low-rise blocks in garden suburb layouts. The winding treelined streets of Onkel Toms Hütte are some of the most pleasant; the multicoloured horseshoe block at Britz surrounded by radiating terraces is more formal, but impressive in its monumentality.
‘Gropius’s Zeilenbauten at Dammerstock near Karlsruhe were strictly orthogonal, and represent the high water mark of the New Objectivity’
In Frankfurt, Ernst May supervised the erection of 14,000 units over five years, including Römerstadt which festooned a hillside with ribbons of high-tech, low-rise blocks. By contrast, Gropius’s Zeilenbauten at Dammerstock near Karlsruhe were strictly orthogonal, and represent the high water mark of the New Objectivity, when even former advocates began to turn against its asceticism. In any case, the Existenzminimum turned out not to work: even relentless rationalisation couldn’t lower costs sufficiently to house the masses in the wake of the crash.
Candilis, Woods et al, Carrières Centrales, Casablanca (1951), with the bidonville to the lower right
Source: Michel Ecochard /Aga Khan Trust
Skinner, Bailey and Lubetkin’s Cranbrook Estate, London (1966), with bungalows for the elderly in the foreground (Right) RAH Livett
Source: John Maltby/RIBA
The contemporaneous Viennese experiment in ‘socialism in one city’ also produced large quantities of thoughtful housing, but further confirmed Tafuri’s argument that the camp mentality of the estate constructed in adverse conditions necessarily hobbles any utopianism. The estate, an island of good intentions, cannot conquer the world – as demonstrated most disastrously by the fascist bombardment of Karl Marx Hof, but also by the current perilous condition of London’s Robin Hood Gardens.
‘In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s encrusted prefabs were abandoned for Khrushchev’s unadorned prefabs, arranged in mikrorayons of varying scale and quality’
It was the crisis of the Second World War that gave housing programmes an unprecedented impetus, when the ruined cities and economies of Europe demanded radical solutions on a national scale. In France, the grands ensembles programme was initiated in 1953 to cope with that country’s delayed urbanisation, mostly with lamentable results. Attempts were also made to formalise thebidonvilles of the country’s colonies, including pioneering mat buildings by Candilis and Woods in Casablanca. In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s encrusted prefabs were abandoned for Khrushchev’s unadorned prefabs, arranged in mikrorayons of varying scale and quality.
In Britain a variety of approaches were attempted, from the low-rise townscape of the Lansbury to the slab blocks of Alton, both in London. While these differ in scale, both adhere in different ways to picturesque planning principles – the former with its twisting streets and market square, the latter with its topographic plenitude.
RAH Livett, Quarry Hill Flats, Leeds (1934-41, demolished 1978). Photograph by Peter Mitchell
Source: Peter Mitchell
Not all such Corbusian estates were equally successful. The bastard progeny of the towers-in-parkland typology – too many of which were poorly designed, cheaply built, and under-maintained – contributed to its rejection and the turn to other models. Many looked to the example of Backström and Reinius’s honeycomb plans in Sweden, and in Britain Lubetkin and Goldfinger introduced a more plastic approach to negative space. This found its positive corollary in a new monumentality, with blocks of geological heft being erected at Pedregulho in Rio (1951), Dawson’s Heights in London (1964-72), and Corviale, nicknamed ‘il serpentone’, in Rome (1972-82). Soon these too were rejected as anti-social.
The argument is tiresomely overfamiliar, but the supposed failure of the high-density high-rise estate is now clearly attributable to other factors – not least the mysterious surge in violent crime that lasted from the late 1960s to the mid-’90s. Yet architecture took much of the blame and widespread demolitions ensued, followed by the return of cottage estates and cul-de-sacs, which give inner-city areas like Rotherhithe the harrowing character of commuter-belt suburbs.
‘Construction on anything like the scale of the postwar period will not happen again until we see a return of the crises of the first half of the 20th century’
There have been more appealing versions of low-rise, high-density models that suggest promising avenues for future development, such as Halen outside Bern (1960) and Siza’s work in Portugal; and recently there have been encouraging experiments in estate refurbishment by Crimson in Rotterdam and Lacaton & Vassal in France, both of which avoid the displacement usually associated with ‘regeneration’. While the careful work in such projects is commendable, a grander vision is necessary to resolve the global housing shortage – but construction on anything like the scale of the postwar period will not happen again until we see a return of the crises of the first half of the 20th century. For better or for worse, however, the past seems to be hurtling towards us with extreme velocity.
Jean Renaudie, La Cité des Étoiles, Givors (1974 - 1981)
Source: Gabriele Basilico/Studio Gabriele Basilico, Milan
Lacaton & Vassal has become famous for the practice’s sensitive approach to estate refurbishment. Rather than continuing with the wasteful demolition of postwar grands ensembles, its interventions have proven that even towers regarded as unliveable and hopelessly decrepit can be given a new life – and crucially, this prevents the displacement of residents. The strategy of estate ‘transformation’, first demonstrated at Tour Bois le Prêtre in Paris in 2011, comprises internal reconfiguration and deep re-cladding, allowing the lateral extension of units into winter gardens (left). This improves insulation and provides extra space for residents, as well as giving the building a facelift. The practice is currently applying this on a much grander scale to 530 dwellings across three blocks on a housing estate in Bordeaux which is has designed in association with architects Fréderic Druot and Christophe Hutin.
Lacaton et vassal plan
Grp 150220 © philippe puault lacaton & vassal grand parc bordeaux france
Source: Philippe Ruault
This low-budget project in Hoofddorp, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, comprises 24 semi-detached houses for first-time buyers and 40 terraced dwellings for social rent. The two parts of the estate are spatially segregated, which is not ideal, but they are formally united by the architect’s sophisticated abstraction of vernacular domestic tradition. The pitched roofs are penetrated by elongated dormers creating an impressive serial effect, especially along the facades of the terraces. This combination of traditionalism and Modernism brings out the potential for abstraction lurking in the former and the cosiness sometimes felt to be lacking in the latter: what Benjamin would call a ‘dialectical image’ harking back to the workers’ houses designed by Heinrich Tessenow in the 1910s and ’20s.
Hans van der heijden drawings
Stefan muller hans van der heijden pleinen hoofddorp
Source: Stefan Müller
Bwf03 stefan muller hans van der heijden pleinen hoofddorp
Source: Stefan Müller
Asian cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong are famous for their extensive provision of social housing, if not for the quality of its design. Recently, however, an intriguing new – or not-so-new – phenomenon has emerged there: ‘sky bridges’, offspring of the Brutalists’ ‘streets in the sky’. The appeal of the 3D city to the region is perhaps not so surprising, since Hong Kong is riddled with elevated walkways and restaurants roosting halfway up towers. The annoyingly named Pinnacle@Duxton applies this principle to residential towers in Singapore, while Marina Bay Sands does something similar to a hotel. The most impressive realisation of the concept is Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing. The project comprises 644 apartments in eight towers linked by a public ‘skyloop’ on the 18th floor. Other amenities include a central garden at ground level, as well as a cinema, kindergarten, school, shops and sports facilities.
Steven holl plan
Steven holl iwan baan linked hybrid beijing china lh 09 06 8865
Source: Iwan Baan
Steven holl iwan baan linked hybrid beijing china
Source: Iwan Baan
The five splayed terraces of Ash Sakula’s housing at Newcastle cram a surprising number of dwellings onto a small plot sloping down to the River Ouseburn. The 76 units are cunningly slotted together, with each given its own front door and either a small garden or a terrace. Two six-storey towers with protuberant bay windows complete the ensemble, adding high points to an already interesting skyline. With its red brick palette and careful planning, the project is a model of high-density low-rise housing in a vaguely vernacular style that could hardly be objected to by even the most ardent advocate of traditional streetscapes.
Ash sakula plan
Andrew putler 1665 the malings ash sakula
Source: Andrew Putler
© andrew putler 002 the malings
Source: Andrew Putler