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AR 120: Gillian Darley on Home

Ar vol130 july61a

The tension of the architect’s divided role in designing homes for the rich and mass housing for the poor has existed throughout the AR’s history

In August 1967, the AR’s special issue on the Montreal Expo included a detailed study of Moshe Safdie’s experimental housing scheme, Habitat 67 – 354 concrete units ingeniously stacked beside the St Lawrence River. By November 1967, when the AR published the ‘Housing and the Environment’ special issue, the mood at Queen Anne’s Gate was speedily moving away from architectural self-congratulation, at least where Britain was concerned. The editors of the issue attacked housing policy, which was (as ever?) ‘a political shuttlecock’ and pointed to its isolation from reality, since ‘monuments or architectural images have been created as irrelevant to the needs of the people as to the visual structure of the town or city’.  These deficiencies suggested an urgent task, ‘to … equip ourselves by realistic study of needs and means to build a total environment – not merely a politically acceptable number of dwellings – suited to the changing needs of this century’. The edition took a more avowedly political position, despite the AR’s campaigns usually being apolitical. 

It was 1927 when AR proprietor Percy Hastings put his son Hubert de Cronin Hastings (H de C) in charge, who was determined, by dint of his own enthusiasm for polemicists of every colour, to transform the magazine. He remained at the Press into the 1970s. Before H de C, the AR was firmly bonded to the Arts and Crafts, and the AR view of domestic architecture was often retrospective. The publication of grand individual homes featured throughout the AR’s history, but the taste of the average householder was pilloried by John Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster, as well as within Ian Nairn’s apocalyptic view of Subtopia.

The title and content of the November 1967 housing edition strongly suggested the Geddesian preoccupations of former publisher H de C, who had recently returned to a more active role as directing editor. JM Richards, responsible for the Expo issue and nominally still the executive editor, was preparing to leave. Reyner Banham had departed in 1964; the Architectural Press published his New Brutalism in 1966. Architectural historian and recent addition to the AR’s editorial board Nicholas Taylor’s keynote piece, ‘The Failure of “Housing”’ (AR November 1967) set the tone for all that followed. There were pleas for reconsideration of Comprehensive Development Areas as a cure-all, while due attention to Townscape would enhance visual connections between the existing and new urban fabric. The wider repercussions of traffic planning, rehabilitation of sub-standard housing and the green belt were all topics. Then came statistically laden pieces by specialists in planning, transport, housing economics and government policy. 

April1952cover

April1952cover

Solarium of a ‘house garden’, Long Island, designed by Bernard Rudofsky, with murals by Constantino Nivola. Front cover, AR April 1952

Half of the 400,000 housing completions in the UK in 1968 were for local authorities. Almost half a century on, blind faith in housing by numbers sends a chill down the spine, especially when the country faces not just desperate shortages of supply, but multiple misfits between tenure, location and affordability. (Latest figures show just 6,550 homes in the UK were built for social rent in the year to March 2016 – the lowest number since records began. Supply has been further eroded by demolitions and the 1.87 million homes sold under Right to Buy in England since 1980.) Taylor pointed out that having razed half a million ‘slum’ houses since 1955, terraces like those in Bethnal Green, no longer overcrowded and neglected, could prove to be better quality than recent replacements. If ‘objectively’ basic amenities and Parker Morris standards (in local authority housing) were the aim, then ‘subjectively’ the focus fell on ‘architectural freedom’ and with it prescriptive solutions for those with no choice in the matter. 

A wide selection of those ‘solutions’ were illustrated, including schemes by well-regarded architects usually lauded in the AR. Taylor captioned the results, his extensive comments including reflections by two advisers, both architects, transport specialist Brian Richards and, surprisingly, Cedric Price. The first section was devoted to city regions, the second to private and new town work, and the third to London. The results were ‘collectively frightening’ despite what ‘orthodox-progressive architectural opinion’ might believe; the commentary offered a sideswipe at ‘both the neo-academic Brutalist and the Arcadian picturesque tendencies in recent school-trained architects’. There was no special pleading for Stirling and Gowan in Preston nor for Basil Spence in Glasgow where his ‘stupefying pair of disconnected twenty-storey slabs’ in Hutchesontown were part of a ‘veritable orgy’ of recent system-built tower blocks. But Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith at Park Hill, Sheffield, gain a retrospective plaudit for  ‘unquestionably the finest achievement of the ’fifties in community building, primarily because it solved the problem of access’. In Manchester, the Housing Development Group was getting the ground rules right for the future, providing ‘a basic morphology of community building to which any good architect can attach himself’. But Taylor and his adjutants were more often angry than impressed, raging at notions of the ‘Italian hill city’ or the idealised ‘mill-town’, dishonest substitutes for reality. While Arup’s ‘tower for bachelors’ in Bracknell or high-rise blocks for the elderly were admissible, ‘there can be few sights meaner or more pathetic than children of four or five finding what room they can in the upper lift halls as a playground’. (Tellingly, Ralph Erskine’s Byker redevelopment, the most convincing rebuttal of all this to be built, was already in gestation by 1967.) 

‘Landscape can ameliorate the effect (Battersea’s Winstanley Estate) but the push to increase densities leads in very different directions’

On local authority schemes in London, editorial ire flares again, much of it at the expense of the Greater London Council. Its Elgin Estate in Paddington ‘does not cease to be deplorable as an environment for family life just because, as the handout says, “the plastic panels … are amongst the largest ever made”’. Landscape can ameliorate the effect (Battersea’s Winstanley Estate) but the push to increase densities leads in very different directions. Eric Lyons’ World’s End estate off the King’s Road (still unbuilt) was far less ingenious than Darbourne & Darke’s thoughtful Lillington Street, while Thamesmead’s future phase three seemed, they thought, to be paying its dues to Habitat 67.

The vitriol of the editors was effective or at least prescient: the housing edition today reads like a catalogue of the demolished. In under 50 years, most of the projects featured in 1967 – many on formerly terraced streets obliterated in slum clearances – are gone, having been subject to a second clearout. Spence’s Hutchesontown C (‘human beings crushed by their own creation’) was detonated in 1993; the GLC’s Chantry and Hermes Point towers on the Elgin Estate came down in 1995. Stirling and Gowan’s schemes at Preston (‘humiliating’) and Runcorn were also demolished. St Mary’s in Oldham (‘a chilling aesthetic’) was demolished in 2007; Sam Bunton & Associates’ Red Road flats in Glasgow, and their ‘dark, crowded, anonymous lift halls’, followed suit in 2012. The Cumbernauld residential towers are in the process of being demolished (replaced with buildings of equally poor design). Morris Walk in Woolwich, London, described as ‘intolerably hard and mean’, is, according to local reports, being ‘left to rot’ in anticipation of demolition in six years’ time. Proposals to demolish most of Hubert Bennett’s Thamesmead were approved in November 2016, with chaotic plans for a series of high-rise replacements.

Thecityregions1967

Thecityregions1967

Hutchesontown-Gorbals, Glasgow in ‘The City Regions’, AR November 1967

In contrast, schemes awarded even faint praise in the issue have been ‘saved’: Park Hill was renovated into luxury flats, commended by Peter Blundell Jones for showing that ‘reinterpretation need not be compromise’. The Bracknell flats by Arup were protected with a Grade-II listing in 1998. Bishopsfield in Harlow by Michael Neylan has been renovated. But there are few happy endings. Although plans for the Leek Street flats in Leeds, and Gibson Street, Longsight in Manchester, were welcomed, the former lasted less than 15 years, demolished in 1983, and Gibson Street was flattened in 1992. Both by FO Hayes, the Bonamy estate, Southwark, was demolished in 1996 and the vast North Peckham Estate in 2005.

Architects in Britain are scrutinised not only for the failed utopias of these postwar buildings but also those conceived to replace them and their complicity in the ‘social cleansing’ of tenancies – as seen in recent controversial works at London’s Elephant and Castle. In design terms, replacement buildings are often of scant better concept or construction than their predecessors – demolition is a pretext for a change of social mix, exchanging local authority housing with private flats.

‘This can be seen in a shift of focus towards the developing world, an interest in squatter settlements and indigenous and traditional dwelling patterns’

From an editorial perspective, the 1967 housing edition reads like a loss of faith and may have rebalanced the coverage in the AR towards a more international and diversified range of habitats. This can be seen in a shift of focus towards the developing world, an interest in squatter settlements and indigenous and traditional dwelling patterns, culminating in the 1985 special edition, produced under editor Peter Davey, on housing in the developing world. The tension between the architect’s divided role in designing homes for the rich and mass housing for the poor has coexisted in the AR ever since. 

AR House, the annual prize for individual houses, replaced the regular run of building studies in 2011. Video essays, more polemical, now take their place alongside reviews. Tom Wilkinson’s acerbic film on Robin Hood Gardens is a revisit, after the die was cast by its exemption from listing. Such re-examination can be revealing. For example, Vigliecca’s São Paulo housing scheme has none of the planned shops and, just three years on, public spaces are already severely degraded. Likewise, there is no sign of the shops and public buildings always intended for Alvaro Siza’s Quinta de Malaguiera. Exploration of these failed utopias is still central to criticism and fundamental in the search for a new architecture for housing and a renewed social purpose for architects.

Gillian Darley

Machine-à -habiter

Two seminal pieces, Colin Rowe’s ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’ and Le Corbusier’s ‘The Town and the House’ consider timeless, classical principles of dwelling design, set against the shock of the new. Tellingly, Le Corbusier is central to both (and perhaps his contribution makes up for the AR’s relative tardiness in acknowledging him).

The first essay, in comparing and contrasting Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta and Corb’s Villa at Garches, celebrates purity of proportion – and suggests that it is the understanding of these rules that allows for striking architectural reinvention. The latter, addressing ‘a violent re-birth’, welcomes and acknowledges the power of change.

A room of one’s own

The AR has always addressed the possibilities for modern living, guiding readers with a reassuring hand through the challenges of change – and highlighting new approaches. In the 1930s, as Oliver P Bernard pointed out in ‘A One-Room Flat of the Year 1684’, nothing about the contemporary pressures on housing (space, expense, shortages) was really new: ‘this particular idea of a self-contained, single-roomed apartment was conceived with circumspect tongue in deferential cheek’. Later, Zaha Hadid and Future Systems’ Jan Kaplicky and David

Nixon explored creative options: Hadid with the achievable goal of unlocking roof space (‘In a metropolitan condition where land is scarce and planning restrictions are severe, these elevated sites should be looked at as pieces of land’); Future Systems with a wonderfully whimsical ‘kinetic’ living unit.

032 050 ar 12 home 10

032 050 ar 12 home 10

‘A One-Room Flat of the Year 1684’ by Oliver P Bernard, AR December 1932

032 050 ar 12 home 102

032 050 ar 12 home 102

‘Roof Rights/Living in the Air’ by Zaha Hadid, Brian Ma Siy and Piers Smerin, and ‘Peanut’ by Jan Kaplicky and David Nixon, AR January 1986

Home as a project

The single house has provided rich content for the AR – and readers of the AR in mid-century years may have been surprised how often architects wrote about their own work. Rudofsky did so, as did Frederick Gibberd (on Harlow New Town); also Philip Johnson on his New Canaan house (9), where, having confessed it was ‘frankly derivative’, was acknowledged by the magazine as following a ‘praiseworthy expedient in revealing the sources of his inspiration’.

In recent years the AR House awards, and the ‘House’ issue, have become important identifiers of global trends in private house design. Winners have ranged from David Chipperfield for Fayland House to UID Architects for Cosmic in Japan – Japanese houses are frequently represented among the finalists.

032 050 ar 12 home 11

032 050 ar 12 home 11

‘House at New Canaan’, AR September 1950

Domestic detail

While broad function and form are crucial in house design, architects also pay meticulous attention to the detail and decoration – and the AR revels in this innate love of craft, colour and texture. A sample of Lucienne Day’s Provence wallpaper design was inserted inthe the pages of the AR. The block-printed wallpaper by John Line & Son formed part of the Days’ Limited Editions Collection. It was used to decorate the walls of Robin Day’s Low-Cost Room Setting in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival of Britain. 

Ozenfant’s lyrical essay on ‘Colour: The English Tradition’ in a 1937 AR Decoration supplement offered practical tips too: ‘Vivid colours of strong value are generally “unliveable with” unless they are separated with white or grey’.

032 050 ar 12 home 13

032 050 ar 12 home 13

‘Colour: The English Tradition’ by Ozenfant, AR February 1937

High rise and fall

How we live, where we live: mass housing is the perennial architectural challenge. And what is the best course of action? To aim for Utopia after the destruction of war and the desolation of squalor – or the humbler, but perhaps nobler, drive to try and create better places for people to thrive?

Too often the ’50s dreams of the superimposed housing estate came to nothing, and all within a generation.  Park Hill (19) has survived, just, and Goldfinger’s residential designs remain architectural gold. Macartney’s essay of 1917, with its emphasis on locality, still rings true.

032 050 ar 12 home 18

032 050 ar 12 home 18

‘Erno Goldfinger’ by James Dunnett, AR April 1983

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