Let our Municipal Dreams flourish once more

My first reblog and a little self-serving but I would also recommend Red Brick to anyone with an interest in contemporary housing policy. Apologies for the recent lack of original posting but normal service will be resumed shortly.

Red Brick

John Boughton’s ‘Municipal Dreams’ website was a breath of fresh air when it first appeared four or five years ago. The Government had ended direct investment in new social rented homes, the housing sector had all but given up the struggle, and the council housing finance reforms, developed by John Healey when Labour was in power but implemented by the Tories in 2011, which had offered hope for a new generation of council homes, had been undermined to the point where they had become almost worthless.

It felt like a last act of defiance when the SHOUT campaign for social housing was launched in 2014 – although things were to get worse (the 2015 Housing and Planning Act) before they started to get better. And then Grenfell changed everything.

‘Municipal Dreams’ took a different approach from the economic and political arguments that SHOUT deployed. The website started with the aim…

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Nottingham’s Council Housing by Bus and Tram

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A few weeks ago, I was in Nottingham to give a talk on my new book to the good people of Five Leaves, independent bookseller of the year in the 2018 British Book Awards.  It was a chance to meet in person some people I’ve got to know on-line and, of course, to visit the city’s fine and particularly interesting array of council housing.

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The definitive book on Nottingham’s council housing history – Chris Matthews’ Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses – has already been written so I won’t try to replicate that in this post.  You can also read the guest post by Alex Ball on this blog on Nottingham’s earliest council housing. What you’ll get here is an exploration and lots of photos – a journey undertaken principally on the number 35 bus (courtesy of Robert Howard, you’ll find an map of the route and many of its points of interest online here) with a tram ride and a fair amount of walking thrown in.

The 35 arrives regularly – every ten minutes or so – courtesy of Nottingham City Transport. It’s one of ten publicly owned bus companies in the country and is regularly voted UK Bus Operator of the Year.  (Technically, it’s run at arms-length with Transdev, a private company, owning a five percent shareholding.)   In Greater Nottingham, bus travel makes up 34 per cent of all journeys and is increasing whilst in sharp decline elsewhere. The case for public ownership and management of this public service – outlawed in the 1985 Transport Act – seems self-evident.

We’ll start at Lenton, just to the west of the city centre. The area to the south of Derby Road was once the site of the five Lenton tower blocks and a purpose-built shopping precinct replacing the shops demolished on Willoughby Street.  The 17-storey point blocks and their 480 flats were completed in 1967, system built by the Bison wall frame method.  They survived until 2014, structurally sound but poorly insulated, some in low demand. Nottingham City Homes, the arms-length management organisation in charge of the city’s council housing,  concluded their replacement better value for money than costly refurbishment.

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Palmer Court, Lenton

What you’ll see now is a brand new development. The showpiece is Palmer Court, 54 independent living apartments and winner of the 2017 Constructing Excellence LABC award for the best social housing development in the UK. I got to look inside and was very impressed by the quality of the building and facilities.

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New build in Lenton

In the surrounding streets are 88 family homes, an eclectic mix of houses, bungalows and flats. The overall total is 142 new homes, with ownership split between the City Council and Nottingham City Homes.  With around 25,000 fully managed homes, it is one of the largest in the country and, with currently almost 900 new homes planned or proposed, one of the biggest builders among them.

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The Lenton Centre

While you here, take a quick look at the Lenton Centre on Willoughby Road. It’s a social enterprise now but the Lenton Cottage Baths, as they were once known, were opened by the City Council in 1931 and originally comprised a washhouse and two sets of slipper baths, twelve for men and eight for women. The washhouse included two washing machines, innovative for the time, which could be hired by the hour.  A long proposed swimming pool, funded by the William Olds Trust, was finally added in 1966 and continues – alongside a range of other facilities – to serve a still evolving local community. (1)

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Wollaton Park aerial view (from Stanley Gale, Modern Housing Estates [1949])

Travelling east, the next stop is the Wollaton Park Estate, begun in 1926 in an interwar era when Nottingham, under City Architect Thomas Cecil Howitt, was among the foremost builders of council housing in the country in number – over 17,000 – and quality.  Wollaton Park exemplifies the garden suburb ideals of the early post-First World War period with leafy streets and cul-de-sacs radiating from Farndon Green, the attractive open space at its centre. You’ll notice two shops (one a miraculously surviving local post office) with Arts and Crafts detailing, and then, as you enter the estate proper, among the 422 homes, a local peculiarity – the Crane bungalows.

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Wollaton Park, Farndon Green

William Crane was a building trades businessman and the Conservative chair of the Council’s Housing Committee from 1919 to 1957. In the early 1920s, a time of rising costs and severe shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour, there was considerable interest in finding innovative means to build prefabricated housing, generally using concrete or steel.

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Wollaton Park, Crane bungalow

Crane’s solution was a steel frame house (nearly all the Wollaton Park examples are, in fact, bungalows) completed with walls of precast concrete. (I discussed a similar form of construction, though one of very different appearance in my recent post on Nissen-Petren houses.) He persuaded the Council to commission 1000; presumably it helped that he was chair of the Housing Committee though the homes also received the necessary imprimatur of the Ministry of Health.

Unusually also, the homes were originally built for sale; a semi-detached house could be bought for £490 on a Council mortgage with a £40 deposit and weekly payments of 14s 6d (75p). Though there don’t appear to have been any build issues with the new homes, they didn’t sell very well and only 500 were built. A large proportion of those which didn’t sell were added to the Council’s housing stock and offered for rent. (2)

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Lenton Abbey Estate, Woodside Road

Further evidence of Howitt’s influence is seen at our next port of call, the Lenton Abbey Estate straddling the tree-lined dual carriageway Woodside Road, also built in the later 1920s. Again, it’s a classic cottage suburb – all crescents, greens, avenues and closes – of very attractive appearance.

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Lenton Abbey Estate, street sign. Alan Sillitoe, the novelist and chronicler of working-class life in Nottingham, was born at no. 38 Manton Crescent in 1928.

Look out too for some early street signs of a type you’ll still see dotted around the city’s estates – a distinctive circular sign on a short single post. With all the current talk of place-making, I hope the Council will retain these and replace them appropriately when necessary.  There have been changes. Many of the homes – those not bought under Right to Buy – now have thick white thermal cladding. Somehow, the present mix of white cladding and red brick seems to work.

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Lenton Abbey Estate

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Grangewoood Road, Wollaton Vale

Back on the 35 bus, it’s a six minute hop to Grangewood Road in Wollaton Vale. The mid-1970s estate of low-rise flats was a North British Housing scheme originally envisaged as Phase II of the larger Balloon Woods development just to the north.

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Balloon Woods Estate

Rosedale Avenue, Wollaton Vale (1)

Kirkdale Close, Wollaton Vale

Crossing the railway line, you’ll see a small social housing estate built in the late 1980s, a mix of traditional brick-built bungalows and semis. It couldn’t – very purposefully, one assumes – be more different from the housing it replaced. The original Balloon Woods estate was a concrete, system-built housing estate (developed by the local authority consortium the Yorkshire Design Group) comprising some 647 flats in fourteen seven-storey and nine six-storey blocks. Completed in 1970, it lasted fourteen years.

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Bilborough Estate, Stotfield Road Tallan Newland house

Four stops on the 35 gets us to Stotfield Road.  We’re in Bilborough now which, with neighbouring Broxtowe and Aspley, contain huge swathes of council housing, begun before the Second World War and expanded massively after.  Though most of its houses now look like conventionally built post-war semis, you’ll see some surviving examples of the original and unreconstructed housing.  These homes were originally Tarran Newland prefabs.

We’ve seen how shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour impelled an examination of non-traditional methods of housebuilding after the First World War. Similar pressures, alongside even greater ambition to build at scale, were anticipated in the Second.  A Ministry of Works competition inviting designs for prefabricated construction attracted over 1400 entries.  Tarran Newlands houses comprised a concrete and steel frame with infill precast reinforced concrete panels.

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Bilborough Estate, Byley Road

Byley Road, adjacent, offers just one example of the traditional brick-built housing which predominated even as, by 1951, over 156,000 prefabricated homes had been built across the country. 

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Bilborough Estate No-Fines houses

Hop back on the bus and travel north, you get to Burnside Green where you’ll see further examples of post-war non-traditional housing.  The Wimpey No-Fines homes were built of concrete (with no fine aggregates) cast in situ. Traditional brick and blockwork and a generally rather grey weather-proofing rendering completed the building.  You’ll see a range of such homes in this area, some recently renovated but a few reflecting their more austere original appearance.

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Bilborough Estate BISF houses

You can walk the next bit onto Bracebridge Drive. You’ll see a health centre, a library and shopping parade here (still anchored by the Coop as was often the way when the new estates sprang up), and for our purposes, you’ll find various examples of yet another form of traditional hosing briefly trialled in the post-war period, the BISF house.

These were produced by the British Iron and Steel Federation to a design by Sir Frederick Gibberd.  Naturally enough, given its provenance, it’s a steel-frame house with a characteristic steel-trussed sheeting panels on the upper storey (hence the ‘tin tops’ name the homes are sometimes given.  Across Bilborough, Nottingham City Homes has added external cladding to around 450 Wimpey No-Fines and BISF houses to improve insulation and appearance.  It’s an unremarked irony of Right to Buy that if you look around estates now, it’s as often as not the socially-owned homes that are better maintained, especially when it comes to the higher costs improvements sometimes needed with certain types of building.

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Bilborough Estate, bungalows off Bracebridge Drive on prefab sites

Walk to the end of Bracebridge Drive and Monkton Drive and Staverton Road which lie off it to the south and you come to a dense network of bungalows, separated by narrow walkways. It’s a surprisingly intimate ensemble, unusual in its scale and form – and it has a simple explanation.  These are homes built to replace around 90 post-war one-storey prefabs erected as a temporary measure. Expected to last about ten years, the prefabs here weren’t demolished until the early 1980s.  Even then when they were finally cleared, their residents liked them so much that they were able to persuade the Council to replace them with the small homes you see presently, built on the existing footprint of the prefab bungalows they replaced.

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Broxtowe Estate, Whitwell Close

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Broxtowe Estate Bradfield Road

Back on the 35 and a ten minute ride takes you into Broxtowe (the Nottingham estate, not the neighbouring borough). Broxtowe was built in the 1930s to rehouse those displaced by slum clearance.  Its boxy neo-Georgian housing is a little plainer than its predecessors built in more generous times but it retains the same Garden Suburb ideals exemplified in its curving streetscapes and occasional closes and greens.  It’s now among the ten percent most deprived areas of England but the housing and estate look well-maintained and it remains to serve its founding purpose – the provision of decent, affordable housing to those who need it.

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Aspley Estate, Broxtowe Lane

Travel ten minutes by bus to the east to the Aspley Estate, over 2800 homes completed in the later 1920s, you see that earlier era and ambition in full spate with the striking Arts and Crafts-inspired gable ends and mansard roofs of some of its houses.
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Cinderhill Estate, Munford Circus

Ten minutes on, the Cinderhill Estate takes us to the 1930s and a more economical style, perhaps reflecting the impact of the Great Depression. Dulverton Vale and its solid red-brick semis provides the suburb; Munford Circus, just off it, offers some garden.

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Leonard Street rebuilt Tarran Bungalows

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Leonard Street unmodified Tarran Bungalow

Finally, on the 35, we’ll travel towards its terminus and Bulwell.  Towards the end of Cinder Hill Road, there is a series of small closes on your left and another set of bijou bungalows.  These are the late-1990s replacements of another early post-war Tarran scheme, this time prefab bungalows. Among them, on Leonard Road itself towards the end of the estate, you’ll see a few in their original state.

For all what is now their rather archaic appearance, these were once state-of-the-art homes with a ‘plumbing unit’ containing a cooker, refrigerator and sink unit. The bathroom contained a heated towel rail and the living room fire provided a form of central heating through warm air ducts into the two bedrooms. Generously supplied fitted cupboards completed this modern ensemble. (3)

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Cinderhill Walk

A short walk further on is a rather undistinguished 1970 scheme, Cinderhill Walk (part of the Crabtree Farm Estate) though the mature trees and greenery provide a pleasant environment and, no doubt, the flats themselves represent an advance on what was new and up-to-date in the late 1940s.

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Victoria Dwellings, now Park View Court

That’s the end of the bus journey.  If you’re following the route, you can take the tram from Bulwell station and alight at David Lane for a ten minute walk to Stockhill Lane. This, with the exception of two unusual tenement schemes built for Corporation employees in the 1870s (the Victoria Dwellings, now renamed Park View Court, now privately owned, remain in Bath Street).

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Stockhill Lane

The Stockhill Lane scheme was commenced in 1919, the first in the city built under the Addison’s Housing Act of that year.  The 225 semi-detached houses, some along Stockhill Lane itself, the rest grouped around a central circular green, are distinguished by their pitched roofs, prominent gables and painted pebbledash exteriors.  The privet hedges remain a characteristic feature of Nottingham’s interwar council housing.

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Hyson Green

Retrace your steps to take the tram four stops further on to Hyson Green Market. Hyson Green was another troubled 1960s council scheme. The mix of 593 flats and maisonettes was a system-built estate using Bison wall frame. Construction defects – water penetration, condensation, poor heating and soundproofing – manifested themselves early and its design – with walkways connecting the various blocks – would also be criticised as fashionable ‘defensible space’ theories blamed it for problems of crime and antisocial behaviour. The hard-to-let estate became a troubled area as it came to house disproportionately more vulnerable tenants with little choice as to where they were housed.

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Hyson Green, Braidwood Court, now The Pinnacle

The scheme was demolished in 1987, replaced by the mix of new houses and the Asda supermarket you see today.  Of the original buildings, only the 17-storey Braidwood Court remains, now in private ownership, subject to a major refurbishment in 2006 and now renamed The Pinnacle.

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Victoria Centre

Back on the tram, four more stops takes us back to the city centre and close to the Victoria Centre.  This was another unusual scheme, begun in 1967 when the Council was under Conservative control and intended to provide a modern city centre with accommodation provided above a large new shopping mall.   The accommodation element, designed by the private architect Arthur Swift, comprised 464 flats arranged in a series of conjoined towers rising at peak to 22 storeys.

These council flats were built on a 99 year lease from the shopping centre developers who purchased this prime city centre site from British Rail when they closed Nottingham’s Victoria Station. Rented as social housing, they have had special lettings policies applied for much of their lifespan, with the added irony that the flats are no longer subject to the Right to Buy due to the remaining length of the lease

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Brightmore Street

It’s a five-minute walk to the south to get to a small 1937 council scheme on Cranbrook Street and Brightmore Street off Goose Gate.  At this time, the Council was demolishing the inner-city slums and building small developments on the cleared plots. It’s a little bit of council suburbia in the heart of the city.

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Narrow Marsh slums

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Red Lion Street improvement scheme, 1923

This is more strikingly the case in the Cliff Road Estate, a ten-minute walk to the south. This was once Narrow Marsh, one of Nottingham’s most notorious areas of slum housing.  Clearance was first mooted in the Red Lion Street improvement scheme of 1923; the modified scheme you see today was built in 1934.

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Cliff Road Estate

It’s an unpretentious estate but the ambition to build these little redbrick houses with gardens in an inner-city location is impressive and made more so by their location, perched beneath the sandstone outcrop of St Mary’s cliff and the dense urban development atop and around it.

From there it was a short walk to the station and trains elsewhere.  If you’re more fortunate, you’ll have more time to explore Nottingham and I dare say there’s a few of you that won’t spend so much time looking at council housing.  For the latter, there’s plenty more to explore including the large estates to the north and east of the city which, together with those we’ve explored today, provided the over 50,000 homes which once housed almost half the city’s population.

A special thank you to Dan Lucas, strategy officer at Nottingham City Homes, for his guided tour of the new Lenton scheme and nearby estates and the guidance and detail he provided to support the visit described above.

My thanks also to Chris Matthews and Robert Howard for sharing their own local knowledge of the city and its housing.

Chris has written guides to Aspley, Broxtowe and Cinderhill and Beechdale, Bilborough and Strelley which cover many other local points of interest as well as housing.  You’ll also find Chris’s research and writing on his blog, Internetcurtains.  

Robert Howard’s own deep knowledge of Nottingham history is referenced above and his illustrated blog of a walk through Bilborough and Strelley can also be found online.

Sources

(1) Robert Howard, ‘About the Centre

(2) ‘The Crane Houses Of Wollaton Park: Simply Ahead Of Their Time?’, Lenton Times, issue 1, October 1988

(3) ‘Council’s Choice of “Prefab” Bungalow Full Description of the “Tarran” Type’, Christchurch Times, 24 February 1945 (pdf) [With thanks to Roy Hodges]

 

 

 

Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing

My apologies for not posting much on the blog recently. My book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing was published by Verso in April and things have been hectic since then. I’ve more posts in the pipeline – on Nottingham, Hull, Thetford, Liverpool and London but just need to find the time to complete the research and write them up. Guest posts from people with expertise in their local area are also still very welcome.

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In the meantime, there have been some great reviews for the book – from Lynsey Hanley in the Guardian, Rowan Moore in the Observer Hugh Pearman in the Spectator and Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times amongst others. And lots and lots of media interest – I’ve been on ‘You and Yours’ on Radio 4, on BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio London and local radio stations in Hull and Newcastle with Lancashire and Leeds forthcoming.  I also did a slot on Sky News and recorded an interview for BOOKTalk on BBC Parliament.  I’ve done talks on the book to groups in London, Manchester and Nottingham with more coming up across the country.

So that’s my excuse but, if that comes across as self-important, I want to say two things. Firstly, a big thank you to everyone who has read and supported the blog since it began over five years ago.  Your interest helped the blog succeed – it’s had over 960,000 views to date – and the book which followed would not have been possible without you.

Secondly, that welcome for the book and media interest tells us that its subject-matter is timely and important.  This reflects, I think, both a very broad concern over the current housing crisis and an increasing belief that a significant programme of public housing is needed to solve it.  People are hungry for a positive (but open-eyed) narrative of council housing which records its past achievements and testifies to its potential.

Nearly all the interviews have revolved around three key questions.

One, ‘why council housing?’  The simple answer is that the private sector has never been able or willing to supply decent affordable housing on the scale required, not in the nineteenth century, nor today.

Two, ‘what went wrong?’  I will always challenge the premise and prejudice of that question; beyond the stigmatising stereotypes, so much didn’t go wrong for so many.  But I also try to explain what did change and how, in many ways, council estates are better understood as the victim of that change rather than its agent.

Three, ‘can we build again?’  The answer, of course, is ‘yes’.  We have built huge numbers of decent council homes in the past when the country was poorer than it is at present, sometimes in periods of genuine austerity. We have the means to build; we require the political will and vision.

In an interview with Forbes Magazine, I made the economic case for a renewed programme of public housing as both an investment in our people and their well-being and as an essential part of any broader housing market. Currently, we choose to subsidise an inefficient market system and private landlordism.  Investment in secure, decent and affordable social housing would improve the lives and well-being of millions and in the longer-term, pay for itself.  In the shorter term, it might – as the tragic case of Grenfell Tower reminds us – save lives.

And that brings us back to the moral case for properly funded and resourced public housing, as compelling now as it was when the long, proud story of council housing began in the mid-nineteenth century.

Panelák Prague: Communist Social Housing in the Former Czechoslovakia, Part Two Housing the City

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I’m pleased to feature the second of two posts by Ben Austwick on Prague’s post-war public housing.  You should also read Ben’s earlier posts on the Amsterdam School, Expressionism and Experimentation and A New Model for Living.  Ben is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk and photography on Instagram @benaustwick. He’s on Twitter @benaustwickart

In part one of my essay on communist housing in Prague, I looked at prefabricated concrete construction and the central role Czechoslovakia played in its development. As the technology was refined, Czechoslovakia was able to speed up its rehousing programme, building large estates on the outskirts of its towns and cities. In part two of my essay, I will be looking at Prague’s communist housing estates.

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Krč © Ben Austwick

The first of these estates – sídlište in Czech – were built in the early 1960s. I visited two from this era, Krc in southern Prague and Malešice in the west. The five-storey blocks of Krc retain socialist realist elements that belie their age, with grand, austere classical doorways and pitched roofs with crenellated decorations. In a layout that was to become familiar, roads are kept to the rear side of the blocks with paths winding through landscaped grounds at the front. There were mature trees, planted when the blocks were constructed, so many that the open spaces felt like woodland. The blocks are painted in bright yellows and blues, with the occasional one in plain brown render, applied over the concrete panels but yet to be painted.

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Malešice © Ben Austwick

Krc was probably my favourite of the sídlište I visited, the solid, well-built blocks obviously from a more careful era than some of the later ones I saw, mature trees as tall as the buildings themselves submerging the estate in woodland, winding paths and benches sat in dappled shade. Malešice in the west was similar, five-storey blocks nestling amongst the trees, and I saw a couple of rare, raw blocks of concrete panels amongst the cladding, clean and pristine and possibly in the middle of renovation. The cladding of concrete panels in render began in the late communist era.

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Malešice © Ben Austwick

As in the West, grey concrete went out of fashion in the 1970s and there was a move away from standardisation to individualism. It started with subdued browns and burgundies, then brightly-painted balconies, moving towards brightly painted blocks in the 1980s, a process that sped up with the end of communism and the era’s reaction against anything reminiscent of that past. It is rare now to see visible concrete panels or even unpainted render, pastel blues, pinks and yellows being the most popular colours. Although not exclusively a Czechoslovakian phenomenon, as in other areas of social housing construction Czechoslovakia does seem to be a pioneer. The suburbs of Budapest are overwhelmingly grey and concrete in comparison. Relative wealth no doubt plays a part.

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Krč © Ben Austwick

The five storey blocks of Krc and Malešice are very much of their era. In the Soviet Union a massive programme of social housing construction in the 1960s built millions of flats in ’Khrushchyovka‘ (named after Khrushchev, the then leader of the Soviet Union), five-storey concrete panel blocks that still dominate the towns and cities. It is interesting that despite Czechoslovakia’s innovation in this area, in many ways ahead of the West, the Soviet Union employed a French company to build the panel factories and guide construction. The Czech economy was simply too small to take on such a gigantic programme. This shows that despite Churchill’s rhetoric of an ’Iron Curtain‘ separating the communist East and capitalist West, which unfortunately has very much informed our view of East-West relations in this period, there was considerable cooperation in solving a housing crisis that affected the whole continent. Academics and engineers in Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, France and even the United States exchanged ideas and attended each other’s conferences, and there is evidence of this cooperation everywhere. For example, the Uni-Serco temporary prefabricated bungalows that Britain built as a short-term solution to the housing crisis after World War II draw on Czechoslovakian and Scandanavian design.

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Malešice © Ben Austwick

It is in this light that we must see the rapid progress of panelák technology in the 1960s. By the latter half of the decade, giant blocks containing hundreds of units were being built. The largest, on Zelenohorská in Staré Bohnice, is 300m long with 18 entrance doors. I visited Nové Dáblice in the northern suburbs, where similar gigantic slabs stretch at right angles from an arterial road, parkland, sports pitches and community buildings filling the gaps in between.

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Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

These blocks still carry echoes of socialist-realism in their plain lines which, along with rows of chimneys for the communal heating systems, plant them firmly before the next phase of panelák building, which was to dispense with all superfluous trim. It was the logical end point of a process that had increasingly moved away from architecture into industrial design.

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Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

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Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

I visited two of communist Czechoslovakia’s later housing developments while I was in Prague. The first, Jižní Mesto on the eastern outskirts, is famous as the setting for Panelstory, Vera Chytilová’s 1980 film drama concentrating on life in a Prague sídlište. This is an important film for anyone interested in communist housing, being the only one to escape the censors while being made, although it wasn’t long before it was banned.

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Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

Panelstory focuses on community relationships with Jižní Mesto as a backdrop, but we do learn some things about the estate – that people were moved in when it was half built, having to cross building sites and climb wooden crates to get to their doors; that there was a five year waiting list for families to move in, and waiting lists to register with a doctor as amenities lagged behind housebuilding; that flats were let partly furnished, with cookers and fitted kitchens; that some of the fittings were of poor quality, with doors and windows being flimsy and unpredictable. Mainly though the themes of Panelstory are the universal ones of their time – urban alienation, the isolation and domestic drudgery of women, the anonymity of the new housing.

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Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

As the date of the film attests, Jižní Mesto was built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the high-rise building boom in the UK was over. It is vast, housing 100,000 people. Blocks are large, but not as large as the 1960s blocks of Nové Dáblice. New building techniques added plastics to the concrete, allowing for more rapid, lightweight construction, but also meaning poorer sound insulation. They are very plain, as Czech communist social housing reached an end stage of uniformity and utility. It is hard to imagine how oppressive this huge estate would be in grey concrete panels, although by the time they were built it is likely that an application of render and paint wouldn’t have been far away – although from the lessons of Panelstory, this may have taken some time to complete. The estate is now mainly painted yellow, green pale blue and salmon pink, but I saw some bare concrete panels.

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Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

On a summer morning it was quiet and empty with lawns of parched grass between the blocks – none of the mature trees of the older sídlište. I walked a small circuit westwards of Háje metro station and was surprised that the estate ended within a short distance, disappearing into woodland. Maps show that it rises again beyond this, contradicting the idea of a vast, uniform expanse. Planning was obviously a concern. Nevertheless Jižní Mesto was the least successful of the estates I visited, although that being the result of its construction in the late stages of Czech communism was contradicted by a visit to two other late 1970s-early 1980s sídlište, Nové Butovice and Hurka on the western outskirts.

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Nové Butovice © Ben Austwick

The time of day undoubtedly helped. I walked out of Nové Butovice metro station in the evening sun among commuters hurrying home to their flats, and the place felt like a busy, living community. It is also beautifully planned: the metro station opens onto a narrow plaza between commercial premises topped by panelák blocks, the striking modernist Slunecní Church in the distance, painted the same pastel blue as the paneláks.

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Nové Butovice © Ben Austwick

Between Lužiny and Hurka stations, the B line of the Prague metro crosses a valley in a stunning red tube of a viaduct, built in 1990 just after the fall of communism, briefly leaving one hillside and disappearing into another. It passes over a man-made lake surrounded by parkland, which on this summer evening was filled with families. Panelák blocks in pastel shades surround, one with the date of construction – 1979 – stencilled below the roof like the nineteenth-century buildings of the city centre.

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Hůrka © Ben Austwick

It’s here that the end of communism mingles with the architecture of the period after, not as radical a change as you might think. Investment in the far-flung concrete suburbs marks the Czech Republic’s attitude to its communist housing stock and invites comparison to the West. The communist nations of Eastern Europe were not the only ones to use system-built mass housing.  In Britain, the 1960s and 1970s saw the building of similar estates using similar construction techniques. The mixture of social and construction problems these estates suffered led to abandonment and demolition from the 1980s onward. In Prague this hasn’t happened; the sídlište have been kept and renovated.

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Nové Butovice © Ben Austwick

In Britain, there were significant construction problems in panel system housing, often the result of subcontractors cutting corners, for example not using the requisite number of bolts to tie panels. As examined in Adam Curtis’s early film The Great British Housing Disaster, the buildings were seen as beyond saving and demolition as the only answer.

28 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

Why this didn’t happen in the former Czechoslovakia could be down to a number of reasons. There is the possibility that they were better constructed, not being subject to the convoluted chain of subcontracting that allowed the corner-cutting and outright corruption seen in Britain. While the sídlište certainly had their problems, soundproofing being the most notorious, that they are still standing shows they weren’t as badly built as Britain’s were perceived to have been.

29 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

This perception is important, as the demonisation of Britain’s council estates saw some perfectly decent ones demolished along with the badly built. As still seen today, local authorities in league with property developers are often keen to redevelop social housing into something more profitable, and there can be pressure from private companies to demolish and rebuild just for the sake of it, paid as they are for doing so.

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Krč © Ben Austwick

The pressure to do this might not be as strong in the Czech Republic. It isn’t as wealthy as Britain and there may be more of a need to make do. A much bigger proportion of Czechs are housed in system-built estates – 3.1 million out of 10.5 million, in 1,165,000 apartments in 80,000 blocks – and their large scale demolition might just not be practical. Whatever the reason, Prague’s sídlište were renovated, transport links improved and new business and shopping areas built, as around Nové Butovice metro station. They followed a very different trajectory to Britain’s shunned, abandoned then demolished estates.

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Malešice © Ben Austwick

The most important legacy of this is a proliferation of cheap, good quality, well-connected housing in a large, desirable city, at odds with much of Western Europe and particularly in our opposing example, Britain. In the communist era, rents were as low as 1.6 percent of family expenses in 1958 and were never higher than 5 percent. They are still kept cheap by rent controls. Studies have shown that Czechs like their prefabricated homes, a 2001 survey finding that 64 percent of panelák residents thought their accommodation was ‘ideal‘. Even Panelstory ends on a positive note, as a woman gazes at the sun setting over the tower blocks and says she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

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Hůrka © Ben Austwick

After decades of undesirability, Prague’s panelák blocks are also becoming fashionable, something Czechs in the era of Panelstory would find very hard to believe. This is part of a phenomenon that has seen British Victorian housing, hated and demolished en masse in the post-war era, become desirable from the 1970s onwards; and good quality modernism, hated in the 1980s, become desirable in the present day. Nostalgia, historical interest, the demolition of the worst examples and the renovation of others, contribute to a phenomenon of rehabilitation so common as to seem inevitable and ubiquitous. That something so formerly hated as Prague’s mass communist housing should now be the subject of exhibitions, blogs and interior design shoots should be noted in planning and herald a less wasteful approach to regeneration.

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Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

The extraordinary scale of panelák building, and the urgency it was embarked on not just in construction but in theory, science and design can provide lessons in a new era of chronic housing shortage. Perhaps more controversially, the subservience of architecture to design could be re-examined, and ideas of mass prefabricated housing revisited using modern technology. While anonymous high-rise estates are far from the pinnacle of what is possible in architecture, decades of underinvestment have not left us in a position to be choosy, and I would certainly prefer to live in one than my insecure, substandard and overpriced privately-rented home. The political will to do this is another thing altogether – but as we have seen, it is possible.

With special thanks to Luise, Lubi, Theo and Freda

Ben Austwick is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk and photography on Instagram @benaustwick.

Bibliography

Owen Hatherley, Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015)

John Jordan, ‘Industrialised Building in Eastern Europe’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Maros Krivý, ‘Greyness and Colour Desires: the Chromatic Politics of the Panelák in Late-Socialist and Post-Socialist Czechoslovakia’, Journal of Architecture, 2015

Maros Krivý, ‘Postmodernism or Socialist Realism? The Architecture of Housing Estates in Late Socialist Czechoslovakia’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 2016

Karel Storch, ‘Stages in the Industrialisation of Building’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Jirí Voženílek, ‘Prague’s Future’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Kimberley Elman Zarecor, Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia 1945-1960 (University of Pittsburgh Press 2011)

Web

Sarah Borufka, A Look Behind the Thin Walls of Czech Panelák Apartment Buildings (2010)

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/czech-life/a-look-behind-the-thin-walls-of-czech-panelak-apartment-buildings

Benjamin Tallis, Panel Stories: Public Lies and Private Lives in Paneláks and Sídlištes (2015)

Cemented In: Prague’s Panelák Estates

Film

Vera Chytilová, Panelstory (1980)

Adam Curtis, Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster (1984)

Panelák Prague: Communist Social Housing in the Former Czechoslovakia, Part One Design and Development

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I’m pleased to feature another guest post from Ben Austwick who also contributed two fine posts on the Amsterdam School earlier in the blog, Expressionism and Experimentation and A New Model for Living.  Ben is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk  and photography on Instagram @benaustwick.  He’s on Twitter @benaustwickart

1 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

Prague survived World War Two with a rich architectural heritage. Its famous medieval centre is ringed with nineteenth-century apartment blocks, decorated in plaster reliefs, statues and ornate stonework. Art deco gems are scattered amongst them, along with examples of two rarer schools of architecture, Cubism and Constructivism. Architects from Jože Plecnik to Frank Gehry have iconic buildings here, and the city’s architecture is a major tourist draw.

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Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

However, around half of Prague’s population live in the communist-built concrete tower blocks that make up much of the city’s suburbs. Long derided and ignored, history and hindsight invite a deeper study and even appreciation some thirty years after the last ones were built. There are lessons for the present day housing crisis in their rapid planning and construction, one of Eastern European communism’s few positive legacies, and their recent rehabilitation nods to long-term trends in architecture that should be given more credence in planning and urban regeneration.

3 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

The Czechoslovakian Communist Party came to power in the 1946 free elections, winning 38 percent of the vote in the only democratic communist victory in post-war Europe. Inevitably, it consolidated its power by banning opposition parties, and by 1948 Czechoslovakia was a dictatorship. As in much of Europe, these early post-war years were marred by a chronic housing shortage. In Prague, families shared rooms in dilapidated nineteenth-century apartments, and migrant workers from the poverty-stricken countryside slept in parks and under cars in the streets. It was one of the most urgent problems facing the country.

4Krc

Krč © Ben Austwick

Czechoslovakia was an advanced industrialised nation, and the communist government inherited a sophisticated research and development complex as well as the industrial base to carry out a large-scale housebuilding programme. The Department for Cast and Prefabricated Buildings, established in Zlin in 1940, had developed a prefabricated concrete panel type of building construction – the panelák – in 1943. Further work had been stopped by war, but the communists were keen to continue research where they saw the possibility of an innovative solution to the housing crisis. The problems of cost and speed could be solved by the use of the factory production line, as they had in other industries.

5 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

Renamed the Department of Prefabricated Buildings, the department worked with the might of a nationalised building industry behind it. The first experimental buildings were built in Zlin where it was based. Three-storey housing units, with large balconies to ease the transition from the traditional house, were built using prefabricated concrete frames. Skilled builders were still needed on site to infill the frames with brick, and the units had to be held together with wire and scaffolding until the roof was put on. It was haphazard and expensive, but clearly an early stage in a process that would be refined.

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Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

Czechoslovakia wasn’t alone in researching the possibilities of prefabricated building. The field was led by France, which began construction of the world’s first housing estate of prefabricated concrete panels (later to become infamous as a Holocaust transit camp) at Drancy in 1929. The Scandinavian countries, which had a history of prefabricated wooden construction, also had programmes. There was a considerable exchange of ideas between the countries at conferences and through academic journals, despite the divide between Eastern and Western Europe.

7 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

An early Prague scheme was the 1200 unit Solidarita project of two-storey terraced houses, still standing in the suburb of Strašnice. Solidarita was influenced by developments in modern housing outside Czechoslovakia, in particular the Præstehaven estate in Aarhus, Denmark. By 1949 Czechoslovakia had developed standard requirements for floor area and living space, which translated into standardisation of materials such as concrete panels and fittings to be mass produced in factories. These two-storey terraces are typical of early, experimental prefabricated concrete housing, as structural issues were tested and monitored.

8 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

The development of prefabricated housing signalled a move away from architecture into design, something earlier modernist movements such as Bauhaus had aimed for but never quite achieved. The need to build rapidly at low cost led logically to the development of standardised, interchangeable parts that could be manufactured on production lines. Everything from brick sizes to the socialist-realist decorations that can be seen on some of the earliest blocks was standardised.

9 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

The Minister of Building Industry, Emanuel Šlechta had lived in the United States in the 1920s and was a specialist in mass production, having studied Fordism and Taylorism – pioneering time-and-motion theories that gave rise to the production line and the space-saving kitchen – and seen their application in industry. As material innovations were made, so were organisational ones. A flow construction technique was developed, where workers were given repetitive tasks in a moving assembly line from the factory all the way to the construction site – a precursor of the now ubiquitous just-in-time stock control method developed in Japan in the 1960s. Investment in new housing was high and considerable support was given to research and development. These innovations were concerned with the scale of the housing crisis and possible long-term savings more than short-term cost, and the need to house large amounts of people quickly.

10 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

These developments culminated in the BA system, named after Bratislava, where it was developed by Vladimír Karfík. Pre-stressed concrete frames were infilled with lightweight, reinforced concrete panels, fastened together with steel bolts. Weight was supported by the exterior walls, allowing for flexible floor space with no load-bearing internal walls, developed so the system could be used in industrial buildings as well as housing. The BA system was a breakthrough in the development of prefabricated housing, and can be considered the first true panelák system. It rapidly led to a boom in housing construction.

11 U Prefy

771 U Prefy © Ben Austwick

The first panelák block was built at 771 U Prefy, in Dáblice on the outskirts of Prague. It is easily missed, an unassuming building in a village separated from the suburbs by a couple of miles of country roads. Like most of Prague’s paneláks, the once visible concrete panels are concealed by recently applied render and a coat of brightly coloured paint, and it would be unremarkable but for the decorative roof details and the classical forms of the windows and doors. But unremarkable is a feature of panelák architecture, which was to eschew any decoration and individualism in later years, focused solely on the need to house people.

12 U Prefy

771 U Prefy © Ben Austwick

This early building is small, just three stories high and the size of a large house. Blocks like this were built as infill in the centre of Czechoslovakian cities, an ad hoc approach that suited a still developing technology. I didn’t see any in central Prague, a compact inner city that escaped wartime bombing. Any that were built may have been lost to post-communist redevelopment.

We have to go forward a few years and a few miles out into the suburbs for the next examples of panelák architecture. These are the sídlište, the estates that grew around Prague as panelák technology improved. I will be visiting these in part two.

With special thanks to Luise, Lubi, Theo and Freda

Bibliography

Owen Hatherley, Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015)

John Jordan, ‘Industrialised Building in Eastern Europe’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Maros Krivý, ‘Greyness and Colour Desires: the Chromatic Politics of the Panelák in Late-Socialist and Post-Socialist Czechoslovakia’, Journal of Architecture, 2015

Maros Krivý, ‘Postmodernism or Socialist Realism? The Architecture of Housing Estates in Late Socialist Czechoslovakia’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 2016

Karel Storch, ‘Stages in the Industrialisation of Building’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Jirí Voženílek, ‘Prague’s Future’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Kimberley Elman Zarecor, Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia 1945-1960 (University of Pittsburgh Press 2011)

Web

Sarah Borufka, A Look Behind the Thin Walls of Czech Panelák Apartment Buildings (2010)

Benjamin Tallis, Panel Stories: Public Lies and Private Lives in Paneláks and Sídlištes (2015)

Cemented In: Prague’s Panelák Estates

Film

Vera Chytilová, Panelstory (1980)

Adam Curtis, Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster (1984)

Nissen-Petren Houses: ‘Not obnoxious and the people would be delighted to pay an economic rent’

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If you’ve travelled along the A303 in Somerset, you may have noticed, like many thousands of others since the mid-1920s, a rather strange sight to the north of the village of West Camel. Amidst the green rolling English countryside, four chimneyed semi-circular red roofs add a touch of rolling exoticism.  They look like a domesticated version of the army Nissen huts familiar to older generations and that, indeed, is pretty much what they are. This is their story; the story of one of the most unusual attempts to provide the cheap and decent council housing our country has needed.

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West Camel

The four pairs of semi-detached homes in West Camel were erected in 1925. Their prototype was developed by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen of the 29th Company Royal Engineers some nine years earlier in April 1916 in the midst of the Great War whose execution demanded such economic and easily assembled buildings to house its personnel and services on an enormous scale.  Production began four months later and by war’s end some 100,000 of these eponymous Nissen huts had been erected. (1)

The end of the war saw an unprecedented commitment to provide ‘homes for heroes’ for those whose sacrifice had secured victory but the idealism and financial generosity of the 1919 Housing Act was short-lived – quashed by austerity measures imposed in 1921. And while new Housing Acts passed in 1923 and 1924 were intended to boost council housing, shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour continued to hinder its construction.  The search for new cheaper and labour-efficient methods was on and in 1925 the Ministry of Health (also responsible for housing) allocated £34,000 to support the building of demonstration homes using non-traditional methods in 86 local authorities across the country. (2)

Ten councils were already pioneering such efforts.  A bewildering variety of systems was on offer though broadly differentiated by those using steel, timber or pre-cast concrete factory-made components for on-site assembly and those using pre-cast or in-situ concrete components manufactured on-site.  (3)

The Somerset houses were designed by John Petter and Percy J Warren, a local architectural practice appointed Borough Architects to Yeovil Town Council in 1911.  The obvious debt to Nissen was acknowledged in their formation of Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd – a company established to market their new design to local authorities – with Nissen on the board of directors, alongside Sir Ernest Petter, a Yeovil industrialist and founder of Westland.  (Petren was a compound of Petter and Warren as you’ve probably worked out.)

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Times advert, 7 April 1925

These were steel-framed houses, obviously so given their dominant feature – the semi-circular steel ribbed roof (covered with ‘Robertsons’ Asbestos Protected Metal’) bolted on to concrete foundations – with, in this first iteration, pre-cast concrete cavity walls. The company’s advert in The Times proclaims the advantages of this revolutionary and unusual design – it required only half the skilled labour needed to build traditional brick-built homes and could be erected in half the time.  Another benefit: the early erection of the roof enabled ‘the work of filling in the walls and building the fireplaces and chimney backs to be proceeded with independently of weather conditions’. The estimated cost of construction, at £350, was reckoned £100 less than that of traditional housing. (4)

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Goldcroft, Yeovil

The first two of the Nissen-Petren houses, commissioned by Yeovil Town Council, were erected on Goldcroft in the town in 1925 and the Council’s pride in its pioneering role was amplified when it was visited ‘by a large and distinguished company’ including ‘representatives of the War Office, the Air Ministry, various municipalities and members of the London Press’ in March. The delegation was conveyed by car to the Borough Restaurant where it was addressed by Sir Ernest Petter who stated his hope that the experimental houses ‘would prove to be the solution of the housing problem of the country’. (5)

There were cavils about the appearance of the new homes (to which we’ll return) but these were swept aside by the Mayor:

when the model of the new houses was first shown to the Council many of them were not enamoured of them but they felt that there was something far more important in Yeovil than mere outward appearance of the houses.  The great problem which confronted the local authorities today was to build a house, the rent of which the ordinary wage-earner could afford to pay.

In those terms, their estimated rents – at 5s (25p) a week plus rates and reckoned to be well within the reach of the average working man – were a critical advantage.

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Howell Hill, West Camel

The same point was argued strongly by the chairman of Yeovil Rural District Council, JG Vaux, and, given the low wages of the rural working class, was judged even more important. (Yeovil Town Council was an urban district council; the surrounding countryside was administered by its rural counterpart):

Whatever their appearance, they were better than some of the brick hovels existing today.  If they could put up 200 of these houses they would be able to demolish some of the hovels in their district. He believed that with regard to the dome-shaped roofs they had been just a little prejudiced against them and that if a number were erected away from the brick houses that people would soon get used to them.

The semi-detached Goldcroft houses were non-parlour homes with a living room, bedroom, scullery, bathroom, larder and coal store on the ground floor and two bedrooms and two box-rooms on the upper floor. Despite this rather unconventional layout, they were judged (by one observer at least) as ‘cosy and comfortable’:

The rooms are wide and airy, being well lit and properly ventilated. It would seem to the layman that the new roof far from restricting inside space, has allowed of more room.

Later, the tenants themselves were said to be ‘very satisfied with the accommodation provided’. (6)

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Higher Bullen, Barwick

This then was an optimistic period for the promoters of Nissen-Petren housing in a context where they appeared to offer a genuine solution to a very real need.  Yeovil Rural District Council followed up its initial interest with a decision in April to invite tenders for six Nissen-Petren parlour houses in Barwick, four (two parlour and two non-parlour) in South Petherton and six non-parlour in West Camel. But only after a ‘heated discussion’.  One member had declared himself personally ‘very much against these things’ (‘I call them “things”’) and there were allegations of water leakage in some of the houses built to date. (7)

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Fairhouse Road, Barwick

A compromise ensued in the next meeting in which the Council agreed to proceed only where desired by the local parish councils.  Some remained enthusiastic. Barwick ‘urged the erection of houses in that district with the utmost speed’, knowing that ‘it was impossible for an agricultural labourer to pay a rent of 8s or 9s a week’ that traditional homes cost. West Camel now asked for eight Nissen-Petren homes and South Petherton said it could take more. But Montacute refused them and, one month later, Ash requested brick or stone houses in preference to Nissen-Petren. (8)

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Ryme Intrinseca

A pair of Nissen-Petren houses was also built in the beautifully named north Dorset village of Ryme Intrinseca –  it features in a John Betjeman poem – by (I assume) Sherborne Rural District Council but clearly taking its inspiration from Yeovil six miles to the north.  In their idyllic setting, Lilac Cottage and the Lilacs look quite bucolic and the facing of the concrete cavity walls has a patina of age not dissimilar to that of adjacent cottages in local stone.

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Frog Lane, Bampton (Google Streetview)

Interest in the new homes had spread further, however.  Petter and Warren’s design had been worked up in conjunction with DJ Dean, the Surveyor for Bampton Urban District Council in Devon and that council built a block of three semi-detached Nissen-Petren houses in Frog Street. The British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in which the Palace of Engineering (overseen by Sir Ernest Petter) featured seven prototype new homes including a model of the Nissen-Petren houses, was still running and the locals apparently nicknamed them Wembley Terrace, a name which has stuck unofficially. (Or perhaps, more likely, it was a reference to the twin domes of the then new Wembley Stadium.)

A subcommittee of the adjacent Tiverton Rural District Council visited Yeovil and returned ‘favourably impressed’ though Mr New, the chair of the Council, felt it incumbent to ask ‘the members to set aside prejudice’ – ‘the houses were not obnoxious and the people would be delighted to occupy them and pay an economic rent’.  That might sound a little like damning with faint praise but a tender for 16 Nissen-Petren houses in Uffculme was accepted for a contract price of £5000 in December 1925.

At £312 each, that was low but problems of water percolation were reported in the new homes in the course of erection in 1927. (9)  The local contractors erecting them stated that had followed the specifications set by the Nissen-Petren Company (to whom they paid royalties) and the Company claimed this was the first time they had had a complaint (though, as we’ve seen, water seepage was reported in the Yeovil Rural District). Presumably, a damp course inserted took care of the immediate problems but the houses themselves have, to the best of my knowledge, subsequently been demolished.

Queenborough

Edward Road, Queenborough (Google Streetview)

Meanwhile, councils beyond the West Country were expressing an interest in the potential of the new homes. Ipswich appears not to have taken this further but a delegation of two councillors and the Borough Surveyor from Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey (who had visited Yeovil in May 1925) were, having investigated a number of other options, keen to proceed.  It was agreed to build three semi-detached ‘specimen houses’ on Edward Road, numbers 6-8 and 10-12 as parlour houses, and 2-4 as non-parlour. On this occasion the external walls were constructed of roughcast brickwork. (10)

The final authority to investigate the Nissen-Petren houses was Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex where an initial tender was accepted for homes on the Sidley estate and a further tender for 36 homes in the new Buxton Drive housing scheme in July 1927.  A final tender from Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd – but not the lowest – was received in September 1928.

By this time, things were going downhill for the enterprise.   The final bill for the Goldcroft houses in Yeovil was received in September 1925 and came to the grand total of £1028 – over £513 per house and more expensive than conventionally built homes of the time.  The architects waived their fees and the builder accepted a £100 loss but – despite reassurances that costs would be lower in larger future schemes with consequent economies of scale – that was essentially the end of the experiment.  The Council congratulated itself on its initiative but licked its wounds. (11)

Nissen-Petren Houses Ltd was wound up in September 1928 and a bankruptcy notice issued in 1930. (12)  I’m not clear that any of the Bexhill houses were built – I can find no further record of them. Does anyone know?

That is almost the end of the story so far as Nissen housing in Yeovil is concerned but for two quirky codas.  In 1946, in the midst of an unprecedented housing shortage, a wave of squatting spread like wildfire across the country. By October an estimated 1038 military camps had been commandeered as emergency homes by almost 40,000 activists.  Two of these unlikely radicals were – as named by contemporary press reports – Mrs Frank Ward (her husband was a dustman for Yeovil Town Council) and Mrs Kenneth Bowley (whose husband was serving with the RAF in Egypt); each had a three-year old child. They jointly occupied ‘the better of two Nissen huts off Eliott’s Drive’, a local site for barrage balloons, cleaned them out, hung curtains and got the stove going. (13)

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Goldcroft, Yeovil

Finally, to return to the Nissen-Petren houses proper, many are now listed, beginning with 172 and 174 Goldcroft in Yeovil in October 1983 despite their being described at the time by local councillors fighting their preservation as ‘eyesores, abysmal and shocking’. (14) Those in Barwick, Ryme Intrinseca and Bampton are also listed; those in South Petherton had been previously demolished.  The pair in Queenborough survive without protection for the time being.  (15)

Of around 4.5m new homes built in Britain between the wars, it’s estimated that not more than 250,000 were of non-traditional construction.  Most of these, despite their unconventional construction, mimicked a more or less traditional form.  The Nissen-Petren houses, of which there were around 24 in the Yeovil district and not more than 50 nationally, stand out.  Their distinctive appearance wasn’t always well liked but many survive to provide an eccentric addition to some of our towns and villages and an arresting footnote to our wider housing history.

Sources

My thanks to all those people who responded to an earlier Twitter exchange on Nissen-Petren homes.  The ‘Nissen-Petren Houses’ are also discussed by Bob Osborne in his A-to-Z of Yeovil’s History and Yeovil in Fifty Buildings.

(1) ‘FWJ McCosh, Nissen, Peter Norman (1871–1930)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (September 2004) [Subscription needed]

(2) ‘Steel Houses’, The Times, 18 June, 1925

(3) Harry Harrison, Stephen Mullin, Barry Reeves and Alan Stevens, Non-Traditional Houses. Identifying Non-Traditional Houses in the UK 1918-1975

(4) Nissen-Petren Advert, The Times, 7 April 1925 and ‘Steel Houses at Yeovil’, The Times, 11 March 1925

(5) ‘The Nissen-Petren House’, Western Chronicle, 13 March 1925. Quotations which follow are drawn from the same source.

(6) ‘Nissen Houses’, The Times, 29 May, 1925

(7) ‘The “Nissen-Petren” Houses. Heated Discussion by RDC’, Western Chronicle, 24 April 1925

(8) ‘The “Nissen-Petren” Houses’, Western Chronicle, 22 May 1925 and ‘Yeovil Rural District Council’, Western Chronicle, 17 July 1925

(9) ‘Housing in Tiverton Area’, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 1 May 1925, ‘Tiverton Rural District Council’, Western Times, 11 December 1925 and ‘Complaint Concerning New Buildings Being Erected’, Western Times, 4 February 1927

(10) Susie Barson, Jonathan Clarke, Geraint Franklin and Joanna Smith, Queenborough, Isle of Sheppey, Kent Historic Area Appraisal (Research Department Report Series no 39/2006, English Heritage)

(11) ‘The Nissen-Petren Houses Houses’, Western Chronicle, 25 September 1925

(12)  The Times, 17 August 1928 and The Times, 11 September 1930

(13) ‘Families in Army Huts. Squatters in the West Country’, Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 17 August 1946

(14) ‘Nissen Huts Not Needed’, Building Design, no 677, 17 February 1984

(15) You can read the Historic England listing details for these buildings on their website.

The Edward Woods Estate, Hammersmith, II: ‘High Rise Hope’?

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Last week’s post left the Edward Woods Estate, just a decade into its existence, in a parlous state – criticised by the Borough which built it, unloved apparently by its residents, and with the range of problems coming to seem typical of such high-rise modernist schemes.  Hammersmith and Fulham’s Director of Housing, Tony Babbage, had concluded that tenants had ‘started to reject the estate as a good place to live’. (1)

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An undated photograph taken by Bernard Selwyn © Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Archives

All pretty damning on the face of it but a reading of a tenants’ survey undertaken by the Council at this time allows more nuanced judgment. In practical terms, it shows some 66 pensioner households and around 50 with children living, contrary to declared policy, above the tenth floor in the three tower blocks. Surprisingly, however, ‘elderly people were the most satisfied with living on the estate’. They were also ‘the most likely to be happy living off the ground’ which people with families disliked because ‘they felt it was dangerous for the children’. (2)

Beyond that, ‘the main dislikes of the estate were the unreliable lifts, dirtiness, refuse chutes and the vandalism’.  But, contrary to what you may have been led to believe, people liked ‘the homes themselves, the general location and the neighbours’.

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Poynter House, 1981 © London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Archives

What they wanted was simple. A quarter wanted improved security patrols (in other words they wanted to be and to feel safe), 14 percent wanted better cleaning, and 12 percent wanted an improved repairs service.  The latter might seem a surprisingly low figure given that 40 percent of households had repairs outstanding and some 46 households had been waiting over six months for repair work to be carried out. You can draw your own conclusions but two things seem clear to me.

One, as we’ve seen in a diverse range of estates across the country, this was a period – for reasons I’ve never seen convincingly explained – when antisocial behaviour spiked. (Football hooliganism was another manifestation of the same malaise.)  In housing terms, the obvious target of blame to many seemed to be the design of the new multi-storey, modernist estates – their lack of ‘defensible space’ and ‘natural surveillance’ in the jargon of the time and the design features – decks and stairways – held to facilitate crime.  The simple fact that similar problems existed across a variety range of estates should lead us to question this widely-accepted conventional wisdom.

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Stebbing House and play area in foreground, 2017

Two, residents were not in fact railing against the design of their homes but, for the most part, against poor maintenance and upkeep. Perhaps a 1979 Daily Telegraph report exaggerated but it concluded ‘that no stair cleaning had been done for weeks’ and on the lower floors, residents were ‘forced to negotiate rubble, broken glass and kitchen rubbish’. (3)

A further look of the Director of Housing’s report allows a different reading of the Estate’s problems, rooted far less in the systemic failure of an entire model of housing provision and far more in contemporary, specific and remediable deficiencies:

The tenants at large view with dismay what has happened to the estate. They feel very strongly about the estate itself. They take the view that the estate has been allowed to deteriorate rapidly.

Public housing budgets are always constrained and were to become catastrophically so in the 1980s but it’s also clear in this earlier period that some councils were failing to invest in basic upkeep and services.

If it took a crisis for that to become obvious, it’s only fair to report that at this point the Council began to act quite radically and systematically to put things right. By the end of the year, a local management team had been set up and £350,000 committed to replacing failing rubbish chutes, upgrading lifts and a range of other remedial work.

Two years later, the Estate was included in a new central government initiative, the Priority Estates Project, intended to promote local management and tenant participation in some of the most troubled estates across the country.  In Edward Woods, this led to 528 flats being equipped with an entryphone system.  A purpose-built Neighbourhood Office was opened in Boxmoor House five years later. (4)

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Boxmoor House, 2017

The tide was turning.  Elsewhere, there was already talk of the demolition of ‘failing’ tower blocks, particularly those with structural defects.  But that for Peter Fox, Director of Housing, was a ‘sort of defeatism [he] could never contemplate’.  Ideally, he would have liked ‘to do as they do in private blocks and install concierges, carpets and potted palms’ but he had, he said, to be realistic. (5)

That was a realism perhaps imposed by class attitudes as much as those financial pressures touched on but, in fact, a concierge scheme was introduced in Stebbing House in 1989 and they’ve since become common in social housing schemes. (6)

Such innovations were largely funded by the variety of area-based initiatives promoted by central government in the era.  Finance – both Conservative governments to 1997 and the New Labour administrations subsequently cut local authority housing budgets – continued to limit what could be done and to dictate the form that regeneration took.

By 1998, it was estimated that the Estate required about ‘£7m worth of essential repairs and improvements’. Under the new financial regime and given what Stephen Burke, Hammersmith and Fulham’s deputy chair of Housing, described as ‘the prohibitively high costs of renovating Saunders House’, these could only be paid for by working with housing associations (whose funding was being boosted) and in partnership with private developers (7)

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The current estate signs shows new layout and park

By 2003, the 58 homes of Saunders House and two garage podiums were demolished in order to allow the Notting Hill Housing Trust and Copthorn Homes (a subsidiary of Countryside Properties) to build 122 new homes for rent and sale. A new public park, Norland North, financed by Section 106 money (financial support for community infrastructure paid by developers as part of the planning permission process), was opened in 2009.

In the meantime, Labour’s Decent Homes Programme had been launched in 2000 – an initiative to improve estates and catch up with an estimated £19 billion backlog of needed repairs and refurbishments nationwide.  It did not, however, provide the necessary funding to councils as such.  Hammersmith and Fulham was forced – as were many similarly placed authorities – to establish an ALMO (an arms-length management organisation) which was permitted access to necessary funds.

SN Poynter House with Boxmoor House foreground

Stebbing House with Boxmoor House in foreground, 2017

New kitchens and bathrooms in the tower blocks, extensive landscaping, redecoration, renewals and repairs across the Estate followed.  The ALMO was wound up in 2010, having served its purpose, and management brought back in-house.  New central heating systems were installed in tower block studio flats in 2011. The detail might seem trivial in itself (unless you were a beneficiary, of course) but it reminds us that continued investment maintains and fulfils the promise of decent and affordable housing which has lain at the heart of council housing since its inception.

So we’ve travelled some distance – from the promise of modernity to its dysfunctional fulfilment or, if you wish to employ some of the more colourful narrative language of the time, from dream to nightmare, utopia to dystopia.  And we’ve come through that to something far better. Perhaps the conclusions we draw on the modernist council estates of the 1960s depend more at which stop we get off (to stretch the metaphor) and whether we are prepared to continue our journey forward.

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A 3D Revit model of the estate © Terrain Surveys

The Edward Woods Estate continued that journey. The installation of new central heating in 2011 was part of a larger £16.13m low carbon refurbishment of the Estate headed by the Hammersmith and Fulham working with ECD Architects, the Breyer Group and insulation specialists Rockwool.  The scheme was closely monitored and allows us to draw much broader conclusions about the Estate in the present.

It falls within the 12 per cent of most deprived areas in the country; the proportion of people on benefits is double the national average.  It is home, disproportionately, to people from minority communities, almost one third are Black or Black British.  Some 83 percent of homes are still council rented. When asked about the Estate, almost all residents felt safe in their homes and in the area; two thirds knew and got on with their neighbours. (8) With the refurbishment complete, the proportion of residents saying their quality of life was ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ rose from 68 percent in 2011 to 78 percent in 2015. (9)

Fire damage December 2006 (c) Nico Hogg

The image of damage to Poynter House, prior to the installation of cladding, in December 2006 suggests how fire should be contained in high-rise blocks when systems are working effectively  © Nico Hogg

The refurb included the addition of thermal cladding to the tower block exteriors.  The tragedy of Grenfell Tower, which lies barely half a mile to the north, has cast a terrible shadow over such ‘improvement’ and caused Edward Woods residents severe alarm.  Fortunately, in this case, the Council could report that the cladding used – fire-resilient stone wool insulation rather than the flammable panels used at Grenfell – passed all subsequent safety tests. (10)

I think this allows us to leave the final word with the redoubtable Anne Power: (11)

Established council estates can offer decent conditions, satisfied tenants, community stability, well-maintained buildings, high density, additional infill buildings and community facilities. Edward Woods estate in Hammersmith and Fulham meets all these conditions, while housing nearly 2000 almost entirely low-income council tenants.

The refurbishment, she concluded, had provided ‘High-Rise Hope!’  Perhaps that’s a story we can tell about the longer history of the Edward Woods Estate.

Sources

My thanks to the Archives and Local Studies service of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for many of the sources used to inform this post and for permission to use the images credited. They can be contacted at archives@lbhf.gov.uk.

My thanks also to Dave Walker at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies and Archives  for permission to use images in their holdings

(1) Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, Report of the Director of Housing, Edward Woods Estate W11: Initial Assessment (December 1979)

(2) Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, Edward Woods Estate Residents Survey (1979) [Edward Woods box file, Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local Studies]

(3) ‘Lift breakdown turn flat blocks into prisons’, Daily Telegraph, 31 August 1979

(4) The Centre – Oct ‘85’ [Edward Woods box file, Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local Studies]

(5) John Young, ‘Locking the Tower Block Door’, The Times, 30 April 1981

(6) Governing London, August 10 1989 [Edward Woods box file, Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local Studies]

(7) Michael Gerrard, ‘Bulldozers to demolish blocks for £7m facelift’, The Gazette, 31 July 1998

(8) Anne Power, ‘High Rise Hope’, LSE Housing and Communities, 19 October 2012

(9) Sustainable Homes, ‘Research on impact of large estate renewal in London revealed’, Blog, 28 July, 2015

(10) The H&F response to the Grenfell Tower fire, 20 July 2017

(11) Anne Power, ‘Council estates: why demolition is anything but the solution’, LSE British Politics and Policy, 4 March 2016

The Edward Woods Estate, Hammersmith, I: ‘the problem areas of today’

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It is generally accepted that many of the model dwellings of yesterday have become the problem areas of today. Multi-storey developments were encouraged through subsidies for dwellings over a certain height. This was followed quickly by industrialised building with little or no research into tenant satisfaction and cost-in-use. Whole communities were uprooted in the process of providing the largest number of dwellings in the shortest possible time. These economies in building forms together with the basic group errors in judgment have left a huge legacy of problems for council services in the ‘80s.

That was the verdict of Tony Babbage, Director of Housing for the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, on the Edward Woods Estate in December 1979. (1)  Many, perhaps most, would endorse that view and see little to revise in it subsequently.

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An image of the estate, probably taken in the late 70s/early 80s from Frinstead House on the Silchester Estate © Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Archives

What we know – or think we know – about high-rise housing depends heavily on what we read and when we read it. Beyond that, confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret new evidence as corroboration of our existing beliefs – kicks in. An examination of the longer story of Edward Woods, the shifting perceptions surrounding it, and, above all, the lived experience and views of its residents allows us to tell a more complex and, in many ways, more positive story.  That said, I’d prefer you to read this not as a ‘defence’ of high-rise housing but as a reminder of the competing ‘truths’ which define it.

Nowadays, the Edward Woods Estate lies east of the Westfield shopping complex, just across the dual carriageway A3320.  Formerly, this was an area of railway lines and sidings and dense late-Victorian terraces. The latter were structurally sound for the most part but overcrowded, poorly maintained and lacking basic facilities.  By the late 1950s, as the national drive to clear Britain’s unfit housing took off, they were considered slums. The site was compulsorily purchased by the Metropolitan Borough of Hammersmith and largely cleared by 1961.

A decade later, policy had shifted towards the rehabilitation of such so-called ‘twilight’ areas.  Central government increasingly questioned the expense and efficacy of clearance and new build programmes; others, as we saw, had grown critical of the multi-storey estates which often replaced the inner-city terraces. The 1969 Housing Act, replacing redevelopment areas with General Improvement Areas and Housing Action Areas, confirmed this policy reversal.

Back in the early sixties, however, there were other modernising pressures in play locally. That elevated section of dual carriageway separating Westfield and the Edward Woods Estate is the West Cross Route leading to Westway, a completed fragment of the London Motorway Box planned in the 1960s.  These plans, first mooted in Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan, were intended to adapt the capital’s creaking infrastructure to the modern age of motor transport.  As public opinion turned against the cost and blight of the new urban motorways, the scheme was abandoned in 1973 but it had, in Hammersmith, provided another reason for clearance and redevelopment.

SN Looking north from Uxbridge Road 1977

Norland House and Stebbing House, 1977. The towers of the Silchester Estate lie to the far left and, in the centre (behind the road sign), Grenfell Tower © London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Archives

In the meantime, the drive towards high-rise housing was in full swing.  For Hammersmith in the early 1960s, the ‘greatest obstacle to the Slum Clearance programme [was] the difficulty experienced in finding acceptable accommodation for the families to be displaced’.  The same report spoke hopefully of new multi-storey blocks to be built in the Latimer Road (South) Clearance Area that might help solve this problem. (2)

Half a mile to the north, in the neighbouring borough of Kensington, the London County Council began the construction of the predominantly high-rise Silchester Estate in 1963 and, just to the east, the  borough itself was planning the Lancaster West Estate and Grenfell Tower.

This was the era of high-rise (even as most council housing continued to be traditional two-storey housing).  The seemingly common sense view that high-rise blocks provided greater housing density held sway and there was little appetite to re-create the congested, airless terraces. In fact, the surrounding open terrain tall blocks needed – to offset problems of shadowing and overlooking – ensured, by the prevalent people per acre metric, they offered little in the way of greater density.

Hammersmith initially proposed, at 31 storeys, two towers which would then have been the tallest residential blocks in London.  Those plans was knocked back by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government which suggested a limit of twenty storeys.  In May 1962 Hammersmith’s compromise suggestion of three 24-storey blocks and five 5-storey maisonette blocks was accepted.

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Edward Woods studies the brochure marking the estate’s official opening, 1966 © London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Archives

Construction of the lower-rise Mortimer and Swanscombe Houses began in 1964 and the first part of the estate was officially opened in December 1966 by Edward Woods, OBE, JP.  Woods had been a Hammersmith councillor for 40 years and leader of the Council from 1951. He had retired in 1964 and the naming of the Estate was taken as a fitting tribute to his many years of service. The council he had represented was itself replaced by the new Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham in the following year.

The first of the three tower blocks, Poynter House (Stebbing and Norland followed), was officially opened, again by Edward Woods, in March 1968. At 72m, these were among the tallest residential blocks in the capital. Comprising reinforced concrete frames and solid brickwork flank walls, these were not system-built and were erected by the Council’s own direct labour organisation.

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Under construction © London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Archives

The opening brochure speaks of plans for eight shops, a doctor’s surgery and a housing office also located on or around the estate and six covered car parks with space for 584 cars and children’s play areas on their top decks.  Some 814 homes were provided at an overall density of 136 people per acre which represented the London County Council’s maximum for such inner-city developments.

There’s an air of bright modernity around the whole project; the estate had: (3)

been designed to create as much space as possible and when complete the land between the blocks will be landscaped and groups of semi-mature trees planted. Between two of the twenty-four storey blocks, Poynter House and Stebbing House, an open ‘piazza’ will be provided.

Even the new flat-roofed Watneys’ pub, the Duke of Sussex opened in 1965 – ‘designed to blend architecturally with the Borough Council’s development’ – was a symbol of this optimistic futurism. (4)

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The Duke of Sussex in the foreground; the estate under construction to the rear © London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Archives

Ten years later, the mood was very different.  We’ll look at the big picture – previewed in the opening paragraph – in a second but let’s begin with some practical issues.  Firstly, crucially, the lifts didn’t work properly. Two per block, they were criticised as too small, too prone to breakdown and too susceptible to tampering. (5)

There were some structural issues – water leakage into flats from podium slabs, falling tiles and so on – and there seems to have been considerable cost-cutting in relation to the promised landscaping and play areas.  One critical observer noted only one ‘small tarmacked fenced-in area with 12 swings’ for some 500 children. The planned community centre was axed due to Council cut-backs; the top floor space of Norland House an inadequate replacement.

From southern end of Uxbridge Road 1977

The estate from the south, 1977. Note what still appears to be a temporary shop in the right foreground © London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Archives

In design terms, the dark and insecure car parking spaces had been abandoned by tenants as ‘vandalism had run rife’ and ‘badly lit areas on stairways’ were ‘inviting to muggers’.  Oscar Newman had published his critique of the larger public housing schemes in the US, Defensible Space – his concern was the lack of it – in 1972. Those criticisms were already crossing the Atlantic.

By 1979, a critical article in the Municipal Journal could conclude: (6)

By the Borough’s own admission the ‘Edward Woods Estate is monotonous to look at and its scale is oppressive’. Levels of vandalism on the estate are high. Deck access, for example, has produced the general problems of lack of security. All the underground communal garages are unused and bricked up.

The estate had ‘an air of hopelessness and decay’.

In this context, the damning verdict of the Director of Housing quoted above hardly looks misplaced.  He continued in like manner that Edward Woods was ‘not a natural community but rather a polarised population – people don’t feel part of the estate and tend to be rather suspicious of their neighbours’.  Some households, who might once found support in the ‘village atmosphere’ of less dense communities, were labelled as ‘problem families’. ‘Tenants generally’, he concluded, ‘have started to reject the estate as a good place to live’. (7)

That might seem the end of the story, and it will be for those who condemn high-rise housing in all its forms. In fact, even at the time, an opposing story-line was possible and the longer picture allows a very different narrative.  We’ll follow all this in next week’s post.

Sources

My thanks to the Archives and Local Studies service of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for many of the sources used to inform this post and for permission to use the images credited. They can be contacted at archives@lbhf.gov.uk.

My thanks also to Dave Walker at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies and Archives  for permission to use images in their holdings

(1) Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, Report of the Director of Housing, Edward Woods Estate W11: Initial Assessment (December 1979)

(2) Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the Metropolitan Borough of Hammersmith, 1961 (Wellcome Library, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972)

(3) Hammersmith Housing Committee, ‘Poynter House, Edward Woods Estate’ (March 1968)

(4) ‘The Duke of Sussex, St Ann’s Road’, Watney’s Red Barrel, October 1965 (My thanks to Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, authors of 20th Century Pub for this source.) Later renamed The Favourite, the pub was demolished in 2012 and replaced by a block of private studio flats.

(5) Kevin Withers, ‘A Comparison Made between the Lancaster West and Edward Woods Estates in West London’ (ND typescript, Kensington and Chelsea Archives). Detail in the succeeding paragraphs is drawn from the same source.

(6) ‘Vandalism: Municipal Journal Special Feature’, Municipal and Public Service Journal, 14 December 1979

(7) Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council, Report of the Director of Housing, Edward Woods Estate W11: Initial Assessment (December 1979)

Glyn Robbins, ‘There’s No Place: the American Housing Crisis and What It Means for the UK’ Book Review

Glyn Robbins, There’s No Place: the American Housing Crisis and What It Means for the UK (Red Roof, 2017)

I’m no expert on US housing – far from it – and before I started reading Glyn Robbins’ new book, I wasn’t sure what relevance American housing struggles and controversies could hold for us in the UK.  Having read this informative, wide-ranging and engaging work, I sadly conclude they are only too relevant.  His core argument – ‘trans-Atlantic housing policy is converging around a pro-business consensus that intensifies housing need and inequality’ – is powerfully justified in the pages which follow.

SN CoverThere are, of course, obvious differences between the US and the UK housing experience. In the US, public housing has never accommodated more than 5 percent of the population; in the UK, at peak in the early 1980s, that figure exceeded one-third. Whereas in the UK, public housing history essentially begins with the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act, in the US it starts in 1935 with the aptly-named First Houses on East 3rd Street, New York City.

As Robbins concludes, these first houses have ‘stood the test of time’ – home, for example, to 94 year old Mary Hladek since 1944 and credited by her son Jim as ‘providing a settled, secure environment to grow up in and “make me the person I am”’.  When President Roosevelt’s close adviser Harry Hopkins opened the homes, he declared that ‘private capital never spent a dime to build a house for a poor person’. That judgment seems as plausible now as it did then.

SN First Houses

Mary and Jim Hladek, First Houses. The sculpture was produced by artists associated with the New Deal Work Progress Administration. © Glyn Robbins

Two years later, as much a New Deal job creation programme as a housing one, the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act set the framework for the creation of public housing authorities in cities across the country. Some 3000 were established; they built around 1.2m homes.

The need to house returning ex-servicemen gave public housing a further boost after the Second World War; a 1949 Housing Act projected 810,000 new homes though, in the event, only 84,000 were built by 1951.  In a decentralised, federal system, there were significant local initiatives too such as New York State’s 1955 Mitchell-Lama programme which provided low-cost public finance for affordable housing and led to the building of 100,000 homes for people on modest incomes.

In overall terms, however, by the 1950s, ‘a far more embedded feature of US housing policy’ had kicked in – the provision of government mortgage subsidies promoting owner occupation.  Between 1940 and 1960 owner occupation in the States rose from 44 percent to 60 percent – a full ten points above comparable figures for the UK.  But where America leads, Britain often follows.

This history is covered by Robbins not merely as history but as a reminder of rival traditions and alternative policies as relevant today as they were in the past.  His book, however, is not a conventional chronological narrative; nor, intentionally, is it an academic tome.  The form is ‘to some extent … a travelogue’, organised around meetings with ‘US housing activists, advocates and experts’ and taking in many of the most important housing schemes and struggles in America. These are mostly – such is the nature of US public housing – in or around the major cities of eastern and western seaboards with Atlanta and New Orleans in the South thrown in for good measure.

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Radburn, New Jersey © The International Garden City Institute

What is lost in overall cohesion by this format is easily offset by breadth and colour.  For a newcomer to the history of US public housing and policy, it offers an accessible introduction to some of the country’s most noteworthy housing schemes. Some will be familiar: Radburn, New Jersey, for example, designed by Clarence Stein in 1929 as ‘a town for the motor age’ and inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s vision of the Garden City. Stein envisaged, in Robbins’ words, ‘a suburban arcadia with communitarian ideals’; the reality was more privatised and less socially diverse than he had hoped.

Van Corlandt Park in the Bronx, New York City, offers another significant case-study. Founded in 1927 by Abraham Kazan and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, it remains a successful and attractive non-profit cooperative of some 2500 homes.  A successor, Rochdale Village (named after Lancashire’s pioneering co-operators), was founded in Queens in 1965 under the Mitchell-Lama programme.

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Rochdale Village © Glyn Robbins

There’s Levittown too – a mass-production, white picket-fence icon of American suburbia, created by William Levitt for returning veterans (the first on Long Island, New York, in 1947) and subsidised by a state-funded mortgage programme.  It’s a potent symbol of America’s inescapably racialised housing and politics that mortgages were granted only to White Americans.

LevittownPA

Levittown, Pennsylvania (1957) © Wikimedia Commons

Public housing as such is owned and managed overwhelmingly by those city Housing Authorities founded under Wagner-Steagall.  Robbins visits a range of these – Boston, which still houses around ten percent of the city’s population; New York City, the largest with 178,000 homes (15 percent of the national total) and 400,000 residents; Jersey City (for whom he briefly interned in the 1992); Chicago and so on.  Most are massively in debt; with repairs backlogs to match.  The ‘solutions’ to this crisis – of public-private partnership and ‘mixed income’ redevelopment, rent hikes, speculative private sector development, and so on – will be wearingly familiar to many in the UK.

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A public housing scheme in Boston, Massachusetts

South Side, Chicago – famous this side of the Atlantic as the childhood home of Michelle Obama and the area her husband worked for three years as a community organiser in the 1980s – offers one, conventionally ‘notorious’, vision of US urban public housing, epitomised in the Robert Taylor Homes, completed in 1962: 4415 dwellings located in 26 gaunt 16-storey blocks stretching two miles along the State Street Corridor.

This, through the ethnic profiling applied, was ‘housing for black people’, as were many other such ‘projects’ (the term generally applied to US public housing estates).  As that community’s traditional economic and social underpinnings declined, it became very troubled.  In 2000, a Plan for Transformation was announced based on the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 1992 HOPE VI (‘Homeownership Opportunities for People Everywhere’) programme.  This aimed at replacing rented public housing with mixed tenure homes.

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The last of the Robert Taylor Homes blocks, photographed in 2005. © Kaffeeringe.de and made available through Wikimedia Commons

The last of the Robert Taylor Homes blocks was demolished in 2007.  It’s a measure of the programme’s impact that of 16,500 Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) households tracked in this ‘transformation’, only 56 percent have remained in the CHA system and, of those, some 44 percent are in receipt of housing vouchers placing them in the private rental sector.  Only one in five former CHA tenants were accepted for new mixed income housing.

The book covers a range of similar ‘regeneration’ schemes, such as Columbia Point in Boston and the A Harry Moore scheme in Jersey City alongside campaigns to defend rent controls and secure genuinely affordable homes in major private sector redevelopments across the country.  Most demonstrate similar dynamics and outcomes.

There’s no denying the problems South Side and other similar public housing schemes suffered.  In architectural and design terms, they were sometimes bleak. Even as many cried out for the genuinely affordable and secure homes they offered, they were seen by others as ‘housing of last resort’ and they were home, disproportionately, to those in severe economic or social hardship.

Critics will accuse Robbins of downplaying these problems but he is rightly, in my view, more concerned to challenge the negative stereotypes that dominate conventional wisdom and media portrayals in the US as in the UK.  As he argues:

The Projects or Estates are used to establish a narrative of political justification for their destruction. Clichés depicting ‘disaster’, ‘dependency’ and ‘delinquency’ are trailed through the media and become the stuff of common-sense understandings. A host of so-called experts are summoned to prescribe solutions to problems that are, at most, symptomatic rather than causally related. Invariably the resulting polices are informed by commercial vested interests. They rarely reflect the views of tenants themselves who are seen as incapable of making their own decisions…

He goes on to tackle the ‘mixed income’ goals also unquestioningly adopted by regeneration advocates.  He acknowledges that polarised communities are damaging to their residents – and reminds us of Aneurin Bevan’s own criticism of such ‘castrated communities’ – but he forces us too to re-examine the dynamics of such polarisation and where blame lies: with the politics that has created such division, not, as too frequently and readily assumed, with the poor themselves.

The quest for mixed income neighbourhoods, he suggests (quoting DeFilippis and Fraser) is: (1)

based on the (hegemonic) mantra that low income people are themselves the problem, and that a benevolent gentry needs to colonise their home space in order to create the conditions necessary to help the poor ‘bootstrap’ themselves into a better socioeconomic position.

This is radical, challenging stuff but anyone concerned with housing reform – either in the US or here in the UK – should take these criticisms and the questions they raise seriously.  The claims of ‘state-led gentrification’ and ‘social cleansing’ made by regeneration critics will seem overheated to some but they contain uncomfortable truths.

This returns us to the central thrust of Robbins’ analysis – that there are powerful and troubling convergences within US and UK housing policy.  The author lays these out clearly in his introductory chapter:

  1. Relentless government attacks on municipally owned rented housing as part of wider assault on public services
  2. The unchecked rise of private landlordism as part of broader advancement of private sector, profit-seeking interests
  3. Growing corporate links between US and UK housing in context of global speculative property investment
  4. Socially divided cities characterised by displacement and denigration of poor and working class people and communities
  5. The ideological promotion of housing as a commodity, not a home
Right to the City

US housing protest. Image from Right to the City and Homes for All

If all that sounds depressing the book remains an important handbook for activists fighting for, in the evocative American slogan, a ‘Right to the City’.  Robbins’ portraits of some redoubtable housing campaigners in the US – Mel King in Boston, the late Charlotte Delgado in San Francisco to name but two – are among the most powerful features of the book. His analysis of a vibrant tradition of American housing protest – stronger and more inventive than its UK counterpart in many ways – reminds us that America has more to offer than Trump and the Blackstone Group.

And, if all this sounds too radical, Glyn Robbins concludes with the conservative truism that public housing is not the enemy of owner occupation but its complement in a properly balanced housing market:

The aspiration for private home ownership need not be the enemy of non-market renting, but it will for so long as tenants are portrayed as second-class citizens, thus allowing public spending to be heavily biased in favour of the reputed moral superiority of a mortgage. A truly sustainable, balanced housing policy would recognise that we all need different types of housing at different stages in our lives.

In an era where four times as much US government funding is spent on subsidies to ‘wealthy and middle-class home owners’ and when, in the UK, of £44bn investment in housing to 2020, only £2bn is going to affordable rented social housing, this timely plea to defend working-class communities, their homes and the future of public housing is a powerful and necessary one.

To purchase the book – £10 in the UK $12 in the US – email the publishers at redroofpublishing1@gmail.com. All proceeds, after costs, will go to housing campaigns in the UK and US. 

Sources

(1) James DeFilippis and Jim Fraser, ‘Why Do We Want Mixed-Income Housing Neighbourhoods?’, Critical Urban Studies (2010)

Municipal Greenwich, Part II

We began our municipal trail in Greenwich last week although we halted at some pre-municipal social provision, the alms-houses of Queen Elizabeth College on Greenwich High Road.  Walk on a little further along the High Road and look to your right.

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West Greenwich House

Here is West Greenwich House, now a local community centre but formerly, until 1939, the Metropolitan Borough’s Town Hall. It started life, in 1877, as offices for the District Board of Works – what passed for local government in the capital until the establishment of the LCC in 1889 and the 28 metropolitan boroughs in 1900. It was designed by local architect William Wallen and, although only ‘thinly Italianate’, once looked a little grander with a clock tower, dome and portico. The photograph below captures some of that shattered glory after a V1 bombing raid on 12 July 1944. (1)

West Greenwich House blitz

West Greenwich House, July 1944. With thanks to Blitzwalkers.

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Maitland Close Estate

It faces the Maitland Close Estate which I can’t tell you much about.  It’s a post-war Greenwich estate, I think – with earlier and plainer three-storey blocks around Maitland Close itself and higher, more stylish blocks lined along the High Road.  But if anyone knows more, do let me know.

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The former Greenwich Police Station

To finish off, we’ll cut through the estate, heading back to Greenwich South Street. Head north on the latter before taking a right-hand turn along predominantly Georgian Circus Street.  At the end you reach Royal Hill and, facing you, the rear of Swanne House, a 1960s’ block of flats formerly owned by the Metropolitan Police.  It was linked to Greenwich Police Station next door fronting Burney Street, a solid modernist building of the same era now emptied and on the market.   Borough Hall and the former Town Hall lie directly opposite.

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Royal Hill: Swanne House (to left) and the Royal Hill School

Looking the other way, at the top of the hill you’ll see the imposing bulk of the Royal Hill School, designed for the London School Board by its chief architect TJ Bailey and completed in 1899. (2) It’s representative of around 400 built by the Board between its foundation in 1870 and 1904 when its functions were taken over by, who else?, the LCC.  To Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (in the person of Sherlock Holmes) they were ‘Lighthouses…Beacons of the future!’, presaging ‘the wiser, better England of the future’.  It’s served a range of educational roles over the years but it’s currently a campus of the James Woolf Primary School.

Gloucester_Circus,_Greenwich_(geograph_3997748) Chris Whippet

Gloucester Circus, south (c) Chris Whippett and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Cross over into Gloucester Circus to see, on its southern side, one of Greenwich’s showpieces – the Georgian terrace, built between 1791 and 1807 and designed by Michael Searles. It’s a shallow three-storey terrace with mansard roof, intended as one half of a grand ensemble encompassing the private gardens in the centre which remain. Searles never got to complete his grand design though plainer, though large Victorian middle-class homes were added to the north around 1840. (3)

The homes themselves, intended for large families with household staff, had declined in status by the end of the century, divided by then into tenements for poorer working-class families.  In 1975, a Borough of Greenwich housing survey designated it as Category B housing; ‘an area of continuing improvement’.  Conversely, the Council’s Meridian Estate (discussed last week) – a solid five-storey,walk-up, balcony-access tenement block – was Category A.  The survey noted that 16 of the occupants of the Circus’s self-contained flats were on the waiting list for council accommodation.  (4)

SN Gloucester Circus and Marinor Estate

Gloucester Circus: private gardens and the Maribor Estate

We can assume that ‘improvement’ did indeed continue.  A recent agent’s listing describes it as ‘one of the most exclusive and prime locations of west Greenwich’ and a six-bed property was sold as long ago as 2012 for £2.75m.  Evidence of the area’s harder times is provided by the fact that a short terrace of the later Victorian homes is owned and managed by the Beaver Housing Society, a housing association formerly part-funded by the Borough now absorbed by the behemoth London & Quadrant.

SN Maribor Estate front

The Maribor Estate

But all this, for us at least, is just the appetiser for the main item on our municipal menu – the Maribor Estate which occupies the north-western corner of the Circus – a Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich scheme completed in 1960.  Greenwich had built 1486 council homes between the wars, of which 1115 were houses.  By 1958, when post-war building was in full swing, the Borough had added 1576 new homes.  It’s a sign of the times and evidence of diminishing open land that of these only 133 were traditional two-storey houses. It’s another sign of the times – the priority given to the pressing need to accommodate those without homes – that into the late 1950s, some 1086 families were living in housing requisitioned by the Borough under emergency wartime and post-war legislation. (5)

Such land as was available for new build now required clearance but, in some cases, that had been achieved earlier by Nazi bombing.  The photograph below shows Burney Street after a V1 attack in June 1944. The Victorian County Court building (since demolished) stands front and centre; behind it lies the heavily damaged northern terrace of Gloucester Circus. (6)

Burney-Street-low-715951

Burney Street, June 1944, with thanks to Blitzwalkers

As redevelopment options came to be considered, it was concluded that it was ‘too costly and an extravagant use of space’ to rebuild the housing in its prior form: (7)

Proposals were discussed with the Royal Fine Arts Commission, and it was agreed that by keeping to the same scale as the existing buildings, and by carefully detailing the elevations, the new building could be brought into harmony with its neighbours.

The outcome was the attractive (to my eyes) six-storey block of flats and maisonettes you see today – yellow stock brick for the most part, with striking glazed stairways at each end and balcony access to the rear.

SN Maribor Burney Street

Maribor Estate, Burney Street frontage

‘Generous open space’ (in the words of the Council brochure) separates this block from its visually dissimilar partner on Burney Street. This is a starker block, grey rendered, intended to harmonise with the police station and planned comprehensive redevelopment of the Central Area.  The damaged or destroyed homes it replaced were ‘tall, narrow-fronted buildings of the later Victorian period with few pretensions to architectural merit’.

In all, the new estate, designed by the Borough Architect’s Department, comprised 16 bed-sitter flats, 37 two-bed maisonettes and one three-bed maisonette and they came with the mod cons now expected – ‘each kitchen has a ventilated larder, a dresser unit and a porcelain enamelled sink with drainer’, all flats were centrally heated, and a drying room with tumble dryer was provided in each block.  A Maternity and Child Welfare Centre was located in the Burney Street building.

Maribor plaqueIf you’re wondering about ‘Maribor’, the estate was named after the Borough’s twin town in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (this part now Slovenia) and, in fact, it was officially opened by in June 1960 by Mr Stane Knez, President of Maribor Town Council. (I found the image above of the commemorative plaque on Twitter but couldn’t locate it when I visited the estate personally.)  A few months later, Greenwich’s mayor, Cllr HA Tatman, ‘at a gay, colourful and musical ceremony, opened a new housing estate in Maribor which has been named Greenwich’.  That estate survives and, courtesy of Google Streetview, you can see it below.

Greenwiska cesta, Marbor

Greenwiška cesta, Maribor

And we’ll conclude things there.  You can find you way home in London by privatised Southeastern railways from nearby Greenwich station if you have to or take the DLR or one of the many buses run by Transport for London in the vicinity.

It had been an informal Sunday morning ramble and the mix of monuments to municipalism it threw up was diverse but each, in their way, was a testimony to the incalculable contribution local government has made to the betterment of our lives and community.

Sidney Webb commented satirically of another perambulation taken by an ‘Individualist City Councillor…along the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water’ (in those halcyon days at least). That councillor concluded thus: (8)

‘Socialism, sir,’ he will say, ‘don’t waste the time of a practical man by your fantastic absurdities. Self-help, sir, individual self-help, that’s what made our city what it is.’

We, better informed, might disagree.

Sources

(1) English Heritage, London’s Town Halls. The Architecture of Local Government from 1840 to the Present (1999) and Blitzwalkers, Wartime Greenwich & Woolwich (31 January 2014)

(2) Victorian Schools in London, 1870-1914, Royal Hill School, Greenwich (2011)

(3) The Greenwich Phantom, ‘Gloucester Circus’, 17 February 2017

(4) London Borough of Greenwich, Housing in West Greenwich: London Borough of Greenwich house condition survey. Report no. 3 (1975)

(5) Borough of Greenwich, The Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Official Guide (1958)

(6) Blitzwalkers, ‘Out of the Ruins’, 12 December 2016

(7) Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich, Maribor Greenwich (ND but c1960). The following quotations and detail are also drawn from this source.

(8) Sidney Webb, Socialism in England (1899)