SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 217 April 2018

Architects of council housing

Neave Brown and Ivor Smith, modernist architects and pioneers of public housing, died recently at the ages of 88 and 92 respectively. As the UK housing crisis deepens and private rents skyrocket it seems pertinent to reflect on their contribution to an architectural movement that strived for high-quality and affordable public housing for working-class people.

Having spent the majority of his childhood in the USA, Brown moved to London after the second world war to study at the Architecture Association. There he found himself with like-minded aspiring architects, such as the socialist George Finch. The destruction wrought by the war and the subsequent rebuilding programme presented an opportunity for Brown and his contemporaries to build a new and more equal society with the aim of trying to dissolve the distinction between public and private housing.

After leaving the Architecture Association, Brown worked for a number of private firms but it was in the early 1960s that, together with friends, he designed and built his first scheme of five modernist, terraced houses on Winscombe Street in Camden, northwest London. The story goes that they persuaded Camden borough council to lend them the money to buy a derelict and neglected plot of land on which to build the houses. Winscombe Street became a prototype for Brown’s later housing schemes, each low-rise and high-density, which formed part of his search for practical solutions to inner-city living that did not involve building upwards.

Camden borough’s architect at the time, Sydney Cook, was so impressed with this work that he offered Brown a position in the architecture department and his first major commission at a site in Gospel Oak. Now known as the Dunboyne Road Estate, the area was once the home of run-down Victorian houses which the planners had originally earmarked for high-rise blocks. Brown and his contemporaries, however, were ready to eschew the high-rise housing schemes that were becoming predominant across London in favour of a modernist reinvention of a low-rise traditional London terrace. In Brown’s view, tall towers were impractical for families and were having a negative effect on the London skyline.

After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Brown highlighted what he saw as the problems of using towers for social housing in an interview with Dezeen magazine: "One single staircase, two slow lifts, 20-storey building, no proper control at entry, people on very low incomes, higher rents than they could afford to pay, borrowing to live in buildings that they didn't like, decline in social patterns, increase of adolescent gangs and destruction. And we predicted all that, we knew it would happen". (High-Rise Buildings Should Only Be Used to House the Very Rich, 5 October 2017)

Before Dunboyne Road was even completed, Cook commissioned Brown to design Camden’s next housing development. This became the defining work of his career and the first post-war housing estate in Britain to be listed: Alexandra Road. On a 16-acre site right next to the mainline rail tracks that lead to Euston station, Brown’s brief was to build homes for 1,660 people and include communal open space, a tenants’ hall, shops, underground parking and a school for children with learning difficulties.

The resulting 520 dwellings are constructed in two sweeping and curving ziggurats, separated from each other by a pedestrian walkway. The homes are constructed in such a way that each has its own private outdoor space, with gardens on the lower levels and balconies on the higher ones. The design also encourages social interaction and a sense of community, often lacking from tower block living, with multiple opportunities to meet neighbours on the shared walkways and street. The care and expense of the internal fittings were unique among council housing at the time, with the central heating ingeniously built into the walls allowing for more living space in each home.

The concrete at Alexandra Road is not the rough-hewn and imposing textures of the Barbican or Ernõ Golfinger’s Balfron and Trellick towers, but more akin to that of the National Theatre. More refined and easier to get along with, the concrete has a smooth finish that shows the grain of the wood from the timber moulds into which it was poured and set on site. In an interview with the Guardian, Brown said: "Instead of violating the environment with towers and slab blocks surrounded by undefined space, we wanted to do housing that acknowledged our traditions and made a piece of city. People’s houses, front doors and gardens are part of the structure of the environment for everybody. It means you can mix classes and incomes, old and young all together in a continuous environment, where everybody gains by contact with everybody". (‘I’m Dumbfounded’… Neave Brown on Bagging an Award for the Building that Killed His Career, 6 October 2017)

Today, with the majority of homes still occupied by council tenants, Alexandra Road remains a success story for visionary architecture and a progressive council and should have become a nationwide blueprint for inner-city council housing. However, it turned out to be Brown’s last UK project and he had to fight hard to ensure that the scheme was completed.

Built between 1972 and 1978, as capitalism moved from the post-war boom into a period of crisis, there was increasing opposition to the estate from elements within Camden borough council. As Jim Callaghan’s Labour government capitulated to the International Monetary Fund and implemented huge public spending cuts, construction costs soared. From 1975 to 1979 inflation rose by almost 16% every year. Against this backdrop, Camden’s new housing director feared that they would not be able to justify spending so much money on homes for working-class people.

Even so-called ‘lefts’ such as Ken Livingstone were against the scheme. As chair of Camden’s Housing Committee in 1978, and before the estate was completed, Livingstone set up a public inquiry with the aim of finding out ‘what went wrong’ with Alexandra Road. Sadly, the inquiry signalled the end of Brown’s career in the UK – seemingly for committing the crime of designing well-planned, spacious, long-lasting and high-quality council housing for working-class people!

In Sheffield, meanwhile, Ivor Smith’s Park Hill estate had already been completed and occupied for 17 years by the time construction of Alexandra Road came to an end. Known locally as ‘Little Chicago’ the pre-war streets and slums of Park Hill had a notorious reputation for crime and poverty. Slum clearance began in the 1930s and the area became home to one of the most ambitious and comprehensive council housing developments of its time. Smith, together with Jack Lynn, was commissioned by Sheffield’s city architect, Lewis Wormersley, to design a scheme which would retain existing communities and rehouse entire streets. Like Brown’s schemes in London, Smith and Lynn were tasked with preserving the traditional terraced street.

Inspired by Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille, France, Smith and Lynn designed a radically different development to that of Brown’s but one that was equally as ingenious. Park Hill introduced the ‘streets in the sky’ to Britain by constructing a snake-like series of interconnected brutalist structures. As a result of the steep hillside site, the buildings rise from four storeys at the highest point to 13 at the lowest. This meant that a level roofline was maintained and allowed for the creation of elevated, open-air decks. These decks, wide enough for a milk float to drive down and children to play on, formed the terraced streets with each flat opening onto them.

Integrated into the scheme that provided homes for 3,000 people in 994 flats, were shops, pubs, a school, children’s play areas and communal green space. The flats were light, spacious and each had their own balcony providing wonderful views over the city. Twelve caretakers lived on the site and, when it officially opened in 1961, Park Hill became a showpiece of social housing attracting rave reviews, particularly from the working-class residents. At the time, architecture historian, Reyner Banham, said: "Park Hill seems to represent one of those rare occasions when the intention to create a certain kind of architecture happens to encounter a programme and a site that can hardly be dealt with in any other way, and the result has the clarity that only arises when aesthetic programme and functional opportunity meet and are instantly fused".

With Margaret Thatcher’s first election as prime minister in 1979 came an assault on council housing and the ideals of Brown, Smith and their contemporaries. One of Thatcher’s first acts was the introduction of the ‘right to buy’ scheme. The scheme gives secure tenants of councils and some housing associations the legal right to buy the council house they are living in at a large discount starting at 35%. Since 1980, almost two million homes have been sold under the scheme, which has led to a chronic lack of social housing, a hugely inflated house-price bubble and the social cleansing of traditional working-class communities. Furthermore, 40% of these ex-council houses are now part of the private rental sector, meaning unaffordable rents for the vast majority of mainly young people.

In his later years, when he was living in a house on the Dunboyne Road Estate he designed, Neave Brown lambasted Thatcherism and neo-liberalism for betraying the ideas of housing that were set up after the second world war and the social intentions that went with it. "Affordable housing", said Brown, "should mean it is affordable for a good lifestyle for people on minimum or low income – which is what was done when we did it".

In 1980 Thatcher also scrapped all mandatory, minimum space standards that had been applied to new public housing from the 1960s onwards. These standards were brought about by the Parker Morris Committee and its report, Homes for Today and Tomorrow. The report provided dimensions for the typical items of furniture for which the architect should allow space, and provided anthropometric data about the space needed to use furniture and move it about. While the standards only applied to public housing they also forced much higher standards on the private sector.

The past few decades have seen a dramatic decline in the fortunes of the public housing built in the 1960s and 70s. With Thatcher’s assault on the working class came deindustrialisation and rampant unemployment. As the steel industry in Sheffield collapsed, unemployment rocketed and Park Hill descended into dilapidation and soon became a no-go area. The pubs were boarded up, the play areas left neglected, and the secluded walkways became a target area for muggings and assault. Owing to the council’s failure to spend any money on maintenance and repairs, Park Hill became the embodiment of the ‘sink estate’ and came to represent all that was wrong with post-war modernist architecture.

However, despite the mistakes made at Park Hill and elsewhere, studying the ideas and designs of Neave Brown and Ivor Smith can provide lessons for socialists today. There is an alternative to profit-hungry private developers, house-builders and free-market capitalism. It’s a vision of working-class solidarity and collectivism, of building high-quality, affordable houses, and meeting the needs of the majority.

The housing crisis is deepening and capitalism is incapable of providing any solutions. As part of a comprehensive socialist housing plan, a mass programme of council house building, repair and renovation is required to meet demand. As with those schemes conceived and built by Brown and Smith, new housing should be spacious, well-planned and built to last. Minimum space standards should be reintroduced and made mandatory for all private housebuilders as well. A socialist housing plan would also impose rent controls to stop the exploitation of people at the mercy of private landlords, demand that councils impose compulsory purchase orders on empty properties so they can be used as council-run accommodation, and end the privatisation of social housing.

Matt Kilsby

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