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Lessons and limits: what the history of council housing can teach architects today

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Words:
John Boughton

What can architects learn, and unlearn, from more than a century of public housing? Author and social historian John Boughton on cost, scale, prefabrication and density

When this piece was commissioned, it was suggested I write about the lessons that past council housing schemes might hold for current practice. It was a good idea but I hesitated. First, we live in a very changed world – between 1945 and 1979, we built on average 126,000 council houses a year, now that figure is around 6-7000. That might in itself take care of some of the lessons to be drawn from the past. Secondly, are there really easy lessons? One generation’s big idea tends to get overturned by the next and that is in turn superseded. And, of course, ideas don’t exist in a vacuum; the best-laid plans are very often victims of far broader dynamics. So this is rather about lessons learnt and unlearnt, and the changing circumstances that shape the limits of what architects and planners might achieve. 

Arguably, the primary feature of past council housing was its basic overall form – the estate, a term that now carries its own baggage. These began in rather bijou form; London County Council’s Old Oak Estate in west London, begun in 1911, represents the early ideal – arts and crafts-style cottages in a landscaped setting. The housing speaks for itself but its green environs merit emphasis. The same is true of the much larger, multi-storey Churchill Gardens Estate built by Westminster City Council after World War II. Its architects, Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, then in their twenties, commissioned a former head gardener at Kew to design an unfussy but verdant environment that softened the lines of the scheme’s glass and concrete slab blocks. Its contrast with many high rise schemes of the 1960s, set all too often in bleak and barren terrain, is clear.

The arts and crafts Old Oak Estate in west London is the early ideal.
The arts and crafts Old Oak Estate in west London is the early ideal.

Building at scale

The generous financial regime of the 1919 Housing Act, embodying the wartime promise of ‘Homes for Heroes’, briefly strengthened the ideals of Old Oak but central government support was cut in 1921 in an early iteration of austerity. The laudable desire to build at scale to rehouse the many in desperate need played its own part in the declining standards of design that followed. London County Council built some 25,000 houses on the inter-war Becontree Estate, and while architects pointed out that this total comprised 91 different house types, commentators were critical of the estate’s monolithic mass and uniformity. That problem of scale might be one that contemporary architects of social housing would be pleased to share but, overall, the frustratingly obvious lesson here is that quality is not achieved on the cheap.

Becontree was also criticised for its lack of community, in contrast apparently to that found in the fetid slums it replaced, and post-war building efforts focused heavily on neighbourliness. The ‘Neighbourhood Unit’, promoted by the planner Patrick Abercrombie, proposed a more or less self-contained area with core amenities based on the catchment area of the local infant school. In the Stowlawn Estate in Bilston, West Midlands, Charles Reilly, formerly professor of architecture at the University of Liverpool, envisaged all-purpose community centres and village greens. That was scotched by the Ministry of Health and Housing on cost grounds but perhaps it was really just too fanciful. The reality is that the ‘Neighbourhood Unit’ was outdated even as it was being implemented, superseded by greater geographic mobility and new forms of socialising.

The appearance of the Nissen-Petren homes in Somerset, which were based on military huts, proved unpopular.
The appearance of the Nissen-Petren homes in Somerset, which were based on military huts, proved unpopular. Credit: John Boughton

Necessity and good intent

If changing context did for that benign form of social engineering, it will be interesting to see how that bête noire of contemporary conspiracy theorists fares, the ‘15-minute city’ – essentially a differently motivated retread of the earlier concept. The good intent and, in most eyes, pressing necessity of reform are undeniable but people’s behaviour is often resistant to drawing board visions.

Neighbourliness, rather than the grander but more amorphous idea of community perhaps, remained a goal of post-war design and planning and acquired increased salience as high-rise construction spread. Balcony-access tenement blocks were among the very first – and most common – forms of social housing. Reimagined as deck-access or as ‘streets in the sky’ in the 1950s, they were now envisaged as a means of fostering neighbourly interaction. Park Hill, Sheffield, completed in 1961, provided the initially much-admired model; other similarly motivated schemes such as Southwark’s Aylesbury Estate never enjoyed such kudos. Its long slab blocks are now being demolished in a long-drawn-out process of regeneration. 

It is, ironically, precisely the features the original architects of such schemes valued most that were later judged most problematic. As anti-social behaviour increased, the decks became seen as rat runs and escape routes for the bad actors now held, in media stereotypes at least, to populate modernist estates. The public-private mix within common areas was criticised as illegible, creating the lack of ownership (literally and figuratively) that enabled and encouraged bad behaviour. By the 1980s, the theory of ‘Defensible Space’ – that essentially reclassified the innovations of modernist estate design as, in Alice Coleman’s words, elements of ‘design disadvantage’ – ruled supreme. As another reminder of the transience and partiality of historical judgement, it’s nevertheless worth recalling the later words of one long-time Aylesbury resident who ‘knew all the neighbours’ and believed ‘you would never have got that sort of community in a row of houses as you did with the landings’.

The necessity of reform is undeniable but people’s behaviour is often resistant to drawing board visions

Sullivan House surrounded by trees on the Churchill Gardens Estate in 1962.
Sullivan House surrounded by trees on the Churchill Gardens Estate in 1962. Credit: RIBA Collections

Demand for speedy construction

But Aylesbury also suffered from its construction method – the prefabricated large panel system much in vogue in the 1960s. The quest for rapid, mechanised housing production has a long history that belies the name of its latest iteration, Modern Methods of Construction. Central government pursued non-traditional construction after both world wars, predominantly in the form of two-storey housing built using steel, concrete, sometimes timber, in various combinations. In general, they rarely achieved the cost savings hoped for; some of more unconventional appearance (such as the 1920s Nissen-Petren houses in Somerset – the clue is in the name) were deemed unattractive; too many were flawed in conception and construction. Under the 1984 Housing Defects Act 52 types of prefabricated housing were designated defective. 

The headline failure had come earlier, of course, in the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in east London in May 1968 – the victim of terribly botched large panel construction. Nevertheless, the case, particularly at a time of housing crisis, for the benefits of system building (in terms of pace and potential cost) remains seductive but history compels humility. It is hard to say we’ve ever got this right in the past. 

Contrary to appearance perhaps, Grenfell Tower – the site of more recent and unspeakable tragedy – was sturdily built by traditional methods. It was betrayed by its flammable cladding and the deregulatory and cost-cutting frenzy that licensed it. That’s at least one lesson we can readily draw – don’t build on the cheap and do embrace properly-policed building standards that prioritise public safety.

You would never have got that sort of community in a row of houses as you did with the landings

The Dunboyne Road Estate in Camden is a mix of modernist design and terraced homely living.
The Dunboyne Road Estate in Camden is a mix of modernist design and terraced homely living. Credit: RIBA Collections

Low rise’s last gasp

Grenfell was begun in 1972. By this time, high-rise blocks were already under severe scrutiny, not least for rather expensively failing to deliver the assumed higher density accommodation. ‘Low-rise, high-density’ housing became the mantra of the 1970s, seen in various forms – the long, zig-zag terraces of Richard MacCormac and Peter Jamieson’s perimeter planning in Duffryn, Newport, for example; Ted Hollamby’s intimate, brick-built, villagey estates in Lambeth; most famously, Camden’s signature-style white concrete stepped terraces. In Cressingham Gardens, Hollamby created facing front doors to encourage resident interaction. In Dunboyne Road, Camden, the borough’s stylistic prototype, Neave Brown ensured the houses were ‘in terraces as near traditional as possible’. 

This era, sadly, was something of a council housing swansong. Indeed, the idea of the estate as such is now questioned, reflecting practically the fact that councils no longer have the capacity to build at such scale but also – necessity turned into virtue – the belief in mixed communities fortuitously driven by the cross-subsidising public-private partnership and mixed development model which finances most new social housing. There was a time, of course, when progressive politicians believed council estates themselves could embody what Labour’s post-war minister of health and housing, Nye Bevan, described as ‘the living tapestry of a mixed community’.

If that idealism has passed, the opportunity now is to design thoughtfully and build well and perhaps, by default, avoid some of the errors of overweening ambition and scale that marred previous development. Many, if not most, of the best schemes of the past were architect-designed. And while we are unlikely to return to the era of the 1970s, when almost half of qualified architects worked in the public sector, it is heartening to see so many excellent architectural practices demonstrating a real commitment to designing high-quality social housing. At its best, council housing has been in the vanguard of good design and practice. That is perhaps truer today than ever as councils and housing associations across the country lead the way in building sustainable housing to mitigate the impact of the climate crisis. We can learn from the past as we look to the future. 

 

A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates by John Boughton is published by RIBA Publishing, 2022

Buy A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates from the RIBA Bookshop

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