Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Apologetic Architecture

Outside of my East Greenwich flat is a council estate that exhibits perhaps the least known architectural idiom of social housing, namely the 'We're Sorry!' style. That is, the 'vernacular' of little houses and gardens introduced by Labour councils in the 70s and 80s as a direct response to the failure of Modernism (really, the failure of their backhander-riven experiments in shoddy prefabrication the previous decade, but never mind). It's one of the better examples. The houses are as geometric and strong as much as they are homely, with a park in the middle, and the little Barratt incursions and 30s semis at the Estate's edges make the quality more obvious. There's a fine one of them near where I grew up in Southampton, called Mandela Way, in fine 80s Labour council stylee. Although it's as feared as much, if not more, than any 1960s concrete estate.

Perhaps the greatest instance of this was the house-building programme of Militant when they controlled Liverpool City Council: defying both Thatcher and Kinnock to build thousands of new Houses with Gardens, directly inspired by anti-Corbusian tracts like Utopia on Trial. Giving workers what they always said they wanted in every survey from the 20s on, rather than slotting them into a middle class Fordist Fourier fantasy. But looking at them (eg in Tony Mulhearn and Peter Taafe's book Liverpool, a City that dared to Fight) they look utterly uninspired, an astonishing failure of imagination compared with their municipal socialist precursors in Vienna, Frankfurt, or Liverpool itself, let alone Lubetkin or Goldfinger's towers. There's little other than the lack of gables and pretend pediments to mark them out from that supreme built incarnation of Thatcherism, the Barratt estate. The 'loony left' Labour councils of the 80s might be more politically impressive than their forbears, the complacent, corrupt T Dan Smith types with their aspirations to be 'Brazilia of the North', but their built legacy is sometimes barely indistinguishable from that of their most loathed enemies.

This came to mind reading this little piece about London's Coin Street housing Co-Op. In the early 80s, their Waterloo site hosted a battle between Thatcherite plutocrats and Labour leftists. But the former had as their designer the Marcuse quoting neo-Constructivist Richard Rogers (then at the height of his powers, working on Lloyds), while the latter favoured the 'vernacular'. They won, but their buildings - in red brick 'don't look at me!' style, like the base of the Oxo tower, with slightly more interesting things recently, are vastly less inspiring than their politics. They're now planning a 43 storey tower, and by filling it with offices and private flats revealing themselves as impeccably New Labour. Nonetheless, there is in this a lesson of some sort for the left aesthete. Of course, the choice of Houses and Gardens isn't even on the agenda in London right now, but still, one hopes that Defend Council Housing, would that they might win their campaign, could have an architect or two on board, a few people to throw ideas around, rather than more of the same. It doesn't have to be (though I'd love if it were) Lebbeus Woods reimagining Tower Hamlets as floating fortress, but at least something that announces that, unlike Thatcher herself with her Dulwich Barratt cottage or the disurbanists of the Thames Gateway, we don't wish it were still the 19th century.


Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

I feel dirty, but in a good way...

There is something just a bit too close to incest when you stumble across forum threads you started as links on a blog that you periodically comment on.

11:41 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

ha! I thought that might transpire...

1:40 pm  
Anonymous Fr Finton Stack said...

great post, as usual owen. there is another dimension to this however: in glasgow (i can't comment on elsewhere), there's actually a substantial overlap between the building of "apologetic" council housing and the modernist stuff. a few hundred yards away from me on the maryhill road, there are a series of blocks of flats i was amazed to learn are from the mid-70's, built in red brick, with small-scale versions of the bay window and flattened impersonations of the corner turrets that adorn the edwardian sandstone tenements nearby. A mile and a half away is the dundasvale estate, a full-on brutalist monster of 24-storey point blocks and deck access blocks, all set on a first-floor level raised podium (parking underneath), built several years later in 1978. oddly, glasgow kept building broadly modernist council housing well into the 1980's, though on a much more modest scale, in the form of vaguely scandanavian, vaguely-new town flats with mono-pitched roofs and conventional street access that can be found in the gorbals and on the wellpark estate, through their lineage is given away by the use rough-cast render, ironically placing them much more in touch with the Scottish vernacular than their tweely-decorated. siblings.

more bizarre is the late 1980's woodside road estate, literally a stone's throw from my flat, which goes full-on garden suburb, with austere yellow-brick three-story flats (looking not entire unlike some of the smithsons' private houses), laid to thirty foot un-demarcated front lawns and literally acres communal grounds to the entirely-open rear. it might not be a masterpiece of architecture or planning, but it sure beats the same number of detached Barratt boxes they could surely have fitted onto the same site.

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