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.