Sunday, October 05, 2008

Raiding the Graveyard of Good Ideas

'The workers' flats in the centre of Liverpool, modelled, I believe, on the workers' flats in Vienna, are definitely fine buildings. But there is something ruthless and soulless about the whole business. Take, for instance, the restrictions with which you are burdened in a Corporation is a great achievement to get slum dwellers into decent houses, but it is unfortunate that, owing to the particular temper of our time, it is also considered necessary to rob them of the last vestiges of their liberty.'
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1936)

This weekend I went to the Hallfield Estate in Paddington. It was planned in 1946 by Berthold Lubetkin's Tecton group, and was built in the early 1950s under the direction of Denys Lasdun and Lindsay Drake - but the estate is (with the exception of a distinctive school) far more in Lubetkin's aesthetic than Lasdun's. It's of a piece with a sequence of housing blocks between 1938 and 1968 where Lubetkin and Tecton gradually abandon the International Style. Not at all for the hard, elegant, New Brutalism that would later seduce Lasdun (to dazzling effect), but rather for a patterned Modernist baroque of almost beaux-arts planning and surrealistically distorted features - from caryatids to organic canted balconies, from murals to puzzle-like facades, and most famously, wild Constructivist staircases that both exhilarate and intimidate. Many of them - Hallfield and three extraordinary estates in Bethnal Green - are not listed, or likely to be. Hallfield and King's Cross' Priory Green are so near to major railway stations that they have always had a certain seediness about them, but walking round Hallfield, the things that disturb about it are extraneous, non-architectural.

Especially given its cramped location, Hallfield is full of space, large trees and grasslands. It's in a strange sunken basin, no doubt as a block to the surrounding traffic noise, which for better or worse makes it an enclave, not an organic part of an area. But unlike the more intricately planned Brutalist approach, with its channels and labyrinths of pedestrian space, the flowing space is broken up by particular things doubtfully in the original plan - signs, fences and cars. Winding roads that would have wandered cleanly through the place are lined with parked cars, the parkland and gardens are fenced off and locked to all other than the residents (how many use this privilege I wonder?), and most of all, the outrageously corrupt, viciously Tory Westminster Council and their private successors have their signs all over the place, listing all the things one can and can't do here much more obstructively than in any other estate I've seen - STRICTLY PROHIBITED signs compete with the whimsical original signage designed by Drake and Lasdun. They're always there, these signs, in all social housing, but here they have an unusual barbarity and aggression, immediately making any visitor, let alone tenant, feel ill-at-ease, talked down to, patronised, under suspicion. Councils seem to like this sort of stuff. I once had the pleasure of talking to one of the architects who worked on the restoration of Priory Green (naming no names), who claimed that any proposal that kept the open, collective space - whether retaining the lack of fences, or keeping the communal heating - was instantly rejected by council representatives. Treat people like criminals, of course, and they might just act accordingly.

'Needless to say, the slum was like any other slum: filth, rottenness, evil odours possessed these dens of superfluous mankind and made them gruesome to the peering imagination. The inhabitants of course felt nothing of the sort; a room here was the only home that most of them knew or desired. The majority preferred it, on all grounds, to that offered them in a block of model lodgings not very far away; here was independence, that is to say, the liberty to be as vile as they pleased. How they came to love vileness, well that is another matter, and shall not for the present concern us'.
George Gissing, The Nether World (1889)

Yet Hallfield is clearly, especially no doubt at the right time of day and year (i.e, not a grey October afternoon), a brilliant place. The buildings and the planning are beautifully intricate and imaginative, like living in a sort of humanised, warm, Heath Robinson version of a De Stijl painting - an irregular, stylised facadism which luxury flats all over London often attempt, usually failing miserably. It sounds simplistic, but this and the other late Tecton estates fulfil something many postwar estates haughtily or cheaply ignore - a certain uniqueness and individuality, a curio value that fits the English pretension to eccentricity very neatly, without ever looking merely provincial. It was described in the early '60s by Iain Nairn as a 'graveyard of good ideas', which, entirely coincidentally, is as good a description of a hauntological approach to social democracy as you could find: grave-robbing the defunct, ransacking concepts, typologies, discarding what we don't like and emphasising what we do. Hallfield has more than a hint of both, and of the predicaments that Gissing, as a misanthrope and Orwell, as an english-sentimental socialist both diagnosed in social housing ('model housing' = Peabody philanthropy, 'Corporation' = municipal/council). This is always beneath the surface, for those of us who are, as Ben Noys so neatly puts it, 'false friends of Social Democracy', who support it to avert the apocalypse, well aware it can never usher in the kingdom of heaven.

How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, who with all their faults, are the quality of life and surely carry the seeds of all human achievement? (...) It is hard for an educated, decent, intelligent son of Western Europe to find his ideals here, unless he has first suffered some strange and horrid process of conversion which has changed all his values.
John Maynard Keynes, 1931

If (and it's a very big if) as a reaction to the visible collapse of neoliberalism, some sort of social democratic policies return here, whether via the SNP, a Cruddas-ish soft left, or wherever - we should bear in mind that its punitive, patronising, hygiene-fixated side survives, virulent in British politics, having long since shed the actively useful, humanitarian, service-providing point. You can find something like it in New Labour's obsessive discourse of 'exclusion' and their criminalisation of sections of the working class for their own good, in the side of Green politics that amounts to blaming the poor for insufficent ecological rectitude, in the Toryist obsession with 'community' and 'cohesion' as against (ahem) 'broken Britain'. In fact, for all the alleged Leninist contempt for the workers, the Far Left has, after 1968, long since abandoned this sort of nonsense. Whatever else one might say about them, you certainly can't imagine (that unimaginable thing) an SWP controlled council monitoring 'problem' families, decreeing colours of council flats' doors, or putting up signs demanding that tenants act like normal human beings. That discourse is mainstream, 'centrist', and a central plank of this government. This is why, when supporting a resurrection of his policies as Katechon, we might do well to remember exactly what Keynes thought about the proletariat.

Images from here and here.


Anonymous C Ferguson said...

Great post as always, Owen. One little niggle though: photos at appear to show that at least some of the fenced-off spaces were indeed part of the original design. That sign on the kids' playpark is seriously sinister though.

4:29 pm  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I thought this bit of the Keynes quote opened a nice Nietzschean communist possibility: "unless he has first suffered some strange and horrid process of conversion which has changed all his values." - quite a nice description of conversion to communism, which, why not, would be "strange and horrid" for a Keynes-like "educated, decent, intelligent son of Western Europe"; no wonder, when clearing out all that junk of class prejudice...

5:04 pm  
Anonymous Juvenile Dwarf said...

Spot on about Keynes (and a similar point made here, ahem ahem cough). But I don't recognise the quote - where's it from?

1:50 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Wikipedia! Ahahahaha.
More specifically, it's in the collection Essays in Persuasion.

Terribly reactionary as a head of the Arts Council too, reversing the Herbert Read/Frank Pick policy of English Constructivism...

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