A Housing Vision
When I came to live in England in 1962, the welfare state, based on a notion of a common good or public realm, was well established and viewed as one of the great achievements of the Labour Party after the Second World War.
Although the welfare state was organized from the top downwards, it nevertheless provided a safety net ensuring that even the poorest would enjoy decent education, health care, housing, and other "social services." Although it has not been completely successful, it at least established a state bureaucracy with a strong concern for social welfare, which provided a degree of stability all but destroyed by the market-led philosophy of the 1980s.
For Britain, the tyranny of an unfettered market impoverishes culture and increases the fragmentation and alienation of the body politic. Turning architecture purely into a manufacturing process — fast-track design, fast-track construction — may be appropriate for motorcars but, despite the famous maxim of Le Corbusier, houses are not machines and are rarely mass-produced convincingly.
Our towns and cities have been redeveloped to give primacy to the motorcar, and the great postwar experiment to provide decent housing for everyone has been abandoned.
I grew up in west London suburbia and had friends whose families had been rehoused on the new housing estates. These consisted of more or less Corbusian slabs raised on columns, mixed with low-rise blocks in open landscaped parks. They replaced streets of Victorian terraced housing, but the job was never, and could never be, completed, creating an uneasy juxtaposition of new with old.
The utopian impulse behind Le Corbusier's "radiant city" lay in Enlightenment ideas, disregarding the specificity of place in favor of an overriding abstract ideal of unlimited space. Wide open space accessible to all does not necessarily work as "public space," whereas the street traditionally did.
The welfare state's experiments in social engineering were certainly paternalistic, but well-meaning; however, the simpleminded way in which the architectural ideas of Le Corbusier and others were adopted for rehousing the working-class and rebuilding city centers proved to be disastrously divisive socially, and have been used to discredit at least two generations of architects.
We witness the spectacle of the city turning in on itself, while the clear distinction between city and countryside has also disappeared. The public domain of the city is being steadily deregulated and privatized, and in the process society fragments and order breaks down.
The new "public" spaces of the city are privately developed and are experienced as monocultural zones. For example in the ubiquitous themed shopping malls controlled by private security guards, culture is experienced only in relation to shopping, and certain codes and conventions of dress and behavior are enforced.
The link between the realms of the individual and the civic has to be recreated for a humane society to exist. The street continues to offer a spatial matrix which challenges segregation and provides for meaningful, nonviolent cultural mixing, and new mechanisms must also be found to create public space at the point of transition between and within different worlds.
Such mechanisms need to combine beauty, grace, and authenticity with the grit and friction necessary to challenge the politics of indifference.
Pierre d'Avoine teaches at the Architectural Association and is principal of Pierre d'Avoine Architects. This excerpt is from an article originally published in the catalog to the exhibition, "In Search of Public Space: Four Architects from London," held at the de Singel Gallery, Antwerp, Belgium in 1997.
Accommodating Change, the exhibition of competition winners, was curated by Hilary French, architect and tutor at the Royal College of Art. The exhibition aims to raise awareness of new housing typologies and to renew interest in the study of urban housing design within architectural schools and the profession. The exhibition will be on view at the Architecture Foundation gallery, 30 Bury Street, London SW1 from February 22 to March 27, 2002.
The accompanying publication was edited by Hilary French and designed by Kerr/Noble. It includes essays from Jeremy Till (University of Sheffield) and Sarah Wigglesworth (Sarah Wigglesworth Architects), David Rudlin (URBED), and winning architect Peter Barber, with forewords from Donald Hoodless, chief executive of Circle 33 Housing Group and Will Alsop, chair of The Architecture Foundation. The publication is available from Cornerhouse Publications
The Architecture Foundation was established in London in 1991 as Britain's first independent architecture center. It aims to promote the importance of high quality contemporary architecture and urban design to a wide audience by encouraging public participation and celebrating the work of architects. Circle 33 Housing Group has been providing good quality housing in London and southeast England for people on low incomes for over 30 years.
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