Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Failed Modern Dwelling

On Saturday last I gave a paper as part of the Historical Materialism conference. It went ok I think, the panel itself was a good mix of papers. The following text is the paper I gave.


Basically what I'd like to do today is take you through the last 13 years of architecture, in particular housing, in the UK. The story of New Labour's architecture is one of pretty good ideas, achieved abysmally. I'll start off with a little bit of Thatcher, before moving onto Blairism. There will be a more or less equal focus on specific policies, intentions and material results, as well as the aesthetics and ideological aspects of the process.

To understand what has happened in the cities of the UK since 1997, we will need to at least take a brief look at the period leading up to that point.

After the massive destruction of cities in the Second World War, successive Labour and Conservative administrations took a broadly Keynesian approach to housing, whereby the welfare state engaged in large house building programmes, and housing stock was owned by local authorities and was provided mainly for rent. This was also a period where modernist urban theories were dominant, this was partly for economic reasons - building very large amounts and densities of housing with limited funds necessarily leads to a consolidatory approach, with larger single structures containing massed units. But alongside pragmatism, modernist housing was suitable partly because there was a genuine commitment to changing popular notions of what cities ought to be. Take Berthold Lubetkin's oft quoted - "Nothing is too good for ordinary people". There was a definite sense (at least in the UK) that modern architecture was a force for good, especially considering the problems of the dwellings that it generally replaced.

But of course by the late 1970s it was already clear that there were great problems in the housing practices of previous decades, from the collapse of the Ronan Point block in 1968, to the very public perceptions of 'crime ridden estates' and so on.
These problems are ideologically convoluted: some commentators to the right suggest that the very basic nature of modernist design alienates its occupants and causes social decline, crime and despair, an attitude described as architectural predeterminsism. One doesn't have wait for very long for this argument to slide into an attack on modernist design for its apparently socialist tendencies.

The arrival of Thatcher and the New Right onto the scene had a number of impacts on housing. Perhaps the most significant was the admittedly politically avant-garde policy of the 'right to buy'. Under this scheme, council tenants were encouraged to purchase their council properties at a discounted rate. The aim was partly 'positive', in the narrow sense of empowering people to become property owners, in accordance with the Tories ideological commitment to individualism, but it also had a negative aim, which was the destruction of local government. By stripping some of their most important assets, and making it impossible to replace them, the central government 'hobbled' local authorities, who famously were among the largest landlords in the world. This had further, probably undesired but deliberately ignored consequences - the right to buy was mainly exercised on council property that was already more desirable, meaning that what was left in council hands were often the lowest quality buildings, a process which further worsened the problems of council estates, both actual and perceived.

This accelerated decline in council-owned property was exacerbated by the suburban focus of the Thatcher years - the relaxed planning laws and generally light-regulation meant that most new house building was suburban, made of cul-de-sacs and 'noddy houses', linked by private transport to the new phenomenon of the out-of-town retail park. The Thatcherite period saw the wholesale adoption of the architectural mode known as postmodernism, which although first practiced by left-leaning architects concerned with the 'elitism' of high-modernism, was an almost perfect reflection of the way 80s Tories mixed radical economics with social conservatism. Postmodern architecture is generally playful, ironic and kitsch. It has no interest in 'new' form or progression, content merely to play around with well understood visual tropes.

Meanwhile, British industry was allowed, encouraged & forced into terminal decline, which along with the process of containerisation that had begun in the 1960s led to there being large areas of the inner cities lying derelict and empty.

The election of the Blair government was accompanied with great optimism in the architectural field - instead of the retreat to suburbia and the attendant vulgarity of post-modern architectural aesthetics, there was now an opportunity to treat cities properly, as befitting a genuinely modern country.
One of the main intellectual figures in this optimism was Richard Rogers, who originally worked with Norman Foster in the 1970s. Back then they were radical modernist architects interested in engineering, systems and infrastructure, and the work that they created became known as 'British Hi-tech'. Unsuccessful throughout much of the 70s and 80s, since the 90s their style has become the corporate architecture of choice around the world, replacing the historicist pomo style previously mentioned. The parallels between the political and aesthetic choices of big business over this period are rather blatant, but somewhat outside my remit here.

Where Foster is an apolitical technocrat, Rogers is the quintessential kind-of-leftist bourgeois. In the 80s he designed a speculative project entitled 'London As It Could Be', which was a politicised criticism of the piecemeal developer led building boom going on at the time. An enthusiast for planned development for the benefit of the people, his highly public pronouncements - such as 'Cities for a Small Planet', his Reith lectures of 1995, got him the ear of the Labour Party, and in 1999 he was drafted in to create the Urban Task Force, who published a white paper entitled 'Towards an Urban Renaissance'. This document set out a vision for cities that were dense and compact, making use of brownfield (i.e. previously built upon) land, that were environmentally and economically sustainable, well designed, and filled with public infrastructure such as parks, squares and transport. Buildings were to be mixed-use and mixed-tenure, with commercial and residential properly mixed, and neighbourhoods that were not homogenous in terms of class, culture etc… The state was to be intimately involved in this, providing subsidy, guidance and, importantly, planning to achieve these goals..

Unfortunately, despite these grand and noble aims, what has happened to the cities over the last 13 years has been mostly a failure. Although (and it may be argued that this was genuine) New Labour professed great concern about urban improvement, their chosen course of action, namely encouraging the private sector, often through substantial subsidy, to enact regeneration has not had the desired effect at all.

In behaviour that will most likely be entirely familiar to you, Labour created all sorts of peripheral organisations, partnerships, pathfinders, initiatives, agencies, what have you, in order to try to counter what they referred to slightly euphemistically as 'social exclusion'. Unfortunately, rather than any genuine redistribution or state handled building programme (which was of course desperately needed), the Tory designed PFI and PPP systems of procurement were intensified, leading to some of the most piss-poor architecture for public, state and civic functions that we've ever had, whether it be hospitals, schools or prisons.
In the housing sector, again it was left mostly up to the market. Labour's deference towards the wealthy meant that property developers have had an absolute riot over the last ten years. On the one hand, it is very true that since the mid-1990s there has been a population influx into the cities - in almost every city in the UK the city centre populations have increased by many hundreds of percent, most notably in Manchester, which of course was heavily bombed by the IRA and was almost completely unoccupied. This, in some sense, is a success.

But this success requires a very selective view of its goals. The urban regeneration of the last 13 years has been what has been described by Jonathan Meades as 'the Brandwagon'. This describes the sudden apparent revival of post-industrial land in inner cities and by riversides, areas often previously used by shipbuilding and other heavy industry, and thus mostly destroyed during the Thatcherite period. Often this process begins with the construction of a large cultural building, for example the Guggenheim Museum built in Bilbao by Frank Gehry in 1997, which according to disciples of the process acts as a catalyst for the regeneration of the surrounding area. In the UK, the signature building as regeneration catalyst has often resulted in half-hearted designs from famous architects, vapidly signifying something or other about the supposed history of the location. This then swiftly becomes surrounded by new speculative apartment buildings. However in many respects these buildings are worse than they were during the reviled post-war period. They are universally small - often worse than the Parker Morris standards that governed house building from the late 1960s. As far as design is concerned, this has been almost uniformly terrible, a shiny, plasticky, "FUN" embodiment of early-new labour values, modernism without anything that might upset the 'Mondeo Man'. Although concrete - with its ideologically loaded aesthetic - has been mostly off the menu for the external skins of recent housing buildings, the materials that they are clad in are often of the most flimsy and short-lived, and it will be interesting to watch as the bet-hedging architecture of the last ten years becomes filthy and drab. The aesthetic is one of boosterism rather than any genuine commitment to the troubled areas that these buildings were actually erected within.

And of course many of the properties were bought as investments, buy-to-let and so on - a soufflé economy. When the crash occurred a vast amount of new housing was unoccupied, and large amounts of it remain so even now.
But it gets even worse. Labour made little to no attempt to push money into social housing. The nearest thing that we got were gently nudges such as 'key worker housing' or even 'affordable housing quotas', which was an attempt to legislate with developers that their luxury apartments had to offer low-cost units within the whole. Needless to say this was strongly resisted within the industry, with such cop-outs as affordable housing being built offsite when the site itself was too valuable, and studio flats being used as affordable housing when of course the people who needed it most are often those with larger families.

In fact, New Labour continued the process of transferring social housing out of government control and into housing associations, thus setting in action loops whereby these housing associations, as profit-making entities, acted directly against their tenants. The worst example of this were the 'Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder' schemes in the North of England, whereby whole areas of housing deemed to have suffered 'market failure' were demolished as a way of stimulating demand and hopefully raising house prices. Accordingly, what has occurred is that councils have been accused of deliberately running down areas of housing in order to then make a profit through their demolition and sale to property developers.

There's a rather horrible feeling some of us have right now, because we've spent the best part of a decade complaining about how awful the urbanism of New Labour is, and now it's about to get a whole lot worse.
CABE, the design advisory body, has been axed. Deeply flawed and borderline corrupt as it was, at the very least there was a body whose remit was to uphold standards of design. Arguably this led to the offensively mild Blairite style that I've mentioned above, as designs were made whose intent appeared to be to please absolutely everyone. Instead, at the current conjuncture the architectural charity of the Prince of Wales, bete noir of the architectural profession, has expressed an interest in taking over this advisory service. Normally an idea like this would receive nothing but scorn, but right now it seems entirely plausible.
The ConDem government's proposals on capping housing benefit payments mean that there is a strong chance that the ongoing gentrification of central London will accelerate, leading to what you might describe as 'Parisification', and the effects further north in the cities that suffer from the UK's ridiculous focus of wealth and work in London will most likely be allowed to decline yet further. Meades' film ends with the statement that the long term meaning of urban regeneration is that there will be 'no riots within the ring road', while showing footage of the 2005 Paris riots. This is a very real and dangerous possibility.
The government is also attempting to remove targets for house building, which for a long time has been the most significant challenge that the country faces in terms of its living arrangements - the ridiculously low levels of replacement and new building. This at least partially deliberate policy of scarcity has been one of the causes of the housing bubble, and shows no signs of abating. The consequences of this are very dangerous - one of the main factors that has been feeding into support for far-right groups in the UK has been the shortage of housing, and the perception that immigrants are given preferential treatment by local government housing policy. It is no coincidence that the BNP strongholds in the south of England are areas east of London where people have been forced outwards towards as the inner city becomes ever more expensive.

The difficulties seen now are seemingly intractable.
Architects of the 1970s were fascinated by revolutions in the form of housing. Rather than the monolithic and monumental concrete apartment blocks, the young post-68 generation were interested in indeterminacy, freedom from sedentary lifestyles and ideas of nomadism. They saw new technologies of building services as offering the potential for self-organising architecture: lightweight, cheap, replaceable, high performance.
But of course Thatcher pandered to the desire to be homeowners, and encouraged the worship of the house. A home is a fairly rudimentary object, but it is encrusted with symbolic detail, signifying deeply held desires. Although the means have been there for a long time, housing remains a technologically backward industry, reliant on 'wet' trades and bespoke construction. 1997 presented an opportunity to genuinely attempt a modernisation of the house-building industry, but it was missed by the myopic New Labour project, instead leaving us with vulgar monuments to vapid greed.
To sum up, because it is so inherently capital-intensive, change in architecture can only really come from the top-down. We cannot now, nor could we ever, trust developers and speculators to create the housing that we need, and we have been terribly let down by the last government. It seems unlikely that the housing situation will improve in the UK without a shift in ideology, and a resurrection of the notion that collective housing is a vital and civilised way of organising the way we dwell.


J.D. Hammond said...

This seems very salient. I'd like to refer to this paper in one of my own, but whom would I credit (if not the site itself)?

Murphy said...

Well, I guess the footnote would be

Douglas Murphy, The Failed Modern Dwelling: housing in Britain post-1997, paper, Historical Materialism, 13th November 2010 or something like that.

steve said...

Really interesting piece...Ties together lots of ideas - well done