Post-War Housing: Community, Heritage, and Myth
Labelling helps us to catalogue, compare, and discuss things. But as we define and sort – by epoch or typology, say – we can miss the particulars that fall between the cracks. This reading list is made up of twelve texts intended as flags or markers for the cracks that are present in our understanding of the communities and heritage of post-war housing. In these readings, we discover the subtleties of Modernism, recognize the diversity of the architects belonging to the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), see that its leading light, Le Corbusier, often wasn’t “Le Corbusier,” and that many of the architects described by critic Reyner Banham as “New Brutalists” were unaware of the term.
Looking back at how we have organized the history of post-war housing can take us back to the change and loss that spurred its development in the first place, and the people around whose lives such housing was built. In doing so, we are reminded of the roles played by communities in producing these architectures and can begin to better understand the connections between design and everyday life there. This process also gives us a pertinent reminder of the subsequent need to care for those places and their communities.
I chose these texts not because they are unique or unparalleled but because of their power to open up my thinking and add both color and detail to a familiar picture. At the same time, I also selected these texts because they are entertaining reading; their capacity to provoke new thought corresponds with the often unusual angle from which they approach established topics.
[Image: Alexandra Road, Camden, by Tom Davies.]
The New Empiricism-Bay Region-Axis: Kay Fisker and Postwar Debates on Fuctionalism, Regionalism, and Monumentality
Journal of Architectural Education
In this essay, architectural historian Stanford Anderson provides a vivid picture of Danish Modernism immediately after WWII by exploring the Anglo-American/Danish connection at that time. As well as doing much to correct the misconceptions about the much-maligned period known as ‘New Empiricism,’ the article also illustrates the regional focus of the architects involved, whose approach to tactile materials and technical innovation was informed by history and place. In doing so, Anderson bypasses familiar discourses about New Empiricism’s retrogressive “cottagey” approach to architecture and instead reveals the rich textures and progressive nature of Danish Modernism.
Indeed, the technical innovations in glass and steel of the period was comparable to those of Californian architects such as William Wilson Wurster (husband of the famous ‘Houser’ Catherine Bauer) and Pietro Belluschi that can be traced back to Frank Lloyd Wright. The relationships between Kay Fisker, Lewis Mumford, Siegfried Giedion, and Alvar Aalto show the extent of international discourse at that time and, while other articles and books are available that demonstrate the same, Anderson’s article confirms the real diversity of interwar Modernism and its legacy. In particular, Anderson shows that the respect for place and local character typically associated with the likes of Peter and Alison Smithson, in Reyner Banham’s “The New Brutalism,” for instance, is also present in Danish Modernism. The text is also useful for revealing the origins of the innovations that came to characterise the careers of architects including Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.
The New Brutalism
The Architectural Review
“The New Brutalism” is Reyner Banham’s attempt to distill the essence of new thinking in the UK in the context of Stanford’s “New Empiricism.” The text effectively turns the page of architectural history to “the next big thing,” demonstrating how one period can eclipse another. Banham seeks to capture the ethic of a new generation of post-war architects, principally Peter and Alison Smithson, but also hints at a growing army of ‘New Brutalists’ amongst their peers. However, the designers he grouped together there were not necessarily in agreement; Neave Brown would later describe his own approach (and that of many others who came out of the firm Lyons Israel Ellis Gray (LIEG)) as having little to do with the Smithsons, instead emphasizing a “common sense” idea of building places and communities.
Whilst this shows Banham shooting a little wide of the mark, the essay effectively conveys the realignment towards community- and place-focused architecture and planning that took place in the 1950s, perhaps spurred on by the new social agendas of fledgling welfare states. The ‘zeitgeistness’ of this becomes all the more poignant in the tangible disappointment he expressed in his later book, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic (1966), that his bright young things had failed to deliver.
In the 1955 article Banham proposes a three-part criteria for New Brutalism, including memorability as an image; clear exhibition of structure; and valuation of materials “as found.” The last point has been widely misunderstood as referring only to physical materials. Considered in light of the Smithson’s anthropological studies of Bethnal Green with Judith and Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi, it becomes apparent that ‘as found’ extends to places and people. This is corroborated by the community focus of the Smithson’s and Team 10’s output, which also extends to the wider architectural movement their work belongs to, whether you call it “New Brutalist” or not. This extended sense of “materials” illustrates how heritage can be understood as tangible and intangible, and gestures towards the relationship between them.
Human Territoriality and the Downfall of Public Housing
Cupers’s essay provides an ambitious tour of the events and rationale of European post-war housing. Principally, Cupers shows how these projects can be used as a basis for understanding the “Grand Ensemble” (integrated living projects of the late ‘60s) and the concept of “habitat” which evolved from it. The essay largely uses France and the architect team Candilis-Josic-Woods as a case-study and demonstrates the integral role that was assigned to architects across Europe as welfare agendas gathered pace. It also shows how this role exposed designers to critique in the 1970s, when delivering the mandate of the state came to be seen as “overreaching” on the part of architects and planners. Cupers also reveals how thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Paul Henry Chombart de Lauwe and Henri Lefebvre participated in this development.
The concluding part of the article discusses the legacy of the critiques of the 1970s through a careful rendering of the attacks on welfare housing by Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman through ideas such as “designing out crime.” Throughout, the article portrays the often-misunderstood demise of welfare housing in a balanced and considered fashion, reflecting something of the complexities and pressures that defined the period. Any student to will benefit from the clearer picture it presents. In Cupers’s own words, the democratisation of the period that provided the thinking behind Grand Ensembles saw users “increasingly conceptualized not only as passive consumers of dwelling units, but also as active constituents of the urban environments provided for them” (117).
Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing
Cook’s Camden is a technicolour rendering of detailed research of the London Borough of Camden’s intensely progressive housing under head architect Sydney Cook (1965-73). During Cook’s tenure, a host of architects, from Neave Brown to Peter Tabori, Gordon Benson, and Alan Forsyth, worked in the Borough architects team and produced a dynamic situation-based spectrum of bespoke housing. The book has brought the history of Camden’s housing into current debates about future housing in London (and elsewhere) and has fuelled numerous preservation and conservation initiatives. Swenarton’s painstaking research and poetic accounts of buildings and events, together with images by Tim Crocker, make an incredibly readable account of the projects included (Fleet Road, Alexandra Road, Highgate New Town, Maiden Land, Gospel Oak, and Branch Hill) alongside the ‘urban dentistry’ of in-fill projects by external consultants such as Edward Cullinan Architects and Colquhoun & Miller. Taken as a whole, these demonstrate the rich diversity of what could be achieved with a non-standardised site-specific approach.
The volume poignantly concludes with the chapter “Politics Versus Architecture: The Alexandra Road Enquiry of 1978-81,” which demonstrates the extent of the castigation architects received at the end of the period and further elucidates the severe “over-exposure” discussed by Cupers. Protracted attempts were made to apportion blame for perceived failures to Neave Brown as architect in particular, and while they did not stick, he produced no further projects in the UK. In this context, it is all too apparent why architecture retreated from public service during the 1980s.
The Modern Urbanism of Cook's Camden
The council housing designed 50 years ago for a progressive London borough remains a potent symbol of the achievements of postwar social democracy.
Creating Ordinary Places: Slow Cities in a Fast World
Journal of Urban Design
“Creating Ordinary Places” focuses on the undercurrent of creating places for community which runs through all of the texts above. The title makes a subtle reference to Lefebvre’s heterotopias, or real-places, which underpinned his work in the 1960s. The “heterotopia” is neither utopian nor dystopian, combining people and place through the flexibility and rhythms, which Knox captures using social anthropologist Larissa Lomnitz’s concept of “cultural grammar.” In this context, ‘‘place’ [provides] a setting for social interaction, daily routines of economic and social life, the structuring of people’s life paths (both opportunities and constraints), an arena for gathering every-day, ‘common-sense’ knowledge and experience, siting for processes of socialization and social reproduction and an arena to contest social norms.”
In the “cultural grammar” of place, Knox shows us how by managing identity, what has come to be understood as heritage values ‘‘are constantly under social construction by people responding to the opportunities and constraints of their particular locality. As people live and work in places, they gradually impose themselves on their environment, modifying and adjusting it to suit their needs and express their values.” Knox concludes that “successful places— and successful urban design — must therefore be seen as the product not only of key actors (architects, planners, urban designers, mayors and developers, etc.) but also of the ‘cultural grammar’ of societal norms and forms of social organization and the regulatory frameworks and codes of practice of governmental institutions, professional organizations and formalized movements.” In this way, “Creating Ordinary Places” threads a fine line from the ideology of late 1960s post-war housing, stemming from the same ethic striven for from Banham’s ‘New Brutalists’ and before, through the 1960s philosophy of Lefebvre and Foucault, to the rhythms of everyday life today, creating an overall “narrative of place.” By the end of the article, Knox leaves the reader with a tangible sense of the evolving nature of place.
Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA 1984/87
Open Architecture is a site-specific anthropological study of the largely Turkish communities of Berlin’s second ‘internationale bauausstellung’ (International Architecture Exhibition) IBA 1984/87. Like the first Interbau of 1957, this development produced the tensions associated with urban-renewal, which were resolved by inviting international contributions by Peter Eisenman, Rem Kolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and others, which mirrored the contributions of Le Corbusier, Kay Fisker, Jaap Bakema, and others in 1957. In Open Architecture, Akcan considers notions of ‘hostility’ and ‘hospitality’ and ‘willkommenskultur’ (welcome culture) in architecture, exploring the ‘Open-Society’ advocated by Team 10 and others and the 1961 manifesto on open-form by Oskar and Zofia Hansen (creators of the open-architecture school). These examples sought to register the individual in the collective and pay attention to the everyday needs of tenants, demonstrating how the architect can be gradually redefined as a designer of a field of human potential. Akcan broadens this into a discussion of other architects’ efforts to create dynamic open and closed form which might further provide this democratisation.
Early in the introduction, Akcan defines the dynamic of this people-architecture dichotomy, a major theme throughout the book, through the work of theatre practitioner Bertold Brecht. “Brechtian theatre closed the traditional distance between the actor and the audience, changed their roles, and invited the audience to act critically, rather than watch passively.” This becomes the basis for discussion of the evolving nature of post-war housing, focusing thematically on native residents versus immigrants and incomers and providing new insights into the democratic narratives of these dynamic, evolving communities, with reference to Walter Benjamin’s approach to story-telling and narrative in relation to the dynamic theatre of Brecht (which I’ll return to later; Benjamin was a close-friend of Brecht and wrote extensively about his work.)
In presenting the oral narratives of community in her work, Akcan reflects that the role of researcher/story-teller is to convey “counsel woven into the fabric of real life.” Taking a different spin on the evolving nature of place, Akcan reflects that “traditional architectural history usually stops at the point when the building is constructed and the design leaves the hand of the architect. In contrast, open architectural history as storytelling extends the narrative by combining the time of its design with the time of a specific occupation. The contingency and partiality of storytelling that results from this specific amalgam of the two time periods acknowledges the necessarily open, unfinished nature of architectural history.”
Finally, the introduction concludes with a reflection on art-historian Linda Nochlin’s ground-breaking essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and suggests that if we define architecture as design open to residents’ appropriation, there would be at least as many women architects as men in history, even though of course there is no biological or essential reason why women should be the makers of a house’s interior after the architect leaves the stage. This highlights the diversity of narratives about place and community and why it is imperative to consider whose story or stories are being told.
Make Public: Performing Public Housing in Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower
Journal of Architecture
Roberts presents a surprising and different approach to working with the communities of post-war housing and produces remarkable results. When the residents of Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower were faced with the threats of redevelopment, Roberts responded by employing actors to play Goldfinger and his wife and re-enact the champagne parties in the penthouse suite that the Balfrons held following the completion of the building to learn more about the community. Together with an online archive, the study culminated in the first application for Grade II* Listing on grounds of communal value to be approved in the UK, reflecting Goldfinger’s design-focus on creating high-rise community spaces and resources. This article makes fascinating reading on its own for the sheer inventiveness of the project, but taken as part of any study of post-war housing it provides serious lessons (not least in the London Borough of Newham’s total disregard for the work) for anybody studying the area.
Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism
The work of architectural historian Jane Rendell (coincidentally Roberts’s thesis tutor) redefines how we write (and interact) with architecture and place. Rendell employs Freud’s analyst, analysis, and analysand (the person being analysed) to demonstrate the triangular dynamic of writing about architecture, and explains that we must therefore acknowledge the interpretative role and inherent bias of the writer: in doing so, we have more potential we have to make something good of it. The series of texts which follow provide a diverse range of ways of looking at writing about architecture (and art), reflecting something of the subjectivity of design itself and that by nature it cannot be universal nor non-biased.
The State and the Controversial Demands of Cultural Built Heritage: Modernism, Dirty Concrete, and Post-War Listing in England
Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design
While’s essay illustrates the definitive own-goal of heritage: in seeking to protect one of their own, the Conservative Party inadvertently opened the door to the listing of post-war housing and the creation of the now-defunct post-war listing committee. Essentially, this created the “30-year rule” where Grade II* Listing (not Grade II), which confirms a building’s national significance, can be sought on the basis of demonstrable threat. While contextualises this with an account of the development of listing and designation during the twentieth century, during which time, as the architectural historian Gavin Stamp explains, “conservation societies and their supporters have been pulling conventional taste forwards, dragging whole periods of architecture out of the darkness of fashionability into the light of a renewed appreciation with the interval between initial creation and revival of respectability getting shorter and shorter.'' (647). “The State and the Controversial Demands of Cultural Built Heritage” presents a convincing argument for why the time for listing of post-war buildings is nigh whilst qualifying the inherent challenges in achieving this. What is tangible in this article is how by dragging the period out of the dark, post-war “conservation champions” (or those of any other period) are really only the actively engaged members of society at that time, which leads us to the conclusion that a similar collective effort is required to secure the legacy and care of our collective post-war heritage.
The Epic Archaeology Digs of Mark Dion
Mark Dion: Archaeology
Black Dog Publishing
Coles describes the work of artist Mark Dion, who does archaeology without digging, instead creating a spectacle of finds-cataloguing and curation collected along the banks of the River Thames through beach-combing. For Coles, Colin Renfrew, and the other contributors to this short volume, what emerges as significant is the aspect of process and the performative aspects of Dion’s work. As in Akcan’s Open Architecture, this returns us to Walter Benjamin’s fascination with the dynamics of Brecht’s theatre and the idea that we should bridge the gap between “actor” (heritage and practitioner) and “audience” (community/society) by “filling in…the orchestra-pit,” which is the bedrock of the approach described in this study.
This thinking relates to many others, including Jeremy Till’s concept of the “Citizen-Expert / Expert-Citizen” in Architecture of Participation. In Till’s analogy, the external consultant brings professional expertise whilst the resident contributes local knowledge for successful implementation. However, I argue that Coles and Akcan succeed in employing the reversible dynamic from Brecht via Benjamin in a manner which is more versatile, in that it is applicable to a wider range of players and audience, and poetic at the same time.
Time To Destroy: An Archaeology of Supermodernity
Gonzalez-Ruibal is a dynamite force in contemporary archaeology, having spent considerable time and effors excavating Spanish Civil War graves and working to reconcile communities with each other and with the dead. “An Archaeology of Supermodernity” deals with war and loss, but more importantly, with the frightening rate of change resulting from progress when we are not at war. In this context, heritage, a term that derives from the old French for “inheritance,” is about societies dealing with their changing environments and the familiarity which perishes along with material aspects of our lives. What Gonzalez-Ruibal is at pains to achieve here is to make us appreciate the importance of ‘being’ heritage and of the narrative we use to represent our common experiences and past. We are seriously warned against the reducing of sites, places, and memories into gray literature reports, underlining in a very graphic sense the importance of the narrative of process in which our heritage is ever evolving. In this sense, the text mines similar veins to Akcan and Coles.
Style or Substance: What are we trying to conserve?
Preserving Post-War Heritage: The Care and Conservation of Mid-Twentieth Century Architecture
My last source returns to Modernist architecture. Powers asks what we are trying to conserve about post-war buildings: their physicality, form, materials, and aesthetic; or their essence? Powers emphatically concludes that it is their essence, which he portrays in the interplay of light and space and movement and interaction, which leaves us looking at the user and community in the frame. Buildings are designed for and around people, and as Akcan also shows us, their full story only comes into focus when we continue their narrative beyond the act of their creation. Here, occupants, families, mothers, fathers and children make their mark on places designed solely to enable them to do so. And with that, this reading list comes full circle.