utopia on trial: so much to answer for

Britain’s Tories drove a wedge between classes with a cheap sell-off of the country’s public housing stocks; a promotion of self-reliance which in effect ensured that only unwanted dwellings remained accessible to those poorest.

During the tumultuous eighties, Alice Coleman’s much-debated work Utopia On Trial: Vision and Reality in Planned Housing (1985) lent crucial support to Margaret Thatcher’s controversial right to buy policy whilst providing the then-PM with a convenient scapegoat for her government’s revenue-raising.

Coleman, who was head of the Land Use Research Unit at King’s College London, surveyed nearly 4,100 blocks of flats containing over 106,000 dwellings and concluded that changes in the physical environment of housing could help improve social conditions. Moreover, she directly associated the presence of litter, graffiti, urine and faeces, as well as instances of children taken into care, with bad modernist design features generally related to the building size and layout.

By 1991 Thatcher had greenlit the £50 million-Design Improvement Controlled Experiment project to test Coleman’s ideas under the direction of the geographer herself.

“The first half of the century was dominated by the age old system of natural selection, which left people free to secure the best accommodation they could,” Coleman writes in Utopia on Trial. “The second half has embraced the Utopian ideal of housing planned by a paternalistic authority, which offered hopes of improved standards but also ran the risk of trapping people in dwellings not of their own choosing.”

To mount an argument based on aesthetics served to conceal an overtly political objection to public housing with Brutalism, rather than poverty, cast in a causal role in relation to domestic difficulties faced by the poor.

In Estates: An Intimate History, Lynsey Hanley highlights the ongoing disconnect between Britain’s broad embrace of its National Health Service and the attitude towards public housing. She ponders why citizens’ rights to the NHS, and likewise to free education, have been fiercely protected whilst dependence on the state for housing has become stigmatised.

“We are a nation of socialists at heart: we will defend to the death certain tenets of the welfare state, such as the NHS and free education, but when it comes to state-provided housing, it seems that we simply can’t wait to see the back of such filthy parasitism… Since the 1940s, with the exception of a few years at the advent of the welfare state, governments and councils have treated housing as a problem that needed to be fixed quickly, rather than as a fundamental part of a healthy, equal society.”

Following World War II modernist architects, however radicalised, had gained favour with local governments because of what they could offer by way of large-scale public housing solutions.

However, as symbols of the class divide and the post-war welfare state, public housing and its inhabitants became prime targets for a government looking to cut costs; in the process both the offending bricks and mortar (or concrete) and certain groups of human beings themselves needed to be discredited.

Hanley sadly notes that by the ’80s, Brits “saw no reason to celebrate their egalitarianism, when the apparent costs over the course of the decade had been endless industrial action, government spending cuts, high inflation, rising unemployment, scary punk rockers and National Front rallies. In some small way, a socialist society had been achieved in Britain; it’s just that people seemed to find it a dreadful way in which to live.”

For Alice Coleman, the fault lay with the corruptive influence of flats, especially those of modernist design. The geographer-turned-housing adviser to Thatcher much preferred houses with gardens, notwithstanding that the conditions of post-war tower blocks were largely superior to those of the slums they replaced. Curiously, Brutalist developments like the City of London’s Barbican didn’t seem to change the behaviour of their cashed-up inhabitants.

Town planner/urban designer Adrian Jones writes that Coleman’s theories are also, “easily disproved by a visit to garden city inspired estates built between the wars, where the worst problems of deprivation are to be found. It is not the houses, it is poverty and lack of opportunity.”

Drawing heavily on Oscar Newman’s defensive space theory, Coleman believed high-rise blocks themselves encouraged and fostered criminality, discounting deeper factors of social inequality, but fundamentally she disapproved of state provision of mass housing.

Irrespective of her research into design factors, it is arguably Coleman notions of good/bad upbringing that are  most revealing. In Utopia London she elucidates on her life experience to filmmaker Tom Cordell:

“Nobody could have been brought up in greater poverty than me and I can tell you that poverty per se does not have that effect. My family was extremely ethical, honest, hard-working, and so on. I had to grow up definitely in poverty and know what it is and know that this business about people being poor is not the answer. It’s not a good thing to be. But if you’ve got people who are properly brought up they survive.”

Paul Spicker’s 1987 essay for Housing Studies questions Coleman’s recommendation that flat-building be ceased, arguing “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of an apartment block; the question is what it provides and who it provides for.”

According to Spicker, “Coleman fails to consider the possibility of a relationship between poverty and design. Design has to be considered within its social context, and the adequacy of a building’s design may be directly dependent on the resources available to its occupants. In areas occupied by wealthier people, many of the problems suffered in depressed estates could be simply overcome.

“It may well be that certain social problems – like litter, graffiti and children in care – are more likely to be found in certain types of development. Where it happens, it is not because the development produces conditions in which these problems thrive, but because buildings which are most unsatisfactory and unpopular are used to house people who lack the material resources to overcome the problems, and whose poverty makes the conditions worse.”

According to Owen Hatherley, “Irrespective of the 30 years of glib scorn they have faced, the modernist estates that were built en masse after 1945 were the best working-class housing this country has ever had”.

“These council houses, maisonettes and towers were bigger inside, following the rigorous ‘Parker-Morris’ standards (named after a 1961 government report), were largely better built, and were, at least initially, more popular than the overwhelming majority of the back-to-backs and two-up two-downs they replaced. The refusal to build more like them since the 1980s has created a terrible shortage of working class housing and a scramble for rented accommodation on which the likes of the BNP have gleefully capitalised, blaming immigrants rather than the failure to build.”

© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2012.

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