Buildings carve a physical record of a particular moment onto the earth – one which remains, even when the cultural environment that produced them falls into oblivion. As the lifespan of most buildings extends decades, even centuries after construction, slowly their facades become brick-and-mortar monuments to the passage of time. Through changing governments, oscillating economies and fleeting architectural fads, the constructions that survive speak of different times – times with other hopes, and other values, and other visions for living.
What does it mean to be Modern when Modern is no longer new? Considering the status of the ever more greying, ever more mildewed concrete housing estates of Britain’s Modernist architectural era, this question seems particularly relevant. Between boarded- up windows and damp-stained walls, broken lifts and reputations for crime, the estates of the 1950s and 60s, for the most part, have not aged particularly gracefully. Around the country many such sites are being knocked down to be replaced with the colourful plastic panels of new prefab developments, accompanied by glossy marketing and dubious ‘mixed tenure’ promises of social integration (euphemistic for the displacement of social renting residents). The Modernist housing estate has largely become a symbol of a rapidly distancing past. Returning to the origins of these estates, it is possible to see this gap, not merely as a temporal schism, but even as a distinctive ideological difference.
It was during the explosion of public housing construction in the aftermath of the Second World War that Modernism properly began to have a large-scale effect on the British urban landscape. Faced with the problem of rebuilding cities that had suffered catastrophic damage during the war, the Labour government of 1945-51 oversaw the introduction of an entirely new attitude to social housing. Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health and Housing and founder of the National Health Service, dreamed of a second NHS: a National Housing Service, offering public housing for all. For a brief period, social housing was conceived of not as an emergency measure for struggling individuals but as a foundation for a desirable socialist utopian society. Bevan envisaged a public housing model in which ‘the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to each other’ – dissolving the geographical boundaries of social inequality that had previously operated in urban communities, with prosperous wealthy boroughs physically segregated from highly concentrated areas of poverty. The radicalness of this desire to entirely remove class from the practical housing equation cannot be underestimated. It was in the context of this ambition literally to reconstruct society through urban planning that the Modernist housing estate – with its limitlessly reproducible identikit units – came to dominate British council housing, using architecture as the medium for inscribing a socialist egalitarian vision into the material structure of the nation.
The early twentieth century architect and acclaimed ‘father of Modernism’ Le Corbusier famously defined a house as ‘a cell within the body of city’. The standardised, repeatable housing units of his remarkable developments, such as the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, conduct an experiment in socio-spatial organisation, attempting to exert control over the division of public and private time through their construction of personal and communal space. Envious of the ‘terrestrial paradise’ for self-reflection of the Florence Charterhouse monastic cells, Le Corbusier’s relationship with urban society was unusual to say the least. Throughout his career he maintained an express wish for ‘the death of the street’ and its chaotic teeming hubbub, producing controversial plans to flatten the Paris city centre in order to replace the existing interconnected meshes of lively street networks with tower blocks standing in bare stretches of parkland. Examples of his ‘antisocial’ socialist urbanism are manifested across the world in his iconic béton brut (raw concrete) masterpieces. By the 1950s, however, a younger generation of Modernists were beginning to criticise what they saw as the arrogant tyranny of such planning, which for them stunted natural community life in its rigidity. The ‘New Brutalism’ of these later architects – among them the designers of the Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith – sought to amalgamate the aesthetic principles of Le Corbusier’s style, with its smooth, straight lines and utilitarian materials, but with a more organic approach to social life.
Park Hill was constructed between 1957 and 1961 upon the cleared site of an area previously occupied by decrepit back-to-back tenement housing, dubbed ‘Little Chicago’ for its reputation as a violent and poverty- stricken quarter, and labelled ‘unfit for human habitation’ by the city’s Medical Officer of Health. Under the guidance of John Lewis Wormesley, Sheffield Council’s City Architect, Lynn and Smith designed a new settlement using Le Corbusier’s concept of ‘streets in the sky’ to join the flats with exterior walkways, open to the elements like real roads, horizontally stacked upon each other. Attempting to maintain the strong community identities of the original local street networks, the plan sought to recreate the sense of a streetscape in the new development, rehousing old neighbours next to each other and using the old road names and even cobbles. It was initially much celebrated, with one resident, perhaps hyperbolically, exclaiming ‘it’s like being in heaven’. The estate, however, like so many of its type, quickly fell into disrepair and disrepute as years of underinvestment and a change in direction of housing policy created a spiral of decline that transformed the once hopeful project into a blighted residential area.
Whether or not one agrees with his analysis of the millennial nature, one might borrow the words of Martin Pawley, writing in e Guardian in 1990 about Alexandra Road, a Camden housing estate with a similarly radical social ambition: ‘It suffers from having been released into a different world to that in which it was conceived … set on the very cusp of the change from socialism to the me-generation’. The property revolution anticipated by the likes of Bevan was in complete opposition to the individualistic dream of a ‘property-owning democracy’ sold to the British people by Margaret Thatcher. Whilst for Bevan social housing had been an opportunity for eliminating the social divide between the prosperous and the poor, and for Le Corbusier architecture had been able to achieve standardised egalitarianism, the primacy of personal property was a necessary element in promoting Thatcherite principles of free market libertarianism amongst a politically interested population.
With Thatcher’s election in 1979, the number of council houses built annually began to drop dramatically in a decline that has not yet been reversed. Contextual accompanying data is revealing: over the same period private housing construction has remained relatively level whilst since the year 2000 house prices have increased dramatically. The result is well documented: greetings from ‘Generation Rent’. The term, however, is as misleading as it is popular: what is new about our current renting trends is not so much the proportion of rental households (private home ownership is a relatively new phenomenon in England, with home ownership surpassing rentals only in 1970) but the dependence on private rentals. In 1979, 42% of Britons lived in council housing – the figure is now closer to 8%. Policies like ‘Right to Buy’ attacked the principles of social housing from all sides – not only promoting private ownership as the ultimate ideal, but also causing a mass decrease and fragmentation of councils’ housing stock. It forms part of a stark record of the movement from socialist to capitalist values, manifested at the level of individual buildings in their transition from an asset of society to private property. In response to this substantial and damaging trend, Theresa May’s recent promise to allocate £2 billion to social housing construction is simply not enough. In light of the 1.2 million households on local authority waiting lists, the 5,000 extra units this injection will provide per annum is evidently insufficient. If public housing is to continue to be a feature of a socially conscious Britain, the government must make not only a financial but an ideological commitment to the concept in much more concrete terms.
The later history of the Park Hill estate is an apt example of the confusing recalibration of the Modern in the postmodern, neoliberal era. The Modern vision of Wormesley, as civic representative of what architectural writer Owen Hatherley affectionately dubs ‘the socialist republic of South Yorkshire’, was an attitude as much as an architectural plan. Though the carcass of the original building still remains, the rhetoric that surrounds it has utterly changed. After years of threatened closure the estate was awarded Grade II* listed building status in 1998, relabelling the development, which had previously been associated with social problems and broken plumbing systems, as a site of cultural importance. This re-contextualising can be seen as a microcosmic manifestation of a wider cultural transition: whilst the Modern ideal embraced a complete break with the past, Postmodernism endorses a more convoluted relationship with its heritage, suggesting not so much a total rejection but an ironic reframing. The super-relativity of Postmodernism, with its scepticism of grand narratives and the agency of ideology, bears an interesting connection to the laissez-faire commercial values of neoliberalism. In 2007, developer Urban Splash was contracted in a part-privatisation scheme to regenerate Park Hill, giving it an ‘identity overhaul’, gutting the majority of the interior fabric of the building to create colourful new ‘upmarket apartments’ with the proviso of a limited quantity of affordable housing attached. The irony is obvious: this record of the hopeful socialism of a previous era has been recycled to fit the property-obsessed aspirations of later generations. In a sense the ‘organic’ aim of the original architects has been alternatively realised in the form of free market principles.
A lot of criticism is made of Modern buildings – they are, after all, highly visible manifestations of the tastes and ambitions of a particular moment and can easily become icons against which tides of disillusionment are directed. French scholar Michel de Certeau, in his monumental e Practice of Everyday Life (1980), describes cities as ‘the tallest letters in the world compos[ing] a gigantic rhetoric’. The rhetoric we read today, through the cynical lenses of hindsight, does not necessarily capture the dreams and ideological majesty of the original plans. Estates like Park Hill were born out of a political and architectural commitment to a society that conceived of itself in relation to something other than market principles. Thinking about its beginnings reminds us of the hope which once accompanied some of the very ‘grottiest’ of concrete calamities.