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How dull and uninspired the approach to solving the UK's housing problems has become

Posted by [email protected] on August 4, 2015 at 4:55 PM Comments comments (11)

In 1972 the late Martin Pawley was invited to speak at a conference on emergency housing in Chile, then governed by the Marxist President Salvador Allende. Pawley, an author and architectural critic, presented a paper about his research on garbage housing and industrial production. His comments were brought to the attention of the president. As a result a meeting was arranged with Allende and the idea of using a redundant Citroen 2CV assembly plant to make prefabricated panels for housing was cooked up. Designs were prepared and received with enthusiasm by the Chilean minister of planning in May 1973. However, before production could start, the Marxist government was ousted in a violent coup by the CIA-backed General Pinochet.


In Chile today, Alejandro Aravena of Elemental part-builds houses for the poor by creating designs that provide a basic structure, allowing the residents to complete the homes themselves.


These very different approaches to new housing reflect two extremes in the strategies to deliver homes for people – the large-scale, top-down prefabricated product and the local community-level process involving the home owner or occupier in varying levels of design and construction. Both approaches challenged the conventions of traditional housing design and involved innovative methods of construction.


I quote these two examples because they reinforce how dull, conventional and uninspired the approach to solving the housing problems in the United Kingdom has become. And it wasn't always like that.

In the 1960s and 70s the UK was able to build up to 500,000 homes per year


In the post-war period there was a dozen different prefabricated housing systems produced by the car and aircraft industries, many of them lasting much longer than their expected 10 years. Buckminster Fuller's Wichita House and various bungalow designs for the British government, like the Arcon house, used aluminium technology – although none quite matched the elegance and efficiency of Wall Byam's airstream trailer, which every high-tech architect of the period viewed as the epitome of efficient design.


Meanwhile, soldiers returning from the war were encouraged to assist in group-build projects. In the 1960s and 70s the UK was able to build up to 500,000 homes per year in contrast to the measly 220,000 we built in 2014.


At that time there was a flowering of thinking and designs for new housing in the capital. In the public sector, the low-rise high-density schemes designed under Sydney Cook, the borough architect of Camden Council, were revolutionary and remain examples of high quality urban living today. Alexandra Road, Branch Hill, the Brunswick Centre – these developments provide humane living environments and striking architectural forms rarely matched in today's housing supply.


The Greater London Council (dismantled by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, not to be confused with today's Greater London Authority) built houses using the Primary Support Structures and Housing Assembly Kits method, also known as PSSHAK. Developed by Nabeel Hamdi and Nick Wilkinson from their Architectural Association thesis project, PSSHAK allowed the mix of accommodation to be altered to suit specific demands through participatory design methods, with the designer acting as 'skilled enabler' instead of the 'expert architect'. PSSHAK homes consisted of a basic structural shell fitted with all the necessary wires and pipes. Tenants could then design their own interiors and subdivide the space.

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