An Englishman’s home is his castle

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova – Prefabs: A Social and Cultural History (Historic England, 2018)

Up and down the country, in between areas of traditional brick housing and shiny new builds, it’s still possible to see the odd row of small, single-story rectangular cottages made of concrete and corrugated metal. Whilst they often look unassuming and sometimes shabby, these dwellings are remarkable survivors from the years following the First and Second World Wars, when there was a pressing need to provide housing quickly, cheaply and on a mass-scale. One solution, as a new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova shows, was prefabrication.

Prefabrication, either of entire buildings or of particular components, has a long history, being applied to everything from the construction of the Crystal Palace, to ready-to-assemble houses which were exported to residents setting up home in the colonies, to dormitory housing for factory workers. Over time, materials changed with technological advancements, from timber to corrugated iron to steel and concrete, as did designs. Prefabs situates British prefabs in this historical context, as well as within a wider international survey of approaches to prefabrication, driven by varying circumstances and ideologies.

When prefabrication really came into its own in the UK was immediately after the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of new homes were needed to house a boom in newlyweds, as well as those who had been bombed. Prefabrication was regarded as a quick and temporary solution to this need, at a time when both materials and labour were in short supply. Factories which had previously produced aircraft as part of the war effort were repurposed to create components for housing. Rubble from bombed houses were used for foundations. Furthermore, construction didn’t require skilled labour – sometimes prisoners of war were put to work erecting prefabs.

Although they were meant only as a temporary solution, these houses often vastly exceeded residents’ former living conditions, offering a self-contained (if small), detached house with front and back garden at a time when many families, especially in the inner cities, were still crammed into rooms in houses shared with several others.

As the book shows, these houses not only offered a roof over residents’ heads, but changed their ways of living. In many ways, prefabs were at the forefront of modernity, incorporating then-innovative features such as built-in furniture and storage space, indoor bathrooms, electric appliances, and labour-saving devices such as refrigerators. They also offered self-sufficiency, with space to grow food; the book describes a Women’s Voluntary Service scheme which distributed plants and seeds to the prefabs from gardens in country areas. This goes some way to explaining their popularity, and the fact that some continue to be lived in today, extending their predicted life-span by more than half a century.

Of course, prefabs weren’t without their problems. They suffered from issues such as damp, and it was sometimes difficult to regulate the temperature inside; early designs, demonstrated at experimental show homes on prominent central London sites such as the land behind the Tate Gallery, were improved and refined as their faults became apparent.

The book goes on to show how elements of prefabrication, such as cast concrete and the use of mass-produced, machine-made elements, were applied later in the post-war reconstruction effort to housing intended to be more permanent. By the 1960s, the low-rise bungalow of the immediate post-war years was replaced with the high-rise block of flats as the preferred choice for meeting the need for mass housing; many of these proved less popular and durable than the apparently temporary prefabs, and turned out to have design flaws with far more serious consequences.

Prefabs brings these homes to life, incorporating testimonies from past and present residents as well as illustrations of their construction and their changing place in the housing market as the areas around them have been redeveloped; controversially in the past couple of years Catford’s Excalibur Estate, one of the last major areas of prefab housing, has been largely cleared by the council to be replaced with high-density (and higher-cost) housing in the name of regeneration, despite the objections of residents.

The authors even suggest that prefabs might have a role to play today, in addressing issues such as the shortage of affordable housing and homelessness. Updated with new materials and methods of construction, prefabs benefit from being portable, cost-effective and eco-friendly, and can be easily slotted into the existing city fabric – attributes that made them attractive to planners and councils more than seventy years ago.

Natalie Bradbury

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Beyond the ‘Basildon Man’

Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)

If the tone of Radical ESSEX is at times defensive, it’s because it has reason to be. The book is upfront about popular perceptions of Essex, from its reputation as a county characterised by its purported brashness, to the right-wing, Tory-voting ‘Basildon Man’ invented by the newspaper industry in the 1980s as a supposed archetype of a shift in working-class political allegiances.

Radical ESSEX sets about showing us a different side to the county, and introducing us to alternative figures from its history. Published by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and resulting from an exhibition and programme of events of the same name, Radical ESSEX brings together essays on various aspects of the county’s landscape, architecture and culture. There’s a strong emphasis on not just telling alternative stories about Essex, but highlighting the ways in which the county, which is within easy reach of London yet retains a sense of cultural and geographical isolation, has provided the space for the development of radically new social, political and architectural experiments. These include both planned communities, driven by ideological, political and moral motivations, as explored in a fascinating chapter on communitarianism by Ken Worpole, as well as more ad hoc settlements such as the plot lands, initially developed as DIY country escapes yet ultimately and illicitly settled more permanently, which are visited by Gillian Darley.

Radical ESSEX rises to the provocation, set out by writer Tim Burrows early on in the book, that ‘to infer anything intellectual from the county has at times seemed like a radical act’. A real highlight, therefore, is the chapter on the University of Essex, one of a 1960s generation of ‘new’ universities, and the way it embraced the new not just architecturally, but in the types of subjects that were taught and its approaches to teaching them, which ultimately aimed to generate students capable of thinking for themselves. As the chapter notes, this quickly resulted in a reputation for radicalism and free thinking – students set up their own ‘Free University’, and played an active part in political and social protests.

In general, the place of modernity in shaping Essex comes across strongly in Radical ESSEX – from the marsh-draining techniques, borrowed from the Dutch, that enabled the land to be reclaimed from the sea, to the bold modernism of planned towns and estates such as Silver End, Bataville and Frinton Park. However, modernism is also emblematic of the tensions encapsulated within the county. Although it’s home to some of the earliest and most innovative built expressions of modernism in the UK, which rightly take their place in the book, Essex is also a county of suburban sprawl, and an early adopter of the increasingly prevalent out-of-town, shed-type genre of architecture. In his chapter, architect Charles Holland makes the case that architectural modernism both began and ended in Essex: the county ultimately rejected modernism with the influential Essex Design Guide of 1973, which promoted a return to vernacular architecture and traditional building materials.

Essex has also been shaped by movement, particularly as expressed in successive waves of migration. No story of Essex would be complete without a discussion of the Essex new towns, built to house former East Enders post-WWII, and we’re also reminded of the arrival of the Windrush at Tilbury docks and the large numbers of international students attracted to study at the University of Essex. It continues today as young people are driven from the capital as London’s living costs become increasingly prohibitive for those looking to set up home or raise a family.

Although – or perhaps because – it’s not regarded as being conventionally picturesque, the look and feel of the book makes a feature of the county’s distinctive landscape, in which oozy, marshy creeks and inlets, which ebb and flow as the tide changes, leave behind large, shifting banks of mud. Instead of marbling, we have watery imprints, saturated in surreal colours, like an aerial or satellite view of the county gone psychedelic, aptly capturing the county’s strangeness. Catherine Hyland’s photos, which run throughout the book, on the other hand, offer a gentle, soft-edged view of the county and its architecture, old and new: remote country church and brutalist university campus alike are imbued with a hazy, pleasant familiarity, as if Essex is a county where anything is possible, and it’s always a bright early summer day.

Natalie Bradbury

Homes for all?

John Boughton – Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (Verso, 2018)

I woke up in a youth hostel in Oxford in June 2017 to the news of the Grenfell fire. I was there as an attendee at an academic conference themed ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’. The grim extent of the catastrophe unfolded as the conference went on, and its repercussions are still being felt now, nearly ten months later.

One of the attractions of the conference was that John Boughton, author of one of my favourite blogs, the meticulously researched yet accessibly written Municipal Dreams, was speaking about his work visiting, documenting and exploring the history of the country’s council estates, one of the key areas of architectural and social development in twentieth century Britain. This work took on a new dimension in the light of Grenfell, which opened in 1974; the conference was both subdued and emotionally charged. There was a general sense of shock. As well as being close to home as a research interest, it was also an area several of the London-based conference participants knew well – many had passed close-by North Kensington on the London to Oxford bus that very morning.

The Grenfell fire, perhaps inevitably, also frames Boughton’s new book, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing, which both starts and ends by reflecting on the implications the tragedy has for the future of council housing. Although these implications still haven’t become fully clear, Municipal Dreams builds the case, culminating in Grenfell, for a return to a strong state, with both the regulatory capacity and oversight to protect us from the commercial agendas, cost-cutting and failures of neo-liberalism and private enterprise that, Boughton argues, have increasingly characterised the provision of housing for the masses through the late-twentieth and early twentieth centuries.

Municipal Dreams acts as a history of the large-scale provision of housing by local authorities in England. Boughton sets the scene after the First World War, when housing was provided for returning soldiers not just as a right and reward, but also to quell potential disloyalty and unrest. In the inter-war period, council housing proliferated, but after the Second World War military camps were squatted in protest about the lack of availability of housing. The post-war period was characterised by large-scale slum clearance and the dispersal of many former city dwellers to new towns outside of London – although often the accompanying facilities and sense of community took longer to follow. As the 1970s progressed, local authorities brought private rented homes into public ownership, and further into the closing decades of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century, public-private partnerships began to dominate the financing of public resources such as housing. Today, Boughton suggests, the state’s efforts to remove security of tenure through widespread and unpopular welfare reforms are the latest in a series of economic, social and cultural developments that contribute to the spread of precariousness and instability into all aspects of life, from employment to housing.

Those familiar with the blog will appreciate the thoroughness with which Boughton approaches each estate and development he visits, often drawing heavily on archival research. The book, too, pays brief visits to key estates, but uses these more as examples to illustrate much bigger narratives about the changing motivations behind the provision of homes, the ideologies that underpin public housing, and the political and economic developments that have changed and influenced state-led approaches to house-building over time.

One of the major shifts identified by Boughton concerns changes in public perceptions and cultural and media representations of council housing. It can be easy to forget that most council housing was aspirational, aimed at the upwardly mobile working-classes and ‘respectable’ communities; it’s only relatively recently that it’s become regarded by many as housing of last-resort and become associated with problematic behaviour – partly, as Boughton observes, because of changes in who is housed, and the responsibility of local authorities to house groups such as the homeless.

Other ideas which have been in the headlines recently, conversely, have been around for longer than we might think: Boughton identifies precedents of the so-called ‘poor doors’, for instance, designed to separate residents according to their occupancy and economic status, early in the history of social housing, along with debates about who has the ‘right’ to live in areas such as Hampstead. Boughton questions some of our assumptions about political attitudes towards council housing, too: for example, the Labour party promoted right to buy as early as the 1950s. He also offers a more nuanced view of some of the terms used in contemporary debate around changes to housing, and social housing estates. For example, he seeks to understand the motivations behind processes such as ‘social cleansing’, and challenge the broad catch-all nature of terms such as ‘regeneration’, which often ignore the roots of poverty and deep-rooted issues such as unemployment.

Ultimately, Boughton sets out two poles, between conservatism and socialism in a broad sense. In practice, this equates to a difference in opinion between those who regard the state provision of housing as a safety net, for the neediest in society, and those who regard housing as a fundamental right, access to which should be ensured by the state as part of its duty to ensure basic human needs are met for everyone.

Municipal Dreams the book is a worthwhile counterpart to Municipal Dreams the blog. Whereas the latter visits and responds to individual estates and cities in detail, the former pulls all this together to present a much bigger picture, of national and historical significance.

– Natalie Bradbury

Real Urban Fiction

Jonathan Hoskins – Own De Beauvoir! (Open School East)

This timely book takes as its starting point De Beauvoir Town, a small area of North East London, bringing together creative fiction, archival photographs and transcribed testimonials of residents past and present to explore questions of value, ownership, authority, community, belonging and identity.

Own De Beauvoir! is the outcome of a two-year research project by Jonathan Hoskins, supported by Open School East. Based in De Beauvoir Town, Open School East is one of a number of alternative art schools forging alternative ways of learning: collectively, informally and apart from the market-driven higher education system.

Questions raised in the book – for example, the merits of local organisation versus central control, how to meet gaps in welfare and services left unfilled by the state, the motivations of those trying to challenge the status quo and provide alternative models, and who benefits from them – are relevant to many spheres of contemporary life, including education and housing.

The first half of Own De Beauvoir! is given over to fictional and somewhat cryptic diary entries by Hoskins, himself resident in De Beauvoir Town, covering a period of just over a year between 2005 and 2006. The resulting journal suggests protest, engagement, direct, guerrilla action of a non-specified nature and a fight against faceless administrators and authorities. Interspersed with these are scans of seldom-seen documents and photographs giving a sense of a prior struggle, that of the 1960s-1980s, when Hackney Council was intent on demolishing the streets and squares of rundown, and in many cases empty, Georgian houses that characterised De Beauvoir Town.

These documents conjure the area’s distinct character: common to both the diary and the archival documents is a sense of creativity, invention and making do – for example, in the pictures of a community centre developed from a former factory site, and community-run adventure playgrounds, or in the posters for self-initiated welfare and advice sessions.

As well as creating a dialogue with the present, this fictional journal – with its crossed out words and disjointed narrative – creates a sense of displacement and fragmentation. It reflects the transience, uncertainty and instability of communities (particularly in areas subject to waves of migration, undergoing gentrification, or where large numbers of people live in accommodation rented by private landlords at inflated costs), of initiatives driven by the goodwill and commitment of small groups of individuals, and of the fabric of the built environment itself as places and facilities are demolished and rebuilt.

For me, much more interesting was the second half of the book, which brings out the driving personalities and stories behind local action and change, both individual and collective, from long-term residents of De Beauvoir Town and an architect who surveyed and reimagined the houses, to community organisers, campaigners and the descendant of a large landowner. The book doesn’t just flip between the 1960s and the present, but creates layers of different eras, including the early nineteenth-century masterplanning project of Garden Squares that De Beauvoir was part of.

Reading Own De Beauvoir!, two thoughts were foremost in my mind. Firstly, that this tale of De Beauvoir Town is just one episode of a story that occurred all over London – and in other towns and cities across the country as part of the post-war programme of slum clearance and rehousing; more recently, there are clear parallels in the ‘Pathfinder’ Housing Market Renewal scheme.

Secondly, it’s easy to see a cycle here: ironically, the past few years have seen several protests in London against the demolition of the types of modernist housing that would have replaced the Georgian streets of De Beauvoir Town. As 1960s (primarily council) estates are demolished, residents have once again fought battles against gentrification and displacement.

The difference is that today land values in London are such that it is hard to imagine whole areas of the city being forgotten about by local authorities, in the way depicted in Own De Beauvoir!, where Hackney is described as an area that has been ‘left behind’; today demolition and rebuilding is often criticised for an overreliance on the private sector, a distinct lack of affordable housing, the dispersal of rooted communities and a form of ‘social cleansing’.

Depressingly, it’s no surprise to read at the end of the book that today De Beauvoir Town has the lowest density and highest value housing in Hackney: those residents that stayed put in the area, and in some cases benefited from right to buy, now seem not just forward-thinking but rather canny.

– Natalie Bradbury

Night Shifts

Nick Dunn – Dark Matters, a Manifesto for the Nocturnal City (Zero, 2016)

There is a long history to night walking. Dickens did it because he had trouble sleeping, and this is Nick Dunn’s initial motive for walking at night. The nightwalker tradition then extends to, for instance, Sukhdev Sandhu’s great 2007 book Night Haunts (Verso). But that book turns the city night into day, by tracking the cleaners and the airborne police, essentially anytime work that just happens to be done at night. Sandhu’s city is London, Dunn’s is Manchester, well, it is Manchester and Salford.

Unlike London, Manchester empties at night, even right at its heart.

Dunn trained as an architect and this is a crucial part of what is at play here: Out in the dark, walking himself to sleep – he hopes – the architect coincidentally has the buildings removed for him by the lack of light, and then delivered again anew, in flashes. Here, sleepless, the city becomes something else.

Roland Barthes was delighted with life in Japan, because he could no longer read the signs he was so adept at decoding and encoding, but he could still get around. He was liberated from language right in the heart of a language explosion such as Tokyo. Here, Dunn is liberated from the architectural language he knows so well, allowing him to find a place away from its often cloying messages.

The whole history of the city-as-body is here, in the history of architecture, the city as based on the human form, something stated in Richard Sennett’s aborted work with Foucault, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, which goes right back to Michaelangelo’s ‘Vitruvian Man’.

Lefebvre restates this history and Dunn quotes it here. But my reading of this – and it is only my reading of it – is that the night makes the body disappear. It drowns the anthropomorphic in darkness. Limbs are lost, as the familiar, corresponding shapes of man-size doorways and head-height windows also vanish. We are swallowed by the night, but in the night we swallow and digest the day. These once-familiar spaces become strange in Dunn’s night time perambulations, as in Eugene Atget’s prints of nineteenth century Paris, as in the anthropological strategy of making the familiar strange, and later, the unfamiliar ordinary.

Another nocturnal Manchester urbanaut, Mark E. Smith, wrote of ‘entrances uncovered’ and ‘street signs you never saw’, all ‘courtesy of winter.’ There is nothing gothic about this book, despite its dark title and cover. In some ways, night time does exactly what snow does to the urban landscape. It makes it strange, it makes you see anew.

Whiteout or blackout, the space is transformed, momentarily, and this impermanence of states is important to its power to ‘other’ your view of it. If it were always daytime there would be no other side to cast this transformed view against. The title implies the night as another dimension, ‘dark matter’ as the invisible glue of the social. It seems academic that what is delivered comes through nightwalking, and in Atget’s case, his views were taken very early in the morning light.

However, what excites me here is that there is a full, proper dialectical reading of night and day: Night time and day completely contain each other. Night time is not the empty space left over after the day, the less useable part, because there is no light from the sun via which we can organise objects: These two binaries are part of a bigger connected reality, and not in some simplistic geographical or existential ‘holism’, but in terms of night being the social and productive afterimage to day, the negative to the print, as for Adorno and Horkheimer, leisure is the afterimage of labour.

However, we must resist, to a certain extent, Adorno and Horkheimer’s totalizing thesis: As Dunn points out elegantly, ‘even in the twenty-first century, our attempts to metricize time and space have not fully converted the nocturnal city into the daytime landscape of production.’ The ‘ambition is there’, but the reality falls seriously short of that. Patrick Keiller, in his little ebook The Robinson Institute, around the turn of the millennium, seemed puzzled that, as the internet and just-in-time production sped up, everyday public space hadn’t become completely emptied out, and that it didn’t look like the space ‘on top of a wardrobe.’

This is because those new ‘invisible’ processes produce the day, what Dunn calls our ‘infinite options of pointless choices.’ The ‘kaleidoscopic wormhole of economics, politics and, for the most part sanitized, culture.’

What Dunn makes clear is how radical the change is when night comes: ‘Spatial conventions and rules are relaxed if not completely abandoned as night falls.’ The ‘appropriation of urban space occurs in the deep pockets of the city away from natural surveillance or the “scanscape” of CCTV cameras.’ He walks, he is ‘just out there’, and here I admire this book for what it refuses to do almost as much as for what it does.

It doesn’t turn walking into some mystical ritual, or a fetish offered up as methodological novelty for a now fully marketised academia. It takes walking for what it is, an everyday practice. But in ‘night mode’ this everyday practice is reduced almost completely to the sole author. Stripped of its confusing, colourful, swirling litter of people, the city spaces speak anew. Again, like Atget’s Paris, cleared of its inhabitants, the streets become ‘just space’.

But these spaces are ‘produced’, in Lefebvre’s term, ‘espace’, space as a verb. We don’t need the inhabitants smiling blurrily back out of the prints to prove that they make and remake the city anew every day. As Lefebvre advises, we can see how the social is coded in urban space. This comes through here, in traces of lock-ups, or a concatenation of warning signs, or in a beautiful three-word coupling, via ‘sodium morse code.’

But that is not all this book does. It ‘makes manifest’ the urban night by shuttling between theory and description. But its subtitle is ‘a Manifesto for the Nocturnal City’. I am a sucker for a manifesto. It takes guts to write one.

So much leftist writing hides what it really thinks in abstraction, or older, tried and tested rhetorics. This book does not make any wincingly worthy cultural capital out of hauntology, the problem seems to be, actually – and chillingly – that in the night city there are no ghosts left and the few that remain are becoming even more fugitive: ‘Far better to embrace the world and its contradictions, difficulties, untidiness and dirtiness, physical and psychic, than to summon long-vanished ghosts.’

The equally chilling thesis is that the only way to escape from the ‘intoxicating pathologies’ of the city, is to vanish into ‘night practices beyond consumption’, to an edge zone almost completely drained of light, in order to ‘be’. But this is the manifesto, that in nightwalking the city we might find the black mirror of the everyday, which might teach us more about that everyday than we could have imagined before going out there. ‘Urban areas are pathological’, the ‘nocturnal dowser can summon these neuroses…’

I admire that Dunn has identified that this landscape of permanent amnesia is utterly deracinating. It withers our concentration span, our sense of history and the temporal itself. If anything this thesis is not put strongly enough. We are hypermodern, not postmodern, a very important caveat for me as well. The ‘endless flux of regurgitated ideas that appear novel is seductive’ Dunn states, ‘the process of assemblage has entranced us’, surfaces that are masks whispering to us that what we are seeing is innovative, when behind it is darkness, figuratively and literally. Dunn is clear about the questions and asks them straight on: ‘Can we step outside of this situation?’

I once worked as an ethnographer on a Transport for London research study of illegal taxi touts. Practically this entailed a series of twelve hour shifts, from 8pm to 8am. I have long wondered how to approach those experiences and revisit the data, reflectively, in a piece of writing. I now have a starting point, because Nick Dunn has written it.

This book is useful, it is both open and closed. Closed in that its form as a manifesto really puts its cards on tables. Open in that it advises particular spatial practices in the interests of seeing anew. Open in that it encourages others to develop that way of working further.

Now it’s over to you, on the night shift.