Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Future Crayon

This is not the first time I’ve used a song title by the group Broadcast for a post and it probably won’t be the last (I’m still waiting for a chance to use ‘City in Progress’) but this title of a compilation album of Broadcast outtakes, B-sides and remixes popped into my head last night on the train back from London. I’d been to a quasi-Governmental/private sector organised ‘policy briefing’ called ‘Putting a Roof over Britain: The Future of Housing in the UK’, and I was thinking about the notion of a ‘future’, both in relation to what I’d heard from the various invited speakers at this event and, indeed, to what I imagined would be a future of new, plentiful, good, and affordable rented public housing.

When we think of crayons, we almost automatically think of children, and the relatively spontaneous workings of a young, unfettered mind. When children are drawing they are almost certainly in that very present moment of doing, but there is also a forward impetus to their activity because they are expressing themselves with an eye (and hand and mind) to their continuing development which is (unconsciously) predicated towards the future.  

Some might think that the drawing on the cover of the July 1965 RIBA Journal above is ‘childlike’ but it was undoubtedly of the moment, and undoubtedly intended to visualise the future now. It is a sketch of Lambeth Towers, made by the building’s architect, George Finch. Whatever Broadcast might have had in mind when they conjured up that title for their album, Finch’s drawings seem to me to be representative of the ‘Future Crayon’ at work (alongside Gordon Cullen’s similarly lively and stylistically quirky drawings for Homes For Today and Tomorrow in 1961). You can see more of Finch’s drawings on the Utopia London website, and they are well worth looking at. They are such fun – animated and art-brutish in style - but utterly representative of that optimistic but dignified, self-fulfilling but social/sociable world that Finch wanted to create: “I was very happy” he once said “that we were providing good quality housing available at reasonable rents for people who wished to live and work in London.”

Sadly, George Finch died in February this year but I would have loved to hear what his socialist/municipally-minded self would have made of the event I attended yesterday. What would the speakers from that event produce with their future crayon – or any crayon for that matter? On the face of it, a title like ‘Putting a Roof over Britain: The Future of Housing in the UK’ seems very much like something from c.1965, something positive and practical – ‘go-ahead’. Predictably however, what came out of this event had little to do with Finch’s simple aim – for London, or for anywhere else in the country. 

We were told first of all that the government’s 2011 Housing Strategy plans for a vastly increased supply of housing – across all types of tenure apparently, but while the term “affordable housing” was bandied about quite a bit yesterday, the emphasis throughout was sadly on ‘affordable’ ownership and ‘affordable’ new-builds to buy. In spite of this, out of the four categories of housing/resident types given, the second biggest was that of “lifetime renters” (19% of all households in the UK, or 4.1m homes). I imagine that a good proportion of these lifetime renters are in former (now ‘social housing’) or still extant council housing stock, but this wasn’t especially made clear. There was in any case, according to the Head of Affordable Housing and Investment at the Department of Communities and Local Government, a “concern over quality” with the homes within this category, and with how these tenants had a “lack of control over their home.”  The rhetoric here once again seemed predicated towards the ideal of home ownership where it was presumably thought that ‘quality’ and having a sense of ‘control’ over one’s home could only be assured by owning, and by having a mortgage. 

Government investment in the rented sector – the “£1bn ‘Build to Rent’ scheme which aims to produce 200,000 homes turned out to be centred purely on “PRS schemes” (Private Rented Sector schemes to you and me). “Incentive and Community” schemes included “Community Right to Build” which sounded like a good bit of Double Deckers-like “hey let’s create a youth club right here!” astroturfing to me, with its lame big society abstractions about giving “communities” the “freedom” to build new homes, shops or facilities “where they want them, without going through the normal planning application process.”  But no build-to-rent money will be going to local authorities that will otherwise only be given the scope to support private house building schemes, rather than building homes themselves for their communities. 

In contrast with all this faffing about, it is a national scandal that there are 5m people in the UK on social housing waiting lists. It was left to the Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders, Brian Berry, to point this out rather than the person from the DCLG. He got excited about “retro-fitting” – the notion of bringing existing houses up to current standards, with a particular emphasis on energy efficiency, but also – nicely – with an eye to working with the wide range of vernacular and designed styles in the UK. I asked him whether there was much in this for his members in terms of them being contracted by housing associations or social housing groups to carry out the maintenance of council estates but he said not – perhaps when councils first began to transfer their housing stock over to housing associations and so on back in the early 1990s, but not now as these contracts tended to be given to larger contractors. In any case it was later suggested that housing associations especially had become “corporate” and “bland”, and are ceasing to do what they originally set up to do by ‘diversifying’ into new-build ownership developments for themselves.

Other contributions to the event were formed out of things like a charity that campaigned for the retention and redevelopment of empty houses, and a self-help ‘industrial and provident society’ that encourages young, disadvantaged people to actively reverse the ongoing crisis of youth homelessness in Teesside. Sadly, despite these good works, the development worker for this particular organisation went on to more or less disparage those parts of the housing sector who hold themselves to be ‘not for profit.’ In contrast, he was certainly not ashamed to make a profit.  I’m also pretty certain that I heard him say that the public sector was dead but then he was a self-confessed “pragmatist” which, to me at least, always seems to hide all manner of potentially unappealing inconveniences these days. 

All of this served to reinforce the happy fact that I’m still a determinedly Statist Leftie. To some of those present at yesterday’s event, I might have been viewed at worst – and in the parlance of the current government – as an ‘enemy of promise’ or, at best, an outdated defeatist. One thing this event did make clear to me was that we could and should build our way out of recession, and that plenty of new publically-funded and publically controlled rented housing should be a necessary part of that. Despite its title however, no one mentioned “The Future” at all. Clearly, there is an acute housing crisis in this country that is socially and culturally corrosive. It is a crisis that needs to be fundamentally and comprehensively addressed by the State this minute, but the practice of centralised planning no longer seemed to signify with the majority of those involved in this event. There were lots of undoubtedly well meant initiatives but no real consensus, and no sense of a future, just an atomised present – a free-floating, marketised crayon scribble of never ending ‘partnerships’ and ‘initiatives’. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Taking the long view

Walking around the estate earlier the other week, I saw that someone had cut down all the overgrowth that had covered the walls by the car park at the top of Priory Close, and I was astonished to see the decorative brickwork underneath:

There are two of these walls that act as end-points to a group of garages and both had been cleared in this way. I’m sure that this type of brick patterning appears within many council estates of the 1950s and early 1960s, but the revealing of these forgotten details came as such a complete surprise to me that I just had to step over the road to photograph them together, and this is what I saw:

The whole scene suddenly opened out to me, more or less as it was intended when it was all first designed - a lovely, thoughtfully planned vista and, as the place-name suggests, a Close – with the walls framing and leading the eye into the car-park, to some bars and steps (a favourite play area when I was a kid) and to Priory Close itself, with its long expanse of grass and the subtle downward incline of the rooflines. 

As I looked on, it struck me how this estate was planned as a number of vistas or ‘prospects’ – here on Priory Close, and here:

with the ‘Parades’ that radiated out from the complex of shops and maisonettes on The Precinct. (I keep using this photo from 1967 because it is the only one I have of The Precinct and its environs, and in the vain hope that there is someone out there reading this blog who happens to have other photos of these buildings – I would love to hear from them)

Another vista centres on the curving road that leads onto one of the two access roads to the estate, ‘The Drive’:

And there's the one that takes you all the way down Dunstall Walk itself: 

I’ve posted before about the contemporary criticisms – the ‘prairie planning’ - of this manner of estate design, but it seems to me that Middlefield Lane was designed with an awareness of such debates in how it struck a balance between giving the residents nice, green, open spaces and in replicating the more urban situations of the close-knit Victorian rows and terraces from which families like mine were being rehoused back in 1964. 

In his 1978 book, New Towns: The Answer to MegalopolisFrederick Osborn suggested that housing units can be repeated seven times with good effect but that this can become monotonous if doubled or more (p.256). There is a sense of monotony in the row of blocks along Dunstall Walk, some of which do go beyond Osborn’s desired limit with only a slight staggering of the blocks (and design variations only between the frontage of a 2-bed and 3-bed home). However, Dunstall Walk’s front was determined by the grand, lengthy downward sweep of the pavement/walk/promenade, that was clearly designed for walking along with the open countryside views to one side - and for the many times as a kid that I bombed hell-for-leather down that path on my bike.

It’s at this stage that I must commemorate the designer and planner of the Middlefield Lane estate, Neil Taylor, who was an associate in a Gainsborough-based firm of architects, Fisher, Hollingsworth and Partners. 

I interviewed Mr Taylor about his role in the creation of the estate in March 2012 and it was clear to me that he had a strong vision for the design and planning of the estate, which certainly manifested itself for example in the composition of the view of Priory Close above. The overall construction of the estate was contracted to George Wimpey and Co Ltd, and the majority of the housing on the estate (including my house) was designed and built in what was then a typical, often repeated and fairly traditional Wimpey-style. Mr Taylor told me however that he was “trying to produce a modern estate”, and that he was “keen to keep Wimpey at bay” by giving the estate a more modernist feel. This of course was exemplified in his design for The Precinct, and in this small group of homes that can be found on the outskirts of the estate:

In fact, Neil Taylor made a considerable contribution to the built environment of post-war Gainsborough, designing for instance a pavilion for the town’s tennis club in the mid-fifties, and the St Stephens Methodist Church in the early seventies. He is also responsible for what can be considered to be his masterpiece – The Guildhall, seen here in a photo from a 1971-ish council promotional brochure:

People routinely criticise 60s Modernism for its insensitivity to 'traditional' urban environments but look at The Guildhall in relation to the Georgian Elswitha Hall next door and see how the proportions and arrangement of its windows were deliberately intended to compliment those of its older neighbour. The Guildhall overlooks the River Trent, and its wavy roofline is meant to reflect the ‘aegir’, a seasonal tidal bore or wave that can be seen on the Trent in the Spring and Autumn. The concrete detailing and the lovely grey-green Westmorland slate (the same colour as the Trent most days) here attests to the architect’s attention to quality and detail in The Guildhall’s design: 

The Guildhall was opened on the 7th July 1966 as the home of the Gainsborough Urban District Council. With the reorganisation of local Government in 1973-4, the Guildhall became the HQ of West Lindsey District Council until 2008 when the council needlessly abandoned it for new and ‘more appropriate’ premises strangely but perhaps predictably within a new shopping mall on the other side of the town. The Guildhall is now empty and deteriorating fast. English Heritage refuse to list it and it is destined to be demolished in the near future. In March last year, Mr Taylor explained how the “idea of it being lost makes me shudder because of the loss to the town of a significant piece of civic architecture.” He went to state that what really irked him was “the fact it was a quality building. I was told it had to last a long time, much longer than 50 years.”

Sadly, Neil Taylor died last August, four months or so after I interviewed him about his work on the estate. The last time we corresponded he suggested that we should take a “perambulation” around Middlefield. I would have greatly appreciated the chance to walk around the estate of my childhood with the man who designed it but we never quite got around to it. Words and ideas like “civic architecture”, “quality”, “lasting a long time” seem sadly anachronistic in this short-termist, profit chasing, privatised and individualistic era, but they speak for a good architect from a now near-lost generation. When Neil Taylor designed buildings like The Guildhall and planned that vista into Priory Close, he was indeed taking the long view in the belief that he was helping to nurture and uphold those post-war notions of civic, public, and social consensus. We will probably never see the likes of him again.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The First of May

Like everywhere across the country at the moment, Spring is still struggling to happen on the Middlefield Lane estate, even on the first day of May. Both the leaves and the blossom here seem to be battling it out with one another in order to catch up with the late stage of the season. But who wouldn't want to live here, as it was this morning, within this very (whether you like it or not) English council estate scene? It would suit me but then, as you are fully aware constant reader, I am biased. The romantic eye is always selective but I am fully cognisant of the fact that the estate does have problems, and not all of it is as well-tended as here, along The Walk.

This below is a photo of our back garden. I'm not sure when it was taken - late 1960s I think - but it is full of all the things my mother loved, such as rose bushes, bits of crazy paving. A gnome or two, and a gnome-sized windmill appeared later.

It's all very English, and suburban really, and all concerned with the keeping up of appearances, of neatness and beauty (although the privet hedge needs a clip by the looks of it). Here is more or less the same view taken this very morning, on the first of May 2013 from over the gate:

The old house was in a bit of a state, with (naturally) no vestige of the garden as it was, just some rubbish, a pool of water in front of the back door, and this disgusting fencing which really does blight much of the estate as a whole. These days, such fencing seems to be necessary, particularly across some of the more unruly parts of the estate, in order to prevent intruders etc etc, but it does coarsen the place, and makes it seem bleak and arid. 

I've posted about the remnants of privet hedges before now, and of how the greenery softened the landscape of the estate, but they were also very good in a defensive, protective way. Imagine trying to get over or through this hedge on the left compared with the fence opposite:

It would be impossible, and I know from many childhood attempts to breach a hedge like this one here. The era of slackening council control and maintenance of the estate from the 1980s onward gave tenants (or owners, post right-to-buy) the choice to grub up these hedges and to replace them with fences. Why they should want to do that is largely beyond me, but there are two reasons I suppose, the first being that you no longer needed to bother cutting the hedge, while the second would be borne out of the relative novelty of being allowed to do your own thing, and of wanting to put your own stamp on your home. But the cost to the fabric and environmental coherence of the estate has been great. Many of the fences there, such as the one that is now around my old back garden, have almost certainly been provided by ACIS, the social housing group responsible for the upkeep of the estate. They seem to be solid enough, and necessarily protective, but imagine the difference, visually, materially and psychologically, to the look and feel of the estate if the privets were reintroduced. 

The local council used to have high expectations for the estate; tenancy conditions relating to the upkeep of the houses and gardens were reasonably stringent while, in return, the council themselves were responsible for the general external maintenance of the houses and the spaces around them. Today, many might say that such notions were over-paternalistic, and that they produced individually restrictive and uniform environments but I imagine that ACIS quite rightly have their own, similar, terms and conditions. To reiterate what I've stated so many times over the course of this blog, the Middlefield Lane estate was carefully and thoughtfully created - privet hedges, green spaces, 60s space-age lamp-posts, pebble-dash, and the deliberate separation of the pedestrian and the car, all contributed to the sense of well-being that my family certainly experienced there during the 60s and 70s. What if ACIS contemplated the restoration, part or full, of Middlefield Lane as it was originally planned, designed and developed in the 1960s, and made a lovely PR-driven, heritage-y, communal fuss about it? How might this transform the national and local view of the post-war council estate and, more importantly, of how the tenants felt about living there. They could start on what used to be the North Parade Community Centre, seen here as it was in 1967:

Note the Modernist coherence of the block, it's simple symmetry, the lovely wide, circular door handle, the tile-hung wall decoration, and the paved landscaping around. 

In contrast, this is how it was this morning, on May-Day:

It’s very easy to spoil the original design of this building by replacing the tiles with some cheap cladding and that pitched roof. We recognise the problems of a flat roof and the possible problems (heat loss, damp) that might come of a tile-hung wall but there must be ways and means these days to counter such things. What could be achieved here if we started to remake/remodel the estate as it was, in all of it's 60s glory? In any case, a  beginning might be to make this a community centre again - sadly, at present, it's a conveniently and thoughtfully placed, I’m sure, local office for NACRO (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders).