Built by the former Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch,now London Borough of Hackney
Text and images by Stefan Muthesius
When one thinks of the splendours of Twentieth Century architecture, ‘Council Housing’ – the British term for public housing – does not come readily to one’s mind. To the contrary aren’t these the very buildings that gave Modern architecture a bad name? True, there have been some widely recognised architectural masterworks, or at least much-talked-about and often illustrated complexes, such as London Roehampton or Sheffield Park Hill which figure in the textbooks and which are now protected. But surely these buildings are outstanding because they are the work of outstanding designers. ‘Ordinary’ council blocks, if they are not actually condemned as brutal and unnecessary, will never have a chance to be noticed, to be evaluated as anything other than plain ordinary housing.
However, the history of the evaluation of the ‘ordinary’ should lead one to some cautious reflections. What about those rows upon rows of plain Georgian terraces which the mid Victorians found so utterly tedious, or the long swathes of Edwardian semi-detached which the early Moderns thought so ridiculously pretentious? These reactions were followed by a rather complex thought process which rendered, first the Georgian terraces and then the Edwardian villas objects of ‘history’ and ‘heritage’, and thus of nostalgia. They also now form part of what is seen as the ‘vernacular’ of those periods, as the unselfconscious expression of their builders and their dwellers, and thus of a whole bygone world which we cherish because we are so conscious of being different. In any case, the combination of nostalgia with the high property values today provides a very considerable degree of protection for all those houses.
Could this all this be applied to the mass of council housing? Shoreditch, close to the City, was one of London’s most ‘solid’ working class areas, with street upon street packed with the smallest kind of row house. These have almost all been replaced with their quasi opposite type of dwelling, large blocks of flats. They are surrounded by something that had not been seen in Shoreditch before, open parkland, and an astonishing amount of it, in fact, far more than inner suburban planning would allow for today. In any future comprehensive history of British Post War planning and building, Shoreditch will figure as a major, certainly as a typical example. It must be stressed that, so far, only very few of Shoreditch’s Post WWII council blocks have disappeared, in contrast to many other similar such areas in Britain.
Within this townscape, Fairchild House stands out in its bulk and, more importantly, by the lavish treatment of its Northern elevation. We are presented with a particularly elaborate version of the deck, or balcony access model. This method of planning was universal in public housing, but it was particularly strongly developed in England, with an astonishing variety of solutions. What is particularly unusual about the balcony access here is the way in which at the point where the staircases give out to the balcony; a brick and glass screen is added to the balustrade of the balcony, helping to protect the stairs from the weather, while at the same time accommodating the refuse chute. The architectural game of the access deck was indeed one of oscillating between opening out and closing in. If Fairchild House was a building dating from the Inter-war period, it would count among the more spectacular British examples of the ‘Mendelsohn curve’, of Art Deco-Moderne. What is significant is that the block uses the theme of the curves found on the elegant Pre War private blocks of flats, but adapts it to features typical of a ‘working class’ block.
That said, it comes as a bit of a shock to find the history of this building being buried in the anonymity of the history of the ‘ordinary’ council block. It was something that was kept to by the very creators of the building, by the Borough Council itself. The Housing Committee’s sessions were concerned endlessly with materials’ shortages, with communal laundry facilities, with the operability of lifts, as well as with the tenants themselves, whether Mrs. Smith with her sick child deserved, or Mr Murray, with his slight record of rent arrears, did not deserve a modern flat in a new block. The word which virtually never passed between councillors at their meetings was ‘architecture’. It would simply have seemed inappropriate, considering the low status of the block’s users, and irresponsible towards all taxpayers. All this manifested itself in the ambiguous designation of the council officer in charge of designing and of the building process the blocks, J.L. Sharratt. By training and professional designation he was an engineer and surveyor, not an architect. For the councillors he always figured as ‘the Borough Surveyor’. There is thus no information to be had as to why such a block received special architectural treatment.
However, the sobriety and probity of council procedures was occasionally heightened by a public celebration of the completion of a major project. This could occur with the first block of an estate. A new factor had begun to play a role at the end of the 1940s: the Council was now admonished by some to publicly advertise its activities and achievements. For Shoreditch, in particular, the statistics of the time demonstrated that the Borough came top, in London, in the proportion of public housing per head of population. Fairchild House was the Borough’s largest block to date. Here, Shoreditch, for once, did aim at the highest level. It invited Aneurin (‘Nye’) Bevan, Minister of Health and one of Labour’s most popular figureheads. The Committee ‘…resolved that the Town Clerk be instructed to word the invitation [to the Minister] with reference to the record of this council’ – while charging his very Ministry with the costs of the lavish event, in this case a princely £100 (but ‘no more’). Bevan, in turn, praised the flats as ‘a tribute to an intelligent borough’.
Do we conclude that the real story of this kind of council housing was politics and that ‘architecture’ was an unselfconscious by-product, a kind of icing on the cake, in much the same way as the Georgian and Edwardian housing speculators practised regularity or added decor? Will ‘council housing’, those many borough surveyors’ blocks, eventually constitute another strata of our cherished vernacular?
Sadly, there is a danger that all the metal windows will be rippped out and replaced by the most unsympathetic plastic windows.
This contribution forms part of an ongoing research on Shoreditch Post WW II Council Housing.
Sources: Shoreditch Council: Housing Committee Minutes; Hackney Gazette, Sept. 22, 25, 27 1950; ‘Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch’, in Surveys. A Publication of the Ideal Press Technical Group, Vol. 1 No 4 May 1951, pp. 5-26;
M. Glendinning and S. Muthesius, Tower Block. Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Yale University Press 1994.
Stefan Muthesius taught architectural and design history at the
University of East Anglia and is the author (with Miles Glendinning)
of Tower Block. Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and
Northern Ireland (1994)
Look for past Buildings of the Month by entering the name of an individual building or architect or browsing the drop down list.