The Form of Housing


Neave Brown



Attitudes towards housing are undergoing a change. The motives have little to do with the housing crisis, the problem of producing more houses, quicker and cheaper. Numerous projected housing schemes differ in organisation from characteristic post-war housing, and show a closer conformity to the continuity of the existing city, into which many of them must fit. It is as if the accommodation that was recently piled in slabs and towers, with a sprinkling of lower maisonettes and terraces, usually withdrawn from the perimeter of the site and at some distance from each other, has been compressed and flattened out to fill the extremes of the site. Instead of buildings standing as objects in an open space, the buildings tend to form a continuous texture and the open space becomes geometrically finite and positively organised, an element in the design.

Many aspects of housing are being re-assessed to cause this change; ideas about the proper nature of urban space, the social requirements of housing, and the ideal relationships to be established between the new and the old, in which the existing pattern is no longer to be rejected but is to share in the process of renovation in which new and old must exist side by side, both assuming – if possible – a similar relationship to the reorganised circulation systems on which both depend. 

In this sense any new project can be seen as a single element sharing in and promoting the general process of transformation of an urban environment which grew quite haphazardly into a functioning system catering for weights of movement, standards of amenity and densities undreamed of when the cities grew.

The background into which our housing schemes are projected is to a large degree nineteenth century housing, composed of terraces of houses aligned parallel to streets. Despite differences this basic system prevailed. Even at its worst it produced a certain immediacy of relationship between house and neighbourhood, and if haphazard and deficient in public and private amenity, the virtues of contact between house and street, neighbour and neighbour, pubs, shops and backyard industry generated the cohesive street society. While providing improved amenities within the home, new housing has failed to maintain a similar immediacy of contact which seems essential to an urban culture. The problem of the form of mass housing has yet to be solved.

The ‘New Concept of Space’ of the Modern Movement, as expressed in urbanism and by attitudes towards urbanism implicit in large projects, was characterised by a departure and a separation from the continuous fabric of the decayed city inherited from the nineteenth century. Innumerable projects, built and unexecuted, were shown on drawings as bright and sunny areas against a dark surrounding background. Within a cleared site the new buildings stood insulated by parkland. The old city, the ground of the new figure, appeared as a maze of blighted chasms within which, it was implied, man had regressed to a sort of industrial savage. Its typical form, the street, and the wall of buildings which bounded it, became the target of criticism. ‘It is the well-trodden path of the eternal pedestrian, a relic of the centuries, a dislocated organ that can no longer function. The street wears us out. And when all is said and done, we have to admit it disgusts us’ [Le Corbusier, ‘The street’, 1929]. The Radiant City was intended to destroy the street, and return to urban man the privilege of a full and pleasurable life.

The new order to be imposed on the old may have had within itself the characteristics of a complete system, but this was independent of its immediate environment. Corbusier’s Îlot 6 and Pont de St Cloud are both such fragments, suggesting growth and with a potential to extend, take over and finally eliminate the old order. Only the great monuments would remain. The parks and open spaces would become mere incidents in the general parkland which could become the ground across which the new figures of routes, clusters of office towers and continuous housing slabs would weave. The Radiant City would exist in a green landscape displaying no formal characteristics of its own. The city as continuous form, as it were the ground of its own configurations, was eventually to be dissolved altogether, to achieve total unity of space between country and city.

This characteristic of separation, recognising only internal claims for organisation, is fatal both to a city and to the inserted element itself, which inescapably depends on existing patterns to vitalise it. Denial of the indispensable role of context constitutes a serious criticism of much of the architecture of the twenties and thirties. Too great a respect for existing patterns must have seemed a betrayal to a revolutionary programme; for the new vision to be pure it needed to be free from contamination of the past. Thus it was with the housing prototypes.

It was from the slabs and towers of German and Scandinavian pre-war housing, as well as Corbusier, that English post-war housing derived. The source projects were organised around principles, many no longer acceptable. However, the typical English mixed development schemes can be traced to widely disparate sources, and contain mutually conflicting ideas. They represent a garnering of architectural forms, assembled without unifying principle. The idea of the ‘Building in Space’, if not an organising principle, seemed justification enough.

One characteristic of the pre-war work prevailed, a reminiscence of the Ville Radieuse, of unspecific open space as the appropriate ground for the new urban patterns, and the consequent separation of the new patterns from the old.

It was in an attempt to overcome the isolation of the slab, tower and maisonette that concepts of street, neighbourliness and continuity re-appeared, in project form in the Smithsons’ Golden Lane and in fact at Park Hill. The model for continuity was again the Ville Radieuse and subsequent projects, with the external pedestrian deck substituted for the Rue Intérieure, and Corbusier’s strictly orthogonal organization loosened to adjust more easily to the haphazard shapes of the existing city. The continuous form also required the integration of all types and sizes of home, overcoming the artificial segregations of mixed development. However, the open space about the blocks still has the quality of a no-man’s-land, separating one type of environment from another, and achieving no positive identity and relationship to the housing which it is there to serve.

Reactions against high-rise and mixed development housing derive mainly from two extreme attitudes. The first is simple, that living high is bad, and living low in a high block is no better. The evidence includes reports in the popular press, hearsay, and studies printed in publications like the New Society. Émile Durkheim points to the statistically significant incidence of suicide by people living in high buildings. No one concerned with the problems of housing can have escaped the impression of mounting dislike of the new type of public housing.

The other reaction is more the response of the architecturally informed, and concerns ideas about the appropriate physique of the city. It is argued that housing is unsuitable material for physically prominent buildings, as it is composed of a vast aggregate of small cells. The similarities of requirement between types of housing, say old people’s flats, houses for small and large families, housing for special groups such as students, are more striking than the differences which are mainly of size and detail. A system such as eighteenth-century terrace housing which can cater to all types with only minimal and essential differences in form, even between the large and small, solves the problem without difficulty. In any attempt to define standards each house is entitled to a similar sort of relationship to its environment. How then can the groupings of cells into large blocks achieving great prominence be justified? And what relevant concept of housing can generate the segregations, conflicts in systems of access and relationship to the ground, and contrasts in form, of mixed development?

The arguments in support of mixed development are in terms of convenience, planning advantages (phasing, decanting, etc.), the valuing of variety for its own sake, and ease of solving the density problem. But these are not positive motives for generating forms, derived from thinking about the needs of housing. Mixed development and point blocks are in general non-solutions, just groupings of houses, forms without content. The only talent that can be exercised is in arranging the blocks in picturesque relationships, as if the city were some vast sculpture whose spatial configurations could be enhanced by a slab here, a tower there, irrespective of the nature of the element or the sort of expression natural and appropriate to its identity. If such heedlessness is practised with housing – the most extensive single element of the city – how can any building, especially one with a valid claim to prominence, achieve with good manners its proper significance?

These are valid criticisms. However, to the social criticism it can be pointed out that uprooted and rehoused populations are susceptible to social neurosis, and the criticisms are not valid comments on the environment in which people find themselves, since there would be distress in any case. And to the formal criticism it is claimed that to solve problems of insertion as extreme as ours, the new forms are bound to violate existing patterns, and will therefore upset nostalgic sensibilities.

These justifications do not seem adequate as they contain no defence of the particular solutions under question. The conviction remains, that our typical housing bears little evidence of recognition of many aspects of life it must cater for.

Perhaps the programmatic break with tradition that was part of the Modern Movement coerced architects into producing projects whose forms were primarily designed to demonstrate their severance from the past by symbolic discontinuity. A certain kind of configuration resulted, literally a figure-ground image so seductive that it must have seemed to be the only type of space in which the modern world was conceivable. The content of the resulting typology was much too concerned with the rejection of the past and too little concerned with the particular problem to be solved in all its complexity, allowing for a proper recognition of the needs of continuity, cultural and physical. Of all the functions to be inserted in the city, housing and its ancillaries seem least compatible with this formulation.

Continuity is the inescapable characteristic of housing.

The individual house is itself a puzzle, but housing is not just a collection of houses, high or low. More fundamental are the concepts which hold housing together, relate each house to its neighbour and to it open space, determine the desirable relationships between housing and the attendant functions of shopping, schools, social and welfare buildings, the circulation systems for pedestrians and cars which hold the area together and establish contact. These concepts are concerned with more than utilitarian criteria. They concern interpretations of desirable relationships in order to make perceptible and therefore meaningful the contact between one activity and another, and their mutual dependence.

The problems are, on one level, as palpable as for any building problem. Considered in abstract, and free from the physical difficulties which inhibit planning, these desirable relationships suggest that only a web, a continuous texture of contacts, can provide the immediacy and proximity of each house to its sustaining environment.

On another level the problems are imponderable. The architect has to act with deliberation where previously traditional patterns, endowed with fantastically rich associations, prevailed. Our new physical environment should allow our commonplace gestures to have ease and significance, and to support a similar richness and immediacy. When obscure, possibly inessential but desirable relationships are brought under control, there is not only a gain in convenience, there is an apparent gain in freedom. It is the architect’s job to structure the environment, incorporating in a single form all the concepts that have a claim to inclusion. To make a perceptible order requires more than an assembly of parts, more than the recognition of meaningful relationships by the tactical arranging of the pieces. It requires the integration of all the pieces into a single gesture in which unity and interdependence can be recognised at whatever level they are perceived.

The programme of each housing project differs, and no two sets are identical. However, regard for the common aspects of the problem would be likely to stamp all solutions with certain common characteristics. We are a long way from the unanimity which produced the conformity of eighteenth-century housing, and our problem is so much more complex that so restricted a range of forms is unlikely ever to satisfy our requirements. And despite fashionable ideas of expendability, our economic situation is unlikely to allow us to conceive of houses as ephemera. What we do now with both new and old is here to stay.

So little work has been produced which pays attention to the problem of fitting housing into the environment, that it would be a rash man who could condemn outright one or other solution, high, medium or low. What can be said is that a solution which does not show an inevitability of contact and integration with those aspects of its environment likely to be permanent, is no solution at all. Nor is any project which does not achieve a positive relationship to all its site, and a structured and unified concept within it. And as far as I know, there is not a completed English housing project that satisfies these criteria.

It is this attempt to achieve a better relationship between the house and its environment which explains the changing attitudes towards housing, and the use of low-rise medium-density solutions that are now projected.

Once housing is seen as a compound of many functions, the analogy can be drawn to the planning of any good building with a complex programme. The nature and interdependence of the elements is defined. These the mechanism of the plan must integrate with precise relationships, with a total use of the area available, avoiding residual spaces. These sequences which require immediacy of contact, house and private open space, house to communal open space, house to the pedestrian system, to car parking, to the attendant functions, with continuity and ease of movement, seem to favour horizontal organisation rather than vertical. The primary decision is therefore taken; to build low, to fill the site, to geometrically define open space, to integrate. And at the same time to return to housing the traditional quality of continuous background stuff, anonymous, cellular, repetitive, that has always been its virtue.

Once a major decision is taken in accordance with the main priorities, there are certain consequences which limit the freedom of choice about solutions to other problems. Problems of overlooking, privacy, light penetration, space about buildings, daylight and orientation all have to be reconsidered. It is obvious that aspect and privacy cannot be solved to the same standards in low rise schemes as in point blocks. If buildings are pushed to the extremes of sites, noise penetration from main roads must be solved at the critical frontier, the wall. If public and private space is provided immediately outside the dwelling with good aspect on one side, it may be necessary to close up distances on the other, using alleys, even perhaps back-to-back housing. Attitudes about light angles, space about buildings and orientation require re-examination.

The amenity of a dwelling cannot be considered in isolation from the amenity of the environment of which it is a part. Rigidly codified standards imply that problems exist and can be solved in isolation. Experience shows that this is not so.

A characteristic difficulty of low rise solutions is the ordering and structuring of the pedestrian routes. Without systematic control they easily degenerate into a maze of alleys, impossible to follow and susceptible to abuse, to becoming a new kind of urban slum. Alleys – the pedestrian street, that ‘relic of the centuries’ – have returned, freed from vehicles. The difficult problem remains, of doing well whatever type of organisation is chosen. 



Originally published in Architectural Design, vol. 37 no. 9 (September 1967), pp 432-3


This text is also republished in Cook's Camden: The Making of Modern Housing by Mark Swenarton. Lund Humphries: London, 2017




TEAM 10 PRIMER by Alison and Peter Smithson