The social segregation of 19th century housing is used as a template by today’s architects, says Owen Hatherley
Like the sudden discovery of spikes set in the front of buildings to deter rough sleeping, the press has picked up on the phenomenon of separate doors for ‘private’ and ‘affordable’ residents of new blocks of flats somewhat late. The shock is puzzling for anyone who has been watching what has been happening in British cities for the past few years, but it does speak of some gradual simmering outrage at an ongoing project of built-in inequality.
Yet social segregation coming as part of building design is part of a logic which comes with the embrace of the 19th century city – one which was always deeply segregated, class-defined and snobbish, something which its enthusiasts have grown to forget over the past few decades.
The 19th century city, however aesthetically uniform, was not egalitarian in the slightest. The fans of the great London squares have always failed to account for the fact that they were, and in many cases still are, private spaces – originally, the territory of Bloomsbury was specifically gated off from the slums of St Giles.
The architecture of the Classical terrace is based on the logic of an elegant, well-mannered, refined frontage and a back end which is not nearly so carefully considered – as the old quip had it: ‘Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Anne backsides’.
Although, of course, today the irregular rear ends of terraces in Bath or Edinburgh, visibly reflective of the piecemeal nature of property speculation, are enjoyed for their own craggy charms, for some time this contrast was a source of shame. This side was not supposed to be looked at. Moreover, the houses had basements for servants, devoid of much in the way of light or comfort, something we shouldn’t forget in an era where the basement of a Georgian house can cost as much as a small island. The institution of mews, however charming, is part of the same phenomenon.
It is similar on the Continent. The now much-praised system of ‘Mietskaserne’ or ‘rental barracks’ in Berlin or Vienna entailed a Classical, Baroque or Art Nouveau front to the street, a courtyard behind and, often, one or more courtyards behind that. The deeper you went inside, the less light and air there was, and the poorer were the inhabitants.
Here, too, you would have different entrances into the same building and here, too, a sense that what looked from a distance to be one structure was actually several, for different classes, luxurious for some. The resultant city is today praised for its apparent ease of legibility, for the way that the buildings appear to ‘address’ the street, and the claim is that this can be prised from the underlying spatial inequality.
If an area of 19th century housing has ever become spatially and socially equal, it has been either because it has become unfashionable enough to be affordable or because, as in much of north London, councils have bought it up.
The Modernist city did not have front ends or back ends, gated ends or ‘mixed tenure’, but – at least in its original promise – a total egalitarianism, where space is open and free to all. The rejection of this in favour of ‘defensible space’ can easily lead to some wanting to ‘defend’ their bit of space from the plebs, even if it’s in the same building.
We are building cities based on exclusivity, distinction and snobbery, as every advertisement screams, as our phraseology of ‘aspiration’ embodies, as our CCTV cameras constantly record. If the city is to be for all, we cannot take our models from a society that was as hopelessly unequal as our own.