MODERNISM'S PIONEERING HOUSING HAS NOT LEFT QUITE THE LEGACY PLANNED
In 1933, Wells Coates told the Listener: 'We cannot burden ourselves with permanent, tangible possessions as well as our real, new possessions of freedom, travel, new experience - in short, what we call life.' The tiny fly in the ointment is that 'what we call life', by Coates' definition, is wholly dependent on what we call wealth. Isokon, the 'ideal' housing development which Coates helped to create (see pages 25-37), was designed to serve a life if not of af'uence then at least of comfort; of creative endeavour, and freedom from the drudgery of daily life.
Seven decades later, and, beautifully restored, it remains a magnet for those sufficiently in thrall to the building's aesthetics, location and iconic status to make the necessary adjustments to their lifestyles that the rather cramped conditions require.
Isokon has shown itself to have lasting appeal, but it is less clear that it has fulfilled its promise as a prototype for modern housing. The vast majority of the demand for contemporary housing projects is made up of those who do daily battle with the grind of going to work, feeding the family, imposing a degree of order on the home. People who need cupboards, tool sheds, freezers, all the necessary paraphernalia for basic self-sufficiency. People who want shelves to house the books and CDs and DVDs that they see as an enhancement of, as opposed to a poor substitute for, daily life. Those who need space to stow clothes that are between seasons, or between children, or between diets.
The concerns voiced on this week's letters page about the housing project in last week's AJ underlines the fact that the legacy of Modernism's pioneering housing schemes has not been quite as planned. While the bohemian frisson of 1930s Hampstead remains a distant dream, modernday housebuilders are all too happy to adopt the space standards deemed acceptable for that particular way of life.