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Ivor Smith: What makes a house a home?

The architect of Park Hill Estate, Sheffield on the rules of good housing

Apart from those things that are practically necessary, what makes a house a home? It is a place to feel secure, sheltered emotionally as well as physically, a private place apart from the world outside. A house is where people come together, it is also where they may choose to be alone. Sometimes it is a place for peace and quiet, at other times a place to party. A house requires its own outside space, its garden, courtyard or terrace, large enough for sitting around. On both the outside and the inside, every detail is seen close-to, and consequently the colour, texture and touch of every material has a strong impact on the feeling of homeliness. Above all, the house is a place to belong, to have a sense of identity. The entrance therefore has a particular significance; it is where a visitor is welcomed and invited to come in; it is the interface between the outside and the inside, the public and the private, and requires to be celebrated.

Groups of houses form edges and these can be used to define streets

Progressive contemporary housing must be set against the background of those many estates that have been built in Britain and elsewhere on the outskirts of cities, towns and villages; anonymous uniform developments that are unrelated to their locality and could be anywhere. It is here that the issue of identity is most acute, but how can this be achieved? There are valuable precedents. Groups of houses form edges, and these in turn can be used to define streets or squares or landscaped areas that you might pass through on your way home, and perhaps have a casual conversation with neighbours. This is where children might play, supervised from nearby windows. There are different qualities living at ground level, at the top, or on a level in between; ends and corners similarly offer opportunities to enhance a sense of identity. Expression of the whole dwelling rather than the repetition of separate windows can order the scale of a large building, and further give clues to where one lives. The sensitive designer searches for the particularities of each site and its relation to the existing urban grain.

There are continuing pressures of change. Different lifestyles affect the house and its surroundings; increases in population and land values impact on density; there is more mobility and car ownership; the internet is influencing ways of working, shopping, as well as  meeting together. Consequently there is need for innovative design. Some developers attempt to achieve identity by the imposition of arbitrary forms and a medley of different materials and colours, but these are superficial gestures. What is required is patient reflection and an understanding of the complex and discreet issues that generate a sense of place.  

This essay was first published in Exemplar Housing Estate Regeneration in Europe – a collaboration between the Architects’ Journal and Karakusevic Carson Architects

Readers' comments (5)

  • 'Expression of the whole dwelling rather than the repetition of separate windows can order the scale of a large building' - this helped greatly to 'humanise' Park Hill, as can be seen when the deck access elevations are compared with the opposite, 'human', side.
    The Park Hill elevations are surely rather more successful than those of the Smithsons' Robin Hood Gardens - and if you wander around the back of King's Cross the new Saxon Court / Roseberry Mansions blocks by Maccreanor Lavington show what happens when rigorous repetition and order rule the day (at least, on the street elevations) and the influence of Louis Sullivan is obvious.
    But then, he wasn't designing homes for people in Chicago - and it's intriguing that the mix of housing types and communal facilities at King's Cross are in fact not that much different from that at Park Hill.

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  • This is a decent, humane account by a decent, humane architect. There's also very good account of the successes and otherwise (the latter mostly down to (mis)management) of Park Hill in Concretopia, by John Grindrod, including praise for how the un-Urban Splashed part still works.
    A good account there too of the Smithsons and their total disregard for humanising anything. Robin Hood Gardens comes - I think - in that large category of buildings of that period that are only desirable when compared with the 21st century, wholly market-oriented, non-Parker Morris replacement. Like so many buildings of that time - but not Park Hill - it was totally overwhelmed by the needs of the car and that hasn't been resolved yet.
    Saxon Court is certainly a good-looking block but again it's right by a major road, as well as the rail lines - I don't know if it is indeed the case but when the housing at King's Cross was being planned the setting of the 'affordable' units was so polluted and noisy that they were to have no opening windows. And what is affordable housing? 80% of market rent? I think Ivor Smith won that one too.

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  • I too thought that the Smithsons had a 'total disregard for humanising anything' - but was then intrigued to see their domestic interventions (in their later years) for their friend Axel Bruchhauser in his garden in Germany - the witch in his Hexenhaus looks to have been suspiciously human.

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  • Surely, most Parker Morris standard housing could easily be upgraded for modern use, as MAE has demonstrated in Kings Lynn, so why not do it wholesale ?

    On the other hand, there are some things UK Architects seem unable to resist, adding poor quality materials to the facades especially, rather than sticking rigidly to their eminently durable Brutalist starting points. As for not having even a single step up at the front door, I wonder if no-one has seen the news about floods.

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  • "Smithsons had a 'total disregard for humanising anything'" Really? The Smithsons were probably among the first to be critical of building housing too high, suggesting that the maximum height for residences should be determined by the ability to speak to someone on the ground from the uppermost level. And weren't they among the very small group of architects that saw the value of the street, e.g. via Nigel Henderson's photographs of children playing in the street? Granted they still stuck unquestionable to certain modernist formal tropes but they were instrumental in opening up architectural discourse to human centred critiques. Whether that makes RHGs a historically valuable project is another matter, but I think we ought to be more precise with our critiques of their ideas, their buildings and their historical significance.

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