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What happened to the social conscience of architecture?

Owen Hatherley

Ten houses in Toxteth show how architects can go beyond ‘serving the rich’, do their duty on dereliction and help wider society, says Owen Hatherley

The distant prehistory of modern architecture in the UK is remembered as well for the things it did not do as those it did. Modernists such as Wells Coates or the firebrands of Tecton spent their day jobs designing blocks of luxury flats such as Highpoint or Isokon, or the villas for psychoanalysts in north London that formed most of the portfolios of Maxwell Fry or Connell, Ward and Lucas. What they also did is at least equally significant: forming the MARS – the Modern Architecture ReSearch – group, which lobbied for Modernist design, replanning of districts and social housing. MARS produced an influential and exceptionally radical plan for London, which was absolutely unbuildable and politically implausible, but had an enormous influence on the actual replanning that took place after 1945.

Of course, they would have had trouble doing one of these things without the other, but the point remains: day jobs that involved serving the rich went along with envisaging a future that would not be so beholden to them. It would be a little silly to call London collective Assemble our equivalent of Tecton – ‘where are the buildings?’ would be the first, unanswerable question – but it is an intriguing thought.

Tecton, that collective of émigrés, Marxists, enthusiasts and homegrown tankies, spent much of the 1930s designing the chicest of chic villas, luxury pieds-a-terre and, curiously, zoos. When not doing this, they formed the Architects and Technicians Organisation, which produced designs for public bomb shelters and developed plans for ‘working-class flats’ in opposition to the Neo-Georgian tenements of the London County Council. A radical local authority, Finsbury, spotted this and appointed Tecton to design a health centre and three housing estates, now universally recognised as some of the best in London. Eight decades later, Assemble appears to have moved from a whimsical portfolio of ‘follies’, pop-ups and public realm to work of serious political importance, in the refurbishment for a community land trust of 10 houses in Toxteth, Liverpool. The usual criticism is that the members have the trust funds to enable them to take those commissions. Maybe so. Or perhaps it has made them just distant enough from an architectural culture in which co-operation in social cleansing is wholly acceptable.

Where is the competition for the ‘new London council flat’?

The streets in Toxteth were made derelict by a noxious Blair-era scheme called the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder, in which architects queued up for the chance to build the ‘aspirational’ houses to replace those needlessly cleansed, just as they queue today to build the poor out of Southwark’s Aylesbury Estate and Heygate Estate. Excuses are always ready, from the dishonest ‘But it’s 50 per cent affordable!’ (at 80 per cent of market rent), to the more believable ‘We’ve got 30 people in the office who need to pay the rent’. Let’s do these firms the courtesy of at least believing the latter explanation. So where is the proof that they can even imagine something different?

There is today, especially in London, a profound housing crisis. Yet where is the competition for the ‘new London council flat’? Where is the counter-proposal for the Aylesbury Estate? The architecture schools haven’t been totally torpid here, as the Bartlett’s involvement with the campaign over the Carpenters Estate in Stratford shows. We all know how much architects hate doing so much of this work, but where is the concrete counter-proposal? Where are the resignations? Where are the dissenters? Or is it enough just to build more civilised yuppie flats, with active frontages and mixed tenures?

Assemble has, rather surprisingly, shown that a firm of architects could actually work with a group of activists, rather than with developers. Much bigger things could emerge from this than a couple of small streets in Toxteth. Architects, to the desk drawer.



Readers' comments (2)

  • I was told by a practice last week that the fee for a social housing scheme for a full service was 1.6%.
    Architects have to decide whether this is even worth bothering about. Maybe social housing is no longer an area in which architects can compete against low cost providers.
    I advised them to outsource production to the far east. At least that way they won't go bankrupt trying to do the right thing.
    If the social housing providers are seriously c-in believing that the service can be bought that cheaply - they deserve everything they get - which won't be much or anything worth reporting I suspect.

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  • I don't think architecture can have a social conscience as it is a category of activity.
    But architects have a social conscience - but given the awful economic position most are in - I think it a bit much to round on them when they make less than a graphic designer.
    Perhaps you should reserve your spleen for those who actually commission housing. They are the ones who are driving quality into the ground.I hope the AJ are clear about who is responsible for the next public outcry on housing - and it is not the architect for a change.

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