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McGuirk: 'Housing for people in need - the big void in today's thinking'

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How do architects design lasting communities for people and what lessons can we learn from the Byker estate, asks Tony McGuirk

Tony McGuirk

Recently, I was one of five speakers addressing a packed debate at the RIBA entitled The Rise and Fall of the Council Estate. I gave a short talk about Byker, a project that I worked on with Ralph Erskine during the 1970s - my first job.

The questions and points from the floor were mildly provocative yet with an tone of frustration. I couldn’t help feeling that this reflected a void in thinking and action at such a critical time for rehousing a burgeoning population - and now one of unprecedented ethnic makeup. 

In debate speakers proffered pragmatism, the  acceptance of austerity, that small steps are best, either through developer revamps of estates with local authorities, or the new wave of smaller community group projects. 

One audience member, a blogger, asked why we couldn’t have more council estates to solve the problem? There is little doubt that political ideology aside, a programme of council estate building could solve the arithmetic need.

A programme of council estate building could solve the arithmetical need

The issue for architects would be how we would go about designing them as lasting communities for people. Many modern council estates of the 1960s were painfully unsuccessful in their urban design approach and architectural character for the people who they were supposed to be designed for.

Many schemes like Fort Ardwick in Manchester had to be demolished, as they became uninhabitable. The flawed urban planning and alien architecture was exacerbated by a rehousing policy that moved people from clearance areas in city communities into remote newly provided estates usually on the edge of the centre and often even further. This took no account of family, friendships or work ties of the people being rehoused - they were simply allocated a flat or house as their number came up.

Often people and families of known behaviour difficulties were rehoused together, creating places within the new estates that other people avoided. This impeded social cohesion and the forming of new communities.

One audience member suggested there is a present-day ‘cleansing’ of council estates, presumably meaning the effect of bedroom tax compounded by estate redevelopments which don’t provide enough affordable housing. He cited examples of people being relocated from central London to places as far afield as Hartlepool.

A panellist interjected with the view that council estate residents were badly depicted in the public eye: today’s media representing them poorly from TV dramas to published political rhetoric

The big question I felt that was hanging in the air but never asked was: If architects had the same opportunity today would they design in the same way and with the same attitudes? It is worth recalling the antipathy to council estate design and housing allocation that swelled up in the late 1960s. This was the spark that set alight the big shift that is Byker at the end of that decade.

The Byker people refused to move to the edge of the city from their community of ship building families (14,000 people) set on the eastern bank of Newcastle City Centre. After stonewalling the politicians, a new city administration moved to bring in someone to resolve the very pressing problem. This was Ralph Erskine, a Quaker architect, social thinker, an emigre from England to the social dream of Scandinavia in the 1930s.

Ralph didn’t accept the job straightaway and went to stay in Byker and talked to the people on the streets, finally achieving a meeting with the community through the intercession of the clergy from the different denominations. He wrote a ‘Statement of Intent’ for Byker, translating the feelings and wishes of its people into a credo for the creation of a revitalised and new community.

He used this to persuaded the city administration to follow a unique approach to renewing an existing large scale working community in the city centre.

Erskine placed his architect team into Byker, designing from a shop, a converted funeral parlour in the centre of the project. They worked there for over ten years designing with and for the people and creating a striking and enjoyable place to live that has stood the test of the great economic and social shifts brought to working communities by Friedmanist economics and a continually pervading Thatcherite social agenda.

A woman in the audience at the RIBA asked the simple question of whether it was possible to return to designing low rise housing in the city with streets and squares. This is a very important question to architects as the aesthetic ambitions we are imbued with in our education are ones of a building up of scale and composition rather than a breaking it down to human scale- but this is just as big a challenge.

Byker for instance is notable among most architects and commentators for its Byker Wall. It is however eighty per cent low rise, of primarily two to three storey streets and squares and semi- private courts and lanes. If you visit Byker and just put your camera in your pocket and wander, it is the intimate spaces between the buildings that are the overriding and charming experience.

This is the lasting memorable part of  the project, and one the urban design guru Jan Ghel visited regularly with his students from Copenhagen. In a talk at the RIBA he declared Ralph Erskine to be his great hero.

Tony McGuirk and Ralph Erskine

Ralph had expressed just before he began Byker that his office wished ‘to achieve an open ended and attractive environment which is free from monumentality or opulence, and to ally ourselves with new society builders rather than the establishment. Those shipbuilding families of the Tyne became the new society builders - for a while.

It may seem predictable that I would be a proponent of this approach having worked on the scheme, and that this is just a personal predilection. But at a time when one of our most notable global architects proposes the retention of a monolithic Brutalist experiment and failed housing model by the Smithsons, it is important to rally to what Colin St John Wilson termed ‘the alternative tradition in modernism’ represented in Byker. If we don’t, and we ever get the chance of designing large scale housing neighbourhoods again in our cities that significantly include for people in need, we will no longer have the sensibilities so important in the approach to designing with people.

The privatised housing blocks that fill the property pages in the pages of our newspapers, are wholly insufficient to meet the need, and by their process prevent the sensitivity needed in our approach to people and their daily lives. Architects including myself working on the majority of these projects rarely meet the people who will live in the homes. The look and the branding espoused in the the internationalised CGI and property narrative have become king.

Byker was not designed as a theoretical model for future copy across our cities as Robin Hood Gardens, but as an approach to designing for people within their communities and an approach to the particular setting within the city and its qualities for an enjoyable life for all those who lived there. Nor was it designed as a gentrified idea but more to give special qualities of space in the home and life between the buildings.

It is an inventive approach to low cost housing not searching for the perfect urban model but creating life out of idiosyncrasy and imperfection, as in traditional towns and communities. It celebrates its low budget with an architectural language, of colour, juxtaposition, appendages, and greening. It was a joyous place to live for the early Byker people who needed homes and most importantly today it is enjoyed by a new generation in need.

Tony McGuirk is an architect and urban designer. He worked with Ralph Erskine on the Byker Project in the 1970s. He recently set up a new architecture and urban design partnership McGuirkWatson with his young architect colleague Keith Watson.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Richard Saxon

    Great to hear Tony McGuirk speaking out again. Humane design has no better champion. But we do need higher density solutions too.

    Richard Saxon (former colleague).

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  • I'm heartened to read this, despite a collective deafness to its message within the current political mainstream. There is, available to listen to on-line, a lengthy interview with Erskine at the British Library (http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Architects-Lives)- he points out that he was educated at a Quaker school, and although he didn't identify himself as a Quaker, he credited this as underpinning the broad humanitarian values of his professional work. Well worth a listen.

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