The celebrated 88-year-old architect behind three trailblazing social housing schemes received the RIBA Royal Gold Medal yesterday (2 October). Ella Braidwood met him
What does the Royal Gold Medal mean to you?
Astonishment. A huge amount of pleasure that my work is recognised more generally, at a different level, from what I had ever anticipated, either doing it or since. I didn’t even know I had been applied for this time and then, quite suddenly, I got the title!
What do you think of Ben Derbyshire as the new RIBA president?
I’m delighted. He’s very serious and keen to do it right. What we have to do is totally rethink now. After the Grenfell fire, we must never, never, never again do segregated high-rise buildings with those risks – ever. We have to reinvent our housing programme and finance. Everyone has had to rethink, more or less everything, since the Grenfell fire – the relationship between public need and government and power.
After the fire, a number of architects told the AJ that this tragedy highlighted how their role in project teams had diminished over the years. Do you think this is true?
Of course it had. When it came to the role of the architect, on the client side, they set up management companies, so the architect didn’t deal directly with the client – they dealt with management people, who had authority to take decisions without any further explanation. So dialogue and authority were removed from the position of the architect. Utterly, utterly inexcusable. Unforgivable. As a consequence, we now have a national problem, which deals with thousands of people, the structure of cities – and a loss of understanding as to how we cope with the social problem. That is a consequence of decisions taken by Margaret Thatcher. I’m talking politics; maybe I shouldn’t be.
What do you think of the general state of the profession at the moment?
Confusion. When we were doing it, the role [of the architect] was very simple and very clear. After the war, almost everything was done through national authority. The whole of our urban landscape had basic planning … and the ability of local authorities was extended so they could buy sites with compulsory purchase. Almost all of the building was done by the state.
How can the marginalisation of architects be addressed?
I honestly don’t know. We can’t do it. [Long pause]. The only way I think we can deal with that is via the process of the controls, which need to be reapplied for public building. Then we can be set up so that the architects’ authority is reasserted.
According to its terms of reference, the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry will not look at social housing. What do you think of this?
It’s outrageous because of the outrage – absolutely justifiable – of literally hundreds of people; the outrage of other people who are going to be upset. Therefore it becomes a local problem to them and their building, and the politicians are going to foster that in order that the major big problem can be sidestepped: the big problem of how you finance and manage new housing, or public building. That sets up huge problems of money, land use, population time, and finance.
In the wake of the fire, what should be done about similar UK tower blocks?
The ones that are built, I don’t know them in detail well enough. There may be other conditions indeed that I have to apply, like reality. But my instinct is we ought to have a long-term overhaul programme to redo the whole kit and caboodle.
What is the future of housing in the UK?
Nobody has a view of it. Well, there are people who do – like me. But there’s no public view. We failed with Homes for Heroes; we failed with the Decent Homes [Programme]; and we failed with Homes for Today and Tomorrow [drawn up] by Parker Morris for one simple reason: we never set up a long-term programme of finance management, maintenance, or the problems subsequent to the initial building. Therefore the buildings were never properly financed and [they] decayed.
Which of your schemes are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all three [UK] schemes. All three of them are a single, developing [entity] – unique. The windows are the same, the balustrades are the same, and the colour schemes are the same. All throughout it is the same special, structural, technical aesthetic development idea. It all represents a thesis for a small group of houses. It’s based on the 18th and 19th century propositions of housing; making a framework in a more or less anonymous way around a public space.
Why do you prefer designing high-density, low-rise schemes?
When we needed higher densities we started doing something that was wrong: plonking high buildings in low spaces. We segregated them – the low income from the high income. We invented a new kind of class distinction, and that continues now. We have high buildings, particularly in the Midlands and the North, which are simply occupied by the poor and the unemployed. People like me got fed up with that kind of thing and decided that we’d make the continuous city – low-rise. It means that people’s houses, front doors and gardens are part of the structure of the environment for everybody. It means you can mix classes and incomes, and old and young all together in a continuous environment, where everybody gains by contact with everybody.
What do you want your architectural legacy to be?
I’m delighted that [my schemes] are looked at, and they are looked at all over, even in America – because they are beautiful; people love living there. This thinking that we were doing then in England was probably the most totally integrating, recreating thinking harboured at that time in Europe. One of the things that happened – that I have funny feelings about – is because of Right to Buy. What I wanted with Alexandra Road, and I explained it at the time, was we did it as social housing.
Who is the best architect you have ever worked with?
Lyons, Israel and Ellis. It was a practice that James Stirling, John Miller, David Gray, me and some others worked for about a three or four year period after the war, and they were absolutely wonderful as a practice to learn how to build buildings. And [when] we did buildings, the detailing of buildings was the same scrutinising, close attention as you gave to the overall concept – you just didn’t differentiate.
Do you think we need more social housing in the UK?
Of course, [but] there’s no way it can be properly done and privately financed. Particularly as we now have a neoliberal notion of no kinds of financial control, and finance should be done for profit [and] for the businesses that do it … what they do quite often is commit themselves to various things and reduce the standards as they build the building. That is a catastrophe for anything that has a social content idea as fundamental to it being successful.
Do you have any regrets?
No. I’m happy with what I did. I did these buildings in England. When we finished Alexandra Road, I never did another building [in England]. We had to do it against opposition all the way through. The public inquiry went on for over two years, it was perfectly frightful. It ended up with virtually no criticism of the architect, only criticism of the council. Then when the building was finished people queued up to live there and loved it. Nobody is going to employ an architect who has had a public inquiry into their work. I never did another building in England as a consequence of that.
This article appeared in the Offsite construction issue – click here to buy a copy