Modernist architecture, including and especially that of the Welfare State, took for granted that the forms, spaces and organisation of building had the power to affect both individuals’ lives and broader society. For many architects this recognition simultaneously represented a responsibility and obligation. The early twentieth century witnessed architecture turning towards a section of the built environment it had scarcely been involved in before: collective housing.
The Netherlands was the first country to embrace this opportunity. Occupying a position of neutrality during the First World War while other countries shelled each other’s populations the Netherlands housed hers. It began with an act of legislation the Woningwet (Housing Act) 1902 designed to deal with the slum dwellings of Dutch cities. Amongst its mandatory measures, the act called for the establishment of building codes and the provision of an extension plan for all settlements of 10,000 inhabitants or more. The densely occupied slums of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and elsewhere began to be unpacked, resulting in a series of new urban settlements and housing schemes which were organised and constructed as communal, social (or even socialist) entities. German cities such as Frankfurt-am-Main and Berlin continued this trend during the Weimar Republic. At Frankfurt, the city-architect Ernst May constructed a series of new settlements (siedlungen) surrounding the city (1924-29).
While these were somewhat influenced by the Garden City ideas of Ebenezer Howard, they differed in one key aspect. As a response to the straightened economic circumstances of 1920s Germany, May embraced the mass-production of building components in factories as a means of building houses as cheaply as possible. The concrete panels used expressed an aesthetic of architecture that was unadorned and somewhat austere. This architecture not only reflected its origins in factories but took the idea of mechanisation further to propose a new type of wohnkultur (way of living). Explored most explicitly through the production of scientifically determined bathrooms and kitchens, it represented the extension of an early modernist dream: the house as a machine for living in.
Britain’s engagement with the mass production of housing did not emerge at any significant scale until after the Second World War. The war played a critical role in not only preparing the territory for the subsequent economic boom but also establishing the circumstances for a renewed social contract to reward combatants and civilians with the promise of better housing and, ultimately, a consumer-led culture. The New Town Act of 1946 was, evidently, an integral part of this new promise of social betterment. Like the development of tower blocks and other modernist antecedents, the New Towns proposed new forms of settlement, new ways of living with decanted inner city populations. As Greg Keeffe suggests in the introduction to ‘Creating Craigavon’, the New Town was intended as a corrective to the city, a built critique of its densities and unplanned growth, realised as a planned environment conceived as a series of harmoniously working parts. Accordingly and perhaps paradoxically, in places like Craigavon it emerged as a quasi-pastoral landscape of low density housing couched in swathes of grass and strung along transportation routes. The adoption of the Radburn layout allowed further differentiation between pedestrians and traffic.
The creation of smooth, frictionless systems of movement at the scale of the town plan had an echo within the construction of houses. Ideas of mass-production, beginning in the 1940s, had thrown up issues of the size of the constituent parts and how these might fit together, neatly. In the 1950s, inter-disciplinary organisations such as the Modular Society emerged not only to promote the benefits of mass-production but also to attempt to define, from all the systems available, a set of universal component sizes and measurements. By the early 1960s the measuring of the material fabric of housing had been extended to the domestic spaces within the home. The Parker Morris report, entitled Homes for Today and Tomorrow (1961) attempted to define the space standards necessary for the new patterns of living that were evident at the beginning of the new decade. Accordingly, Parker Morris’s recommendations suggest spaces to accommodate new white goods and an emerging consumer culture. Household activities were now thought to include free-time – the watching of television, playing with a train-set or at ping pong – as well as an assumption that new heating systems would allow the full use of the house and an emancipation from the confines of the hearth.
The architecture of housing in Craigavon has its variations – some are built in brick, others in white render; some have flat roofs, most have pitched; most had two storeys, some like the Aldervale Flats by the architects McKinstry Campbell Clendinning and Burnet had three or more storeys; some, like the latter have been demolished, others remain; some were constructed using mass-produced components, others used traditional methods. But the similarities outweigh the variations. They all share the space standards defined by Parker Morris as a guarantee of, at least, the very minimum necessary to live well and into the future. They all share an adherence to a greater plan that was and is Craigavon. Most importantly, however, they all share within their forms an ideological assumption that was embedded within the very idea of the Welfare State – the desirability of the redistribution of wealth, as well as the means through which it might be effected: the building of social housing.
Gary A. Boyd. Forthcoming 2015. ‘Parker Morris and the economies of the Fordist house’ in Economy and Architecture, edited by Juliet Odgers, Mhairi McVicar, Stephen Kite. London: Routledge.
Gary A. Boyd, Hugh Campbell, Fergal McCabe. 2014. ‘New Towns in the Twentieth Century’ in Architecture 1600-2000: Art and Architecture of Ireland Vol. IV, edited by Rolf Loeber, Hugh Campbell, Livia Hurley, John Montague, Ellen Rowley. Yale University Press: New Haven.
David Evans. 1977. An Introduction to Modern Ulster Architecture. Belfast: Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.
Miles Glendinning 1994. Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art) http://www.towerblock.org
Sarah Lappin. 2014. ‘Public Housing in Northern Ireland in the Twentieth Century’ in Architecture 1600-2000: Art and Architecture of Ireland Vol. IV, edited by Rolf Loeber, Hugh Campbell, Livia Hurley, John Montague, Ellen Rowley. Yale University Press: New Haven.
Mark Swenarton, Tom Avermaete and Dirk van den Heuvel, 2014. Architecture and the Welfare State. London: Routledge.
Christine Wall. 2013. An Architecture of Parts: Architects, Building Workers and Industrialisation in Britain 1940 – 1970. London: Routledge.
About the Author
Gary A. Boyd is Reader in Architecture and Director of the M.Arch programme at Queen’s University, Belfast. In 2014, he was joint commissioner/curator of the Irish Pavilion for the Venice Architectural Biennale 2014. A book following the exhibition and entitled Infrastructure and the Architectures of Modernity in Ireland 1916-2016 will be published by Ashgate in 2015.