All about the House

Terraced housing

Terraced housing in Islington, north London.

I have recently completed my Upgrade from MPhil student to PhD student at the Sheffield School of Architecture, University of Sheffield; as part of my Doctoral studies. In the process of this I had cause to reassess what I was doing in my studies, what purpose was I going to put all this blood, sweat and, no doubt tears, to! It seems my key area of interest is the same as it has always been housing. How people live, why they live that way, what housing as a form of architecture and building, provides for us to live the way we want to live. The housing market and the associated inflation busting price hikes are a symptom I believe of a broken system. A system of capitalist exploitation of something that I believe fervently is a right not a privilege, decent housing.

As in the recent article “Where Will We Live” by James Meek in the London Review of Books and the new book “All that is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster” by Danny Dorling lay out, our housing system is broken beyond repair. Therefore I would argue a new form of housing needs to be developed, or in fact I think it already exists! I don’t mean in terms of structurally or architecturally (although both are problematic) but in terms of the old maxims of supply and demand. The market completely distorts the housing (as verb) process and thereby undermines everything that should be achievable in a country as rich and technologically advanced as ours. Simply put, a decent house with suitable amenities for every single person regardless of income, class or of education. Which of course was the aim set out by those who first developed council housing, now such a dirty word. (See the BBC film ‘The Rise and Fall of the Council House’ for a good synopsis of this)

So housing is once again my key area, I don’t want to limit myself artificially to this as a couple of examples I have already identified, the Black-E or “Blackie” in Liverpool and the SOLON project at St Peter & Paul Church, Clapham; diverge from this, but it is my principle area of focus.

My title, ARCHITECTS AND OTHERS: Anarchist and radical modes of ‘doing architecture’ in the UK, 1969-1985” and the time period of the study have changed slightly has I have began to focus more on the area I want to pay particular attention to. The 1970s are still my key area of interest but this is now bookended by the Housing Acts of 1969 and 1985. The former giving local councils the responsibility not to just clear ‘slums’ and build new dwellings, but to improve existing housing stock significantly introducing General Improvement Areas. The latter by entrenching the ‘Right to Buy’ of the 1980 Act and the official end of the Labour Party’s opposition to the ‘Right to Buy’.

These two moments in housing policy are I feel most significant in determining the potential causes for the period in-between that saw the emergence of other ways of ‘doing architecture’ most specifically and importantly for me housing architecture.

It is principally however my ideological approach and my self-identification as an anarchist (specifically an anarcho-syndicalist) that is driving this study. This is the basis of my critique of the current status quo where the group of individuals with control over architecture is incredibly small. Therefore the opening up of the profession and the disestablishment of its power structures is the only practicable means by which ‘Other’ people will gain greater power and control over architecture.

My approach to anarchist architecture and theory is based on the work of Herbert Read, Colin Ward, & John F.C. Turner; along with Marxists Bill Risebero, David Harvey & Bill Hillier all of which are critiques of architecture and its position in the capitalist system of economic and social control.

So to return to where I began the issue as I see it with housing is the same issue as I see with some much of our capitalist, market drive, profit motivated society; the purposeless desire to acquire wealth for what purpose we seem not to know, but nonetheless that is what we do. So we don’t live in houses we need or even want but the ones we desire, or desire others to see us living in. The construction, marketing and occupation of these buildings is driven not by need or usefulness; not as Marx said from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” but by social and economic status and consumerism. That is in the end the basic problem with which I an wrestling and within the small area of study I am carrying out over the next three or four years it is the area I hope to be able to make some useful contribution to.

Watch this space!

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About Michael Coates

Michael is a Principal Lecturer for Contextual Studies at the Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, and a PhD student in architecture history at the Univeristy of Sheffield.

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