Sunday, February 26, 2012

Article in the Observer by Rowan Moore

Above:  Sunday morning I read this article in the Observer by Rowan Moore arguing that modernist social housing did not fail society, society failed modernist social housing.  Looking at the example of the Pruitt-Igoe estate in St Louis (in America) Rowan Moore listed the all the external factors that led to the decline of the Pruitt-Igoe estate.  It was a well-written piece but ultimately unconvincing.

Above:  Sunday afternoon I was in Lambeth and I paused to look at the Westbury Estate (Durrington Tower in the foreground, Amesbury Tower just visible behind).  Someone moving from a substandard property into one of these flats in the early 1960s would initially experience a feeling of relief, but for most people this relief would turn to feelings of alienation.  It's not hard to see why.  The towers are obviously alienated from their surroundings and from the cultural-historical continuum that most people inhabit (either consciously or unconsciously).  Putting people into this disconnected environment made many of them react in a number of negative ways - depression, flight (for those who could afford it), rejection.  At it's most extreme limit rejection took the form of anti-social activity and vandalism.

Above:  a few streets away is the Larkhall estate - social housing constructed in the late 1920s.  This Neo-Georgian estate has all the features that modernists would abhor - reddish-brown brick laid in English bond, stucco surrounds, weatherboarded spandrels, casement dormers, chimneystacks, sash windows, a little Gothick tracery, relief sculpture panels, iron railings etc.  Although modernists deride this construction as worthless pastiche Larkhall gives its residents a sense of dignity, status and identity that is callously denied the residents of the Westbury estate (I use the word callous, as the architects of the Westbury towers have placed their professional egos above the feelings of the people who have to live in their designs).

I would be surprised if the real cost of building the Westbury estate towers was any cheaper than the real cost of building Larkhall.

Above:  debased classical capitals on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum.  In my opinion including classical motifs in social housing projects will reassure the residents of their social worth and social status, and help them move towards self-actualisation within society.  Modernism ultimately failed because it is based on breaking the cultural-historical continuum and placing residents in a "year zero" that few of them are psychologically-equipped to cope with.

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