First transmitted in 1986, Houses Fit for People looks at housing and where the modern movement went wrong with their high-rises and modern concrete estates.
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BBC Four Collections, archive programmes chosen by experts.
For this collection, Janet Street-Porter has selected
programmes about post-war architecture.
More programmes on this theme
and other BBC Four Collections
are available on BBC iPlayer.
In previous centuries, when people spoke of architecture,
they usually meant grand buildings, not houses for ordinary people.
But the triumph of Western architecture
is not only the cathedrals and castles,
it is also the sum of the streets and squares,
the whole mix of public buildings with the masses of anonymous houses,
both performing a harmonious ensemble.
These houses were erected by London's County Council
at the turn-of-the-century.
The many seemingly endless rows of houses,
with their richness of craftsmanship and quality,
might lack modern amenities,
but their charm and their warm comfort is undeniable.
They're good houses. They serve the people.
They allow for neighbourliness. They're on a human scale.
They promote the feeling of well-being.
These houses tell many stories -
personal ones, social ones and political ones.
In the 1930s, many so-called "Siedlungen" -
settlements - were built, especially in Germany.
Modern architects, like Le Corbusier, Gropius,
Mies van der Rohe, Bruno Taut and others
applied the language of a modern and functional architecture
to housing for the working man.
This is the Horseshoe Siedlung by Bruno Taut in Berlin.
It was built in 1930.
With its clean lines and layout, it expresses the feeling of its period.
At the same time, Taut created a humane environment
for a large number of people.
The houses had just enough anonymity to be urbane,
and enough individuality for people to identify with.
These Siedlungen represented
some of the best ideas of the modern movement.
30 years later, the followers of the same movement built these.
This is a modern housing estate in Berlin, named after
one of the great architects of this century, Walter Gropius.
Architects and planners alike considered them
to be healthier than the Victorian working cottages,
more comfortable than the estates of the '20s
and more urbane than the makeshift architecture of the post-war years.
But did anyone really believe that people could associate
with houses like these?
What stories do they tell? What do they communicate?
Much of this mass housing has ample green space,
but people feel no responsibility towards it.
They offer modern amenities, but they reduce people to numbers.
They are over-planned, over-sanitised.
When Walter Gropius saw the result,
he was so incensed that he threatened to withdraw his name.
Faced with a thousand similar examples,
Mies van der Rohe, at the end of his life,
when asked how he spent his days, replied,
"I get up, I sit on the bed
"and I think, 'What the hell went wrong?
"'We showed them what to do.'"
Even the unquestionable dedication and sincerity of the great masters
cannot paper over the faults of many of their buildings
erected during the post-war years.
This is what Le Corbusier built in 1957
for the architectural exhibition in Berlin.
A vertical city housing 2,000 people.
It was meant to be a shining example for future housing.
It soon fell into neglect.
It is now in need of £1 million worth of repairs.
Many of these developments
were considered to be the best examples of modern public housing.
We've all seen worse.
They're the work of committed architects like James Stirling,
who built this housing estate in 1967.
Again, it was hailed as a new step in social housing.
I think that, in a way, the word itself gives a lot of clues.
I mean, people are not easily, um...typecast.
Individuals are individuals,
and the idea of mass housing
and the image of mass housing
is about a stereotype into which
everybody fits on a large-scale production line,
and possibly the past image of industry
and production lines is probably about as obsolete
in industry's terms as the concept of mass housing,
in its past form, is about housing.
Soon, people realised that high-rises
were totally unsuitable for public housing.
Stories of vandalised and obsolete tower blocks built after
the latest social findings were picked up by the media.
But the message took a long time to sink in.
When this housing estate
by the leading French architect Henri Ciriani
was opened in France in 1980, Kenneth Frampton,
one of the most esteemed international architectural critics,
had this to say.
"For me, this is the only effort made in France
"since the Unite d'Habitation by Le Corbusier in Marseille
"to demonstrate a new potential for achieving a level of civility
"comparable to the high level of urban order
"attained in historic civilisation."
No-one can pretend there are easy solutions
for the uncoordinated visual mess in which most of us now live.
The self-interest and greed of our society
always seem to have the last word.
There are, of course, individual efforts for better housing,
but we fall short of any concerted one.
Very often, good architecture is for the rich.
The poor have to live in junk.
Fortunately, the general wind of change breathing through
the architectural world is also affecting housing.
There is an increasing number of schemes sensitively designed
with people and locality in mind.
Some architects have succeeded in designing houses
which give their inhabitants are feeling of delight,
and which let some care showing through.
Small might not automatically be beautiful, but it is manageable.
One of the early attempts to get away from high-rise
was London's Alexandra Road, built in 1977 by Neave Brown.
The shape of the block was dictated by its position
near to a busy railway line.
The architect created an inward looking space,
free from noise and pollution.
It replaced a row of large Victorian houses with gardens
offering accommodation for 700 people.
The new scheme had to house twice as many.
A piece of architectural showmanship,
the high-rise was simply laid horizontal,
creating the longest terrace in London.
But long access terraces and pedestrian walkways
create as desolate a feeling as do long corridors.
The brutalism of the material, the scale
and, most of all, the high density
has again produced anonymity and monotony.
As so often before, the aspiration of the architects
and those of the tenants were not the same.
Colebeck Mews in North London by David Ford was built in 1978.
Varying roof heights and brick vernacular
create a homely feeling.
This is a pleasant, small scheme, easily expandable.
A picturesque arrangement of houses.
A network of lanes and alleys evokes the atmosphere of a village.
Individual front gardens give a sense of private ownership.
Like many of his housing estates which are built now,
it uses familiar typologies.
This is an environment people want,
although architecturally predictable.
It is recreating the vocabulary of the past.
In the Scott Estate, also in North London,
built by the Islington Architects Department in 1981,
the temptation to make everything
quaint and suburban has been avoided.
The terraced houses on a busy road were modelled
on an existing Victorian townhouse.
The underlying principle was to produce a scheme in sympathy
with the adjoining area, both in scale and material.
This, again, is traditional architecture
with some post-modern detailing in the decoration which gives it unity.
Each facade has been treated differently.
All of them echo familiar features
of London 19th-century terrace houses -
railings, bay windows, steps, porches.
On the inside, a variety of spaces, easy to relate to.
Much care has been taken to create a street life
with alleys and archways - a town within a town.
A tranquil solution compensating for the noisy situation of the front.
This certainly is pleasant,
the right scale and with most people's aspirations in mind.
But it is still a very traditional reworking of Victorian themes.
Everywhere, vernacular architecture is paying lip service to the past.
Polychrome brickwork, pitched roofs, bay or arched windows,
open stairways and extravagant ironwork,
without the handicraft tradition, are all the rage.
Many of the British schemes are typical of British compromise.
While providing pleasant enough dwellings,
they fall between two stools.
They lack the clarity of a modern design,
but they also ill-define the past they're trying to emulate.
The result is fussy and culturally confused.
Anything vernacular will do, except that which smacks of a modern style.
One thing is certain - people like to live in these houses.
So, what chance is there for modern architecture in public housing?
Maiden Lane in north London is a vast public housing scheme
with a mixture of different sized flats
and individual houses totalling 500 dwellings.
Over 1,000 people live here. It was finished in 1983.
The architects were Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth,
a young London team.
It is blatantly modern -
no folksiness or picturesque quality here.
The architects have taken their cue from Le Corbusier
and the other masters of the modern movement.
Maiden Lane offers all the amenities for which people have been fighting.
Playgrounds, community halls, squash courts and shops.
A whole system of pedestrian routes and public squares
aims at making the housing estate less like a ghetto,
and enriches the life of the inhabitants.
So, why does it look so pathetically shabby
after only a few years of its existence,
rejected by the very people it was built for?
The council claims that the use of white concrete
is not suitable for the English climate.
Indeed, most of the '30s dwellings look shabby today,
if not constantly maintained.
The architects claim that the council was too much concerned
with reducing the housing list.
Instead of creating a population mix,
they allowed too many asocial elements to move on.
The architect is powerless in isolation.
The architect exists in a real-life world,
and he needs the inspiration of the client.
And, if you look at the political idealism in terms of mass housing
then it tells its own story.
It's been very much about political statistics.
It's been very much about expediency, short-term thinking
not too much to do with
taking a longer
related to any more civilised concepts of lifestyle.
So it's a chicken and egg situation.
That's not to say that architects don't have a responsibility
for the environment - they most certainly do.
But the real reason for its failure is much deeper and much simpler.
The people who were moved here had no say in their environment.
They were not consulted.
Town planners and architects provided them with a place
according to their ideas and dreams, not those of the inhabitants.
The people responsible thought that
when the housing block was finished their work was done.
In reality, that's when the life of a block begins.
Educating the people as to how to use new and unfamiliar spaces
is as important as continuous maintenance.
How can people be made responsible
for anything beyond their front doors
if they feel that society cares so little?
Giving them a roof is obviously not enough.
I think there are two factors here.
First of all, the private sector, as
in the Continent,
flat blocks are rigorously controlled at the entrance.
They have a concierge, they have a porter,
you have to press a bell to
off the streets and get at the lifts and vandalise them.
Secondly, the people who live in tall blocks
in the private sector
It is their choice.
The people who go into flat blocks in the public sector,
they are allocated,
and they don't
have so much choice,
and you are not going to even try to make yourself comfortable
if you have been put into a
20 floors up
when you'd actually prefer to have a garden,
and that is a problem.
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong
in tall blocks of flats, there are people who actually want them,
but it's not the sort of accommodation
you can provide willy-nilly and then allocate people to.
Often it is not what people do in buildings that dominates
the architect's thinking, but how he expects them to react.
A building detaches itself quickly from the architect's intention.
It is taken over by the people who use it,
and the final use of a building is often very different
from the one the architect had originally planned.
We must realise that the real destiny of a building
is in its usage, not in the process of designing.
As an architect, in confrontation to this problem
of social apartment building,
you have to stand on a very ideal platform.
You must have a very deep love to the problem of housing.
It's one of the most...
elementary problems of architecture, isn't it?
everybody has to live
every day in this life.
Every minute in this day, you are in confrontation
with the living problem.
Your table before you.
The door you open 100 times in a day -
all that is architecture.
Rob Krier is one of the leading architects working in Germany.
He was asked to build a large social housing block
in a working-class district of Berlin.
Together with a team of six architects,
he built 23 apartment houses meant to serve as prototypes
for other social housing schemes.
The houses are clustered around three courtyards,
each with a distinctively different character.
The first one, with several small gardens,
puts the emphasis on private use.
The centre one serves as a grand entrance.
While the third is a large communal space.
There is the whole vocabulary of the post-modernist school -
columns, colourful windows, unusual facades.
The use of different architects produced a varied
and yet unified picture.
By giving people a familiar feature,
such as the typical Berlin courtyard,
Rob Krier hopes to make them accept
the modern architecture more readily.
Krier believes that the city should be built in blocks,
instead of endless rows of streets,
a housing form which generates
a fertile interaction of many activities.
It becomes a neighbourhood
and creates an environment full of incident.
It promotes the feeling of belonging.
You need the block as a basic urban unit.
And in that block,
the house is a cell,
how to live in, let's say,
a neighbourhood of some 10, 12, 15, 18 families in one house.
The block as a basic urban unit to build up a city
because only between blocks you can find streets
and the kind of composition of streets and squares.
The difference with Maiden Lane is obvious.
Everywhere the evidence of people's imagination,
love and pride in their home.
The total absence of neglect.
Of course, here, money has been spent on maintenance and repair
and the scale is hardly comparable - 146 apartments as opposed to 500.
But the main difference is in the approach.
The largely foreign inhabitants - Turkish guest workers -
were asked to participate in the planning.
The result of this consultation was a much less dictated environment,
leaving enough room for the individual.
Everywhere, the possibility for self-expression and spontaneity.
Architects are learning that people resent too much planning.
Too much planned beauty leads to loss of spontaneity, even freedom.
Very few delights you have as an architect...
finished and the people come in
and they take it over.
They throw out the architect
they bring their personal,
private kitsch in the building.
They transform all your geometries inside completely,
but they are happy inside.
The flats, too, allow for individuality.
Different apartments experiment with a variety of layouts,
more personal than in the usual housing schemes.
There are maisonettes, open-plan living.
This is architecture which grew out of its time and locality.
One side quotes an old facade by Schinkel,
Berlin's great classical architect,
reminding the inhabitants of the house which once stood here.
Another facade echoes the redbrick architecture
of the factory buildings so typical of this part of the town.
This is architecture of the '80s
with just enough feeling of the past.
By using a rather restrained, post-modern language,
Krier and his team have made contemporary architecture
acceptable to many people.
Rob Krier also built this housing estate in Berlin.
Again, several architects worked under his supervision.
It demonstrates clearly what a tightrope
the post-modernists are walking.
The desire to give in to people's love for the whimsical
is a trap for many architects in love with playfulness.
This estate has little to do
with the architecture of a big metropolis -
a suburban cosiness, instead of urban vitality.
Dolls' houses with gingham curtains
might create a warm and cosy atmosphere,
but they do not advance the cause of modern architecture.
Too often, the architect is more interested in broadcasting
his own vision than in providing decent housing.
The architect wants to establish himself
as a kind of creative individual,
and ie, quote-unquote, an artist,
and get himself publicised in the media.
There is an unfortunate tendency there to kind of over-emphasise
the issue of style
and simply to, you know,
kind of creative thrust
in places which are sometimes inappropriate.
I think, in a way, a lot of housing architecture should really
be rather quiet, should be a kind of background.
Certainly the most amazing apartment blocks built
anywhere in the world today are in France.
They are the work of the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill.
Bofill is considered by some as the messiah of social housing.
Others see in him a kind of Liberace of modern architecture.
The young Barcelona architect has over the last few years
built large council estates.
The most spectacular one is The Viaduct
in Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines near Paris.
It was completed in 1982, a Chenonceau for the poor.
The French have always had a great liking for monumentalism,
but this amazed even the stoutest defender of the flamboyant.
Bofill tries to revive the classical style
with its porticos and architraves.
This is architecture which uses the language
of Bernini and Vitruvius.
Everything breathes grandeur and solidity.
The urban place has become a stage set.
Bofill is Mediterranean.
He has said that, "When I am in a Greek temple,
"it is as if I were in my own room."
HE SPEAKS IN FRENCH
Inside the large complex is a series of avenues and squares
recreating the feeling of a city.
HE SPEAKS IN FRENCH
There are 450 apartments of different sizes
clustered around very generous public spaces.
Whatever one might think of the aesthetics,
Bofill's buildings give their inhabitants a visual identity.
They also break with the pattern of freestanding tower blocks.
Bofill wants to design urban complexes
in a basically suburban environment.
France's preference for precast concrete construction
has produced some of Europe's most horrid satellite towns.
In Marne-la-Vallee near Paris,
efforts are being made to break with the dreary cityscape.
Ricardo Bofill was asked to build apartment houses.
He came up with another castle for the poor.
It is housing as a monument.
Form finally triumphing over function.
One has constantly to remind oneself that this is social housing.
Ten stories of monumentality quoting Palladio, Ledoux and Gaudi.
Bofill's designs have been exhibited
in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
His buildings have become places of pilgrimage
for architectural tourists,
a favourite background for fashion photographers.
The first impact is certainly staggering,
but once the initial shock has passed,
one becomes quickly aware of the empty rhetoric
and the expression of wooden lifelessness.
The overwhelming scale is oppressive.
However, Bofill's genuine concern for the welfare of people
has produced flats of generous proportions and flexible layouts.
Heavily subsidised, they allow people
to either rent or purchase the premises.
Despite all this concern, one cannot avoid a sense of profound malaise.
One suspects that these buildings did not grow out of a desire
to come to a more complex relationship
between the inhabitants and their building
but out of a desire to advertise, to be interesting.
A forced aestheticism
cannot distract from the harshness of people's existence.
The entrance through a Doric portal
does not change the fact that most of the inhabitants are poor.
What can a quote of the 19th-century architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux
possibly mean to a Vietnamese refugee trying to find a new home?
Architectural hubris is not the best basis on which to build.
On the positive side,
Bofill's houses lend a dramatic touch to the environment.
They break up the monotony of most new towns,
an individual expression in a world of endless
undifferentiated surfaces of concrete.
The corner of the town has found an identity.
The question remains -
is this architecture able to enrich people's lives?
HE SPEAKS IN FRENCH
The '80s have again produced the architect
as a narcissistic artist,
using architecture to express his private vision.
How quickly such a road can lead to architectural kitsch
is amply demonstrated by the housing block next to the Abraxas Palace.
This, too, is social housing.
The architect is another Spaniard, Manolo Nunez.
His Arenes de Picasso were finished in 1985.
Two giant drums, like a Swiss cheese, comprising 540 flats.
The detailing of the precast concrete is superb,
the exuberance overwhelming.
The architect uses a whole range of quotes,
from the rose windows of Chartres
to the fanlights of a French railway station.
There are Gaudi-inspired buttresses.
The whole thing looks like a blend of Piranesi
and a computer console, as one critic has pointed out.
Many architects, realising that the tower block is dead,
take refuge in nostalgia.
Faced with the blowing up buildings and the abuse from the media
and the public alike, many of them have lost their nerve.
A suburban sleepiness is descending on our housing estates,
replacing the vitality of bigger towns.
A few miles from Bofill's palaces,
architects are trying to recreate the feeling of an old town square.
Gabled roofs, windows with shutters.
Wood and brick have replaced concrete.
Like their British counterparts, they're tremendously popular.
Their gentility and folksiness
correspond to the universal idea of a house.
A child's idea of a house is usually one of a bungalow with a roof,
not a large square box.
Even the most inspired architect cannot change this.
When we're dealing with housing, we're talking about personal taste.
These rows of cute houses are what most people want,
and only a highly sophisticated urban and well-off society -
as in New York, for instance - will accept different concepts.
And, even there, the longing for suburbia is strong.
These houses take their images from a society of the 19th century.
Can we rebuild a society by rebuilding these backgrounds?
These stage sets?
There are now more and more schemes offering modern alternatives
to the quaint and sleepy suburban dream.
Because they are usually unspectacular and uncontroversial,
they hardly ever reach the headlines.
They are often done by small firms and on a small scale,
but they do give hope
that we have not totally lost the art of building.
For instance, a housing block by Roland Castro
in the new town of Marne-la-Vallee
is a fresh and clean approach to present-day housing.
The architecture is calm and assured, a logical organisation.
Even a child will not lose his way.
Cars are banned,
and the mostly communal green spaces have easy access.
The architecture takes its cue from the modern movement,
softening its impact by adding some colourful touches
in windows and doors.
This is architecture of the '80s
without the often tiresome effects of post-modernism.
It does not always have to be brick.
In another new town, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines,
Henri Gaudin has built a series of apartment houses
around a quiet pedestrian walkway.
The architecture plays with various volumes,
a play of cubes and cylinders.
Most prominently, large, column-like elements
which contain the individual staircases.
Despite its suburban location, it is assured and urbane.
The Odhams Walk council estate was completed in 1981.
It stands in the middle of London's Covent Garden district.
The architects were Ball and O'Connor.
The block is broken up by interesting shapes
and by disposing windows and terraces.
Architecture is not just a building. It is also what happens around it.
The spaces between skyscrapers are usually meaningless,
they belong to nobody.
The spaces between small buildings are meaningful, they are flexible.
They allow for individual development.
Many of the flats are clustered around inner courtyards.
Instead of dimly lit corridors,
there are small alleys, like streets,
allowing the inhabitants to participate
in the goings-on of the whole block.
There are public and private spaces,
most of the flats have their own terraces,
and tenants are encouraged to use the space
in front of their own doors for planting.
An architecture which allows coincidences to develop.
The housing schemes by Gaudin, Castro and others
demonstrate clearly that modern architecture can produce
buildings which are part of a living environment.
They are an affirmation that there is a contemporary alternative
to mere containers or the imitations of a bygone age.
First transmitted in 1986, Houses Fit for People looks at housing and where the modern movement went wrong with their high-rises and modern concrete estates. It identifies an increasing demand for a humane approach to the places people live in, and seeks out examples in the work of some innovative European architects.