TOWER BLOCKS UK EDITION

Shieldfield, Newcastle, 2022 [Author’s own]

On more than one occasion, friends visiting or living in the UK from elsewhere have asked one of two (or, both) questions:

why do so few people in British cities live in apartments?

and:

why do British apartment blocks look so dystopian?

The first question is answered by the second, but when asked I struggled to give a meaningful explanation. This led me to investigate why exactly have architects and planners in Britain failed to provide comfortable, pleasant, and practical solutions to city living.

In the UK, there seems to be a real aversion to dense city living which leads to even relatively inner-city areas consisting of individual semi-detached and terraced houses, often with private gardens. In London, for example, by the outer fringes of Zone 2 (for context, the common reference point for Londoners is the London transport system, where concentric circles form six zones with Zone 1 being the centre) the streets already start to take on a suburban-esque feel. This spatial layout is normally reserved for commuter towns and outer suburbs in other European cities, not inner areas still within reasonable walkable distance to the centres of power.

In smaller British cities, the suburbanification happens much sooner. The only notable exception is perhaps Edinburgh, which is arguably the most European of British cities in terms of spatial patterns and social organisation. Very few British cities are organised in the doughnut-shape so ubiquitous (probably to the point of being near-universal) in major cities at least in Europe: the richest and nicest flats are in the city centre and are distinctly the preserve of the bourgeoisie, and the further you get from the dead centre (and presumably then, the cheaper the land becomes), the housing solutions become increasingly shabby. Only by the time you get to the outermost zones, or banlieues (hello Paris!), often you start to hit the problems that inner-city areas in the UK face.

In the UK (the pattern of which the US seems to follow), more often than not the trend is reversed. The outer areas are often where the bourgeoise lurk in their private houses with their own gardens, big driveways, seclusion, and cleaner air away from the dirt and the dangers of the inner city. Inner city areas tend to be either largely uninhabited (as in my city), full of empty properties that must be amassing capital for somebody, somewhere, or full of dystopian-looking council estates. Nowadays, the inner-city area in most provincial British cities has been used to house students in purpose-built new build (cheaply constructed, expensive to rent but student loans cover that off) after a speculative building boom and studentification in the last decade or so that brings with it its own problems.

Edinburgh Old Town, though, is full of attractive city-centre tenements that house the well-to-do. Meanwhile, the outskirts of Edinburgh are unlikely to attract the hordes that come to the UNESCO World Heritage City from all around the world each year: Cannot see them wanting to hang out in Niddrie for example, and neither Craigmillar nor Oxgangs.

Spatially speaking, then, the vast majority of cities in the UK are already radically different from mainland European counterparts. The reasons for this probably deserve a separate analysis of their own and derive from a complex set of historical factors related to our industrial and economic heritage, political organisation, and socio-cultural norms.

Spatial factors notwithstanding, this still does not answer the question as to why our tower blocks are so uninviting.

Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Tower block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Glendinning & Muthesius, 1994

To delve deeper into the question, I picked up the dense and richly illustrated compendium of the history of post-war public housing in the four nations that constitute the UK. Miles Glendinning and Muthesius, academics and architectural historians anchored at the University of Edinburgh produced this detailed guide in 1994 covering technical design, policy factors (each nation has its own political traditions, cultural norms and social specificities leading to slight-to-moderate variations in national policies), and history.

The key conclusion from the book is that the post-war modern public housing building project in the UK was an impressive project, with the building boom starting in the 1950s, peaking in the 1960s (famously, the Conservative Minister for Housing in 1963 laid out a 10-year plan for mass council house building in the UK, absolutely unthinkable in today’s imaginary) and tapering off in the 1970s before Thatcher came to power and began her radical assault on the state (this is covered in more detail in my entry on Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing by John Boughton). However, what started off as a grand national project to adequately house the population after the Second World War soon descended into the murky world of local politics, private interest, and sheer profiteering.

The speed with which the housing boom took hold led to inferior quality control, which Adam Curtis’ 1984 documentary Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster shines a light on in a series of interviews with major actors in the housing boom such as Cleeve Barr and Tom Akroyd. Tower blocks in the UK have also suffered from a poor reputation in terms of safety: The Ronan Point disaster where a 22-storey block collapsed in Canning Town, East London in 1968 only 2 months after it opened, killing four people, and injuring 17 in a gas explosion. This was due to poor construction and faulty design and led to the removal of gas from high-rise buildings. As Curtis illustrates, however, this actually made things worse: rising costs of energy required to fuel the new electrical appliances fitted in council homes in the wake of Ronan Point led to people using their own makeshift solutions using gas cannisters, which obviously posed a significant danger to people living in the blocks. More recently, the fire in Lakanal House in Southwark, South London in 2009 led to six deaths and upwards of 20 injured. The cause was officially down to a faulty television set, but the exterior cladding in the tower block caught fire and spread rapidly through a dozen flats, trapping residents in their buildings. The only escape route, a central stairwell, filled with smoke making it difficult for people to escape.

Most recently, the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017 killed seventy-two people and its charred remains are still there today, a mass tombstone on the West London skyline. The exterior cladding went up in flames in a matter of minutes, and the enquiry is still ongoing. Nothing has been officially confirmed as yet, but the role of government in securing procurement of this type of cladding for tower blocks across the country is the question that must be answered.

Understandably, since these disasters people in the UK have low confidence in the safety of tower blocks and this has not exactly contributed to a positive view of tower blocks. However, safety concerns are just one factor in determining why the UK has so badly executed a move to dense city living. Following comparisons with cities elsewhere in the world, and a closer look at the Tower Block project in the UK, here is what I think are the main contributing factors:

1. “An Englishman’s home is his castle”: Cultural preferences for private over public
The notion of collective and the suspicion with which anything of public value is treated in this country runs unbelievably deep. There is such a deeply held belief that public space is something to be avoided and that sharing with others is bad that I am sure paved the way to an easy roll-over into the shitty mass privatisation of public goods and the death knell of “gas and water” socialism in the Thatcher years.

We credit Thatcher with too much and she is an easy target; scratching more deeply under the surface of this wretched country and it seems that many of Thatcher’s beliefs were already alive and well. She was successful at capturing them and leaning into them, I suppose.

But that is the most depressing thing: I am increasingly finding all the things I despise about this country run millennia deep. I cannot see the way to a better and fairer future. Only the opposite – I see the signs of increased gaping inequality in a country that’s already far more unequal than most of the usual European comparators (with which we are increasingly lagging behind on pretty much all social and economic counts to the point that I’m not so sure we can treat Germany, Netherlands, France etc as a comparator anymore).

But I digress. Ruth Glass wrote in the 1960s in her collection of essays “Cliches of Urban Doom” about the Merrie England dream – the pervasive desire to live in a pastoral, all-English, quaint village community replete with thatched roof houses and a village green.

This is, of course, not a realistic depiction of 21st or even 20th century Britain, but it seems to stick in the national imaginary. The ideal is to live in a cottage of one’s own, where you can shut the front door, lock the garden gate, and keep the prying eyes of neighbours at bay. Living in an apartment, nose-to-nose with neighbours above, below, opposite, and to each side is obviously not in line with that dream. It would be far to difficult to avoid other people. Conversely, though, I introduced my Italian partner to the concept of “curtain twitching,” which to me is even more quintessentially British than the Merrie England ideal described above.

He laughed and pointed out that it is highly strange that in a country so obsessed with privacy people are damn nosy and status obsessed. He noted that in Italy, people are used to living cheek-by-jowl with neighbours, but nobody really gives two hoots about what anyone else is up to. I suppose, keeping everything in the open means that there is nothing really to hide. In contrast, British homes, with their tall hedges, front gardens and thick curtains are shrouded in mystery.

Garden City Movement of Ebenezer Howard, is a work in utopian thinking draws from the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s thinking. Howard is keen to emphasis his not socialist but not “individualist” slant – a true Fabian in the making (something I have strong opinons about but that’s for another time) – or a third way / mixed economy supporter before his time. From this standpoint he supports keeping workers apart against threat of Bolshevism. More on that later.

In 2013, Daily Mail ran an article called “Bring Back Bungalows.” A general rule I follow in life is that if the Daily Mail endorses it then “it” must be wrong. And if anything would be a mouthpiece for the Merrie England ideal, it would be the Daily Mail. I think that confirms that the paranoia of letting city-dwellers live close together might lead to revolution is still, over a century after the Bolsheviks, a subconscious preoccupation of the England ruling class.

2. Poor planning

In many UK cities, the usual skyline is overwhelming low-rise interrupted only by standalone 15-storey plus tower blocks dotted at random. This has quite a jarring effect, and the tower blocks stand out like a sore thumb.

From a spatial point of view, this is the result of a combination of land use policies and practical considerations related to the quality of the land. In Tower Blocks, Glendinning and Muthesius highlight the large degree of autonomy local councils enjoyed in planning and building in the 1960s. While the national guidelines encouraged an increased densification, likely conceived with London in the forefront of their minds, some councils such as Leeds and Newcastle preferred to expand their urban core. In clearing out the riverside slums around the riverside in Newcastle, for example, the council under T. Dan Smith’s guide developed land further out from the city, particularly around former industrial sites in the East and West of the city.

This led to the construction of tower blocks on cleared brownfield sites, previously used for mining. As such, the structural property of the land is rather poor. Much of the land in the North East mining country, for example, is like Swiss cheese. I live right next to one of these T. Dan Smith’s tower blocks and looking out of my living room window I can see that each house is my street is at a slightly different level, creating a somewhat Tim Burton-esque vibe. Subsidence is a way of life here. At the end of the street a 20-storey tower block looms over us, on a former mine shaft. The tower blocks were built on any spot that was deemed sufficiently structurally sounds, which leads to a sporadic landscape.

These one-off tower blocks look quite different to the rows of squat tower blocks that tend to be grouped together, among more medium-sized (4-6 storey) buildings in other European cities. This gives a more gradual skyline, as opposed to the contrasting scale of a single 20-storey block erupting from a sea of 2-storey homes.

3. Political stigmatism and the collective imaginary

The lack of continuity between the tower blocks and their surrounding areas did create fertile conditions for those up to no good to thrive. Rather than landscaping the areas around the tower blocks, the 1950s-1970s tower blocks are usually surrounded by concrete. In addition, many of the visionary architects of the time had these ideas of “playful” passages, walkways in the sky, nooks, and crannies for people to walk around (all concrete, of course), and concrete common areas to sit outside. I’m sure these were designed with the aim of creating a pleasant environment for tower block dwellers, who had no access to their own outside space, but the effect is really quite the opposite.

Instead of vibrant, lively places they became convenient locations for dodgy dealings, with their hidden corners and networks of alleyways, underpasses, and passages.

The situation was made so much worse by Thatcher’s assault on the social housing sector and mass sell-off of council blocks, which led to a sort of social engineering and negative feedback loop. Oscar Newman’s defensible space theory also had a disproportionate and unfounded influence on housing theory in the UK from the 1970s onwards. Newman’s theory, focused on the now-demolished Prutt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, posits that the more private a space is, the more control and influence the resident has over it. He notes that where space is collective, since it belongs to no specific individual then it is likely to attract criminal behaviour. This completely flies in the face of the Greek and Roman architectural theories that prized common space (Agora and the Forum, really the forerunner in some respects of the post-renaissance Italian piazza) and the opportunity for city dwellers to intermingle in neutral territory. Defensible space draws on the most Anglo-centric phobia of the collective, which is seen as suspicious and dangerous as people simply cannot be trusted to look after what is not directly theirs.

Following this, housing in the Anglo world aims to physically defend itself from outsiders and plays into fear of the unknown. Even today, the Secured by Design in the UK is a police initiative that aims to improve the security of buildings by fitting them with surveillance devices such as CCTV systems and bars over windows. This has led to some highly unwelcoming and quite frankly intimidating architecture. Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, described it as “oppressive,” and I certainly tend to agree.

4. Value engineering

Vitruvius, the Roman architect, and engineer who wrote De Architectura (the collection of ten books on architecture written in 1st century BC), notes in Book I that no expense should be spared on materials required for building, especially not public buildings. Fast forward a couple of millennia, and we see that for all the current government’s talk about one of the three Vitruvian principles, Venustas (beauty) even enshrining it in the latest raft of planning reforms (see Building Better, Building Beautiful bluuurk), they conveniently forgot the point old V repeatedly hammered home about not being cheap and skimping on quality.

This is not just our current government, of course, but cheapness and cost-saving (for the masses that is, of course profit for the few is the mantra of the day) took first place over utility quality, comfort, and even safety long ago. Glendinning and Muthesius’ Tower Block tome offers some insight into the world of value engineering, and why it leads to mediocre quality. Essentially, value engineering means that if a cheaper alternative is available to a solution, then the cheapest one must be procured.

Looking at how the Tower Blocks of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and even more so, the new builds of the 1990s and early 21st century one can really see value engineering at work. Certainly, the Venustas bit was lost here as well. Adam Curtis’ documentary, available on YouTube in its full glory, The Great British Housing Disaster, certainly gives an illustration of what cost cutting and shoddy workmanship leads to. And of course there were also tragic consequences, not only Grenfell (cheap cladding and surely corruption to an as-yet unknown quality in government procurement processes), but also Ronan Point, the tower block in East London that collapsed in 1968 a mere two months after it opened and also Lakanal House, again in London in 2009 which caught fire and it was shown that the fire escape routes were simply a long way short of sufficient.

5. Anti-urbanism and prioritisation of fast and private mobility

The latter is not unique to the UK, of course, but the instinctively anti-urban sentiment seems to run deeper here than elsewhere (see point 1). The UK was last modernised really in the 1950s and 1960s, after much of the industrial cities were flattened during WWII. Reconstruction coincided with the rise of the private car, and our cities are certainly engineered in an extremely car-centric way. Coventry, which was heavily bombed, is perhaps the most shocking example of this I have seen. Busy arterial roads cut through inner city areas, making it exceedingly difficult to get around by foot.

A society heavily reliant on private mobility and where public transport has been heavily stigmatised and heavily cut back in recent decades, making it costly, disjointed, and inconvenient (Thatcher famously said that anyone on a bus over aged 25 is a failure), doesn’t lend itself well to housing that has little to no private car facilities, as many of the mid-century tower blocks do. Coupled with a cultural preference for private space and an own garden, individual houses preferably with a drive or a private garage attached are much desired. Car parking solutions are indeed a factor when people here seek to buy their own home.

6. Lack of private outdoor space

One thing that the UK severely misunderstands is the concept of the balcony. Where private homes and private gardens are secured, I suppose this has the impact of downgrading any other solutions of private space in more collective living arrangements. Tower blocks in the UK rarely have balconies available for residents’ use, and even new builds tend to use the misleadingly named “Juliet balconies” (aka bars over the windows to stop people jumping out, I think, I cannot see any other function they might serve). As a result, tower block living is deemed wholly undesirable as there is no individual access to outside space.

Balconies fulfil a much greater role in Italy, France, Spain, and other countries particularly in the South of Europe. This alone probably warrants a separate entry in its own right.

8. Scale

Scale in the UK is strange. Until recently, even London had a relatively low skyline compared to cities of a comparable size elsewhere in the world. Still today most provincial cities consist largely of low-rise buildings, punctuated discordantly by enormous tower blocks. Scale is important, and it is underrated. Too tall, and without the right frames of reference, then it is out of whack with surroundings and creates a hostile, dystopic atmosphere.

In the film the Human Scale, Jan Gehl outlines how scale can be achieved to balance the need for dense living with a comfortable and welcoming city-feel. Around eight storeys is the perfect dimension for the human brain, as long as the buildings are anchored to street-level somehow. This can be achieved by adding trees, or fitting ground floors with balconies or canopies covering shop fronts and cafes. It is something that the average Brit is eager to romanticise about large European cities, and indeed many mainland European cities do achieve the balance of dense and cosy. Here, with a suspicion of public space and no traditional street culture to speak of (beyond booze-fuelled mania, but that is a different story), it is something distinctly lacking in British cities.

Our low-rise cities coupled with inhumanly scaled buildings definitely contribute to a sterile and unforgiving street environment, even more marked in cities that have recently undergone a vertical building boom such as Manchester, London, and Birmingham. Rather than a sense of convivial street life, the overwhelming feeling is that of the ever-increasing blood-sucking grip of the financial sector is never far away.

9. Lack of maintenance

The individual flats inside the tower blocks (at least the ones I have seen) tend to be quite roomy on average, certainly bigger than the standard new builds aimed at working or middle-classes. Indeed, in the 1950s-1960s much thought was put into spatial standards and how much space residents would need to go about their day-to-day in their dwellings. Local council housing teams tended to employ sociologists who would make calculations based on family size, demographics, and various other factors and ended up with a generous square metreage by today’s standards. When families first moved into the new tower blocks from their cramped, overcrowded inner city terraces and slum areas, they were surely quite taken by the relatively high standard of dwelling they had newly acquired.

However, a cursory glance today shows that not much in the way of modernisation has really taken place since the 1960s. Lift shafts are often in a poor state, interior décor has barely been touched apart from perhaps a new lick of paint every now and again, and broken windows, intercom systems, and doors seem to be a relatively standard feature of the old tower blocks.

Surely if maintenance cycles had been rolled out on the regular and the flats were modernised incrementally and equipped with modern technology as it evolved, they’d be much better places to live. But no, most of them still seem to be stuck in the 1960s and after more than half a century of wear and tear that hardly leads to a desirable place to live.

10. … Perhaps they are back in vogue?

That said, apartment living – as opposed to living in a “block of flats,” carefully distinguished by property developer marketing-speak, seems to be making a comeback. Luxury apartments (a far cry in aesthetic from the classic “block of flats” but I would argue that quality of the new ones has been severely compromised comparing like-for-like) are cropping up in waterfront areas and former industrial districts across this highly financialised country, largely populated by young, middle-class professionals. This is borne partially out of necessity but also logic of the market, which in this country certainly leaves no stone unturned when it comes to opportunities to extract profit. That, however, is an entry for another day.

Tolyatti: the “poster child” of the Soviet Union.

Michele Cera and Guido Sechi’s ethnographic and photographic study of Tolyatti. Published by the Velvet Cell (2019)

This is a hastily scribbled post covering some massive topics so apologies for the lack of depth and meandering in places. There are a few things that I would like to re-visit in a more focused way later, so consider this an introduction to parts of a wider series of:

1. Lessons from Soviet Union’s experimental urban planning;
2. Deindustrialisation and what happens next;
3. Decarbonising the global economy: we need to do it and it is going to hurt like hell.

Rise and rise of motordom

Detroit. Coventry. Turin. Barcelona. Stuttgart & Wolfsburg. Sochaux. In the Western World, these are all obvious examples of “motor cities,” where the automotive industry employs a significant proportion of the population and forms the backbone of local (or, regional, or even national) economies and organisation of public and social life.

Stuttgart was the original birthplace of the car (late 1800s) where two rival engineers, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler both raced to nail the design of the first horseless carriage. Following WWI, a key engineer at Daimler, Ferdinand Porsche, joined Volkswagen and right after WWII, produced his own design for the first ever Porsche. Although Stuttgart was a key centre of production, from an urban planning point of view Wolfsburg is more interesting. Wolfsburg, home of the Autostadt museum, is one of Germany’s very few new planned towns (unlike in the UK where new towns such as Stevenage, Basildon, Milton Keynes, are a separate genre unto themselves, especially in the South East to mop up overspill in the 1950s from war-ravaged London). It was designed by Viennese-born architect and urban planner Peter Koller, who designed a town to house 90,000 to support the Volkswagen factory. The plan strictly segregated the housing quarters in the south from the factory in the north.

While Detroit is widely recognised as the first Motorcity (Motown), the original concept was exported from Europe. Combined with booming American industrialisation and the post-WWII expansion of global capitalism and American hegemony, in the mid-20th century the US became a global flagship for the automobile industry. This was to the extent that even for us growing up in the 1990s, American culture was synonymous with the car. One of the first things we Europeans learn about the US is that you need a car to get around and Americans drive absolutely everywhere regardless of how short or long the distance.

In other words, urbanisation in the US is inextricably intertwined with the motor industry. The UK, especially the suburban areas which expanded rapidly from 1945 – 1970s at the time when private car ownership exploded, is similarly shaped by access to private car. Luckily for us, we are geographically a much smaller country, so we have ended up like the US in miniature form.

Although, as Canadian urbanist and journalist Charles Montgomery outlines in his book Happy City, there is a big chunk of North American history that has been lost. Dubbed “Motordom” by the writer Peter D. Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the pro-car lobby in the US was not always the de facto voice. In the 1920s, there was a strong anti-car movement, due to the noise, speed, and danger they produced. The re-arranging of the use of the street, where people could no longer use roads for walking, was an unpopular move. In Cincinnati in 1923, there was a petition to force all cars to install devices to prevent them from exceeding 25mph. As the exact opposite from today, the pro-car group were those who saw the car as progress, while the reactionaries were against expanding the use of the private car. Today, the same demographic of people who were against the car are likely those now who most fiercely advocate the freedom to use their private car and progressives are much more likely to want to see car use reduced in cities, if not abolished all together in favour of public or active transport solutions. At the time, the response of the car industry was to re-frame the priority of the street: the issue was not cars running over pedestrians, but pedestrians walking into cars. This is a very telling response from industry, and the longevity and deep entrenching of this belief in the American (and to be fair, British too) national psyche is astounding.

While Detroit was not the first motor town, it was the first to make a major contribution to the global political economy as the birthplace of Fordism after WWI. The Henry Ford’s factory, producing the Ford car was the first example of technological techniques used for mass production and standardisation, acting as the blueprint for the mass consumption that has defined us as a species for the past half century. At the other side, an important element of Fordism was ensuring that workers were paid enough to consume the products they were producing, the creation of the “aspirational worker.”

The story of Detroit, as we all know, is not a happy one and technological advancements put an end to the neatly organised system of labour from the first half of the 20th century in the 1970s. The 1978 film, Blue Collar, which L and I watched during lockdown last year was a cutting portrayal of a Detroit, and a labour market, and race relations, that had gone completely off-the-rails and was slipping into ruin as a direct consequence of the demise of Fordism. In short, Japan’s rise was the American car industry’s fall, combined with the emergence of neoliberal thought in the 1970s marking the last almost 50 years of assault on workers.

Tolyatti! The background story.

Cera & Sechi, pp. 12 – illustration of the vision for a Soviet Motor-city.

So! How does all of this relate to Tolyatti? As Owen Hatherley beautifully details in Landscapes of Communism his meticulous account outlining the key ingredients of Soviet Union urban planning, city design, and architecture, in the USSR the collective was the main point of everything. Therefore the idea of the private car flew in the face of this. Public transport (the clue is in the name) was excellent, dense networks and well-designed before we even reach the levels of aestheticism afforded to Soviet metro systems (the Moscow Metro, MCM as the flagship which provided a blueprint for other Soviet cities and indeed some of the ideas and engineering expertise were also exported to the West). Much of which was built by prison labour I hasten to add, but that is a different story.

After Stalin’s death and the consequent decline of Stalinism which happened to coincide with the boom of the car industry in the West, there was a period of relative relaxation (the Khruschev Thaw) of the strictest Soviet principles, and demand for private transport rose. This was also the beginning of the mass housebuilding project across the USSR (which is detailed in the Sotsogorod film I’ve referred to in previous entries – I will get to this at a later date).

Demand for car ownership, combined with an economy devastated by war and chronic housing shortages for similar reasons, all came together as a counterpoint for one solution: the construction of the USSR’s very own automotive centre of production.

Company towns built around centres of production, as also seen in the US, the UK, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere in the West, were certainly not novel in the USSR either. Many

of these, as in my home region in the North East of England, were centred around extractive industries (in my region’s case, coal), copper, lead, coal, and mining for other minerals and metals. However, a car industry and a Soviet version of Detroit-style Fordism was a new concept. As the article on Tolyatti in Jacobin “What a Communist City Can Teach Us About Urban Planning” highlights, this pragmatism of learning from the West to support the modernisation of the USSR was indeed typical of the Soviet Union in terms of applying international technological, architectural, and design trends to their own ends.

While it certainly would have been a jarring move to take pages directly from the USA’s book, to support development of an automobile centre of production in the Soviet Union, Khruschev enlisted the help of Italy’s trusted PCI (Communist Party of Italy)’s leader, Luigi Longo. The chosen city in the Samara region of Western Russia, was a small settlement of barely a couple of thousand inhabitants on the Volga river, Stavropol-na-Volge. With Longo’s support, FIAT factory workers, engineers, and technicians were sent over from Turin to support with training up Soviet counterparts. In 1966, the town was to be renamed Togliatti, or Tolyatti, after Palmiro Togliatti, Il migliore, the great Italian Communist leader who had died a couple of years previously.

The starting point of the urbanisation project was a hydroelectric dam and power plant, and a workers’ district (rayon) was constructed to house the construction workers. Once this was completed, work started to construct the automobile plant AvtoVAZ, the national automotive company which is still the main production plant for Lada cars. Although, with the Russian economy sinking under international sanctions, it is fairly likely that this won’t be much longer. A second rayon was constructed (Komsomol and Tsentralnyy respectively) to house workers. Foreign experts were enlisted mostly from Italy and Germany, and FIAT was in charge of the entire project. In 1967, a housing district around the new factory site was rapidly completed and still stands today (Avtozavodskyy rayon, or the auto-factory district). This was so large and ambitious that it was originally planned as a new town in its own right, and is still celebrated as the most ambitious urban planning project in the entire history of the USSR.

Avtozavodsky rayon – the car factory workers’ living district and seen by many in the USSR as a model Soviet town. Notice the well-spaced blocks of housing interspersed with ample green space and sporting facilities.

What (if anything) can we learn from Soviet experimental urban planning? Two Italian academic urbanists, sociologists and researchers, Michele Cera and Guido Sechi both from Bari undertook an incredible project to document the story of Tolyatti, its history and the aftermath of the demise of AvtoVAZ following the fall of the USSR.

One of the most striking changes after the transition to capitalism was surely the loss of public spaces. In the Microrayon, the workers’ districts, there were spaces for workers to socialise and relax while women could share the burden of domestic labour. There were chess clubs and cultural centres (dry ones as well as ones with bars) for both men and women. Shared kitchens where communal meals would be served were also a feature of the standard microrayon.

Similar things existed in the West of course. L explained to me the system of Italian cultural associations, Arci, which were founded by the Italian Communist Party in Florence and are nowadays linked to the main Italian Trade Unions and is the biggest non-profit organisation not linked to the Catholic Church. In the UK, Working Men’s Clubs were, and to an extent still are, ubiquitous and formed a similar function. In the UK however, they were largely spaces for men to gather and drink outside of work, while women would be expected to stay at home and tend to domestic duties.

One of the most striking changes after the transition to capitalism was surely the loss of public spaces. In the Microrayon, the workers’ districts, there were spaces for workers to socialise and relax while women could share the burden of domestic labour. There were chess clubs and cultural centres (dry ones as well as ones with bars) for both men and women. Shared kitchens where communal meals would be served were also a feature of the standard microrayon.

Cera & Sechi, pp.62-63. Playing chess in the Microrayon

Similar things existed in the West of course. L explained to me the system of Italian cultural associations, Arci, which were founded by the Italian Communist Party in Florence and are nowadays linked to the main Italian Trade Unions and is the biggest non-profit organisation not linked to the Catholic Church. In the UK, Working Men’s Clubs were, and to an extent still are, ubiquitous and formed a similar function. In the UK however, they were largely spaces for men to gather and drink outside of work, while women would be expected to stay at home and tend to domestic duties.

Nowadays, the Working Men’s Clubs are mostly used by old men who have been retired (or unemployed after the 1980s never to find work again) for decades and have lost their primary function.

In capitalist system there is a lack of public space to meet for the purpose of socialising. We do famously have pubs, or public houses in the UK, but they are increasingly alienating places, riddled with class conflict and increasingly prohibitively expensive for many who would traditionally fall under the banner of working-class. Moreover, they are completely exclusionary for those who do not drink alcohol.

In general, imaginative urban planning system that afforded places to socialise and organise domestic work has long since disappeared. In the UK, urban planning has traditionally felt fearful and defensive, even in the heyday of social democracy in the 1960s. There has always been the sense that workers cannot fully be trusted not to conspire against the ruling classes. Thus, collective space has always been limited and the private sphere and nuclear family has always been emphasised over everything else. The Garden City idea itself was borne out of the ruling class’ fear of the Bolshevism sweeping Europe: give them a garden and a decent place to live and they won’t revolt. Most key to this, make sure they cannot fraternise with each other easily. An Englishman’s home is his castle. We have long been a nation of tiny fortresses.

I think the attitude of our ruling elite has been extremely detrimental and our class system is nothing short of devastating. Our lonely, ageing, alienated society is riddled with social problems that are direct consequences of poor political choices, lack of imagination and understanding of public good, and short-term and uninformed decisions over the past decades is a manifestation of that.

The birth and death of company towns

Mono-industrial towns are clearly a bad idea and the examples around the world of failures following deindustrialisation are far, far too many. Detroit is not unique, for example, in basing almost its entire economy around a handful of companies (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler) in one particular industry. The demise of motor cities in the Anglo-American world (Coventry and Detroit have both seen better days, to put it mildly) are a perfect illustration of what a fragile economic model this is and we should be frantically taking notes as the imperative to decarbonise economies becomes ever more pressing.

The devastation wrought by the Anglo-American model deindustrialisation more broadly has been so deep and so violent that it has been, in the crudest possible way, the root cause of the destabilisation the entire political systems of the Anglo-American world and weakened their democracies. Beyond the Anglo-American world, the marks of mono-industry are rampant across the former Soviet Union, too. Tolyatti is one example but there are countless other shipbuilding, mining, and timber towns that face precisely the same causes of misery as their counterparts in the west. Lack of work leading to breakdown of families, widespread substance misuse, mental health issues, and all of the other symptoms stemming from hopelessness, poverty, and lack of meaning and social coherence and relevance in a brutal world.

From this, there are a few messy questions emerging in my brain to be more clearly defined at a later date. Nobody knows where we are going as a species and to be honest, I don’t see an easy route out of the corner our civilisation is backed into (as usual, all roads lead back to the Mark Fisher thesis then).

1. Are we going backwards, regressing? Did we reach the peak of civilisation in the Global north in the 1960s? We hadn’t yet burned the planet (industrialising countries today cannot boom in prosperity in the environmentally damaged planet and broken economies they cannot inherit) and there was a general understand that society should be collective and there was a broad political agreement and understanding of acting in the public good. Now both the planet and any chance of collective social forms have been hollowed and burned.

2.What extreme event will it take to make things better? Will a transition to a decarbonised economy afford is a new way of organising our lives? Having lived through a global pandemic where there was a lot of talk around glimpses of a better world, but most of that has not materialised and we’ve gone back to precisely how things were before, just sadder, crueller, more brutal and massively destabilised. If something as huge as a global pandemic does not provide an impetus to change, then what will it take? And in a changed world, how do we ensure that the Global North and the Global South benefit equally? If lives in the Global North are organised around utopian ideals but the Global South are still working in dangerous factories producing our goods for starvation wages and near-bonded labour, then is that really freedom?

3. How will we organise and fair, social condensed and decarbonised economy? Will we ever be able to organise society around coherent collective principles again? What would be the catalyst? Organising lives around economic productivity cannot easily be translated to our technologically advanced world. It also begs questions around gender roles – what worked in a heteronormative world perhaps cannot be easily translated today. The nature of the work at the centre of collectively organised societies around economic principles also left much to be desired in terms of public health. Or will we continue to fragment, drift apart in jobs that actually have very little function beyond upholding the principles of late capitalist society.

The Left in the US are looking to Detroit to show us a glimpse of what something better might look like – sure, there are many grassroots initiatives and social organisation to try to build something from the ashes of wrecked capital. However, for me, without real robust structures in place to support real and widespread change, while they are fantastic to see and it’s great that something good is happening, for me it’s not enough. There are hundreds of thousands of Detroits across the world now, and there will be more before this year is out. The problems are structural. While Detroit was indeed an extreme example, it exists on a spectrum.

Personally, I’m more on the Mark Fisher side of things and I cannot imagine a full-scale radical overhaul of economic and social organisation and new logics and hegemony without going through a major catastrophe first (from which we might not even come out the other end as a species intact) but especially during these grim days it’s healthy to dream of better things.

Municipal Dreams (Review, part 2)

Reading the book was a genuine pleasure and a fully absorbing experience, not least due to Boughton’s engaging style and the well-structured approach which strikes the perfect balance between empirics, anecdotal evidence, and historical account. Throughout the journey from Victorian filth to Grenfell, I was struck by six key observations:

1. The paternalistic approach to organising society.
Despite noble origins, from the inception of council housing in Britain to the current prevailing neo-Victorian attitudes of what the working class need to do to improve their living conditions in the face of such things as economic stagnation, lack of significant government spending for the best part of half a century, a shrinking economy, 30 years of flat-lining wages, out-of-control house prices and lack of any regulation in the private rental market leading to high rents and poor quality, a top-down approach from the political establishment has pervaded. Often, without having done any background work to engage with those who will live in the homes to identify their real needs, even the most well-meaning ideological designs have back-fired spectacularly.


For example, the Garden City movement and New Towns of the 1950s were designed to give the working classes access to green spaces and reduced urban density which was considered to promise a healthier way of live. The work of Frederick Gibberd, the master planner of the new town Harlow, in Essex, was informed by the idea that “[…] English urbanism prefers segregation of home and work, which enjoys open-air exercise, which has an innate love of nature” (p.82). However, had Gibberd and other master planners and chief city architects consulted with the prospective housing tenants, they would have discovered that in the new two-storey dwellings with large green spaces between, the new inhabitants “instead of feeling themselves secure within an environment devoted to their convenience and pleasure, find themselves marooned in a desert of grass verges and concrete roadways.” (p.83).

Although today following the Localism Act 2011, Section 122 introduces a legal requirement to consult with local communities before submitting planning applications for specific developments, this comes with its own set of failings and inadequacies. Consultation is a totally different beast to co-design, and there are ways and means to dilute the consultation process. While introducing an act to include communities in decision-making, it falls way short of the mark in terms of designing cities to meet the real needs of communities, not developers or landowners.

2. Does it need to be so complicated?
The management of supply, use, and distribution of social housing is a complex undertaking regardless of parliamentary system, local context, or political ideology. Social housing programmes in the UK were as complex to manage as successful social housing programmes in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s, 1980s Vienna or the Million Project in Sweden of the 1965-74.

However, from the 1980s onwards the legal structure for managing social housing in the UK became far more complex than anything ever seen before elsewhere in Europe. For all the neoliberal ideology of “rolling back the state,” governance structures and creating clear lines of responsibility for specific matters became far more complex than that of the various state-managed institutions and bodies.  

While the Right to Buy scheme was expanded in 1980, councils and local authorities faced harsh restrictions on their powers to build new social housing. It took only 3 years for this to have an impact, and between 1980 to 1983 the volume of social housing built in the UK had halved. Meanwhile, powers that previously belonged solely to local authorities to manage the pipeline of social housing as well as existing stock were transferred to a myriad of housing associations and Arms’ Length Management Organisations (ALMOs), backed up by private finance rather than state budget. This was codified in the 1988 Housing Act.

The introduction of new layers of governance and lack of uniformity across the country created a diffuse network and fragmented landscape. This system of complex interplay between state and private sector in a non-uniform way, often through incredibly dense networks, makes it almost impossible to discern interrelations between different actors.

Creating complexity in this way is a means to spread out accountability and makes it impossible to pinpoint blame for any failures on one specific actors. The Grenfell fiasco is a living example of how such a fragmented landscape can lead to tragedy without any real political consequences.



3. The public and private sphere and how space is conceptualised
The most striking element of social housing in Britain compared with the European mainland is how quickly urban planners, architects, city councillors and others with decision-making powers over housing jumped on the vision of the ideal dwelling as a private space secluded from others. Building vertically would create compact housing arrangements with greater possibility of using shared spaces and building communities and the potential for spaces of solidarity. Instead, however, British urban designers preferred cottage estates with one or two-storey houses or low-rise blocks, each with private gardens.

Whether this is a reaction to the horror and misery of the slums which were part and parcel of British industrial cities until the mass slum clearances of the 1930s remains to be seen. Ensuring that space is divided up into private sections comes with a price. The cottage estates and single-family semi-detached houses were unaffordable for many working-class families, and the sprawling nature of building dwellings in this way meant that quantities were limited due to spatial factors. Therefore, the more affluent working classes moved out to the suburbs, while the poorer remained in inner city areas creating a class-based social segregation.

4. The role of youth in shaping modern London.
The experimental and sociologically-minded period of re-building Britain in the mid 20th century was driven by proponents of an incredibly tender age, often recently graduated from design schools. From the perspective of someone aged 35 flailing around in a career that has not really started yet after a number of false starts and interludes of further education, this is a fascinating discovery. Today, even the greased wheels of nepotism and the most connected individual is still not trusted to do much more than make coffee and take charge of the proverbial photocopying until at least age 30. Countless internships, paid and unpaid, stints overseas getting “international experience,” and various post-graduate career development moves are part and parcel of those born in the 1980s onwards. While this may sound a development in the right direction, a meritocratic approach based on experience and “earning your stripes”, it should of course be heavily caveated. The playing field today is certainly not level: those with social and economic capital will advance up the career ladder further and quicker than those starting at the very bottom.

In 1960s Camden, the Whittington Estate was conceptualised and planned by Peter Tábori, at the time a student in his mid-twenties at Regent Street Polytechnic. The estate, which was his final-year project, was carefully designed to meet the needs of its inhabitants: play areas for children, pedestrian decks, areas to meet with neighbours, estate shopping centres. It was criticised at the time for being too ideological, which reflected not so much on the design of the estate itself but a social criticism of the estate as a concept (p.61).

In the London Borough of Camden of the 1960s a full third of the Labour council were under 40 years old (p 59). It also had a young team of urban planners and designers under Borough Architect Sydney Cook. One of his team, Neave Brown, was commissioned in 1969 to design the Alexandra Road Estate aged just 40 years old.

South of the river, the story was similar. The London Borough of Lambeth’s Chief Architect, Ted Hollamby, was just 40 when he was appointed Chief Architect of the London Borough of Hammersmith and a few years later, moved to the equivalent role in Lambeth. By his mid-30s, he had already delivered the Brandon Estate, once the tallest point in the capital (p. 155).

London Borough of Southwark’s Dawson’s Heights, East Dulwich, was designed by Kate Macintosh in 1972, when she was just 26 years old (p.147). The imposing double-ziggurat style structure, following a few modifications throughout the years to improve safety measures according to various ideologies and zeitgeists, still stands today and is considered to be a fine structure when compared with other large-scale social housing built around the same time.

On the one hand, it could be easy to dismiss some of the less successful examples of mass social housing projects, poorly designed system-builds and failed urban design initiatives developed in the post-war period by young architects as examples of inexperience and the naivety of youth. At the same time, however, perhaps the youthfulness brought an ideological breath of fresh air in a time of rapid social change. The perspectives of middle-class, middle-aged Oxbridge educated, white, male architects and planners perhaps do not always reflect the needs of wider society. Does this sound familiar?

5. The role of progressive politics in shaping modern London.
There is (or was, I think it was shattered once and for all following the 2019 general election) a misconception in the UK that northern areas vote red and the south votes blue. This completely overlooks the role and legacy of radical politics and the labour movement in London. While it is assumed that Newcastle, or Liverpool, or Manchester will remain steadfastly Labour, London rarely comes to mind in the national imaginary as the country’s bastion of red. However successive general and local election results from Tower Hamlets, Camden, Islington, Lewisham, Newham and other inner London boroughs show a long line of unbroken red.

In the 1950s and 1960s, one could find card-carrying communists such as Ted Hollamby having decision-making authority in significant positions of power over the urban environment. This is unthinkable today: recall the viciousness with which Corbyn was treated by the media and his own party alike, and the purge of the left from the Labour party continues to advance under Starmer’s watch.

In 2021, unless you have the interests of capital at heart, it’s very difficult to get close to the levers of power. Boughton brings us a glimpse of the past to show that it was not always thus, and this brings a glimmer of hope for the future as well.  

6. The human cost of gentrification.
The term gentrification, coined by Ruth Glass in her 1964 work London: Aspects of change is applied to the process of transformation of a poor neighbourhood in cities by the process of middle- and upper-middle income groups buying properties in such neighbourhoods and upgrading them.

Today, the term is no longer confined the realms of urban sociology and is widely used and understood across a broad spectrum. However, the modern usage has somewhat diluted the violence with which the gentrification (and its ugly sister regeneration) process takes place: it often conjures up images of independent eateries and craft beer micropubs in newly vibrant neighbourhoods that were once stagnant. It glosses over the displacement process in practical terms: unable to meet rising rents, families or elderly residents are often forced out from the place they call home, where they are part of networks that has often formed over years and even decades.

These connections and networks, the fragile social fabric that provide the building blocks of a community, are destroyed practically overnight by the gentrification process. Boughton points to the Hendon Waterside scheme in North London (p. 275), where secure council housing tenants from the West Hendon estate have been “decanted” to alternative tower blocks elsewhere. Neighbours and friends have been forcibly moved away from each other, to a new block of inferior quality to the tenants’ original homes. Leaseholders have been given compensation that does not match the cost of renting in the area in today’s rental rates. Many of the original inhabitants of the estate have simply moved away, worn out by the physical and emotional upheaval of the process.

A similar story is outlined in other cases all over London: Carpenter’s Estate in Newham, West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates in Hammersmith, the New Era Estate in Hoxton, and Northwold Estate in Hackney for example. While London is the site of conflict for most of the displacement processes, due to a combination of population growth and the value of land a property, other cities in the UK are not immune. Most recently, Manchester is in the throes of a massive property boom which has displaced thousands of the city’s poorest.

While these examples all have their own specific features and character, they all have one thing in common: tenants, once supported by the state, are now being aggressively pushed aside to create space for private companies to extract more rent and increase their capital. Through these case studies, Boughton illustrates clearly how the gentrification process, and the housing crisis more generally, is down to a political choice rather than an economic necessity. Final chapter brings us to Grenfell, and starkly brings together everything that has failed in the – hackneyed though this phrase is – neoliberal political project (I cringe now as I write this) in the UK over the past 30 years. The mass privatisation of national assets since the late 1970s onwards has ensured accountability and responsibilities are diffuse and intangible. Most chillingly has been the total absence of redistributed wealth and the clear focus on leveraging profit for a tiny minority over absolutely everything else, including – and especially, human lives.

Boughton shows us that good-quality housing as a social good was an obvious and rational pursuit at the dawn of the first council estate in 1900. Tracing the journey through a socialist-led national effort to raise the standard of living to today, where making humane and socially-oriented choices is no longer seen as a viable option by our increasingly flailing political system. A radical overhaul is once again required to solve the housing crisis in any meaningful way and this requires levelling the playing field in all aspects of society, not only housing.

Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (review, part 1)

Given the centrality of housing as the centrepiece of British socio-political reality, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing is far more than a simple audit and historical account of the trajectory of social housing spanning over a century. Viewed through the lens of social housing, John Boughton provides a detailed and nuanced analysis of housing as a response to the changing social and political conditions of Britain. The big questions of the day are often reflected in the government’s responses to the challenge of housing its people. The Municipal Dreams journey departs from the early Victorian-era disease-ridden slums where life, for most, was, to quote Hobbes’ Leviathan “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” through to the golden age of socialist thought rising from the ashes of two brutal world wars, to the late 20th century project of “rolling back the state,” privatisation of state assets, financial deregulation and push to the free market and its somewhat tragic consequences, the embodiment of which are reflected in the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.

This fascinating project to trace the noble origins and development of social housing in Britain stemmed from four years of blogging, which is in fact still very much alive and well at Municipal Dreams. Much of the material in the book derives from ethnographic sources, which affords Boughton a level of intimacy not seen (to my limited knowledge) in any other literature spanning such a broad range of council estates. It also allows Boughton to encompass an insider’s perspective and avoids the lack of objectivity that befalls many accounts of working-class culture using a more distant, participatory observation approach.

The book is organised chronologically, with three discernible phases:

1. Philanthropy, morality and Victorian values: Britain’s first council estate, the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch which was completed in 1900, was constructed as a direct response from the appalling conditions of the slum quarter in London’s East End. Multiple accounts, from novels such as Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago referenced in the first chapter of Municipal Dreams, Charles’ Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, to historical accounts and ethnographies including Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, also referred to in Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, and Friedrich Engels’ The Great Towns offered stark descriptions of the criminality, abject poverty, death, and disease in these miserable human rookeries. This misery was the downside of the first ever Industrial Revolution. The work of empiricists such as Engels, and later Thomas Carlyle, informed embryonic ideas for developing the welfare state. These ideas were brought forward by philanthropic individuals and loosely bound “corporations” which would later crystallise and formalise into local councils embedded within the institutional architecture of the British state.

2. The impact of war: The first world war gave rise, both directly and indirectly, to the world’s first mass council housing building programme. In 1919, Lloyd George promised “homes for heroes” and following the 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act, over the next two decades, 1.1 million council homes were built (pg 31). This gained support from both left and right wing of the political spectrum, albeit on differing grounds. The right, especially, feared the revolutions and Bolshevism sweeping across mainland Europe and believed that providing council housing would sweeten and disarm would-be revolutionaries. Following the war, it was tacitly agreed that a fit, healthy, and strong population was desirable and providing good-quality housing seemed one logical way to do this. The interwar period and the Great Depression saw large-scale slum clearances, where for the first time the poorer working class were brought into council housing.

From 1945, under Clement Attlee there was a concerted effort to rebuild and rebirth the nation following a catastrophic first half of the twentieth century. The welfare state was born, and housing was a large part of this. At this time, socialist thought defined post-war Britain. The NHS was created, access to education expanded, and the dominant ideology gave rise to the idea that council housing was for a prosperous, economically active, and aspirational working class (pg 256).

3. Demonisation and privatisation: From 1979 onwards, Britain was remodelled once again. The post-1945 consensus was replaced with free market ideals of shrinking the state and selling off state-owned assets. This included council housing. While national companies were being sold off at an alarming rate, council housing stock was transferred from state ownership to private hands or to third-party public-private entities and housing associations for ideological reasons. This included the expanded Right to Buy introduced in 1980. Meanwhile, rhetoric and discourse peddled by government, the national press and free-market think tanks such as Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute ensured that council estates and their inhabitants were stigmatised. Social housing is today the preferred term for those working in the housing sector, due not in small part to the negative connotations attached to the term “council housing” and “council estate.” Municipal dreams is not party political work, but it certainly seeks to bring to the fore the social origins of council housing and the critical role the Labour movement played in ensuring access to decent and affordable housing. These principles have been very much eroded in recent decades, but not all hope is lost. We may reach a turning point once again. Or then, things might become ever more entrenched.

I will elaborate further on these musings a bit later.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Photo credit: “Sotsgorod: Cities for Utopia” (Icarus films, 1995)

IWD 2022: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky

I haven’t updated this thing for a while and judging by the visitor stats, nobody reads it anyway. It’s mostly a chronicle for my own sake at the moment. The world is dark and monstrous and, selfishly, I need an outlet.

However, the aim of this journal is not political analysis; there are several thousand million journals and blogs and substacks etc (one of these days I will gather and share a reading list) out there that are far more insightful than I could ever be. I will bend this rule a little bit in the coming days or weeks or months (unavoidable in the present climate), but I will keep the analysis light as the last thing the world needs is one more hot take from a comfortable Brit looking on from the computer screen as the horror unfolds. Nevertheless, I will aim to keep any political chat relevant to the task at hand: trying to make sense of the urban environment around us.

I have a couple of dry book-review-y/recommendation-y type entries stacked up, but since it is International Women’s Day today I will write a little homage to a good international woman:  committed communist, feminist designer, and architect-activist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky.

Recently I watched the film Sotsgorod: Cities for Utopia which merits its own entry. In a nutshell, it details a group of architects (known as the “May Brigade” led by the Dutch architect Ernst May) from the West – mainly Netherlands, West Germany, Switzerland, Austria, who went to the Soviet Union to help deliver panellised housing to create planned socialist cities in Magnitogorsk,Siberia during the USSR building programme in 1920s and 1930s. One of these architects was Schütte-Lihotzky.

Schütte-Lihotzky was the first female student at the University of the Applied Arts in her hometown, Vienna, and one of the first female architects in Europe. She studied under Oskar Strnad, who was extremely influential in the mass social housing projects in Vienna (sozialer Wohnbau). Vienna has long been an object of interest for planners, urban designers, and architects in terms of social housing (and this also warrants an entry in its own right).

In 1926, she was commissioned by the City of Frankfurt to support an effort to resolve the city’s acute housing crisis led by the architect and city planner Ernst May. Schütte-Lihotzky worked on the New Frankfurt project, bringing her humanitarian values to housing to create a space that was affordable, comfortable, and stylish.

Her work on the New Frankfurt project gave rise the Frankfurt kitchen in 1926 (insert cap from film clip) based on the principle of a small kitchen to maximise a housewife’s efficiency and reduce the amount of time spent on unpaid domestic labour. The Frankfurt kitchen model is extremely common in the mass-built social housing prevalent across mainland Europe.

Photo: “Sotsgorod: Cities for Utopia” (Icarus films, 1995)

Beyond her design activities, she remained a committed communist until her death in 2000. She became a member of the Austrian Community Party (KPÖ) in 1939 where she worked with the Austrian Communist resistance. She was caught by the Gestapo in Istanbul in 1941, and imprisoned by 15 years in Bavaria. She was liberated by US troops at the end of the Second World War, upon which she no longer wished to return to Austria immediately. She worked in Bulgaria for a few years before returning to Vienna, although her communist views prevented her from receiving any major public commissions in Austria.

To finish up, here is an excerpt from Schütte-Lihotzky’s work “Why I became an architect,” published by Juliet Kinchin in West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2011), pp. 86-96:

“What were the theoretical foundations and ideals that lay behind the Frankfurt
Kitchen that led to its being reproduced in the thousands? For me there were
two motives that led to the creation of the Frankfurt Kitchen. The first was
the recognition that in the foreseeable future women would have proper paid
employment, and would not solely be expected to be on hand to wait upon their
husbands. I was convinced that women’s struggle for economic independence
and personal development meant that the rationalization of housework was an
absolute necessity. Foremost in my mind when working on housing projects was
the idea that the design and, above all, the layout could save work. . . . Second,
I felt the Frankfurt Kitchen—a design so connected to the architectural fabric
and to the planning and built-in features of rooms—was only the very first
step toward developing a new way of living and at the same time a new kind
of housing construction.”