Housing is the lowest form of architecture

Posted on 24 June 2012 2 comments

It’s been exactly five years since I started this blog, so you could say this is an anniversary post of sorts.

I thought it might be interesting to revisit a question implied in my first blog post five years ago: does domestic or volume housing fall under the field of architecture? It’s not a rhetorical question. Most of the built environment is housing and for much of the past few hundred years the majority of domestic housing has not been designed by architects. That was the surprising fact (to me at least) that launched this blog five years ago. (See the first blog post Architecture and Domestic Housing for more on this.)

In Britain, architects had their greatest influence on housing in the decades after the Second World War, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. But post-war housing in Britain has a very mixed legacy of success and failure. Many failed housing projects, particularly large-scale high density developments, have not endeared architects to the public.

In contrast to mass housing (where the mass of us live), the individual house receives far greater attention in architectural history. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Every architect (and student of architecture) will be familiar with these.

“The design of the house has acquired a prominent place in architectural history. But ‘house’ and ‘housing’ are not the same thing. While the historians of design lavished attention on the mansions and palaces of the rich they paid little heed to the everyday architecture which surrounded them – the mass of domestic buildings that were home to everyone else and which together constituted housing.”
“While housing can be for the rich – the Georgian terrace of the past, the urban penthouse of today – most often it is not. Housing is for everyone. It has to be affordable and, for the most part, that means modest. Spaces are small-scale and limited in number. They are divided into well-understood functions. Materials and components have to be relatively cheap. This means that plans can be standardised and components mass produced.”

Architects are often missing in debates about housing, even when they have much to contribute. It’s often impossible to separate social, cultural and political issues when discussing housing matters. Are architects wary of wading into these topics?

Last year (2011), the RIBA launched a high profile campaign for better homes called Homewise. The campaign kicked off with some critical findings about the homes built by some of the largest volume housebuilders in Britain. It was a much needed and welcome contribution to the housing debate but some architects felt the campaign would alienate the housebuilders further from the architecture profession. Was this a case of don’t bite the hand that feeds you?

I don’t really have any sympathy for the volume housebuilders. The design of new build housing remains poor in Britain and deserves much more critical scrutiny. One of the reasons the housebuilders get away with poor design must surely be the ruinous attitude of regarding a home as just another commodity to be bought and sold as a pure profit-making exercise. Property investors and buy-to-let landlords have done much to cultivate this damaging attitude in Britain.

At the start of this post I asked if domestic housing is part of architecture, and the answer is obviously yes. But it is also true that mass housing receives less attention and less critical discussion in the architecture field than other building types. Why? It really does seem as if housing is the lowest form of architecture.

When architects describe other buildings, they talk about scale and proportion and natural light. You’ll be lucky to hear those words in relation to mass housing (and if they are used, it will probably be in a negative sense – miserly proportions, poor natural light). Is there any other building type subject to so many cost, material and space constraints as housing?

Volume housing will rarely be iconic or glamorous in the way that large public or commercial buildings might be designed. But that hardly means that housing should not be worthy of the same or greater attention than those buildings. Is there anything more satisfying than participating in the design of high-density houses or flats that are loved by their occupants and that stand the test of time for decades afterwards? After all, what other building type contributes as much to our health, comfort and wellbeing?


Tim Broadfoot

17 August 2012 11:57 GMT

I completely agree with this, there is more attention needed to mass home building but where does the compromise meet between design and affordable housing for the masses? Surely one area will suffer when the other aspect is focused on?

A. Hussein blog author

17 August 2012 19:20 GMT

Thanks for you comment. I think mandatory housing standards (e.g. minimum space standards) are essential. Without them, the volume house builders will never raise their game. In London at least, any homes built with public funds must meet the requirements set out in the London Housing Design guide. The hope is that this will also encourage private housebuilders to raise their game, but I’m not convinced this will happen.

As for the rest of the country, we will never get national space standards from this coalition government: in November 2010, the housing minister Grant Shapps scrapped core housing standards drawn up by the Homes & Communities agency. This would have applied to any homes built with Government money.

So basically, the volume housebuilders are free to build – unfettered – small, poorly-designed cheap quality homes. The housing shortage means they can still find buyers for these crappy homes (often a buy-to-let investor). It’s all pretty depressing!

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