Architecture from Below

Owen Hatherley on the strange legacy of the Architects Revolutionary Council

Text by Owen Hatherley

Byker, in Newcastle upon Tyne, was the last great council estate. Begun in 1969 and completed in 1981, it was an experiment in participation. Previously, planning had been top-down, democratically accountable only insofar as elected local councils were usually the sponsors, owners and often designers of housing estates. Architects had little if any contact with the tenants of their schemes, and the residents of Victorian slums in the process of “clearance” had very little say in what they were to be rehoused in. But at Byker, architects Ralph Erskine and Vernon Gracie set up their office in the very area that was being cleared and rebuilt it piece by piece; residents’ input helped to determine the shape and style of each new phase, in a dialectical process of cooperation between local government, architects and council tenants. The new flats, squares and terraces of Byker were surrounded by huge swathes of demolished and derelict houses, but the project was at least a partial success.

The Byker estate, which was Grade II listed in 2006, recently became a Community Land Trust. This form of ownership, invented in the US, is now being tested in British cities and, unlike most American imports enthusiastically adopted by UK governments, it is not rapaciously capitalistic, but rather more humane. Community Land Trusts entail a “local community” (however that is defined) taking possession of a set of buildings. It is not public ownership, where a state institution owns the land, nor direct private ownership, where land and what sits on it is treated as a commodity entirely at the disposal of an individual or company. Instead, it is a form of limited collective ownership, democratically controlled, at least in theory, by the members of the “community”. Britain’s radically right-wing coalition government has treated it as an example of “localism in action”, part of a series of measures brought in to “empower communities”, which usually march in step with the disempowerment of public bodies (from local councils to the National Health Service), and with sell-offs to private contractors. Along with a new demonisation of the “big state”, the dismantling of planning regulations and a cult of self-building, Community Land Trusts form part of a strange new urban libertarianism; and one with a complex history, in which urban revolutionaries have received what they asked for many decades ago, but in a most unexpected form. The story begins in the 1970s, with a now mostly forgotten movement called Community Architecture.

In 1974, the Architects Revolutionary Council, made up largely of ex-employees of the Greater London Council, such as the Architectural Association lecturer Brian Anson, published their manifesto. It calls on “architects and others involved in the built environment who believe that we should cease working for a rich, powerful minority or the bureaucratic dictatorship of Central or Local governments and offer our services directly to local communities” to join “an international movement towards community architecture”. It was clear what the ARC were against – both International Style corporate modernism and gentrification, as combined in the declaration that “we wish to create a situation whereby every time an architectural student passes a building like Centre Point he vows that he will never work in a practice that is involved in such obscenities. Whenever a student walks through a gentrified area where massive improvement grants have enabled landlords to evict long-standing tenants and raise the value of their property a hundredfold, he will vow never to work in firms that engage in such activities.” But what they were for, what Community Architecture actually meant, was more opaque. At best, it was a process, where architects placed themselves at the disposal of existing campaigns: ARC worked with tenants of a threatened street in Bootle and with anti-office-block campaigners in Ealing, among others, offering them expertise, not ideology. Perhaps, prompted by the apparent failure of the utopian blueprints of the modern movement to correspond to reality, they were adhering to the old Marxist view that to provide a precise image of a potential future is to commodify and trivialise it. ARC IS COMMUNITY ARCHITECTURE, read the slogan on one pamphlet, next to an image of the sort of Victorian terraces architects and leftists once condemned as brutal, inhumane dens built by speculators.

It seems ironic that the Community Architecture movement emerged from a rebellion within the Greater London Council. Both as the GLC and in its earlier incarnation as London County Council, it had been a citadel of municipal socialism, long seen as an enlightened sponsor of modern architecture, whose schools, fire stations and housing schemes such as the Alton Estate in Roehampton were famous worldwide. Still, when some of the younger architects suddenly broke ranks, it seems they were reacting against two GLC programmes in particular. The first was the planned demolition and redevelopment of Covent Garden, then an unusual and highly mixed part of London where the warehouses and halls of the fruit and vegetable market and the huge Peabody Trust tenements shoved up against such moneyed spaces as the Strand and the Royal Opera House. The GLC’s plan was to move the market to Nine Elms, preserve a small “character area” of historical colour (the market hall, Inigo Jones’ church) and level the rest. In its place would be a multi-level housing, arts and office complex, brutalist in style, with a motorway underneath – a scheme similar to the Barbican, then being built by the City of London. It was this plan that provoked Brian Anson to leave the GLC and form the Architects Revolutionary Council – but his side eventually won, as a changing of the guard at the GLC led to the immediate listing of almost the whole of Covent Garden. Another cause of the breach was the GLC’s embrace of prefabrication and system-building, which the younger architects vigorously opposed. Before work was even completed on the vast new concrete estate at Thamesmead, featured in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, they had branded it “Slumsmead”. The GLC architect Louis Hellman, in-house cartoonist at the Architects’ Journal since the ‘70s, led a campaign against the prefab system for schools, which was eventually abandoned in favour – of course – of “Community Architecture”. It was not just the GLC: Lewisham council, under the aegis of the writer and campaigner Nicholas Taylor, introduced a very different form of prefab – encouraging residents to make their own homes, using a self-build kit designed by the architect Walter Segal.

Very little in the way of Community Architecture got built in the 1970s, though council housing mostly shifted to low-rise and brick, with systems and concrete phased out. Byker was still too implicated in modernism and “slum clearance” to be a rallying point for the movement, however much participation and care there might have been in its planning – it did displace people, and it even had tower blocks. The 1980s, strange to say, was Community Architecture’s decade. Housing co-operatives, which emerged partly in response to Margaret Thatcher’s declaration of war on council housing, became a testing ground. One co-op in New Cross, London, suggests what Community Architecture was becoming – a straightforward terrace, Victorian in scale and style, with a huge gable-end mural by Brian Barnes showing the world’s leaders (here Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov) flying towards each other on missiles, with the threatened globe in the middle. The mural movement, of which Barnes was a major proponent, created the liveliest urban interventions of the time – and with their stress on participation (encouraging people to work on and help with the murals) and their representation of real communities, they were a vivid expression of Community Architecture’s spirit. One gable-end mural by the Greenwich Mural Workshop shows residents in the act of defeating a slum clearance programme in Charlton, south-east London.

Architecture – in the sense of spaces formed and shaped by architects, of something obviously “designed” – was always deeply secondary to this movement. You could see that especially clearly in Liverpool, one of the great Community Architecture strongholds. The 1980s saw massive demolitions of the bad old bureaucratic architecture and an equally massive programme of rehousing. Both in the co-ops, such as the Eldonian Village by the derelict docks, and in the thousands of units built by the far-left council, new housing always involved low-rise, low-density, red brick and cul-de-sacs – basically the 1930s semi with better public spaces. If Community Architecture aimed to “give the people what they want”, and it turned out they wanted Barratt Homes, then the duty of the revolutionaries was to give it to them. Accordingly, for their new council houses Liverpool got in the same developers then building closes and cul-de-sacs for the affluent south-east. Democracy was the issue, not design. What makes this unnerving is the sheer insularity and suburban straggle of the results. High densities – in a city with some of the finest Georgian terraces in the country – were tainted by the association with “slums”. Yet with their perimeter walls blocking off the cul-de-sacs from the streets, Liverpool’s new estates most resembled the results of military replanning in Belfast, where the open layouts of terraces and tower blocks were replaced with “defensible spaces” where each community – loyalist or nationalist – would be literally enclosed and protected from the other. The unquestioned word “community” turned out to have certain other associations.

The major Community Architecture battleground was probably Coin Street, on a site south of the Thames, slightly downriver from the South Bank Centre. In the mid-1980s, developers planned to replace post-industrial wastes with a Richard Rogers-designed complex – “Pig Architecture” to the GLC radicals – of offices, luxury flats, shops and galleries; it was a newer, shinier, more complicated modernism than that of the prefabs and systems the community architects had fought against. As architecture, Rogers’ plan was a masterpiece, the work of a man at the height of his powers, with all the urban drama of the Lloyds building and the Centre Pompidou. But as social policy, it entailed the colonisation of a poor area by big capital, and was eventually defeated by the GLC, then controlled by the ‘70s new left. The resulting scheme, by Coin Street Community Builders, involved low-rise, low-density brick terraces. Historians have found many possible “deaths of modern architecture”, but what happened in Liverpool and at Coin Street was definitively the death of the modern movement in the UK, defined as the alliance between reformist politics and advanced architecture. Now, instead, there was an alliance between radical architects and developers, left-wing councils and neo-Victorians. The future was to look like a somewhat reduced version of the past. It may or may not have come as a surprise when many community architects, who once pledged total revolutionary change, found themselves in league with the Prince of Wales in his campaigns for traditional architecture.

As a phrase and a movement, Community Architecture all but disappeared with the left-wing councils of the 1980s. Its most obvious legacy is the ubiquity of “consultation”, one of New Labour’s great enthusiasms. Every dubious developer’s scheme of the 2000s had some coffee morning where locals were to tick boxes or make suggestions. Even the Pathfinder schemes that laid waste to Anfield in northern Liverpool – displacing thousands for a redevelopment that mostly never came and leaving a terrifying, scarred landscape in its wake – were initially premised on consulting residents of the slums they were to clear. But only one project really had any of Community Architecture’s original promise: Homes for Change, in Hulme, Manchester, where a group of residents of a demolished brutalist estate managed to dictate its replacement to the architects – choosing, ironically, something very close in typology to the high-density, multi-level modern scheme they had just been cleared from. At the same time, the campaign against top-down modernism only increased in intensity, with the privatisation, demolition and clearance of the results of that “bureaucratic dictatorship of Central or Local government” – replaced, as is usually the case, by architecture for a “rich, powerful minority”.

Yet the places created by the Community Architecture movement were indisputably a success of some kind. Eldonian Village has expanded and thrived in a very hostile environment; Coin Street has grown and its architecture has gradually become more confident and urban in the process; and Covent Garden is one of London’s most visited areas. They can often be strangely touristy – Covent Garden and Coin Street in particular are almost theme park-like spaces of little shops, boutiques and general tweeness, seldom visited by any actual Londoners save the residents of the housing co-ops that still unassumingly exist there. Mostly, this isn’t the architects’ fault, but the results of wider politics beyond the control of these local radicals. Still, at least one thing should have been obvious from the start. The top-down “big state” and municipal modernism had created something universal – rehousing hundreds of thousands of people in low-rent, well-appointed homes, however monolithic – whereas the Community Architecture movement, by attaching itself to groups of campaigners, produced something oddly selective. To get a council flat, you join a waiting list. To get a flat in a housing co-op, you go through a vetting process to make sure you will be a good member of the co-operative, likely to pull your weight and fit in.

Like Newcastle, Liverpool now has its own Community Land Trust, Homebaked, a repurposed bakery that represents a small attempt to reclaim its corner of Anfield from total devastation. Both this and Byker are sensible and brave responses to a situation in which the state has worked in tandem with business to clear and destroy working-class areas. Especially in Liverpool, it is a straightforward story of self-defence: given the complicity of local government in various dodgy development schemes, the “community” has no real choice but to go it alone – and if that involves being claimed for a right-wing government’s “localism” agenda, it’s a small price to pay. But clearly, the story of Community Architecture is not a wholly positive one: it offers a cautionary tale to today’s enthusiasts for direct democracy, for face-to-face decision making, the proponents of the belief that any kind of division of labour, any kind of modernity or industrialism, is an evil to be resisted. Democracy in a mass, technological society is not a matter of small, self-contained communities. It needs to be more than the empowerment of People Like Us. §

Nairn’s Towns, Owen Hatherley’s new edition of Ian Nairn’s 1967 work on the British urban landscape, is out now from Notting Hill Editions.

Images courtesty of AA Archives

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