I wrote a brief history of social housing for an exhibition currently on the Second Floor Gallery at the RIBA – In The Making: New Social Housing.
A brief history of social housing
The slums of Victorian London are now long forgotten, but in the late 1800s housing across the city for working class people was overcrowded, unsanitary and often unsafe. It was these harsh and inhumane living conditions that prompted the construction of the city’s first social housing stock – first by American philanthropist George Peabody, followed closely after by Edward Cecil Guinness, a great grandson of the founder of the Guinness Brewery.
These early forms of socially responsible developers concentrated on building good quality homes, with all the amenities of contemporary life, providing housing for those unable to build or rent their own dwellings.
It soon became clear, however, that the government would have to intervene if any substantial number of people were to be brought out of sub-standard housing resulting in the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890.
London’s Metropolitan Board of Works initiated the construction of the first state-funded housing in East London in 1890 at the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch. The project was completed under the newly formed London County Council (LCC) and its brick mansion blocks are now grade II listed.
The First World War and its aftermath brought the severity of London’s housing crisis to the fore, providing further impetus for government intervention and it was in 1919 that it first became mandatory for councils to build their own housing.
This led the LCC to start in earnest with its slum clearing campaign, paving the way for a new typology of social housing. One of the most popular standard designs was neo-Georgian, mid-rise block of yellow stock brick, often with red brick at ground floor level, as well as more cottage-type housing as seen on the Downham Estate in south-east London.
But the story of council estates and social housing as we know them today begins in earnest following the end of the Second World War, during which more than one million homes in London were destroyed. This extreme situation led to the biggest push in social housing construction ever seen in the capital.
So it was that by the early 1950s the LCC effectively ran the world’s largest architecture practice, designing, building and commissioning new social housing across London.
One of the earlier examples of typical post-war social housing stock is seen at the Lansbury Estate in Poplar, east London, whose first phase was developed as the Live Architecture Exhibition of the 1951 Festival of Britain. This allowed people to visit modern homes, and shows how highly regarded was the need to showcase the post-war rebuilding effort.
More generally, the LCC commissioned a wide variety of projects in the 1950s and 60s. The Russian emigre architect Berthold Lubetkin features strongly during this time, having designed schemes throughout central and east London. In 1958 the city’s first residential tower block estate completed at Brunswick Close in Islington designed by Joseph Emberton.
The desire to build tall and the influence of European architect Le Corbusier led to more radical schemes being completed, including Erno Goldfinger’s pair of brutalist towers – the Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower. At Robin Hood Gardens the Smithsons designed huge blocks with “streets in the sky’.
The quality of housing erected during this time varied greatly and it was the partial collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in Newham, following a gas explosion in the building, which highlighted the dangers of cost-cutting construction methods. This, together with social problems experienced in many high-rise estates, led to a backlash against social housing in the form of tower blocks.
Meanwhile, the housing sector in general slowed construction in the 1970s, and following the introduction of right-to-buy and the subsequent restrictions placed on councils to build housing signalled the end for state-backed housing construction.
Government policy started to change in 2006 with a new initiative to allow Local Authorities to build social housing again. London Boroughs are starting to explore the potential of helping to solve the housing crisis through masterplanning and re-building of their worst estates which will help provide the homes people need and the replacement homes that are desperately needed.
The exhibition by Karakusevic Carson Architects is on at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place until 17 May.