Manifesto

Architects for Social Housing (ASH) was set up in March 2015 in order to respond architecturally to London’s housing ‘crisis’. We organise working collectives of architects, urban designers, engineers, surveyors, planners, film-makers, photographers, web-designers, map-makers, artists, writers and housing campaigners that operate with developing ideas under set principles.

First among these is the conviction that increasing the housing capacity on existing council estates, rather than redeveloping them as properties for capital investment, is a more sustainable solution to London’s housing needs than the demolition of the city’s social housing during a housing shortage, enabling, as it does, the continued existence of the communities they house.

ASH offers support, advice and expertise to residents who feel their interests and voices are increasingly marginalised by local councils or housing associations during the so-called ‘regeneration’ process. Our primary responsibility is to existing residents – tenants and leaseholders alike; but we are also committed to finding financially, socially, economically and environmentally viable alternatives to estate demolition that are in the interests of the wider London community.

ASH operates on three levels of activity: Architecture, Community and Propaganda.

  1. We propose architectural alternatives to council estate demolition through designs for infill, roof extensions and refurbishment that increase housing capacity on the estates by up to 45 per cent and, by renting a proportion of the new homes on the private market, generate the funds to refurbish the existing council homes, while leaving the communities they currently house intact.
  1. We support estate communities in their resistance to the demolition of their homes by working closely with residents over an extended period of time, offering them information about estate regeneration and housing policy from a reservoir of knowledge and tactics pooled from similar campaigns across London.
  1. We share information that aims to counter negative and unfounded myths about social housing in the minds of the public, and raise awareness of the role of relevant interest groups, including local authorities, housing associations, property developers and architectural practices, in the regeneration process. Using a variety of means, including protest, publication and propaganda, we are trying to initiate a wider cultural change within the architectural profession.

Whether you are facing the regeneration of your estate and in need of advice, or whether you want to offer your skills, expertise and time to our many projects, please get in contact.

E-mail: info@architectsforsocialhousing.co.uk

Twitter: @ASH_Housing

Facebook: ASH (Architects for Social Housing)

Events: http://www.opengardenestates.com

Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (CIC). Although we do occasionally receive minimal fees for our design work, the vast majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work, you can make a donation through PayPal:

Architects for Social Housing (CIC), company no. 10383452

 

Dispossession: The Great Labour Party Swindle

Tonight Paul Sng’s film Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle will have what I think is its last screening of the year at the Chelsea Curzon cinema, and to the excitement of many what the publicity calls ‘the Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn’ will be in attendance.

This is quite a turn around, as when the film first came out back in March it was attacked by Labour activists as ‘anti-Labour’. Unite the Union, which largely bankrolls the Labour Party and Corbyn in particular, even called for a picket of the screening at the Brixton Ritzy cinema, as they claimed it broke the call by staff there, who were striking for a living wage, not to use the cinema, when in fact Paul had already approached them and been given their permission to show the film. As anyone who has opposed them knows, this is typical of the way Labour activists operate. However, that was then, and this is now. Paul has always been very open that the film is not a political film and on more than one occasion has publically denounced Corbyn. So it’s quite a turn around for him to be showing his film to him now.

‘But what’s the problem?’ you may ask. ‘Surely it’s a good thing that the Leader of the Labour Party and possibly the next Prime Minister of the UK sees this film?’

Continue reading “Dispossession: The Great Labour Party Swindle”

Narkomfin: Regenerations, Appropriations, Betrayals

Narkomfin building, 1930.

The Narkomfin Building

As a third-rate intellectual nation with the most de-politicised working class in Europe, the UK has spent this 100th anniversary year self-satisfyingly dumping on everything we can about the Russian Revolution, while simultaneously shutting our eyes to the extraordinary creativity to which it gave birth – however short-lived – in poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, music, theatre, textiles, graphic design, photography, photomontage, cinema and architecture, and to which only the Italian Renaissance can be compared in modern times. Writing about Le Corbusier’s famous Marseilles Housing Unit recently led me to a building which – being neither an architect nor a scholar of architecture – I’d never heard of: the apartment block for the People’s Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) in Moscow designed by the Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg and his student Ignatii Milinis. Le Corbusier took some of his most influential ideas from this building, having first drained them of much of their socialist content; but while the 1952 Marseilles Housing Unit is celebrated in hundreds of books and visited by thousands of architectural students every year, the Narkomfin building, which was completed in 1930 when most British workers were living in terraced Victorian slums, has been left to rot, squatted by Moscow’s homeless, bought up by a property speculator, and now under threat of being ‘regenerated’ as luxury apartments or a hotel in Vladimir Putin’s Brave New Russia.

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Armed Love: Capitalism, Anarchism and the Russian Revolution

‘The revenge of history is more powerful than the revenge of the most powerful General Secretary.’

– Leon Trotsky

How do you mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in which monopoly capitalism has created the greatest income inequality in Europe, and which, because of this, the spectre of socialism – if not quite communism – is haunting for the first time in forty years? In accordance with the role art and culture has been assigned under late capitalism, the UK state’s primary response has been to put on exhibitions and performances at its major institutions of culture that – much like frescoes in pre-Reformation churches – explain the perils of revolution to the historically illiterate middle classes. To this end, 2017 has seen shows at the Royal Academy of Arts, the Design Museum, the British Library, the Royal Festival Hall and the Tate Modern – and that’s just in London alone. And as we entered October and the anniversary of the terrible ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ approached, a series of documentaries and dramas appeared on our primary instrument of state propaganda, the British Broadcasting Corporation, of which a special mention should go to the hilarious Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution, which dragged out every right-wing talking head the establishment could produce to carry out character assassinations of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. But amid this state-sanctioned programme of political enlightenment for the masses, there have been other, independent responses to the Russian Revolution, ones that focus not on its art or demonising its protagonists, but on the historical lessons it contains for those looking for something more than the propaganda of an increasingly crisis-ridden capitalism, repressive civil state and morally bankrupt parliament.

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Radiant City: The Marseilles Housing Unit

In April of this year ASH visited the Unité d’habitation in Marseilles, the first and most influential of Le Corbusier’s Housing Units’, which was completed in 1952 and repeated, with variations, in Nantes-Rezé (1955), in Berlin-Westend (1957), in Briey (1963) and in Firminy (1965). Itself considerably influenced by the Narkomfin building in Moscow (1930) designed by the Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg, Le Corbussier’s model of public housing had a huge influence on Brutalist architecture, and inspired the design of a large number of housing estates in the UK, including – to name just a few – the Park Hill estate (1961) in Sheffield, the Alton estate (1958), the Samuda estate (1965), Balfron Tower (1967), Trellick Tower (1972), Robin Hood Gardens (1972) and the Barbican estate (1981), all of which are in London. Ironically, the reinforced, rough-finished concrete (béton brut) from which the Housing Unit was constructed, and which gave its name to this movement in architecture, was necessitated because the steel frame Le Corbusier had envisaged using proved too expensive under the shortage of steel in post-war France.

In his early theoretical work, Vers une architecture (1923), Le Corbusier paid particular attention to the forms of ocean liners, finding in their matching of form to function the purism in design he sought to bring to modern architecture. As the plan of the Marseilles Housing Unit conveys, Le Corbusier envisaged this long, narrow building of 17 decks running parallel to the Mediterranean coastline as a sort of stationary ship, and many of its interior details make reference to nautical design. The wood and brass materials on the folding seat cum threshold to the apartment balconies recall those of a ship’s cabin, as does the wooden decking of the floors, the stairs, and the spiral staircase in the restaurant. And the extraordinary roof, which resembles a landscape by René Magritte, has ventilator shafts shaped like a ship’s smokestacks and a communal hall that looks like an upturned lifeboat. Above all, the self-sufficiency of the building – which originally had its own guest hostel, laundry, restaurant, grocer, butcher, barber, post office, clinic, nursery, kindergarten, gymnasium, children’s swimming pool, exercise space and running track – imitated the facilities within an ocean liner.

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Achilles Street: Open Garden Estates 2017

As part of this year’s Open Garden Estates, Achilles Street residents researched the abundance of wildflowers living in and around their estate. The walk they created out of their discovery reveals the beauty found in unlikely places and raises questions about how we value our urban environment and local communities. Overlooked and unappreciated, these plants, like the residents, will be uprooted and discarded in the demolition of the estate.

Sustainability is about the relationship between our communities and the environment in which they live. Estate demolition is as much an attack on our natural environment as on our local communities, unnecessarily releasing huge quantities of embodied carbon and pollutants into our atmosphere, as well as tearing up well established communities that have taken root over generations in the fabric of our city.  Their destruction will leave London impoverished and stripped of its indigenous cultures and resources for the short term gain of non-domiciled and foreign speculation and investment.

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The Castle: Freedom of Information and Commercial Confidentiality at Lambeth Co-operative Council

Lambeth Town Hall

‘Ultimately, I think it’s better to be as transparent and as open as possible, but that does slow things down. But it also means that as we start the consultation residents know that we have looked at all options, that they’ve been robustly tested and scrutinised, and that’s why we can say with confidence that rebuilding is the best option for the residents of Central Hill.’

– Matthew Bennett, Lambeth Cabinet Member for Housing (October 2016)

‘Where estate regeneration takes place there should always be full and transparent consultation. Initial engagement should clearly state any non-viable or undeliverable options which have been discounted and why, and these decisions should be open to scrutiny by residents and other stakeholders.’

– Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London (December 2016)

‘When councils come forward with proposals for regeneration, we will put down two markers based on one simple principle: regeneration under a Labour government will be for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators.’

– Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party (September 2017)

In May 2016 Architects for Social Housing (ASH) presented its design alternatives to the demolition of Central Hill estate to Lambeth Labour Council. The result of a year’s work in consultation with the estate residents, our alternative proposed building up to 250 additional dwellings on the estate, partly infill development on land identified as free by the estate residents, partly roof extensions on the existing properties, a proportion of which would be for more council housing, a proportion for private rent and sale, and use the proceeds to fund the refurbishment of the existing estate, whose maintenance the council has neglected for years. We had previously exhibited these designs at a meeting attended by over 120 Central Hill estate residents that February, when we had received their full support; and the campaign to save Central Hill from demolition continues to use them in the defence of their homes. Despite this support, the conditions under which we presented our proposal to Lambeth council three months later were hostile at best, with the venue changed at the last moment to a room without projection facilities; the Chair of the Residents Engagement Panel absent without explanation; not a single Lambeth councillor bothering to turn up, including the local ward councillor and Cabinet Member for Housing, Matthew Bennett; and Lambeth’s Assistant Director of Housing Regeneration, Neil Vokes, leaving for an apparently more pressing engagement after only half an hour.

We weren’t in the least suprised, therefore, when the following month Lambeth’s Capital Programme Manager, Fiona Cliffe, the only Lambeth employee to attend our presentation, issued a terse statement on the council website declaring our proposals to be ‘financially unviable’. In the absence of any invitation to respond, or indeed any communication whatsoever from the council, in September 2016 we wrote our own detailed rebuttal of the miscalculated figures, inaccurate assessments, false claims and deliberate misunderstandings on which this descision had been made. High in the list of mysteries of how the financial unviability of our scheme had been arrrived at were the withheld figures on which the calculations had been based that showed every single one of ASH’s site proposals result in a negative Net Present Value, making it impossible, apparently, to build anything at all that didn’t require the demolition of every one of the 456 homes on Central Hill estate. In order to acquire these figures, therefore, we sent Lambeth Labour council a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Little did we suspect that this would begin an exchange of letters that continues to this day, some 15 months later, and which would extend to include the Information Commissioners Office and the London Assembly.

This is the story of Lambeth Labour council’s refusal to supply the information on which their plans to demolish Central Hill estate rests and the excuses they have invented for not doing so, each of which flies in the face of the promises of transparency in estate regeneration made by the London Mayor, the Leader of the Labour Party, and indeed by themselves. Lambeth describes itself as a ‘co-operative council’, and in their brochure congratulating themselves on being the first such council to be so they list among their many examples of co-operative behaviours their commitment to ‘follow up requests for information’. Then again, Lambeth Labour council has recently responded to a People’s Audit that found evidence of ‘extensive financial mismanagement and a systemic lack of financial governance’ by appealing to the Conservative government to restrict public scrutiny of local government finances in the future; so let’s have a look at how the co-operative council has responded to more than a year of FOI requests. Like everything to do with London’s estate demolition programme, its a long story composed of numerous sub-plots, all of which lead to a bureaucratic dead end. Writing it – a task I have put off for many months – increasingly reminded me of The Castle, which I have therefore adopted as a title; and as in Kafka’s great unfinished novel, the longer we have approached our destination, the further away it has got.

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Battle of Ideas: Reform or Revolution in Housing?

On Saturday, 28 October, as part of the Barbican’s Battle of Ideas festival, ASH was part of a panel debate titled Housing: Reform or Revolution? The rest of the panel was composed of Patrik Schumacher, the Principle at Zaha Hadid Architects, who the previous year, at a speech at the World Architecture Festival, had called for estates in Inner London to be demolished to make way for more productive people and their ‘amazing multiplying events’; Kath Scanlon, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, who the same year co-authored a report commissioned by the Berkeley Group recommending their estate redevelopment, Kidbrooke Village, as an example of why London’s housing should be taken out of the control of local authorities and placed in the hands of private developers; Lisa Taylor, Chief Executive of Future London, a policy network which the previous year had published a report recommending that demolishing and redeveloping council estates was one of the keys to addressing London’s housing crisis; and James Woudhuysen, Visiting Professor at London’s South Bank University, who in 2006 on the BBC Breakfast Show had argued that recycling was a symptom of an ‘authoritarian state’ and accused the Green Party of being ‘reactionary’ and ‘anti-human’. This is the text of ASH’s presentation.

1. Reform or revolution?

I want to start with the title of this event: reform or revolution, and look at what this opposition means in practice through a recent image of a new housing development. The image is an advert for the NX Gate apartments in New Cross. It shows a young woman in what I guess advertising executives would call a state of excitement, over which are written the words: ‘The rental revolution is here! Rent from £300 per week’. Developed by Realstar Living, NX Gate rents 2-bedroom apartments from £1,525 per month, not including the numerous service charges. Just down the road from this new development is the Achilles Street estate, where a 2-bedroom council flat costs £414 per month, nearly a quarter as much. Despite this, Lewisham council has plans to demolish this estate and redevelop it along the same lines as NX Gate, making it just one of over 190 such estates that have recently undergone, are undergoing, or are threatened with redevelopment, privatisation and social cleansing by London’s estate regeneration programme. In case we don’t know at whom this ‘revolution’ is being marketed, the Rightmove advert for NX Gate indicates that the new development is 10 minutes from Cannon Street and 12 minutes from Canary Wharf, with Goldsmiths College just around the corner.

In short, the ‘revolution’ in housing is a marketing gimmick, aimed at young bankers looking to buy and international students looking to rent with the bank of mum and dad. So let’s look at the reality behind this gimmick.

Continue reading “Battle of Ideas: Reform or Revolution in Housing?”