Designed for living?

One of the many intractable problems that face workers in their day-to-day existence under capitalism takes place within the area of housing production. Unable and incapable of meeting workers’ housing needs capitalism forces them to either sink or swim according to the private or government dictates of housing provision. So not only do workers have to cope with the very real problems of lack of space, of repair and maintenance, of housing obsolescence and unfit habitation, they also have to cope with the constant financial pressures of mortgage and rent demands where the inability to meet the often high amounts involved means repossession and subsequent homelessness.

Similarly, since the end of the nineteenth century, workers have seen every housing reform supposedly enacted in their interests fail. The state has not been able to end the housing shortage, provide the wide and different housing workers require throughout their lives, nor alleviate the dangers to health and overcrowding within the decaying inner cities. In fact, the state’s interference has more often than not contributed to the worsening of the problem.

If workers want a constant reminder of the futility of reforms as such then they could do no worse than study the history of housing reforms both before and after they were enacted by Parliament. A similar lesson could well be learnt by the reformers themselves. The high number of often well-meaning individuals who attempt to alleviate the housing problem under capitalism have taken on a job for life; one that will result in regular frustration and hopelessness. In fact, taken globally, and bearing in mind all the various housing reform bodies now in existence. the housing problem as it affects the world’s working class could hardly be worse.

So what of the latest reform popularly known as “Community Architecture”? In their writings this new set of reformists regard community architecture as a major contribution to working-class housing. Through government grants, charitable organisations and the involvement of “investment and development” capitalists, the proponents of community architecture claim that they will simultaneously alleviate the entrenched urban blight under which most of the working class have to exist as well as engineer, through the process of worker participation, some mythical sense of “community spirit” which, we are told by one of its strongest advocates, Prince Charles, existed before the Second World War.

But then Prince Charles and the class he represents did not have to live in pre-war working-class housing. Were not high-rise, high density housing of the first three decades after the war held up as models of community architecture in their own day? Did not the reformers then point to the utopian towers of glass and concrete as the solution to the TB. damp and insanitary filth and grime of workers’ housing of the 1930s? So placed in its historic context the community architecture of today is largely the result of the failure of the last set of housing reforms which ushered in the pre-fabricated housing that councils are now blowing up.

And what of the phrase “community architecture”? It is as though it had been coined by an advertising agency trying to brighten up the tarnished image of the businessmen and women who masquerade as architects at the Royal Institute of British Architects. For does not the word “community” imply some strong notion of of classlessness? Does it not also imply that there is a strong and active democratic control by that community over what is built, where it is built and for whose social needs it is meant? Are the supposed recipients of community architecture in control over their own lives; are they able to live in the best environment society can currently produce? Is the technical advice freely available to them? Are the materials and craft skills (the latter reified under capitalism to the degrading tag of “operatives”) directly and freely accessible? The answer is, of course, no to all these questions — because “community” and “community architecture” under capitalism are illusions.

The reality for workers is that there is no direct access to land, materials and technical advice. The capitalist class monopolises it for themselves. Workers’ access is governed by their ability to pay and at the end of the day, architectural awards or no architectural awards, the standard and quality of accommodation is little different from that provided by the likes of Wimpeys or Barretts: workers get the housing that befits their class position.

And what of the word “architecture”? Does — or has ever — the working class lived in housing that could be described as architecture? Are workers’ housing the sort of houses architectural historians waste their time writing about or are lavishly illustrated in magazines like Country Life? The answer is, again, no. Workers live instead in buildings. It is the capitalist class who can afford to live in “architecture”. Workers’ houses are only studied by a few eccentric social historians while the workers themselves are out visiting Blenheim Palace and the thousands of other architectural gems that make up “Our National Architectural Heritage”.

We should not, after 80 years, in a world that has the potential to house the world’s population adequately and with dignity, have to again and again re-quote Engels’ solution to the Housing Question and why all reforms have and will fail:

  The so-called housing shortage which plays such a great role in the press nowadays, does not consist in the fact that the working class generally lives in bad. overcrowded and unhealthy dwellings. This shortage is not something peculiar to the present; it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to the modern proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary all oppressed classes in all periods suffered rather uniformly from it. In order to put an end to this housing shortage there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.

(The Housing Problem)

William Morris envisaged a socialist society that produced buildings based on craft skills and natural materials. Whether this or other forms of building techniques will be used by a future socialist society will be for them to decide, as they set about building a society fit for human beings to live in. But what generally can be said is that in a society freed from the utter absurdity of buying and selling, of commodity production and of classes, people will be in control of their lives and the society in which they live. It is only within this form of society that any real meaning for the term community architecture can be contemplated or sanctioned.

Richard Lloyd