Radio Times 17th - 23rd February 1979
19th February 1979
Few things have aroused more passion in Britain in the last 20 years than the devastation of our cities, the destruction of familiar landscapes to make way for the planners', architects' and politicians' brave new world of tower blocks, motorways, shopping precincts and faceless housing. On Monday, in the first of five programmes this week from different writers, Christopher Booker asks what went wrong? In the subsequent programmes Michael Frayn, Colin Ward, Patrick Nuttgens and Raymond Williams find some answers in country houses, suburban backstreets and the best of modern architecture. Here, Albert Hunt argues that housing is too important to be left to the planners
Not long ago, a Fine Arts lecturer, talking to a group of architects in Leeds, told them a joke. Prince Charles, he said, visited three flats in a high-rise block and asked the families living in them what kind of hobbies they had. In the first flat they grew herbs; in the second they tended pot plants; but in the third there was a man who said he kept bees. Where, asked Prince Charles, did he keep them? Did he have an allotment? The man said he kept them in the bedroom. In the bedroom? said Prince Charles. But wasn't that inconvenient? Didn't they fly about everywhere? Didn't they sting? No, said the man. He kept the bees in matchboxes. 'In matchboxes,' said Prince Charles. 'But don't they die?' 'Yeh,' said the man, 'stuff 'em.' Only the Fine Arts lecturer didn't use the word 'stuff'.
The architects laughed. To be against high-rise nowadays is like being against sin. Yet if the Fine Arts lecturer had told the joke 20 years ago, he'd have been snubbed as a provincial philistine. That was when the workers' blocks put up by Le Corbusier in Marseilles between 1948 and 1954 were regarded as ideal models. Le Corbusier had written, "What gives our dreams their daring is that they can be realised."
Cut-price versions of Le Corbusier's dreams have since been realised from Glasgow to Singapore and beyond - only too often they've turned into other people's nightmares. As a policemen said on television recently, of a high-rise block in Liverpool, "They stick people in dustbins and ask us to sit on the lid."
Not that all the people living in high-rise flats all around the world see themselves as having been crammed into matchboxes or stuck into dustbins. A friend of mine in East Berlin, a university professor, lives with his wife and two children in a high-rise block two minute's walk away from the city centre, the Alexander Platz. The heating in the flat, like our electricity, comes through a central supply system, light and rent are comparatively cheap, and there's a shopping centre, a community centre, a laundry, a restaurant, a crèche and an adventure playground. Plumbers, teachers, builders' labourers, musicians, factory workers, doctors - people from all walks of life - live in the same block and share the same facilities: there's a similar mix in a massive new estate, said to house 100,000 people, in Prague.
To me, both the East Berlin and Prague blocks look as brutal, from the outside, as the blocks in Liverpool (although there are no signs of vandalism). If I were living in East Berlin, I'd want to be in one of the old, sleepy suburbs towards the end of the overhead railway, that still have the feel of country towns. But my friend prefers the convenience of being central, even though, by Western middle-class standards, the flat's a bit small.
I suppose the key word is 'prefers'. Le Corbusier saw buildings as realised dreams. The question is whether the houses we live in reach out towards our own dreams, or whether they're the realisation of someone else's.
For the last 100 years or so, in our highly industrialised, mass society, there's been a tendency for people in power to look benevolently down (well, sometimes benevolently) at the masses, and take decisions for their (our?) good.
When [William Edward] Forster presented the 1870 Education Act to Parliament - the one that introduced compulsory education - he talked about 'helping' working class children. And when housing authorities, after the Second World War, forcibly moved families from the Gorbals and from Scotland Road, in Liverpool, they, too, were 'helping' to improve conditions. And in one sense both Forster and the housing authorities were right: illiterate kids on the London streets did need 'help'; and families in the Glasgow tenements needed damp-free rooms and running water.
But the illiterate kids, as well as being taught to read and write, found themselves faced with a whole set of values - competition, self help, obedience to orders - that reflected the dreams of those who were 'helping' them: and in the same way the inhabitants of the Gorbals and Scotland Road found themselves living in the realisations of the planners' dreams.
Where and how we live ought to be a matter of personal idiosyncrasy. If houses are reaching out towards realised dreams, then our dreams are as valid as those of the planners. Or for that matter, of the taste-makers. From the taste-makers' point of view, a suburban mock-tudor house with gnomes in the garden may be as objectionable as cramming people into high-rise matchboxes. But the gnomes aren't there for the taste-makers. They're there because they're the realisation of somebody's dreams.
Dreams ought to be very personal. My dream has always been to retreat to a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. That's because when I was a boy I spent all my school holidays in the Dales, with a favourite auntie, and had a good time even though there was no hot water and the lavatory was a hole in the wooden box.
When I wasn't in the Dales, I was living in a 'superior' terraced house in East Lancashire - superior because, although there was no bathroom and the lavatory was in the backyard, there was a gesture towards a garden outside the front door (the gesture was all of three feet wide).
It was the sort of house that, according to the social romantics, should have given me a rich community life, centred on the street-corner shop. But what I remember is the winter of 1947, when we'd just moved in - coming home through frozen snow to no coal, the radio shut down because there was a state of emergency, trying hard to find an excuse not to have to work at scraping old wallpaper off freezing walls. (I had to study, didn't I - huddled by the hot water system?)
The terraced house certainly isn't my dream. The trouble is that in our society dreams have somehow got mixed up with money. If you can afford to put down the deposit and convince the building society that you can keep up the monthly payments, then you can put your gnomes in the garden and stick two fingers up at the taste-makers.
But if you can't, then you're at the mercy of the people who want to help you. It's their dream, not yours, that you'll have to buy. And there's not much you can do about it, unless you break windows and chalk on walls. Which may be a way of saying, 'Stuff 'em.'
But which is also a way of turning their dream into your nightmare.