Britain’s humble utopias: what the Stirling Prize means for council housing

Goldsmith Street is what you get when housing is designed as somewhere to live, rather than something to invest in.

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The annual Stirling Prize – awarded to a British architect for the best building project of the year – was established in 1996, but had never been won by a council housing scheme. That changed on 8 October when the prize, which is granted by the Royal Institute of British Architects, went to Goldsmith Street in Norwich, a development of 105 eco-friendly council homes designed by Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley.

It is not surprising that this is the first time the prize has been awarded to such a project, given that council housing had almost completely ceased to be built by the mid-1990s. As one prominent housing developer and Stirling nominee once said to me, “I would no more trust a local authority architect to build me a house than I would a local authority barber to cut my hair.” Not only is Goldsmith Street the first local authority housing scheme to win the Stirling Prize, it is the first even to have been nominated.

Any British architect practising between the 1940s and 1980s would have found this extraordinary, not least because most of them worked for the in-house architecture departments of local authorities. The elimination of these departments from the 1980s had disastrous consequences for British towns and cities, as the majority of new housing and public buildings came to be provided by the private sector, alongside a trickle of “social” housing from housing associations. Does the success of Goldsmith Street mean this will change?

The architecture produced by the London County Council (LCC) from its inception in 1889 was of exceptional quality. The arts and crafts flats of Shoreditch and Millbank, or the cottage estates of White Hart Lane and Tooting, not to mention dozens of fire stations across the city, were testament to the bold and innovative visions of the age. But the LCC really came into its own after the Second World War, when buildings such as the Royal Festival Hall and the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, and hundreds of schools and housing estates were built by the LCC Architects Department, which by the 1950s had become the largest and most powerful of its kind in the world.

Similar departments sprang up across the country, led by JL Womersley in Sheffield, James Paton Watson in Plymouth, Leon Berger in Southampton, Arthur Ling in Coventry, and David Percival in Norwich. These powerhouse departments attracted some of the best architects in the country, and many who would go on to achieve international renown – such as Neave Brown, Alan Colquhoun and Richard MacCormac – started out poring over drawings in local British town halls.

The maisonettes, terraces, towers, schools and public buildings designed by council departments between the 1950s and 1980s would routinely win Civic Trust prizes (seeing a Civic Trust plaque on a local authority estate that has been left to rot is a common and depressing sight, particularly in new towns such as Crawley or Peterlee). The work of the LCC, as well as council architects departments in Sheffield and elsewhere, was emulated across the world, from France to the Soviet Union to Singapore – whose still overwhelmingly council-owned housing system was modelled on London’s.

Nor were these British architects departments monolithic bureaucracies, but adapted to changing aesthetics and new ways of living. Norwich, for instance, shifted from the “heroic” modernist housing of the early 1960s to intimate, small-scale terraces and cottages a decade later. Sheffield had an exchange programme between its inner-city brutalist landmarks and the garden cities in its suburbs, so that when families grew or young people left home the housing system could accommodate them. Southampton had a policy of ensuring that its architects lived on the estates they built.

After its decline under Margaret Thatcher and New Labour, the idea of council housing has returned. The quality of the developments can be low: Birmingham’s recent council building programme, for example, is indistinguishable from the dross produced by private-sector housebuilders such as Persimmon or Barratt.

But this is where Goldsmith Street stands out. It is first-time housing, reserved for people on the waiting list who are living in poor-quality private accommodation, rather than tenants “decanted” from an “estate regeneration”. The space was procured through a traditional building contract, as opposed to the design and build contracts where the contractor carries out both the design and the construction work, leaving architects powerless. And while big developers churn out tiny, draughty houses, the houses on Goldsmith Street are built to the spacious Parker Morris space standards that were mandatory in the 1960s but abandoned for private developments in the 1980s, and to strict Passivhaus energy standards that drastically reduce fuel bills.

Goldsmith Street is what you get when housing is designed as somewhere to live, rather than something to invest in. Advocates of council housing – including the Labour Party, which voted at conference for a Young Labour motion for taking housing associations under local authority control and building three million new council homes – can now point to Goldsmith Street’s humble but utopian space and say, “More of that, please.” 

This article appears in the 16 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war