The housing blog
The first of three posts about the discoveries to be made in some of London’s current exhibitions, starting with the Tate’s James Stirling show.
“Even the smaller facts had acquired an urgency and I had to resist the temptation to make every line over emphatic. I entered into the receding spaces and yielded to the oncoming forms.” 
Turner painted the blinding light of the future bearing down on you like an oncoming truck. If you can, fight the urge to remain frozen, rabbit-like, on the spot and continue past the Romantics gallery at Tate Britain and on to the James Stirling exhibition beyond.
Amidst an impressive archive that covers many projects, years and locations you’ll find a handful of housing projects worth closer inspection. From the 1948 student project that manages to capture the essence of so many houses, aesthetics and construction techniques of the first half of the 20th Century (part Villa Savoye, part pre-fab case study, part Falling Water and part - prophetically - British High Tech) to the domestic brutalism of the 1963 Avenham social housing; it can never be said that Stirling didn’t progress.
Here at the housing blog there’s a project along the way that deserves special attention though, given the territory we’ve covered in previous entries. Four years after Tayler & Green’s elegant house types at Loddon, we find Stirling trying his own version of this popular late 50s floor plan.
Source: Flickr - Iqbal Aalam
I’ve got plenty of time for that street elevation. The classic axonometric demonstrates the assemblage beautifully (which is exactly why he used it) and it would still stand up now in any debate about pre-fab and modern methods of construction. That spine wall would be a tough one under latest thinking about Passivhaus and thermal bridges mind you, even if we tried to compensate with lashings of PV panels and Feed in Tariff on all that roof space. The continuous building line on the wide fronted option would certainly keep a Secured by Design assessor happy, although I fear they’d have a conniption when they caught site of the alleyway version, and nor would I blame them. The internal layouts show that differentiation of space we looked at last time with some interesting relationships between living and bedrooms above. Heaven knows what’s going on with that ground floor bathroom through the kitchen though.
Later, in the RIBA award winning scheme at Avenham, the services got the attention they deserved however and became a key feature of the street scene by lining the raised walkway. Despite the critical acclaim, this proved all too industrial for some and that last bastion of common decency - the Daily Mail - enjoyed telling the profession where to get off in October 1963 .
“One winner, for high density housing – that means slum replacements – was deliberately designed, and I think successfully, to look like a slum.”
I doubt it was the most challenging criticism Stirling ever had, but in the same article I discovered this:
” ’New Brutalism isn’t really in these days, it doesn’t reflect the public taste’, says architect David Green of Tayler & Green, a pioneering partnership in the design of good rural housing.”
It’s a great exhibition that I can heartily recommend. Beautiful drawings that convey process more than any other I’ve seen and made me want to confiscate all the computers from my staff when I got back to the office. My generation has completely forgotten the value of the worm’s eye axonometric. Shame on us.
“Then, quite soon, the drawing reached its point of crisis. Which is to say that what I had drawn began to interest me as much as what I could still discover. There is a stage in every drawing when this happens.” 
1 + 3. Berger on Drawing - John Berger
2. Shirley Conran - Frankly, Do You Think This Is Worth a Prize? Daily Mail ,18th October 1963 found via http://www.cca.qc.ca/en/collection/542-james-stirling-michael-wilford-archive
I've been thinking about corners a lot lately. Looking back, it's been the predominant theme throughout the hundreds of drawings I've done over the last couple of years whilst tackling that most difficult of all projects; a house for myself I've been interested in how the arrangement of rooms around a corner lends a certain velocity to the way you move through the house. A viscosity even, of varying psychological and physical stickiness.
Whilst guiltily flicking through Christopher Alexander's 1977 book 'A Pattern Language' recently (I really should have read it all by now but it has a sort of Proustian quality that makes you wimp out and reach for slimmer volumes), I found that he has a description for this too; he calls it the intimacy gradient.
"Unless the spaces in a building are arranged in a sequence which corresponds to their degree of privateness, the visits made by strangers, friends, guests, clients, family, will always be a little awkward."
Alexander et al - Pattern 127
Be it either sticky or awkward, that viscosity or gradient needs to vary as (using the examples we looked at before) the orders of the house are arranged and the emotional archetypes are differentiated.
It would be all to easy to get lost in the romance of this, but let's try and keep it in check and find a practical application by being a little more self aware. Here you are reading a blog on the internet, possibly even via your smart phone, and better yet it's a blog that began by declaring an interest in technology and the utilitarian. Over thirty years on from Pattern Language, where does that leave our sticky intimacy?
In 'The Heterogeneous Home' (2007) by Ryan Aipperspach, Ben Hooker and Allison Woodruff the authors explore the problems of homogeneity in the suburban home and the undifferentiated nature of many living environments under three headings: space, technology and time.
1) The spatial problem is typified by the Great Room, or the single open plan layout combining living, cooking and eating in one space rather than acknowledging the intimate complexities of homes.
2) Technological homogeneity is caused by the ubiquitous computing experience and media availability throughout our homes. The chair in the bay window of my bedroom is now undifferentiated from the 12:43 train from Euston thanks to the iPad I'm currently typing into. Although the sandwiches are better.
3) Differentiating time is thus prevented by the familiar problem of work intruding on life thanks to the ubicomp technology described above - the blurring of this afternoon's train and this evening's writing for example. It's also interesting to note that they describe how the environmental homogeneity created by central heating and cooling systems reinforces the problem through the denial of seasonal change.
Their contention then is that this homogeneity prevents a home from being restorative. It prevents the inhabitant from 'understanding and exploring information' and they define a restorative environment as those that '...increase the capacity for directed attention, or the ability to be selective in thought or attention...'
Over the following seven chapters they explore a brilliant range of possible counter measures to these problems and I recommend you take a look at each. I'd like to focus here though on just the first section: 'House versus Home'
"Exploring the gradations between house and home, both in physical and virtual spaces, might help to enhance the heterogeneity of the home, providing residents the opportunity to mo ve smoothly between different environments like home and work while still affording them some boundary between different parts of their lives."
Hooker et al - The Heterogenous Home
Their proposals include treating the entrance of a house as an opportunity to manage the technology that causes the blur between home and work, shedding devices along with coats and shoes. A simple idea but executed beautifully by acknowledging the qualities found in Alexander's intimacy gradient thus creating a space or antechamber that is, dare I say it, a type of digital scullery.
This digital scullery allows you to bring parts of your family - the digital parts - into your house, but keep them from your home. The images presented suggest two possible outcomes: the careful ordering of the utilitarian spaces before the access into the heart of the home, and the possibilities for integrating all of the above into the very grain of the house as part of the furniture.
A few short years later and we're beginning to see examples of this emerging.
The modern scullery may have a vital new role to play as well as the fuel, transport and food storage we discussed before. It may be the home for the Internet of Things, that near-future event horizon that promises to bury our technology into our everyday objects so we can finally forget about it and get on with being intimate again
There are no new spatial solutions to be found in the field of housing design. Or perhaps more accurately; there are no new spatial problems. Relax, you can stop looking. The essential human needs - be they psychological or phenomenological - have been met in our shared understanding of the home for centuries.
Even the most idiosyncratic of new houses today (hello Japan) are in essence a rearrangement of a familiar set of archetypes; cloaked in the privacy of hiding beneath the linen draped table legs of our childhood, sinking beneath the earth to the cellar of our teenage years or climbing the stairs of the attic to dream of the past from the heights of our adulthood. Meanwhile, between the oblivion of the flames in the fireplace and the immediacy of the world outside the window we can be still yet travel anywhere. If you don’t believe me try some Charles Moore, Christopher Alexander and Gaston Bachelard or, for the less clichéd alternative, go for Clive King and Roger Deakin.
“Once you’ve put a chimney and a window on a house, you’ve really made a house.”
Clive King - Stig Of The Dump
“I really do want to come home to a real fire. A nation without the flames of a fire in the hearth, and birds singing outside the open window, has lost its soul. To have an ancient carboniferous forest brought to life at the centre of your home, its flames budding and shooting up like young trees, is a work of magic.”
Roger Deakin - Notes From Walnut Tree Farm
Yet there is change and for brief, lurching, uncertain moments, progress too. The romantics amongst you - enthused by the liberal mention of the poetic thinkers above - may be disappointed however to find that the reason for this progress is actually to do with something slightly more prosaic: namely, the plumbing. Technology is the driving force.
Whilst I, and many of my dark wardrobed colleagues, may spend hours lying awake at night antagonising over the nuances of the relationship between the stairs and the rising chimney breast (to my mind one of the key spatial manoeuvres in a home), it’s often ultimately the service spaces that are the central narrative of day to day life, regardless of the type or size of property.
Charles Moore’s 1974 seminal work ’The Place of Houses’ calls this the order of machines. Alongside his more seductive explorations into the order of rooms and the order of dreams I suspect the machines are too often neglected by his readers. In our 21st century adventure to peak oil and beyond I say this order needs to be shown a bit more respect.
The scullery needs to make a comeback.
Leaf through the pages of any housing design book from the late 40’s and early 50’s and you’ll see why. Kitchen plans, fuel storage and the developing mechanical installations we began to grapple with as we started to explore whole house heating systems dominate the housing layouts. We had a healthy respect for the importance of the order of machines; a respect that has to return if we are to make our houses perform to the standards we so pressingly require to make it to the carbon reduction finish line in 2050.
Here’s Walter Segal in his 1953 book ’Home and Environment’ examining our access to - and control of - the serviced spaces.
The health and well-being questions raised by two issues as simple as the provision of front to back access and/or the location of the kitchen are as relevant now as then. Density demands, be they political or economic, continue to encourage a predominance of narrow-fronted or terrace type developments in many new build schemes and the circulation through these service zones remains the greatest problem. I’m interested in how the scullery can be the mediator in this often unhappy relationship.
Walter goes on to explore some house types that order their machines nicely. Here’s his ’compromise type’:
Note the annotation in that space alongside the kitchen. Note also the dedicated access - two doors to the street!
Here’s his ’castellated type’:
The principle remains the same but here he introduces the opportunity for secure, semi-private outdoor space at the front. A buffer zone preventing the house from spilling its service guts directly onto the pavement.
Here’s my personal favourite, the ’patio type’:
The creation of modestly sized outdoor space, well used because of its privacy and connection to the house, combined with the fenestration/overlooking control on this type make it ripe for a revisit. It’s certainly proved a useful typology in some of our Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust work recently. Note again however, the control of the machines kept successfully away from the living spaces.
That annotation I highlighted - fuel, cycles etc - is where it gets interesting. How often under current space standard regimes do you see house types that have the ability to accommodate that sort of provision today? Yet the likely return of increased quantities of mechanical equipment and the continued encouragement of sustainable transport will surely demand it. If team biomass win the argument, we’ll all need space in our homes like this and (as the folks at HAT Projects pointed out to me in response on twitter last week) it’ll also be jolly useful if the local produce debate really takes hold and we need more fresh food storage.
A final example: Here’s a scheme by Tayler and Green from 1952 that I discovered only last week in FRS Yorke and Penelope Whiting’s ’The New Small House’.
It was the beautifully mannered elevation that caught my eye, but it was the plan that got me thinking and writing this blog entry.
Check out that big space simply marked ’S’. It took me a few moments to realise that this probably meant more than just store - it’s a scullery.
I’m focusing on that word, given its infrequent usage today, in an effort to make the idea stick. Call it a utility if you prefer. Either way, our housing needs to once again make sure that the utilitarian is given proper attention and house types built with the right order of machines as well as rooms and dreams.
If nothing else it’ll perhaps allow me to put bikes indoors and avoid having to pepper my schemes with crappy sheds that ruin modest gardens, just because Code for Sustainable Homes says I have to.