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Wednesday23 July 2014

Let’s talk about housing, not Oud

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Owen Hatherley criticises the historiographers of modernism for solely assessing the work on the basis of visual impact, then proceeds to do just that with Kiefhoek (Opinion November 16).

The Kiefhoek estate is a worthy, albeit outdated, example of Dutch moral modernism. It was built for £213 per dwelling for the housing department of the municipality of Rotterdam on a cheap, leftover site surrounded by brick housing, and intended as a “working class village for large families”.

Oud, influenced by Berlage and well versed in the principles of rationalist urban planning, was able to turn this hellish commission (awkward site, no budget) into a coherent and, dare I say it, contextual whole. But there are deeply parochial and moralistic attitudes hidden in the work, which Hatherley failed to pick up. The building of working-class villages in cities around churches (whether in “hysterical” cubism, or across the street, in Dutch brick rationalism — no, not neo-gothic style!) is an ideal no longer tenable in a largely secular society.

JJP Oud never really challenged the economic and political status quo and preferred to avoid political discourse. He proceeded to design Shell’s headquarters in the Hague in 1938 in a subdued eclecticism. He is, in short, a very unlikely candidate to serve as the stalwart of a new, revived, socially engaged modernism.

All Hatherley is doing with this uninformed stylistic twaddle is to divert attention from a more urgent discussion: who wields the real political and economic power in the UK, who controls the land, and how do we influence these things in order to make our societies more equitable?

I, for one, would love to build social housing, but we live in a country where councils are relocating the poor to outer boroughs, because housing is unaffordable. Please sharpen your pencil to write about that.

Thomas Wensing
London E3

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