FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions / 7


















What is your general attitude to houses and to housing. How will people house themselves in the future?



In 26 years of existence, JOA have only designed two houses. The first was voted "The best house built since the War" (Sunday Times) . The second, recently finished, has just made the front cover of 'Country Life' .

The houses people live in have a big influence on the way they use their lifespace. One does not have to be a genius to see that. So the first design bureau that I offered my services to, in Britain, was the London County Council, where I remained for four years, working entirely on housing design. I left in 1966. My most expensive house cost £2,450. That was in 1965. It was £50 over budget. It may be thought ironic, after that experience, to go on and design the 'country house' that will probably be judged the best 'English (Lutyens and all that) Country House' of the last half of the 20C century.

Pretty well everyone can plan a house. All that I did for my Client (and still do, for that matter) is transform a convenient plan into an 'architectural landscape'. These 'houses' are, therefore both houses and densely structured architectural 'thinking machines'. The quality that is admired is not their 'practicality' for which I tend to rely on my Client's good sense, but their 'architecture'. The first house, in Sussex, which won so many prizes, has a steel frame, a corrugated fibre-cement roof, precast concrete cladding and wooden windows. So it is not admired for its rare materials or 'advanced technology'. The one thing it does not look is 'rustic'. But then how 'rustic' was Palladio? Nor do my houses go in for that other standby of Modernist genre kitsch, the metal survival capsule dropped into Arcadia.

But we should back-track a little here, because housing is too important to be discussed merely as 'house design'.

I became an Architect after living, as a teenager, in Canada and the USA. I was there during a peculiar conjunction of events. It was the early 1950's. This was the time, as my ancient limo-driver in Houston explained to me, 40 years later, when television, air conditioning and the automobile all arrived with commercial force into everyday life. My knowledge of early 1950's North America indicated that the typical house, up until that time, was the 'porch house'. When watching American films it is easy to forget that, compared to Northern Europe, America is a hot country. The houses were separated from each other to allow air to circulate around and through them on hot nights. The lack of fences and bushes between the houses I descend from New England Puritanism. This not only enjoins the blameless life but appears to require that life be lived in full view of the neighbours. Perhaps the Eye of the Lord was not quite enough to discipline the weakness of the flesh.

Be that as it may, the net effect of the porch house was to relate the family sitting out in the cool darkness to people strolling up and down the road conversing and casually 'visiting'. This was an 'open society', physically in contact with each other through a 'social space' that was, if not bounded by the solid walls of the typical European city, nevertheless extremely effective at bonding a community into an entity of freely given contacts and casual, but nevertheless formal, associations. In short this 'porch-space' was one of the essential components of the 'melting pot' phenomenon that underlay the success of the USA as a political (in the ancient, holistic, sense of 'polis') enterprise.

The advent of the automobile, television and air conditioning changed all of this for ever. The architectural agent of this momentous alteration was the peculiarly-named 'Ranch House'. I must still have, somewhere, a book of 1950's plans of how to do them, now no-doubt of some value to those with a nostalgia for the USA of those days. These houses presented the street, which now became a 'road', with the 'up-and-over' doors of a two-car garage. Next to them was a diminutive front door. There was no 'facade' whether cowpoke style 'false front', or any other. Instead one saw a huge, overhanging, chalet-style roof whose eaves almost hit the ground. Instead of a lawn between the porch and the street, 'natural landscaping' began to sprout. The journey to Arcadia had begun, a place where, as the Greeks describe it: "even the dogs don't bark".

Inside, 'on the ranch', the climate'regressed to that obtaining in the family's country of ethnic origin. The windows were sealed shut, never, ever, to open again. The log fires blazed and the chiller kept the air at a steady 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Suits and ties came back into the picture. The urban pot no longer melted anyone down to be re-cast into the typical 'American'. When inside the shelter of the oversailing roof, as far from the city as the automobile could speed, anyone could enter into whatever domestic fantasy anyone chose to occupy. One could be back in one's country of origin or in the company of little green men from Mars. Television took over from the local community as the insubstantial and ephemeral medium that shaped and supported these fictive worlds. Each house became a planet, or a satellite, released into free 'lifestyle orbit'.

One climbed aboard the tail-finned space-ship each morning. The Pilot belted-up and switched on the oxygen (air conditioning) and air traffic control (citizen band) radio. The Garage door swung open and the giant automobile lifted off, with scrubbing tyres, in a cloud of carbon monoxide. The diurnal 'service' according to Saint Isaac (Newton) had begun. His physical laws, which held the Universe together, were ritually rehearsed along the great elliptical ribbons of concrete that cut through the sky like the trajectories of asteroids. Social conventions were renewed by abstaining from homicide upon the occupants of all of the other automobiles competing for precedence in 'ballistic space'. The space ship wound up a spiral ramp to dock in a raw cement silo. A sense of satisfaction ensued at the miracle of one's survival, and of the Christian goodness of civilised mankind at sparing and being spared destruction along the route of these thousands of tons of 'ballistic metal'.

One stepped, crew-cut, from the cement silo straight into one's clean-cut, cool, office, filled with the smiling faces of the other survivors of this diurnal test of social kill and physical control. Social bonding had been tested and tempered by the furious intoxication of the automobile.

The classless, open, society of the street was gone, seemingly for ever. The social bonding of the nightly 'walkabout' with its visiting and sitting on the porch was as far away as the 'Old World' across the sea. It had been replaced by the freeway society and television. But the reality of it was the destruction of that sense that every room in a city is accessible from every other room, down socially secure streets, guarded not by any abstracted 'police presence', but the eyes of real, living, citizens of the 'Poleis'. Jane Jacobs understood this and wrote about it in the early 1960's in her tragic book, "The Life and Death of the Great American City". This sense of the physical contiguity of every citizen with every other citizen is an absolute requirement of any culture that seeks the epithet 'civil' or 'urbane'. Embodiment 'at a distance' was effected via the street-space of a city, because one knew that if one was permitted to do it, that is permitted by the layers of privacy that control access, every citizen could walk -over and enter the private space of every other citizen. The extension of the motorised city into an area of thousands of square miles, and its division by the huge walls and ditches of concrete that constitute the vehicular freeway, has destroyed the possibility of 'urbane space', perhaps for ever. In the late 20C City, almost everywhere is 'the wrong side of the tracks'.

All of this was just beginning in 1953. I saw the centres of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Winnipeg and Boston all being smashed to pieces. Fine 19C, and early 20C, commercial buildings, row houses and porch houses were all being demolished to make way for overhead expressways that were already 300 feet wide, even in 1953. Every other block of the 19C city, with its fine brick and stone buildings, was being left, razed to the ground, as a car park. And this was a country that Hermann Goering, nor Bomber Harris, nor for that matter General Curtis Le May, fire-bomber of Tokyo, ever touched. When I visited Harvard and MIT, much later, in the Fall of 1997, I learned that the gaunt, welded steel overhead roads of Boston, that I had seen being built in the early 1950's, were now being undergrounded at a cost of fifteen billion dollars. This was the 'lifespace churn economy' indeed.

My ambition, up to my experiences in North America, was to become an aircraft designer. In Winnipeg, standing on an old iron bridge over the Riviere Rouge, I decided to change to Architecture. But my real project was city-design. I was so disturbed by what I saw that something in me rebelled. Perhaps, as a Londoner, I foresaw the final destruction of my own city. Perhaps, coming from a boyhood in India, I recalled what populous cities, filled with amiable people, were like. Since then my project has been to invent some realistic alternative to this 'garden of ballistics' with its disenfranchised shrubberies and plywood bungalows, rubble-strewn car parks, and skyscraper 'downtowns'.

Looked at in context, almost fifty years later, my ambition was ludicrous. Who was I to pit myself against the whole tendency of the last half of the 20C? But culture is a living thing. Like the human being, and our minds that support the ideas that culture circulates, there is always a striving for balance and equilibrium. Every tendency in one direction brings about its opposite. And so it is that my most urbane building, to date, is situated in Houston, the American City which has consistently voted, three times this century, to refuse even zoning, let alone any more sophisticated town planning system. It is built next to Lovett Hall, the oldest building on the Campus of Rice University. Lovett hosted the G8 Summit of 1990 and is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, situated on what is undoubtedly its most beautiful Campus. Rice is an oasis of extreme spatial intellectuality set in a city which has either never entertained, or has comprehensively abandoned, any desire to extend its urbane strategies beyond the twin imperatives of real estate economics and automobile circulation.

As an Architectural Student during the last five years of the 1950's, I designed in all the known styles. It was expected that, in one's last two years, one declared that one was a devotee of either Mies, Corb or Wright. However, in 1958, Peter Smithson, a 'Miesian' up until to that time, revealed to a wholly ignorant student body, who were deliberately trained without the use of any literature except technical manuals, that there were other architects than the 'big three'. His motive was partly political. The British Architectural Establishment at that time consisted of embattled Classicists, all of whom were not yet dead, and ex-Festival of Britain, 'Swedish Modernists". The Classicists were particularly pernicous as they tended to have jettisoned all of the ornament that made Classicism a formal technique of quality, and to be well-connected into the bargain.

Raymond Erith and Albert Richardson stood out from them, but their existence was intellectually isolated, to put it mildly. Bracken House, the first post war building to be 'Listed' was the site of a street demonstration by the Student 'Anti-Ugly' group. It was nearly refused planning permissisn, in 1953, by the LCC, on ideological grounds, which is to say that it was not 'modern'. It latterly became the first Post-War building in the City to be 'listed' - as a building of architectural and historical importance.

The Architects that Smithson revealed, such as Adler, the better Architectural half of his partnership with Gropius, Mart Stam, Albert Kahn, and so on, were all either Continental or American. The point was that they were not British. It was an effective move in the cultural politics of the 1950's and led to the displacement of the Old Guard from the Royal Institute of British Architects and their replacement by the Young Turks of the 'Newly Brutalised' International Style. This was the Architectural equivalent of the 1950's revolt of the 'Angry Young Men'.

At the end of my college years, my final design thesis, a monumental rebuilding of Croydon, combining the idea of a massive road system with a formal urban plan, was soundly failed. Then my second attempt, to plan a 'motorway community' was also failed. By this time my first daughter had arrived. It was time to stop trying to synthesise a new kind of urbanity that accommodated the automobile. I took the brief of Churchill College, recently completed for Cambridge University, and designed my own version of it. I managed to scrape through, aided by Bob Maxwell, who later went on to be the Dean of the Architectural Faculty at Princeton, and by the acceptance by the Examiners that I was unlikely to ever stop trying.

Unsure what to do, I took my first job in Cyprus, the home of my wife's family. There I came to understand what I call the 'Corbusian Day'. Corbusier painted in the morning, did Architecture in the afternoon, and socialised in the evening. This is exactly what the Greeks did. Work began at sunrise. Then they went home. They saw the family, children and the aged, ate lunch, rested in the heat of the day, and returned to work until 8 p.m. Then came dinner, or a drink with friends, and some visiting and politicking and so on. The families went walkabout in the evening, calling on each other without warning, because everyone was expecting this to happen. This was almost the same pattern of living as the Porch House culture of the USA that I had seen dis-appearing seven years earlier. Life had a beautiful 'spatial logic, slowly and logically unfolding, each dawn, from a single point of absolute privacy to pass through the blood family, the oikos', at the height of the sun, until it encompassed, at night, the whole 'polis'.

This time, married into it, I could study this disappearing 'street-culture' by 'living it'. Even so, my first Client, ever, a Greek lady, came into the Architects Studio carrying an armful of American Interior Design magazines. It was then that I realised that, even in this ancient Hellenic civilisation, still speaking the oldest language in Europe, and heirs to the Western intellectual culture admired above all others, cradle of the 'Polis' itself, nothing would change, anywhere, until it changed first of all in the USA.

More than that, also, was my conviction, having lived in the USA, that nothing would change in America until it was changed by the Americans themselves, of their own free will. This is the great mistake that all who do not know America make. They do not realise that no one is more critical of their own culture than people who actually live in it and know it intimately. But no one is more forward in defending it from external attack and criticism. One must allow people to make their own bed and then get out of it if they can and will. The only problem is that the rest of the World has to wait around until America decides what it intends to do about itself. In this sense both Fascism and Communism, both of whom saw themselves as fighting against 'Americanisation', were ultimately futile. By forcing America to fight them, as Khruschev did with Sputnik, they harmed themselves by harming America, forcing her to throw her whole lifespace into the economic furnace. The rise and fall of Communism postponed both the ability of Americans to relent their furious economy and the invention of some 'authorised model' of 'modernity' that will suit the ruined ex-Communist states.

Towards the end of my year in Cyprus I was seconded, by Stavros Economou, my Principal, to the Department of Transport of the new Republic. My job was to report on the installation of Parking Meters in the old city of Nicosia. Given my obsessions I widened my brief. I wrote a thesis on the role of the manufactured automobile as an accumulation of capitalised movement-function, comparing it to the pain of actually paying every time on used an autobus. Cyprus, even in 1961, had a higher per-capita car ownership than any country around it, including both Israel and Greece. The Municiplaity erected Bus Stops. The Autobuses, in those days largely individually-owned, stopped all over the place, but mainly when hailed by prospective passengers.

I argued that instead of installing meters, which blocked the narrow pavements and were periodically decapitated for loose change, the whole walled city could be treated as a gated car park. My report, discoursing upon the spatial physics of car parking and the role of General Motors in the US economy, was summarily rejected. I was sent back to locate likely parking bays. My reward was to have seen the whole of the old city, from its Greek, to its Turkish, to its Armenian quarter, both in front of and behind its ancient houses, before it was divided and 'ethnically cleansed' by the 1974 invasion. It was also my first lesson on the role of the Outside Consultant, which was to present a report, according to the Minister's instructions, that recommended what none of his own Civil Servants would sanction. Such are the ways of the world.

On our return to Britain, a year later, I entered the huge, 1,200-strong, Architectural Design Bureau of the London County (the peculiar British euphemism for City) Council. I remained there for four years. During that time I did very little, working up to eight oclock on many nights, except design large-scale public housing schemes. I chose to work in the least desirable of the Divisions, that devoted to the housing of 'overspill', in New Towns and Expanding Towns. It gave me time to experiment. I designed every known, and some unknown, kind of house and apartment. Few of them were built.

One day someone in the Division divided the number of Architects working in the New Towns Division into the number of houses we built. The result was around ten per annum. At that rate of production each of these little houses could have been designed, one to one, across the table with its future Tenant. Part of the reason for this dismal rate of production was our top-heavy management structure. We had a whole section researching housebuilding technology. They invented a wooden prefabricated house that was built in the factory. Then, because of manufactuing inaccuracies, it was rebuilt on the site. The Division managed to build these little wooden, monopitch, sheds twice over. We had another Section designing 'standard' house types. Then the Section Leader Architects had to go to long meetings which discussed what kind of eraser that the Division would bulk-buy.

The way it worked, in the Housing Division proper, was that the Section Leader cruised around South London in his car. When he found a likely-looking piece of derelict land he told the Valuer, who found out how much it cost. The Section Leader did an outline scheme. He was supposed to use one of the standard house plans invented by the House Types Division. No-one ever did. The design of a £2,500 house is not very difficult. Boredom soon sets in. One does not need a major R&D department for such simple buildings. The 'House Types' Division printed very pretty little booklets (much in demand by Architectural Students) and every Project Architect designed his own 'house type' according to his predilections and the prevailing peer group fashion.

If the numbers made sense the LCC bought the site and the Section could fulfil its production quota. In our Section, we each designed a scheme and then voted for the scheme we liked. This was on a 'one man one vote basis', with the rawest Student counting as much as a pensionable old soldier. It was very democratic. The worst thing that could happen during this elaborate history was that the Chairman of the Housing Committee would discover the existence of a prospective site and force the Housing Division to erect one-storey pre-fabs on it so that he could get a photo-opportunity amongst grateful new tenants and advantage his re-election prospects.

The upshot of this constraint was that no new housing design was ever discussed with our political masters (or Mistress, as she then was in the shape of (Dame-to-be) Evelyn Dennington). Nor did I ever see a single live tenant in my whole four years. Contacts were not encouraged. Houses were alloted to Tenants by another Department. The Architects merely built them.

My experience was that while many months were occupied by all of these myriad activities, the final housing layout was conceived, by the Section Leader, with maximum speed and secrecy, in a few days, and sometimes in only a few hours, just before its presentation to the Deputy Architect. The houses of the New Towns Division were too lowly to ever attract the signaturre of the Chief Architect to the LCC himself. Yet he always seemed to rubber-stamp it, after which it went to Committee. No senior Architect ever gave us juniors any lead with the design of what we were doing. All design seemed to go upwards, from the lowest, most inexperienced, recruits. The rough corners would get rubbed off by its passage up through the Committees, but the fundamental ideas were always generated by the newest cohort of tyros.

I learned, eventually, why this was so. It was when I was told, as a piece of kindly advice, that I would never prosper in the LCC as "I had ideas of my own". The inverted flow of intellectual vitality in this bureaucracy was due to the fact that everyone "with ideas of their own" eventually departed. The resulting higher management was self-selected to consist of people who saw their first duty (to themselves if to no other) as divining the catchword and buzzword of the moment. If this was repeated at measured intervals during any committee meeting, the bureaucrat's progress was assured.

The more successful of them were those who separated the repetition of these mantras from the rational appreciation of the situation, and any actions that were necessary. However, this often proved impossible. Committees tend towards consensus, and the mind being what it is, their decisions tended to 'follow the party line'. Thus it was that everything designed during my time at the GLC, whatever its intellectual origin, tended to end up being 'prefabricated'. I soon learned, however, of the commercial futility of prefabricating a two story house. One had only to mention the magic phrase "suitable for prefabrication' and draw the design broken down into those cubistic 'elements' beloved of De Stijl, for the Higher Brass to acquiesce.

The main strategy of the New Towns Division was to find a smallish country town whose 19C sewage system had worn out. The LCC would pay for its renewal on condition that the town took 'overspill' tenants from London. The tenants were 'self-selecting'. Their main quality was their uninhibited fertility. They tended to have too many children for their London accommodation. In the early years of an 'Expanding Town' housing estate one was more likely to be run down by a posse of prams than by an automobile. The new Tenants were each given a packet of seeds and gardening tools and told "you're in the country now (you lucky devils)". With this they could address the heap of builder's rubble that was their 'back garden'.

The fact was ignored that all of these people had been citizens of London, one of the biggest and best run cities in the world. They had neither had, or perhaps even wanted, a garden. On the other hand they had been able to walk to work (thus saving money) along wide pavements, down microclmatically sheltered streets full of mentally diverting incident. These were people used to taking buses and undergrounds and diverting themselves in parks and all the many interests of a great city. These were citizens of a great metropolis, skilled in its urbane ways. Now they were shipped out to microscopic little rustic towns and dumped on estates planned by highly educated Architects who wore wooly pullovers and talked of France and Italy and Le Corbusier. Their new lifespace was modelled after the theory of Clarence Stein who, in Radburn, New Jersey, 'invented' the idea of a collective garden placed behind the houses. No one in the GLC seemed aware that this simple idea had been built in Notting Hill Gate 100 years earlier. The complexes around Ladbroke Grove were ignored because the houses were dressed in 'Classical' Architecture.

How much would the houses in the 'expanded towns' be worth today if they had been built with only one tenth of the architectural values of the mass-produced stucco-covered houses of Notting Hill? As it is their social-democratic, slab-sided, 'existenzminimum' aesthetic purity has condemned them to a steady decline in capital value. These dumb little boxes will never become 'desirable residences' however much random stone applique is fixed to them. If anything justified the destruction of the GLC it was this wilful repudiation of the lessons to be drawn from the great city it supposedly 'governed'.

So 'safe' were these green 'Radburn' swards that the rapidly multiplying infants were pushed out into them, to wander unattended, literally as soon as they could toddle. One found them aimlessly cruising around like the automata released in toyshops. It was fortunate that, in those days, no one owned cars. Today such chaotically 'picturesque' Radburn Greens will be useless for the exercise of infants. Whereas children, of any age, can be locked into the huge gated space of a garden square, overseen by a hundred pairs of eyes, and left to play until they are unlocked and brought back to the house.

In the end I could not avoid the conclusion, after four years of unremitting struggle, that few of these 1,200 Architects, or their political 'masters' (that we never saw), were interested in anything to do with how people can live in a wider (urban) lifespace than the 'lovesome plot'. It was clear that in the New Towns Division the Tenant was being issued with a piece of land on which he could build, as in "One Way Pendulum" ,that great play by N.F. Simpson, some kind of microcosmos, some accumulation of goods laboriously worked for and purchased at the shops, inside which the townsman and woman could mourn their lost metropolis (the so-called 'Heritage') and accustom themselves to the 'good old English' cult of 'country pursuits'.

It was striking that none of the 'House-types' invented by this great bureau, exhibited any intention to provide a support to the real, living, machinery of urbanism that already existed on the ground. No one talked of social space, civics, crime, community, or circulation. No one talked of how to bring these little country towns up to the level of the great metropolis from which these tenants were now banished. No one talked of how to engender pride in their new homes and new community, through the fabric of the town itself, that we were now building. Such ideas, commonplace for some 10,000 years of human history, seemed to have been lobotomised from the consciousness of all these professionally-trained "public authority" Architects.

They no longer knew the meaning of the word 'monument' or 'civic space'. Only recently, after a peculiar absence of half a century of taboo, have such words come back into Town Planning. Meanwhile a huge accumulation of urban capital has been constructed which physically inhibits urbanity and for which no one feels any affection.

No one ever discussed the accumulation of urban capital as a 'theatre' for a slowly improving functioning of society as a self-regulating political organism. The Tenants were merely a burden carried by the Municipality. No one ever talked anything but numbers. And all of these were meaningless, like 'sky factor' or 'habitable rooms per acre'. What was the culture of the Tenant? What went on inside the Tenant's head? Was the amount of sky they saw their sole, over-riding, concern? Were these vegetables or people that we were building for? Was sunshine all that they craved? What about identity? How could their lifespace help them define who and where they were? How about their role in the governance of their communities? What of Civics?

How had London been planned before the War? Everyone, in the 1960's GLC, whatever their political or cultural predilections, was agreed that Cities were bad places and the sooner everyone either got 'up into the fresh air' in 'tower blocks', or out 'into the country' into cottages, the better. The verb used was 'decanting'. Yet nothing was more fragile than the employment market in these little country towns. Their factories were the first to be closed down in a slump. They had no 'streets'. The wind and rain whipped across their narrow or frequently non-existent pavements. And once you have seen one dormant shrub on a grey winter's day, you've seen them all. As soon as the pram could be replaced by a microscopic automobile, it was. As soon as they 'struck it rich' they pullled out of their little huddle of pseudo-cottages. But where were they to go? What had anyone invented, since around 1880, but some other landscape of latterday Arcadian huts?

Post War Town Planning foundered on the inability of British Town Planning Theory to invent a theory, any theory, that could understand, and progress, the very world they lived in, as the second most highly urbanised country in Europe (the Netherlands being even more overcrowded). The cities of the 19C, such as they were (which was often not altogether bad), were dismantled as fast as they had been built. Their populations were herded out into the countryside and there they remain today, locked into endless traffic circulation systems that always end, like a metal steak on a griddle, on the white-barred asphalt field of a car park. Whatever 'urban capital' the 19C had accumulated, both physical and cultural, was systematically squandered in the Post-'39-'45 War years.

If one was to credit the Agencies that did this with a more calculating intelligence than they evidenced, one might have imagined that the population of the late 20C State has been locked into this endless travail of futile labour by a cunning Governor who designed the most expensive machine in the world into which everyone was ensnared after the age of sixteen. This machine circulated, like a ball in a pinball machine, steadily consuming the players money, ricochetting from pillar to post. It always seemed to be on the point of hitting the jackpot. Yet it always returned, exhausted, to its point of departure. Meanwhile, at every juncture of this endless circulation, the State quietly deducted its taxations, growing ever stronger and richer as the wheels turned.

Even if this machine was not the result of foresight, its ability to maximise taxation revenues can not be doubted. Waterloo may have been won on the Playing Fields of Eton. The Cold War was won on the Subdivisions of Santa Monica. For it is the massive and endless beating of the amortising surf of the post war motorised lifespace, sucking the whole of the fabricated world into its economic metabolism, that produces the taxation revenue that funded the Star Wars project (or at least the illusion of it) which finally broke the Soviet morale.

I spent four years trying to invent a better solution to housing design than the one already staring us in the face: the London Square. Eventually I succumbed to the inevitable and designed a variety of interlocking garden squares. The average density of housing in the Expanded Towns, at 12 houses to the Acre was thought to be 'high for the countryside' My 'London Square terrace housing' was 20 to the Acre minimum and 26 to the acre maximum. This could achieve the 120 persons per acre which was the highest urban density target of British Post War Planning strategy. But even if it did not do so on day one, no one ever seemed to grasp the fact, which I never tired of proposing, that all new settlements must start almost as shantytowns, or at least modestly. The over-riding need for the urban planner was to put down a good footprint: to give the town good bones. Buildings come and go. The street plan remains.A terrace house can have a floor added or even two, to allow for some home industry and other such developments, as a community got richer.

But such things were impossible. Arcadia has no future, only a Golden Past. The urban peasant, newly installed back on his native sod, had been given a glimpse of the 'fairies at the bottom of garden' aesthete's Heaven. He had within his reach the pathetic petit-bourgois ambition of 'early retirement'. Why should he, or she, want to grow into anything as 'difficult' as a fully formed, and fully informed, Citizen?

Yet my terrace houses all had back yards. Indeed the beauty of the terrace is that it builds a solid wall between the 'front-space' and the 'backs'. The front is formal and theatrical and the back is, like a quick change at the theatre, all relaxed and informal. While the unfortunate late 20C 'slab block' council tenant, marooned in his 'fresh air' up in the sky, can hear every honking horn and squealing brake in the street, the soft and solid masonry walls of a terrace house makes its back yard into a haven of peace and quiet that no traffic sounds can penetrate. All of my houses had off-street parking under cover in lock-up garage compounds. These, also, could have small mews houses over them. The garden squares were large enough to house big forest trees, tennis courts, basketball courts, barbecue tables and childrens playgrounds.

My plans were rejected as "too middle class".

Yet these garden square communites (of latterday 'property millionaires) are really somewhat communistic, for they all share their social, or public and recreative space. They come together to plan and tend their plants and they look over, and look after, a common lifespace that they alone possess, as a small community. The Garden Square is a lesson in Civics for children and a lesson on the fundaments of Democracy for all of its inhabitants. The virtues of consensus and majority rule are learned at birth and exercised in a modest way throughout. Nor is this community oppressive. Its functional relations are limited to the administration of its garden and its social space. It is accumulated very randomly and everyone gives to it as they see fit.

Seeing the growth in Gardening since the 1960's, itself a product of the movement of hitherto urbanised populations out into the country, makes it all the more tragic that the lesson of the Garden Square could not have been learned, by the GLC, back in the 1960's.

The GLC had the chance to 'export' London's urbane culture to these little towns and introduce them to the joys of living in the wide open spaces of a civil community, able to circulate long distances on foot in perfect safety, comfort and with a lively interest in their surroundings. Instead, its oppressively authoritarian Councillors chose to return their 'urban peasants' to the sacred turf and condemn them to the state of de-politicised rustic isolation from which their forbears had managed to escape, perhaps many generations before. This was never 'progress' by any yardstick.

The 'working class' for reasons best understood by the GLC Architects, were condemned to inhabit a landscape we came to describe, chanting the mantra as we bent over our drawing boards, as "High-Rise, Low Rise, P.O.S." (Public Open Space). When translated this means that one was allowed to build twelve-storey slabs and towers and two and three-storey maisonette and apartment terraces. Three to five-story Terrace, or 'Row', 'walk-up' houses were forbidden. The reason for this was that it was considered wrong to demolish 19C Victorian terrace houses and then to merely move Tenants into late-20C terrace houses.

Nor could the Public architectural culture justify its authority (which it mightily craved) by merely asking Tenants what they wanted. This route 'belonged' to the Private Sector. Public Architecture chose to 'give' their Tenants a level of Architectural Culture of which they could only dream (if only in their worst nightmares). They gave them skyscrapers modelled after Le Corbusier, whose ground level consisted of giant refuse bins, dirty entrance halls and graffiti-decorated lifts.

They gave them huge hulks made of dirty grey concrete like monuments to a world blasted by a latterday Vesuvius (cement is nothing but the powdered ashes of cindered mud). The roofs leaked and the walls grew mould (on their inside).

It became established, again in the early 1960's, that the base of any tall building was beset by high winds. These were the result of air hitting the building at high level and travelling down it to eddy in a high-speed vortex at ground level. Anyone who visited Corbusier's canonic Unite d'Habitation, in Marseilles, soon discovered that not only was air forced down to grouind level, but if the whole building was lifted up on a collonade, as was Corbusier's absolute requirement, this air then funnelled under it at wind tunnel speeds.

Architects, some of them very eminent, continue to disregard this inescapable law of physics. They continue to build tall buildings (anything over 100 feet or thirty metres) with their feet on the street frontage. One of the main advantages of, what Corbusier excoricated as, the 'Corridor Street' is that it prevents the wind at roof-top level from coming down to pavement level. The pedestrian is sheltered and walks in relatively still air. A tall building not only brings this high-level wind to ground level but actually accelerates it. All such events in any newly designed street should simply be banished as a lesson learned and never to be repeated. Architects who continue to plan in this way should be 'named and shamed' as ignorant of one of the first laws of urban physics by anyone interested in Civics and City Planning.

Steen Eiler Rasmussen, author of the best book on London written in the 20C, thought that the garden square was Britain's most characteristic and most ingenious contribution to city-planning. Britain's mild climate, when 'domesticated' into an urban microclimate by continuous street walls, is very conducive to an urbane life. 12 houses to the acre is too high to allow enough land for roads large enough to permit an American level of car use. But it is too low to support an economic bus or light train system. 20 to 25 houses to the acre is capable of supplying the density of passengers to make mass transit, or as I call it a 'shift' (rather than a lift), work. All this is possible while living on the ground, owning one's own piece of land, with one's front door on the street. One has access to a private garden of huge extent, none of which one has to work to support, unless one wants to, for it is supported by a very modest annual rate (some £5/week per household).

These squares were large, and, mainly to save land, necessarily rectangular. It was clear to me that the prevailing architectural syle of the 1960's was incapable of making long and repetitive terraces look like anything other than the dumb white cement barracks proposed by urban sadists like Ludwig Hilberseimer, purveyor of the "Existenzminimum'. I needed to invent an architecture which was powerful enough to render large scale urban planning pleasant, amusing and palatable. My struggle to invent this 'new order', which led ultimately to the 'Working Order' that JOA use today, 30 years later on, began in the GLC.

Today I have the measure of the post war dis-urban landscape. If roads 300 feet wide are desired, I inflate my Working Order to a columnar module of twenty feet or six metres. There is no problem. The order enlarges and shrinks to suit the scale of the space it is enjoined to command. Human beings are reduced to ants on the concrete ribbons we like to cruise along today. Why should anyone object to inhabiting an architecture of six metre diameter columns? JOA have already built architectures using three metre, one point eight metre and one point five metre (10'0", 6'0" and 5'0") diameter columns. These have been variously voted the Public's most favoured buildings in London's Docklands and the City of Cambridge and Houston. If the Public can fall in love with my 'Big Order' then why should anyone else be afraid? The Public can see that what the Order does is to humanise a world of enormous scale which they know they must inhabit anyway. They do not have the luxury of fantasisiing about rustic Utopias open to Architectural Academics.

Nor is it the Order that really strikes the Public. Of more interest to them is the decoration it carries and beyond this the iconically structured fields it 'empowers'. When one stands under the Shaper Ceiling in Martell Hall and examines the complex geometries of the Orders that support it, one soon becomes aware, if one knows anything about Modern Architecture, that the ground rules of Modernism have been changed. This was, no doubt, why the freshmen from Rice Faculty of Architecture were prohibited from entering my building when it was opened. It set intellectual problems to their Professors that they could not solve.

The 'Working Order' is not just one more 'workaround' the insoluble problems of contemporary Architecture that Postmodern Critical Theorists elaborate into what they call "the Problematic". It is the hot knife that cuts the Gordian butter. It gives the designer the tools he needs to solve the problems. This is because Modernism is founded on the fact that the received Hellenic Orders are dysfunctional. They do not 'work'. The whole of 20C Architecture was predicated on finding another way of ordering space. The invention of a functioning Order, an 'Ordine' that works, really works for us today, removes one of the main foundations of the 20C project. The fact that this 'Working Order' is entirely 'Modernist' avoids any suspicion that it is merely an attempt to reimpose the "authority of The Orders". The Working Order has no authority derived from Antiquity. I am the first not only to prohibit, but also to explain, the use of Antiquity not merely as an Architectural Style but an extremely brilliant town planning device.

The results of my very first efforts towards an Order of sorts, back in 1964, were noted by a Senior LCC Architect who said "looking over my shoulder", "Oh, Outram, are you working on an existing building". It was an innocent remark, without guile. I took it as an unintended compliment and worked-on, somewhat encouraged. The particular 'Order' that I invented then, was not built until 1997, 33 years later, on a little, glass-roofed, extension to Wadhurst Park.

Today I am absolutely persuaded that the Terrace House, or Row House as it is called in the USA, or an 'urbane slice', as I call it, is the best domestic support of an urbane culture. It is my 'slice', not some polygonal pie-in-the-sky dropped from airships a la Buckminster Fuller, that will be the essential domestic foundation of an urbane 'city of the future'. The 'urbane slice' is the genetic building block of an urbane lifespace. Every urban function can be accommodated within its generic form. Urbane space planning, site planning and civic architecture are, today, impossible without it. When it is associated with what I call the 'shift' (mass transit), as opposed to the 'lift', it forms the tool with which the future can solve the one major outstanding problem of 'green culture'. This is how to use less land, and less resources, yet still live a civil life 'on the earth' and 'in Nature'.

Nor is the London Square an invention of purely parochial use. In 1997 I chaired a Town Planning Seminar in Uzbekistan. Its capital, Tashkent, is the third largest city in the former Soviet Union. It is built with wide boulevards, many trees, five to seven storey apartment blocks, trams, parks and so on. Whatever else the Soviets did, they did at least, like French Colonialists, and even the British in New Delhi, leave behind a civilised urban footprint. In 1997 it was all falling into disrepair. The new rich were building huge, well-guarded, suburban houses and driving into 'work' in bullet-proof black limos. Soon the streets would clog with cars, the ageing tramways would be dug up, and the winter temperature inversion, as it does from Milan to New Delhi, fill up with a choking fog of atmospheric pollution.

Prosperity, on the current 'Western' model, inexorably brings with it foul winter air, clogged circulation, a lawless underclass (and even, in the Ex-Communist world, a lawless upperclass). There is no need for all of this and the lesson is to be drawn from the disastorus effect of the totalitarianisms both Fascist and Communist, upon Western mores. For instead of developing the institutional fabric of the 19C, which was hugely advanced over that of the 18C, many parts of the world rejected them for the easy route of Modern Dictatorship, with disastrous results. Institutional elaboration, urbane space and urbane culture are the only way to civilise and settle these disordered societies. An ordered, cultured, conceptually inscriptable 'universal modern' Architecture is an essential tool towards this project.

The habit in Uzbekistan was, and still is in the older quarters, to live in patio houses. In the very hot summer the family moves to the shade of the southern side. In the freezing winter they move to enjoy the sunlight falling into the Northern side. My suggestion was to build five storey walk-ups for the extended families which the culture, being what one might call post-Islamic, could still probably support. In the Winter, living would migrate to the upper floors. These would be warmer. In the Summer it would retreat to the cool basements. The Moguls, in Delhi, where I was raised, built cool underground quarters for their summer. The difference in temperature, without artificial cooling or heating, is 20 to 15 degrees.

The other advantages of the terrace house: owning one's land, being with one's door on the street, overlooking one's own 'big communal garden room', that was also 'private' , creating a shady 'public space' microclimate and one that cut down the cold winter winds, and so on and so forth, needed more time to describe than we had. Moreover the Chief Planner's office though well supplied with fruit and nuts had no whiteboard, so real argument was barren. The salary of a Town Planner was $20/month, the elevator a pile of dust and paper for official letters bought, sheet by sheet, as required, from a black-market babushka in the marbled entrance hall. Usbekistan, like many third world cultures, has a highly educated middle class and an elaborated social structure but no apparent economic support. But I was persuaded that the 'garden square' had a future outside London. The Papers reported, in Russian, that: "The British told us fairy tales".

Perhaps it was not the fairy tale they wanted to hear from us. Maybe they expected the vision of an endless asphalt driveway extending across the whole of Central Asia, the last radically empty part of the world, with a Mongolian Las Vegas, surrounded by ranch houses and swimming pools, at its heart. Central Asia produced the Golden Horde, the most devastating military culture ever seen. As Adam Smith reported: "Nothing is as invincible as an army of shepherds, for they drive their city with them, and descend upon others like locusts". One flies over North America and sees the whole of its vast plains alienated, divided into plots, sold and producing much of the food for the whole world. Central Asia is still owned by the nomadic descendants of the Horde. If it was 'real estate' it too might become hugely productive. But will its nomad owners ever alter its status, and thereby bring their own history and culture to an end?

The destruction of the great city of Tashkent, and its reduction to a smogbound parking lot, with skyscrapers frequented by erstwhile Central Asiatic cowboys newly re-horsed on Dodge pickups, would be a tragic fate for some good, intrinsically urbane, things left behind by the departing Russians. Decolonisation, for ex-colonial cultures, is surely the moment when they can appropriate the 'heritage' of their previous masters, and make it their own. I told the Uzbek City Planners, "Start at the top, invent a form of housing that is smart and chic, which will attract the new rich. Without the rich Taskent will be doomed and go the way of most other 20C cities. Change the walk-ups into 'condo-culture' and 'loft culture'. Build a pool and an exercise gym. Contemporary culture is free, unplanned, and led by the Media through popular heroes. To shape your city you must work through this channel. It should be chic to go by tram. So replace your trams with outrageously stylish ones".

What else can one say to Town Planners, once so powerful, yet now so underfunded that they must build replicas of every city-centre in Uzbekistan out of cardboard tipped with gold foil from cigarette packets. These were carried into the President's Office for approval. Next to every roundabout they planned a tennis court. Karimov, the Ex-Communist Boss, now the President, likes tennis. But without money it was pure theatre.

Yet who was to say that British Post War urban design was better? There is nothing as civil as Tashkent in Post War Britain. Proof of the inhibition placed upon formal planning by the taboo on architectural ornament came with my understanding, as the 1960's wore on, that all large scale plans were being deliberately disordered. They were being 'picturesquely romanticised' and intellectually scrambled, like the brain of a prizefighter pummelled by huge forces that would leave it permanently damaged. The largest of them all, that for a huge new city downstream of Greenwich at Erith, was passed through the GLC Housing Committee without any drawings at all. A variety of balsa-wood sticks were cut, by a large team of co-opted architects, to a set of standard lengths. They were then assembled, on a base the size of two ping-pong tables, into something that looked like something between a giant fungoid growth, ice crystal Krypton City and a picturesque log jam on a Canadian river. Each stick was a length of 'housing'. The model was far too big to move out of the Architect's Department. So the Committee of Councillors, unusually, came to the Mountain. As a sculpture it was a thing of beauty. As a city-fragment a piece of pseudo-organic, Romantic, civic illiteracy. It pre-dated the 'modelling' of Gehry by some 20 years. Maybe gehry worked in the GLC. Everyone eslse seems to have.

After seeing how easily it passed through Committee we coined the term "Modelling Through". It was clear that drawings only confused the Councillors. A really big muddle, sorry model, was the just like the 'real' thing.

Erith was 'Modelling's' high water mark. The site of this great new city was flat mud, so soft that even the footpaths needed piling. If any place cried out for a formal, intellectually-structured, plan, it was this featureless landscape so recently flooded by the sea. (Rice University, in Houston, Texas has the same kind of site). The lumpen 'naturalism' of the balsa-wood biomorph was forced upon late 20C architecture by its self-imposed, Post '45 War, illiteracy concerning everythng that could be learned from 10,000 years of architecture and city-building.

Even so nothing that remains in Erith today, resembles, even remotely, the balsa-wood agglomeration passed by our political masters. It was all just froth and gas, generated by the inability of an enfeebled, anaemic, architecture to digest the massive ambitions of the social-democratic state. A few slab-sided structures in grey cement were erected. The only thing that saves this 1960-s style housing from being condemned as the ugliest built this century is its fragmented massing, which when associated with copious greenery suffices to distract the eye and the mind from its mindless erasure of all architectural and urbanistic culture.

But how much 'landscaping' can one afford? A garden must be tended or it merely looks a mess. Money invested in an architecture of more incident is cheaper than hiding a city of dull boxes behind short-lived shrubberies. Plants die. Architecture gets better as it gets older. Treasurers know this. But the knowledge has been a long time coming.

The Architects of the GLC, once the largest Architect's office in Britain, with 1200 staff, took early retirement when they were closed down by Thatcherism. They lived modestly, but comfortably, in old houses, secure in the belief that they had served the public good. Whereas the reality was that the mass social housing erected during the 1960's, of all of the Post War periods, was the most disurbane of them all. It was worse, even, than the 1950's and far worse than the 1930's. Today it is being demolished and its capital wasted. Even its street pattern will need to be erased if urbanity is to be constructed.

In some despair, after working in both Housing and new Towns Divisions, I joined the Town Planning Division. I was also studying, at night school, for a Town Planning Degree. So it was with interest that I discovered that, by chance (Planning is a small world) my Principal in the GLC was tutoring me at Night School. One of the tasks we were set was to plan an Urban Motorway. As with everything American, it entered British culture, much miniaturised, some 20 years after seeing the light of day in the USA. During tutorials I explained that if one placed the access points to an elevated urban motorway at less than half-mile intervals the resulting concrete sphagetti enlarged by a factor of two, eating up much more land and demolishing many more houses.

My Tutor told me "not to worry". I will never forget his words. He said, this Senior GLC Town Planner: "We put the symbols on the map and then send it down to the Engineers". I suppose it was because I had already seen the real thing and gone out of my way to acquire the handbooks of the US Army Corps of Engineers on how to lay out the horrific geometries of the 'freeway' that I knew these simple facts. But they were not hard to grasp. They were only roads, after all.

It was then that I understood that no one really, in the whole literary, Barrister-led, political establishment, for all of their intellectual brilliance, had any grasp at all of the physical dimensions of the human lifespace. "One put the symbols on the map and the 'engineers' did the rest". One spoke the words, one formulated the policy, one passed the motion and flushed it downstairs, like the miserable intellectual detritus it was, to the cooks, plumbers and sundry mechanics to try to 'make something out of it'. Instead of the Engineers leading the process of Planning, at the end of the 20C they have become, due to the intellectual constipation of the Architectural Culture of Civics, the anearobic bacteria of lifespace design, turning complete rubbish into waste water fit to flush into Infinity.

I, who had spent four years grappling with an almost insoluble problem: the impact of the automobile, and the suburban house, on our urbane lifespace, realised, with horror, that all of the critical decisions were made by people 'at the top' with no sense whatever of the real physical dimensions of the space they lived in! These people had not even the slightest idea of Engineering. What hope was there for city design? Needless to say, I passed all of my written exams and failed my design thesis. It was on multi-level circulation of vehicles and pedestrians. However, this time I gave up trying. I put my Thesis in the basement where the back-yard slugs ate off the gilded title on the spine. It seems they had a taste for gilding glue, whatever that is.

I left the world of Public Planning, Housing, and Social Policy, vowing never to return.

Nevertheless, it remains true that the houses in a city define the way we live in it. But before I could answer the question what is an 'urbane house' I needed to be able to answer the question: "what is a city?" No one seemed to know the answer any more. This was the question that has occupied me for the past 20 years.


 End of FAQ No. 7: "Houses",

Return to "The List of FAQ's"".  


* JOA can be reached by E-Mail at anthony@johnoutram.com , by telephone on +44 (0)207 262 4862 or by fax on +44 (0)207 706 3804. We also have an ISDN number : +44 (0)207 262 6294.




John Outram