The Hidden Conditions Behind Function and Form

In the aftermath of the second world war, Britain – devastated by six years of bombardment and nearly bankrupted by the war effort – was faced with a shortage of crucial housing. The process leading to their ‘pre-fab’ built response, Stuart Petchey argues, was a perfect example of the hidden conditions behind Form and Function.

October 1, 2007

Form ‘Funnels’ Function

For years the architectural world has employed the phrase, ‘Form follows Function’. As ‘Form’ is but the tip of the architectural iceberg, it is important to look beneath the surface to judge just how big deep and numerable the layers that support the built visual structure are. In this case we cannot be confined to the mere discussion of structural quantity, depth or levels. Indeed the argument ranges far beyond the built portion once it ventures away from the strictures of Function and Form.

Attention must rest, therefore, on the conditions that precede the form follows function maxim. As the title suggests, it is possible to investigate seven layers of the ‘iceberg’, only two of which are in the common architectural lexicon, and only one of which is visible.

Architecture follows these pointers – consciously or not – in all its projects. If shown diagrammatically the pointers would take on the shape of a funnel; pour in the seven ingredients, stir vigorously and out pops the right form. At the lip of the funnel is “Circumstance” – from there, the conditions are interrogated by a collective social “Conscience” before filtering down to a smaller layer under “Necessity”, followed by another interrogation of values as the challenge of “Obligation” is levelled at the architectural psyche.

Once these intangibles are dealt with, and the funnel narrows to a spout, the more familiar, and often more comfortable, “Function” and “Form” are able to be handled. As I hope to illustrate, the use of all seven steps will produce the most effective result in even the humblest of situations.

Circumstance

I was born on the twentieth of April, 1948, in Kent, England. The first house I lived in was in Rochester, and it, along with Chatham and Gillingham, made up a group of towns known as the Medway Towns, which crowded around the River Medway at the point where it merged with the Thames estuary.

Southern England had just emerged from the deprivation of World War II. Even amidst the devastation, Kent had been particularly hard hit. Chatham had been an established Royal Navy dockyard and repair facility for several centuries, Gillingham was a large military garrison town, and the RAF airbases of Biggin Hill and West Malling lay in the outlying countryside. As a result the area had suffered bomb damage to both the strategic targets above, but also to civilian infrastructure; to schools and housing, roads and shops.

Great Britain was in dire straits financially. In the latter part of the war the country had spent more than half its Gross National Product to finance the war effort – and in the immediate aftermath it was wracked by severe shortages of skilled labour, tools, materials, and plant and equipment. Moreover, the Medway Towns were gripped by an accommodation crisis of acute proportions – faced with an influx of workers – mainly women – drawn to the local factories and workshops that had formed the heart of the British war machine.

Yet, in some ways the massive damage caused by the bombing was a blessing in disguise; for most of the housing it had destroyed was low quality, Victorian terraced slums. These houses were typically ‘two up – two down’ – less than four metres wide with outdoor shared toilets and laundries, and in many cases lacking in services such as water, gas or electricity. Disease, hunger, crime and violence were rife, as was the ever present fear of eviction, for tenants were unprotected by the tenancy laws enjoyed today.

Necessity and Conscience

The situation was further characterised by a large homeless population, by families forced to live in condemned abodes, by unemployment, poverty, hunger and a new national government which, for the first time in six years, had things to accomplish other than the defeat of its wartime enemies. Not only was money short at the bottom end of thesocial scale, but the government of the day was faced with massive debts as a result of the war efforts.

Clearly the national government had to do something to quickly alleviate the drastic housing shortage. The lack of housing for the poor was not confined to Kent, as most of London’s East End — Liverpool, Manchester, Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield, and all areas around RAF bases from Kent to Scotland had been heavily bombed. All these districts were also highly industrialized, and therefore had attracted a large population of low paid workers, and as a result the accommodation crisis was magnified.

The dilemma, then, was to house this vast disadvantaged population and avoid a disastrous electoral backlash; all with no readily available funds because of the War’s drain on the Exchequer. The national governments choices were limited; cheap, comfortable, easily and quickly built houses were a necessity, but they were hamstrung by their budgetary constraints. The government’s conscience was pricked, although whether this was from a moral or social source or a political survival is open to speculation. Suffice to say, the job was undertaken and successfully completed.

“Much in public housing design was borrowed from Sweden, an informality of layout, use of natural materials like brick and timber, and a conscious cheerfulness.”

This was certainly the order of the day for public housing as I entered the world.

Function and Obligation

The first house I ever graced was brand new when my parents moved into it – one of many on a ‘Council Estate.’ These were housing estates, built specifically for low-income families to rent, long term and at subsidized rates, from the local council. This neutralized many of the problems shouldered by the lower-income earners. New homes meant fewer repair and maintenance issues; those that did arise were quickly fixed by the local authority. This in turn meant the removal of avaricious landlords from the majority of the low level housing rental market.

Without a doubt the fact that one lived on a ‘Council Estate’ bore its own social stigma. Yet, in hindsight, it would be reasonable to suggest that the roof over one’s head far outweighed the branding one received from other levels of society. The function of these houses was to get a mass of people under cover quickly and effectively. This could have been achieved by building high-rise apartment blocks or mass dormitory style accommodation. On this occasion, it is my belief that the architectural industry came face to face with its obligations to society, and, for once, lived up to its implied social contract. This statement may sound radical in 2007, but in 1948, it was realistic.

The brief – tight and to the point – would have been along the lines printed below. However what came out of that architecture – and it was very apparent a decade later – was a social boon of far greater benefit to the residents of that area than the mere provision of shelter. The housing, whilst viewed from the ‘outside’ as being low quality houses for low quality people, gave each inhabitant the start of something solid and permanent. Something they could, the first time ever, put their own stamp on. A vegetable garden, Rose Bushes, a pond, wallpapered interiors, carpets, a gas-range and radio.

These, then, were the qualities of such ‘instant’ houses;

  1. They had to be cheap
  2. They had to be easy to manufacture en-masse
  3. They had to be easy and cheap to transport to site and erect
  4. They had to be able to be erected without the use of highly skilled labour
  5. They had to be complete, and encompassing, (i.e. no outside toilets etc.)
  6. They had to have two bedrooms, a bathroom/toilet, a social area, a workable kitchen and food storage area, a means of heating both the water and the house.
  7. They had to have an area of garden, but take up a small foot-print on expensive, scarce land

Form

The final built design lived up to all those expectations, as well as introducing two surprise benefits which would be praised as environmentally responsible in today’s world. In Figure 1, below, is the floor plan of the house I lived in.

The house was completely pre-fabricated; hence the common nickname of ‘pre-fabs’. The component parts were complete in every way, with walls, windows, wiring, interior and exterior paint all finished before leaving the factory. They were easily lifted onto a standard truck bed, carted to site, lifted off and quickly assembled on a pre-poured concrete slab.

The walls were made from 100 by 50 timber frames with an interior/exterior cladding of 50 mm recycled, compressed cardboard. I remember this material as very dense, and the house always felt very warm and cosy. In the winter time it was not uncommon to have to dig one’s way out of the snow at the front door in the morning in order to get to school, yet still the house remained warm. When it was affordable the house was heated by means of a solid fuel heater which was placed in the lounge on its own raised slab. This was connected to the internal hot water tank, which was a lagged steel cylinder two metres high that lived in the corner of the kitchen whilst backing onto the airing cupboard/linen press.

Outside the flat roof was covered in a thick bituminous tar sheet with a ‘pebble-dash’ finish. The roof was inclined, sloping towards the rear of the building – the rainwater draining into a large water-butt. This water was very clean, certainly drinkable, and my Mother used it to wash my hair in every Sunday night.

Each house was approximately 8.5 by 7.5 metres under roof and set in its own garden space of around 13.5 by 12.5 metres. This is by no means a large allotment by Australian standards, but it gave each family a ‘space’ to be themselves and demarcate as their ‘patch’. Many were fiercely attacked by budding horticultural activities ranging from the simple planting of garden vegetables to the more elaborate garden flower beds, bushes and small trees. Aside from the nefarious trade in illegal vegetables, almost every garden was left intact and respected by its neighbours as being untouchable ‘personal space.’

The concept of “Neighbourhood Watch” was never an official line, but it was, nevertheless, alive and thriving in our community. Each child of the neighbourhood was automatically looked after by any parent available at the time. I was a child from a single parent home – and my Mother had to work from seven in the morning until five-thirty at night, at least five days a week. She did ‘piece-work’ in a local aviation industry factory; doing identical work to the men she worked alongside for half the going man’s rate! This always meant that I would be home at around four in the afternoon every week day; home to an empty house, usually an empty pantry and a ravenous hunger! Neighbours would always take me in and give me something to temporarily curb my appetite. The favours were always repaid in many ways.

This situation in our house was, more or less, mirrored in those around us. Poverty was a way of life. As children, we had the advantage of not knowing we were supposed to be miserable because we were poor; and, as a result we had a great time. Our housing situation certainly helped the close-knit atmosphere we all enjoyed. Had we been the ‘beneficiaries’ of some of the high-rise developments which graced the streets of London’s East End in the late fifties and early sixties, I doubt sincerely that the social harmony and homogeny we lived in and with would have existed at all. Crime in and against our estate was unheard of; there was certainly no vandalism of obvious public property. It was normal for doors to be left unlocked and we shared what we had in every way. The knowledge that we each lived in and as a part of a group, but that we also had our own private individual space and piece of ‘dirt’, was the cement that bound this peace together. The phrase, “an Englishman’s home is his castle,” could be applied to our little cardboard houses. They were our castles, and we were justifiably proud of them.

Possibly without knowing it the architects and politicians who created our estate had also created a societal dynamic which was unheard of since the days preceding the Industrial Revolution. We lived in a ’village’ of sorts, with village morals, attitudes and an awareness of ourselves and those around us, their rights and ours, their obligations and ours.

We could have done nothing whatsoever about either the ‘Circumstances’ in postwar Britain or the ‘Necessities’ arising as a result of those circumstances, any more than we were ever likely to have a say in the ‘Function’ of the housing given to us, or indeed the ‘Form’ it finally took. Whether the government of the day exercised its ‘Conscience’ from political or moral motivation will never be truly known, but it did. Whether Architecture exercised its ‘Conscience’ and decided to meet it’s ‘Obligations’ for altruistic motives, political advancement or financial gain is disputable and fundamentally irrelevant – what is pressing is that, on some level, ‘conscience’ and ‘obligation’ were addressed.

The resulting outcome was multi-faceted. These humble houses worked on the immediate and obvious level of providing good, functional, safe housing in a hurry for a lot of poor people; yet, if we consider the recycled materials, the insulation qualities, the water harvesting systems, it was a move far in advance of it’s time. As a social exercise it was a resounding success, for it brought people together for good reasons, happy reasons, rather than merely joining them up for a group ‘whinge’, or alienating them in concrete tower ‘chicken-coops’.

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