Monday, December 15, 2008

The impossibility of death in the mind of someone living



A friend of mine sent me these. The black and white shots (taken I think from Ellis Woodman's new book on James Gowan) show Gowan's 1978 housing scheme in Chelmsford, Essex. The colour ones below are from an estate agent's advert from a month ago showing the same properties now.

The success of Gowan's work (as opposed to many architect designed housing estates of the time) could be defined by the degree to which it has been transformed by those that live in it. Far from being a failure because it no longer looks much like architecture (or what we understand architecture to look like) it might actually be its ability to develop and change over time that is important. This runs contrary to the accepted idea of successful architecture which is seen as having a definitive image, a moment of perfection from which it can only really be compromised.

Like the Dixon Jones scheme mentioned in the previous post (and, apparently, admitted to as a failure by the architects) the assumption is that if the architect's original aesthetic has been altered significantly, then the design hasn't worked. There is of course another way to look at this which is that successful housing exists in time as well as space, as a process as much as a singular object.

It's interesting to note that Gowan's former partner James Stirling's Runcorn housing - formally more successful in traditional architectural terms than the Chelmsford scheme - ended in demolition, rather than adaptation.



UPDATE: There are more and much better pictures of Gowan's project here, in the wonderfully titled photo set Essex (which also features the Art Deco/Moderne houses at Silver End, previously posted on). They also appear on the excellent flickr site Stirling, Gowan and Wilford.

9 comments:

Mark said...

I started writing a comment with a link to my flickr pictures but your update beat me to it. (Inspired me to tidy up the Essex set and put a few more in too)

It's good to be reminded of houses position in time and ability to change. By Essex standards the East Hanningfield houses haven't had much drastic alteration. They could in the future loose their mock tudor leaded lights and upvc paneled doors, and begin to look more as they did when built. This seems to be happening on Frinton's modernist estate as some houses are de-tudored back to the moderne. If in some distant future all our modernist houses were restored I guess we'd loose a layer of social history in the process.

Here's some fine Essex pargetted modernism...
http://www.flickr.com/photos/fray_bentos/2178764676

Charles Holland said...

Thanks Mark. The photos are fascinating.

Yes I think you're right, as the houses become 'discovered' they may be converted back which is a kind of irony. I remember all those photoshoots that Wallpaper used to do in 1970's bungalows stuffed full of retro furniture. But I like the idea of Gowan's houses continuing to be normal working homes I think....

They also look rather nice. I'm from round those parts too So I will take a look at them when I am home next.

Strangely, for such a weirdly conservative place, Frinton has a history of great architecture. I'm not suprised the modernist estate ones are being snapped up.

owen hatherley said...

They do take the paint and additions very well, don't they? Good to see. I suppose the problem is one of how you could possibly factor that into the design.

There's a few examples round my way in SE London that are pertinent: literally on my street is a 60s Stirling & Gowan scheme which, although as its still council has metal windows present and correct, was subjected in the 80s to a pitched roof over a whole courtyard block, which completely destroys it: it's very right-angled and De Stijl-esque, so the roof doesn't look charming or personalised, it just looks gratuitous, like when the Nazis put a pointy roof on the Bauhaus, although I expect it had more to do with Greenwich Council's repair bills than volkish ideology.

Meanwhile there's a Chamberlin Powell & Bon estate just up the hill (unlisted) which has been given lots of extraneous bits and bobs, taking it nearly as well as that Gowan stuff you link to. The GLC section of Thamesmead takes half-timbering surprisingly well too. It's very difficult to work out why one can work and one not, though I appreciate the distinction between the glorious untouched object and the lived-in that you're making...

Charles Holland said...

Owen, ta for your comment and for taking time out from answering all those aggressive nutters on your site!

There's something about half-timbering on the projects that you mention which is just genius if you ask me.....there is some nice pebble dash on a cluster of modernist housing just off Columbia Road in east london which looks very interesting to me. A bit like something we might at FAT....

The Stirling Gowan scheme is on the flickr site I linked to I think. I must take a look at it. I've been trying to write about Stirling for a while and all this stuff has given me a bit of a new take on it.

I think there is something in all this about refurbishing and reclaiming modernism in the manner of the Morecombe Bay hotel (and the Frinton houses mentioned by Mark above) that is worthy and correct and all that but runs counter to its original aims as well as the idea of housing as process that I was writing about. I'm also amazed and intrigued by the amount of documentation of it on sites like flickr.

owen hatherley said...

Thanks. Anything other than arguing with mentalists is a relief...

The Stirling & Gowan thing in Greenwich isn't on Flickr, and nor is a very similar one they did in Deptford, similarly no longer flat roofed (though a completely different thing nearby in Blackheath is in the group, and Blackheath is posh enough to be architecturally literate). It's in the new Gowan book but very seldom in the Stirling monographs. I went past it again today, and the problem is a weird one - it's sort of modular and U-shaped, so actually they have to stick loads of little pitched roofs on a single block. A horrible mess, and literally a stone's throw from lovingly restored buildings by Wren and Inigo Jones. Tsk.

Btw, had similar thoughts on refurbishment to re-modernise a little while ago...

Charles Holland said...

..with slightly alarming circularity your post includes a picture of a scheme we did to refurbish a tower block in east london!

I read it before and I know what you mean regarding the odd kitschiness of Hadid's furniture (although I'm not entirely sure it isn't present in her architecture either, or her paintings which, whilst amazing, are very derivative and also have that element of architects doing art which is always slightly embarrassing - like architecture is not somehow cool enough. And yes, I know what you're think about pots and kettles!)

DIY adapatations of modernist interiors is fascinating, as they are almost anywhere I think. They are also very poorly documented I think and when they are (by someone like Martin Parr in his Signs of Life series) there is an overwhelming sense of irony present. We tried to do something like it when we designed our Manchester houses, organising a little exhibition of photographs of the interiors of the residents old houses. That scheme is in some ways the opposite of the Burlington/Loosian split you describe between introverted architectural exterior and more extrovert interior. At least it was before the residents moved in and ruined it.

That last bit was a joke!

Dominic Roberts said...

Stirling & Gowan's Preston housing was given the Local Authority treatment rather than being altered by individual owners. Link...

http://www.msa.mmu.ac.uk/continuity/index.php/2007/08/20/stirlings-preston-housing/

Charles Holland said...

Thanks Dominic. Those period shots are fantastic. In a funny way I think the Hanningfield houses, although less obviously tough and sculptural, come out of it looking better than the Preston one.

Dominic Roberts said...

I agree. Do you remember the book of GLC standard working details that circulated in offices in the '70s and '80s? At Preston, Stirling's version of ordinary housing got heavily GLCeed...