Whatever happened to our house?

David Grandorge is a photographer and senior lecturer in architecture at London Met. His fee for this column has been donated to support the publication of new and diverse voices in the AJ



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Whatever their merits or otherwise, social housing at this moment in time was understood as an investment, both a local and national asset. It was also a pragmatic and humane response to the often terrible housing conditions that the poor had had to endure previously.

The image’s colour palette is subdued. There is the black of the balustrades, bollards, lamp posts and drainpipes; the brown of the leafless trees and stone-faced walls at street level; the reddish brown of the roof tiles, chimney pots and brick buildings in the distance; the grey of the tarmac and pavement; the yellow of the traffic markings and nobbled surfaced paving at each edge of the street; the white of window frames and sky and the creamy white of the finely textured walls that give a formal coherence to structures of different size and language. 

The building on the right was given the title Walker House, the one on the left, Chamberlain House. The latter was named after the future Conservative prime minister (better known for his ill-judged foreign policy of appeasement), who, after the passing of the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919, would chair the Unhealthy Areas Committee. Its aim was to ‘assess the extent of the housing problem and make recommendations regarding the clearance of slums and the building of new housing’. 

The estate came into being as a result of decisions made by the aforementioned committee and finance provided by the public realm. It was one of many housing projects realised between the turn of the century and the start of the Second World War, a period in which more than a million homes were built by local authorities, a quarter of these by the LCC. 

This photograph was taken on a chilly morning in the early months of 2010. It depicts a street, Phoenix Road in Camden, north London, at its junction with Ossulston Street. The scene is empty except for a parked vehicle that, when not static, is used to transport children with disabilities from their homes to their schools and back again.

The two medium-rise, quite dense housing blocks shown here belong to a larger whole, the Ossulston Estate. Realised by the London County Council (LCC) between 1927 and 1931, it occupies a long and narrow parcel of land situated between Euston and St Pancras stations and now has Grade II-listed protection.

Whatever happened to our house?

Most of them (in hindsight, unwisely) were built as houses with gardens in the suburbs of the city, as that, understandably, was what the working classes wanted to live in – dwellings that had the same qualities and characteristics of those from which they had been decanted. 

We now live in an era where housing demand again far outstrips supply. Use value has been usurped by exchange value. The ideal of security of tenure, that most basic of human rights, has been eroded as the role of central and local government as the core provider of social housing has declined and the role of the market has increased.