Housing and Order

Although prethought conglomerates of residential units have taken many forms, perhaps a socialist definition of public housing would include a community’s effort to paternalistically upgrade the quality of life enjoyed, or suffered, by the working class. Throughout the 19th century, industrial efforts were made, governed by the idea of a utopian, railway or factory town which projects an ideal community modelling for a future-perfect state (Frampton, 1992 ). The need for a new building genre was accompanied by innovation in the theme. Perhaps, the level of experimentation excelled in the British Brutalist period, whose aesthetic was inspired by the first industrial structures. Despite the difference in typology, it too drew an inevitable assimilation of that which was already known and that which was yet to be discovered. It has been described by Frampton as a contradictory marriage of that which is formal and ordered, and that which is popular i.e. vernacular (ibid.).

In Germany, the 1950s considered systems based on prefabricated celluloids, accompanied by monolithic panel construction. The economics of automation dictated rigid layouts with a limited variety of components, as well as monotonous, repetitive solutions. Hence, the skeleton frame, ideal for flexible construction found itself unable to assert itself in housing. (Krippner, 2001).

Unfortunately, the current perception of social housing is far from idealistic. Cheap and fast methods run rampant, as does hanging washing in the balcony, overcrowded bedrooms and the public impression of the conglomerate as a slum area. Özkan (1990) describes the view politicians and key decision‐makers have of mass housing:” namely 4‐5 storey high walk‐up apartment blocks which eschew the use of heavy structural systems and are easy to maintain, because of the unsophisticated building parts and materials used in their construction”

These thoughts echo Habraken’s 1974 observations on the phenomenon that despite clear disadvantages, from country to country, traditional building methods coupled with repetitiveness still turn out to be the cheapest alternative for mass housing. Özkan adds that in general, the population densities achieved are not significantly larger than informal or private settlements, though such a statement can be disputed.

Case study: Early History of Public Housing in Malta

Post-war Malta experienced a marked shortage in housing, partly caused by WW II destruction, the relatively limited resources available to Nationalist administration (1962/71) and regulations allowing the decontrol of rents (Lockhart, 1987). However, the Malta Labour Party's strong socialist agenda effected much of the housing now existing on the periphery of Valletta, as well the outskirts of towns and villages throughout Malta. Despite diverse degrees of impact to the detriment of the natural environment (PA, 1995) the number of housing allocations shot up from 154 per annum (1961/70) to an average of 835 per year (1971/81) (Lockhart, 1987). Thus, slum clearance and the introduction of housing estates characterize Maltese housing policies in the 1970s, however, 1979 saw the introduction of Home Ownership Schemes, where sites, sold at low-prices by the government were developed by private enterprises.

The approach echoed the somewhat Thatcherite assault on public housing which radically passed on the design of housing to the private sector. In the United Kingdom, the participation of architects from the development of housing plans quickly disappeared and was replaced with the cut and paste of the private developers' catalogue plans. (Till, Wigglesworth, 2002 pg. 151)

In a typical Home Ownership Scheme, space was divided into long rectangular plots, with few characteristics differing from site to site. The individual homes were generally of a two-storey terraced design with limited garden ground, as a result of the high density of plots. Thus, in contrast to a government-built housing estate, only the geometrical perimeter of the site was modular, whereas the home owner could develop the site in any way he/she wished.

As described above, in the construction of housing estates, the governing organisation, which acts as a bonus paterfamilias representing the wishes of the community, has the final say up to finishing stage. This system is still prevalent to date. On the other hand, in an HOS, the distinction between the community and the individual occurs at too early a stage. As long as they respected planning and sanitary legislation, home owners could design their home whichever way they wished within the limits of the imposed geometry of the site. Nevertheless, every home in such area is similar to its neighbours' since the plan was generally designed by the layman, who rarely innovated and went with what was widely known and accepted.

Both systems are essentially simple. In a Home Ownership Scheme, the government's role is to delineate plots and distribute them at lower prices. Plots are similarly sized and the end user enjoys a relatively high degree of flexibility with regard to how the plot will be subdivided. Where housing estates are concerned, flexibility is null since, in general, one predetermined plot size is used, and repeated. Perhaps, in the first case, power to the individual was distributed and hence, decentralized at too early a stage, while in the second, it was distributed too late.

Frampton, K. (1992). Modern architecture: A critical history (3rd ed.). London: Thames & Hudson. Habraken N.J., Boekholt et al. (1974). Variations: the systematic design of supports. Cambridge: MIT Press c.1976 Krippner, R. (2001). Building with Systems – Learning from the 1960s. Detail. B 2772, Jun – Jul, 606 ‐ 607 Lockhart, D. G. (1987). Public Housing Initiatives in Malta since 1955, Scottish Geographical Magazine vol 103, No. 1. pp 33-43 Özkan, S. (1990). The architecture of mass housing. Retrieved March 1, 2006 here Planning Authority (1995). The land and housing markets in Malta: The economic, social and environmental dimensions; Discussion paper. Unpublished: MEPA Library Till J. & Wigglesworth S. (2002) The Background Type. In French, H., Accommodating change: innovation in housing. (pp. 151-157) Ipswich: The Wosley Press.

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