Friday Finds: Treatises on Housing, 1935

Today, I actually went into Special Collections with the intention to write on garden houses but came out with something a bit different- working class and low income housing. Both Working-class Housing and Unit Plans were published in 1935 by government agencies in Scotland and the US, respectively. The third publication reports on a competition held by the Royal Institute of British Architects on the theme of Wartime Industrial Housing (pg. 4). I was struck by the priorities expressed by the three agencies.

Department of Health for Scotland, Great Britain. Working-class Housing on the Continent. Edinburgh: H. M. Stationery Office, 1935.

Working-class Housing is a report written by John E. Highton based on his month-long tour of working class housing in Holland, Germany, Czecho-Slovakia, Austria, and France. Throughout the report, Highton makes comparisons between Scotland and the Continent, observing how Scotland both exceeds and falls behind that of its peers. The first half of the report addresses several areas of concern: Social Considerations, Financial Considerations, Housing Standards, and Considerations of Architecture and Lay-out. The second half of the report focuses on the case-studies from the Continent, including descriptions, plans, and photographs.

For Highton, his greatest concern and Scotland’s greatest failure is that of aesthetics.  He argues:

Ideas concerning architecture and lay-out are more quickly and easily adopted, and it is in this connexion, I think, that we have the most important and the most numerous lessons to learn. The fundamental lesson is that on the Continent a housing scheme is invariably given into the hands of a competent (and often a brilliant) architect…We can, however, learn much from these schemes on how to combine artistic effects with real utility and real economy. To do this, all those engaged in housing our people must be convinced that housing design is important creative work which should be entrusted to skilled hands. So far as housing is concerned, much of the architectural talent which exists in Scotland is hardly being used. Young men, largely unoccupied, who have been trained in the newest schools of architectural technique, are anxious to express their ideas, but get little chance to do so, while overworked officials cover acre after acre with drab monotonies…” (pg. 17)

Public Works Administration, United States. Unit Plans: Typical Room Arrangements, Site Plans, and Details for Low-Rent Housing. Washington D.C., 1935.

Unlike the Scottish report in which Highton endeavors to persuade his audience to employ architects and to think more carefully about how aesthetics could play a role in the design of housing based on existing examples in Europe, Unit Plans is a set of recommendations to architects, who might be engaged in the design of public housing. Horatio B. Hackett writes:

It must be kept in mind that the typical units incorporated are for guide purposes only. No attempt has been made to solve individual problems or local site conditions. Instead, the effort has been to present typical layouts covering different units and combinations of units, in the belief that the architects will use them as aids to develop their own ideas, both for the individual unit and the group plan. (forward)

According to the authors, “In order to approach a low-rent housing project properly, there are four major features which must be considered. They are: location of project, design of buildings, treatment of grounds, and costs as determined by selection of materials and equipment” (pg. 1).  In the section, “Design of Buildings,” it is less clear to me what the role of aesthetics plays in the US recommendations. For example:

The Government housing plan seeks to meet this situation by creating structures for these citizens that will provide the fundamentals of good, clean  living without extravagances. (pg. 1)

Or: The architecture of low-rent housing projects should express simplicity, fitness, harmony, and honesty. In addition, there must be a logical and agreeable blending between the arrangement and the design of buildings in relation to that of open areas.  (pg. 1)

Royal Institute of British Architects. Industrial Housing in Wartime. London, 1940.

The competition post dates the other two works by five years.  I chose, however, to include it, because like Highton’s report it addresses worker housing but with a very specific design problem. The problem as set forth by Royal Institute:

In response to the need for increased supplies for war purposes, a large number of new factories have been built all over the country, some in existing industrial centres, some near small towns, and others in open country. In each case their existence creates a problem of housing the workers employed. (pg. 6)

The Royal Institute proscribed design challenges both for the houses and estate plans. These challenges reflected not only wartime concerns such as air raids and group housing but also the desire for the structures to have post-war functionality (pg. 6-7).