Was there a distinctive visual imagery of the Welfare State?

— Seress Anna

This article was published in the third issue of Utca & Karrier Mag.

An active prolongation of the challenges the government had to face during the war was the question of a smooth transitioning into peace-time, with a successful reconstruction. After the second-world war, the intellectual basis provided for this transition was the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, introducing the foundations of the concept of a Welfare state. This gave an increased responsibility for the state to establish a minimum quality of life for everyone, nationwide. These concepts were used as a way of propaganda, foreshadowing a “new Britain” after winning the war. Housing and school-building programs having suffered increased losses in the war-time, had to react directly to the transformation of social structures and priorities set by post-war British society and governmental policies. They embodied the dreams of the promised social justice and equality of the Welfare state, becoming one of the most urgent issues. This essay will attempt to demonstrate some of the characteristics of the mentality and aesthetic considerations emerging from this context in the housing developments and school-buildings in immediate post-war years through the case-studies of the Roehampton developments and the Burgleigh Infants school of Cheshunt.

During the economically uncertain  years of the immediate post-war era, the role of the government as a central actor in housing developments was widely accepted. As early as 1942 committees were set up for addressing these issues. Among the most important for housing was the Official Committee on Post-War Internal Problems (the IEP Committee). This Committee had to consider housing as an integral part of a complex reconstruction plan, working together with the Ministry of Labour and Health, while also taking into consideration the impact of housing developments on the building industry in general. By 1944 plans for a three-step reconstruction were set up, with an emergency stage, a longer, five-year period and finally a long-view program with the ultimate aim to dissolve temporal housing and clear the slums. For fulfilling the different needs of these stages, the IEP Committee would delegate working process to different Ministries, local authorities as well as specialist committees. Amongst these committees, the work of the Burt and the Dudley Committee can be seen as crucial for the development of a new scheme of building. While the Burt Committee mostly worked on finding new materials and ways of decreasing the time, cost and labour required, mostly by preconstructed plans, the Dudley committee focused on finding solutions to represent the changing social and functional needs of tenants directly through the plans and layouts of housing, while considering housing in the context of town planning.

Taking into account the fact that by 1955, 72% of all dwellings were built by the state, the prioritization of political and social aspects, rather than architectural design was inevitable. The general mentality of this era was that improving housing quality will have a direct impact on families’ lives. The Dudley Committee would carry out surveys which showed that the lack of variety in housing forms, standardisation creating monotonality and the lack of spaces for social and communal activities were the major issues in local authority housing schemes. This would explain the overwhelming preference for semi-detached houses over flats , since these problems occurred increasingly in high-density areas.

Answering these concerns, the Dudley committee, building on the County of London Plan (1943) envisaged by Sir Leslie Abercrombie and John Forshaw, would introduce the idea of mixed developments and neighbourhood planning. This would provide a wide range of households for a variety of demands, while ensuring the creation of a sense of community through the introductions of schools, shops and community spaces, recreating the vitality of organically developed parts of cities. As governmental policy, these propositions would translate into the 1944 Housing Manual.

Finished by 1959, Alton estates in Roehampton was built by the architects of the London County Council (LCC) Architects Department, becoming one of the largest council estates in Europe. (Fig.1) The program offers one of the most committed attempts to incorporate the ideals of the Housing Manual into an actual project, while taking into consideration the immediate urban setting and demands of the buildings. The development can be further separated into two, distinctly different areas, both chronologically and ideologically, Alton East and Alton West.

Alton East was finished by 1955, under the supervision of Robert Matthew. (Fig.2) It consists of a varied type of housing from new square point blocks together with narrow-frontage maisonettes and a new range of cottage types, accommodating a varied demography of tenants with different social needs. The use of eleven-storey point blocks (a form already existing in British architecture) would acknowledge both the requirements of a high-density area and the urge to preserve as much of the existing natural environment as possible. Simultaneously, with the introduction of four-storey maisonettes and smaller cottages, it would blend the differences of urban and suburban living, allowing private gardens and extended natural environment to survive in a high-density area.

Alton East aesthetically would largely follow the examples of pre-war Swedish housing programs. (Fig.3) With the use of traditional materials used in the construction of maisonettes and cottages, like the brick facing, together with the use of bright colours and the gently pitched roofs, the project would achieve a sense of unity. Furthermore, it introduced a sense of humanism of the „new empiricism” of Swedish models into mixed-development programs, emphasising its main focus on the needs of the tenants themselves. Swedish housing would have been further appealing due to the connection of the Welfare State and Modernist architecture In Sweden, with public housing seen as the most direct articulation of the former’s political ideologies. Simultaneously, as Nikolaus Pevsner would observe, through the informal arrangement of the buildings and the thoughtful incorporation of natural landscape, Alton East would follow the English traditions of the 18th century picturesque achieving a unity of „urban and Arcadian”.

Finished by 1959, under the supervision of Leslie Martin, Alton West would take a different direction in its understanding of mixed-development schemes. (Fig.4) With the introduction of eleven-storey slab blocks, standing on pilotis on a gentle slope, finished with large chimney pipes as the only visually altering aspects of the otherwise cellular block, the architects were clearly evoking the Unité d’Habitation of Le Courbusier. (Fig.5) This clean-cut, regulated allure to high-modernism in architecture would be apparent in their treatment and arrangement of the other housing-types too. In contrast to Alton East, the roofs would be here all flat,  blocks being apparently purely from concrete, arranged in regulated axiality, with high and low blocks relating to each other in scale. Even though the scheme maintained its synchrony with the natural landscape and its primal objectives in accordance with a mixed-development project, the rigid arrangement of the planning would create a sense of architects prioritising intellectual coherence  over the picturesque „humanism” of Alton East.

Alton estates symbolised the arrival of a new age, providing modern architecture as the aesthetic framework for new standards introduced for working-class housing. The use of mixed development and increased focus on demographical aspects of design all reflected the general policy of the government. LCC created a self-contained living environment, which, together with the building of schools, shops and a library, and the inclusion of modern art on site ,showed how the architects treated the estates as an integrated, comprehensive space, together with the wider environment. This would stand as an example for later council developments. Nevertheless, it had to face criticism for this very intellectual complexity and comprehensiveness would overshadow the social aspects gravely, with communal spaces being insufficient, and often rather alienating, as well as a monotony of a self-contained bubble. The project could further show a relative failure of the modern movement, with its paternalizing concepts of designing housing for working-class tenants.

Similarly to debates surrounding housing developments, discussions about educational reform have started already before the war’s end, for improving the educational system, and adapting it to the rapidly changing world. The Wood committee, consisting of professionals from various fields ,would set up and provide its first report by 1942.  This report, learning from the experiments undergoing around housing,  would propose the use of prefabricated, standardised plans and structures for minimalizing the resources, labour and time used.

These debates became even more urgent with the introduction of the Educational Act in 1944. The legislation granted free education for all citizens for the first time, with the raising of school-leaving age to 15. The act encouraged social mobility and accessibility of education for lower class people, in accordance with social demands of the envisaged welfare state of post war Britain. However, the act had a direct impact on the Architect Departments, with an increased need for school buildings. While this put a lot of weight on the building industry with its limited resources, it also provided a chance for architects and local authorities for creating spaces which would reflect the changing mentality acquired towards education in post-war Britain.

For school building, the Wood committee failed to propose a specific plan of building. Their immediate answer for the increased need for accommodating students were the HORSA (Hutting Operation for the Raising of the School-Leaving Age) huts. However, this solution failed to reflect on new challenges proposed by a new educational system and mentality. Nevertheless, while plenty of local authorities ended up using the HORSA huts , others, like the Hertfordshire team lead by Herbert Aslin and Stirrat Johnson- Marshall started experimenting with non-traditional school buildings. For saving time and resources, the Herts team ended up collaborating with Earnest Hinchliffe, a producer already experimenting with his designs for Hills Preswel House. Taking this as a starting point, the team managed to come up with a system which would revolutionise post-war school-building. The Hills design was already in accordance with the Wood committees proposals: it used as a base 8 ft 3 in. module and light steel frame, for easier prefabrication. However, the Hertfordshire team would switch to a modular grid-based system, rather than the traditionally used bay system of building. This created the opportunity to standardise and prefabricate not just the classrooms, but the whole building, while providing flexibility for specific needs of educationalist in different individual schools.

A child-centred and experience-based education was a widely accepted approach by the 1940s. This would have the implications on school designs too, with increased need for flexibly usable spaces, together with a solution for the duality of a need for private, individual study areas and need for spaces for collaborative activities. The Hertfordshire team’s success was largely due to them integrating these implications into their method of designing, working together closely with educationalist and policy makers. Furthermore, through treating school spaces coherently, they managed to a high extent to dissolve the differences between functions of spaces for work, play or circulation.

The Burleigh Infants school in Cheshunt was the first of the many Hertfordshire schools. (Fig.6) For the construction of the building the Hills design was used: it had a grid system based on a light, steel framed structure, with pre-cast concrete cladding. The outlay would reflect the proportions of infant and junior students of the school. The infant classrooms were scattered on one side of the building, opening into one common corridor. In the meanwhile, the junior classrooms were self-contained, single pitched roofed structures, with their own lavoratories, cloakrooms and entrances providing access to spaces of cleared-out landscape, continuing the pre-war open-air nurseries’ practices. However, this division would allow spaces to reflect on the different needs of different age-groups. Parallelly, this dispersed layout would provide means to think about and experiment with notions of privacy and community and their relationship in school buildings’ spaces. These could be seen as the first steps taken for a more child-centred building practice, including development of child sized, functional furniture, introducing new ways of lighting without distracting the children with monumentality of landscape, as well as inclusion of art and colours for enriching the learning environment.

Aesthetically it restrained from any sense of architectural monumentality, it had loose layouts, domestic looking, gently sloping roofs, large windows, use of light weight prefabricated structures, bold colours, appearing as generally light and spacious. The design became a prototype, subject of constant changes for adopting to specificities of individual institutions and architects, developing into the basis of a nation-wide scheme for school building.

In conclusion, basic ideology of movement behind post-war building practices encompassed a shared vision based on the accepted notions of rationality and functionality, which would benefit all layers of society, in accordance with underpinning ideas of a welfare state in post-war Britain.  From these emerged collaborative practices encompassing the joint work of the architect and the varied professionals during creation, for aspiring to be in accordance fully with the user’s needs. This would essentially turn around traditional understanding of maker and user as well as function and context of architecture, all in the ideological basis of the welfare state. Finally, through the aesthetic framework of the architectural language of modernism, post-war building schemes attempted, and arguably succeeded in materialising the utopian visions of a better tomorrow, with a technologically and economically stable Britain, consisting of a society built up from citizens having equal rights and opportunities.


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Figure 1: London County Council’s Architect Department, Alton Estates, Roehampton, London, finished by 1959

Figure 2: Point blocks and maisonettes of Alton East

Figure 3: Sven Markelius, Vallingby, Stockholm, Sweden

Figure 4: Slab blocks of Alton West

Figure 5: Le Courbusier, Unité d’habitation, Marseilles, France, 1952

Figure 6: Hertfordshire County Council team,  Burleigh Junior School, Cheshunt, 1947