Workers Deserve Beautiful, Renovated, Even Luxurious Public Housing

This year's Pritzker Prize, the highest award in architecture, went to French architects who rejected the demolition of public housing. Instead, the architects insisted on renovating and expanding public units to make working-class residents' homes more modern, humane, and attractive.

The Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, the apartment block renovation by Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal, in Paris, France. (Flickr)

It was just coincidence that I saw the two stories on the same day. On the Twitter account of Phineas Harper, director of the architecture charity Open House, I saw that two perfectly decent blocks of council housing on the south bank of the Thames in the center of London were slated for demolition. One is a decorative brick tower of flats, which was originally built for nurses, and the other is a London County Council slab block, similar to those built in the Alton Estate in Roehampton, based on the work of Le Corbusier.

Each of them is fine architecture, in a dense area already dominated by blocks of flats yet where affordable housing is seriously scarce. There could be no possible explanation for their demolition on architectural or social grounds — the only explanations would be monetary (a council, here Lambeth, selling up to avoid running out of cash) or political (an opposition to the notion of council housing — let alone just opposite Parliament).

The other story was that the Pritzker Prize, the annual award that is, roughly speaking, architecture’s Nobel Prize, had been awarded to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, a French duo who have come to specialize in renovating postwar public housing.

Usually, when a “social” project is celebrated in architecture circles, it’s worthwhile to read the small print. The last time the award was given on these grounds it was to Alejandro Aravena, the Chilean architect who made his name internationally with the “half-house” schemes he’d designed for the towns of Constitución and Iquique — low-income housing where infrastructure and the shell of the house were built by the government, and future residents had to build the rest.

Whatever their virtues or otherwise, these schemes fit very neatly with a neoliberal ideology that suggested the state (and its emissary, the architect) should take a back seat to the free and spontaneous creativity of the market, here through making what would otherwise be public housing tenants or slum dwellers into both builders and property owners. Architects, battered still by the wave of criticism directed at the mass housing built in the decades after 1945, tend to opt for these sorts of libertarian “one weird trick” solutions to the profound global housing crisis — as heaven forbid we should solve it like we once solved a housing crisis, by building a lot of publicly owned housing.

Yet Lacaton and Vassal begin with precisely that mass housing. Their aim has been to prove that it can be renovated, expanded, and made more pleasurable to live in while serving exactly the same social purpose it was built for. They had already gained a reputation for striking, original renovation projects of arts buildings, like the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the FRAC museum in Dunkirk, but their reputation in housing is built on two hugely impressive projects in Paris and Bordeaux.

In the capital, they won the commission to renovate the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in the north of the city, a fairly ordinary postwar tower block that had been slated for demolition. They proposed renovating it, expanding the existing flats with new winter gardens, adding new flats on the sides of the concrete structure, and doing so in a careful, incremental way so that nobody had to move out of their flats in the process; rents were not raised, and there was no “stock transfer” to a charity or a developer. Nobody was “decanted.” Paris ended up with more and better social housing on the site, achieved at vastly less environmental and social cost than demolition would have entailed.

Lacaton and Vassal then got the chance to do the same for several slab blocks on an estate, the Grand Parc in Bordeaux, for which they won the Mies van der Rohe award in 2019 for best European building. Around this time, I approached Jean-Philippe Vassal after a talk in Berlin — I was desperate to know how they’d gotten away with it, knowing that anything like this in Britain would be hugely controversial. “We just convinced the council that it would be cheaper,” he told me.

Just try to convince most councilors — and even many housing and planning professionals — of that. In Britain, for the last thirty years, and intensively in the last ten, we have taken the exact opposite approach. We have convinced ourselves it is socially better to scatter a community; we have decided that it is better to waste enormous quantities of embodied carbon; we have chosen to replace concrete-framed blocks of flats (for working-class people) with concrete-framed blocks of flats (for middle-class people) and have patted ourselves on the back for it.

Though this has been done all over the country, from the mass demolitions in Glasgow to the privatization and “hipster-fication” of postwar housing in Manchester and Sheffield, London has seen the largest amount of these “estate regenerations.” The bargain was always this: a deal with developers would help keep the council afloat, and private flats would “cross-fund” the building of new social flats; these well-insulated new flats would replace council blocks built for a world of cheap energy; a new “social mix” would replace “monolithic” or “single-class” communities. Everybody would win.

Because there had been no real research into what the effects actually were, the Greater London Authority eventually commissioned a report, “Knock it Down or Do it Up’,” chaired by Labour AM (and current GLA deputy mayor for housing) Tom Copley and then Green AM Darren Johnson. They found that estate regeneration was based on a myth — it had been wasteful of money and resources, confrontational of residents, and had resulted in a net loss of social housing across the capital.

Sadiq Khan’s recent attempt to block any estate regeneration not based on a prior ballot of residents falls short of banning these demolitions but at least makes clear that they can’t happen without explicit public consent. In any case, Copley and Johnson’s report was released the same week as a Savills report claiming that new “city villages” could be created by demolishing yet more postwar estates, bolstered with a preface from that giant of fashionable, wonkish moronism, Lord Adonis. You can guess which garnered more media attention.

If that GLA report gave abundant evidence of what we should not be doing, Lacaton and Vassal’s work shows what we could do instead. Supporters of postwar architecture are often accused of nostalgia and of condemning people to live in conditions they’d never want for themselves — but in the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre we can see how renovation can actually be more modern, more humane, and more attractive, as well as being a much more sustainable use of energy and resources.

We can also see in their work better ways of renovating than those we currently use as exemplars. Compare, for instance, Lacaton and Vassal’s work at the Grand Parc — no rent raises, no eviction (sorry, “decanting”), no clearances, more attractive facades — with what developers did at Park Hill in Sheffield, where the existing community was shattered in favor of moving everyone out, gutting one of the blocks and selling it to “the creative classes,” and leaving the rest as a derelict TV and film set. We know now that we can do better than this. Labour councils — commission Lacaton and Vassal for one of your housing estates, I dare you.