BD invited two prominent 1960s housing architects to review Machines for Living, a play exploring 1960s architectural idealism.
Here, Kate Macintosh and George Finch, whose projects the Let Slip theatre company visited while researching the play, share their thoughts.
There are not many plays about architects and architecture. I can only think of one, Ibsen’s The Master Builder which, like this one, focuses on the hubris to which architects can succumb and finishes with a death, which may or may not be a suicide.
Dramatically the four-man play Machines for Living, at the Blue Elephant in Camberwell through June 16, is very successful in presenting complex, didactic arguments on where responsibility for the failure of some public housing should rest; whether on poor management/maintenance, insensitive use of materials or inflexibility of housing allocation. The tendency of architects to follow the latest fashion, whether it be new-brutalism or glossy, colourful pods and our frequent failure to connect with the reality of the user-client, are wittily sent up.
At the end of the play (tellingly performed within about a half-mile of the now emptied Heygate estate) having felt slightly pilloried, we were left with the question: has anything improved since the days when substantial sections of London were clear-felled, not to provide sites for “economic regeneration” projects (as is now being fought off in Carpenters Estate, Newham) but with the intention of getting all citizens decently housed?
The answer has to be “no”. The poor are still the subject of social experiments, the outcome of which will almost certainly be dire for the common-weal. There are few now who aspire to offer any solution to the increasing polarisation of society. The “social cleansing” of our capital (to quote Boris Johnson) has only just started. 88% is in the pipe-line.
But it is doubtful that architects or architecture are primarily to blame, except possibly in architects’ willingness to accept anything as a challenge, even when the building process is clearly being set on the agenda ahead of the quality of the product.
Consider only that the very materials and building types, which the play implies are to blame for social break-down — namely concrete and the tower block — when employed to house the well-heeled and given proper maintenance, as at the Barbican, are regarded as very des-res.
Kate Macintosh won a competition to design Dawson’s Heights in East Dulwich in the 1960s when she was 26.
This is a very lively and involving presentation of a very complex and diverse subject. It is put across with a clever combination of dance, projection and pantomime with a simple, flexible abstract set by Christina Hardinge.
The overall message is pessimistic, and rightly so given the present state of housing provision in this country.
As the perfomer, David Ralfe, explained in the discussion afterwards, in developing the story-line in rehearsal they realised the issues were not clear cut but to concentrate the theatrical experience they had to home in on a particular point of view.
So, from an insider’s perspective, there were a number of aspects that were over simplified.
Concrete and Corbusier did not come out of it very well and I do not think the designers of the dismal buildings that are such a pain to live in and look at would feel so strongly about their failure that they would jump off the roof.
But as a piece of theatre it came across with great assurance, cocking a snook at presumptuous architects - the full house audience responded enthusiastically.
It so happened that I had just been on a Docomomo organised walk around Lambeth looking at my housing schemes which included going into one of the precast concrete point blocks to talk to the tenants.
The dwellings are now privately owned under the right to buy but many of the occupiers are the original council tenants who have opted to stay. Those I met were all enthusiastic about their homes – eager to show me and thanking me for what I had done.
So in the discussion after the play I was able to show that concrete tower blocks were not inevitably awful
George Finch was a group leader at Lambeth architects department in the 1960s, where he was responsible for Lambeth Towers, Cotton Gardens and Brixton Rec.
Machines for Living runs at the Blue Elephant Theatre, south London, until Saturday June 16