For the third in our series on social housing we are focussing on typologies, in 10 observations.
Big Plans, Small Plans
These houses are in Daceyville, Sydney's first attempt at a ‘Garden City’, planned before WW1 and built after (see the history in part 1 here). The houses have Federation and California Bungalow styles, well-related to formal front and informal rear gardens. The planning had pedestrian lanes separated from roads (seen here), public gardens as well as schools and playing fields. Commendable small plans. But the big plan, and failure, is Daceyville had so many socially waged in one area (it’s still 70 percent) leading to many behavioural difficulties. See observation 9.
Respect the users
Architects often think clients speak for users, the consumers – without finding the real brief. In 1978 the NCDC, Canberra's planners, sought to overcome this disconnect by involving the residents of the Causeway, a suburb of fibro houses built 100 years ago for the Parliament House builders. Intended to last six years they lasted 60, an enclave of dilapidated housing for the poor that had formed a community. Meetings were orchestrated, they became involved in the design of their houses (based on a range of award-winning passive solar courtyard styles). The small plans, customised to the then tenants, were excellent, but the suburb remained isolated in its social disadvantage, and continued to deteriorate. The same houses worked better when built as social housing scattered throughout nearby middle-class Narrabundah.
A row of houses in Glebe, built between the World Wars. Modest in scale and size, they have small front gardens, welcoming raised porches and alternating facades, detailed in toned brick work. They address the issues of the publicness of the street and the privacy of the living areas and gardens in the rear, all in a plan that houses a small family. One of a few examples of Dutch influenced social housing in Australia, where modesty provides more houses, with better amenity than the larger house and garden on four sides.
This is a typology that contains small dwellings within the form of a large house or ‘mansion’, (erroneously called ‘Manor Homes’ in the NSW Department of Planning ‘Missing Middle’ initiative). Three or four small apartments are combined together, some with access to gardens, some as upstairs apartments, making it spatially and constructionaly efficient. It encourages interactions between the residents on a modest scale. Again, the key is not to have too many of them in one place, as these are in the Glebe estate.
Scale vs Size
Both parts of this image are social housing: the contemporary townhouses below the tree line and the T-shaped block of flats towering above the tree line. Scale matters in social housing: variegated houses fit in with surrounding terraces and provide sanctuary, the looming tower does not. But it’s not just size, the scale of the repetitive monochrome slab is too demanding: to poke your head above the parapet is to invite a fight, and most people in housing stress do not want attention drawn to them.
High rise vs low
The failure of high rise for social housing is well documented: physically embodied by the demolition of Pruitt Igoe (Minoru Yamasaki) in the US and Robin Hood Gardens (Smithsons) in the UK. Doubly damned: too high and too socially crowded. Australia faces a similar crisis with its concrete towers. Social housing, particularly for families, requires more space, and closer to the ground: cheaper furniture is always larger, more ground space to play is desirable, cheaper cars need space to keep them going and so on. These images show play areas with self-build interventions at a Victorian Housing Commission tower in South Melbourne in 1983; in stark contrast to the mass manufactured tower behind.
Towers in Waterloo create a skyline as well as a headline. The troubled area with a large number of public housing buildings is intended to be remodelled as middle-class housing under the cloak of a new rail line, masking the irony that the housing below the tree line contains just as many dwellings per Hectare as do the towers that require the large open spaces around them. ‘Low and close’ is not only the most sustainable form of housing, it is the most equitable.
The building in the foreground is a specifically designed apartment building containing 104 apartments for people on low incomes, including homeless, designed by Hassell architects, built by Grocon for Common Ground, and operated by Mission Australia. What can't be seen is the support services offered within to help people address their issues. The housing behind, Johanna O’Dea Court, with more than three times the apartments and without the support services. The latter has been a continuing problem for the police and social services since it was built in the 1950’s. Like the now deserted Sirius building in The Rocks, medium rise buildings can be very successful if appropriate services are supplied.
Pepper and Salt
Which of these apartments are owner occupied, which are rented, or which are social housing? You can't tell. This large site opposite Wentworth Park was previously low-rise social housing, demolished for a scheme of far greater density with the same number of social housing units as previously. Glamour housing, in the tallest buildings at 10 storeys, with the best views, fronts the curve of the road to the public park, designed by Kann Finch and CHROFI, anchors the scheme, unifying the urban design of the area. The masterplan behind was originally developed by Hill Thalis over 10 years ago, gradually built out in many blocks designed by various architects. Now they are carefully integrated into the entire scheme, like pepper and salt as the saying goes, that there is no external evidence of discrimination. The social housing is successfully integrated into the physical fabric, as well as the social fabric of the community.
Fight the fight
Lastly, this cartoon is an unbuilt scheme, on a Uniting church site in South Strathfield. Uniting is changing its ministry away from conducting traditional church services towards providing services to the community. Defunct churches could be used for social housing, removing the land cost from development, as previously discussed here. The intended users are the fifth quintile, the poorest people in housing stress, such as older single women and the homeless.
The scheme is modest with just 40 rooms, a manager and community room, designed under the State Environment Planning Policy for Affordable Rental Housing (SEPP ARH). The local council was supportive until a backlash from the local middle-class, led in part by the state member Jodie McKay (now the leader of the NSW Labor opposition). A public meeting was convened without the church or architects asked to attend. The mindset of the locals can be gleaned from a small story: at a Council hearing the residents asked if there would be ‘security guards’, to which the reply came “No, but there will be counsellors”. Social services go with social housing, particularly for the most in need.
Council agreed that it was not only permitted but was required; not only was its form acceptable, it was desirable. The scheme was approved and will be built in the next 18 months. It remains to be seen whether Jodi McKay will make good on her threat to the client and architect that her first move in government would be to remove the SEPP ARH that allows for this social housing to be built. It’s bad enough that the LNP has consistently premiated home ownership (here), it will be a disaster if Labor deserts public / social housing.
Architects know the value of good topologies, which are vital in the market driven solutions, led by CHP’s and not-for-profits such as the churches. ‘Architecture & Design’ together with the AAA and the ‘Drilldown’ (the excellent weekly review of world-wide architectural content put together by Rachael Bernstone) are planning to publish and promote a series on unbuilt initiatives for social housing.
If you have a project that demonstrates a response to the social housing issues raised in the last three articles, and you want to share it, please get in contact with:
Rachael Bernstone at: [email protected]
or Tone Wheeler at: [email protected]
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. All images are by the author.