Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Thoughts on Housing in Tottenham

This area features Victorian terraced houses very heavily, of which there are hundreds of thousands in the UK, and which make up vast swathes of the housing stock in London. In this block there are 30 such houses on Reform Row and Dowsett Road, built by developers at the end of the nineteenth century to house the workforce of the burgeoning industrial city. There are other types of houses in the block too, 1930s terraced houses built by developers for the private market on Albion Road and Parkhurst Road, and 1940s-50s red-brick council houses in the North East corner on Scotland Green and Parkhurst Road built after the second world war during the period of mass social house building after the inception of the welfare state. These typologies of house are repeated throughout London, and in fact the block contains a neat cross section of the most common house types in London with the exception of some mid-twentieth century terraced ‘townhouse’ typologies, found in 1960s-80s housing estates.

The most diverting aspect of all these different house typologies is not their difference, but their extreme similarity. Looking at estate agents’ particulars it is apparent that every floor plan includes rooms labelled ‘kitchen’, ‘living’ and ‘dining’, and almost without exception these rooms will be situated on the ground floor (except in some late 20th century ‘townhouse’ typologies, of which there are none in this block). Sometimes a wall will separate them, sometimes there will be rooms with a joint function labelled kitchen/living/dining, or living/dining and so forth. Then, upstairs we find bedrooms and a bathroom or separate bathroom and WC. The two levels will be connected by a staircase that is within a small range of sizes in width and proportion. The circulation in houses is also remarkably uniform in its arrangement. Although on the ground floor many housing typologies have an entrance which leads directly into the living room or kitchen, minimising or removing the hallway altogether, on the upper floor the bedrooms and bathroom are almost always accessed from a hallway. On the rare occasions when a bedroom is accessed from another bedroom, or the bathroom is accessed through a bedroom, this significantly affects the value of the property.

It is clear from comparing the plan of the Victorian house in its original form that although the way life as lived in British houses has changed, it has changed remarkably little. The most significant change is the attitude to privacy, and which parts of the house are publicly accessible. In the original plan, the ‘parlour’ to the front of the house, would have been the room in which guests were received. All rooms behind this (the kitchen, scullery and back parlour) were family rooms in which every day life was lived, yet which could not be seen from the street, nor would be seen by visitors in the parlour. The knocking together of rooms blurs this distinction, and brings both ‘everyday life’ functions and ‘for best’ functions into one place. This reflects a dramatic change in the way that everyday life is lived – the actions of running a household (like doing washing, for example) are no longer messy, noisy and dirty. Instead they are contained by electric domestic appliances such as washing machines, which can happily coexist with a conversation, and even become objects of pride to show off to visitors. Similarly, fitted kitchens with gas stoves mean that all the detritus of cooking is concealed, there is no dirty coal required for heat and cooking can take place in front of guests without the host compromising the smartness of the house.

Perhaps the most drastic alteration is that all houses now have an inside bathroom, where the toilet, sink and bath or shower are in close proximity to one another. In the case of the Victorian house plan, this has caused a problem that repeats itself all over the UK. Given the convention that bathrooms are upstairs, the L-shaped layout of the house with a return that houses the kitchen on the ground floor and a bedroom on the upper floor, the location of the bathroom becomes problematic. Various solutions to this have been attempted, including the splitting of the bedroom in the return into two halves, one of which contains a bathroom the other a single bedroom. Another solution is to add a bathroom to the rear of the house, behind the kitchen and accessed from the kitchen.

This is more common in houses which had a bathroom added during the early-mid twentieth century, as the way in which houses were used had not changed greatly, and the kitchen was at the ‘private’ end of the house. This is much less desirable now, and reduces the value of the property, because much more public life is carried out in the kitchen. It may also have had something to do with the earlier arrangement of having the WC in the garden and accessed from the garden, but immediately adjacent to the other ‘dirty’ elements of the house (the kitchen sink and food preparation area). If looked at in terms of whether or not an activity is ‘dirty’, and whether is produces effluent (both in terms of a physical product but also in terms of smells), it makes more sense to have the bathroom immediately next to the kitchen. The migration of the bathroom up the stairs is indicative of a change in attitude to cleanliness. It also coincided with the invention and widespread use of the flushing WC, which allows human waste to be rapidly transported elsewhere leaving only a clean bowl of water.
Thus, the Victorian house lends itself to alteration and transformation in a number of ways. Other housing typologies lend themselves to less successful alteration and examples here are concentrated on the one house typology. The reason for this is that this example encompasses typical aspects of house renovation and change, and the point is made more clearly when focused on one originating house typology. These examples were drawn from a collection of house plans from, which hail from all over London, but the variations are similar, since the originating typology is very similar. Rooms can be knocked together to create bigger rooms, extensions can be built, and bathrooms can be moved. Extensions are usually added to the rear end of the return, but sometimes they fill in the return, making an interior room in the centre of the ground floor that has no windows.
The maintenance of the function of houses behind the high street through alteration in response to changing desires, needs, affluence etc. means that the residential streets in between major arterial routes have remained remarkably stable since they were built. The occupants may change, but the use of the streets for people to live in remains the same. Because the housing typologies can respond, the population can shift dramatically (ie. as new waves of immigration occur), without the apparent physical fabric which accommodates them changing at all.

1 comment:

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