Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Too Good for the Likes of Them

I was listening to an interview with the journalist Simon Heffer the other day, (Note No. 1), in which Heffer describes a visit to his cousin Eric Heffer in Liverpool in the 1990s. "He drove me around the bits of Liverpool where those nasty 1960s tower blocks had been demolished", Simon Heffer explains, "and the Militant Tendency council had built really nice, sort of modern Coronation Street style, back-to-back housing - and I said, 'I say, these are rather good, aren't they', and Eric said, 'Yeah, they are, they're much too good for the workers - the problem is, with these, that the tenants are now buying them ... That wasn't the plan at all!'"

The week before hearing that I'd been on a couple of walks in Budapest and happened upon some really beautifully made social housing from earlier times. One example was on the way to the Railway Museum, (about which more another day). This set of housing was built in 1911 for railway workers. Sadly it was damaged in the war and afterwards the copper covered spires that were part of it originally were never restored - but you can see a photograph of it in its original glory here (there is a great deal more detail about it here - but in Hungarian - including the name of the architect and an explanation of the significance of the decorative motifs, which have something to do with train engineering, but I couldn't quite understand what exactly, as the deficiencies in my understanding of Hungarian and the deficiencies in my understanding of engineering came together to mystify me at that point):

The second big housing project we came upon was in the course of a weekend in which a hundred Budapest buildings that are not normally open to be visited were opened to the public. It was surprising to find that, on a busy ring road, once you went through the front door of a building, you could step into a quiet courtyard that felt as if it were far from the city and traffic and trams and crowds:

It was wonderful to go into the beautiful secession building around the corner from us, (although I managed to be the only person who went there that day who didn't notice that if you pointed your camera skyward you would see that the outline the building made against the sky was butterfly shaped, explaining why it is known as Pillángó (Butterfly) House - luckily, my husband didnt miss this detail, and so you can get a glimpse on his Instagram account):

About a mile or two from where we live was another place that was open. Like the first example in this post, this too was built for railway workers, at roughly the same time. It is called the Colony, and is like a little town within the city. At its centre is a building that I thought was the place where the railway workers spent their days, working on rolling stock. However, we were told it was an enormous laundry. I've since read that it was a huge "House of Culture", although possibly it was only that in a later, Communist era iteration. Either in it or near to it, in the fabled "old days" there was a fairly "hard core" night time establishment called, slightly ominously, The Black Hole:

Both these housing developments seemed to me to have many thoughtful and "unnecessary", (that is, not purely utilitarian), attractive touches. One is supposed to believe that in the past there was a greater tendency to oppress the masses and that we are more enlightened now about how we take care of the less well off. Perhaps Eric Heffer revealed the truth - that authorities decided the accommodation they provided shouldn't be too nice or everyone would be clamouring for it. Possibly. My theory though is that everything became about theory. Instead of designing with instinct and common sense, architects began to design according to theories. People ever since have had to live with the results.

Note No. 1: It was part of the podcast series called Confessions by Giles Fraser, which is quite good, apart from Fraser's habit of saying at least once in each episode, "Of course, I'm an old Leftie", a desperate bid to keep his credentials up to date with that side of things, I suppose. 

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