Housing design is affected by all sorts of things. Taste, social need, topography, demographics, materials, climate, the profit motive. But, as this week’s Guardian report on the rise of ‘microflats’ shows us, the last of these factors now massively outweighs the others.
In 1936 the Architects’ Journal wrote up the then-new art deco block at Pullman Court, a large development of mainly one-bedroom flats in Streatham, South London. ‘There is the problem’, the author explained, ‘of housing the young bachelor and the young spinster. Many of these, working in offices at dull occupations, becoming increasingly dull with increased mechanization, develop a feverish taste for pleasure.’ The piece praises Pullman Court as being ‘almost ideal’ for satisfying those hedonistic independent young professionals. Huge hallways and spacious rooms look out over the lights of the city.
95 years later, as Wandsworth councillor Aydin Dikerdem points out, a studio in the Battersea Power Station development is on sale for more than a million pounds. The 58-square-metre flat has a single window at the end of its corridor-like layout. Somehow it is billed as ‘luxury’, and it is genuinely so valuable that virtually no one can afford it.
The early twentieth century had also seen specialist single-occupancy projects for the emerging class of professional women. In 1910 suffrage activist Mary Higgs wrote Where Shall She Live? The Homelessness of the Woman Worker, and good quality women’s housing developments (including The Quadrangle in South London and the Holly Lodge Estate in Highgate) were built in the following years.
But these sorts of projects are unimaginable in many UK cities today. I recently represented a homeless single mother whom the council had housed in a temporary accommodation ‘microflat’: a converted shipping container in a car park behind a row of shops in a post-industrial suburb of West London. The rent was just short of £1,600 per month, or about £19,000 per year: housing is now so expensive that a shipping container flat costs more than the entire salary of a full-time teaching assistant.
It’s important not to be misty-eyed about the housing conditions of 100 years ago. Much of the working class was housed in literal slums. But here we’re comparing relative luxury with relative luxury, and examining what passes for decent, single-occupancy housing in the current period of crisis.
The problem is that today’s one-bedroom occupiers are not just competing with their would-be neighbours for the available housing. They’re also competing with international capital investors, and with buy-to-let landlords looking to benefit from the UK’s extraordinarily profitable private renting framework. The upwards pressure on house prices is reflected in ever-higher rents.
That’s why we’re seeing the phenomenon of million-pound bedsits. In Manchester, where the political leadership is particularly in thrall to property developers, the city centre is soon to be dominated by ‘The Tombstone’: they’ve realised that a small site can leverage an enormous amount of rent if it’s divided into lots of tiny units of student housing.
Even in a massive 42-acre site like Battersea, it makes sense for developers to pile them high and sell them dear, rather than building the spacious, good-quality housing that’s appropriate for single-bedroom-living. Increasingly, of course, the ‘dull occupations’ of the young and single are carried out from home, and these little boxes are taking on a new and frightening centrality to our lives.
As Tribune’s culture editor Owen Hatherley has pointed out, mid-century council housing schemes ‘were of a level of quality well beyond that of “luxury” housing today’. This is most obviously true in terms of size. As local authorities have lost control to developers, we’ve moved from a system of building decent homes for the working and middle classes to one of building rabbit hutches for the very rich.
Astonishingly, as the Royal Institute of British Architects has complained, a 2015 minimum space requirement of 37 square metres is voluntary rather than binding (the landlord parliament regulates through the honour system). It was brought in to replace local authorities’ powers to set their own minimum standards under planning law, and the Guardian reported that as many as one in 15 new flats breached it.
To be clear: this is not an argument against single-occupancy housing. A huge amount of the trauma of the pandemic is very likely related to the fact that many of us aren’t very well-suited to being cooped up with other adults (particularly when we are all experiencing distress), which is the inevitable arrangement for a huge number of millennial city dwellers. But one-bedrooms and studios need to be adequate in terms of size, cost, and location, which is impossible under current conditions. We therefore must not make the mistake of thinking that, just because there is demand for these microflats, they are a good thing. They are the least worst option.
The UK now has the tallest residential building in Europe: the Pinnacle, in London’s Canary Wharf. Like most new developments, planning permission was conditional on a certain proportion being ‘affordable’, which—as is common—took the form of ‘shared ownership’ flats. Some of these flats are pretty persistently on the market, presumably because there is a vanishingly small number of people who are both financially eligible for the shared ownership scheme and who can also somehow also afford to mortgage £650,000 for a 25 percent share, and who are also willing to plough such an enormous amount of money into a microflat.
Every night some of the city’s most dramatic and desirable views over the Thames are left unseen in brand-new empty ‘affordable’ housing, while the homelessness crisis eats away at our society. It’s such a good illustration of the follies and impossibilities of the housing system that the Pinnacle is—whether intended or not—aptly named.
The author of the Pullman Court review begins by explaining that in 1936, ‘the first thought of the architect in building houses on an estate, or a block of flats, is: By whom are they to be occupied?’ Not that architects are necessarily to blame, but surely the first thought of anyone designing housing today concerns value, price, and profits. For a long time it has been argued that the most profitable forms of developments are dreadful housing for the very poor and luxury housing for the very rich, but British capitalism’s latest trick seems to be building dreadful housing for the wealthy.