Building Esteem or Housing Discontent

Dave Clements | 27 February 2007

The government’s obsession with child poverty has always struck me as a little strange. I don’t mean to pretend it doesn’t exist. But why child poverty? Why not address poverty itself? Children are only poor because their parents are poor surely, not because they are poor parents. Perhaps by foregrounding the vulnerable child, awkward questions about how people can be so poor today in an otherwise more affluent society, are avoided.

I don’t doubt the good intentions of Shelter and their Million Children campaign against overcrowding in this regard. But it does seem that a million is the new magic number. Before UNICEF told us that British kids have never had it so bad, they were also telling us that a million children were living in ‘violent homes’. The findings of both their reports are debatable to say the least. But it is the emotiveness of such campaigns that really counts because it makes it difficult for people like me to challenge them without sounding heartless. But it also lets the authorities off the hook.

I think it is naive to believe that if we point out the impact of poor housing on children, that the government will draw the right conclusions and improve the supply and condition of the housing stock accordingly. Given it’s dim view of parents, it will always target them for their irresponsibility or negligence, under the guise of so called ‘family support’, before it addresses the conditions they are living in.

We need to be careful about that word ‘support’. Just a few days ago, a Ch4 documentary presented by John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, made the case for forcibly admitting the homeless with mental health or substance misues problems, to what he calls ‘therapeutic communities’.

More concerning was that Yvette Cooper, the housing minister, seemed to agree in principle only adding that it be ‘done in a supportive way’. One homeless guy called Spud said he didn’t know he had any mental health problems until he moved to London. That was when his psychologist told him he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Bird clearly felt vindicated by this. Spud still sells the Big Issue. Some commentators are more touchy feely than Bird’s ‘tough love’ approach. According to one: “Loving relationships are the ones that support agencies need to strengthen; housing and jobs might follow.” But this only reduces people without homes to emotional inadequates.

But it is not only the likes of Spud who is being patronised here with platitudes about health and relationships. Architectural critic, Jonathan Glancey, is scathing of schools that are just ‘machines for learning in’, as if this were a bad thing. But he shouldn’t worry. The government’s National Healthy Schools Programme thinks that “to support children and young people in developing healthy behaviours” is much more important. Even the notion that public buildings are there for our convenience, seems to have flown out of those big classroom windows, that kids will be able to daydream out of now.

Beyond the schoolgates we too are treated like children – by CABE in particular, as planners are encouraged to join the government’s anti-obesity drive and turn our urban environments into one big treadmill. And I don’t mean the much maligned rat race. For instance, by drawing people to green spaces, ecouraging active citizens (literally) rather than Olympians, and by continuing to privelege the pedestrian and cyclist over the nasty motorist. And architects too are being asked to do their bit by making a feature of the stairwell. And, if Will Alsop has his way, to ban the humble lift.

Why is it that no building seems to serve its original purpose anymore? In a recent interview the incoming president of RIBA said “It is not just about having a building that works, but one that communicates – values, aspirations, and … showing that the organisation actually cares.” So architects too, can expect to be told to forget function and endorse the notion that the built environment can be a paliative for our sick society.

It is no coincidence that at the very moment we are portrayed as too damaged or vulnerable to manage our own lives, that buildings and places are invested with these magical powers to transform those who enter them. As an antidote to this, I was going to suggest we start a campaign for more ‘healthy hospitals’, habitable homes, punishing prisons (I ran out of illiterations when it came to schools) but it seems I was beaten to it in the case of hospitals at least. According to CABE’s Healthy Hospitals Initiative “great buildings can lead to better health outcomes”.

Indeed, a children’s hospital was shortlisted for last year’s Stirling Prize and ended up winning the so-called ‘people’s prize’. Ekow Eshun, director of the ICA, as part of the discussion that followed on Channel 4, was moved to claim that public buildings can make us “feel better, heal better [and] build a better world”. If only we could do the same. Of course we build the buildings but we seem to have forgotten that.

We all seem to be told today that we are impotent in the face of personal problems, never mind the bigger ones that previous generations tried to take on. Politics is no longer concerned with macro-issues or with the potential for societal change but only with the personal and accommodating individuals to the way things are. Indeed it is the death, or more optimistically the deep sleep, of real politics that has so diminished the public sphere and given rise to our therapy culture in the first place.

But, even more than that, the therapeutic ethos not only thrives on low horizons and a narrowing of the terms of political debate. It actively encourages the exaggerated notions of vulnerability that our individuated and fearful culture already predisposes us to.


This is an edited version of a speech by Dave Clements at ‘The Therapy Rooms’, a debate organised by The Future Cities Project at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 27th February 2007


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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