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Celebrating Social Housing

Posted on 29-05-2023

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My dad’s family immigrated to London from what was then called Bombay, now known as Mumbai, in 1962 and would often recount fond memories of living in the East End Dwellings* in Whitechapel, despite not having any running hot water or heating, a proper stove, or toilet (let alone a bath) in their own home. Their first winter was one of the coldest on record, known as the Big Freeze, reaching a staggering -16°C in London. They did not own any proper winter clothing and it was a massive shock to them having come from the considerably warmer climate of India just a few months prior, and I can only imagine how cold it must have felt. After living for 10 long years in the Dwellings in shocking conditions by todays standards, the building was torn down as part of a ‘slum clearance’ and demolition programme, and my grandma, dad, and his siblings and were moved to a council flat further east in Mile End. Then in the early 1980s they exchanged their flat with one in a council estate in Barnet, North-West London.


Fast forward to the 1990s, and I would spend a lot of time at my grandma and aunt’s who continued to live in the council flat, which was in walking distance from the home I grew up in, until the 2010s. It was a ten-story tower block with an eclectic mix of residents with immigrant and non-immigrant backgrounds, including families, single mothers and those living alone. I witnessed first-hand the joys of living in a close-knit community, but also the stresses and dangers of the estate environment. Clearly not everyone who grows up in social housing will be disadvantaged, however I became acutely aware of the impact architecture can have on people’s future prospects.


Whilst studying architecture I was initially struck by the fact that there was no limit to what we could design; whilst the building had to be beautiful, there was never a budget, it could theoretically be clad in gold. During the years I worked in practice, most residential projects I worked on were for the richest 1% and a far cry from the urgently needed social and affordable housing. Despite years of experience and training, I found that social impacts and political contexts were not discussed despite the obvious influence that architecture and housing have on society. 


Several architecture practices began to raise the profile of social housing and dedicated their efforts to designing beautiful social housing projects, such as Peter Barber, Karakusevic Carson, and Mikhail Riches. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) then launched a new design award in 2019 called the ‘Neave Brown Award for Housing’, recognising “the UK’s best contributions to affordable housing”, named in honour of the late architect Neave Brown who is revered as a pioneer of social housing in the UK.


You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that there is now a festival dedicated to celebrating and promoting social housing, jovially named the International Social Housing Festival (ISHF). The festival was initiated by Housing Europe - a RE-DWELL consortium partner - and is now in its fourth edition. I participated in the ISHF this time last year in the Finnish capital Helsinki with a group of fellow RE-DWELLers. We designed and facilitated a participatory workshop that interlinked our three research areas of design building and planning, policy and finance, and community participation. I can confirm that like a true festival, there was indeed singing with a live a cappella performance during the opening event. Though I sadly won’t be joining this year, RE-DWELL will be participating in the festival next week in Barcelona, Spain.


As I am nearing the end of the second year of my PhD researching social and affordable housing in the circular economy transition, I remain determined to leave a positive impact on the built environment and help drive change in practice. Social housing is a worthy cause that needs more dedicated professionals in the built environment to ensure it remains something truly worth celebrating.



*The East End Dwellings were built between 1885-1906 to provide housing for the Victorian working class by The East End Dwelling Company (EEDC), which was set up by local philanthropists. Dwellings were a form of social housing which partially evolved into council or social housing as we know it today.


Further reading on the history of the East End Dwellings


Architecture practices mentioned and Neave Brown award winners:

Peter Barber Architects with McGrath Road

Mikhail Riches Architects with Goldsmith Street


Article dedicated to Neave Brown written by Paul Karakusevic from Karakusevic Carson Architects


RE-DWELL workshop from the International Social Housing Festival 2022


International Social Housing Festival 2023

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