Standpoint Magazine: Wholesome homes

One of the 20th century’s main advocates of high-rise tower blocks was the architect Ernő Goldfinger. To address the acute housing shortage following the Second World War, he designed concrete monsters including the Trellick Tower in Kensington, which was completed in 1972, and Balfron Tower in Poplar, completed in 1967. Living with Buildings, at the Wellcome Collection, London, until March 3, 2019, explores how buildings affect our physical and mental health. The exhibit points out that Goldfinger himself moved into the Balfron Tower to disarm early criticism. In 1968, he and his wife went for a well-publicised stay at Flat 130, as he said, “to taste my own cooking”, which he found “most satisfactory”.

What the exhibition does not show is: that he lived in the tower for only two months. That he threw a string of lavish parties there. And that he still had his house in Hampstead at the same time. Anybody who visits his house-turned-museum, 2 Willow Road, a stone’s throw from Hampstead Heath, will enjoy its glass front with sprawling views of greenery. Airy and bright rooms characterise the house, in which some of the inner walls can be moved aside to host bigger soirées, as the friendly National Trust volunteers will readily tell you. Meanwhile, his tower blocks inspired J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High Rise.

The exhibition provides an impressive range of historic material. It sets off in the 19th century, when half the British population moved into cities, following the industrial revolution. Overcrowded slums and poor sanitation brought disease. Charles Dickens  set the tone. In the preface of Oliver Twist, he wrote: “Nothing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor in England, until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome.”

There are maps drawn by Charles Booth, a 19th-century businessman who lobbied the government to introduce school meals for the poorest children and old-age pensions. In an attempt to document London’s living conditions, Booth coloured in the streets of maps with somewhat eyebrow-raising labels like “wealthy”, “upper-middle and upper classes”, “very poor, casual” and “vicious, semi-criminal”.

In the 1850s, Sir Titus Salt began building the Saltaire village outside Bradford, the plans of which are on display. The cotton mill tycoon wanted to escape the polluted town centre for greener pastures, and made the bold decision to take his business and employees with him. At Saltaire, his workers had secure housing, schools, parks, churches and a hospital. There was fresh water and good ventilation, so that life expectancy was significantly better there than in neighbouring industrial towns.

Elsewhere, the Wellcome exhibition reminds us that the UK still fails to provide safe housing for all in the 21st century. When housing isn’t regulated properly, it can have the most disastrous consequences, as Grenfell has tragically shown.

A large part focuses on the architecture of hospitals. There are objects on display such as the elegant Paimio chair. Designed by Alvar Aalto in 1932, its ergonomic lines helped tuberculosis patients to breathe optimally.

In a much cited-study from 1984, the environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich demonstrated that people who were recuperating from surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital recovered faster and needed less pain medication if their bedside windows looked out onto leafy trees rather than a brick wall. Later studies found that even photographic reproductions of nature helped recovery. At the end of the exhibition, a drab curtain with a forest print fails to convey that effect. Yet the thoughtful central message on how vital healthy buildings are will stay with any visitor.

We spend a lot of our time at home or at work and, therefore, indoors. As much as 90 per cent of our day takes place inside a building. It has long been recognised that the places where we live, sleep, study and work affect our health. The Romans had underfloor heating and public baths to keep the population healthy. Light and sound influence how well we sleep. A particular shade of pink is used to calm people down in some police cells for the detention of drunks.

More than a century after Dickens campaigned for “decent and wholesome” dwelling places, a fifth of English homes  today fail to meet the standards of a “decent home”. According to the government’s English Housing Survey, houses that are not “decent” don’t have minimum health and safety ratings, are not in “a reasonable state of repair”,  and do not have “reasonably modern facilities” or a “degree of thermal comfort”. It is estimated that the NHS spends some £600 million a year on illnesses that have resulted from bad housing.

Today, London faces yet another housing shortage. It’s not too dissimilar from the “housing question” encountered by my grandparents in the Soviet Union, as beautifully portrayed in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, where only the devil and his entourage can claim a large and comfortable apartment in Moscow.

In the recent Budget, the chancellor Philip Hammond abolished stamp duty on shared ownership properties for first-time buyers. But over half of owners have experienced major problems with shoddy new builds. And there’s little recourse against powerful construction companies for those millennials stranded with a boiler in the wrong place, or a wobbly balcony.

At the other end of the spectrum, the developer of London’s Centre Point has recently halted the sale of its luxury flats, citing too many lowball offers that are “detached from reality”. Selling small one-bedroom flats for £1.8 million on a street that regularly breaches the legal air pollution level is an odd “reality”.

By 2050, 68 per cent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas, so that the issue of healthy housing will only get more prevalent. Sometimes, health concerns can clash with energy efficiency. If a house is designed to contain heat as well as possible — as with the “passive house” model pioneered in Germany and Sweden — it may tamper with adequate air circulation. Who is responsible for the quality of air anyway — the local authority, residents, or businesses? A parliamentary inquiry is currently trying to find answers. Meanwhile, academics at the University of Bristol traced the chimneys and wind patterns of Victorian England. They found that because the winds in the northern hemisphere tend to blow from west to east, and industrial chimneys were often located in the city centre, the east side has tended to be more polluted. This explains why in London, Paris and New York the east ends have historically been more deprived.

At the same time a lot of a neighbourhood’s health comes down to psychological cues. In the early 1980s, social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling introduced “broken window theory”. When a broken window is left unrepaired, it will serve as an invitation for anti-social behaviour in the neighbourhood. Their theory was supported by various empirical experiments. One study showed people were twice as likely to steal an envelope containing a €5 note and hanging out of a mailbox, if the latter was covered in graffiti and surrounded by litter.

On the flipside, giving people a sense of ownership creates functioning community. Two years ago, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena won the prestigious Pritzker prize for creating energy-efficient buildings for schools and low-cost housing projects where residents get to design their own homes.

The most imaginative thinker when it comes to how buildings affect our wellbeing was the artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000). He denounced modern architecture, and ridiculed symmetry by wearing different-coloured socks. Goldfinger’s concrete Balfron Tower would have been his nightmare, his antithesis.

Most of Hundertwasser’s houses are bright red, blue, pink and yellow. There are ceramic pillars and glazed columns that seem to consist of beads otherwise worn by an eccentric person. Whimsical balconies and gilded onion domes accentuate the facade. Most of all, there are no straight lines.

Hundertwasser was categorically opposed to straight lines, arguing they were “ungodly” as nothing in nature is truly linear. And so, visitors at his Art House Vienna (KunstHausWien), for example, walk on a deliberately uneven floor. He called his floors “a melody to the feet,” and it’s undeniable that walking on his undulating floors feels both exhilarating and relaxing.

The roof is covered with earth and grass. Hundreds of plants can be found throughout the house and trees are sprouting from the windows. Each has about one square metre of soil and they stand by the window, usually leaning out. Hundertwasser called them “tree tenants”. Many decades before academic studies showed that patients benefit from a view of nature, Hundertwasser worked tirelessly to integrate plants and trees into our buildings.

The trees release oxygen and “improve the city climate and the wellbeing of dwellers,” he said. “Tree tenants act like vacuum cleaners. More so. They swallow even the finest and poisonous dust.” They reduce noise, and the echoes of the city. They give shade in summer, but let sunlight through in winter when their leaves have fallen. “Butterflies and birds come back. Beauty and joy of life comes back.” With Hundertwasser’s houses and paintings, it may seem as if he’s tripping, but he’s just profoundly right.

Most people would recognise his houses from the mass-produced prints and posters that brought him fame and wealth, after a youth of sewing his own clothes out of scraps and using leftover paints. By the time he finished the Hundertwasserhaus block of flats in Vienna in 1985, he declined to take payment for it, declaring that it was worth the investment to “prevent something ugly from going up in its place”.

One of his most impressive creations is a spa resort near the town of Bad Blumau in Austria. Curved houses are built into the rolling hills, so that it’s hard to tell where architecture ends and nature begins. None of the 2,400 windows is the same. Hot springs provide heat and generate power for the resort.

Aiming to create a synergy between people, their environment and architecture, Hundertwasser invented a biological water-purification toilet and argued that if we were more connected to our waste, we would be less scared of death. In speeches he often gave in the nude, he condemned the enslavement of people by the sterile grid system of conventional architecture.

Hundertwasser suggested that every person in a rented flat should have a “window right”. That is, everyone should be able to lean out of his or her window, take a long brush and paint the outside wall for as far their arm can reach. In a world where every person was in charge of his or her window, the broken window theory would be superfluous.

“Paradise cannot be found,” he argued. “It can only be created. With one’s own creativity, in harmony with nature.”

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