20th Century and Contemporary, Architecture, Museums/Exhibits

Redesigning the Slums: Stirling’s Urban Neighborhood

When James Frazer Stirling won the Good Housing Competition prize in 1963 for his architectural design, the Daily Mail ran the outraged headline, “Frankly, do you think this is WORTH A PRIZE?” The reader’s answer was obviously supposed to be “no,” especially when confronted with the article’s comment that the architecture “was deliberately designed, and I think successfully, to look like a slum.” As Anthony Vidler explains in James Frazer Stirling: Notes from the Archive, the fans and foes of Stirling’s designs could be equally vehement in their support or disapproval. While the architect himself shied away from the idea of his following an artistic “theory,” it is difficult for the architectural community to stop theorizing about the meaning of his work. The building project that the Daily Mail criticized was, for the public, as much an issue of sociology as aesthetics.

The project in question consisted of terrace housing built between 1957 and 1961 in Preston, Lancashire. This industrial area was one of multiple urban communities in England subject to “rehousing” developments during the postwar years. Sociologists and anthropologists had a better understanding of the nuances of the working classes and their neighborhoods, which stopped community planners from “demolish[ing] indiscriminately.” Accordingly, architects responded by fitting the ideas of “cluster and network” they saw exemplified in working class social organization to the modernist movement. Their purpose was not to create a “nostalgia for the slums” that the Daily Mail accused Stirling of promoting, but instead, to respect the social life and history they were housing. Rehousing in particular needed to maintain the community without displacing its inhabitants.

Stirling’s rehousing project at Preston was an act of resistance to the “slum-clearance programs” that demolished urban neighborhoods. The industrial brick terraces he designed imitated what were normally considered slums—the “backs” of Victorian terrace housing. Critics said the Preston rehousing demonstrated a regression, patronized the working class, failed to express historical aesthetics, and opposed the diversity of its inhabitants with its formality. However, the exhibition of Stirling’s work, currently between venues at the Yale Center for British Art and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, proves he was more innovative than other architects of his time. He used regional detail in his design, creating structures that were much more familiar than the replacement housing the London City Council imposed in other areas after clearing old neighborhoods. His focus on planning for public areas indicated his emphasis on community preservation, especially for children. Although the houses at Preston were finally torn down in 1999, his emphasis on urban populations left one of the most important legacies of the twentieth century for British architecture.

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