Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Housing in Socialism

When socialism is established there will be a number of inherited problems from capitalism, a social system based on the minority private ownership of the means of production and distrubution to the exclusion of the rest of society. One problem that socialists will have to address is what to do about the housing stock - its age, condition and suitability for socialism.

The housing stock will vary in quality and quantity. There will be housing that once formed the portfolio of the rich; other housing will be environmentally inadequate, badly constructed and cramped. Housing will still be stamped by the symbols of private property ownership; walls, fences and hedges. Will they still be needed? What about areas of housing with poor landscaping, lack of facilities or none at-all, where garages have been converted for the destitute, migrant building workers and restaurant staff (GUARDIAN 12th July 2017)?

Most working-class housing, both in the private and public sector is just not fit for purpose; it reflects a class society not a classless society of free men and women. And it will take time to sort these problems out even though plans and practical solutions would be known and addressed before the socialist revolution.

There will also be the need to extend construction to meet the needs of people around the world who do not have any housing at all. The last time a global survey was attempted – by the United Nations in 2005 – an estimated 100 million people were homeless worldwide. As many as 1.6 billion people lacked adequate housing (Habitat, 2015).

Provision would also have to be made for emergency housing in the event of natural disasters. We cannot anticipate the state of the world’s climate when socialism is established, the damage capitalism will have inflicted on the environment and its impact on housing. We do not know what problems a future socialist society will have to resolve in meeting housing need. Initially, there might have to be democratically agreed and informed choices and priorities. Some people may have to temporarily put up with inadequate housing until as such time that more appropriate housing is built or their individual or group requirements can be dealt with.

Then there is the question of how and what type of housing will be built. Socialism will allow new and more human social relationships to develop which will generate new types of housing, wholly different to the atomised type of housing found in capitalism to reflect the so-called “nuclear family”. How this new form of housing will be introduced within the housing inherited from capitalism will be another consideration just to transform and convert existing housing into the sort of spaces which would meet new ways of living in a socialist society.

Will groups of socialists or individual socialists work within the Ruskin-Morris paradigm and use craft skills to build their housing or look to the Bauhaus with construction machine crafted through robotics and artificial intelligence with housing constructed on site or under factory conditions? Perhaps a mixture of the two approaches to construction. These are interesting questions, but will be for a future socialist society to decide.

Then there is the question of free and voluntary labour constructing houses. Will construction workers re-introduce the Medieval Guild model or form a different - co-operative, democratic and social - pattern of building houses? How will men and women want to work in constructing housing projects? Even though housing components can be constructed under factory conditions and transported to a place of construction working on a building site will still be required. For anyone having to mechanically dig a drainage system on a cold January morning it is not a bundle of fun.

Will construction workers in socialism adopt a collective system of working, particular on larger projects, moving around the world as and when their specific skills are required much like the masons and journeymen did when working on Cathedrals during Feudalism? Or would completely new working arrangements take place allowing a balance between work, raising a family and taking democratic action in the affairs of society? Would the style of socialist housing be vernacular using local materials and craft techniques (Philip Webb and W.B. Lethaby et al) or constructed in the spirit of the “international style” (Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mendelsohn)? What would an architectural aesthetic applied to housing look like in a socialist society that has left capitalism with all its meanness and squalor long behind? Will “form follow function” and the basis of housing construction remain “firmness, utility and delight” (Vitruvius)? What would be the relationship between housing, urban, suburban and rural living patterns? Cities are a typical product of contemporary capitalism which has destroyed older village communities. Will a socialist society want to look again at cities and their function? We can only speculate.

Then there is the question of housing, construction and the environment in socialism. Construction in socialism would have to be ecologically sound, minimising its footprint on the Earth, respecting nature and efficient in its use of materials. Construction built with environmental awareness would also be at the disposal of a socialist style. Re-use of materials, plug-in components which can be re-used elsewhere will lessen the impact on the environment. Housing, like other forms of building types, would also have to be environmentally responsible. This will mean that certain materials will be favoured over others due their impact on the environment. Re-using materials at a future date or cradle-to-the-grave ecological design and construction would probably be looked at closely and balanced against the time needed to construct housing to meet human needs.

Self-build housing for individuals and groups, pioneered by the late Walter Segal (1907-1985) might also find some interest in a socialist society. His Segal Self- Build Method using timber-frame construction does not need constructional experience to build, and is environmentally sound. An example exists at Surrey Docks Farm. Self-build housing would have a place in a socialist society in which land would be commonly owned and under democratic control. Segal’s self-build housing were a success in spite of their limited use and the constraints imposed by being built within a capitalist context. The social togetherness in construction communal housing freed from private property ownership would facilitate this particular option and others of this type.

Housing expresses a social and personal relationship. Housing nodes could be considered where people just join a housing community for a brief period of time before moving on. Some communal housing would be more permanent. Housing patterns under capitalism are created by the need to have clearly defined private property contours of ownership and exclusion. This will no longer be the case under socialism. The ordnance survey map which parcels up the entire country into bits of property ownership will no longer exist to determine private ownership. Individual housing plots might not be seen as the most appropriate form for socialist housing in which to develop, Collective space, and parks, and open communal areas around local community centres might be patterns which develop a particular type of socialist housing.

Socialists might even look again at some heroic architectural failures such as the working class housing at Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road in London, the LCC Housing Estate at Roehampton or the housing complex at the Brunswick Centre. They failed because the architect’s concept of decent housing for the working class could not be realised in the reality of budgets cut-backs, under- investment in maintenance and the priorities of a capitalist society – constraints which are well known to any architect who has worked in the public sector.

Although the political and economic reality of post-1917 Russia was not socialist, several architects experimented with new forms of housing construction and spaces which might be useful to a future socialist society looking at standardisation, use of new materials, spatial design to reflect new living arrangement and making a break with working-class housing built within the limitations of a capitalist society. As the architectural historian, Manfredo Tafuri, once astutely noted: you cannot have socialist architecture within capitalism (ARCHITECTURE AND UTOPIA 1973).

One notable example was the Narkomfin communal house, Moscow designed by Moisei Ginzburg in 1928. This communal housing scheme consisted of a number of duplex flats, many having no kitchens but connected to a glazed box with communal kitchens, a library, gym, kindergarten and roof garden. (The building influenced Le Corbusier’s Unité d'habitation projects, such as the one constructed in Marseille in 1952). The living experiment only lasted two years as Stalin’s conservative housing policy took hold and constructivist architecture was increasingly condemned as “bourgeois formalism”. The building is in a very poor condition, and speculative Russian developers have now encircled the building like sharks as it is built on very valuable Moscow land. Ironically, the communal living arrangement, particularly the collective facilities are now found in luxury housing developments around the world.

Whatever housing will take shape in socialism it will be quantitatively and qualitatively superior to what the working class is currently forced to live-in under capitalism. And built by free labour, it will surely not be jerry-built, but built and finished to the highest standards by people who take a justifiable pride in building well. Especially if in fact they are building for their own families and friends.

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