John Bird: In times of crisis, look to beauty

Let’s get out of the debris of the current shortage by a vast increase in high-quality transitional housing

Buckminster Fuller was such a charmer to me as I grew up. An American inventor, futurist and architect, he was best known for popularising the geodesic dome, building these enormous geometrical structures that involved nothing more than LEGO-making skills in putting them together. Vast cathedrals of space that could house a concert for thousands, depending on how big you built the fecking thing.

Walking passed a Notting Hill cul-de-sac (where the serial killer John Christie did his murdering) in the early hours one morning, I imagined a world transformed, a city full of Fuller’s domes. Large, temporary and capable of incorporating existing buildings, into which you could put dwellings to house hundreds of people. Light, vibrant and beautiful to look at, they could be transitional housing of a beautiful kind that could solve a housing crisis or two.

Fuller was asked three weeks before an Egyptian commercial fair if he could put up some enormous domes to house the US official exhibits. The US government only decided at the last moment to go to the expo, so Fuller was put on the back foot. But when asked about the hundreds of skilled people needed to construct the domes he said: “All I need are some truck drivers, the work is entirely unskilled.”

What a piece of genius. And what a chance to put houses up on land that, for instance, you could borrow for a while, and then could move on to somewhere else.

I often think there must be solutions to supposedly unsolvable problems. It might be a delusional thing. We do, of course, have a large housing shortage – with England needing three million new social homes by 2040, according to Shelter’s cross-party commission – and some kind of transitional housing would be useful to look at.

I’m not advocating a permanent refugee-ism here. Rather, good-quality, well-designed housing that takes into account that you don’t have to build a house to last a hundred years. Let’s get out of the debris of the current shortage by a vast increase in high-quality transitional housing.

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

As a slum boy in the early Fifties, I always thought the boys and girls who got to live in what were called ‘prefabs’ – prefabricated houses – were a cut above. For they had bathrooms and toilets for their own exclusive use (and didn’t have to share with a dozen families).

But we must look at the housing crisis that we find ourselves in today as made up of poor responses, policies and politics of decades ago. Good intentions pulled down slums, and then put up poor-quality social housing; housing paid for by the public purse.

We do, of course, have a large housing shortage  – and some kind of transitional housing would be useful to look at

Much of those buildings from the Fifties and Sixties have been pulled down because of appalling engineering problems. Designed like prison estates, many were also full of rising damp and damaged by shoddy workmanship.

Added to this was the Rent Act 1965 in the first Wilson ministry, which introduced regulated tenancies with ‘fair rents’ set by independent rent officers. Aiming to stop landlords (with most poor and working people living in privately owned property) pushing tenants out, they brought in rent tribunals. Which magically transferred all the power to the tenant.

This led to landlords taking houses off the rental market and selling them. House ownership started to grow from a post-war low. The pressure for cheap housing passed to local authorities, and homelessness started to creep up again.

The social housing market has never got over the shock to the system. Local authorities then had to ration their stock even more and they started to take only the most desperate; meaning estates became full of the neediest people, becoming ghettos that existed outside of opportunity.

The Right to Buy administered a good kicking to this housing crisis. Perhaps a more imaginative housing programme around homing people would help? I believe that transitional housing should be given some serious thought, so long as it doesn’t lead to the shoddy stuff stuck up cheaply and quickly 60 years ago.

Whatever the answers are, we need to make sure we don’t create and enlarge ghettos of neediness. We need to make sure that people are mixed in, not left isolated, and that the problems of need aren’t exaggerated by socially engineering people into communities that trip them up in the struggle to escape poverty. Too many times we’ve left people isolated, and outside of chance and opportunity. We’re then (supposedly) surprised that poverty becomes compacted in their lives.

But back to big and beautiful Buckminster Fuller: a man of genius simplicity. It will be designs like Fuller’s that will help us today.

Let’s aspire to be architecturally beautiful and socially beautiful, say I.