Archives for category: home made

A delicate sense of terror

So, I’m still on a Brutalist, Modernist, social housing tip these days. I’m currently reading Lynsey Hanley’s excellent Estates: An Intimate History, which recounts the authors time and experience on a council estate outside Birmingham. As well as a deeply personal reflection on the effects of living on a council estate it is a great potted history of social housing in Britain. It was from this book that I found the quote on the image above. It comes from the architect James Dunnet who, when talking about Ernő Goldfinger‘s much maligned Balfron Tower in East London described the building as inspiring ‘a delicate sense of terror’. As Hanley notes…’is living in a council flat supposed to be delicately terrifying?’.

The image above is a kind of homage to bad photo + vintage filter + helvetica except it’s not a bad photo, it’s not filtered but I have used Helvetica. Because sometimes you just have to.

Many thanks for the amazing image of Trellick Tower (Balfrons big brother) taken by Ted Sandling.

Some great images and commentary on Balfron Tower and many other London housing projects on this great blog: Love London Council Housing.


You just don’t.

You don't win friends with salad


book cover concept

After the street party

Sea views

Final poster concept



The Chaumont Festival team wanted to refresh the student competition, embracing the diverse media that feature in graphic design output: publications, printed objects, video, interactive productions, etc. In light of this, the judges wanted to invite the students to think about an essential component of graphic design: writing.

Writing can put words to what images cannot explicitly say or convey. But this statement overlooks the role that the designer’s choices can play in reading practices. The same text, in different media and with specific page or screen layouts, will be read and appropriated differently. As a result, there will be not one but multiple readings; not one reader, but readers. Formatting text and choosing a medium therefore amount to devising reading scenarios. And this is what the jury hopes to read, discover and test!

Entrants are free to choose their text, although it is best to avoid casually choosing a text – as if for some laying-out exercise. The text can be in English or French. Whether it is written for the occasion or borrowed, its title and source should be mentioned.


For this brief I chose to focus on the generalizations made about different nationalities – in this case the French and the English and reminding the viewer that whilst we may be different as nationalities as human beings we are all the same.

The poster text is based loosely on the painting The Treachery of Images by Rene Magritte. A realistic looking pipe below which Magritte has written ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ – ‘This is not a pipe’. This appears to be a contradiction, however, it is of course not an actual pipe but a painting of one.Magritte’s work was intended to challenge the observers preconditioned perceptions of reality and this, along with the French language used for the text has informed my poster design.

My text reads: ‘Je ne suis pas un frog’ or ‘I am not a frog’ in French and ‘I am not a rosbif’ in English. The insults are written in the language that would be used by the respective nationality.Both ‘rosbif’ (roast beef in English) and ‘frog’ are mildly offensive, almost accepted insults from the French to the English and vice versa. Both have long histories, so long in the case of ‘frog’ that it’s original meaning has been lost. Likewise, do many of us really know why the French like to call us rosbifs?

The texts are intended to challenge the viewer into considering the generalisations. I am English, and therefore to some Frenchmen I am a ‘rosbif’ and so, like Magriites pipe I am and am not a rosbif. This is the same for the French text; of course the Frenchman is not a frog, but some may consider him so.

The typefaces I have chosen for each line of text also enforce the idea of generalisation. The French text is written in Papier sans typeface, a script font chosen to represent an idea of ‘Frenchness’. The colour of this text is the blue of the French national flag.The English text is written using Gill Sans font and I have used this as it is known to represent ‘Britishness’ because of it’s use by well known institutions like the BBC and Penguin books. Its colour is the red from the St. Georges Cross.

Between the texts is a Venn diagram made up of two semi-transparent circles, or ‘elements’ (English and French) that intersect to create a white segment. The diagram and its intersection represents our difference (nationality) and our similarity – we are all human.

The whole piece is on a pale blue background, chosen to represent the English Channel that separates us as nations.

The two pieces of text are arranged so that the poster can be rotated 180 degrees to put either the French or English text at the top. The circles of the Venn diagram of course, will always remain in the correct position.

Ideally, I would have liked the French text and Venn circle to be printed one side of the poster and the English the other but this proved to be inaccurate in terms of alignment.





Robin Hood Gardens, Alison and Peter Smithson,...

Image via Wikipedia

After World War II, Britain required massive and rapid reconstruction. Modernist architects were enlisted to rebuild its schools and housing as cheaply and as quickly as possible. This sense of urgency meant the humanist ideals of the Modernists were ignored with long lasting and ocassionaly tragic consequences.

Post-war reconstruction

Even before the devastating bombings of World War II, affordable housing in Britain was in a terrible condition. Industrialisation had brought new markets, a consumer boom and prosperity for the propertied classes and towns and cities had expanded with little planning. The living conditions for the people that turned the wheels of Industrialisation – the working classes – were dirty and cramped.

Victory in the War had caused a swell of optimism. There was a feeling that the need to rebuild Britain was also an opportunity to build a new nation both socially and structurally; a chance to rectify the mistakes of the past. This meant that concepts previously ignored could be considered. British authorities began to look to Modernist architecture to solve its housing crisis. Politically, two Parliamentary Acts provided the Modernists with an opportunity to rebuild Britain in its image. The Butler Education Act of 1944 and The New Towns Act of 1946 ensured that by the mid 50s an incredible 2,500 schools would be built and ten entirely new towns were either under construction or on the drawing board. This required a fast, efficient solution.

‘Béton brut’ and the new brutalists

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret or Le Corbusier’s ideas for urban planning and construction were shaped by an admiration of 20th century engineering principles: mass production, logical design and function over style. He believed these processes could be applied to the design of rationally planned cities to provide a healthy, humane alternative to the chaos of the Victorian slum. Writing in 1921 in the magazine L’Esprit Nouveau, Le Corbusier stated that a house should be ‘un machine a habiter’: a machine for living in.

Le Corbusier

Auguste Perret (who Corbusier had worked with at the beginnining of his career) first championed the use of reinforced concrete for construction and Corbusier would later use this material in his designs in the most efficient way. The concrete would remain uncovered, still bearing the marks of the wooden shutters used to form it. This came to be known as ‘béton brut’ or ‘raw concrete’. The process would go on to be used widely in the urban regeneration of Britain because of the speed of construction and its affordability.

Although Corbusier was prolific, many of his urban plans never left the drawing board but his ambitious ideas sparked debate and shaped the future of Modernist architecture. In particular, his successful Unité d’habitation in Marseliies became a prototype for many poor imitations of his social housing vision in Britain during the 60s and 70s.

Unité d'habitation

Alison and Peter Smithson formed a formidable British architectural partnership in the mid 20th century, pushing forward the cause of Modernism. The Smithsons were uncompromising in their determination to define a new approach to Modernist architecture, which, like Corbusier, they believed could exploit the low cost and simplicity of mass-produced materials and pre-fabricated components. In his text The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic, the Smithson’s friend, design theorist Reyner Banham hailed them as the pioneers of “the new brutalism”, a play on ‘Béton brut’. Although a kind of architectural establishment in-joke, the term stuck.

Alison and Peter Smithson.

Although resolutely Modernist, the Smithsons attacked the urbanist dogma of architects like Le Corbusier who stated that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure and transport and that urban housing should consist of tall, widely spaced towers – the machines for living in. They worried that this vision would lead to sterile cities, devoid of community which would lead the residents to feel individually isolated. In 1953 the Smithsons wrote:

‘Belonging’ is a basic human need – its associations are of the highest order. From ‘belonging’ – identity – comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where the spacious redevelopment frequently fails.

This statement proves that despite the failure of some of their work, they, like Corbusier were concerned with combining modern architecture and technology as ‘a means of expression that would serve the common good’. (Khan H-U, 2009 p152)

In the late 60s, the pair were given the opportunity to indulge their urban vision on a site in Poplar, East London. Robin Hood Gardens is an example of their ‘streets in the sky’ concept. The wide balconies – the ‘street’ – which connected the flats, allow for its residents to walk, play or even cycle along them. Like many projects built around this time the building was plagued by structural flaws, overcrowding and a high crime rate, leaving it unloved by many of its residents. Then and since it has been derided as an example of architectural folly rather than the model for progressive social housing the Smithsons had hoped for.

Robin Hood Gardens

The Brutalist blueprint

In 1961, the ‘streets in the sky’ concept inspired the design of Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate. Park Hill was intended to provide local authority housing for thousands of people. At the time, Sheffield was a largely working class industrial city whose best days were behind it. Sheffield Council hoped that the estate would signal the rejuvenation of the city and to provide quality homes in a deprived area.

Park Hill’s problems quickly became apparent. It was intended to be a version of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation but the estate allowed some of the worst aspects of urban life to remain. The structure was full of shadowy spots and escape routes and although it included shops, a school and a pub, it did not allow for any of the vibrancy or diversity that had evolved organically in the area over decades or even centuries.

Park Hill Estate

This style of council housing became the blueprint during the 60s and 70s and almost all of the developments suffered the same problems. Bare concrete was an easy target for vandalism and the poorly planned voids and alleyways within the buildings created an atmosphere of claustrophobia and fear. The unforgiving climate of Britain attacked bare concrete, leaving the steel reinforcements exposed. The structures soon looked shabby and uninviting and in a climate of economic strife and mass unemployment the Brutalist aesthetic could not have been more unwelcome.

Foundations built on sand

The beginning of the end for Brutalist, ‘system-built’ social housing was the disaster at Ronan Point, East London in 1968. The high rise collapsed after a gas explosion leaving four residents dead. System-built flats had become a popular construction method with 470,000 new flats and houses built this way the previous year. This led to quality control being largely absent. An examination of the joints of Ronan Point found them to be filled with newspaper not concrete. Walls did not rest on beds of mortar but on levelling bolts, enabling rainwater to seep into the joints. The whole weight of the building was resting on these bolts and consequently the gas explosion led the block to collapse. To the general public the disaster meant that not only were these already unpopular buildings ugly, they were unsafe too.

Ronan Point

The eagerness for this and other system-builds of the time was politically motivated. Municipal leaders saw high density housing as a solution to population drain, giving them more leverage in Whitehall. A subsidy was even given to local councils for every floor built over five storeys, creating a clear financial incentive to build higher and quicker. Ronan Point could be seen as a symbol of post-war political rhetoric. When the public saw the high rises shooting up they could be sure that the government was fulfilling its promises to rebuild. The collapse of the high rise left this rhetoric sounding increasingly hollow.

Other Brutalist projects followed, some even becoming successful and icons of pop culture like Erno Goldfingers Trellick Tower and in recent years there has been a reconsideration of the Brutalist aesthetic – Park Hill for example has recently been rethought and regenerated, however the disaster at Ronan Point spelt the end for widespread use of the New Brutalist blueprint.


While Modernism had arrived on a wave of great optimism in Britain, this was soon replaced by harsh reality. Britain’s industrial cities were bound by generations who had worked in its mines and factories and although life was hard, the working class had a clear sense of identity and a feeling that they belonged. Economic depression, the end of industry and mass unemployment during the 70s and 80s left the working classes almost as shellshocked as the generation that had emerged from the War. The familiar landscape they had been bought up in had been replaced with poorly built constructions that left them feeling isolated and dehumanised. This was not the urban utopia that the Modernists had wanted to build; it was their governments discount version of it.

Despite their failures, Modernist and even Brutalist buildings have proved that when built soundly and cared for they can be successful. Sadly, social housings failures during this period led many to lay the blame at the feet of the Modernists, but blaming visionaries like the Smithsons and Le Corbusier as the architects of the failure ignores the deep and genuine concern for human health and comfort that underpinned their work. It is a tragedy that the utopian dream of Modernist architecture could not be realised; this was a missed opportunity to rebuild a better Britain, structurally and socially, one that may never occur again.


Lowe N (2009) Mastering Modern British History. NY, Palgrave Macmillan.

Bedaria F (1991) A Social History of England 1851-1990. London, Routledge.

Khan H-U (2009) International Style. GmbH, Taschen.


Figure 1: Le Corbusier. Nina Leen/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Jan 01, 1946

Figure 2: Unité d’habitation. Photographer and date unknown.

Figure 3 Alison and Peter Smithson. Photographer and date unknown.

Figure 4: Robin Hood Gardens. Sandra Lousada. Date unknown.

Figure 5: Park Hill, Sheffield. Photographer and date unknown.

Figure 6: Ronan Point. The Daily Telegraph, 1968.

Lose or loose?