The Southgate Myth

Built in the 1970s, Southgate Estate in Runcorn New Town was demolished already in 1989. Politicians labled it a British Pruitt-Igoe, a symbol of a failed modernity in which no one wants to live. In his essay, Salvatore Dellaria disagrees. For him, it is rather the regressive neoliberalism for which Southgate was planned and against which it ultimately had to fail. In James Stirling's architecture, he rather detects a manifold design against xenophobic conventions of British suburbia.

When wrecking balls began swinging at James Stirling’s Southgate Estate in the Runcorn New Town, late in the winter of 1989, there was one question falling from almost everybody’s lips: was this going to become known in architecture as Britain’s Pruitt-Igoe?C The reference, of course, was to Minoru Yamasaki’s public housing complex in St. Louis, whose infamous implosion had already led Charles Jencks, among others to pronounce the death of modernist mass architecture. Was history repeating itself? Was the British welfare state’s own built legacy now similarly discredited? This certainly was how Margaret Thatcher wanted us to see things. Between the years of Southgate’s construction and demolition, public housing had become the object of unprecedented hostility in Britain. With three consecutive general election majorities, Thatcher’s neoliberals had brought capital investment to a postwar nadir, slashed subsidies, increased rents, and removed hundreds of thousands of units from the national stock. And Southgate’s monumentally scaled terrace blocks provided a suitably dramatic backdrop for press conferences at which to trumpet this “progress towards disengagement” while decrying the purported arrogance and inadequacy of state-sponsored housing. Officials would point at panels of ribbed precast concrete, vibrantly colored fiberglass, porthole windows, flat roofs, and raised walkways as proof of a style that had taken no account of popular taste or that had showed no understanding or care for “how people wanted to live.” They would point at the estate’s ruination and promise that all of these past mistakes would be corrected now that housebuilding responsibility was vested more firmly in the hands of private enterprise.

 

Spirit of Obsolete Modernity

While it is not at all surprising to hear these things coming from right-leaning political operators, views on the left have been substantially the same. Virtually every critic or historian who has written about Southgate in the decades since its demolition has insisted (or at least left the idea unquestioned) that it was built in the spirit of obsolete modernist times and that its adherence to unsupportable, unpopular modernist shibboleths (favoring mass production, mass provision, liberation through technology, etc.) had made demolition all but inevitable. They say that its geometries overwhelmed any sense of individual identity; that its materials and detailing were bizarre and alienating; that individual dwellings were undistinguished and undistinguishable; and that “the sort of people who like that sort of thing don’t live in Runcorn and never did.” Haughtily, Leon Krier asked Stirling if he had “any regrets?”1 On the left and right alike, in other words, commentators mostly wag their fingers and charge that Southgate, like Pruitt-Igoe, represents an episode in recent architectural history best forgotten. But the question of the resemblance between these two projects was and remains a devious mystification of reality—leading us to look at them exclusively through the lens of their failures. If Southgate and Pruitt-Igoe indeed encountered the same slate of breakdowns (crime, vandalism, ballooning void rates, and massive deficits accruing annually to public accounts), and if both too became scapegoats in discourse (their destructions made to represent allegedly overdue turns in architectural mores), here the similarity ends. 

It is now well recognized that the “Pruitt-Igoe myth”—the idea that its problems were based in its modernist design—obscures Yamasaki’s compliance with larger institutional forces promoting inner-city revitalization, racial segregation, and ghetto containment in American cities.2 In other words, in assuming the primacy of style, it shifts culpability from governing conditions onto the choices of an individual architect. If we are happy to blame Yamasaki or his modernist idiom for the tragedy in St. Louis, we can avoid confronting the regressive political-economic structures in which he operated. The “Southgate myth”—repeated every time somebody asks, “what on earth went wrong in Runcorn?”3—offers the same protective cover but in exactly the opposite direction. It avoids confrontation not by displacing blame but by insisting on a political economy’s totality—its unbreachable authority. The “Southgate myth,” in other words, assumes architecture’s subsumption within a hegemonic mass-housing apparatus; it assumes passivity in the face of a modernist–welfarist consensus or zeitgeist. In so doing, it obscures what the “Pruitt-Igoe myth” alleges: the agency of individual architects and the consequences of their decisions and determinations. If we can blame the zeitgeist for the tragedy in Runcorn, we can avoid recognizing what Stirling accomplished despite the status quo of development. We can sit pat in a comfortably demoralized fatalism, convinced—with Manfredo Tafuri—of the architect’s inevitable capitulation to higher political-economic power. Instead, we should ask, what on earth went right at Runcorn? Can we look, counterintuitively, at Southgate’s demolition through the lens of its achievements?

 

Traditional Social Vison

In fact, the “Southgate myth” is prima face unconvincing. It asks us to forget what should be immediately obvious: the estate’s exceptionality—how very unfamiliar it was against the backdrop of surrounding development in Runcorn. Partly, our failure to recognize this begins with Stirling himself. On the eve of demolition, hoping to mitigate damage to his professional reputation, the architect effectively renounced his claims to authorship. He told the press that he had been the mere “recipient” of the “social vision” of his patrons in government; that the estate was the product of their modernist–welfarist commitments, not his; that the real author was “the spirit of the age in public housing.”4 Nothing could be further from the truth. And if any of this seems credible, it is only because the intellectual setting of Southgate’s development is also habitually misconstrued. Again, the fault is at least partly Stirling’s. His penchant was to frame it as a slum-rehousing project, feeding a mythology in which it would embody the same motivations transforming British cities in the 1960s: clearing backlogs of sub-standard dwellings and erecting tower-block monuments to the welfare state on their plots. The Runcorn commission, however, was emphatically unrelated to such modernist inner-urban redevelopment schemes. Central government indeed claimed to be building the town as a satellite to relieve overcrowding in Liverpool. But Southgate was constructed—beginning in 1970 after four years of protracted design negotiations—both after and despite the withdrawal of municipal slum-clearance plans. The city was by then determined not to export any more residents to “overspill” estates and, tellingly, the first arrivals on Southgate—three years later—came from even further afield on rural Merseyside. This was, in short, an intervention not in an urban problem but in a suburban one, where the prevailing ethos and “social vision” of the housebuilding apparatus remained resolutely traditional. Even in the New Towns program at large—the dozens of satellites built from scratch by central authorities in the first two and a half decades after World War II—where there had been some early hope among modernists of overturning suburban patterns, architecture and planning actually had been progressing along firmly routinized paths. Indeed, in Runcorn itself, most of what the state was building (or encouraging speculators to build) was perfectly consistent with “the clean, respectable, unremarkable suburban Liverpool of semi-detached villas which had spread out to the south-west of the city in the 1920s and 1930s”—where Stirling himself had come of age.5

The Southgate architecture rejected this familiarity. It operated not within but against the consensus view of welfare-state housing in suburbia. And more importantly, it did so at precisely the moment when its customary boundary markers were becoming the foci of intense national cathexis. Suburbia was not only the object of hysterical denigration in professional and popular discourses but upheld there, paradoxically, as the brightly shining exemplar of a normative white Englishness that “keeps itself to itself.” “Ours is a land of the wall, the high fence, the privet hedge—all decedents of the moated grange,” remarked Elspeth Huxley.6 And it was no coincidence that Shadow Secretary of Defense Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech on race relations—delivered in 1969, simultaneous to the Southgate design—described, as evidence of Britain’s decline, the purported violation of its domestic quietude and introversion by black and Asian migrants. Stirling certainly made no mention of decolonization or of these protectionist and xenophobic reactions during his time at Runcorn, and yet with his architecture there he pointedly declined to rearticulate exclusive notions of identity and belonging—electing to erase the borders that others were determined to sanctify.

 

Another Stirling

Interestingly, this made Southgate exceptional also in the architect’s own corpus. Stirling tends not to be recognized as a housing designer. His Ham Common Flats (with then-partner James Gowan) are well known—mostly, per Reyner Banham, as an early harbinger of the New Brutalism movement in Britain. But he is much more highly regarded for institutional work. As Amanda Reeser Lawrence has observed, usually his and Gowan’s Leicester University Engineering Building is found at the conclusion of the “Modern” chapter in architectural textbooks and his Neue Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart near the beginning of the “Postmodern” one.7 Both are boldly idiosyncratic assemblies of form and color. Both seem also to be a kind of self-portraiture—protean reflections of his own “Big Jim” persona. Meanwhile, however, there is also what Colin Rowe referred to as “another Stirling” whose work was reaching culmination.8 This Stirling is perhaps unlike the one we recognize best—unlike the one whose career seems to pivot on the aggrandizing spectacle of Leicester and Stuttgart. This Stirling is more concerned with the very heavy social responsibility of building things that are “going to be occupied by people.”9 His and Gowan’s slum rehousing scheme in Preston (now also demolished) indicated an avid, revisionist interest in the welfare state’s mass housing program. But Southgate is best interpreted alongside—as a correction of—the handful of suburban projects that predated it. These include a house in North London (1953), a house on the outskirts of Liverpool at Woolton Park (1954), and a terraced, mass-produced “Village Housing” scheme (1955), which was a proposal for the infill expansion of existing rural settlements where skilled building labor might be in short supply (almost exactly the situation he encountered at Runcorn). In each of these earlier cases, Stirling strove to mark and emphasize what at Southgate he would strive to suppress—to correlate insides and outsides; to produce on the architectural exterior a rigorous demarcation of individual domestic volumes and borders.

In part, the desire had derived from Stirling’s particular compositional convictions about a so-called “functional expressiveness,” in which, as he put it, you can look at a building “and recognize its various component parts where people are doing different things.”10 This was a strategy for making program outwardly legible—i.e., for translating function into form. But it also had been a sop to Britain’s aesthetic gatekeepers. It was a means of accomodating himself to a housebuilding apparatus that had been favoring, in suburban settings, not the modernist mass housing block but the “moated grange” and its various symbolic inheritors. The very particular conditions of the Southgate commission, however, lifted this necessity. The brief was strict and demanded compromises from the architect, but Runcorn officials had tied themselves to a production schedule that effectively suspended the usual restrictiveness. A town-center shopping mall was under construction directly to the north, and officials believed its viability depended on having a large catchment of captive consumers in place at Southgate before its scheduled opening. Effectively, this gave Stirling license to disregard their condescending assumptions about suburbanites’ innate timidity, about their desire to “keep themselves to themselves,” and thus about their preference for individualized, home-centered domestic expressions.

The first phase of Southgate’s construction—accounting for eighty percent of its dwellings—illustrates most clearly the resulting design as originally conceived. On the northern half of a hundred-odd acre site, it comprised some 1,100 units spread between a mostly orthogonal collection of five-story terrace blocks, interconnected by pedestrian bridges. Exterior walls mostly were prefabricated concrete. Lighter-weight fiberglass panels were reserved for deck-level walkways, where concrete would have been too difficult to install. In section, terraces contained a two-story maisonette at ground level, another at deck level, and a small one– or two-bed flat above. In plan, a right-angle pairing of terraces formed a basic 300-foot-square module with proportions keyed to precedents in Bath, London, Edinburgh, and Bloomsbury. Southgate’s indebtedness to an eighteenth-century urbanism is often remarked on, but its departures were even more important. Whereas the ground-level flats in Bath, for example, have back gardens enclosed behind high brick walls, maisonettes at Southgate opened directly onto communal courts, fully visible to each other. Private gardens, in other words, were designed and landscaped as extensions of a generous matrix of public open spaces with barriers between kept to an absolute minimum. Similarly, whereas in a typical Georgian square, houses have canopies, wrought-iron detailing, or other decorative indicators marking the extent of interior accommodations, at Southgate, exterior elevations received no comparable imprint from a private domesticity. Unlike the Georgian model, in other words, the Southgate architecture insisted on the terrace and the block, not the individual dwelling, as most worthy of symbolic emphasis. Entrances were either hidden from view in stair towers or inset into uniform fiberglass paneling. On street-side elevations, the overhang of upper-level flats became a massive architrave supported by a stair-tower colonnade—repeating at a rhythm of one column for every six dwellings. The effect was reinforced in the estate’s vibrant handling color: each pair of neighboring terraces received a distinctive palette, accentuating their representational unity.

 

Lives Lived on Southgate

What was the response of residents to this architecture? How did they experience its turning of the tables on xenophobic suburban conventions? The “Southgate myth” gets this question wrong too. Early hints arrived in the photography that Stirling commissioned from Richard Einzig in 1974, which glimpsed the activity of residents manifestly not interested or concerned to “keep themselves to themselves.” But the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. And from the first arrivals to the last departures, there was a continual effort by the New Town’s own social workers to understand the everyday experiences and practices of life on the estate and to bring the testimony of tenants to bear on official decision-making. Through interviews, home visits, surveys, as well as informal day-to-day contacts, their findings confirmed—time and again—precise what Einzig had witnessed. The lives lived on Southgate were, of course, multiple and irreducible to summary, but—by and large—people were not troubled by the estate’s scale of expression or by its erasure of suburbia’s conventional boundary markers. There was no suggestion that tenants found their environment oppressive, authoritarian, or disadvantaging. To the contrary, they found it open and welcoming and were more than happy to jettison ideas about Britain’s allegedly innate home-centeredness for new kinds of relationships with new kinds of neighbors. Vacancies accumulated not because Stirling had paid no attention to “how people wanted to live” but because Runcorn had singularly failed to make living on Southgate attractive economically. Simply put, there were a very great number of much cheaper options on Merseyside—including most of the other estates that the New Town itself was producing at a headlong pace. This was compounded by an oil-fired district heating system that very quickly proved to be excessively expensive to operate—passing exorbitant charges on to tenants. 

Were the contentions of the “Southgate myth” true, these discoveries would have been warmly welcomed in central government. Were it true, in other words, that Stirling simply inherited and executed the modernist–welfarist social vision of the postwar state, officials and administrators would have been happy that the architecture was functioning basically according to plan. To the contrary, presuming to know better than residents, Runcorn was convinced that Southgate, as designed and built, would always be unsatisfactory—that it was, in effect, condemned from the beginning by its architecture. The most telling sign might be the New Town’s own promotional photography—very different from Einzig’s—which depicts the estate counterfactually as a site of private leisure, sheltered comfort, and home-centered consumption. And immediately after estate’s utility vis-à-vis town-center shopping expired—that is, after the developer was satisfied as to the center’s commercial viability with or without support from Southgate consumers—Runcorn turned against Stirling’s work. With only a handful of the planned terrace squares completed, it told the architect that it would rather let the remainder of the land “lie fallow” than build more of his original design.11 The second phase of the estate’s construction reflects this top-down antipathy. Stirling was instructed, for example, to eliminate decks and to enclose private gardens behind concrete-block walls, both reversions, by degree, to the normal suburban imaginary that Runcorn’s photography had tried to conjure. This is not to say that Stirling did not find his own value in the revision. The vertically banded fiberglass cladding on the phase I decks had appeared also at Stirling’s Olivetti Training School in Haslemere (1969), but they returned to Southgate to wrap phase II with a vibrancy that Haslemere’s own aesthetic gatekeepers in the local council had not allowed. Similarly, an elevated service structure, carrying gas pipes over roads and between houses, transformed a mechanical or technical necessity into an expressive figure that recalled the prominence given to window-washing gantries at Leicester. But now with open resistance from central sponsors, the scale of ambition was also drastically reduced, including just 250 dwellings in two– and three-story timber-framed terraces. In short, what Stirling accomplished at Southgate he accomplished precisely despite official preferences. Central government had claimed enthusiasm for the scheme’s “urbanity,” but this had been an alibi for other motives: securing the confidence of town-enter investors. 

Given this, we can see that demolition followed not at all from the failure of a modernist–welfarist social vision but from the center’s unwillingness to see the estate beyond a bare commercial utility. Once vacancies and deficits started accumulating, officials’ myopia here effectively prevented them from recognizing pathways forward—those actually indicated in conversations with residents. And, thus, mitigating efforts were focused always and exclusively on perceived design faults relating to Southgate’s lack of traditional home-centeredness rather than on the real source of its problems (uneconomical rents and heating charges). This represented an opportunity cost that proved ultimately fatal for the estate and for its openness. In the 1980s, for example, there was a slew of redevelopment proposals aimed at erasing what had made Southgate distinctive. Proposals involved the dismantling of bridge links between squares, the conversion of decks into private balconies, the extension of private gardens, the replacement of fiberglass cladding with brick, the trading of portholes for windows set in traditional frames, and the pitching of new roofs over terraces, perhaps treated to simulate tiling. All were prohibitively expensive changes; vacancies had already thrown Southgate’s housing accounts far out of balance, and any of these “solutions” to the “problem” would only worsen things financially—a dilemma leaving demolition as the only apparent option. If the estate’s future depended on capital investments that its rental receipts could not justify, what other choice was there but to knock it all down?

When control over the site passed finally out of central hands, a private housing association built Hallwood ParkD in Southgate’s place—a collection of semi-detached brick bungalows following conventional fenced-in patterns of development. It was this, not Southgate, that had been the center’s housing vision since the 1960s. And it is against the backdrop of such a vision that we might best be able to understand what went right at the estate. Stirling suspended suburbia’s status-quo xenophobic order—at least for a time. Against the state’s hostility and inertia, he demonstrated that there were other choices all along. And it is crucial, particularly now, for historiography to recognize this capacity in architecture for independent action. With its agency often seeming to disappear within totalizing structures of power and domination, if it can be shown that architects were and are able to counter socially regressive formations and tendencies, this amounts also to a reminder that it is their responsibility to do so.

The Southgate Myth

10/27/2023

Or, What Went Right at Runcorn?

Built in the 1970s, Southgate Estate in Runcorn New Town was demolished already in 1989. Politicians labled it a British Pruitt-Igoe, a symbol of a failed modernity in which no one wants to live. In his essay, Salvatore Dellaria disagrees. For him, it is rather the regressive neoliberalism for which Southgate was planned and against which it ultimately had to fail. In James Stirling's architecture, he rather detects a manifold design against xenophobic conventions of British suburbia.

1 Leon Krier, “Hors Echelle: Remembering James Stirling”, in: Perspecta 40 (2008), p. 71.

2 Katharine G. Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”, in: Journal of Architectural Education (1984) 44, 3 (1991), pp. 163–71.

3 Hugh Pearman, “Georgian Precedents, Modern Realities: Or, What Went Wrong at Runcorn?”, in: Architect, December 2010, p. 54.

4 James Stirling, “Southgate: Runcorn New Town” (note, February 27, 1989), CCA, Montreal.

5 Mark Girouard, Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling, London 1998, p. 5.

Pruitt-Igoe

When wrecking balls began swinging at James Stirling’s Southgate Estate in the Runcorn New Town, late in the winter of 1989, there was one question falling from almost everybody’s lips: was this going to become known in architecture as Britain’s Pruitt-Igoe? The reference, of course, was to Minoru Yamasaki’s public housing complex in St. Louis, whose infamous implosion had already led Charles Jencks, among others to pronounce the death of modernist mass architecture. Was history repeating itself? Was the British welfare state’s own built legacy now similarly discredited? This certainly was how Margaret Thatcher wanted us to see things. Between the years of Southgate’s construction and demolition, public housing had become the object of unprecedented hostility in Britain. With three consecutive general election majorities, Thatcher’s neoliberals had brought capital investment to a postwar nadir, slashed subsidies, increased rents, and removed hundreds of thousands of units from the national stock. And Southgate’s monumentally scaled terrace blocks provided a suitably dramatic backdrop for press conferences at which to trumpet this “progress towards disengagement” while decrying the purported arrogance and inadequacy of state-sponsored housing. Officials would point at panels of ribbed precast concrete, vibrantly colored fiberglass, porthole windows, flat roofs, and raised walkways as proof of a style that had taken no account of popular taste or that had showed no understanding or care for “how people wanted to live.” They would point at the estate’s ruination and promise that all of these past mistakes would be corrected now that housebuilding responsibility was vested more firmly in the hands of private enterprise.

 

Spirit of Obsolete Modernity

While it is not at all surprising to hear these things coming from right-leaning political operators, views on the left have been substantially the same. Virtually every critic or historian who has written about Southgate in the decades since its demolition has insisted (or at least left the idea unquestioned) that it was built in the spirit of obsolete modernist times and that its adherence to unsupportable, unpopular modernist shibboleths (favoring mass production, mass provision, liberation through technology, etc.) had made demolition all but inevitable. They say that its geometries overwhelmed any sense of individual identity; that its materials and detailing were bizarre and alienating; that individual dwellings were undistinguished and undistinguishable; and that “the sort of people who like that sort of thing don’t live in Runcorn and never did.” Haughtily, Leon Krier asked Stirling if he had “any regrets?”1 On the left and right alike, in other words, commentators mostly wag their fingers and charge that Southgate, like Pruitt-Igoe, represents an episode in recent architectural history best forgotten. But the question of the resemblance between these two projects was and remains a devious mystification of reality—leading us to look at them exclusively through the lens of their failures. If Southgate and Pruitt-Igoe indeed encountered the same slate of breakdowns (crime, vandalism, ballooning void rates, and massive deficits accruing annually to public accounts), and if both too became scapegoats in discourse (their destructions made to represent allegedly overdue turns in architectural mores), here the similarity ends. 

It is now well recognized that the “Pruitt-Igoe myth”—the idea that its problems were based in its modernist design—obscures Yamasaki’s compliance with larger institutional forces promoting inner-city revitalization, racial segregation, and ghetto containment in American cities.2 In other words, in assuming the primacy of style, it shifts culpability from governing conditions onto the choices of an individual architect. If we are happy to blame Yamasaki or his modernist idiom for the tragedy in St. Louis, we can avoid confronting the regressive political-economic structures in which he operated. The “Southgate myth”—repeated every time somebody asks, “what on earth went wrong in Runcorn?”3—offers the same protective cover but in exactly the opposite direction. It avoids confrontation not by displacing blame but by insisting on a political economy’s totality—its unbreachable authority. The “Southgate myth,” in other words, assumes architecture’s subsumption within a hegemonic mass-housing apparatus; it assumes passivity in the face of a modernist–welfarist consensus or zeitgeist. In so doing, it obscures what the “Pruitt-Igoe myth” alleges: the agency of individual architects and the consequences of their decisions and determinations. If we can blame the zeitgeist for the tragedy in Runcorn, we can avoid recognizing what Stirling accomplished despite the status quo of development. We can sit pat in a comfortably demoralized fatalism, convinced—with Manfredo Tafuri—of the architect’s inevitable capitulation to higher political-economic power. Instead, we should ask, what on earth went right at Runcorn? Can we look, counterintuitively, at Southgate’s demolition through the lens of its achievements?

 

Traditional Social Vison

In fact, the “Southgate myth” is prima face unconvincing. It asks us to forget what should be immediately obvious: the estate’s exceptionality—how very unfamiliar it was against the backdrop of surrounding development in Runcorn. Partly, our failure to recognize this begins with Stirling himself. On the eve of demolition, hoping to mitigate damage to his professional reputation, the architect effectively renounced his claims to authorship. He told the press that he had been the mere “recipient” of the “social vision” of his patrons in government; that the estate was the product of their modernist–welfarist commitments, not his; that the real author was “the spirit of the age in public housing.”4 Nothing could be further from the truth. And if any of this seems credible, it is only because the intellectual setting of Southgate’s development is also habitually misconstrued. Again, the fault is at least partly Stirling’s. His penchant was to frame it as a slum-rehousing project, feeding a mythology in which it would embody the same motivations transforming British cities in the 1960s: clearing backlogs of sub-standard dwellings and erecting tower-block monuments to the welfare state on their plots. The Runcorn commission, however, was emphatically unrelated to such modernist inner-urban redevelopment schemes. Central government indeed claimed to be building the town as a satellite to relieve overcrowding in Liverpool. But Southgate was constructed—beginning in 1970 after four years of protracted design negotiations—both after and despite the withdrawal of municipal slum-clearance plans. The city was by then determined not to export any more residents to “overspill” estates and, tellingly, the first arrivals on Southgate—three years later—came from even further afield on rural Merseyside. This was, in short, an intervention not in an urban problem but in a suburban one, where the prevailing ethos and “social vision” of the housebuilding apparatus remained resolutely traditional. Even in the New Towns program at large—the dozens of satellites built from scratch by central authorities in the first two and a half decades after World War II—where there had been some early hope among modernists of overturning suburban patterns, architecture and planning actually had been progressing along firmly routinized paths. Indeed, in Runcorn itself, most of what the state was building (or encouraging speculators to build) was perfectly consistent with “the clean, respectable, unremarkable suburban Liverpool of semi-detached villas which had spread out to the south-west of the city in the 1920s and 1930s”—where Stirling himself had come of age.5

Southgate Estate, Phase I – James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture © Richard Einzig
Southgate Estate, Phase I – photo: Stephen Yates © MMU Special Collections Museum
Southgate Estate, Phase I – photo: Stephen Yates © MMU Special Collections Museum
Southgate Estate, Phase I – photo: Stephen Yates © MMU Special Collections Museum
Southgate Estate, Phase I – © Javier Mozas
Southgate Estate, Phase I – © Javier Mozas
Southgate Estate, Phase I – photo: Stephen Yates © MMU Special Collections Museum
Southgate Estate, Phase I – © Javier Mozas
Southgate Estate, Phase I – photo: Stephen Yates © MMU Special Collections Museum
01 | 10
Southgate Estate, Phase I – James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture © Richard Einzig

6 Cited in Wendy Webster, Imagining Home: Gender, “Race,” and National Identity, 1945–64, London 1998, p. 65.

7 See: A. R. Lawrence, James Stirling: Revisionary Modernist, New Haven 2012.

8 Colin Rowe, “James Stirling: A Highly Personal and Very Disjointed Memoir,” in: James Stirling: Buildings and Projects, New York 1984, p. 20.

9 James Stirling, “Seven Keys to Good Architecture,” in James Stirling: Writings on Architecture, New York 1998, p. 263.

10 Ibid.

The Southgate architecture rejected this familiarity. It operated not within but against the consensus view of welfare-state housing in suburbia. And more importantly, it did so at precisely the moment when its customary boundary markers were becoming the foci of intense national cathexis. Suburbia was not only the object of hysterical denigration in professional and popular discourses but upheld there, paradoxically, as the brightly shining exemplar of a normative white Englishness that “keeps itself to itself.” “Ours is a land of the wall, the high fence, the privet hedge—all decedents of the moated grange,” remarked Elspeth Huxley.6 And it was no coincidence that Shadow Secretary of Defense Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech on race relations—delivered in 1969, simultaneous to the Southgate design—described, as evidence of Britain’s decline, the purported violation of its domestic quietude and introversion by black and Asian migrants. Stirling certainly made no mention of decolonization or of these protectionist and xenophobic reactions during his time at Runcorn, and yet with his architecture there he pointedly declined to rearticulate exclusive notions of identity and belonging—electing to erase the borders that others were determined to sanctify.

 

Another Stirling

Interestingly, this made Southgate exceptional also in the architect’s own corpus. Stirling tends not to be recognized as a housing designer. His Ham Common Flats (with then-partner James Gowan) are well known—mostly, per Reyner Banham, as an early harbinger of the New Brutalism movement in Britain. But he is much more highly regarded for institutional work. As Amanda Reeser Lawrence has observed, usually his and Gowan’s Leicester University Engineering Building is found at the conclusion of the “Modern” chapter in architectural textbooks and his Neue Staatsgallerie in Stuttgart near the beginning of the “Postmodern” one.7 Both are boldly idiosyncratic assemblies of form and color. Both seem also to be a kind of self-portraiture—protean reflections of his own “Big Jim” persona. Meanwhile, however, there is also what Colin Rowe referred to as “another Stirling” whose work was reaching culmination.8 This Stirling is perhaps unlike the one we recognize best—unlike the one whose career seems to pivot on the aggrandizing spectacle of Leicester and Stuttgart. This Stirling is more concerned with the very heavy social responsibility of building things that are “going to be occupied by people.”9 His and Gowan’s slum rehousing scheme in Preston (now also demolished) indicated an avid, revisionist interest in the welfare state’s mass housing program. But Southgate is best interpreted alongside—as a correction of—the handful of suburban projects that predated it. These include a house in North London (1953), a house on the outskirts of Liverpool at Woolton Park (1954), and a terraced, mass-produced “Village Housing” scheme (1955), which was a proposal for the infill expansion of existing rural settlements where skilled building labor might be in short supply (almost exactly the situation he encountered at Runcorn). In each of these earlier cases, Stirling strove to mark and emphasize what at Southgate he would strive to suppress—to correlate insides and outsides; to produce on the architectural exterior a rigorous demarcation of individual domestic volumes and borders.

In part, the desire had derived from Stirling’s particular compositional convictions about a so-called “functional expressiveness,” in which, as he put it, you can look at a building “and recognize its various component parts where people are doing different things.”10 This was a strategy for making program outwardly legible—i.e., for translating function into form. But it also had been a sop to Britain’s aesthetic gatekeepers. It was a means of accomodating himself to a housebuilding apparatus that had been favoring, in suburban settings, not the modernist mass housing block but the “moated grange” and its various symbolic inheritors. The very particular conditions of the Southgate commission, however, lifted this necessity. The brief was strict and demanded compromises from the architect, but Runcorn officials had tied themselves to a production schedule that effectively suspended the usual restrictiveness. A town-center shopping mall was under construction directly to the north, and officials believed its viability depended on having a large catchment of captive consumers in place at Southgate before its scheduled opening. Effectively, this gave Stirling license to disregard their condescending assumptions about suburbanites’ innate timidity, about their desire to “keep themselves to themselves,” and thus about their preference for individualized, home-centered domestic expressions.

Southgate Phase I, site plan as approved, 1969 – James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal © CCA
Southgate Phase I, section drawing – James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal © CCA
Southgate Phase I, axonometric drawing – © Chesire Archives
Southgate Phase I, perspective drawing – James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal © CCA
Southgate Phase I, axonometric drawing – James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal © CCA
Model of Southgate phase I terrace showing street-side elevation, c.1973 – © Chesire Archives
Model of Southgate phase I terrace showing garden elevation, c.1973. – © Chesire Archives
Southgate phase I, interior, 1973. – photo: John Mills © Chesire Archives
Southgate phase I, interior, 1973. – photo: John Mills © Chesire Archives
Southgate phase I, interior, 1973. – photo: John Mills © Chesire Archives
Southgate phase I, interior, 1973. – photo: John Mills © Chesire Archives
Model showing Southgate Estate and Shopping City – © Chesire Archives
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Southgate Phase I, site plan as approved, 1969 – James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal © CCA

11 Runcorn Phase II” (handwritten note, December 4, 1972), CCA, Montreal.

Video

The first phase of Southgate’s construction—accounting for eighty percent of its dwellings—illustrates most clearly the resulting design as originally conceived. On the northern half of a hundred-odd acre site, it comprised some 1,100 units spread between a mostly orthogonal collection of five-story terrace blocks, interconnected by pedestrian bridges. Exterior walls mostly were prefabricated concrete. Lighter-weight fiberglass panels were reserved for deck-level walkways, where concrete would have been too difficult to install. In section, terraces contained a two-story maisonette at ground level, another at deck level, and a small one– or two-bed flat above. In plan, a right-angle pairing of terraces formed a basic 300-foot-square module with proportions keyed to precedents in Bath, London, Edinburgh, and Bloomsbury. Southgate’s indebtedness to an eighteenth-century urbanism is often remarked on, but its departures were even more important. Whereas the ground-level flats in Bath, for example, have back gardens enclosed behind high brick walls, maisonettes at Southgate opened directly onto communal courts, fully visible to each other. Private gardens, in other words, were designed and landscaped as extensions of a generous matrix of public open spaces with barriers between kept to an absolute minimum. Similarly, whereas in a typical Georgian square, houses have canopies, wrought-iron detailing, or other decorative indicators marking the extent of interior accommodations, at Southgate, exterior elevations received no comparable imprint from a private domesticity. Unlike the Georgian model, in other words, the Southgate architecture insisted on the terrace and the block, not the individual dwelling, as most worthy of symbolic emphasis. Entrances were either hidden from view in stair towers or inset into uniform fiberglass paneling. On street-side elevations, the overhang of upper-level flats became a massive architrave supported by a stair-tower colonnade—repeating at a rhythm of one column for every six dwellings. The effect was reinforced in the estate’s vibrant handling color: each pair of neighboring terraces received a distinctive palette, accentuating their representational unity.

 

Lives Lived on Southgate

What was the response of residents to this architecture? How did they experience its turning of the tables on xenophobic suburban conventions? The “Southgate myth” gets this question wrong too. Early hints arrived in the photography that Stirling commissioned from Richard Einzig in 1974, which glimpsed the activity of residents manifestly not interested or concerned to “keep themselves to themselves.” But the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. And from the first arrivals to the last departures, there was a continual effort by the New Town’s own social workers to understand the everyday experiences and practices of life on the estate and to bring the testimony of tenants to bear on official decision-making. Through interviews, home visits, surveys, as well as informal day-to-day contacts, their findings confirmed—time and again—precise what Einzig had witnessed. The lives lived on Southgate were, of course, multiple and irreducible to summary, but—by and large—people were not troubled by the estate’s scale of expression or by its erasure of suburbia’s conventional boundary markers. There was no suggestion that tenants found their environment oppressive, authoritarian, or disadvantaging. To the contrary, they found it open and welcoming and were more than happy to jettison ideas about Britain’s allegedly innate home-centeredness for new kinds of relationships with new kinds of neighbors. Vacancies accumulated not because Stirling had paid no attention to “how people wanted to live” but because Runcorn had singularly failed to make living on Southgate attractive economically. Simply put, there were a very great number of much cheaper options on Merseyside—including most of the other estates that the New Town itself was producing at a headlong pace. This was compounded by an oil-fired district heating system that very quickly proved to be excessively expensive to operate—passing exorbitant charges on to tenants. 

Were the contentions of the “Southgate myth” true, these discoveries would have been warmly welcomed in central government. Were it true, in other words, that Stirling simply inherited and executed the modernist–welfarist social vision of the postwar state, officials and administrators would have been happy that the architecture was functioning basically according to plan. To the contrary, presuming to know better than residents, Runcorn was convinced that Southgate, as designed and built, would always be unsatisfactory—that it was, in effect, condemned from the beginning by its architecture. The most telling sign might be the New Town’s own promotional photography—very different from Einzig’s—which depicts the estate counterfactually as a site of private leisure, sheltered comfort, and home-centered consumption. And immediately after estate’s utility vis-à-vis town-center shopping expired—that is, after the developer was satisfied as to the center’s commercial viability with or without support from Southgate consumers—Runcorn turned against Stirling’s work. With only a handful of the planned terrace squares completed, it told the architect that it would rather let the remainder of the land “lie fallow” than build more of his original design.11 The second phase of the estate’s construction reflects this top-down antipathy. Stirling was instructed, for example, to eliminate decks and to enclose private gardens behind concrete-block walls, both reversions, by degree, to the normal suburban imaginary that Runcorn’s photography had tried to conjure. This is not to say that Stirling did not find his own value in the revision. The vertically banded fiberglass cladding on the phase I decks had appeared also at Stirling’s Olivetti Training School in Haslemere (1969), but they returned to Southgate to wrap phase II with a vibrancy that Haslemere’s own aesthetic gatekeepers in the local council had not allowed. Similarly, an elevated service structure, carrying gas pipes over roads and between houses, transformed a mechanical or technical necessity into an expressive figure that recalled the prominence given to window-washing gantries at Leicester. But now with open resistance from central sponsors, the scale of ambition was also drastically reduced, including just 250 dwellings in two– and three-story timber-framed terraces. In short, what Stirling accomplished at Southgate he accomplished precisely despite official preferences. Central government had claimed enthusiasm for the scheme’s “urbanity,” but this had been an alibi for other motives: securing the confidence of town-enter investors. 

Given this, we can see that demolition followed not at all from the failure of a modernist–welfarist social vision but from the center’s unwillingness to see the estate beyond a bare commercial utility. Once vacancies and deficits started accumulating, officials’ myopia here effectively prevented them from recognizing pathways forward—those actually indicated in conversations with residents. And, thus, mitigating efforts were focused always and exclusively on perceived design faults relating to Southgate’s lack of traditional home-centeredness rather than on the real source of its problems (uneconomical rents and heating charges). This represented an opportunity cost that proved ultimately fatal for the estate and for its openness. In the 1980s, for example, there was a slew of redevelopment proposals aimed at erasing what had made Southgate distinctive. Proposals involved the dismantling of bridge links between squares, the conversion of decks into private balconies, the extension of private gardens, the replacement of fiberglass cladding with brick, the trading of portholes for windows set in traditional frames, and the pitching of new roofs over terraces, perhaps treated to simulate tiling. All were prohibitively expensive changes; vacancies had already thrown Southgate’s housing accounts far out of balance, and any of these “solutions” to the “problem” would only worsen things financially—a dilemma leaving demolition as the only apparent option. If the estate’s future depended on capital investments that its rental receipts could not justify, what other choice was there but to knock it all down?

When control over the site passed finally out of central hands, a private housing association built Hallwood Park in Southgate’s place—a collection of semi-detached brick bungalows following conventional fenced-in patterns of development. It was this, not Southgate, that had been the center’s housing vision since the 1960s. And it is against the backdrop of such a vision that we might best be able to understand what went right at the estate. Stirling suspended suburbia’s status-quo xenophobic order—at least for a time. Against the state’s hostility and inertia, he demonstrated that there were other choices all along. And it is crucial, particularly now, for historiography to recognize this capacity in architecture for independent action. With its agency often seeming to disappear within totalizing structures of power and domination, if it can be shown that architects were and are able to counter socially regressive formations and tendencies, this amounts also to a reminder that it is their responsibility to do so.

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