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Dissertation Medal Winner 2008

Rookeries and No-go Estates: St. Giles and Broadwater Farm

Part 2 Dissertation 2008
Dominic Severs
University of Westminster | UK
Rookeries and No-go Estates: St. Giles & Broadwater Farm
Middle Class Fear of ‘Non-Street’ Housing

This dissertation offers an historical analysis of two kinds of housing. It proposes a connection between the densely packed housing of the poor in nineteenth-century London, the so-called rookeries, and the post-war modernist housing estates built by local authorities in the capital. It argues that there are in fact similarities in the spatial character of the two forms, particularly in the complexity of the relationship between the private and public realms - and that this, together with the close identification of both forms with their inhabitants, provoked similar responses in representation and action amongst middle-class observers.

The discussion in the dissertation is divided into three parts. Part One deals with the issue of London housing in the nineteenth century, and Part Two with the twentieth century. Part Three then engages in a shorter, and more speculative, discussion of continuities in representation of the two chosen housing forms.

The main body of the dissertation is based on a historical analysis of two specific examples, nineteenth-century rookeries in the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, London, and then the 1970s local authority housing estate called Broadwater Farm in Tottenham in the London Borough of Haringey. An additional account of the nineteenth-century development of Tottenham as an emerging working-class suburb serves both as a vehicle for looking at the responses to the rookery, and also sets the scene for the later building of Broadwater Farm. Alternating with these historical accounts are descriptions and analyses of form and spatial character, and discussion of the ideologies underlying the design responses - that is, the ideas that shaped the housing and urban forms, particularly those offered as an alternative to our case studies.

The third and final section of the study considers patterns of continuity in the literary representation of vice and violence, as set in the Victorian rookery and the post-war ‘no-go’ estate.

In conclusion, clear parallels are drawn between social responses to the two forms studied in terms of the ‘fear’ in the title of the work, with an attempt to clarify where this fear lay and also the precise nature of those responses. Additionally, the relationship between the arguments made in the study and the pernicious idea of spatial determinism is made explicit.

Dominic Severs

This outstanding dissertation was designed to investigate whether there were parallels between the impulses and legislation which lay behind the development of housing for the poor in late-nineteenth century so-called 'rookeries' and in post-war modernist housing estates which feature so strongly in contemporary London. Detailed documentary research on the St.Giles-in-the-Fields rookery and the Broadwater Farm estate has been supported by reference to the literature of social conditions, behaviour and architecture, particularly (for the nineteenth century) Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London and Blanchard Jerrold’s London: A Pilgrimage, and for the modern period, Oscar Newman’s seminal text on Defensible Space.

The investigation of public and private space, and the apparent and implied barriers between them, has shown strong similarities in the architectural strategies employed in both forms, and has led the author of this dissertation into a discussion of the ideologies which have coloured the responses to both sorts of estate. The discussion is enhanced and counterpointed through a consideration of the rationale behind the development of the single-family terraced house in late-nineteenth century Tottenham. There is full reference here to the enabling legislation (which is usefully listed in an appendix), and to the literary representations which in the case of both the rookery and the estate have taken shocked pleasure in the depiction and gleeful description of moral and physical contagion, vice and violence, inherent in these no-go (for the middle classes) areas.

Noting the hysteria surrounding the description of the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, discussed here in detail, with particular reference to the subsequent official report, the author questions ideas of community and safety and raises the questions of ‘whose community?’ and ‘safety from whom?’. The possibility of a new post-riot narrative for Broadwater Farm and modernist estates in general is proposed, and is entirely original in its scope.

The dissertation is very well written, clearly illustrated and coherently argued. Throughout, the architectural and social-historical analyses are exceptionally well balanced.The parallels which the author has uncovered through this excellent investigation are both unexpected and salutary. This is an absorbing study which sheds new light on an area with which we might have thought ourselves alr

Dr John Bold
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