Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Plasterfield's Palaces for the People

Plasterfield prefabs on the Isle of Lewis - Elisabeth Blanchet

During a housing crisis that has gone on for as long as I can remember, it is useful to take stock.

Faced with a blitzed housing landscape after WWII the then Labour government came up with a temporary solution of prefabricated, kit homes. Nearly 70 years later some of the 150,000 hurried constructions are still standing and much-loved by their occupants.

Artist Elisabeth Blanchet spent the last 11 years photographing of the remaining "palaces for the people" that sprang up across Britain.

Neil Kinnock grew up in a prefab, so did Michael Caine, and the esteemed Scotland editor of The Times, Angus MacLeod.

For their parents these one-storey "tin boxes", with their own little gardens and mod cons like hot water and inside toilet, were heaven on earth.

Her odyssey took her from Catford in south London to the group of 42 cottages in Plasterfield on Lewis, built to alleviate a post-war squatters' camp in Stornoway's Castle grounds.

Out of Blanchet's show in Brixton, and from the residents who attended, came a tremendous pride and sense of place. Rarely does pre-planned architecture achieve that.

Most of the legoland housing we build now is desperately ordinary. The professional creativity of architects is devalued by developers and governments.

An architect at the opening told me that some expensive, modern versions of prefabs need foundation pads built within just one millimetre of tolerance.

Surely we can do better than that? Build to a higher standard the old-fashioned prefab could play a part in the housing solution we are crying out for.

The SNP government has delivered on its target to complete 4,000 social homes in the the last year. Commendable, but in March 2012 there were 187,935 households on local authority housing lists across Scotland.

The past may be a blueprint for the future.

Elisabeth's exhibition is at the Photofusion gallery in Brixton. Apart from Stornoway, I think there are some remaining prefabs in Paisley.

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