Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tenancy culture studies: public housing road tours

It's hard to believe now, but there was once a time when the NSW State Government published tour guides to public housing estates.

The NSW Housing Commission's 1947 booklet, Homes for the People, featured a handy map and directions for five road tours of public housing developments throughout Sydney. Tour 1, from Pagewood to Beverly Hills in Sydney's southeast, was a relative doddle at 42 miles in two-and-a-half hours; to do the lot, the truly dedicated tourist would cover, over 18 hours, 282 miles of public housing, from Hornsby in the north to Liverpool in the west.

The guide proudly pointed out 'items of note', such as 'experimental cottages' in Esme Avenue, Chester Hill; the 'small unit homes (one child families)' in Juno Parade, Greenacre; and the building technologies and materials employed: timber frames, steel frames, concrete, fibro....    

It was a proud publication, and rightly so. This was the era of the first Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement (1945-56), in which renting in public housing was conceived of as a decent and genuine alternative to home ownership, and the Housing Commission built one in every six dwellings built in the State.

Nowadays Housing NSW prefers its properties to be un-notable, even invisible. (Aside from the tour guide, here's another sign of the times: Housing NSW annual reports used to be full of pictures of buildings – but no people; now, there's lots of smiling faces, but no buildings.) However, public housing estates remain places where one can find some important firsts in architecture and planning and many admirable – even successful – endeavours in building better homes for the people.

Here's a few of our favourites.

1. Daceyville. See where the public housing system in New South Wales began. 'There, that is how Australia builds its garden cities' – that's what John Rowland Dacey predicted future tourists would say of the estate, and both the buildings and layout of the estate show the state of the art of early garden suburb planning. Strong radial avenues and short curving streets give the estate a symmetrical, very mannered appearance (the layout of later garden suburbs and neighbourhoods would be more closely determined by the topography); but if you look down Cook Avenue, says estate historian Samantha Sannayah, you can see that the western side of the estate, built to the earlier plan of garden suburb originator John Sulman, is more formal, while the eastern part, built to the later revised plan of Housing Board architect William Foggitt, is 'curvier, and friendlier'. The dwellings, notes another historian of the estate, Robert Freestone, are 'a blend of English cottage and Californian bungalow forms unified by verandas and Federation joinery details'; the earliest are semi-detached but built to resemble a single large house; later dwellings are detached per the suburban ideal; but then the very latest – from the 1980s – employ the large house form again.

Items of note include the first planned cul-de-sac in Australia: the tear-shaped addition by Foggitt to Colonel Braund Crescent.

2. Millers Point, Dawes Point and the Rocks. Actually, even before we had a public housing system, we did have some public housing. The State Government first acquired rental housing almost accidentally when, after an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1901, it resumed the wharves and adjoining areas of Millers Point, Dawes Point and the Rocks. Walk through Millers Point and Dawes Point and see grand and more modest houses from the late nineteenth century, and working class boarding houses, flats and terraces from the early twentieth century. Pause at Clyne Reserve and survey the wharves below and to the south, soon to be redeveloped as Barangaroo, and worry for the future of this special public housing place.

Next, duck under the Bridge at Cumberland Street and behold the Sirius apartments, from the Housing Commission's brutalist period in the 1970s. Awesome.

3. Riverwood. If you go to Millers Point and Daceyville for early twentieth century public housing, try the estate at Riverwood, 18 km southwest of Sydney, for the mid-twentieth century and beyond. The Riverwood estate presents an extraordinary sample of the various types of housing built by the Housing Commission after the Second World War: some detached cottages (mostly sold to residents); walk-up blocks of 2- and 3-bedroom flats; 'pensioner housing' (bedsits); some terrace houses; and the two 1970s high-rise towers, Jefferson and Lincoln. (All the streets, which are distinctively curvy in the suburban grid, are named on an American theme too, after the American army hospital built on the site during the war. None of the hospital buildings, at one time used by the Housing Commission for emergency housing, remain on the estate.)

You can also see the result of later programs for the 'improvement' of public housing estates – in particular, the addition in the 1990s of gatehouses and balconies on the blocks of flats, and the fencing of previously common grounds – and the beginnings of one of today's large public-private redevelopments, as blocks of flats and bedsits at the estate's northern edge make way for Riverwood North, which promises to build an equivalent amount of social housing, along with rather more units for sale to private owners. Finally, there's also the excellent Riverwood Community Centre, which got started in the 1970s under the Australian Assistance Plan of the Whitlam Government

There's many more places of note, of course. Still looking just at Sydney, there's Redfern and Waterloo. There's the Erskineville estate, which predates the Housing Commission (built in the 1930s by the Housing Improvement Board) and survived a proposal to redevelop it in the early 2000s, thanks to a spirited campaign by tenants and their neighbours. There's the Strickland flats, in Chippendale, a rare example of social housing built by local government (the City of Sydney, in 1914). There's Cartwright, part of the Green Valley estate, which was built in 1963 as the Commission's first instance of 'Radburn-type planning'. (The Commission explained in its annual report: 'basically the plan provides for pedestrian movement along a pathway system segregated as afar as possible from vehicular traffic. All mail and other household deliveries, garbage collections, etc will be made by means of short cul-de-sacs at the rear of the dwellings, which will also provide facilities for parking.... The adoption of Radburn-type planning for this neighbourhood was received enthusiastically by the public generally, and in particular, was favourably commented upon by many planning authorities.')

Many successful endeavours in providing better homes for the people... and some not so successful. But even in those places you'll see the endeavours of tenants and other residents and workers to get hold of the facilities and resources that planners and markets didn't deliver. There's lots to see and admire out there. 


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