Arts feature

Skyscraper squats and a lesson from India: the future of British architecture

Squatting, gutting and retrofitting – and a lesson from India: Stuart Jeffries looks at the future of British architecture

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

Not long ago, if you asked discreetly in the right Hackney pub, you would be put in touch with a character called Syd the Squatbroker. For as little as £150, he would gain access to the roof of an abandoned council tower block with a set of fireman’s keys. Then Syd (nom de guerre of a carpenter from Harlow) would abseil down to a window, gain entry and open an empty flat. Sometimes he would cut through heavy steel squat guards using oxyacetylene cutting gear.

Latter-day squatbrokers aren’t yet abseiling down the Shard or Canary Wharf’s glass and steel phalluses to liberate underused office spaces and thereby help solve London’s housing crisis, but you’d think they must be tempted. Post-Covid, home working is becoming permanent. Like many other businesses, Lloyds Bank is reviewing its office-space needs and working practices after concluding that most of its 65,000 staff have worked effectively from their kitchen tables. ‘I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,’ said Barclay’s chief executive Jes Staley.

Strap-hanging from Godalming, hot-desking, changing out of one’s pyjamas and doing coffee runs for people you don’t even like are being shown up for the nonsense they always were. ‘Many of us don’t want to go back to “normal” life,’ says the Indian architect Anupama Kundoo.

But if more people are going to be working from home, that will further exacerbate Britain’s housing crisis. Shelter last year reported that 320,000 people are homeless and more than 8,000 sleeping rough in London alone. The discrepancy between office oversupply and housing demand is set to increase further. What can be done? Boris Johnson issued the rallying cry ‘Build, build, build!’ in his summer speech, announcing a New Deal for Britain, but Kundoo suggests that maybe more architecture is not the answer. ‘Surely, we have had enough of the Legoification of our world,’ says Kundoo. ‘We need to take time to think rather than just build our way out of this crisis with houses that are not just ugly but leave nothing worthwhile to future generations.’

A better blueprint, she suggests, is the repurposing of old industrial buildings. ‘In Berlin, they became artist’s studios and apartments. The buildings were of high quality and were readily converted for new use with minimal environmental damage. So much better than demolishing and building something new.’ It’s a story that during the 1980s and ’90s repeated itself from Berlin’s Mitte to London’s Shoreditch and New York’s Lower East Side: artists colonised buildings nobody wanted any more, created a real-estate vortex that drew in sourdough bakers, beardy baristas and microbrewing hipsters and thereby kick-started a real-estate boom that did nothing to help solve homelessness but made some people very rich. Perhaps Canary Wharf, if it becomes unfit for purpose — Barclay’s is reportedly considering terminating its lease for its building in North Colonnade to cut costs — might become the new Shoreditch. Or maybe, suggests Kundoo, those speculative towers — cheese graters, walkie-talkies, gherkins, not to mention the one Docklands nicknamed ‘Thatcher’s cock’ — might ultimately be gutted. ‘There are lots of materials in them like steel stresses that could be recycled as the basis for more sustainable buildings,’ says Kundoo.

Certainly, there’s money to be made imagining what the post-Covid built environment will look like. Demolition of the towers of London may not be the answer, argues architect Richard Hyams of Astudio. Many of them should be reskinned. Which means? ‘Reskinning is a process that utilises the existing frame of a building and extends it to meet new demands for space, energy efficiency and other factors. It would be a cost-effective solution to repurposing commercial buildings for residential use, and deliver affordable housing at a faster rate than new builds.’ Such a reskin revolution is being spurred by liberalised planning laws. What is called ‘permitted development’ allows offices and shops to be converted without planning permission.

But reskinning is hardly a panacea. Five years ago, the property firm Almacantar converted Richard Seiffert’s 33-storey 1966 Centre Point office block near Tottenham Court Road into 82 apartments at a cost of £350 million. They were put on the market at eye-watering prices ranging from £1.8 million for a one-bedroom flat to £55 million for the 7,223 sq ft five-bedroom penthouse. It has since become a ghost tower because Almacantar gave up selling the apartments. Offers, the developers claimed, were ‘detached from reality’.

At the other end of the property market, the unpromisingly named Terminus House, a 14-storey concrete former office block in the centre of Harlow, Essex, has been retrofitted to house homeless families from London. Some flats are so small that one tenant reported that if you opened the front door you could not but hit the bed. Around the country — from Bradford to Bristol to Croydon — such grisly retrofitting of offices has created tens of thousands of such micro-flats, some measuring only ten square metres (11.5 sq m is the size of a standard parking space) in remote locations far from schools, shops and green spaces. At Innova House, an office-to-resi conversion handily located within eye- and earshot of Croydon flyover, one-bed micro-flats start at £280,000. Which is the kind of real-estate madness that might make it worth putting out feelers to find out if Syd the Squatbroker still has his oxyacetylene torch at the ready.

‘How,’ seethed Paul Finch, editorial director of Architects’ Journal, ‘can this government, which claims to believe that Scrutonesque “beauty” is the answer to our housing and planning problems, allow the creation of a generation of ghastly little…hutches via its permitted development policies?’ Finch claimed that ‘political pygmies’ failed to insert a clause into the relevant legislation requiring minimum space standards.

If we want more than hutches with vistas of flyovers, then we must think again. ‘There is one resource we all have equally,’ counsels Anupama Kundoo. ‘Time. But we do not use it. This man-made crisis may have a man-made solution, but building precipitately without thinking creatively and modestly about how we and our descendants want to live is madness. We all have the right to have a home and architects have a responsibility to make decent affordable homes that give them dignity.’ Kundoo has been making homes for the homeless in her native India for many years. In 2008, she built domed houses for homeless children in Pondicherry from mud, ferro-cement and upcycled waste. Bike wheels, cooking utensils and chai glasses were incorporated into the resulting, rather lovely structures.

Now, in a survey of Kundoo’s work in Copenhagen, visitors can see a full-scale replica of Full Fill Homes, another of her responses to growing homelessness. Each home can be built in seven days by the homeowner-to-be, using simple crates cast in ferro-cement. ‘My idea is to build prototypes for cheap, high-density housing. And at the same time to create new urban habitats where people collaborate and pool resources.’ That sounds like a dose of communism with an Ikea twist, I suggest to her. ‘Maybe owning and speculating in property is the problem,’ she retorts.

Can such Indian architecture help Britain’s post-Covid world? ‘The developing world can teach the developed world two things in this respect. One is living cheaply and sustainably. Not consuming resources all the time. And the other is living together in dignity.’ Will either happen? ‘I doubt it. I’m known as the alternative architect because I can’t make a living from building but only from teaching. You don’t make money building for homeless people.’

Maybe your profession is the cause of rather than the solution to our problems? Kundoo agrees. ‘It’s become about starchitects with huge egos making bombastic buildings and property speculators making fortunes from human misery. Before either of them existed we lived happily. We have gone recklessly in the wrong direction. Now we have time to put on the brakes and think about how we can build a world that we want to live in.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time is at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen, until 31 January 2021.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments