In praise of cheapness and innovation

Dr Stéphane Sadoux considers the impact of Garden Cities on the development of affordable housing and architectural innovation

It is no secret that garden cities made an immense contribution to the theory and practice of town planning throughout the world. However, part of their legacy appears to have been overshadowed by a few crucial issues which Howard identified and addressed, in particular land value capture for the benefit of the community. 

Amidst the extensive literature dealing with Garden Cities, very little has been written about the role of architectural innovation as a means of producing low cost – yet high quality – housing in early 20th century Garden Cities. The Cheap Cottages Exhibition held in Letchworth in 1905 gave architects and builders an opportunity to design and erect houses that could cost no more than £150. The fact that land in Letchworth was owned by First Garden City Ltd. meant that many of the building regulations of the time did not apply to these experiments, thus giving architects more leeway to test new ways of using and processing various materials including iron, expanded metal, steel and plaster, concrete, artificial stone and wood. 

Over one hundred and thirty cottages were built and nearly all of them are still standing and lived in today. Approximately seventy thousand visitors were attracted to Letchworth during the exhibition and this success prompted the organisation of a second similar event in 1907.  

Welwyn Garden City equally acted as a catalyst for architectural innovation in 1922 when a model village neighbourhood was incorporated in the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition held that year. Over forty houses were built, using a range of materials and construction techniques. Following the exhibition, they were sold and are also still lived in today. Welwyn made an additional contribution to addressing diverse housing needs and aspirations by providing self-build plots. 

Over half a century later, the Homeworld exhibition held in Milton Keynes (1981) carried on the tradition of showcasing architectural innovation in planned settlements. Thirty-six houses were built and many of them addressed energy efficiency – a way of showing that the environmental cost of housing should also be low.

Today, the need to address land value capture is as relevant as ever. This, however, does not mean that the affordable housing debate should boil down to land economics and this is something which early 20th garden cities clearly demonstrated. Architects, developers and anyone wishing to build must tackle the issue head on and should be given the opportunity to do so. 

Garden Cities have often been quoted as examples of boldness. John Prescott once suggested that the competition he asked English Partnerships to run in 1997 for the Greenwich Peninsula development aimed at creating a model development for the new millennium: “I wanted an example for others to follow – like the Garden Cities of the 20th century” , he said. In 2014, Nick Clegg announced new Garden Cities were to be built in Britain, stating that this project was a “call to arms for visionaries in local areas in need of housing to put forward radical and ambitious proposals to develop their own Garden Cities”. 

Architecture has a key role to play in the design and delivery of such visionary new settlements. It is one of the keys to producing high quality low cost housing. It is also central to celebrating local traditions, materials and know-how.  In other words, building cultures and local communities.   

The Centre of Excellence in Architecture, Environment & Building Cultures is proud to be an academic partner of the Institute. This partnership has resulted in a joint research programme focusing on the cheap housing exhibitions held in early 20th century Garden Cities in Britain. A group of researchers from Grenoble visited the Garden City Collection last January to start gathering information about these events that certainly deserve more attention than they have been given, particularly in the academic world. 

This joint research programme brings together academics from the Grenoble School of Architecture and the University of Hertfordshire (historians, architects, planners) and, of course, the curators of the Garden City Collection.  We are very excited to be involved in this research project which will contribute to the Institute’s work as a resource centre for garden cities.

  • Dr Stéphane Sadoux is Director of the Centre for Research in Building Cultures, Centre of Excellence in Architecture, Environment & Building Cultures (LabEx AE&CC), Grenoble School of Architecture (ENSAG), Université Grenoble Alpes, France. LabEx AE&CC is an academic partner of the International Garden Cities Institute.

[1]English Partnerships, Greenwich Peninsula : Investing the 21th century, 2004, p.1.