Full Text

Patrick Keiller

The Dilapidated Dwelling

Architecture_MPS    Vol. 6 No.3



Where I live, there seem to be two kinds of space. There is new space, in which none of the buildings are more than about ten years old, and there is old space, in which most of the buildings are at least twenty years old, a lot of them over ninety years old, and all are more or less dilapidated. Most of the old space is residential, but there are also small shops, banks, cafés, public houses, a health centre, a library, a social security office, schools, and so on. Most of the new space is occupied by large corporations of one sort or another, a few of them international in scope, and it is not urban in the conventional sense. It includes retail sheds; supermarkets; fast food restaurants; a Travel Inn; a business park; distribution warehouses; tyre, exhaust and windscreen service centres, and so on. Most of these places have large car parks and security cameras. There is a lot of new space under construction, it goes up fast, and more is proposed. Buildings in new space do not have to last very long. In some of the older new space the original buildings have already been replaced by new ones.

The old space looks poor, even when it isn’t. Much of it is poor, but when it isn’t, the dilapidation is still striking. Old space appears to be difficult to maintain. A lot of the shops don’t look as if they’re doing very well. The cybercafé didn’t last very long. The public institutions, if they are lucky, manage to maintain their buildings. The public lavatories are in a terrible state, though they are very photogenic. In the street, there is a fair amount of outdoor drinking, and according to the police who attend burglaries, there is a lot of heroin about. A lot of houses have burglar alarms. Some have cable television or internet access.

At the moment, the residential property market is busy. There are always a lot of builders working, but most of them don’t have the skills, the materials or the time to be particularly conscientious about anything beyond short-term performance. The conservationist is, as always, frustrated, and if anyone is responsible for the surfaces of old space, it is these builders and their clients.

In old space, apart from the smaller branches of banks and supermarket chains, the activities of large corporations are not very visible. A local estate agent, for example, is likely to be a major bank, building society or insurance company in disguise. Dilapidated houses are bought with mortgages from building societies, banks and other large corporations. A lot of small shops are franchises. The utility companies’ installations are mostly underground, or in anonymous boxes which one tends not to notice. TV aerials and satellite dishes quickly blend with the domestic scene.

The dilapidation of old space seems to have increased, in an Orwellian way, with the centralisation of media and political power – by the disempowerment of local government, for instance. At the same time, experience of dilapidation is tempered by the promise of immediate virtual or imminent actual presence elsewhere, through telecommunications and cheap travel. As I stand at the bus stop with my carrier bags in the rain, I can window shop cheap tickets to Bali, or contemplate Hong Kong, Antarctica or Santa Cruz as webcam images on my Nokia; or I could if I had one – the virtual elsewhere seems, if anything, most effective as mere possibility, as a frisson.

New space is mostly work space. An increasing proportion of ‘economically active’ people work in new space. Most of those who are not ‘economically active’ visit it fairly frequently, at least for the weekly shop, but they do not spend much time there. A very large number of people are not ‘economically active’ – they are physically or mentally ill, children, non-working parents, ‘voluntary’ carers, the unemployed, pop stars in waiting, unpublished novelists, the early or otherwise retired, and other non-employed people. For these people, everyday surroundings are old space, and old space is mostly residential space – houses and flats. Residential space has a visiting workforce: the window cleaner, the decorator, the meter reader, the washing-machine engineer, the plumber, the small builder; and on-site earners – slaving away at Christmas crackers, clothes, poetry or television research. Despite the talk about corporate home-working and the long-expected ‘death of the office’, most of the above are likely to be self-employed, and very few of them at all well paid. The real economic activity of residential space – housework, most of it involved with child-rearing – is not paid at all. It was recently estimated that the real value of housework in the UK is £739 billion, 22 per cent more than the current value of the UK’s GDP.[i] On average, people in the UK spend only 12 per cent of their total time in paid work.[ii] Although unpaid, child-rearing is presumably the most significant of all economic activities in that it shapes – though not always directly – the values and attitudes of the next generation of wealth-creators. New space, on the other hand, is mostly corporate, company-car territory. There are plenty of women working in new space, often in senior roles, but the structures and work patterns in these places do not easily accommodate active parenthood. Most flexible part-time work suited to the child-rearer pays under £4 an hour.

In the UK, housing takes up around 70 per cent of urban land.[iii] Its housing stock is the oldest in Europe, with an average age estimated at about sixty years. A quarter of the stock was built before the end of the First World War.[iv] There are about 24 million dwellings in all,[v] but in the last twenty years the rate of new house-building has fallen to only 150,000 per year, largely because of the elimination of public-sector house-building.[vi] In the UK, most new housing is built by developers for sale on completion, and is widely criticised as unsophisticated and overpriced.[vii] In other developed economies, house production occurs in different ways, but if the UK is taken as the extreme example of a laissez-faire system operating in a built-up landscape with a restricted land supply, one can perhaps discern a general tendency, in that under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling. This is especially odd given that dwellings constitute the greater part of the built environment, that they are the spaces where most people spend most of their time, and where what is arguably the real ‘work’ of society is done. Modernity, it seems, is exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling.

During the last twenty years or so, domestic life has been transformed in many more or less electronic ways: supermarket distribution, increased unemployment and early retirement, programmable gas heating, computerised banking, new TV, video, audio, telecommunications, the personal computer and the internet. Most of these things make it easier to stay at home, and many of them make it more difficult to go out, but the house itself has changed very little. The supermarkets, with computerised distribution and warehousing, and big trucks on modern roads, have transformed the UK’s food market and shopping habits, creating a mass market in cosmopolitan food and drink that was previously only available in a few parts of London. In the same period, house production has merely declined, though supermarkets now offer mortgages. For the corporate economy, the house seems to exist only as a given, a destination for sales of consumable materials and services.

There are many reasons why this might be the case. Firstly, houses last a long time. House-building is also by its nature a very local undertaking, even for the largest producers. Wimpey, which claims to be the largest house-builder in the world, only seems to advertise its developments locally. The tendencies in production that have brought Ford to the Mondeo – the world car – have never been widely applied to house production. Despite the best efforts of several generations of architects, houses are still not manufactured off-site, and are not generally susceptible to distribution. When they are available in this way, the purchaser is faced with the problem of finding a site on which to erect a single house, which in the UK is very difficult. IKEA have started to produce prefabricated dwellings, but so far for assembly only by the company itself on its own development sites. There have been many impressive examples of factory-produced houses since the eighteenth century, but never in very large numbers.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, less than 1 per cent of the UK’s national income was spent on house-building.[viii] Since before the time of Engels, industrial capitalism has been more typically accompanied by the production of large but insufficient numbers of poor-quality houses, palatial workplaces, and a small number of millionaires’ mansions: the Rothschilds’ houses of Mentmore and Waddesdon, for example, or Bill Gates’s $50 million house on the shore of Lake Washington, near Seattle. It seems that, for capitalism, houses are a means of centralising wealth, rather than products to be distributed. In the last hundred years, relative to earnings, food and most manufactured goods have become much cheaper, but houses have become more expensive both to build and to buy. Industrial production has not been very successful at producing houses for the people who are otherwise its consumers: most of the best housing developments of the last century or so seem to have been undertaken outside the market, by philanthropic employers, civic bodies or committed individuals and groups.

Since the late 1970s, ‘housing’ has been an unfashionable subject for architects and theorists. With a few notable exceptions – the architecture of Walter Segal, for instance – there has been very little house-building of any architectural interest in the UK beyond a few one-off houses, these often for architects themselves. Among theorists and other writers, the very idea of dwelling has been recognised as problematic. For example:

Architects have long been attacking the idea that architecture should be essentially stable, material and anchored to a particular location in space. One of the main targets for those who would make architecture more dynamic is of course that bulwark of inertia and confinement, the outer casing of our dwelling place that we call a house. Which explains why, as early as 1914, the Futurists put their main emphasis – at least in theory – on the complex places of transit:

‘We are [the men] of big hotels, railway stations, immense roads, colossal ports, covered markets, brilliantly lit galleries …’

… We are dissatisfied because we are no longer able to come up with a truly promising form of architecture in which we would like to live. We have become nomads, restlessly wandering about, even if we are sedentary and our wanderings consist of flipping through the television channels.[ix]

On the other hand:

Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings; railway stations and highways, dams and market halls are built, but they are not dwelling places. Even so, these buildings are in the domain of our dwelling. That domain extends over these buildings and yet is not limited to the dwelling place.[x]

In a culture in which so much of the space of work and transit is new, modern and professionally produced, but so much home space is old, amateurish and artlessly hand-made, one tends to forget that, like the industrial landscapes that inspired the modernist avant-gardes, the corporate economy only exists because it has been able to develop global markets in the necessities and longings of domestic life.

The dominant narratives of modernity – as mobility and instant communication – appear to be about work and travel, not home. They are constructions of a work-oriented academic élite about a work-oriented business élite. However, as Saskia Sassen points out, ‘a large share of the jobs involved in finance are lowly paid clerical and manual jobs, many held by women and immigrants’:

The city concentrates diversity. Its spaces are inscribed with the dominant corporate culture but also with a multiplicity of other cultures and identities. The dominant culture can encompass only part of the city. And while corporate power inscribes non-corporate cultures and identities with ‘otherness’, thereby devaluing them, they are present everywhere. This presence is especially strong in our major cities which also have the largest concentrations of corporate power. We see here an interesting correspondence between great concentrations of corporate power and large concentrations of ‘others’. It invites us to see that globalisation is not only constituted in terms of capital and the new international corporate culture (international finance, telecommunications, information flows) but also in terms of people and non-corporate cultures. There is a whole infrastructure of low-wage, non-professional jobs and activities that constitute a crucial part of the so-called corporate economy.[xi]

Dwellings are rarely corporate space (see Billy Wilder’s The Apartment). Are dwellings ‘other’? The ‘other’ space in the city centres, where corporate power is concentrated, is usually the dwelling space of ‘other’ cultures and identities. The dwellings of corporate insiders are usually located at a distance, but even they live in homes that represent a level of investment per square metre that is only a fraction of that made in their workplaces. At the same time, domesticity is characterised by intimacy, the ‘nearness’ that Kenneth Frampton noted as increasingly absent from architecture,[xii] presumably most of all from corporate architecture. Perhaps these qualities of domesticity are ‘other’ to the corporate economy, even in the homes of corporate insiders? Perhaps we are all ‘others’ when we are at home?

Marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and pervasive; this cultural activity of the non-producers of culture, an activity that is unsigned, unreadable and unsymbolised, remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself. Marginality is becoming universal. A marginal group has now become a silent majority.[xiii]

Heidegger’s formulation of dwelling certainly sounds unfashionable:


Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build. Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and which, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the ‘tree of the dead’ – for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum ­– and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time. A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse.[xiv]


This was the essay invoked by Kenneth Frampton towards the end of his Modern Architecture: A Critical History as a recognition of a quality of experience that many believed most modern building had lost; this loss being, they said, why many people had rejected modern architecture, and why, perhaps, we have speculative housebuilders who build houses for sale that are supposed to resemble the tied cottages of Victorian farm workers.

Richard Sennett, in a lecture in 1992, pointed out that Heidegger neglected the stupefying nature of dwelling, and that in fact dwelling and thinking are antithetical. The creativity of cities, said Sennett, arises from their being sites of unresolved conflict between thinking and dwelling.

It is easy to poke fun at Heidegger’s notion of dwelling – so nostalgic, so conservative, so agricultural – so at odds with a quasi-nomadic hunter-gatherer present as to be unhelpful, if not actually undesirable, especially in the context of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism in the 1930s. Although the house he evokes is exemplary as a work of architecture (and has the required longevity), the social fabric – the dwelling – that produced it is almost unattainable, unsupportable, though perhaps not quite. In a letter responding to some questions about house-building, a friend wrote:

Recently we visited together with students of architecture the small village Halen in Switzerland, designed by Atelier 5, still located in an unspoiled forest. The extremely narrow terraced houses with small private courtyards and a central public place, built more than 30 years ago, were in a perfect state, well kept, partly modernised (insulation of the external walls). The common installations like the shop in the piazza, the petrol station, the swimming pool and the tennis lawn were still working and in good condition. The community, now living in the houses, were to a high percentage the children and grandchildren of the initial owners. They have returned after they first had left the houses of their parents.

Frampton has described Siedlung Halen as ‘one of the most seminal pieces of land settlement built in Europe since the end of the Second World War … a model for reconciling development with place-creation and with the maintenance of ecological balance’.[xv] If Halen represents something approaching the modern attainment of Heidegger’s dwelling, as Frampton seems to suggest by his subsequent reference to Heidegger, it is intriguing to learn that many of those who live there occupy the houses of their parents.

We are more familiar with this kind of dwelling in the context of its loss. In a World Service radio interview, a Bosnian refugee in Mostar longs to return to his house in Stolac, 50 kilometres away, from which he was evicted by his Croat neighbours, even though the town is still under Croat control: ‘My family has lived in Stolac for centuries … I love the smell of the river…’ For most of us, there is another kind of dwelling:

The purpose of this work is to … bring to light the models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society (a status that does not mean that they are either passive or docile) is concealed by the euphemistic term ‘consumers’.

… In our societies, as local stabilities break down, it is as if, no longer fixed by a circumscribed community, tactics wander out of orbit, making consumers into immigrants in a system too vast to be their own, too tightly woven for them to escape from it.

… Increasingly constrained, yet less and less concerned with these vast frameworks, the individual detaches himself from them without being able to escape them and can henceforth only try to outwit them, to pull tricks on them, to rediscover, within an electronicised and computerised megalopolis, the ‘art’ of the hunters and rural folk of earlier days.[xvi]

If we think of ourselves as consumers in this way, perhaps our difficulties with housing are easier to understand. How is housing consumed?

In the context of the urban home in the UK, de Certeau’s notion of ‘tactics’ as a response to the predicament of being a consumer evokes not so much do-it-yourself – currently a bigger market in the UK than new house-building ­– but the way that the character of the public-sector housing ‘estate’ is changing ‘as local stabilities break down’. In inner London and elsewhere, the system of allocating public-sector housing on a basis which reflected its philanthropic origins in the nineteenth century has been fractured since the 1970s by ideas like the ‘hard-to-let’ flat, by the ‘right to buy’ and by an increase in social mobility generally. Public-sector housing was financed by sixty-year loans, and was often designed by critically respected architects. It aimed to be of far better quality than that produced by the private sector. Often the more architecturally ambitious developments (including some influenced by the model of Halen) were difficult to build and were regarded as problematic early in their history, but some of them have aged well and have gradually accumulated populations who find them attractive as places to live.


Alexandra Road Estate, London NW8, in 1999, designed by Neave Brown of London Borough of Camden’s Architects Department in 1968, completed in 1978

Whatever the wider implications, perhaps architects can take some comfort from this. The notion of ‘the everyday’ in architecture offers a welcome relief from conventional interpretations of architectural value, especially in a culture where most ‘everyday’ building is not produced with much architectural intention, but it seems to affirm the spatial quality and detail of architects’ architecture where it exists. Similarly, the subjective transformations of spatial experience characteristic of both the Surrealists and the Situationists might seem to promise a way of transcending assumptions of spatial poverty, of transforming ‘even the most colourless’ localities, as Breton said of Aragon’s ‘spellbinding romantic inventiveness’,[xvii] but in practice both groups were quite selective about the sites they favoured. In the long run, spatial and other architectural qualities seem to survive, though often not in the way that was expected.

The UK’s new Labour government seems to be prepared to leave house-building to the private sector, even for the showcase Millennium Village development next to the dome at Greenwich. The long-term success of the Lansbury estate in Poplar, which was built as the housing showcase for the 1951 Festival of Britain, has not prompted Labour to recall that its commitment to public-sector housing produced so many internationally acclaimed housing developments between 1945 and the early 1970s. Not long before the 1997 election, Richard, Lord Rogers, newly ennobled in preparation for a Labour victory, presented an edition of the BBC’s Building Sights – in which celebrities present favourite buildings – for which he selected the former London County Council’s Alton Estate at Roehampton in south-west London – the Modern Movement landmark of 1952–59. This timely endorsement of the heroic period of public-sector housing seems not to have awakened any enthusiasms among members of the new government.

Instead, Labour has said little about housing, but appears to be giving tacit support to various private-sector proposals for ‘super-villages’: 5,200 new houses near Peterborough; 3,000 at Micheldever in Hampshire; between 5,000 and 10,000 houses west of Stevenage; and 3,300 houses in three new villages near Cambridge, ‘masterplanned’ by the architect Terry Farrell for a consortium of Alfred McAlpine, Bryant and Bovis in ‘Cambridgeshire vernacular’, an attempt to create ‘a traditional village, with village greens with cricket pavilions, local shops and pubs’ and a 69,677-square-metre business park. With or without cricket pavilions, none of these developments sound as if they will have much chance of either ‘reconciling development with place-creation and the maintenance of ecological balance’ or attempting to reconfigure the house as something approaching a successful industrial product.

Labour’s belief in finding an accommodation with the market seems to preclude a revival of public-sector house-building on anything like its former scale, but the history of house-building suggests that the market will never be able to modernise dwelling on its own, and Labour is committed to modernisation. If there is to be any possibility for a more promising approach to dwelling, it is very unlikely to come from the conventional house-building industry. Some of the most successful house-building projects in the UK during the last two decades have been non-commercial initiatives that included houses for sale. In the Netherlands, the government’s VINEX policy aims to build 800,000 dwellings by the year 2000, in a planned programme with commitments to credible architectural design and environmental and transport policies. This approach produces domestic architecture for sale of a quality that house buyers in the UK can only dream about. If house production in the UK is to undergo any kind of consumer-led reform, it looks as if this can only happen in the context of similar collectivist initiatives.

[i] Office for National Statistics, reported in the Guardian, 7 October 1997. The figure was for unpaid work valued at the same rate as average paid employment.

[ii] ONS, reported in the Guardian, 7 October 1997.

[iii] Michael Ball, Housing and Construction: A Troubled Relationship? (Bristol: Policy Press, 1996), p. 1.

[iv] Philip Leather and Tanya Morrison, The State of UK Housing (Bristol: Policy Press, 1997), p. 21.

[v] Central Statistical Office, Regional Trends, 1995 edition (London: HMSO), p. 94.

[vi] Ball, Housing and Construction, p. 7.

[vii] Ibid., p. 47.

[viii] Ibid., p. 8.

[ix] Florian Rötzer, ‘Space and Virtuality: Some Observations on Architecture’, in Bernd Meurer, ed., The Future of Space (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1994), pp. 205–19, at pp. 205–6, 216–17.

[x] Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, in Poetry, Language, Thought, transl. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 145–61, at p. 145.

[xi] Saskia Sassen, ‘Economy and Culture in the Global City’, in Meurer, Future of Space, pp. 71–89, at p. 74.

[xii] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980), p. 312.

[xiii] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, transl. Steven Randall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. xvii.

[xiv] Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, p. 160.

[xv] Frampton, Modern Architecture, p. 311.

[xvi] de Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, pp. xi–xii, xx, xxiii–iv.

[xvii] André Breton, quoted from a radio interview in Simon Watson Taylor’s introduction to his translation of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (London: Picador, 1980), p. 10.


This piece was published in: Keiller, Patrick. 2013. The view from the train: cities and other landscapes. London: Verso.


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