We begin a new series of posts this week by Adam Dudley, an experienced architect who specialises in community architecture. Adam provides a detailed analysis of the aspirations and realities behind the original construction of Wester Hailes. Based on his personal memories and experiences, Adam reflects both on the building process and some of the wider issues and lessons to be drawn from what happened.
MEMOIRS OF A COMMUNITY ARCHITECT- THE BAD, THE GOOD AND THE UGLY
Sometime around the mid 1960’s, in their initial report to the Planning Department, entitled ‘Wester Hailes – A Plan for a City Suburb’, the master planners and architects for the project, Sir Frank Mears & Partners, estimated that a total of 4,000 houses, consisting generally of 2 and 4 apartments, could be built on the site. Whilst some ‘higher’ housing blocks were envisaged, the architects had recommended that the housing should generally not exceed 8 or 9 storeys ‘for architectural and social reasons’. The architect’s plan, their report concluded, ‘embodies modern techniques which can ensure that the future residents may walk and drive in Wester Hailes with safety, convenience, enjoyment, and without conflict. It is hoped that in its final working out and materialisation, it will achieve in 20th century terms some of the civic qualities of former times.’ A schematic plan of the proposals for the Wester Hailes suburb, alongside plans of Edinburgh’s old and new towns were appended to the report to underpin this ‘vision’, complete with artists’ impressions of the proposals.
The Architect’s Vision
By 1975 the suburb of Wester Hailes was complete, although the promenades, courtyards, and lakeside views which had been depicted in the initial design report never did quite materialise. In reality some 4550 house were built on the site, rather than the 4000 houses originally estimated. Building contracts for the works had been secured by both competitive tendering and by negotiation, incorporating industrialised building systems. Of the ten separate housing contracts, five were carried out by J Smart & Co. contractors, one by Hart Builders, and four were design and build contracts. According to the Council, all of the houses were ‘built to the relevant space standards, they accord with the Building Regulations, and have an economic life of 60 years.’ [F1]
The year is 1980. I am 23 years old and I am back living with my mother and brothers in Clovenstone whilst in my final year at Heriot Watt University, studying architecture. For the main project of the year I have chosen to look at the failings of public housing, and to focus on Wester Hailes in particular.
The shortcomings of the existing built environment of Wester Hailes had already been well documented in previous studies, such as ‘Wester Hailes speaks for itself’ prepared by residents in 1977, and ‘Wester Hailes – a perspective of community needs’, prepared by the local authority’s Community Research Section. Given the body of evidence, it seemed therefore appropriate that I should consult the master planners and architects of Wester Hailes directly to see if they could provide some special insight into why their collective vision might have failed.
An interview with Mr Jimerson of Sir Frank Mears & Partners was duly arranged, during which I recorded the architect’s account of the various difficulties which impacted on the final design. From my notes taken at the time, the following explanations were given: Continue reading