Issue 9
ISSUE
STORY TYPE
AUTHOR
11
PEOPLE
July 15, 2024
Buildings That Grow from a Place
by Anthony Paletta
10
URBANISM
June 24, 2024
What We Lose When a Historic Building Is Demolished
by Owen Hatherley
10
PERSPECTIVE
June 17, 2024
We Need More Than Fewer, Better Things
by Deb Chachra
10
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
June 3, 2024
An Ode to Garages
by Charlie Weak
10
PERSPECTIVE
May 28, 2024
In Search of Domestic Kintsugi
by Edwin Heathcote
10
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
May 13, 2024
The Perils of the Landscapes We Make
by Karrie Jacobs
10
PERSPECTIVE
May 6, 2024
Using Simple Tools as a Radical Act of Independence
by Jarrett Fuller
9
PERSPECTIVE
April 29, 2024
Why Can’t I Just Go Home?
by Eva Hagberg
9
PEOPLE
April 22, 2024
Why Did Our Homes Stop Evolving?
by George Kafka
9
ROUNDTABLE
April 8, 2024
Spaces Where the Body Is a Vital Force
by Tiffany Jow
9
BOOK REVIEW
April 1, 2024
Tracing the Agency of Women as Users and Experts of Architecture
by Mimi Zeiger
9
PERSPECTIVE
March 25, 2024
Are You Sitting in a Non-Place?
by Mzwakhe Ndlovu
9
ROUNDTABLE
March 11, 2024
At Home, Connecting in Place
by Marianela D’Aprile
9
PEOPLE
March 4, 2024
VALIE EXPORT’s Tactical Urbanism
by Alissa Walker
8
PERSPECTIVE
February 26, 2024
What the “Whole Earth Catalog” Taught Me About Building Utopias
by Anjulie Rao
8
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
February 19, 2024
How a Run-Down District in London Became a Model for Neighborhood Revitalization
by Ellen Peirson
8
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
February 12, 2024
In Brooklyn, Housing That Defies the Status Quo
by Gideon Fink Shapiro
8
PERSPECTIVE
February 5, 2024
That “Net-Zero” Home Is Probably Living a Lie
by Fred A. Bernstein
8
PERSPECTIVE
January 22, 2024
The Virtue of Corporate Architecture Firms
by Kate Wagner
8
PERSPECTIVE
January 16, 2024
How Infrastructure Shapes Us
by Deb Chachra
8
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
January 8, 2024
The Defiance of Desire Lines
by Jim Stephenson
7
PEOPLE
December 18, 2023
This House Is Related to You and to Your Nonhuman Relatives
by Sebastián López Cardozo
7
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
December 11, 2023
What’s the Point of the Plus Pool?
by Ian Volner
7
BOOK REVIEW
December 4, 2023
The Extraordinary Link Between Aerobics and Architecture
by Jarrett Fuller
7
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
November 27, 2023
Architecture That Promotes Healing and Fortifies Us for Action
by Kathryn O’Rourke
7
PEOPLE
November 6, 2023
How to Design for Experience
by Diana Budds
7
PEOPLE
October 30, 2023
The Meaty Objects at Marta
by Jonathan Griffin
6
OBJECTS
October 23, 2023
How Oliver Grabes Led Braun Back to Its Roots
by Marianela D’Aprile
6
URBANISM
October 16, 2023
Can Adaptive Reuse Fuel Equitable Revitalization?
by Clayton Page Aldern
6
PERSPECTIVE
October 9, 2023
What’s the Point of a Tiny Home?
by Mimi Zeiger
6
OBJECTS
October 2, 2023
A Book Where Torn-Paper Blobs Convey Big Ideas
by Julie Lasky
6
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
September 24, 2023
The Architecture of Doing Nothing
by Edwin Heathcote
6
BOOK REVIEW
September 18, 2023
What the “Liebes Look” Says About Dorothy Liebes
by Debika Ray
6
PEOPLE
September 11, 2023
Roy McMakin’s Overpowering Simplicity
by Eva Hagberg
6
OBJECTS
September 5, 2023
Minimalism’s Specific Objecthood, Interpreted by Designers of Today
by Glenn Adamson
5
ROUNDTABLE
August 28, 2023
How Joan Jonas and Eiko Otake Navigate Transition
by Siobhan Burke
5
OBJECTS
August 21, 2023
The Future-Proofing Work of Design-Brand Archivists
by Adrian Madlener
5
URBANISM
August 14, 2023
Can a Church Solve Canada’s Housing Crisis?
by Alex Bozikovic
5
PEOPLE
August 7, 2023
In Search of Healing, Helen Cammock Confronts the Past
by Jesse Dorris
5
URBANISM
July 31, 2023
What Dead Malls, Office Parks, and Big-Box Stores Can Do for Housing
by Ian Volner
5
PERSPECTIVE
July 24, 2023
A Righteous Way to Solve “Wicked” Problems
by Susan Yelavich
5
OBJECTS
July 17, 2023
Making a Mess, with a Higher Purpose
by Andrew Russeth
5
ROUNDTABLE
July 10, 2023
How to Emerge from a Starchitect’s Shadow
by Cynthia Rosenfeld
4
PEOPLE
June 26, 2023
There Is No One-Size-Fits-All in Architecture
by Marianela D’Aprile
4
PEOPLE
June 19, 2023
How Time Shapes Amin Taha’s Unconventionally Handsome Buildings
by George Kafka
4
PEOPLE
June 12, 2023
Seeing and Being Seen in JEB’s Radical Archive of Lesbian Photography
by Svetlana Kitto
4
PERSPECTIVE
June 5, 2023
In Built Environments, Planting Where It Matters Most
by Karrie Jacobs
3
PERSPECTIVE
May 30, 2023
On the Home Front, a Latine Aesthetic’s Ordinary Exuberance
by Anjulie Rao
3
PERSPECTIVE
May 21, 2023
For a Selfie (and Enlightenment), Make a Pilgrimage to Bridge No. 3
by Alexandra Lange
3
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
May 8, 2023
The Building Materials of the Future Might Be Growing in Your Backyard
by Marianna Janowicz
3
BOOK REVIEW
May 1, 2023
Moving Beyond the “Fetishisation of the Forest”
by Edwin Heathcote
2
ROUNDTABLE
April 24, 2023
Is Craft Still Synonymous with the Hand?
by Tiffany Jow
2
PEOPLE
April 17, 2023
A Historian Debunks Myths About Lacemaking, On LaceTok and IRL
by Julie Lasky
2
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
April 10, 2023
How AI Helps Architects Design, and Refine, Their Buildings
by Ian Volner
2
PEOPLE
April 3, 2023
Merging Computer and Loom, a Septuagenarian Artist Weaves Her View of the World
by Francesca Perry
1
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
March 27, 2023
Words That Impede Architecture, According to Reinier de Graaf
by Osman Can Yerebakan
1
PEOPLE
March 20, 2023
Painting With Plaster, Monica Curiel Finds a Release
by Andrew Russeth
1
PERSPECTIVE
March 13, 2023
Rules and Roles in Life, Love, and Architecture
by Eva Hagberg
1
Roundtable
March 6, 2023
A Design Movement That Pushes Beyond Architecture’s Limitations
by Tiffany Jow
0
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
February 7, 2023
To Improve the Future of Public Housing, This Architecture Firm Looks to the Past
by Ian Volner
0
OBJECTS
February 7, 2023
The Radical Potential of “Prime Objects”
by Glenn Adamson
0
PEOPLE
February 20, 2023
Xiyadie’s Queer Cosmos
by Xin Wang
0
PEOPLE
February 13, 2023
How Michael J. Love’s Subversive Tap Dancing Steps Forward
by Jesse Dorris
0
SHOW AND TELL
February 7, 2023
Finding Healing and Transformation Through Good Black Art
by Folasade Ologundudu
0
BOOK REVIEW
February 13, 2023
How Stephen Burks “Future-Proofs” Craft
by Francesca Perry
0
ROUNDTABLE
February 27, 2023
Making Use of End Users’ Indispensable Wisdom
by Tiffany Jow
0
PEOPLE
February 7, 2023
The New Lessons Architect Steven Harris Learns from Driving Old Porsches
by Jonathan Schultz
0
PERSPECTIVE
February 7, 2023
The Day Architecture Stopped
by Kate Wagner
0
OBJECTS
February 7, 2023
The Overlooked Potential of Everyday Objects
by Adrian Madlener
0
ROUNDTABLE
February 7, 2023
A Conversation About Generalists, Velocity, and the Source of Innovation
by Tiffany Jow
0
OBJECTS
February 7, 2023
Using a Fungi-Infused Paste, Blast Studio Turns Trash Into Treasure
by Natalia Rachlin
Untapped is published by the design company Henrybuilt.
THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
02.19.2024
How a Run-Down District in London Became a Model for Neighborhood Revitalization

Early-20th-century Somers Town is where one can see facets of the housing crisis and its myths played out—and disproved.

Black and white image of two-story terraced brick houses in 1920s Somers Town
Terraced houses in Somers Town, in 1927. (Courtesy: LCC Photograph Library)


Lining the margins of Irene Barclay’s 1976 book, People Need Roots, are intricate illustrations of bedbugs. The title describes her life’s work, as the first female chartered surveyor in the United Kingdom, assessing and improving the living conditions in Somers Town, a place already dilapidated before the First World War that became one of London’s most notorious slums during the interwar period. The insects represent the squalor Barclay encountered in the area’s rundown Victorian terraced houses. They were infested with the bugs (as well as with rats and black beetles), and overcome with dry rot, crumbling plaster, and sodden, bulging brickwork.

Surrounded on the east by the Kings Cross and St. Pancras stations, Euston to the west, and chiseled away at by the governmental showpieces of the British Library and the Francis Crick Institute, Somers Town has always been in the process of becoming, being shaped and reshaped by the engine of improvement that perennially rolls through London. The slow but continual expansion of the three major train stations serving the north of England means the area now considered Somers Town is about half the size of what it once was—many of its slums have been bulldozed and their tenants displaced—but it is rich in stories of housing injustices and activism, of decay and improvement. It is a site where people were sensitively and humanely rehoused, where homes were reformed, where community was reinvigorated. Somers Town is where one can see facets of the housing crisis and its myths played out—that the crisis is an accident, that it’s too unwieldy and complicated to solve, that scarcity begets more scarcity—and disproved.

It is 1919 when this story begins, as the U.K. was still recovering from the war and London faced a dire housing crisis marked by extreme poverty and squalor. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 lifted gender-based restrictions on the ability to become lawyers and civil servants, and so in 1922, Barclay became a chartered surveyor (a broad role that can involve the management, purchase, sale, leasing, valuing, and surveying of land and property), followed by Evelyn Perry the next year, with whom Barclay entered into practice in 1924.

By the start of that decade, it was estimated that more than 600,000 people lived in slum conditions in London, in accommodations presided over by heartless slumlords who took advantage of the high demand for cheap housing. The lack of adequate sanitation facilities meant a prevalence of illnesses, including tuberculosis and cholera, and shortened life expectancies. This was particularly true for Somers Town: People were drawn in to work on building the rapidly expanding railway networks, resulting in an influx of working-class families. The once-decent houses were overcrowded with entire families living in single rooms, and the neighborhood was caked in soot and dust.

Barclay came from a family of socialists and reformers. Growing up, she wanted to be a doctor, then a teacher, and then a social worker, to the surprise of an ardent socialist school friend who remarked that she would be “mopping up the oceans of misery with a teaspoon instead of drying the springs at their sources!” Such humble beginnings describe the life Barclay ultimately created for herself: never becoming a social worker in the traditional sense, but dedicating her life to service, and to making the changes she wanted to see in society in the expanse of one community, one street, or one house, at a time.

Barclay and Perry developed a new form of practice in surveying. Their accounts of slum conditions in London involved both extensive records of internal and external building fabric, and intimate engagement with residents. Everything that was there was meticulously recorded so that the plight of slum-dwellers could both be seen and be taken seriously; housing reform would come sooner for the communities that Barclay and Perry worked within.

In 1925, Barclay joined the newly formed St. Pancras Housing Improvement Society (later renamed St. Pancras Housing Association, and now known as Origin Housing), founded by her mentor, Edith Neville, along with Father Basil Jellicoe and Percy Maryon-Wilson. She became its secretary, and later, its estate manager. The organization shared a common view: that the crowded population of Somers Town needed to be rehoused, and also, perhaps more importantly, that housing is not enough.

It started with the housing; St. Pancras soon purchased seven dilapidated homes in the heart of Somers Town, for a total of £3,000. The society set about refurbishing and improving the properties, the condition of which was far worse than initially expected. The houses were turned into flats with all the new amenities the group had promised the tenants—including built-in kitchens with hot water on tap and reliable ovens, ventilated food cupboards, and a wash copper to clean clothes—though the bedbugs triumphed, prompting the society to consider demolition.

Following its inaugural renovation, the group went on to buy an island site facing Euston station, bounded by Eversholt Street, Drummond Crescent, and Little Drummond Street (now Doric Way), for £27,500. With 70 houses on the site, and some vacant land, this made the society a large property owner. Learning from its first project, it decided to knock down and rebuild the homes there. On the one vacant part of the site, they first constructed eight four- and five-bedroom flats—St. Mary’s Flats—into which they decanted tenants from other parts of the site.

It was the group’s primary principle to not displace tenants, which involved complicated and circular tenure switches. The flats freed by those moving into the St. Mary’s Flats were later moved in to by families from other parts of the site to allow larger blocks to be demolished and rebuilt. This involved trust, as the transition meant tenants lost their security of tenure under Rent Acts at the time (which often tied tenants to awful living conditions). The society also resented doing quick-fix refurbishments to properties for temporary occupation, only to then later move the same families again. It was a complicated and piecemeal form of development, which is what made the society’s work so remarkable in the face of such urgent housing need.

Against this too, the collective sought to provide beauty, delight, and firm functionality to the spaces it created. Ian Hamilton, the architect for all of the new-build flats, designed them in the neo-Georgian style that was common in similar London County Council housing developments of the time (some of which, on adjacent sites, were designed by Hamilton himself), using common London stock brick and less common blue-gray Westmorland slates on pitched roofs (darker Welsh slates were preferred at the time).

Today, in the courtyard of the St. Nicholas Flats—part of the Sidney Estate and built by the St. Pancras Housing Improvement Society to replace the Somers Town slums—radial concrete posts still echo where maypole-like washing lines once hung, on top of which sit resin replicas of salt glaze stoneware finials of ships, made by sculptor Gilbert Bayes. Eight central finials and 168 post finials were produced across Somers Town by Bayes between 1931–38, but only a few replicas remain today. Still intact, though, are lunettes above windows and doors, also by Bayes, depicting scenes from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. 

In the days of the St. Pancras Housing Improvement Society, when it rehoused tenants on the sites of the demolished slums or nearby them, the rents hardly increased, and assistance was offered for those who could not make the payments. While Barclay, in business with Perry, worked as an estate manager for slum clearance schemes across London in her long career, it was only in Somers Town, and on an estate with the St. Marylebone Housing Association, that 100 percent rehousing in the community was achieved. Beyond that, the society also set up a loan club and a furniture shop, to ensure that its tenants’ basic needs were met.

And the society made its work convivial—familial, even. When work began on St. Christopher’s Flats, in 1931, a parade of papier-mâché vermin were set on fire on the site, and the ashes mixed in with the foundations. Beyond housing, the group was about building a community. The U.K., meanwhile, was still building a welfare state. When the society started, there was no National Health Service, workers were not yet entitled to any paid annual leave, secondary education was not free and available to all, sick leave was rare, and, although unemployment benefit was introduced in 1911, it was measly amounts, available only for up to 12 months, to those who had recently lost work and not those on low wages. 

The society sought to create a quasi-welfare state of its own, for its immediate community. It purchased a house outside of London that they would call the Children’s House, and provided weeklong holidays to the poorest children on the estate, many of whom had never left the city. At Somers Town, the group later instituted children’s clubs and community classes, finding spaces wherever it could, in old shop fronts, or even on rooftops. Basil Jellicoe, a co-founder of the society, became the neighborhood’s most unlikely landlord, taking over its Anchor pub with Edith Neville and providing quality food so that the establishment wouldn’t be only a place for drinking. It was the society’s firm belief that a community was a microcosm of different uses and activities; it is a bitter irony that the old Anchor pub has since been converted to flats, after closing in 1984.

Housing crises are often spoken about in the abstract, as functions of interest rates and house-building figures, which obscures the intimacy with which it touches down on our lives. Our defective housing market asks that we not see the stories behind the policies, where the success of a community is decided by the market. But it is also this distance from the people and places that creates a tendency for broad-brush housing policy that encourages quickly built, cheap, and shoddy developments, aiming to fix the problem of housing shortages but exacerbating other problems of poor living environments.

“One of the greatest political obfuscations of the housing crisis is to turn it from being about people and homes to being about populations and data.”


Barclay’s surveys describe the stories and the people who were the bricks and mortar of Somers Town before any discussion of the social, political, and financial forces that brought them to that time, place, and condition (so much so that, despite coming from a Christian and ardently left-leaning family, her political or religious views are hard to place in relation to her work). Architecture is shaped by these forces, but the places themselves are constructed of stories. It is one of the greatest political obfuscations of the housing crisis—to turn it from being about people and homes to being about populations and data.

Walk near the edge of Somers Town right now, and you’ll find a 22-story tower—the Grand Central Apartments—of 68 flats costing up to £2.75 million each, which has taken a bite out of a local park. (The local council sold the land to fund the Plot 10 playgroup center and social housing and, still on site, social housing and community spaces.) It is a reminder that the housing crisis is by design, and Somers Town was the anomaly, an accidental enclave of radical housing projects that is everything London never wanted it to be.

Even as luxury development encroaches, Somers Town has remained a predominantly low-income area. Much of the housing is still held in housing associations, immune from the Right to Buy policies that have obliterated much of the U.K.’s council housing, and it continues to provide vital affordable housing in a place of rampant development. (The soon-to-be-completed Google headquarters has swept across the ground just a few streets away.)

In the context of today’s converging crises, Barclay and co.’s ideas can seem paradoxical. Housing is not enough—but at a point of widespread housing insecurity, the prospect of safe, dry, and warm housing is everything; it eclipses virtually every other need.

How can we think about building pubs, parks, or spaces for communities to flourish before everyone has a safe, dry, and warm home? How do we justify delaying the provision of the bare minimum? One response, which comes from decades of austerity-driven policy, tells us that there will never be enough to go around. Not true, Somers Town tells us. And also: Home exists beyond the house, and around it, community and social networks must also be built—the society saw these spaces as an extension of a healthy, happy home in Somers Town.

In 1972, Irene Barclay retired and relocated to Canada, where she died, in 1989. Back in Somers Town, outside a residence called St. Francis House, on the Sidney Estate, a plaque reads, “This bed is planted in memory of Mrs. Irene Turbeville Barclay OBE FRICS (1894–1989)—the Secretary and Manager of St. Pancras Housing Association 1925–1972.” Barely detectable, together with plaques and benches of previous residents and locals, Barclay’s work nearly goes unnoticed.

Through the society, she provided 830 new homes for the people of Somers Town. This figure would barely have made a dent in the house-building targets of the day, and even less of one today, but the buildings transformed an area and the lives of those in it. “Looked at numerically it is nothing, nothing at all,” Barclay wrote of the sum. “But I know that it is not nothing.” We ought to know the same.