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Cheap Cottages & Model Houses

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Britain has been at the forefront of European urban experiments since Port Sunlight and Bournville. The construction of Letchworth, led by Ebenezer Howard and the Garden Cities Association was a milestone in this history that lasted throughout the 20th century, with Welwyn and, later, the new towns. Today, this trend is still apparent with the new garden cities initiated by the government in 2014. The way garden cities deal with regional planning has been subject to a number of studies and this vision has in recent years been reinterpreted in the light of 21st century urban issues, most notably through the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize. The financial mechanisms underpinning the delivery of new communities have also been well researched, so have the social dimensions of these experiments. This paper will deal with one of the crucial yet unknown legacies of early 20th century garden cities: architectural innovation as a means of providing cheap yet quality housing, and the range of dissemination techniques used to promote these experiments (exhibitions, competitions, advertising). This study will focus on the 1905 Cheap Cottage Exhibition (model cottages) and 1907 Urban Housing and Rural Homesteads Exhibitions (model houses) held in Letchworth as well as the Daily Mail Home Exhibition and Model Village organised in Welwyn in 1922. This contribution will shed light on these architectural experiments, through an analysis of the competition rules, sponsorships, jury reports, plans, as well as the buildings themselves since most of them are still standing and lived in today. It will also highlight the ways in which these events were an opportunity to import and use foreign building techniques. This paper will in addition link the architectural and urban dimensions of these experiments, since these cheap housing units contributed to shaping neighbourhoods designed according specific principles, in particular those devised by Raymond Unwin. From an architectural point of view, to ‘change the world’ means making it more liveable. We will therefore assess these experiments in terms of their contribution to improving liveability. It would however be difficult to fully grasp the important of these initiatives without referring to social history. Howard’s vision was perfectly adapted to the spirit of the times: it proposed answers to the ‘land question’ that would not alter the social structure inherited from the development of capitalist industrialism in the 19th century. It did not seek to make the poor richer, nor the rich any less rich. It did not even remotely suggest any changes in the class-based organisation of British society, but instead put forward the idea that different formal and spatial arrangements of the built environment and a different approach to the question of worker housing could bring more satisfaction to workers, their landlords and their employers, and consequently appease social tensions. The crucial issue in this attempt at ‘peaceful reform’ was that of the housing of the masses of labourers, since the Garden City was not, in Howard’s vision, supposed to limit itself to the ambition of being a middle-class ‘Garden suburb’. Indeed it would be a new urban settlement containing all the aspects of a socially diverse urban place. The usual cost of a house built according to the prevailing public regulations was too high to allow for profitable investment and the greatest challenge was therefore be to offer affordable housing to the renting majority of the working classes, both rural and urban. The housing of working class tenants therefore became the crux of the feasibility of the whole project.
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halshs-01536397 , version 1 (11-06-2017)


  • HAL Id : halshs-01536397 , version 1


Susannah O'Carroll, Anne Coste, Stéphane Sadoux. Cheap Cottages & Model Houses: Urban and architectural experiments in Letchworth and Welwyn garden cities. Changing the World: Urban Experiments in the United Kingdom, 19th -21st Centuries, Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle, Jun 2017, Paris, France. ⟨halshs-01536397⟩


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