Thursday, December 15, 2011


Hooray I just received my offer of study for architecture in second year (and beyond!). I will join 80 other students in our quest to dream up better places to live in, in all senses. Architecture has been on my mind especially after the most amazing tour through an incredibly reconstructed and preserved 'back to back' housing block in Birmingham. A 'back to back' I learned is what 75% of the population of Birmingham lived in in the late 1800's during the industrial revolution. They're basically terraced houses that have been cut in half so that one household is a single room deep, either facing the street or the shared inner courtyard. Each house was about three stories, with a tiny spiral staircase crammed in the corner of each.

Built one brick thick, nothing was very private. In fact none of the homes had a bathroom or laundry of their own, instead the whole 'court,' being the households surrounding the internal courtyard, would share a lavatory and wash house. The one I visited, Court 15, contained 11 households with a total of about 60 residents at any one time, maybe 500 in its lifetime, sharing three outdoor loo sheds and one wash house. Built early in the 19th century, back to backs were banned from further construction in the 1870's, due to health and moral concerns. However, because there was nowhere else to live for a long time after, the homes of Court 15 were occupied right up until the 1970's, when they were finally condemned as unfit for human occupation. Through some stroke of luck, Court 15 was forgotten by the demolition crews, and has become the sole surviving example of a back to back court in Birmingham.

A block of back to backs. Court 15 highlighted in red

Court 15. Each coloured square represented one household

The exhibition of them was so interesting. They had set up four houses exquisitely refurbished in the period decor of four unique families who had lived there, from the 1830's, 1870's, 1930's, and 1970's. Fires had been lit in the ranges, paraffin candles spluttered weakly, gas lamps hissed, old radios hummed, bloomers dried; it felt like each family had only just stepped outside a moment ago.

Loo's of 1830 and 1930
It was also very interesting to think about these small communities of cheap housing, and compare them to the social housing projects of today. Instead of living together socially, I feel like the visions of huge tower blocks promote a life alone. But maybe that is also partly a personal choice. It has also been interesting to compare Court 15 with "Kevin's Grand Design" in Britain here, an experiment in better community housing, where the idea of a shared internal space is returned.

Thinking about my own work, I've made a little film including examples of most of my first year projects in architecture school, because I'm not sure even my family really knew what I was working on at my desk in the night...

Sometimes it was tidier than this

Looking in such intimate detail through the reconstructed lives of four families living in each of these tiny back to back houses showed me that the places we live in are profoundly affecting.

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