Living with Buildings at Wellcome Collection

Matthew Lloyd Roberts explores the relationship between architecture and public health.

Wellcome Collection’s Living with Buildings is a wide-ranging exhibition that is unafraid to tackle a broad sweep of history and ask difficult questions about how the buildings that surround us affect our physical and mental health. The exhibition begins, as conversations about housing often do, with the terraced slums of Victorian London. From Oliver Twist, to Gustave Doré’s brooding engravings, to Charles Booth’s ‘Poverty Maps’, the exhibition evokes, through a selection of illustrations and texts, the nadir of urban living standards in the mid-nineteenth century.

Descriptive map of London poverty, 1889, Charles Booth, Thomas SG Farnetti. Source: Wellcome Collection.

We are then whisked into the world of utopian visionaries and do-gooding patricians who have sought to solve these problems over the ensuing century and a half. We first look to 19th century projects like Titus Salt’s Saltaire model village, and a quaintly English-feeling Pissarro depiction of Bedford Park in West London. This was a community designed around Art and Crafts values for the health of its residents. The striking moralism and religiosity of reformers like the Cadburys at Bournville shine through in the little details of archival material, for example the absence of any pubs in town planning, and the weighty invocations of the divine in George Cadbury’s letters to David Lloyd George. It is striking how, in an age before the mass provision of state housing, some of the most innovative design work was being funded by idealistic businessmen, whose own interests and priorities took centre stage in the pursuit of healthier communities from which to draw a workforce.

Camille Pissarro, ‘Bath Road, London’ 1897. Credit: Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The exhibition then turns its attention to the mass housing efforts of the post-war period. Lively archival material from Ernö Goldfinger’s personal letters give a close insight into the iconic designer’s vision for architecture that made people healthier and more communal. (The architect himself took up a flat in one of his own tower blocks.) The exhibition is unafraid to tackle the terse debate around the subsequent life of modernist housing estates – projecting video interviews with residents of Goldfinger’s estates, showing the range of different understandings and relationships that residents had with the block, prior to their eviction.

Tony Ray Jones, Pepys Estate, Deptford, London: children playing on a raised walkway, 1970. Credit: Tony Ray-Jones / RIBA Collections

Space is given to architectural voices critical of the modernist project, but a video of council housing narrated by John Betjeman gravely insisting on the dehumanizing effects of this architecture seem to clash with the happy children playing football in the background, and the voices of residents bereaved at the demolition of their blocks. Some of the vitality of arguments in favour of modernism are conjured by wonderful cartoons by Gordon Cullen advocating for the Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin. Questions around architectural style are particularly volatile at the moment, especially with opponent of Modernism Roger Scruton’s recent appointment as a housing tsar. This exhibition is commendable for asking questions primarily about how architecture is successful for its inhabitants, showcasing arts and crafts efforts of the late-19th century next to modernist efforts of the mid-20th.

Next comes architectures of healthcare, with a large-scale model of a cutting edge art-deco hospital which was made to raise money for the building of the real thing in the 1930s. Alvar Aalto’s Paimio sanatorium is also given a lot of space, with the acquisition of one of Aalto’s original chairs for the project, designed to regulate breathing in tuberculosis patients. The chair is gorgeously lit and raised up on a pedestal – I have to admit I was fighting the urge to climb up and take a seat, experience it for myself.

Alvar Aalto, Paimio Chair, 1932 Credit: Alvar Aalto Foundation

This is maybe one area where the exhibition struggles a little bit – there is a varied and wonderful array of photographs, archival materials, and lots of brilliant video content, but nothing particularly tactile, and I was left wanting to feel first-hand the calming effects of these designers, rather than purely engaging with texts and images. There is however some excellently curated material discussing Grenfell tower, including video interviews with local residents that feel raw and visceral and immensely powerful.

The message of this exhibition is twofold: on one hand, it is a celebration of how far we have come, in the way that standards of living have been raised for millions of people over the last centuries. On the other hand, it expresses that those gains were contingent on hard work and visionary thinking – and implores us to keep working towards an architecture that is better for everyone’s wellbeing.

Living with Buildings is on show at Wellcome Collection with free admission until 3rd March 2019. For more information, click here.

Matthew is an MA student studying Architectural History at the Bartlett, UCL

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