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Sound of the Suburbs

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

3:AM: In short, Elisabeth [Blanchet], why a book on prefabs?

EB: The short answer is, because I love prefabs, though more exactly prefabricated houses erected just after WWII. Not only their design, architecture, layout, comfort etc., but also what they meant – and still mean – to their residents or ex-residents. Although they were temporary, people loved them and fought to save them.

There are a few other books on prefabs but we felt with Sonia [Zhuravlyova] – who co-wrote the book with me – that there was a need for more in-depth work on them. We also extended the era and tried to cover the whole 20th Century and we didn’t limit our work to the UK, although it’s, of course, the main focus.

Also, I think it’s important to highlight prefabs as they are working-class dwellings and there is not much working-class heritage in England left… A prefab resident told me once, after he had lost his prefab – demolished by local authorities in Lewisham –, “There is nothing for us the poor, they just erase our culture”.

3:AM: The Daily Mail called you “one of Britain’s dullest women”, do you think that’s because they prefer to not talk about the poor and the ‘erasing’ of working-class culture?

EB: It’s British sense of humour more than anything else, I think. In 2015 I wrote a piece about the Dull Men’s Club for a French magazine and got on very well with its president Leland Carlson. When I told him about my passion for prefabs, he said he wanted to open his club to a few women and asked me if I’d be happy to feature in his coming calendar. I was very flattered as I had never been asked before to be a calendar girl!

3:AM: Would you say your work deals more with the mundane or the marginal then?

EB: I’d like to say a bit of both. It’s a difficult question… Maybe a bit more on the marginal like the Irish Travellers communities, the pushbike couriers in London, street children in Togo… But also on the mundane as what I like is spending time with these “marginal” communities and document their everyday life which can be very mundane!

I suppose ultimately I am interested in “subcultures” – I also did some work on “Chaps” and wrote a few articles about them and I came across an article about couriers in 2003, then I started to hang around at “their” pub in London, now the Clerk & Well – it used to be called the Duke of York. I really liked the place and made friends and started to document the community.

3:AM: Is Prefabs also an ethnographic study?

EB: I think the word “community” is the common denominator. The sense of community is one of the main topics of my work on prefabs.

3:AM: Community is a living thing though.  Prefabs is more concerned with the past, should we mourn what was conceived as a temporary fix to the post-war housing crisis?

EB: Well, yes and no.  No, because they were temporary and therefore not meant to last. But like many temporary dwellings, they lasted more than intended because local authorities didn’t replace all of them after the certain amount of time they were supposed to last – 10-15 years. So, that’s when it becomes tricky. Residents get used to them, make them their home, design their own gardens, start to make changes to the building: add a conservatory, even change the inside layout etc. Prefabs evolve as well as the way they are looked at: they are less and less seen as temporary and residents want to keep them, don’t want to move out of them. With the Right to Buy, people who can afford to buy them. On the Excalibur Estate for example in Catford, 20 percent of the prefabs of the estate – which had 186 – were privately owned back in 2010.

So with time, they became more valuable, more permanent and the ones which were looked after resisted the “extra-years” in terms of building structure and material. So in that sense, yes, we should mourn their loss, because of what the residents made of them, how they invested in them, as a result of their attachment to their home.

We should also mourn the intelligence of their designs, the clever layouts of prefab estates which both didn’t only suit the first generation of residents but second and third ones – who had nothing to do with the war.

3:AM: There are those who advocate factory-built modular housing and the like as an answer to the current housing crisis, which you briefly acknowledge.

EB: I think prefabs could work again on micro-scale projects, but not as a national programme as the Temporary Housing Programme was, which was almost a communist endeavour. So definitely not applicable anymore! Times have changed. We talk now about affordable houses as if everyone could buy a house or flat. It’s just distracting from the main problem: offering decent social housing to people who can’t afford to buy! Or who don’t want to.

3:AM: How micro do you mean?

EB: By micro-scale projects I mean, for example, some Tiny House Movement communities. The state is not involved anymore. On the contrary, people themselves kinda club together organically to live in communities in their little house, which have similarities with prefabs.

3:AM: The book has a touching foreword by former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and you mention his deputy but one Denis Healey also grew up in a prefab near Woolwich Arsenal.  Why do you think subsequent generations of local Labour politicians were so keen to tear them down?

EB: Well, Labour politicians are not exempt from greed! And to give you a precise example, I am thinking of Lewisham Council, which is Labour, and the way they dealt with the Excalibur Estate “regeneration”. They basically left residents to rot, minimising repairs, letting people live there where they should have been rehoused in more appropriate social housing dwellings, single mums for example with no car. They also promised they’d involve the residents. What happened is they “created” some sort of fake “steering groups” so they knew they would go their way… Well, they used the “good” old strategy of dividing to rule better.  It’s shocking and maybe even more so, coming from a Labour borough.  There is also something else. Labour has evolved to New Labour and I don’t think they have the same values and a socialist vision anymore.

Also, to go back to what I previously said about affordable houses, I checked on the Excalibur Estate last Wednesday. An old resident told me that out of the 300-odd new dwellings, only 16 are proper social dwellings! So where do they put all the other prefab residents? I think that they are waiting for the last ones to die.

3:AM: Jeremy Corbyn has his allotment and a vision, surely he’d be more sympathetic?

EB: Maybe, but I don’t have any opinion on him.

3:AM: Lewisham Council would argue that it’s national government housing policy which forces them to make such choices if they’re to boost affordable homes supply.

EB: Yes, that’s one of the reasons too.  Their hands are tied, they don’t have much power.

3:AM: Prefabs are often thought of as ‘suburban’, but as Patrick Keiller’s London showed, they could even be found a stone’s throw from Parliament.

EB: Absolutely! Yes, I saw the film a few years ago and there is a nice shot of a prefab in south London, near Elephant and Castle.  Michael Caine grew up in one of these.  There were prefabs everywhere, in Chelsea, Fulham, even some in Portland Place.

3:AM: The book was commissioned by Historic England, a government quango, ending with prefabs as museum pieces rather than dwellings in use today, for instance at Beamish.  Like Robin Hood Gardens at the V&A it seems that the authorities are more comfortable with this?

EB: I think it’s a bit like clearing your conscience. Somehow there is a recognition that these dwellings had a value so you keep some in museums. This is a bit like at the Welsh Museum, there is a typical cottage of I don’t know what century and it’s there to show how people used to live back then. This is the same idea with prefabs. As they are more than 70 years old and were only supposed to last 10 to 15 years – the Temporary Housing Programme ones, not the Beamish/Airey ones which were supposed to last.  It’s about time to have some in museums and integrate them into the country’s heritage. It shows in one of the articles you sent me before when they talk about the 30s being in fashion, and now it’s gonna be the 50s. In Birmingham where 17 prefabs are listed, the Birmingham Conservation Trust was thinking about using four empty ones to re-use them: one as a museum, on as a bed and breakfast and can’t remember for the two other ones. I think they were inspired by the Back to Back museum. I don’t know what they will do at the Beamish with the Aireys.

I think there could be an alternative, like on the Excalibur Estate, they could have listed the whole estate as a conservation area and help residents feel proud of their heritage instead of letting them down and “leaving them to rot”! It wouldn’t have meant that they could have taken an empty one out of the estate to put it in a museum somewhere else or have a museum on the estate – or both – as we used to!

3:AM: It’s not just museums.  You trace the origins to the Nissen Hut, which is the now the focus of ‘contemporary’ artist Rachel Whiteread.

EB: The Nissen Hut is a very practical and interesting design by a military man. I think they, as well as engineers, have much more common sense than architects… The interesting thing about Nissen Hut is that they could be used for different things: hospitals, storage, dormitories and even housing.

Prefab homes were not directly inspired by the Nissen Hut design but were designed in the same kind of spirit: a committee was set up during WWII, the Burt Committee formed of engineers. Their task was to look at successful schemes of non-traditional houses and particularly prefabs. This was all set as a sort of war/military mission. So the Burt Committee traveled and mainly got inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority dismountable houses, very modern and advanced which look very much like the UK100 type of prefab. The speech Churchill gave in March 1944 about using prefabs as a solution to the coming housing crisis sounds like a war on housing strategy and offensive. That again links to the military and good old Lieutenant Nissen.

I think the link with war and military operations is very important.  Another good example: factories that built ammunitions in England reconverted in building prefabs – the AIROH* type – with their aluminium surplus and it kept workers busy! Like the war effort was continuing.

3:AM: Like the Routemaster bus, yes.  Ian McEwan set The Cement Garden, later adapted for film, in a prefab, to perhaps underscore decayed post-war settlement, and you also briefly discuss other films and television in the book.

EB: Well, they are more typical British drama series or soaps than films. And I am sure prefabs appeared in many other films/series. Somebody once told me a uni-seco was used as a background in a 70s Godard film! About the ones we mention, they are very large audience, which shows that prefabs are part of a popular heritage. Especially Foyles War, as it’s the heroine home and she represents a post-war sort of liberated woman work wise – she is Folyes’ chauffeur! – and the wife of a Labour politician. It really goes with the Spirit of 1945, the creation of the NHS etc. It’s a bit the same with the other series.

Bobby Baker’s work is the only art take on prefabs I could find and find really interesting as it goes back to the 70s, the prefabs were very far from being “in fashion”. And she kind of destroys the ideal family life in a prefab.

3:AM: You had a co-author for the book?

EB: I have been working with Sonia [Zhuravlyova] on prefabs since 2006! We both know how to work together, what we are good and not good at, and we basically shared the chapters.

3:AM: My own favourites are the Dorloncos, purely as they were designed by Dorman Long on my native Teesside, what about yours?

EB: The UK 100, the only one imported from the US and that we can find in France too! They have such a modern design, I love the windows, the porch, the flat roof, the two doors… I also like the Arcon MK5 and for its metal frame, its curved roof. Inside, you feel a bit like in an Airstream caravan, ready for the journey!

3:AM: What subculture would you like to cover next?

EB:  I live mostly in Marseille, I miss the UK and its eccentricity and would love to work on another subculture! Any idea would be welcome.

* Aircraft Industries Research Organisation Housing

Andrew Stevens is Cities Editor of 3:AM and lives in West Essex.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 4th, 2018.