A space to live

How ethnic minority families in East London responded to homes built with their needs in mind

In the late 1990s regeneration fever took hold of Tower Hamlets in East London. Its landscape of tower blocks began to be dismantled in order to help the borough break from its dismal reputation and attract a new generation of residents and investors.

The high rise estates, optimistic experiments in the modernist architectural principles of healthy, efficient and functional living with adequate light and air in each room, had become beset by social stigma and crime.

Despite this they became home to strong community networks of Bangladeshis who had found jobs in a range of sectors such as catering and clothing in East London.

When it came to re-homing some of these families, the Peabody Trust determined to avoid the mistakes of earlier social housing which failed to cater for the different needs of Asian families which tend to be larger.

With its architects, the Peabody Trust developed and built homes which are a hybrid of Georgian and Victorian terraced urban houses with gardens and space that could be used and adapted flexibly.

Pritchard Road EstateOne example of these homes is the small Pritchard Road estate which is made up of 11 four and five bedroom terraced houses. Nine were rented to Bangladeshi Muslim families and the other two to Afro-Caribbean families.

Dr Ayona Datta, a researcher in the Cities programme and a former architect herself, interviewed the tenants of Prichard Road to see how they felt about their new homes. She is interested in how people react to and think about themselves through the buildings they occupy.

The designers had put a large kitchen at the front of the house, looking onto the street, to increase the safety of the neighbourhood in general and allow adults to see their children playing outside. Its size is intended to cater for families that are likely to do more cooking.

The ground floor also includes a dining room at the back and a utility area which could be converted to a bedroom with an ensuite bathroom. This was conceived with the needs of the elderly in mind, who are often cared for as part of extended families in Asian communities. Unconventionally a large living room takes up the whole of the first floor and some of the tenants had converted this into another bedroom.

Dr Datta said. 'These are some of the better designs I've seen for social housing. The tenants liked the architecture, the size of the rooms and having so many bedrooms and the large kitchen was a positive.'

'This is a dream house for us,' said Razia one of the tenants that Dr Datta interviewed. 'It has space, we always wanted a garden and we have our own rooms. We are not living on top of each other like we used to do before... We love the kitchen, it's massive, look at it. We can have a party in it.'

Dr Datta found that the people living in Pritchard Road estate thought of themselves as having become newly 'respectable'. She explained: 'As social housing tenants they would not have been able to afford a house with a garden. You have to think about what architecture actually means – the whole package of the house with the garden plays on a certain sense of social mobility and a middle class identity.'

However, the tenants were less keen on the way in which public and private spaces were separated in the houses. Dr Datta said: 'Having the kitchen on the ground floor means that visitors have to go through the kitchen to get to the living room on the first floor. Also, some tenants felt that having the living room on the first floor brought guests too much into private space.'

Nasir Mia, a first generation Bangladeshi Muslim, said: 'When the guests come they see her cooking [his wife] and it's a problem.'

Mia saw his home in terms of the traditional ideas of separating men and women's realms which were related to his religious and cultural preferences. However he also expressed a practical desire to separate 'outsiders' from private workspaces in the home.  

In contrast, Dr Datta found that English families living in similar houses liked the separation of spaces which they saw in terms of a 'quiet zone' above and a 'noisy' one below. They liked the fact that their kids could watch TV upstairs in the living room while the adults smoked downstairs. For the English families the separation of space was about children and adults rather than gender.

Dr Datta pointed out that they didn't think about it as 'English' space but rather as quiet space. Similarly none of the Pritchard Road tenants explicitly discussed religion as affecting their use of their houses although Islamic values and cultural practices were implicit.

'We should be careful about labelling houses as "Asian" "Muslim" or "English" and instead think about designing houses for a range of cultural practices which make up these continually changing identities,' said Dr Datta. 'Otherwise we risk buildings becoming stigmatised, in the same way that tower blocks have been.'


Useful links

Datta, A (2009) 'Making Space for Muslims: Housing Bangladeshis in London' in Richard Phillips (ed.) Muslim Spaces of Hope: Geographies of Possibility in Britain and the West, London: Zed Books [opens in new window].

The Cities Programme