Happy housing exhibition shows inspiring vision for post-war homes

Homes that would just create happiness – it sounds a great idea and one that people could relate to today, when for many a permanent home is just a dream.

But the happy homes plan was one that was on the drawing board back in 1945 in Bilston, and there’s still just time to see an exhibition telling the story of this wonderful and fascinating plan.

Bilston’s Happy Housing: Otto Neurath’s Vision for Post-War Modern Living is on at Bilston Craft Gallery until May 2 and tells the unlikely story of how someone from the Vienna Circle and a leading sociologist and urban planner ended up in the Black Country.

Neurath was invited by the council in 1945 to be a consultant on plans to come up with ideas to replace the slum housing endured by many of the local people, with the area having the reputation as the slum capital of England. What was envisaged were state-of-the-art modern homes based on ones built in Vienna in the 1920s.

Neurath was born in 1882, and had experienced a successful career in Europe, then fled during the Second World War after the death of his second wife, and fears for his life. He got married again, to Marie Reidemeister who he had formerly worked with, and after a period of internment on the Isle of Man they set up the Isotype Institute in Oxford together, creating the sort of informative diagrams now so loved by newspapers and news websites seeking pictorial ways to represent information.

However they were so taken with the Bilston project that they planned to move there from Oxford. Neurath visited the town and talked to people about their new planned homes, and wrote policies which influenced the designs. People should be mixed up to avoid the creation of ghettoes, and the needs of children and the elderly should not be ignored were two of them.

Then – Neurath died suddenly and unexpectedly on December 22, 1945; a poignant letter written on December 19 and illustrated with an elephant is exhibited, mentioning no signs of ill health.

Marie used the Isotype plan to illustrate her husband’s plans for the town, and in a letter to Bilston’s town clerk said he husband’s hope had been to “provide maximum happiness for the people of your town”.

There were of course many others also involved in the plans; Professor Sir Charles Reilly had also been engaged by the council, and favoured homes around large greens, with many community facilities. He died in early 1948 with the work still unfinished. Ella Briggs, another Viennese émigrée who had worked with Neurath, had already designed some homes before the two men became involved, and it may be the final results were based on her work. The uneven land was apparently filled in partly with bricks from bombed sites in Birmingham and Coventry.

The exhibition includes lots of information on the plans for what became the Stowlawn Estate, with drawings and the Isotypes. There are pictures of what had been there before, and plans for the homes, with inside bathrooms, some with upstairs balconies, and different sized properties to cater for single people and families. Drawings show the large open spaces around the estate.

There are also books of memories and photos, mostly positive, from people who were the first to move into Stowlawn. A related part of the exhibition shows the designs of the time for items which would fill these happy homes, with stylish cutlery, ceramics, furniture, fabrics, radios and other technology to represent the ‘new look’ of the mid century style.

Nearby, Stowlawn estate still exists and the exhibition tells you which is the only street where the green space remains as planned – the others have all been infilled with buildings. You can drive round and see how the buildings stand out as different, more European than most.

It’s a fascinating exhibition at an ideal which should still be grasped today.

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