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THE BLACK COUNTRY MEMORIES CLUB

The Early History of Stowlawn by Frank Sharman
Part 6 What Otto Neurath did

Otto Neurath, born in Vienna, mathematician, statistician, philosopher (a leading light in the Vienna Circle, a logical positivist), sociologist, inventor of Isotype (an international language of signs), and a socialist. In Vienna he worked on working class housing in the era of “Red Vienna”.  He was half Jewish and a socialist, so when Nazi Germany threatened he retreated to Holland and then, in 1944, to Britain. (He once said that he spoke “broken English fluently”). There he and his soon to be wife, Marie, were immediately interred. Being an acceptor, he got on with it and seems to have found the experience interesting and not entirely unenjoyable. On release he moved to Oxford where he not only lectured but embarked on a career as a consultant, particularly on matters relating to the housing of the working classes; and on the use of Isotypes as a means of clear communication of facts and figures.

Neurath was noted as being a kindly and jovial character. Everyone seems to have spoken well of him – including all three of his wives. Karl Popper, the philosopher described him as “a big, tall, exuberant man with flashing eyes.... The impression was of a most unusual personality, a man of tremendous vitality and drive”. And Bilston’s town clerk, A.V. Williams said that “He made one believe in the dignity of human beings” and that “the pursuit of beauty and happiness could be achieved by the common man”. “When he came to Bilston we had a surfeit of little men embracing big ideas. But in him there was no contempt; he made us feel that the pursuit of beauty and happiness could be achieved by the common man”. 
He became a consultant to Bilston, apparently at the instigation of the A. V. Williams. He came to Bilston on several occasion and talked to officers and members but also spent a lot of time in the slum areas due to be demolished and talking to the inhabitants.

It seems that he advised on housing generally but what the council would have had in mind at the time was the Stowlawn estate and another proposed estate at Bradley. Although Neurath held, and had expressed, views on the physical layout of housing estates it seems that the only impact he had on the Stow Lawn scheme was that some detailed alterations were made to Lloyd’s version of the estate in 1945. Although something of a polymath, Neurath was not an architect. Neurath seems mainly to have advised on housing policy. Here, in random order, are some of the points he made whilst in Bilston.

• At a meeting with Neurath, A V Williams told him that there was concern that the people to be re-housed were beyond redemption and might use their new bathroom to store coal. Dr Neurath said that he wanted to make some basic points clear:

a) The percentage of truly anti-social persons in any community is so small as to be almost negligible

b) Within reasonable limits there must be the greatest possible decentralisation of administration – administration must go to the people and not vice versa (e.g. small libraries and clinics should be embedded in the estates and, as far as possible, run by the community).

c) All people tend to strive to the utmost of their ability towards a higher standard of living

• People only put coals in the bathtub for some very good reason, e.g. an inadequate or highly inaccessible storage place, or because the hot water system was so expensive that the hardship involved in using the bath for its proper purpose renders the amenity worthless.

• There was no justification for the statement that one bad tenant in a road or block of flats would spread the disease to his neighbours, thereby making them ant-social. On the contrary, a good tenant tends to produce greater social consciousness in his neighbours. [Do you keep your step clean?]

• Ordinary floor boards are hard to keep clean in the absence of linoleum. Then the whole house becomes dirty. In Vienna they had used parquet floors which are easily mopped clean and in nearly all houses the whole house was kept clean.

• Pay particular attention to the needs of minorities – such as the elderly and children.

• Do not use large green belts and play areas but something more compact where the children can be surveyed. One idea is to have the small back garden of houses backing onto the road over which was a play area, so all the mothers could watch all the children from the kitchens.

• On estates, mix up individuals: married and unmarried, old and young. Do not create ghettos of, for example, old people, who, if they are stuck altogether in flats, will feel isolated, lonely and unwanted. If you put them in with young people they can do things like babysitting and feel useful and wanted.

• Unmarried persons can be divided into those who will eventually marry and those who never will. If you put them all into one block of flats, the marrying kind will move out and you will be left with nothing but people who will never marry. “Care must be taken to avoid the accidental creation of a lunatic asylum”.

• You must study the existing community structure in the slums you are rehousing and ensure these connections are not broken upon the new estate.

• Bear in mind that different people had different needs and do not plan housing on a “one size fits all” basis. You have to work out what sorts of houses and flats to build and who to put in them.

• The general idea is to promote happiness, whilst recognising that what makes one person happy might make another miserable.

• The English fireplace is a highly inefficient form of heating but that does not mean you have to have fitted kitchens without one: the fireplace provides for sociability and provides pleasure.

The story continues in Part 7

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