Part of: 1914 Now

Essay: Helmets and Homes

by Tom Coward on 4 November 2014

Architect Tom Coward examines the parallels between the technological change in warfare and the material revolution in architecture in 1914.

Architect Tom Coward examines the parallels between the technological change in warfare and the material revolution in architecture in 1914.

Design for the masses, rather than the elite, often steps out of historical focus. With reference to Van Beirendonck’s politicised felt helmet, in his collection Crossed Crocodiles Growl, I wanted to track the evolution of two very modern types of protection/shelter – the mass-produced military helmet and the mass-produced family home. To me, these objects resonate with ideas of the twentieth-century nation-state – of political audacity and at times political edification. By tracing this trajectory, I want to see if 150 years of industrial innovation can get close to democratising the quality and craft possible for the very few in the pre-modern era.

At the start of the First World War, soldiers of most nations went into battle wearing cloth caps that offered no protection from modern weapons. The three helmets of the Great War, the original French Adrian, the British Brodie and the German Stahlhelm, were all rapidly tested in 1915, as the best available reactions to the new forms of projectile attack and trench warfare. 

The modern military helmet (derived from medieval precedent) has been reshaped in four significant phases over the last 100 years, the first two of which occurred during the World Wars (1914–18 and 1939–45), followed by a materials revolution at the end of the twentieth century and a digitalisation of warfare in the early twenty-first century. Initially, this was ultimately about mass production – in a war of attrition, who could put on the most tin hats first? Next came comfort and fit, with straps and padding to improve individual adjustment needs. Then came the continuous optimisation of performance – weight versus ability to resist ballistic attack, much improved with non-metal layered materials. Recent challenges relate to needs for greater universal operative flexibility and augmentation, with better ergonomics and digital interfaces.

Technical performance has essentially determined the converging forms of the helmet for an almost-universal soldier, but mirroring modern nation development – allegiances determine the form of a nation’s helmet, and those with less means make do with old tin hats. The forms of helmets quickly became iconic and symbolic of state – Hitler reputedly refused a performative improvement of the Stahlhelm because it did not look German enough (1), and when the US developed its first Kevlar PASGThelmet in the 1980s it was nicknamed ‘Fritz’ due to its shape resembling the original Stahlhelm (2).

Similarly, Modern architecture has attempted to reconcile the principles underlying architectural design with rapid technological advancement and the modernisation of society. Art Nouveau gave way to Art Deco and then the International Style – expensive stylised trappings from the Old World giving way to more streamlined and (cheaper) rectilinear forms more related to industrial mass production. As Le Corbusier declared in his Mass-Produced Buildings of 1924, ‘Mass production demands a search for standards … Standards lead to perfection.’ (3)

By 1926, Le Corbusier was creating one modern vision for the future, at Pessac – more than 100 ‘machines for living in’, intended to truly revolutionise the notion of dwelling (4). Upon completion, however, no one would move in. Despite its spatially generous aesthetic, offering the best of amenity and technology, a failure to consider the importance of domestic memories and associations with the way in which people recognise and construct homes was a major flaw.

Today, the UK suffers from a depressed level of home creation not witnessed since after the First World War

With an increase in the need for helmets, there is a reciprocal need for housing back on the home front. A third of all London homes suffered from bombing during the two World Wars, and ‘homes for heroes’ captured government sentiment around improving housing standards as part of broader social reform. Today, the UK suffers from a depressed level of home creation not witnessed since after the First World War. The problem then required government intervention to resolve a huge laissez-faire private housing market, replacing slums and bombsites with social housing. 

A push for completions, democratic standards and economies, and a reliance on advanced building technology have left us with a legacy of often vast modernist housing estates, sometimes failing technically, and more likely proving difficult to centrally manage. Too many are now subject to wide-scale renewal only 40–50 years after their initial investment.
The subsequent ambition for private home ownership, the ‘right to buy’, led to the removal of the obligation of housing from the government’s ledger. Next came regeneration, where complex ‘brownfield’ sites in cities, ripe for housing many people, were developed for both private and social housing, with the former theoretically funding the latter. On a smaller scale, the ‘buy-to-let’ market led to a whole raft of small-scale developers upcycling the crumbling Victorian housing stock.

Joseph Hudnut wrote, in his 1945 essay The Post-Modern House (5), of an American soldier writing home: ‘He would like all the newest gadgets but would like these seasoned with that picture, sentiment and symbol which … seem to be of equal importance … In the hearts of the people at least they are relevant to something very far beyond science and the uses of science.’ The UK Government’s Code for Sustainable Homes (2006) (6) seeks to standardise such ‘science’, but without leading to a technological style or determinism of form, as visible in the UK’s first Autonomous House, by Robert and Brenda Vale (1993) (7).

But in the digital age, where smartphone apps can control a house’s performance remotely,(8) what does this mean for a home’s physical reality? ‘Lifetime homes’ (9) are a good response to changing individual needs, but in terms of twenty-first-century modern aspiration, is Custom Build a good step forward for the masses? It includes everything from DIY self-build, through commissioning an architect and builder, to buying a serviced plot and developing options with a contractor/enabler. ‘Custom Build housing brings many benefits, providing affordable bespoke-designed market housing, promoting design quality, environmental sustainability, driving innovation in building techniques and entrepreneurialism.’ (10)

New UK housing is in the majority built by repetitive volume house builders, who have been building only one third of the number of homes now required each year until 2031 (11). It is suggested that again government intervention is necessary to halt the unprecedented rising prices of and reduced access to housing, and to increase the availability of land for development, through changes to planning control.12 The Localism Act 2011 does allow for communities to determine what new developments are required in their areas, with checkered levels of success, but there is the possibility for communities to control the nationwide pressure for new housing and to develop satisfactory responses, through structures such as community land trusts and with Custom Build enabling individual input (13). 

This is a world away from the generic housing delivered to standard specifications and percentile tenure mixes, for anonymous communities with often absentee homeowners, which comprise the current new-build housing market. It may not be craft, but affordable, democratic, low-impact housing for all seems like a technological challenge worth investing in for the ongoing modern era; it might lead to less need for warfare and tin hats…

1 Smith, Digby and Mike Chappell, Army Uniforms Since 1945. Blandford Colour Series, Blandford Press: 1984.
2 Ground_Troops_Helmet
3 Le Corbusier, Mass-Produced Buildings. Translated from the French by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton et al. in Architecture and Design, 1890–1939: An International Anthology of Original Articles. Whitney Library of Design, New York: 1975.
4 Boudon, Philip, Lived-in Architecture. Lund Humphries, London: 1972.
5 Hudnut, Joseph, The Post-Modern House. In Joan Ockman, Architecture Culture 1943–68. Rizzoli: 1993.
6 attachment_data/file/284094/140224_CSH_ Statistics_-_Q4_-_to_end_December_2013_final.pdf
7 Vale, Brenda and Robert, The New Autonomous House: Design and Planning for Sustainability. Thames & Hudson: 2002.
10 Department for Communities and Local Government, Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England, 2011
11 Ibid. See also system/uploads/attachment_data/file/282775/House_ Building_Release_-_Dec_Qtr_2013.pdf
12 Morton, Alex, Why Aren’t We Building Enough Attractive Homes? Policy Exchange: 2012.
13 research/key_issues/Key-Issues-Housing-supply-and-demand.pdf




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