Britain’s chronic housing shortage has been described as “the most pressing crisis of the age”. All across the country – and especially in London – a lack of (affordable, quality) housing, soaring property prices and low wage growth have made home ownership a bridge too far for many, as house-building has for decades failed to keep pace with a growing population. But as Katharina Fitz points out in her compelling project titled Boarded-up Houses, Europe has some 11 million unoccupied homes, 610,000 of which are in England (200,000 classed as long-term empty).
Austrian-born artist Fitz, whose work focuses on socio-cultural and urban photography, writes: “Focusing on typical Victorian working class terraced houses in post-industrial Liverpool and Manchester, the project highlights the sheer volume of long-term vacancies in the UK to create a critical reflection about the extensive amount of unoccupied homes in England as well as in Europe in relation to the social housing market.”
She adds: “When before, these historical houses symbolized the collective past of a flourishing industry and a strong working class and community, nowadays in some former industrial cities many hundreds of houses in fairly good conditions stand abandoned and boarded-up awaiting demolition.”
When it comes to boarded-up houses, Liverpool is a case in point. The Liverpool Echo reported in 2014 that Ringo Starr’s childhood home in Madryn Street was worth less than £600. The property – one of hundreds in the Welsh Streets of Dingle bought by the council for £17 million before their collective value reportedly fell to just £1 million – has been saved by campaigners. But many other Welsh Street terraces (named after the home towns of the Welsh construction workers who built them), are poised for demolition.
The Victorians may have had their faults. But there’s no denying that they knew how to build, giving Britain many of its great civic structures and grand homes. Their (sub)urban terraces weren’t bad either. Despite their basic amenities, many have stood the test of time and, according to UK national charity Empty Homes, should not be written off as redundant.
Empty Homes writes: “While there is clearly a need to build new homes, ignoring the potential of existing empty homes in meeting housing supply is a costly environmental mistake. Creating homes from empty properties saves substantial amounts of material compared to building new houses, and also minimises the amount of land used for development.”
Restoring long-abandoned buildings is challenging, and clearly not all can be saved. But doing so ensures that an important part of a community’s collective social history becomes integral within its present, and even its future. Even in their derelict state, these old properties echo their community’s past.
As Katharina Fitz writes: “From an aesthetic point of view, boarded-up windows create a melancholic, mysterious, and sculptural atmosphere. Referring to Gaston Bachelard’s book ‘The Poetics of Space’ windows of houses are described as the souls of houses, when lit up at night, giving us access to their inner life, their history, and memories of past times.”
“The images radiate an uncertainty in relation to their future, producing a sense of instability. The aims of the project are to create a conscious reflection of vacant houses and an awareness of the constant structural changes of our cities.” Browse more of Katharina’s work on her YouTube channel.