Edinburgh’s Inter-War Social Housing: Campbell vs. MacRae

In 1926 the provision of Edinburgh’s council housing passed from the Burgh Engineer to the City Architect. Was there a difference in approach?, asks Steven Robb, Historic Environment Scotland.

Historically, Council housing was the preserve of Edinburgh’s Burgh Engineer who designed around 750 houses before WW1.  However, substantial building only began following the 1919 Housing Act, when Councils were required to provide housing, initially with generous State subsidies.

An Old Town tenement ‘reconstructed’ or reconditioned with new dormers by Campbell. Such works often involved the removal of rear additions to open up light to rooms. Courtesy of Capital Collections.

Adam Horsburgh Campbell (1862-1947), Burgh Engineer since 1910, was appointed Director of Housing in 1919.  As an engineer his appointment was criticised by the architectural profession, but he had previous experience d

esigning social housing in London.

Campbell immediately sprang into action, planning the subdivision of large vacant New Town houses, and the major reconditioning of Old Town tenements, at half the price of new-build.  This saved several historic buildings from loss, but sadly, later subsidies prioritised demolition and new-build, and the focus moved to new housing.

Perhaps due to his engineering background, Campbell had an inventive approach to both materials and procurement.  A trip to Holland in 1924 resulted in the Dutch Korrelbeton (no-fine-aggregate) concrete system being used at Lochend (1925).  He also agreed for 1000 Duo-Slab concrete and brick houses with the private contractor, WM Airey of Leeds and experimented with flat-roofs, deck-access balconies and timber and steel construction.

These approaches allowed speedy construction and took advantage of subsidies and semi-skilled labour in times of post-war shortage.  Concrete was also cheaper than traditional builds, with reduced corridors within homes cutting costs further.   Elsewhere, Campbell designed traditional new tenements for Leith and also ‘four in a block’ housing for peripheral estates.

Campbell was due to retire in September 1926, and the Council agreed to separate the Engineer and Director of Housing posts.  However, in March 1926 he was offered a two-year extension as Housing Director alone.  He declined, explaining that ‘his life and leisure’ had been abandoned to public service.  He had been working 16 hour days, and in June pleaded to retire early following strict medical advice.   Under Campbell the Council had built more varieties of housing than any other UK city, a total of around 4500 houses (built or contracted).  Despite this, an honorarium of £2000 for working above-and-beyond his contract was voted down.

Whitson Crescent, Saughton Golf Course (1931/2). Note the horizontal banding at first floor level on the crescent. Courtesy of Edinburgh Libraries

In June 1926 Ebenezer James MacRae (1881-1951), Edinburgh’s City Architect since mid-1925, absorbed the coveted Director of Housing role.   Whilst Campbell’s pragmatism focussed on housing delivery by whatever means, MacRae had slightly differing goals.   His religious West Highland upbringing bequeathed him a strong social conscience and charitable view of tenants.  His priority was to provide the best housing possible on his straightened budgets, allowing people to prosper and better themselves.  He was particularly interested in daylighting and ventilation.

MacRae immediately halted Campbell’s experimentation, returning to traditional stone and roughcast brick walls with slate roofs.  This led to delays with materials and the lack of skilled workmen.  He retained the separate-trades tender system and kept housing under his direct supervision, resisting direct labour, prefabrication and the involvement of the private sector.  This was a popular approach with the trade unions who had opposed Campbell’s methods.

With no reconditioning subsidies MacRae’s city-centre infill housing was mostly new-build, albeit designed to a Scottish character ‘in keeping with surrounding buildings’.  Here, he favoured solid 400-600mm thick coursed stone walling with recessed pointing for frontages and visible gables.  Elsewhere, he used roughcast brick cavity-walled construction, apart from one housing project built in facing brick at Royston Mains Crescent (1935).  Other material and design changes occurred in WW2 when timber was scarce.

MacRae’s numerous trips to Europe, most notably in 1930/1 and 1934 as part of the Highton delegation, (leading to the Report on Working Class Housing on the Continent,1935), enforced his view that European modernism was to be avoided.  He disliked flat roofs, deck-access balconies and building above four storeys.  He also resisted the ‘Germanic’ communalisation of services.

Four in a block housing designed by Campbell and used by MacRae at Saughton (1932). Courtesy of Edinburgh City Libraries.

Europe did, however, influence his planning layouts, including higher-density blocks set around communal courts at the Pleasance (1934), Craigmillar (1936) and Piershill (1938).   Architecturally, horizontal banding, likely sourced from Vienna or Berlin, was introduced at first floor level on new developments, which often, such as at Saughton (1932), Granton (1935), Craigmillar (1936) and Warriston (1936), included a feature crescent.   By the time of his retirement in 1946 MacRae had delivered around 12,000 houses as well as important studies on Edinburgh’s historic buildings, a precursor to the listing system.

So, was there a major difference between Campbell and MacRae ?  Both men believed in providing tenement housing close to tenants’ workplaces.  However, one senses that Campbell, despite being two decades older than MacRae, was more open to innovation in both design and procurement.  MacRae insisted on traditional methods and wasn’t willing to sacrifice what he saw as important.

For further info on Campbell’s career, see:

  • Concrete, Cosmopolitanism and Low-cost House Design: The Short Architectural career of AH Campbell 1923-1926 by John Frew. Architectural Heritage V (1995), p29-38.

For further information on MacRae and Edinburgh’s inter-war housing, see:

  • Ebenezer MacRae and Interwar housing in Edinburgh, by Steven Robb.  Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, Volume 13, (2017)