Living Together - Housing in Dundee

Butterburn Court, 1985Lamb Gallery, Tower Building

University of Dundee

11 November 2019 - 25 January 2020

Mon-Fri 9.30am-7pm Sat 1-5pm

(Closed for Christmas 21 Dec - 5 Jan)


Using photographs, artworks and architects’ designs, this exhibition explores some of the most common forms of houses in Dundee, with a particular focus on communal and social housing – from Victorian tenements to pioneering council houses, post-war multis, student halls of residence and more.

In the 19th century, the population of Dundee expanded rapidly as thousands flocked to work in the textile mills. Huge numbers of new tenement blocks were built to meet the growing demand, but many families were forced to live in appalling conditions in dilapidated dwellings. The 1871 Improvement Act allowed the Town Council to make sweeping changes to the town, demolishing many older buildings and constructing larger properties on wider streets. But tenants were still at the mercy of private landlords and many of the new tenements were beyond the wages of the average jute worker. In 1915 a series of rent strikes took place in Dundee and other cities led by women who objected to paying ever-higher rents while their husbands and sons were away at war.

In 1917, the City Architect James Thomson produced a comprehensive report on the post-war housing needs of the city, and came up with a plan for a series of new housing estates ahead of any other initiative in Scotland. The first of these to be completed was the pioneering Logie estate in 1920, and over the next 30 years hundreds more council houses were built, most of an impressively high standard. At the same time, private developments were taking place on the outskirts of Dundee, many following the fashionable garden city model.

New post-war industries such as NCR and Timex led to growing confidence in the city, and more of the older tenements being torn down as unfit for habitation. In the 1960s Dundee looked to the multi-storey tower block to solve its housing needs, and the skyline of Dundee changed dramatically as ever-larger multis were built in the Hilltown, Ardler and other areas. Other experiments were attempted, including the hexagonal pre-fab blocks of the Skarne in Whitfield. Each offered a bright new future but instead came with inherent social problems and most were later demolished. In the 1980s private housing companies such as Hillcrest took over from the council as the main supplier of social housing, and some innovative restoration took place to turn former textile mills into flats. It would not be until the 2010s that more council houses were built in the city, but many large-scale private developments have taken place on former farmland on the outskirts of the city – these in turn will bring their own problems in the future.

The exhibition features material from our own and private collections as well as the University Archives, Dundee City Archives and Dundee Central Library Local History Centre. It has been created to accompany the AHRA conference on Architecture & Collective Life taking place in Dundee 21-23 November 2019.

Image: Butterburn Court, Hilltown, 1985 (photo by Neale Elder)

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