John Turner

Individual – London, United Kingdom

John Turner is a British architect who has written extensively on housing and community organisation, his writings being influenced by a formative period spent working in the squatter settlements of Peru from 1957-1965. There, Turner studied and advised on a number of reconstruction and slum upgrading programmes which were part of a nation-wide community development initiative. During this time Peru was also a leading centre for debate on housing policy, community development and the role of self-help. Turner's own theoretical stance was formed in this context and combined aspects of the work of the Peruvian urban theorists Fernando Belaúnde, Pedro Beltrán and Carlos Delgado.

Turner's central thesis argued that housing is best provided and managed by those who are to dwell in it rather than being centrally administered by the state. In the self-building and self-management of housing and neighbourhoods, Turner asserted that the global North had much to learn from the rapidly developing cities of the global South. Through a number of empirical studies, some of which were published in a collection for Habitat International Coalition entitled Building Community, he showed clearly that neighbourhoods designed with local groups worked better since people were experts on their own situations and should be given the 'freedom to build', a phrase that became the title for an edited collection by Tuner. Whether this freedom was granted by the state or wrested from it through squatting was less important. Within this framework the state as well as private professionals such as architects and engineers, act as enablers, resulting in a shift in thinking that valorises experience and local know-how over technocratic and professionalised forms of knowledge.

In contrast to the 'aided self-help' policies of the World Bank, for which Turner is frequently credited, his vision was far more radical as he not only contended that residents should build their own houses and neighbourhoods, but that they should also have control over their finances and management. In Freedom to Build: Dweller Control of the Housing Process, which was first published in 1972, Turner sets out these views, which remain relevant today. Whilst there have been some attempts in Europe to involve residents in decisions regarding their built environment, such as the work of the participatory architects of the 1960s and 1970s, the Scandinavian cohousing movement, the community technical aid centres of the UK and the work of architects such as Walter Segal, the full potential of such an engagement has not yet been realised.

Other Work

Habitat International Coalition, Bertha Turner, John Turner (eds.), Building Community: A Third World Case Book (London: Building Community Books, 1988).

Jim Kemeny, 'Community-based home and neighbourhood building: An interview with John Turner', Housing, Theory and Society, 6 (1989), 157-164.

Stuart Mackrell, John Turner et al., 'Freedom to build: Squatter settlements, self made communities, mass housing in the developing countries, do it yourself design, participation and the use of power, the profession's role in an explosively divided world', RIBA Journal, 81 (1974).

John Turner, 'Architecture that Works', Ekistics (Special Issue: Housing by the people for the people), 27 (1969).

---, Freedom to Build: Dweller Control of the Housing Process (New York: Macmillan, 1972).

---, Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments, Ideas in progress (London: Marion Boyars, 1976).

John Turner and et al., 'The Architecture of Democracy', Architectural Design, 38 (1968).

References About

Ray Bromley, 'Peru 1957-1977: How time and place influenced John Turner's ideas on housing policy', Habitat International, 27 (2003), 271-292.

Rod Burgess, 'Petty commodity housing or dweller control? A critique of John Turner's views on housing policy', World Development, 6 (1978), 1105-1133.

Richard Harris, 'A double irony: the originality and influence of John F.C. Turner', Habitat International, 27 (2003), 245-269.


"The most common objection to changes in public policy which would increase a user's control of housing at the expense of centralized institutions is that standards would be lowered as a result. The standards the objectors have in mind, however, are not something that cam be achieved with available resources, but, rather, represent the objector's own notion of what housing ought to be."
- John Turner, Freedom to Build


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