Viewpoint: Could people learn to love tower blocks?

 
Tower blocks at Park Hill, Sheffield

Once tower blocks were the answer to a housing crisis but many people came to hate them. With Sheffield's Park Hill estate being refurbished for its 50th birthday, can people learn to love them again, asks architect and broadcaster Maxwell Hutchinson.

1945 saw Britain as victors and victims - lost men, lost skills, lost industry, and, most significant, a critical shortage of homes.

The new Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee was a democratic victor but a scapegoat for government's failure to come up with solution to the critical homes crisis.

Homes were the most pressing and seemingly insoluble of all post-war social issues. There was no labour force, no bricks, and acres of still-smoking slums.

Enter continental pre-war modernist architecture, forged in the creative minds of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and others, and kept alive in the fertile minds of Britain's young architects, who had been plucked away from their studied enthusiasm for the new modernism to fight a war.

Find out more

  • Archive On 4 - Rebuilding Britain For The Baby Boomers, presented by Maxwell Hutchinson, is on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 26 November at 20:00 GMT

They returned, not demoralised by the fighting, but with a fervent zeal for modernism. They brought with them a solution, and government loved it. Housing problem? What problem? Build them high, make them in factories, and slot them into the waste lands of easily cleared slums.

There were no Nimbys [not-in-my-back-yard] then. No pressure groups, no conservation areas - British towns and cities were one huge brownfield site.

So the British tower block was born. Glasgow rebuilt a city with more tower blocks than any other city in Europe. It's still the case. London's East End cheered as cloud-scraping towers provided modernity, inside lavatories, central heating, Formica, and hot baths.

Woman looks out from London tower block Tower blocks were the answer to a major housing crisis

But this vision did not last long. The middle class saw tower blocks as ghettos that they would rather pass by. Post-war families boomed, but the ideologically inspired dreams of cheap, quality, high-rise housing started to be neglected and demonised.

The tower block started to be seen as all that was misguided about post-war Britain. Maintenance was often abysmal - lifts failed, rubbish chutes were blocked, garages were burnt by vandals.

Notable high-rise blocks

Park Hill Estate, Sheffield
  • Beetham Tower, Manchester (2006): UK's tallest residential building
  • Trellick Tower, London (1972): Erno Goldfinger's building is now popular with residents
  • Park Hill estate in Sheffield (1961): Now Grade II* listed and being refurbished
  • Robin Hood Gardens (1972): Praised by some, but due for demolition

There had been doubts, but events triggered by an early morning cup of tea in a tower block in east London on 16 May 1968 turned the UK wholeheartedly against high-rise living and all that it stood for.

Ivy Hodge lived on the 18th floor Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower, named after Harry Louis Ronan, a chairman of the London borough of Newham's Housing Committee, which had opened on 11 March 1968.

As Hodge struck a match to light her stove, a gas explosion ripped the corner out of the tower. That corner fell down like a pile of loosely stacked tiles.

That was how the block and many more like it were built, story-high, load-bearing concrete panels stacked sky-high with what proved to be appallingly badly made joints. Hodge survived but four residents died and 17 were injured in the disaster.

High-rise challenge

By Bill Price, structural engineer, WSP Group

In the 50s and 60s, council housing was about economy and innovation and, to some extent, experimentation in design.

It was the early days of pre-cast concrete and the focus was to find quick ways to build things. For example, high alumina cement (HAC) was used to try to make concrete set faster. This had some detrimental effects - there were some collapses but it wasn't a major issue.

Concrete was cast on wood/wool slabs made of compressed timber fibres, which remained in place. But with this technique, the concrete didn't set so well. In many of buildings, concrete slabs were not connected in a robust way.

As a material, concrete has moved on significantly - today, we use super high-strength concrete. In the 1960s concrete strength in high-rises was 40 Newton, now buildings such as the Shard in London, or some high-rise buildings in the US, 100N-110N has been used - double or triple the strength.

At the time, there was also little consideration of long-term maintenance, the buildings were leaky, draughty and this led to degradation issues. Now we think more about longevity - keeping the weather out, for example - but there is still some way to go.

Hodge's cup of tea had brought down more than the corner of one tower - it shattered the public's confidence in all high-rise dreaming.

The innate enthusiasm of the English for vernacular architecture took hold of the nation's mood - all would now be comfortable brick, near the ground with pitched roofs, garden front and rear. It would be just like good old England.

Such was the government's over reaction at the events in Newham that they tore up their high post-war ideals and started an orgy of tower destruction.

The undeserved perception of failed idealism was celebrated by spectacular displays of demolition pyrotechnic. The tower block had failed and picnic parties sat on London's Hackney Marshes as tower after tower exploded and crashed into a pile of wasted idealism and dreams.

But all was not lost. Some energetic and visionary young architects and property developers have seen merit in the towers in the 21st Century.

Many of the old towers are still there - their very existence proving they are intrinsically sustainable. A tidy-up of the common areas, new lifts, a permanent concierge, entry-phone system and high-rise slums could become desirable homes.

London's famous Trellick Tower, by the architect Erno Goldfinger, is now a 30-storey style pile. That goes for towers in Glasgow, now swathed in multicoloured insulating overcladding.

Not all concrete ideals of the post-war building boom have survived, Alison and Peter Smithson's polemic Robin Hood Gardens in east London is not long for this life, despite the protestations of the architectural elite. Concrete cancer, poor maintenance and the vandalism of social discontent have had their way - down it will come.

Ronan Point

  • Opened in March 1968 in Newham, east London
  • Built using prefabricated concrete panels bolted together
  • Gas explosion sparked collapse of one corner in May 1968
  • Four people were killed and 17 injured
  • Lifts had already broken down, impeding evacuation
  • Tower was rebuilt but demolished in 1986
  • Building regulations were tightened after an inquiry

But there is nothing intrinsically flawed with the idea of high-rise living. Sustainability, good maintenance, careful management and a sense of ownership can make things work.

If the lift works, towers are particularly suitable for the elderly - great views, peace and quiet, neighbours who can still remember the post-war devastation.

Towers also work for the young - they are convenient, give a good leg-up on the housing market, and, with good neighbours, great fun. There is plenty of time to have children and move into a predictable estate on the outside of town. In the meantime, one can enjoy life with one's head in the clouds.

The tower of homes is making a refreshing comeback. New technology means faster, more reliable lifts, and acoustic improvements mean greater privacy.

Beetham Tower in Manchester There is now a new generation of high-rise

New materials and structural engineering innovations produce a new architectural language for the tower. Although concrete is still an essential part of the buildings' structure, it is no longer a singular cladding material.

The new towers benefit from the introduction of colour and texture. The tower prejudice has all but gone - today's urban world is once again reaching for the sky.

 

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  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 368.

    The main reason the Tower Block living failed is in your article, maintenance was abysmal. If they were properly maintained and not allowed to slip into grimy disrepair then they wouldn't have been viewed as slums. Better, open design, and constant maintenance are all is needed to make people love where they live and feel proud of it. Too much depressing grey, and people fall into hate and despair

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 363.

    When my friends moved into them in the mid 60's they were very pleased to get in one .There was a lot of demand in London .but it quickly turned sour .Where as the wealthy who lived in apartments had a concierge and proper maintenance ,the Council blocks just had drug dealers and lifts dripping with urine ,unspervised kids,kids running wild. forgot just who was going to live and visit them .
    Sad

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 360.

    Slums for the future are being built on every other street in London. Every available plot is being turned into 7/8 flats usually blocks (so called contemporary design with cladding). Large detached houses all over suburbia are going this way. People blame the planning departments at thier local councils, but national planning policy and the vested interest are winning the day...

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 355.

    Don't blame the design. Generally high rise flats, however designed, work well on the Continent ..... why ? .... each block has a secure entrance with a concierge. It is as simple as that.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 342.

    Well designed & built housing is what we need, the problem with first generation high rise flats is that they rarely very well designed and nearly always shoodily built due to the circumstances in which they built, post WW2 with a need for housing, lots of it and quickly - there's no reason why modern flats need to be badly designed or built......

 

Comments 5 of 9

 

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