You are here:   Architecture > Demolish the Relics of Yesterday's Future

While we sometimes see cheering footage on the news of tower blocks being blown up, they are often replaced with shiny new ones. For instance, in Stockwell, the ugly 15-storey Wayland House building is coming down to make way for a new ugly 15-storey building. Tower blocks are also being built on new sites.

There is no official record of the number of tower blocks in the United Kingdom. The English Housing Survey estimates there are 432,000 dwellings in "purpose-built high-rise flats" in England. These are defined as over six storeys, whereas most of us would think of a tower block as being at least a dozen storeys. Nevertheless, this number is an increase on the 390,000 of the previous year. 

The estate agent Knight Frank has produced a report saying there is currently permission for 100 new tower blocks in London. It says that given "the high price of development land in the capital, it is unsurprising that residential towers are increasingly being examined as a way to boost the supply of homes in London". Yet this assertion, that high-rise equates to high-density, was convincingly challenged by Nicholas Boys Smith in a paper for Policy Exchange earlier this year. It is a myth, he contended, that "multi-storey estates housed more people". In Southwark and Newham, for example, population density fell while tower blocks proliferated. Kensington and Chelsea, with its traditional terraces, has higher density. A study quoted by the 1999 Urban Task Force showed that terraced houses at least match the housing densities (about 185 homes an acre) of most high-rise housing. Boys Smith says replacing tower blocks with terraced housing and mansion blocks provides more homes: "A plausible estimate is that there are 360,000 dwellings in London in postwar multi-storey estates. This is based on data about the numbers of social homes and the proportion of social homes built as multi-storey estates in London." He estimates that low-rise means a higher density of more than 300 homes an acre. This equates to 260,000 extra homes if all the tower blocks were blown up and the estates they were on redeveloped. That's extra homes-in addition to better replacement homes for the existing residents.

In other words, the support for tower blocks reflects the ideology of planning officers and architects combined with the defeatist acquiescence of councillors. It has nothing to do with people's housing needs. The only way of increasing the number of homes if tower blocks are retained is even taller tower blocks. This is the chosen option for Hackney Council's Woodberry Down Estate. New blocks with 21 storeys are coming in. Another Hackney Council initiative involves Hoxton's Colville Estate, where low-rise 1950s blocks are making way for blocks up to 20 storeys high. Even here the economics are dubious. "Think of the cost of the scaffolding when recladding is needed," regeneration expert John Moss tells me. "The maintenance bills for tower blocks are huge. The taller they are, the harder they are to maintain and the more problems they have." 

Yet virtually nobody would choose to live in a council tower block. An Ipsos MORI poll for the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment — which actually champions tower blocks and must have been a bit disheartened by the findings — put the figure at zero. Those being surveyed were shown pictures of different sorts of housing and asked which one they would most like to live in. The bungalow came in at 30 per cent, the village house at 29 per cent, the Victorian terrace at 16 per cent, the modern semi-detached house at 14 per cent, while 1930s semi-detached was at 6 per cent. Nobody chose the council tower block. It was also, at 84 per cent, the option that most respondents would "least like to live in".

 It tallies with the hundreds of conversations I have had with tower-block residents over the years. As a local councillor in Hammersmith I spend a lot of time knocking on doors. This includes, when the entry-phones work, knocking on the doors of council flats. I ask residents if there are any issues they would like to raise. The taller the block, the greater the probability that the issue they would like to raise is the chances of being rehoused elsewhere. How would I like it, they ask, to live with the stench of urine in the lift, and the climate of fear, given that there is a crack den a few doors along that we have failed to close?

View Full Article
November 13th, 2013
3:11 PM
Excellent article! It seems like there was some horrible collision between architects' massive arrogance, their disinclination to think small, politician's quotas, money saving, and socialist ideology.

September 19th, 2013
10:09 PM
Tom Bristow seems to have become so angered by this article that he cannot deal with the essential argument put forward. Instead he is the one doing the blustering - that the article is ignorant, ill-informed etc. I am afraid that he comes across as one of the very planning apparatchiks that Phibbs criticises (trying to justify the building of these ghastly hell-holes). I am also deeply suspicious when someone says "We need a debate but this is not it" - a tactic often used by those who claim they want a free and open discussion on immigration, law and order, education etc, etc but in fact only want to discuss these issues on terms terms they deem acceptable.

September 19th, 2013
4:09 PM
Ireland's experience with high rises has been disasterous. Any other alternative is better than them.

Paul Fox
September 4th, 2013
10:09 PM
Most continental Europeans live in high rise apartments. Europeans are better at living in them and building them in a way that works. Suggesting that high rise developments are part of some left wing agenda is vacuous and unhelpful. I think most people in the Barbican enjoy living there. Including architects.

Guy Flaneur
September 3rd, 2013
7:09 AM
One good example of the Hitlerian School of Architecture is the fortunately not built ambition of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris a/k/a LeCorbusier in Paris. A vandal right up there with Albert Speer.

Tom Bristow
August 30th, 2013
12:08 AM
What a mixture of Wikipedia and bile. This article does nothing to move the debate on but rehash tired arguments and make unfounded points. In summary your article explains that modernism and modernist architecture was promoted by people with left-wing views and high-rise estates often exacerbate social problems- insightful. Why engage in thoughtful debate about the fallacy of singularity and environmental psychology when you can just bluster? I must return to basics. Post war society was grappling with an unprecedented housing shortage, huge urban overcrowding and deteriorating housing stock. Tower blocks were a response to those circumstances, and I've no doubt that as you're actually pushing a progressive agenda had you been around at that time you'd be one of those supporting doing something to improve housing conditions (and the very fact you hold the views you do is precisely because you have the legacy of high rise estates to argue against). I must break it to you that modernists were in their view actually trying to do something positive for society rather than what you seem to view as engaging in a conspiracy to mess things up intentionally (and, it's implied, somehow roll out a vindictive socialist agenda). And they did effect some positive change- the health of the urban population did improve as a result of better living conditions. Though don't get me wrong high rise estates did disrupt communities and fail to understand that people are, well, people. Let's also not forget that the very architects and planners you deride devised new towns that sprung up at the same time that housed millions and remain some of the most economically buoyant areas in the UK's economy.  An important distinction you fail to make is between post war social tower blocks and new private high rise- the former responded to housing need the latter to housing demand. There is therefore unarguably a social dimension to post-war housing estate problems as there is an economic dimension to recent high-rise development: would it be viable to build the Shard in the Cotswolds? You're mixing up a building type with a housing tenure. On planning it seems like you're in a bygone era. Aside from Structure Plans being superseded by legislation a decade ago, planning is one of the most publicly accessible professions (since Skeffington in 1969 which I would encourage you to read as it makes many of your points). All Local Plans are subject to public consultation and then examined by a planning Inspector who again considers anything that's relevant. Anyone can, and everyone should, contribute their views. And you're entirely wrong I'm afraid on Local Councillors- Members must approve Local Plans and determine such planning applications as they see fit. If you have been talking to Members who have suggested that their officers have snuck in policies or blinded them with science, tell them to get a grip on planning in their areas and better understand the system. We need a progressive debate about housing design, density and supply but this is not it. This is blame culture- lets all point and laugh at those conspiratorial idiots that tried to improve things and feel superior. Stop it and start thinking and engaging with planners and architects about how we can best guide future development.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.