Demolish the Relics of Yesterday’s Future

People want homes, not the “housing units” offered by tower blocks, yet planners continue to sanction these unloved monstrosities

Architecture Features Politics Urbanism
A failed experiment: Goldfinger'sTrellick Tower in North Kensington 

Is it pure coincidence that it is socialists who tend to favour tower blocks for (other) people to live in? The evidence of an ideological connection is abundant. The instinct for centrally planned, standardised, uniform housing has been key to egalitarian dogma. Ernö Goldfinger was the architect for Trellick Tower, the 31-storey block in North Kensington (a Grade II-listed building). Goldfinger, whose name was made synonymous with evil by Ian Fleming (admittedly an anti-Semite) in his eponymous James Bond thriller, had as an earlier commission the offices for the Communist Party of Great Britain. Goldfinger did live in another of his own monstrosities-Balfron Tower in Poplar. He had a flat on the 25th floor and would host champagne receptions for other tenants. But he left after two months. 

Le Corbusier, a great influence on Soviet architecture, was in cahoots with Mussolini and the Vichy regime in France. Brutalism, in architecture as in other things, united the totalitarians of both fascist and Communist hues. 

The married couple and architectural partners Peter and Alison Smithson lived in a Victorian house in Chelsea. They designed the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, one of the most notorious crime-ridden examples of modernism. The Smithsons’ influence in advancing the modernist cause — for instance via the Architectural Association — extended well beyond their own buildings. It was this couple who coined the phrase “New Brutalism” — meaning it as a compliment. Alison said their work was “a parallel cultural phenomenon to the first brave successes of socialist ideals.” 

Berthold Lubetkin was a pioneering modernist who worked for the Labour-run Finsbury Council in the 1930s. He was quite explicit that his purpose was “not simply to build architecturally, but to build socialistically as well”. A Communist Party member, he designed a memorial to Lenin-as well as the penguin pool and gorilla house for London Zoo.

Sir Denys Lasdun was responsible for the brutalist Hallfield Estate in Bayswater and Keeling House in Bethnal Green. Again he was a socialist-although he was teased not only for accepting a knighthood but for sending his children to private schools, as well as living in a lovely Victorian house in Hammersmith.

Does it just so happen that Lord Rogers, the architect and resident of what were two Georgian houses in Chelsea which he knocked through, is a Labour peer rather than a Tory one?

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?

In some places the tower block is in decline. This year Blackpool is due to lose all five of its tower blocks. The replacement will be low-rise housing-bland, modern, nondescript housing, but much better, especially for bringing up children, than the 17th floor. In Bexley seven tower blocks are coming down. The same is happening in Leeds, Enfield, Edinburgh and Bromley. In Glasgow another of the “iconic” 30-storey blocks in Red Road was blown up this year; the remaining six will be gone by 2017. In Wolverhampton the five tower blocks on Blakenhall Gardens have gone, to be replaced by conventional terraced housing. Typically this scheme involves a mix of housing being sold with the profits financing “social housing” — where the local authority subsidises tenants’ rent or places them in a shared-ownership scheme. So it is a mixed picture.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, could give a clearer lead. More than 8,000 homes are being built on the site of the Olympic Games. Several new neighbourhoods will be created — “traditional family neighbourhoods of terraced and mews houses, set within tree-lined avenues”. Good. But why has Boris chosen tower blocks for Sweetwater and Pudding Mill Lane?

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, in his Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture, said: “I believe that we cannot think of our built environment without thinking of beauty. Many of the most beautiful vistas in the United Kingdom are beautiful because of building. Whether it’s Chatsworth or the Nash terraces of Regent’s Park, Edinburgh’s New Town or Salisbury Cathedral, the man-made environment is as capable of inspiring awe as anything in nature.” Gove went on: “[The fact] that too few modern buildings can aspire to real beauty is a challenge to the architectural profession. But it is not an argument against development per se.” Those who say there are “too many houses built in the countryside” don’t wish to knock down Cliveden “or the limestone cottages of Berwick St John”. The objection is not really to building but to ugly building.  

Tower blocks offer poor economics, dubious density benefits, poor aesthetics — and we haven’t even mentioned social costs. Tower blocks produce worse outcomes in terms of crime, health and happiness. Some might suggest that is down to the people living there, rather than the buildings. Evidence from Professor Robert Sommer, of the University of California, Davis, suggests otherwise. He compared the crime rates in two student dormitories in California full of (presumably) middle-class students-the high-rise dormitory was the site of more crime than a nearby low-rise dormitory. Professor Alice Coleman’s 1985 study Utopia on Trial offered definitive academic confirmation of what the millions who have lived in tower blocks already knew: their design is ideal for criminals. Shove us into tower blocks and more of us will turn into criminals.

There are few enthusiasts for tower blocks left. However, those that remain tend to be the ones making the decisions — the planners and the architects. Too many politicians and property developers find it expedient to defer to the “professionalism” of those showing scant sign of contrition for the social and aesthetic catastrophe that their cohort has inflicted on our island for the past half-century. 

How do the planners and the architects get away with it? Great efforts are made to present residents and councillors with faits accomplis. London Assembly member and former Westminster councillor Kit Malthouse says “a standard tactic” used by the planners is to demand that the rest of us defer to their “expertise”. Malthouse adds: “Negotiations between developers and planning officers take place behind closed doors, the public has little formal say, and the final arbiter in all cases is a man in a suit from the planning inspectorate in Bristol, who may not even visit the site before deciding its future. For the poor old local councillor, planning has become a high-stakes game of poker where councils are forced to compromise over mediocre architecture for fear of getting something worse.”

I have noticed that planning officers will discreetly write their own policy to promote their beloved tower blocks. They will slip in something on page 217 of the council’s Unitary Development Plan or the Local Development Framework warning that “pastiche” or “backward-looking” design will not gain favour but that something “imaginative” would be welcome. Then they will tell the councillors on the planning committee that the tower blocks need to be agreed as it is in line with the stated policy.

There is a paradox that the leading subversive taking on the establishment is the Prince of Wales. The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment has managed to prove that there is an alternative. It assisted with the Highbury Gardens development in Islington, a mix of private and social housing designed by Porphyrios Associates. Prince Charles is criticised for speaking out on this controversial subject. However there is no constitutional impropriety. While the modernist/socialist ideological link is beyond dispute, there is less of a party political divide over housing policy. Many of the monuments to socialist architecture in the 1960s were built by Tory councils. Much of the blame rests with Harold Macmillan, the Conservative housing minister from 1951-54, who welcomed tower blocks as helping to hit his Soviet-style production target of 300,000 new homes a year — “rabbit hutches” as Winston Churchill called them.

It’s not all gloom. A young neoclassical architect, Ben Pentreath, offers an indication that planners in some councils are becoming more pragmatic. There are frustrations — often consultation exercises will be “a bit of a joke”. However, he says that modernists are just as likely to come under pressure over what they propose and to experience frustration with delays. “Traditional architects should not just assume that they will be thwarted doing anything other than private houses,” he says. Prince Charles’s Dorchester housing project, Poundbury, which Pentreath has worked on, is a “highly crafted development” giving work to local builders and proving that a mix of private and social housing is viable. The number of homes has been quietly expanding at 75 a year. In Poundbury rich and poor live alongside each other in homes of the same design. 

Building tower blocks is a choice, not an inevitability. Far from being a feature of market forces, they are driven by subsidy and rationing. Rather than being democratic, when residents are offered a choice, anything else is preferred. Tower blocks offer “housing units”, but people want to live in homes. There was plenty of excitement when the tower blocks went up, but they are relics of yesterday’s future. They have failed and we should not preserve  them or repeat that failure to avoid embarrassing those who have inflicted them on so many people — while choosing to live elsewhere themselves.