Britain's faulty towers

Tower Block
January 13, 1995

British housing after the Second World War indelibly changed both town and country with new towns, peripheral estates and prefabricated houses. But the most striking innovation was the multi-storey slab or tower block, which flourished for a mere 20 years from the 1950s to the 1970s, and it is that story which Glendenning and Muthesius -- the former working at Edinburgh University the latter at the University of East Anglia -- now tell in this monumental work. It was the product of housing and land shortages, slum clearance, a wide consensus on social policy, the creation of the welfare state, and the belated public and political acceptance of the Modern movement in architecture (which had already made great strides in the 1920s and 1930s in continental Europe). The authors consider their subject under three topics which, it turns out, are a chronology: design, production and breakdown.

In the first, "design", phase issues of house type, sunlight and daylight, internal planning and equipment, landscaping, "scale", and overall architectural form were central. Arguments for "mixed" developement of low and high rise were successful in creating a number of pioneering schemes such as the London County Council's at Roehampton in 1951. Here point blocks and two and four storey houses and maisonettes are set in a parklike landscape. There was a suggestion in these early debates that the division between the occupants of the high and low blocks was seen as representing one between working class (often referred to by the authors as "lower" classes, with the significant omission of the parenthesis) and middle class (which the authors call "the better classes" -- again without parenthesis). Equally central were critical debates about "community", social policy and housing reform as the root of the welfare state. Sociologists of housing had their heyday then. And of course the architectural precedents of Gropius (the zeilenbau of parallel slabs) and Corbusier (especially the Unite schemes) were powerful sources for the new form. In general it was associated with progress, social equity and democracy. Although many of the designers were socialists, and many of the most avid tower block building local authorities were Labour, there was a significant consensus that crossed conventional party boundaries. Since the tower blocks represented a huge public investment and, as concrete objects, were clearly created and read as metaphors of power, further analysis would have been needed to discover the underlying political forces which generated them. In their critique of work such as that by Dunleavy, the authors suggest that pragmatic and essentially local political/professional alliances were the real generators of these objects, in all their variety of forms.

The actors in "production" are defined by the authors as councillors and supporting officials. This curiously lopsided definition results in the exclusion of any substantial material on the nature, ownership and control of the contracting and manufacturing organisations (British and foreign) which capitalised on events; discussion of component manufacture, site organisation; and on-site and off-site labour -- all topics which a more conventional treatment of the production process would have covered. However, in this section there is a clear picture of how the architectural and social objectives of the early phase were displaced by the "numbers game", and how the question of subsidies for high building affected design. Above all a fundamental force was the conflict between central and local government -- the former pressing for decreased densities, new towns and overspill beyond the Green Belt, the latter for increased densities within existing boundaries and use of small gap sites in a process called "the land trap" by the authors. This was epitomised in the conflict between Glasgow and the Scottish Office, brilliantly described here, in which Glasgow's powerful politicians and professionals won substantial victories, whose material evidence was not only the vast, low-rise peripheral estates, but Europe largest high-rise production.

The "breakdown" describes the reaction -- against the overpowering visual image and its harsh monotony, the "slum-in-the-sky" into which many of the schemes soon developed, the vandalism, crime and squalor which became all too evident, and the high costs. Here the authors have a brief discussion of Utopia, which, as in the case of the Garden City movement, was just below the surface of the early visions, and of the anti-Utopianism of Alice Coleman and others who identify the form with a discredited politics of the left and a bureaucratic social welfare state. However, this dichotomy remains unresolved, the authors hovering somewhere in the middle by suggesting that historians stand back from the "polarised extremism, and the ready embrace of sweeping and simplified judgements". This is a great pity -- for an analysis of Utopia, its role in forming desire (Raymond Williams), and a source for "valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class" (Marx) would not only show the direct relationship between this old visionary tradition and the tower block saga, but also how a misunderstanding of it can lead to Coleman's flawed conclusions. In the end, though one gets the impression that the authors arrive at a negative conclusion upon the tower block incident in British housing and planning, there is an absence of critical judgement.

To form that, further work is needed. To what extent, for instance, did the letting and management policies contribute to the social demise of the tower block? And conversely, to what extent can changes in these, as in Europe's highest scheme at Red Road in Glasgow, contribute to its revitalisation? What were the technical failures -- of lifts, sound insulation, heating systems, construction (with its "cold bridges", heat losses, condensation dampness and mould -- only briefly referred to), refuse disposal and maintenance problems? What are the facts about land costs, and comparative achievable densities on large and small sites between tower blocks and low rise housing? What reliable data are there on comparative construction costs? What have modern theories of space and spatial structures contributed to explaining the social problems of site and street layout, deck access and vertical communication, and on the degree to which changes in these have improved matters? What is the role of changed ownership and management structures? What are the studied problems in high-rise living of identifiable groups -- children, their parents, the elderly, chronically sick, and disabled?

Despite such critical questions, this book must be recognised as a major scholarly effort. With a mass of details, interviews with many of the surviving actors, a wealth of quotations, illustrations and contemporary references, detailed statistics, a gazetteer, a huge list of references, and above all a highly readable text which organises this unwieldy material clearly and enjoyably, even for a lay reader, this will become and for long remain a standard text. Even for those minded to carry out the analyses suggested above it will be an essential quarry. The choice between descriptive, narrative history on the one hand, and analysis on the other, faces all, not only architectural, historians. The art history tradition in architecture favours the former -- and it is perhaps no accident that Yale should have published this on behalf of The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

Thomas Markus is emeritus professor, University of Strathclyde.

Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Author - Miles Glendenning and Stefan Muthesius
ISBN - 0 300 05444 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 420pp

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