The real end of the tower block affair

January 20, 1995

I read T. A. Markus's review of Tower Block by Glendinning & Muthesius (THES, January 13) and was struck how Professor Markus managed to miss key points in the history of tower block development in the United Kingdom that would have made for a more useful review.

Although the term "architectural" is used frequently in the review it is not made clear that few tower blocks or high flats were designed by architects. Mostly imported systems of prefabricated construction erected by engineers were used. A main attraction was the elimination of architects' design fees.

Second, for many years high blocks were cheaper for local authorities to build as the central government grant was greater than for low-rise housing.

Third, both Conservative and Labour housing spokesmen Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson continually played political ping pong with rival figures for housing "starts". All they were interested in were figures for "starts" in each quarter -- quantity not quality (design was never an issue). How the tower block solution would work socially and environmentally was not considered. It was an off-the-peg solution from Scandinavia -- Swedish systems in particular.

The main attraction of the tower-block solution (apart from cost to an authority) was speed of erection and the rate at which things were seen to be being done.

Furthermore, the small land area required for a tower or point block enabled the legal assembly of sites by compulsory purchase much quicker than buying up streets of individual properties, some with untraceable owners.

None of these critical points is mentioned by Professor Markus. That is, he has managed to miss the key points in the story told by the authors. Also, he does not mention Ronan Point, destroyed by gas explosion and collapse in 1968. Ronan Point marks the end of the love affair with the tower block -- no more were built using industrialised patent systems, and the basis of central government finance was charged.

ROGER SMITH 96 Chelsea Cloisters London SW3

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