TOWER BLOCKS UK EDITION — Kinosthetica

On more than one occasion, friends visiting or living in the UK from elsewhere have asked one of two (or, both) questions:

why do so few people in British cities live in apartments?

and:

why do British apartment blocks look so dystopian?

The first question is answered by the second, but when asked I struggled to give a meaningful explanation. This led me to investigate why exactly have architects and planners in Britain failed to provide comfortable, pleasant, and practical solutions to city living.

In the UK, there seems to be a real aversion to dense city living which leads to even relatively inner-city areas consisting of individual semi-detached and terraced houses, often with private gardens. In London, for example, by the outer fringes of Zone 2 (for context, the common reference point for Londoners is the London transport system, where concentric circles form six zones with Zone 1 being the centre) the streets already start to take on a suburban-esque feel. This spatial layout is normally reserved for commuter towns and outer suburbs in other European cities, not inner areas still within reasonable walkable distance to the centres of power.

In smaller British cities, the suburbanification happens much sooner. The only notable exception is perhaps Edinburgh, which is arguably the most European of British cities in terms of spatial patterns and social organisation. Very few British cities are organised in the doughnut-shape so ubiquitous (probably to the point of being near-universal) in major cities at least in Europe: the richest and nicest flats are in the city centre and are distinctly the preserve of the bourgeoisie, and the further you get from the dead centre (and presumably then, the cheaper the land becomes), the housing solutions become increasingly shabby. Only by the time you get to the outermost zones, or banlieues (hello Paris!), often you start to hit the problems that inner-city areas in the UK face.

In the UK (the pattern of which the US seems to follow), more often than not the trend is reversed. The outer areas are often where the bourgeoise lurk in their private houses with their own gardens, big driveways, seclusion, and cleaner air away from the dirt and the dangers of the inner city. Inner city areas tend to be either largely uninhabited (as in my city), full of empty properties that must be amassing capital for somebody, somewhere, or full of dystopian-looking council estates. Nowadays, the inner-city area in most provincial British cities has been used to house students in purpose-built new build (cheaply constructed, expensive to rent but student loans cover that off) after a speculative building boom and studentification in the last decade or so that brings with it its own problems.

Edinburgh Old Town, though, is full of attractive city-centre tenements that house the well-to-do. Meanwhile, the outskirts of Edinburgh are unlikely to attract the hordes that come to the UNESCO World Heritage City from all around the world each year: Cannot see them wanting to hang out in Niddrie for example, and neither Craigmillar nor Oxgangs.

Spatially speaking, then, the vast majority of cities in the UK are already radically different from mainland European counterparts. The reasons for this probably deserve a separate analysis of their own and derive from a complex set of historical factors related to our industrial and economic heritage, political organisation, and socio-cultural norms.

Spatial factors notwithstanding, this still does not answer the question as to why our tower blocks are so uninviting.

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

Tower block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Glendinning & Muthesius, 1994

To delve deeper into the question, I picked up the dense and richly illustrated compendium of the history of post-war public housing in the four nations that constitute the UK. Miles Glendinning and Muthesius, academics and architectural historians anchored at the University of Edinburgh produced this detailed guide in 1994 covering technical design, policy factors (each nation has its own political traditions, cultural norms and social specificities leading to slight-to-moderate variations in national policies), and history.

The key conclusion from the book is that the post-war modern public housing building project in the UK was an impressive project, with the building boom starting in the 1950s, peaking in the 1960s (famously, the Conservative Minister for Housing in 1963 laid out a 10-year plan for mass council house building in the UK, absolutely unthinkable in today’s imaginary) and tapering off in the 1970s before Thatcher came to power and began her radical assault on the state (this is covered in more detail in my entry on Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing by John Boughton). However, what started off as a grand national project to adequately house the population after the Second World War soon descended into the murky world of local politics, private interest, and sheer profiteering.

The speed with which the housing boom took hold led to inferior quality control, which Adam Curtis’ 1984 documentary Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster shines a light on in a series of interviews with major actors in the housing boom such as Cleeve Barr and Tom Akroyd. Tower blocks in the UK have also suffered from a poor reputation in terms of safety: The Ronan Point disaster where a 22-storey block collapsed in Canning Town, East London in 1968 only 2 months after it opened, killing four people, and injuring 17 in a gas explosion. This was due to poor construction and faulty design and led to the removal of gas from high-rise buildings. As Curtis illustrates, however, this actually made things worse: rising costs of energy required to fuel the new electrical appliances fitted in council homes in the wake of Ronan Point led to people using their own makeshift solutions using gas cannisters, which obviously posed a significant danger to people living in the blocks. More recently, the fire in Lakanal House in Southwark, South London in 2009 led to six deaths and upwards of 20 injured. The cause was officially down to a faulty television set, but the exterior cladding in the tower block caught fire and spread rapidly through a dozen flats, trapping residents in their buildings. The only escape route, a central stairwell, filled with smoke making it difficult for people to escape.

Most recently, the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017 killed seventy-two people and its charred remains are still there today, a mass tombstone on the West London skyline. The exterior cladding went up in flames in a matter of minutes, and the enquiry is still ongoing. Nothing has been officially confirmed as yet, but the role of government in securing procurement of this type of cladding for tower blocks across the country is the question that must be answered.

TOWER BLOCKS UK EDITION — Kinosthetica


Categories: Economic History

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