Once tower blocks were the answer to a housing crisis but many people came to hate them. With Sheffield’s Park Hill estate being refurbished for its 50th birthday, can people learn to love them again, asks architect and broadcaster Maxwell Hutchinson.
1945 saw Britain as victors and victims - lost men, lost skills, lost industry, and, most significant, a critical shortage of homes.
The new Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee was a democratic victor but a scapegoat for government’s failure to come up with solution to the critical homes crisis.
Homes were the most pressing and seemingly insoluble of all post-war social issues. There was no labour force, no bricks, and acres of still-smoking slums.
Enter continental pre-war modernist architecture, forged in the creative minds of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and others, and kept alive in the fertile minds of Britain’s young architects, who had been plucked away from their studied enthusiasm for the new modernism to fight a war.
They returned, not demoralised by the fighting, but with a fervent zeal for modernism. They brought with them a solution, and government loved it. Housing problem? What problem? Build them high, make them in factories, and slot them into the waste lands of easily cleared slums.
There were no Nimbys [not-in-my-back-yard] then. No pressure groups, no conservation areas - British towns and cities were one huge brownfield site.
So the British tower block was born. Glasgow rebuilt a city with more tower blocks than any other city in Europe. It’s still the case. London’s East End cheered as cloud-scraping towers provided modernity, inside lavatories, central heating, Formica, and hot baths.
But this vision did not last long. The middle class saw tower blocks as ghettos that they would rather pass by. Post-war families boomed, but the ideologically inspired dreams of cheap, quality, high-rise housing started to be neglected and demonised.
The tower block started to be seen as all that was misguided about post-war Britain. Maintenance was often abysmal - lifts failed, rubbish chutes were blocked, garages were burnt by vandals.
There had been doubts, but events triggered by an early morning cup of tea in a tower block in east London on 16 May 1968 turned the UK wholeheartedly against high-rise living and all that it stood for.
Ivy Hodge lived on the 18th floor Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower, named after Harry Louis Ronan, a chairman of the London borough of Newham’s Housing Committee, which had opened on 11 March 1968.
As Hodge struck a match to light her stove, a gas explosion ripped the corner out of the tower. That corner fell down like a pile of loosely stacked tiles.
That was how the block and many more like it were built, story-high, load-bearing concrete panels stacked sky-high with what proved to be appallingly badly made joints. Hodge survived but four residents died and 17 were injured in the disaster.
Hodge’s cup of tea had brought down more than the corner of one tower - it shattered the public’s confidence in all high-rise dreaming.
The innate enthusiasm of the English for vernacular architecture took hold of the nation’s mood - all would now be comfortable brick, near the ground with pitched roofs, garden front and rear. It would be just like good old England.
Such was the government’s over reaction at the events in Newham that they tore up their high post-war ideals and started an orgy of tower destruction.
The undeserved perception of failed idealism was celebrated by spectacular displays of demolition pyrotechnic. The tower block had failed and picnic parties sat on London’s Hackney Marshes as tower after tower exploded and crashed into a pile of wasted idealism and dreams.
But all was not lost. Some energetic and visionary young architects and property developers have seen merit in the towers in the 21st Century.
Many of the old towers are still there - their very existence proving they are intrinsically sustainable. A tidy-up of the common areas, new lifts, a permanent concierge, entry-phone system and high-rise slums could become desirable homes.
London’s famous Trellick Tower, by the architect Erno Goldfinger, is now a 30-storey style pile. That goes for towers in Glasgow, now swathed in multicoloured insulating overcladding.
Not all concrete ideals of the post-war building boom have survived, Alison and Peter Smithson’s polemic Robin Hood Gardens in east London is not long for this life, despite the protestations of the architectural elite. Concrete cancer, poor maintenance and the vandalism of social discontent have had their way - down it will come.
But there is nothing intrinsically flawed with the idea of high-rise living. Sustainability, good maintenance, careful management and a sense of ownership can make things work.
If the lift works, towers are particularly suitable for the elderly - great views, peace and quiet, neighbours who can still remember the post-war devastation.
Towers also work for the young - they are convenient, give a good leg-up on the housing market, and, with good neighbours, great fun. There is plenty of time to have children and move into a predictable estate on the outside of town. In the meantime, one can enjoy life with one’s head in the clouds.
The tower of homes is making a refreshing comeback. New technology means faster, more reliable lifts, and acoustic improvements mean greater privacy.
New materials and structural engineering innovations produce a new architectural language for the tower. Although concrete is still an essential part of the buildings’ structure, it is no longer a singular cladding material.
The new towers benefit from the introduction of colour and texture. The tower prejudice has all but gone - today’s urban world is once again reaching for the sky.