Architecture: The rise, fall and rise of the tower block: Peter Dormer explains why multi-storey homes, once cursed, may not be so bad after all

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The Independent Culture
The tower block, the dreaming spire of Modernist Utopia, has been unfairly caricatured by pundits and princes as the cause of all evil in public housing. This is the thesis of a marvellously informative book called Tower Block by Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius. It tells the story of one of Britain's most extraordinary architectural adventures.

Four million dwellings were built for the public sector in Britain between 1945 and 1969, a huge output that easily rivalled the Communist builders in Eastern Europe. Tower blocks, which now make up 20 per cent of the housing stock, were seen as an essential means of rescuing people from domestic squalor.

Immediately after the Second World War many single-storey prefab cottages were erected. Prefabs were liked for their amenities but disdained by progressive architects because they did not look modern. In the Fifties, large-scale modern blocks of flats became economic because building sites were mechanised and tower cranes introduced. Local politicians, who acted like building impresarios in major cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, directed this technology at a housing crisis caused by war damage and metropolitan growth.

Provincial housing barons did not fuss about beauty; they pursued output with a startling, swashbuckling dynamism. For example, in 1963, Alderman Harry Watton, known as 'the little Caesar of Birmingham', returned from lunch with the chairman of a building contractor called Bryants and told A G Sheppard Fiddler, the city architect, that Bryants had a marvellous type of slab block that required only a few weeks to erect. A trip was arranged for the housing committee to see one of the blocks, at Kidderminster.

Sheppard Fiddler recalls that en route to the block the committee was marshalled through a marquee awash with free whisky and brandy. This put Alderman Watton in the right mood. 'As we were leaving, at the exit, Harry Watton said, 'Right] We'll take five blocks' - just as if he were buying bags of sweets.'

Housing development may have been led by the nose by political generals, but it was scrupulously serviced by backroom technicians. By the mid-Sixties there were 500 full-time building science researchers. Fifteen years earlier, the government's Building Research Station had erected 10 pairs of semi-detached houses and equipped each with a different heating system in order to test rival technologies. The heating was turned on but the houses left unoccupied for a year. In the following three years, tenants moved in but were moved every year from house to house.

Heating engineers were one breed, social engineers another. The invention of the fitted kitchen appealed to architects in the Forties because it was thought it would make tenants more orderly. From such seeds a science grew - the sociology of housing. This was replaced in the Seventies by the psychology of housing. There is still much discussion of one concept: 'the community'. For a period after the war it was held that the working class was gregarious but divided into the 'rough' and the 'respectable', the latter being more concerned with privacy.

It was even stipulated that the inhabitants of a block ought to be kept away from 'the dangers of making undesirable acquaintances on communal staircases'. Door-stop gossiping was frowned upon in the Forties, but by the early Fifties sociologists welcomed it for its social value.

For years there was widespread enthusiasm for flats among politicians, architects and tenants. Then, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, love turned to hate and tower blocks were reviled. Why?

The answer is complex. Certainly there were complaints about construction, although Glendinning and Muthesius do not pay much attention to the poor ventilation, damp and mould which have caused many tenants much distress. However, only one tower block, Ronan Point in East London, collapsed and tower blocks, in fact, proved difficult to destroy. In 1991, two 'badly built' 15-storey blocks in Edinburgh survived a demolition attempt involving 2,000 charges of high explosive.

The main criticism of tower blocks is that they are responsible for delinquency, vandalism and crime. In the Eighties, the deterministic link between architecture and crime became an orthodoxy. Yet the authors found evidence that for many years tower blocks functioned well. They also discovered that the arrival of just one or two problem families, coupled with bad day-to- day management, was enough to ruin an estate within a short period.

This is not to minimise the awfulness of 'sink' estates but to question the theory that architecture has a deterministic effect: if a particular form of architecture causes some people to be criminal, why are not all tenants of tower blocks criminal? The authors discovered that many tower blocks continue to be maintained in good condition and, as far as could be seen, people were happy in them.

This scholarly, sceptical and humane study demonstrates that the current thinking that modern housing in general, and tower blocks in particular, are irredeemably bad is based on false assumptions.

Glendinning and Muthesius warn us that we are distorting history and jeopardising the politics of architectural debate and social housing policy with our innacurate and absurdly simplistic polarisation of 'traditional' versus 'modern' design.

'Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland' by Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius (Yale University Press, pounds 40).

(Photograph omitted)

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