Strange how Alexander Fleming House has ceased to be a high-rise, concrete horror now that developers can make money from it
Friday 16 May 1997
I mention this story not simply because it is sad, but because it tells us so much about our attitude towards housing. For those who have and have done nothing but eat well all their lives, a super house in Notting Hill tra la. For those who make civilisation worthwhile and worth believing in, or for those who do not understand how to make money, dismal flats.
Abernabell was undoubtedly a hero. Which is why, when he finally escaped to Britain, we shipped him off to Australia with other "aliens" (German U-boats had a field day with British ships packed to the gunwhales with "internees") for the duration of the war. Which is why, aside from the fact that he no doubt wanted to lead his own life and not to be a burden to anybody, he was killed by a gas oven in a tiny and otherwise unheated London flat. This is not the end of a pointless if poignant story.
By chance, my raucous deregulated bus took me past the Elephant and Castle in south London, where Alexander Fleming House, the former headquarters of the DHSS, is being converted into "luxury flats" (all privately developed flats are "luxurious" as if synonymously) for bright young things, many from Hong Kong and Korea, who have never had to worry about domestic heating arrangements much less needed the financial safety net offered by the social services.
Alexander Fleming House was designed by the late Erno Goldfinger, a Jewish emigre from Hungary who built extraordinary "Brutalist" local authority housing blocks (high-rise, concrete horrors to the media, sculptural masterpieces to architects and the majority of critics) that gave poor Londoners sophisticated homes to rent of a quality rarely found elsewhere in Britain in the Sixties and Seventies. There is something odd, and even galling, about the way that Alexander Fleming House has been plucked from the public realm, tarted up and flogged off to all comers. Strange, too, to see how it has ceased to be a high-rise, concrete horror now that developers and investors can make a healthy profit from it.
Meanwhile, no new council houses or flats are built. What new homes are available to the poor, old, incapable or infirm are patronising little brick boxes erected, for all the best reasons, by housing associations and other charities. For those of us who love architecture, it would be better to die in a stylish, if unheated north London studio than a banal and characterless new flat designed in some pat-on-the-head "vernacular" style with uPVC windows. This is the way Hans Abernabell appears to have died. Quite rightly, independently minded people want to be truly independent as long as they can breathe, but wouldn't it have been right and fitting if we could offer the likes of Mr Abernabell a beautifully redesigned flat at an affordable rent in a building by, say, Erno Goldfinger?
The gap in the standard of housing for the haves and the have-nots has grown over the past 18 years, while the lack of imaginative or decent new housing for the poor and the old ought to be a national scandal. The house - from the Primitive Hut of the Classical theorist's imagination, through villas by Palladio and Le Corbusier - has always been the starting point for architecture. Newly appointed ministers in a newly elected government must make it one of their top priorities and there are encouraging signs that they will. We may not live in heroic age, but we should build homes as if for heroes and not as a punishment for those who cannot afford, nor even want, "luxury" flats in "unique" developments "carved" from public buildings designed to serve those very people in danger of ending their days in old flats heated by gas ovensn
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
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