Architecture: Against living too close to the ground

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The Independent Online
A lot of the London domestic architecture which has truly taken flight, has been high in the air. Nonie Niesewand looks at forces and fashions that lead forever upwards.

Architectural fashions ebb and flow and fashion very often makes mockery of argument. When public housing went storey upon storey skywards in the Sixties it was touted as a solution both desirable and necessary. Within a decade or so it had become anathema. Housing should be on a human scale; everybody should have their own garden. Thus will people be better socialised and better behaved.

It would have been hard to find somebody to make the argument for tower blocks for anybody, even architects. That has changed; fashionable urban middle-class people are far from blind to the virtues of high-rise urban living. Increasing is the number for whom the suburban idyll and the turn- of-the-century villa hold no charm.

Yesterday evening at the London School of Economics a group of architects met to discuss not just the desirability of a high-rise future, but its necessity. The event was called A Date with Density - New Homes in London.

In the urban regeneration work that one of the participants, Wendy Shillam, undertakes in London, the solution to high-rise high density is higher density. To accommodate the same number of people in low-rise housing means swallowing all available space on the ground, with a resultant lack of public amenities and a more miserable existence for inhabitants. But going up in tower blocks with careful management of the spaces in between means that you can create good places to inhabit - playgrounds and squares. Cars belong in the streets, she believes, and communal spaces are essential. And living in a tower block is not necessarily unpopular with the inhabitants.

"People who look into the incidence of crime in cities see little correlation between high density and high crime. In fact the greater correlation is between poverty and crime. What is worse is the fear of crime."

But ask the participants which existing public tower block or high-density estate they admire and they are hard pushed to name one. Even Goldfinger's Trellick Tower, social housing which has such a strong profile in brutalist concrete, very popular with architects (some of whom live there), wasn't a favourite. "I'm not a great admirer, though the middle class trendies like it. It's not what you'd call joyful - reminds me of a penitentiary," Terry Farrell says reflectively. "Though I've never been inside the Barbican, I quite like the more expressive, almost Baroque feel of the Barbican building."

Lesley Chalmers, who has just resigned as chief executive of Kings Cross Partnership, likes the Barbican. She lives there. "I love to live above the ground. I like people around, and I sold my car since I came to London, so I have to be central. I think this is a demographic trend, part of marriages breaking up, children leaving home, and part-time workers. This suggestion that everyone wants a house with a garden is from the past, a Utopian view that isn't right for today."

Harry Handelsman, chairman of Manhattan Loft Company and the entrepreneur who made expensive high-rise and loft living fashionable in London, thinks the Barbican is quite good, "though it is a bit of a wind tunnel. And I like the look of the Richard Rogers Montevetro Hovis flour mill renovation at Battersea, but if the Hong Kong index wobbles any more, it might slow down the development."

Harry Handelsman launched the idea of downtown chic in central London's abandoned warehouses and factories to make loft living fashionable. Gritty photographs marketing Manhattan Lofts manage to make old NCP car-parks or smoke-grey cement textile mills look cutting-edge cool, along with the pictures of black cabs and free-wheeling pigeons in Trafalgar Square to set the scene.

Asked to commend a new high-rise building as good, he nominates one of his own. Surprisingly enough, he may be right. "I'd really like to nominate my Bankside conversion next to the new Tate as the best example of high- density living, but I can't, it would be biased."

He likes Bankside so much that he bought the penthouse on this seven- storeyed block (not exactly high rise). It used to be an ugly Sixties- built block adjoining a Victorian warehouse, to which the architect Piers Gough added extra floors in a tower to make 134 apartments. Gough kept the facade simple, puncturing it where needed with suitably industrial windows, and reconfigured the inside, "a bit like pre-shrunk jeans. We structure the building to get the fit and then the purchaser steps into it," says Gough.

This is housing for the affluent, but as a template for other housing it has its relevance, which will grow stronger as the new century goes on.