Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
There’s long been a polarized debate surrounding this type of housing, but that’s finally starting to change.
Is the Anglo-American backlash against the modernist tower block finally coming to an end? Scottish architectural historian Miles Glendinning believes it’s only a matter of time until the long-reviled architectural form gets full rehabilitation. Mind you, he has a personal stake in just that process.
A champion of the tower block for almost 30 years, Glendinning is currently building an extensive archive he calls a “new Domesday Book” of Britain’s high-rise apartment buildings. Due for completion in 2017, the online archive will feature every British residential tower built in the 20th century (including those now demolished) and will combine photographs with residents’ testimonies. Stemming from material Glendinning created with colleague Stefan Muthesius for their 1994 book Tower Block, the archive should help power a reappraisal that the University of Edinburgh professor feels is long overdue. It’s a fascinating record of high-rise Britain that, as Glendinning points out, could easily have been lost.
“When writing Tower Block I tried to visit every tower in the U.K. for research. I took a photo or two at each, and they’ve more or less been gathering dust ever since as Kodachrome slides,” says Glendinning. “We got a grant to scan them to make it into a proper, searchable database. The next stage will be two years of outreach to tower block communities.”
As Glendinning himself is quick to note, the wholesale rejection of the modernist tower block is neither an old nor a global phenomenon.
“There are a few countries where this sort of extreme oppositional discourse around modernist tower housing has happened, followed by lots of demolitions,” says Glendinning. “Britain, the U.S. and France are places where it has really flourished, but in other places—even Western countries— it doesn't really happen at all.”
“Particularly in Asia, Hong Kong and Singapore, a lot of public housing is still being built in far bigger form. In Hong Kong, the standard public rental housing blocks built are still up to 46 stories, so there might be up to 800 flats in a block. That relativizes the discourse in Britain—it’s a circular thing where success or failure is essentially an ideology. Elsewhere, there isn't a discourse of rejection and therefore the blocks are—in inverted commas—‘successful.’”
The extremely polarized debate surrounding this type of housing that emerged in Britain and America in the second half of the 20th century was due to factors beyond just design failure, he suggests. In the 1960s, Britain was building more public housing than any other Western European country, and even gave then-Communist Eastern European states a run for their money. Such a radical transformation of the urban landscape with new forms was especially likely to create a backlash, not least because England (though not Scotland) traditionally focused on house building, making the concept of the apartment complex itself contentious. In the United States, meanwhile, Glendinning believes that the political odds were stacked against modernist public housing’s acceptance from the outset.
“The idea in the U.S. was to build the very cheapest housing for the poorest people. It was thus a program that was doomed from the very beginning,” he says. “From the late ‘40s, public housing became associated with the drive towards segregation. It began to be used as an implicit vehicle of segregation and therefore stigmatized within the race system of the U.S. But also, as a kind of double whammy, it was damned as part of red-baiting and McCarthyism as being a kind of alien, anti-American socialism.”
In Britain, by contrast, the rejection of tower blocks was not so abrupt or intense. In the postwar period, state housing construction attracted some of the country’s most able architects, creating developments that could be both stylistically bold and far from cheaply built. With proper heating and plumbing, modern kitchens and better insulation, conditions in these new blocks were generally far better than working-class Britons had previously had access to. Their reputation nonetheless took a major fall from the late 1960s onwards, the new architecture coming to be seen as inhumane and alienating, and sometimes riddled with both design and management mistakes.
Glendinning’s 1994 book, for example, quotes one Glasgow tower resident who says his block failed when local authorities started using it as a place to tidy away problem tenants, and eventually stopped performing regular maintenance:
“It wasn't anything to do with the block itself, really, it was a change in the kind of people who lived there, and how people behaved. … It all seems such a terrible waste—they were perfectly good houses, if the Council had only bothered to look after them, rather than using them as a dumping ground!”
When Tower Block was first published, its more positive attitude to the postwar public housing boom was still something of a lonely cry in the wilderness. But today, Glendinning thinks he can see the tide of public debate in the U.K. turning.
“There’s been a positive shift, as opposed to the Prince Charles years of previous decades, when public opinion could be assumed automatically to be violently against,” he says. “We find this particularly in local community groups. The idea that there's something odd or negative about highrise housing they would regard with bafflement, so among certain people there's a new norm, a sort of swinging point. ”
A national dearth of new housing has indeed made the social ideals and consistent building standards of the postwar period seem halcyon. Meanwhile, intense housing pressure in London has seen some municipal blocks reappraised as design classics, their flats sold at a premium to aficionados of the modern. Glendinning sees this shift as a fight on two fronts.
“On the one hand there's the elite national media thing of postwar modernism and brutalism becoming trendy, but also there's a kind of local heritage/nostalgia thing,” says Glendenning. “Obviously, there's a tension between the elite trendy architectural heritage discourse, which tends to pick out the towers designed by famous architects. But the residents' thing is a much more widespread thing and is just as likely to be in places like Birmingham, where there's no ‘high art’ type mass housing at all.”
In many ways, this view is consistent with the way other long-hated architectural periods have been reappraised over the past decade.
“The obvious comparison is with 19th century tenements,” says Glendinning. “In the 1970s, they suddenly went from being the most reviled thing everyone wanted demolished to something that was generally seen as a kind of heritage. There was a transitional period in the ‘70s when a lot of people were still saying how ghastly they were, while others were advocating for their preservation. I think that [when it comes to modernist high rises], we're in that transitional period now.”
Still, if you gave the average person today a choice between living in a late Victorian row house and a 1960s high-rise apartment, most would choose the former. If anything, Glendinning believes it’s the continuing ubiquity of high-rise blocks in the U.K. that is holding back their rehabilitation.
“What has to happen for this to kick in a bit more is the rarity factor has to be given time to apply its own pressure—so that they are no longer seen as something everyday and ubiquitous, present-day and alienating, but something that has passed and is gradually disappearing. If people were to look through the archive fully, it would immediately change perceptions, because the already iconic towers are not more represented than the less famous ones. It would be the basis for someone saying, ‘this is a kind of new vernacular.’”
This story is part of the Highrise Report, in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada. CityLab is proud to host the U.S. premiere of “Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise,” the final interactive documentary to come out of the HIGHRISE project, produced by the NFB.