June 30th, 2010
Among the titles in the Reading List to the right is the oddly named Utopia on Trial by Alice Coleman, a book I have just read during the recent fine weather. It tackles head on the thorny issue of the impact of Le Corbusier and the results of his ideas on the design of public housing in the UK after WWII.
It is important to note at the outset that this book only deals with the failed concrete council estates of the post-war period. It is not balanced by considering the mansion blocks of Sloane Street or W1 in London. It ignores completely Frederick Gibberd’s “Lawn” at Harlow, one of the earliest blocks of flats.
Highpoint in Hampstead, Lawn Road flats, the Spa Green estate, Kensal House, or Trellick and Balfron towers in West and East London are all ignored as is any block that works. The author is looking through a letter box so to speak in writing this book and it is a masterpiece in those terms but it must be remembered both when reading the book and reading what follows below that those are the constraints within which it lives.
There can be little doubt about the then (1945) need to replace much of the housing damaged by war time bombing but equally it is only fair to say that much of the housing was below what today we would regard as habitable even before the outbreak of war. Housing built in a hurry during the Industrial Revolution to house mine, mill and factory workers still stood in large number, a lot of it back-to-back and some still stands today in Leeds.
Films of the time such as Housing Problems 1936 most vividly and The Stars Look Down and The Citadel to a lesser extent all reveal the impoverishment and poor housing of the time, at least among the then working class. The war damage triggered the need for a rebuilding programme of some magnitude and the immediate post-war period saw the growth of an idealistic group of architects keen to build “The New Jerusalem”. That this was founded on the ideas of Le Corbusier was perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, unfortunate, but the important thing to remember is I think that they didn’t know that then. They simply sought to house people better, and for the most part, they did.
Alice Coleman had (1985) the considerable benefit of reviewing and analysing a situation that had arisen as the result of the post-war housing boom, but the architects, planners and builders of the time built many houses too and she doesn’t complain about those. She also had the benefit of dealing with a situation that had arisen from a great desire to do good, without having had to be there to deal with it herself. Or I suspect, she might add, the opportunity . . .
Overall I like the book and respect some of its findings which can hardly be in doubt given the meticulous and detailed research conducted in the writing of. I personally take issue with the constant use of the word tenements and tenement blocks to describe blocks of flats whether they be tower blocks or simply low rise blocks of flats. The word tenement is an emotive one that (to my mind) refers directly back to the soot blackened, courtyard enclosing, tall cramped unhygienic blocks of the Gorbals and for all the faults that Coleman exposes about the concrete estates, they did have internal bathrooms and toilets with hot and cold running water and their own kitchens.
I have not read a history of the Gorbals and so cannot comment in detail but the short clips in the Open University series From Here to Modernity lead one to think that the occupants were sharing toilets and washing facilities at the very least, if not kitchens. To my mind then the book is damaged by this association. The people who were moved out of slums in the inner cities of the time were “in paradise” in many cases, even if subsequent decades proved less pleasant.
Several excellent documentaries cover the post-war period and although almost all end with the shot of Ronan Point losing a corner of its structure following a gas explosion in 1968, for the most part they also highlight what a joy it was for the people to move from unsanitary and crowded accommodation into clean and spacious new flats with good plumbing.
That Alice Coleman wishes they had been houses with gardens is entirely understandable but that was the thinking of the time and regardless of hindsight, even had things been handled differently after the war I find it difficult to believe that people could in many cases remained where they were for the sake of community because many streets would have had to be entirely rebuilt.
“row after row of back-to-back houses falling ever further into disrepair” The New Jerusalem
In Chapter II entitled Utopia Accused the second sentence reads as follows,
“The first half of the century was dominated by the age-old system of natural selection, which left people free to secure the best accommodation they could.”
I can hear an echo of Melanie Phillips here writing for the Daily Mail and saying “and for those that could not secure good accommodation well tough luck”. Of course that’s just my opinion, but by concentrating on the failures of Modernist housing in the post-war period and ignoring the reforming zeal of those who sought to ensure that all our population were properly housed she weakens her case.
The history of council housing dates back to 1890, at least with the demolition of Old Nicol and the building of the Boundary Estate in the same location to house immigrants. This isn’t the place for a history of council housing, it is covered very well by the authors listed in my Reading List in the RH column of this page.
Internal corridors (p.15)
Erno Goldfinger got round the problem of internal corridors, he put them on the outside, at least in his two towers, Trellick and Balfron. He put the access corridors on the side and glazed them, brilliant.
By Chapter 3 the question of children is dealt with and it becomes apparent from her research that the ratio of children to adults in already difficult housing is crucial in controlling antisocial behaviour. By the end of the book she’s got it down to 16% children and the rest adults i.e. at least six adults to every child and then no families with children above the fourth floor.
In Chapter 4 on P.48 an apparent contradiction arises because the author makes it clear that estates are not to have strangers wandering through and that only residents should have access to the grounds. However these days that is entirely contradicted in planning terms and indeed some estates such as Holly Street in East London have been remodelled to encourage pedestrian access as a way of ensuring vigilance and passive surveillance of potential trouble.
The author goes on to deal with this apparent contradiction in Chapter 8 on P.147 where she points out that permeability as it is known can be achieved by reducing block sizes and increasing the number of interconnecting roads such that the estate is broken down into smaller areas interleaved with public access without compromising the security of homes.
There appears on P.92 a sentence with which I wholeheartedly disagree. We are alone among the countries of Europe in favouring houses over flats where Paris and Vienna to name but two major cities have many blocks and these have a concierge who watches the comings and goings and keeps an eye on the block. Yet Alice Coleman sees fit to say the following:-
“The whole caretaker question highlights the ill-wisdom of creating a brand of Utopia which forces people into dependence upon custodians instead of managing their own lives independently.”
I take issue with that statement on three different levels. The first I have outlined above where it is commonplace abroad to find apartment blocks with a caretaker / concierge in place. Indeed as a result of the City Challenge initiated by Michael Heseltine back in the 1980s many of our own blocks have had secure entrance doors fitted and a concierge installed which along with other measures has made once uninhabitable blocks, desirable again.
The second is that some people, and I include myself among them, simply prefer to live somewhere where responsibility for the building and its maintenance is handed over to someone else, for a fee. This is a widely accepted model in the wealthier districts. Residents pay a service charge for maintenance of the grounds and structure.
Thirdly in a block that includes a high proportion of elderly people the caretaker or concierge may well act as an early warning system for people in trouble, something unlikely in houses where in the absence of immediate family old people can and do die alone and are not found for weeks if not months.
There is no common system to suit everybody. Flats provide a view for one thing, which most houses do not, apart from that of other houses of course, or those fortunate enough to live by the sea, or with a view of the countryside.
The Density Myth p.119
Once again that old saw the density myth raises its head. The question of high rise / low density of the past as against today’s desire for high density / low rise is dealt with by outlining the shared space in public sector blocks of flats and the green space around them that could be gardens for houses. Yet in city centres, W1 for example and SW1, may be found mansion block flats and higher, high rise / high density, you don’t tend to find houses with gardens in the centre of London, what you do find are flats and Royal Parks, now no doubt there’s a good argument for abolishing the Royal Parks, demolishing flatted blocks and building houses and gardens but I don’t think for a moment it’s going to happen.
“Overwhelmingly the majority of council housing was built as houses with gardens because we thought that everybody should have this kind of idyll of a little house and a little garden.”
“But in the cities where you were trying to put back very large numbers of people from slums that were very densely occupied there was a realisation that you couldn’t simply build houses with gardens there and that’s where the modernist ideas came into play”
Anne Power speaking in High Rise Dreams
The truth is that density varies across a city and is likely to be more dense in the smaller centre than the sprawling perimeter.
UPDATE: This section (above) is now subject to revision owing to my discovery of the source material for Alex Ely’s comment quoted on the Density page “It’s a myth that high density means high rise,” insists Alex Ely that I have written up in a separate post entitled Tower blocks and the density myth
While we can’t apparently show that poverty causes bad behaviour on council estates, does wealth encourage good behaviour in private flatted blocks? It would appear so. One does not hear stories of the Barbican (in the City of London) being a “sink estate”, nor mansion house flats in Sloane Street.
“Brutalist architecture was Modernism’s angry underside, and was never, much as some would rather it were, a mere aesthetic style. It was a political aesthetic, an attitude, a weapon, dedicated to the precept that nothing was too good for ordinary people.
Now, after decades of neglect, it’s divided between ‘eyesores’ and ‘icons’; fine for the Barbican’s stockbrokers but unacceptable for the ordinary people who were always its intended clients.” – Owen Hatherley
On balance I’m prepared to accept the arguments put forward that design is the major player with the proviso that should it ever come to pass that the privately owned estates of London became inhabited by the tenants of sink estates I would expect graffiti to appear almost immediately regardless of the design because the anti-social behaviour is so ingrained.
[above paragraph struck through 26/11/12 - on reflection I no longer believe that - Ed.]
The digested read
Alice Coleman and the Land Use Research Unit of King’s College London have proved almost beyond doubt that design is the major factor in the antisocial behaviour leading to the poor reputation of Britain’s worst council estates.
She intensely dislikes flats and thinks houses with gardens should be built everywhere instead.
The digested read, digested.
Alice Coleman hates flats and likes houses with gardens.
[The one I read was not the revised edition - Ed.]
Postscript: for the last word on tower blocks read the article by Harry Phibbs and the intelligent comments that follow it here:-
The Last Word
I think the last word should go to Anne Power speaking in the documentary High Rise Dreams:-
“People were living in miserable housing conditions and we did have a huge housing shortage and people did end up living on the whole in better conditions and we did end up without an acute housing shortage.
So I don’t think we should underestimate both the concrete achievements and also what was being attempted.”
UPDATE: Film maker Tom Cordell has made a film about the estates and the architects of the housing described below, in a film entitled Utopia London which will be shown at the Gallery 70 Cowcross Street London on 14th December.
UPDATE: [15/12/2010] One of the things that came out from the Q&A after last night’s film showing was that Alice Coleman ran into problems when trying to alter Alton West because by the late 1980s many of the flats had been sold under right to buy, and the then owners didn’t want the changes she was recommending, whereas with council tenants they could have been implemented straight away.
UPDATE: [19/5/2011] Since the broadcast of this documentary:-
DOCUMENTARY: The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House
Journalist and author Michael Collins presents a history of one of Britain’s greatest social revolutions – council housing, which, at its height in the 1970s, provided homes for over a third of the British population. Collins visits Britain’s first council estate in London, the groundbreaking flats that made inter-war Liverpool the envy of Europe, the high rise estate in Sheffield that has become the largest listed building in the world and the estate on the banks of the Thames that was billed as ‘the town of the 21st century’. He meets the people whose lives were shaped by an extraordinary social experiment that began with a bang at the start of the 20th century and ended with a whimper 80 years later.
The suspicion has arisen to my mind at least, that the problems Alice Coleman had to deal with were brought about as much by the allocations policy of the 1977 Housing Act as by the architectural circumstances highlighted by Oscar Newman. I have to conclude that both played a part and that there was no single cause.
Where I have deep regrets is that the one seems to have tainted the other in that an internet search now for “deck access flats” leads to a number of articles decrying Modernist deck access block and celebrating their demolition when it may well have been that the bad reputation they suffered was brought about by disfunctional families imposed on them and not related to the architecture itself.
When we see large numbers of single aspect flats being built in the first decade of the C21st I have to ask if we would not be better off with deck access dual aspect flats untainted by the allocation policies of councils on Modernist estates.
UPDATE: [15/8/11] During the writing of my revised review of Tom Cordell’s Utopia London I was obliged to reconsider the work of Alice Coleman in her work for Mrs Thatcher, which I have chosen to reproduce below because it is directly relevant to the article above:-
TC: “Aren’t there other social factors that influence peoples behaviour? Poverty, the impact of mass [unclear]”
AC: “Nobody could have been brought up in greater poverty than me and I can tell you that poverty per se does not have that effect. My family was extremely ethical, honest, hard-working, and so on. I had to grow up definitely in poverty and know what it is and know that this business about people being poor is not the answer. It’s not a good thing to be. But if you’ve got people who are properly brought up they survive.”
I don’t think Alice Coleman was wrong, in her own terms, anymore than the architects were, in their own terms. I think that if you set out, as Mrs Thatcher did, to sell council housing to those who can afford to buy it, and combine this with a needs based allocations policy that the Labour Government did from 1977 onwards, such that the remaining (not bought under right to buy) property is then inhabited by those families with the greatest social problems, you are going to have one hell of a problem on the estates, and this is by and large what happened.
I can only conclude that Alice Coleman was in effect “used” by Margaret Thatcher as an apologist for her policies while blaming architects for the mess so created. This is grossly unfair to Alice Coleman who I think did a perfectly worthwhile job and incidentally in the process uncovered some important principles in this country first discovered by Oscar Newman in the States.
I don’t think there is a clear answer to the question of whether the architects were wholly to blame (I don’t think they were), or that Alice Coleman was entirely right in her analysis (I don’t think she was). The Barbican in the City of London (Chamberlin, Powell & Bon) includes all the features derided by Alice Coleman as contributing to anti-social behaviour and yet has none of them but then the residents are middle class and well off. How else would one afford to live there?
Long overhead walkways, tall buildings, many people crammed together, many dwelling per entrance, which of these do not feature in Utopia on Trial? Yet the Barbican is not a sink estate so clearly wealth and employment play their part.
In addition to this I have had an exchange of views with the director, Tom Cordell and while I’m not going to quote him directly here we came to an agreement that Alice Coleman was essentially used by Margaret Thatcher in an attempt to transfer the blame for the results of Thatcher’s economic policies, which were damaging the poor, on to the Modernist architects.
“Alice Coleman’s studies were, one of the reasons they are so dubious, you think, drop her in the Barbican which had every single one of her things that she thought guaranteed crime and yet it was conspicuous by its absence. Apparently [it] has nothing to do with poverty. It’s dubious.”
See also Design Disadvantagement
From the comments section of the Independent article linked below:-
Don’t blame buildings, they’re just buildings, blame council housing policies. If you stick “problem families” and the poverty-stricken elements of society together in one place, it can be hardly deemed surprising when that place becomes not so nice.
There’s plenty of extremely dire and dangerous semi-detached housing council estates too but you don’t hear people deeming the problem inherent to semi-detached housing. The reason being they aren’t distinctive physical entities like council tower blocks and therefore don’t get the same self-fulfilling stereotypes attached.
Try visiting an estate like The Barbican in London (very similar to Park Hill in design) and claiming it isn’t an amazing, safe environment with a great community and an all round highly desirable place to live.