Over the years I have heard, and read, many different points of view put forward as to whether tower blocks were a good idea in terms of housing large numbers of people, owing to the space required between them to prevent overshadowing.

Red Road flats Glasgow

Many of these estates consisted of tall blocks set in large areas of open space. Their density was no higher, and often lower than, the traditional housing which surrounded them. As early as 1946 Trystan Edwards demonstrated that individual houses built in narrow-fronted terraces could be built at densities up to 275 ppa (679 ppha) (Edwards cited in Owens, 1987).

A more recent study by architect Harley Sherlock showed that three- or four-storey terraces of flats and maisonettes could be built to densities of 155-160 ppa (385-400 ppha) (Sherlock, 1991). This means that many traditional terraced streets, which, in London, are commonly 3 storeys and higher, achieve densities considerably in excess of many multi-storey housing estates.

http://cibworld.xs4all.nl/dl/publications/Pub281/14Chapter-10.pdf or locally here

While browsing the web in search of Modernist housing schemes in London, I came across a wonderful book, quite by chance. The title is the RIBA Book of British Housing and it is a treasure chest of information for the housing enthusiast.  Also to be found online at this link:- RIBA-book-of-british-housing

Here at last is what appears to be the definitive answer, and of some importance because it cuts across arguments that appear in several articles on this blog.  This is the relevant quotation, from page 19.

“Most influential at this time were the mathematical studies of built form in the studies at Cambridge University in the 1960s by Leslie Martin and Lionel March.  These proved that low-rise housing could be created at the same density as high-rise development.

As an aside I noticed a Twitter exchange on mid-rise, in which Hugh Pearman mentioned Cambridge’s Martin Centre, link here:-

Mid-rise discussed on Twitter

Two of their studies, published in Urban Spaces and Structures (1972) [35] related to “courtyard housing” and “perimeter housing” (Fig.1.12)

Using hypothetical models, courtyard housing was shown to provide five times more accommodation than tower block development on an equivalent site. It could also achieve over half as much accommodation again as a terraced layout.

The concept took physical form in Neylan and Unglass’ schemes at Bishopfield, Harlow . . .

. . . and at Setchell Road, Southwark. Phippen Randall and Parks [better known today as PRP – Ed.] also used a patio form in the hugely successful co-ownership scheme at The Ryde, Hatfield.

The principles of perimeter housing lie in the geometry of the “Fresnel Square”. When translated into architectural terms the concept is that the traditional tower block isolated in a square of green could be developed as low-rise housing in a ring around the edge of the green without the loss of dwellings.”

Chapter One p.19


On my Density page may be found this quote from Alex Ely of MAE . . .

“It’s a myth that high density means high rise,” insists Alex Ely, housing co-ordinator of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. Indeed, some of London’s plushest neighbourhoods are built to a classic high density design – three- or four-storey terracing overlooking private squares . . .”


which the RIBA quote bears out.  Equally important is the relevance to my review of Utopia on Trial where Alice Coleman makes it clear that houses with gardens may replace tower blocks at the same density.  It is clear from the Cambridge study referred to above that the density may be greater than that of either of these two extremes by using the right design and so the argument about whether one should build towers or houses with gardens, in cities, becomes largely irrelevant in terms of density, at least.

Here’s John Robert Gold on the same subject, “What had become clear at the start of the 1960s was that high densities of 136-200 persons per acre (336-494 persons per hectare) could be achieved without recourse to high buildings.”



In conclusion I’m torn.  I’ve lived in a tower block, for two years, and I’ve visited the Barbican towers albeit 30 years ago.  I accept that given the examples above, the architects have proved their point that you can build at ground level to the density of a tower block over the same area.

However, and at this point I have to draw breath metaphorically speaking, from a tower you get a view, and providing there is a concierge and access controls, and it is young couples and singles only I think the tower block has a lot going for it, and the ground level housing for families.  I don’t think it’s either/or.  I think there is room for both, and I’m almost sorry that so many tower blocks are being demolished that with a bit of TLC might be given a new lease of life.

n.b. the quoted section is not as per the RIBA book, I have added two photographs and cropped their Fig1.12 for effect.  Please refer to the linked book for the original manuscript.

Some interesting comments here on the same subject:-

From a film on the BBC website:-

“Well take Belgravia there’s about 200 people per acre living there, you couldn’t call that a slum, but the planners argument is that high density means slums, you know, doesn’t follow. The streets are the city for me, where you can walk the streets.”


Another relevant link . . .

Home sweet home

What are the most interesting examples that achieve low-rise, high-density design?

There is a very interesting housing type called the vecindades in Mexico City, where they build dwellings back-to-back and side-to-side with little courtyards and little mews streets. It’s this idea that you don’t need a back garden and a front garden but you can still stick with your two-storey format and produce a courtyard that gives you some private outdoor space.

Another very interesting type was the Lilong House, a Shanghai archetype. The Lilong house is different in that it tends to be organised in rows with quite narrow pedestrian lanes. So you put the backs of one set of houses next to the fronts of the next set of houses so you don’t have problems of overlooking and privacy.

You get to the lanes by going from a busy street to a secondary street to a lane and then sometimes to a courtyard. So you have quiet and privacy and tranquillity and, yet again, you’ve got very high density but you are right in the middle of things.

. . . if you think back to backs are a good idea. Or reinstating the grossly overcrowded Victorian streets of the C19th.

Look up vecindades on Google some time. They’re slums. Give me a high rise every time.

My comment:-

It’s a pity the author didn’t make clear that the Mexican vecindades are in fact slums. There’s a clue in the phrase back to back and courtyard.

He is proposing a return to the grossly overcrowded living conditions of Victorian London and I doubt it will be he and his family living in them.

By comparison the high rise estates of the 60s and 70s built to Parker Morris standards are like paradise with light and air.


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