High Society

Is modernist housing part of the problem?

“We all sleep down here in the living room – my two sons and I – because there are no radiators upstairs. There’s no lights upstairs either, because the water that comes through the ceiling has fused them.”

Anab Goodasir has lived in her ground-floor flat in the Balfron Tower since 1990, and the roof has leaked since 1992. “The landlord’s useless,” she adds. “I’m not sure they even remember where the tower is.”

The 27-storey Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, East London, is the first of architect Erno Goldfinger’s estates in the 1960s Brutalist style, all bare-faced concrete and imposing, right-angled corners. Its slightly larger twin, 31-storey Trellick Tower, stands in North Kensington, West London. In the four decades since they were built, the towers have been loved, despised, abandoned, rediscovered, and finally listed by English Heritage in the 1990s.

Iris Westwood moved into Carradale House, alongside Balfron, when it opened in 1971. “I was born and lived in a house that was bomb damaged, but it was crumbling around me,” the sprightly 83-year-old says. “I put my pound down as deposit for the keys and I’ve never regretted moving in here, not for a minute.”

She even had a brush with Goldfinger himself, who lived on the top floor of the Balfron for a few months. “He said that he hoped I’d keep the walls the colours they were, and not paper over them. It was all browns and yellows and greens, very sixties. Of course we wallpapered them all,” she laughs.

Carradale House, part of the Balfron Estate. Photo: Michael Parker
Carradale House, part of the Balfron Estate. Photo: Michael Parker

In spring sunlight the bare concrete seems less severe, the grass more green. But the rubbish hurled from flats above, the water-damaged concrete, the dark and twisty passages are obvious. Inside, flat after flat is cursed with water pouring through ceilings, mouldy walls and decades-old fixtures and fittings.

Alan Humphrey, 46, has lived in Balfron for 14 years with his family. “They’re quite spacious inside, but the council have just let them run down.”

Loved at first, Britain’s 1960s and 1970s housing estates became widely hated, the futuristic living their designers promised spurned in favour of Georgian and Victorian terraces – the very same ‘slums’ that were cleared to make way for these modern homes. Where did it all go wrong?

The Second World War left Britain bankrupt and in ruins, with bombing and slum clearances meaning two-and-a-half million people needed new homes, quickly and cheaply.

Towering over the rebuilding of post-war Europe were the ideas of Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier. An influential Modernist since the 1920s, he advocated the use of concrete stripped to its bare essentials, with simple, angular design making a clean break with the fussy ornamental styles of previous eras. Raised in the Swiss countryside, he was keenly aware of the health-giving benefits of nature and open space. He sought to refashion the way people lived, creating light, modern, healthy buildings that would raise workers out of the filthy air of the slums – so vividly described in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

His famous Unité de Habitation in Marseille, France, combined all a community’s needs: access to outside space and light, shops, services such as nurseries and schools combined with housing in unified structures – like a neighbourhood of streets, but stood on its end.

Lydia Yee, whose exhibition of Le Corbusier’s work is currently at London’s Barbican, explained his bold, inspiring ideas to change the way people lived. “Cities had become so crowded that people were crammed together in unhealthy conditions. The easiest way was to level whole neighbourhoods and start again,” she said. “Corbusier believed the right architecture, the right conditions and right environment could promote good social relations.”

But the views of mainly European architects were not accepted by all. While apartments are commonplace in Berlin, Barcelona or Bordeaux, British tastes favour the house and garden. And though the continent boasts many inventive, successful Modernist housing estates – in Berlin alone there are six with UNESCO world heritage status – the towers that mark British skylines today are the product of local authorities taking advantage of an architectural regard for concrete by throwing up tower blocks on the cheap.

Balfron Tower. Credit: Michael Parker
Balfron Tower. Credit: Michael Parker

“The Modernists tried to think sociologically, to build communities and new environments,” Jon Wright of the Twentieth Century Society says. “They shot way too high. While some achieved great things, when done poorly and cheaply it produced results no better than the slums that came before.”

Architects easily replicated the concrete construction of Le Corbusier, but failed to see the bigger picture – to include necessities like shops, schools and nurseries to bind a vertical community together. Instead: towers marooned in oceans of open space.

When Rowan Point, an undistinguished pre-fabricated tower block in east London, partially collapsed in 1968, killing four, public trust in high-rise living collapsed with it. The appearance of social problems in modern estates not foreseen by idealists like Le Corbusier turned public opinion against modern architecture for decades to come.

But Wright denies that the high-rise was responsible for the social problems they became synonymous with. “Vandalism is widely held to have sprung up without precedent in the 1960s, it was not something that was rooted in the living environment.”

Dutch sociologists studied what they called “broken window syndrome”; a single broken window, if left long enough, will attract vandals who destroy more. Local authorities, Wright said, were guilty of abdicating their responsibilities to estates by failing to keep on top of repairs.

Trellick Tower’s appearance is little different from its East London sibling; the same surface damage, the same twisty concrete passageways. But inside, full-time cleaners keep corridors clean and walls repaired. A security concierge regulates the entrance and keeps track of CCTV, and tenants’ association notices keep residents informed.

Sean O’Neill has lived on the top floor for six years: “It had a terrible reputation in the 70s and 80s, but now it’s listed and security are really on top of any antisocial behaviour.

“I lived here in the early 90s for a year, and it was definitely rougher. Now I travel down in the lift, at one floor a crackhead will get in and at another an elderly couple in dinner suits on their way out for the evening. You get all sorts living here, but the trouble stays out of the building. There’s a definite sense of a community.”

Flatmate Miguel Pagan, 36, agrees. “I can honestly say I feel comfortable here, you can’t hear anything through the walls from the neighbours. I’ve lived in some newer buildings where you can hear them fart. This building’s amazing, futuristic.”

O’Neill is selling up. “If I could stay I would. I’ll never have a view of London like this again.”

Trellick Tower. Photo credit: Michael Parker
Trellick Tower. Credit: Michael Parker

As with the slums and tenements before the war, buildings left to rot only exacerbate their residents’ problems. Robin Hood Gardens, an East End estate in the Brutalist style, is threatened with demolition after years of neglect, while investment and sympathetic restoration has changed residents’ views of the equally abrasive design of Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate or Camden’s Brunswick Estate. Bethnal Green’s Keeling House was sold off, attracted middle-class owners and is now highly desirable, and of course the Barbican and Trellick have become bywords for rediscovered Modernist cool.

Wright adds: “Nationally, there has been horrendous neglect not just of the architecture but of people’s lives as a result of a popular misconception of the Modernist project. Concrete buildings need looking after just as a wooden fence or oak cabinet.”

What next? Contemporary house-building has concentrated on low- and medium-rise homes based on traditional styles, or luxury high-rise for the wealthy in prime locations.

Staiths South Bank estate in Gateshead, designed in 2001 by Wayne Hemingway, steers clear of harsh lines and template homes by mixing house shapes, sizes and finishes.

“You’ve got to listen to what the public want, and the majority don’t want to live high-rise,” Hemingway says. “Le Corbusier’s Unité might have attracted the middle-classes, but in Britain we built tower blocks, filled them with the poor and unwanted and created ghettos in the sky.

“Our estates have to be reconfigured for actually living in, otherwise they have no future.”

For conservationists and those with an eye on costs and sustainability, demolishing and starting again is not an option.

“We cannot sweep a growing population under the carpet,” says Wright. “I accept that some are only fit for the bin, but until the stigma of post-war idealism, of living in concrete, is exposed and discussed that debate cannot be had.”

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2009]

 

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