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]


Early Intervention

Illustration: Holly Wells - www.eatjapanesefood.co.uk

The Laming report into child protection published last week revealed that the most vulnerable children at risk are still not adequately protected. The report blamed the slow pace of reform, bureaucratic and legal complexities, and the immense pressure on social workers that leads to a high turnover of staff and 3,000 unfilled positions.

The fact is that with time and budgets constantly squeezed, local authorities can only ever care for a fraction of those thought to be at risk. Of 11million children in England in 2008, social services directly intervene in the lives of around 125,000. A further 200,000 children live in households where there is a known risk, and 235,000 are children in need of local authority support – but their circumstances never quite cross the threshold of “significant harm” to warrant action.

Over the last few decades, a picture has emerged of millions of parents whose chaotic lives – often drink or drug addicted, or with severe mental health problems – inflict physical and emotional abuse on their children. Growing up with fear and uncertainty around them from a young age, these youngsters all too often become the abusers and neglecters of the next generation.

Between 1971 and 1991, single parent families rose from four per cent, or 2.1million, to six per cent, or 6million, according to the Office of National Statistics’ Social Trends report. By 2007 it was 12 per cent, almost 7million.

There were 8,700 permanent and 363,450 temporary exclusions from state schools in 2007. Some 4.4 per cent of pupils are regarded as “persistent absentees”, typically missing 20 per cent or more of their school days. The rate of absence among the poorest families with children eligible for free school meals was almost triple that of the rest of the school population.

Hardships at home lead to emotional difficulties which flare up at school leading to exclusion. Leaving school with few – if any – qualifications restricts opportunities to find gainful employment and can lead to unemployment, homelessness, and crime.

It is perhaps no surprise then to find that youngsters in the criminal justice system are more than 80 per cent likely to have suffered family breakdown, neglect or abuse, and this is reflected in the adult prison population. A Social Exclusion Unit survey of the prison population in 2002 found nearly a third had been in local authority care, a third of women and almost half of men had been excluded from school, more than half of men and nearly three quarters of women had no qualifications. Almost three quarters had two or more mental health problems, and a fifth “severe” problems. A third of women in custody had suffered childhood sexual abuse.

All the while reoffending rates remain higher than ever – three quarters of young men convicted in 2004 reoffended within two years, at an annual cost to the country of £11 billion.

Efforts to reach those whose lives seem to rebound between care, crime and custody, are increasingly treating the matter as an issue of public health, not justice and retribution. But though the statistics and the science support this view, public policy has been slow to follow suit or to dedicate meaningful sums to tackling the problem.

For example, the government’s much vaunted investment in early years care has seen investment of £250million nationwide, while its plan to build a series of Titan super-prisons holding 2,000 offenders each is projected to cost £2.7billion.

Social organisations, charities and government are all searching for novel ways to interrupt this vicious circle.

Illustration: Holly Wells - www.eatjapanesefood.co.uk
Illustration: Holly Wells - www.eatjapanesefood.co.uk

A pilot scheme launched in Nottingham last year early shows the government has picked up on the ideas of ‘early intervention.’

The aim, the council said, is “to break intergenerational underachievement and deprivation” by finding those children and families at risk and getting to them quickly, on the understanding that healthcare, crime and justice costs in the future will far outweigh the cost of social care now.

The scheme in Nottingham, where 38,000 children live in families on benefits or very low incomes, includes efforts to tackle drug and alcohol use by children and their parents, the families of adult offenders, teenage pregnancies, help for young mums and single mums, homelessness and a mentoring project.

The scheme focuses on little victories that make a difference, as well as large ones. For example, the city has experienced a 15 per cent drop in persistent school absences. Dana Knight, 11, was bullied and increasingly refused to go to school. She had found it hard to fit in after moving from primary school – a common problem –and suffered low self-confidence. Elaine’s older brother also missed school, often associated with younger siblings following the same route, prompting support workers involvement.

Her mum Elaine said: “Dana was missing one or two days a week. It got to the stage where she just would not go in. She would say she had a tummyache or headaches but I noticed it was often on certain days.”

Among other things, the scheme gives financial aid to help families solve problems, even simple things such as paying for a bus pass for mum Elaine so she could take Dana to school in the morning.

Dana said: “I would feel sad on Sundays and start shouting at my mum but my mum takes me to school now.” And she has high hopes for the future. “I want to be a vet,” she said.

In the nine schools in which the scheme is being trialled, absence is down 14 per cent.

Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North, said: “To fix an intergenerational problem, policies need to be in place for a whole generation.”

With a change of governments, he said, must come an understanding that early intervention is no “costly bureaucratic dream”, but “a proven, positive plan that will save us money, and crucially transform the life prospects of our most vulnerable citizens.”

That Allen has co-authored reports with Iain Duncan Smith MP, chairman of the Centre for Social Justice thinktank at the heart of the Conservatives’ recent approach to social policy, shows that perhaps that broad political base is building.

Kids Company based in south London has for 13 years opened its doors to children who come for help, without the need for referral by a social worker. Almost by word of mouth alone, the charity has expanded its outreach into 33 schools, with more than 200 staff and 11,000 children and teenagers on the books.

The charity’s purpose is to be the family these children have lacked, offer the love, attention and feeling of safety that has often been absent from their lives. Mentors are assigned to each child, working as parent, friend, and teacher.

Director Camila Batmanghelidjhs’ ideas, built up over a 20-year career in social work and psychology, are supported by a substantial body of scientific evidence that demonstrates how childhood trauma affects the developing brain.

“Social and emotional deprivation is creating a new kind of brain,” she said. “The element linking all these childrens’ lives is the absence of a functioning parental figure. If you don’t have a parent there is no food in the house, no one washes your clothes or organises socialising for you, you don’t get taken to the GP, the dentist or the optician. You live in chaos.”

Kids Company’s neuroscientist, Max Benjamin, explained their current advertising campaign comparing brain scans from traumatised and unaffected children.

“Adults have the tools to cope with stress, our brains are able to regulate our response to stressful situations. But for children whose brains are still developing, childhood trauma disrupts those mechanisms,” he said.

“Faced with violence or fear, a child’s stress response becomes hyperactivated – their flight or fight response becomes automatic because the child’s brain is changing to help it survive in a hostile environment. It doesn’t switch off. This leads to behavioural problems, emotional problems and extremely aggressive behaviour.”

The ‘flight or fight’ response floods the brain with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, but if this is sustained – such as in cases of severe, long-term abuse – parts of the brain that deal with memory, learning and emotional response become damaged or fail to develop properly.

Childhood trauma literally changes the wiring of the brain, increasing the chances of learning difficulties, educational failure and subsequent social exclusion.

“It has far-reaching implications for social care, and in terms of crime and justice, instead of locking them up and giving them Asbos, children with a history of trauma need rehabilitation and removing from the cycle of violence,” Benjamin added. “Reoffending is sky high. Punitive interventions just don’t work.”

The damage, however, though especially devastating before the ages of five or six, is reparable though it takes time.

Batmanghelidjh warned: “It’s not an argument for absolving kids from responsibility, but equipping them to take responsibility with techniques to balance their emotions.”

Their techniques appear to work: a University of London evaluation in 2007 showed that of those Kids Company helped, 89 per cent were helped to move away from crime, 81 per cent went into education or training, 79 per cent reported better emotional wellbeing, and 69 per cent better relations with their families. The charity is credited as the source of the Conservative’s recent “hug a hoody” approach to social justice.

For some boarding school is synonymous with privilege, rather than social need. But a project matching children struggling at home or school with boarding schools shows that some of the most needy can benefit from the schools’ rarefied environment.

While councils have long been able to fund assisted boarding places for children it was largely used as an alternative to care. However, the government’s Boarding Pathfinder scheme begun in 2006 introduced 18 local authorities and 80 schools to the idea that boarding school could benefit a far wider range of youngsters in difficult but less dire circumstances.

The scheme’s evaluation in January found children at boarding schools can benefit from “a strong ethos of personal and social development and access to many extra-curricular activities, as well as opportunities for educational success.”

But progress has been slow, with only 17 of the 76 children identified as potentially suitable for the scheme being placed at boarding school, and just 11 still at their schools after a year.

Many children considered were ruled out because they were not seen as capable of coping away from home, or boarding didn’t appeal to the child or family, or because their needs were seen as too high – suggesting the scheme is likely to exclude the children most in need.

One schoolgirl, Zoe, was 14 when she began at boarding school a year ago and is now taking her GCSEs. Her mother, Sarah, said: “She was a complete pain in the neck, smoking, drinking, arguing. One evening she punched me when she wouldn’t get off the computer. I was at the end of my tether.”

Through their local authority, Zoe was offered a place at a small boarding school in Norfolk.

“I think the main thing for Zoe is not having to switch between school and home, she couldn’t cope with the transition from one to the other,” Sarah added. Now she has to get along with everyone because she can’t just run away and not come in the following day.”

The school allows no mobile phones and little television. “It’s back to basics, it forces them to communicate with one another,” Sarah said. “She’s gone back to being a schoolgirl from being a rebel.”

Zoe, who has been granted funding to do her A-levels at a different boarding school, said she felt a different person.

“I realised I was out of control but couldn’t stop myself,” she said. “I’ve changed so much, I feel more sane, happier, more like a normal kid rather than a wannabe rockstar.

“It’s a much smaller school and they can lay down the law because they know who’s done what. I’d hate to think what would have happened to me – probably scraped a couple of GCSEs and be struggling to get a job. Now I want to go to university and study journalism.”

Paul Spencer-Ellis, headteacher at the Royal Alexandra and Albert School in Reigate, Surrey, is already familiar with Pathfinder’s aims. “Well, we’ve been doing it since 1760,” he said.

The school is one of a handful of state boarding schools, originally an orphanage, that has taken charity or local authority-funded pupils for more than 250 years.

He said: “It’s a very good idea. Other school heads can see it makes sense. At its simplest, we ensure the children get up, eat breakfast, get to school, eat lunch, have some activity in the afternoon, do their homework and are put to bed. Ask the head of a comprehensive if this will help his problems, he’ll say: of course. We are being the parents, giving them structures and boundaries.”

For the eight years he has been headteacher, funded pupils have been among the top achievers.

“When children are going off the rails it will help,” he said. “They have to want to do it, you can’t impose this on them. But they realise that education is their way out, and grasp the opportunity with both hands.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, April 2009]