Tower blocks: no simple explanations

WAVE Art and Heritage Magazine CoverPaul Quigley writes that, for better or worse, tower blocks are part of our heritage. He wonders if we can do more to understand them (This article was first published as in Wolverhampton Art & Heritage Magazine in October 2012).

The Heath Town estate survives as Wolverhampton's largest complex of multi-storey flats

The Heath Town estate survives as Wolverhampton’s largest complex of multi-storey flats (photo by Matthew Whitehouse)

What should we expect – or want – homes of the future to look like? More to the point, what works in the design of an urban community? This year the people of Heath Town have been pondering these questions as they draw up a Neighbourhood Plan under the Government’s Localism Act.

But Heath Town today is already overshadowed by someone else’s vision of the future. This is an older vision, a vision which shone brightly in the ‘white heat’ of 50 years ago, but which the decades between have obscured and discredited. In the optimistic race to rebuild after the war, planners and architects decided to replace the terraced streets – which had been the Victorian heart of the town – with a huge, bold, rectangular, modernist construction. Designed by A Chapman, the Borough Architect, this became Wolverhampton’s largest complex of flats, providing homes for nearly 5,000 residents.

The highest parts of the development, twenty-storey tower blocks, were until recently the tallest residential structures in the city and they survive today as part of a legacy of what was historically a very unusual phase of housing design in Britain.

Tower blocks as heritage: although demolished in 2009, this block had been recognised as a locally listed building and an archaeological record was created of it

Tower blocks as heritage: although demolished in 2009, this block had been recognised as a locally listed building and an archaeological record was created of it

Why unusual? Well, tower blocks are extraordinary in at least two respects. The first is obvious—what we all know—that they came up with a vertical rather than horizontal solution to the challenge of providing homes: turning the traditional rows of terraced houses up on end. One consequence of this is that they create, for better or worse, very visible architecture—monuments which can be seen for miles.

What is also unusual is their fate. For all the optimism, the tide turned very quickly against tower blocks and, after their peak in the 1980s, large-scale demolition programmes cut the number in the landscape. The Black Country lost its share – of 120 in Sandwell for example (mostly inherited from predecessor local authorities) half have been pulled down – believed to be more tower blocks demolished than in any other local authority in Europe.

This sets tower blocks apart from other phases of housing of the 20th century. Six thousand were built in the UK, but many did not reach middle age before they came to an end. Compared to other housing forms—the interwar cottage estates or the streets of 1950s semis for example—they have not survived well. In fact, in Wolverhampton and the Black Country at least, no other major form of 20th century housing has seen even approaching half of its number demolished within 40 years of being built.

A programme of large-scale demolition has changed the skyline of the Black Country

A programme of large-scale demolition has changed the skyline of the Black Country

So the rise and fall of tower blocks has, in historical terms, happened quickly—and within the living memory of a large section of the population. People who set up a first home in a tower block in the 1960s are in their 70s now.
What this shows is that if we stick around long enough we can see the how the successes and failures of urban planning play out for ourselves. And perhaps even see which is which. Because the story of tower blocks isn’t straightforward—many have been demolished, but large numbers have also been refurbished and continue to be important, Heath Town estate included.

After the early and widespread demolition of the 60s tower block we might have thought that this was just a simple lesson in how humans like to live: that somehow we can never be happy in vertical stacks—and for this reason the towers were always doomed. We could be forgiven for thinking that any high-rise accommodation will always fail.

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The surviving tower blocks, together with the experience of the people who have lived in them are an important part of the history of British housing (photo by Matthew Whitehouse)

 

 

But this simple conclusion doesn’t explain some contradictions: the oldest surviving council houses in the UK include multi-storey flats; one of the most recent additions to the Wolverhampton skyline is a huge prefabricated tower block (for students); multi-storey flats (perhaps branded as ‘apartments’ or even ‘executive accommodation solutions’) have more recently sprung up in several British urban centres—including in the West Midlands. These all seem to suggest that there isn’t anything intrinsically undesirable about multi-storey flats.

No, the explanation for the demise of so many 60s tower blocks is more complex. Perhaps it’s in the particular designs adopted, their maintenance record, the way they were allocated, their social and historical context. But it’s there for us to understand – the history and archaeology is preserved.
But can we untangle the mistakes and successes of past planning decisions if we see but don’t really understand this history? In this sense the history of tower blocks, left to us in the experience of the people who lived have in them, the Councils who commissioned them, and the fabric of the surviving blocks themselves is an important asset. An asset we need to understand if we are to learn from our collective experience.

With support from Heritage Lottery Fund, our project Block Capital continues  to provide free training to investigate the history of tower blocks in the Black Country.  More details here: distinctlyblackcountry.org.uk/blockcapital

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