When Harry asked me to write about tower blocks he would not have known that as I spoke to him I could see, from my room, Balfron Tower (Sir Erno Goldfinger), Robin Hood Gardens (Peter and Alison Smithson) and the site of the infamous Ronan Point (Taylor Woodrow). Sadly for tens of thousands of people east London is the bench mark of post war architectural failure.
In the late 1880s the Metropolitan Board of Work, in one of its final acts under the provision of The Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890 replaced one of London’s most notorious slums, the “Old Nichol” in Bethnal Green.
The Boundary Estate, opened in 1900 by the new London County Council is possibly the first large scale development of local authority housing in the country. One hundred and thirteen years, two world wars, social unrest and change, it still stands, proud and popular. One just has to look at the windows, designed to maximise sunlight, to realise the care that went into this development.
The Housing Act of 1919, under the guise of “Homes for Heroes” saw the planning and development of Cottage Estates, where the LCC planned and built St Helier, Downham, Watling and the massive Becontree estate. In addition the LCC and the Metropolitan Boroughs built flats ands houses. The flats of the 1930s that remain were brick built, sturdy and usually less than five storeys in height, designed for families.
It was not easy to obtain these properties; potential tenants often had to appear before housing committees. They also to provide references and signed contracts to maintain their gardens and frontages. In 1927, Bethnal Green Borough Council opened the Lenin Estate, consisting of two and three bedroom flats.
Over 1200 local people applied for the flats and one lucky applicant, Mr William Paddock, with just two children secured a three bedroom flat. He would, however, have been very familiar to members of the Housing Committee who interviewed him for, as Cllr William Paddock, he was the Committee Chairman.
Cllr Paddock, who although elected as a Labour councillor was also a Communist, had stated elsewhere that Jews would not be granted tenancies on the estate. Eventually he was expelled from the Labour Party, disqualified from membership of the council, but retained the tenancy of his flat in what is now known as the Parmiter Estate.
The East End was by far London’s poorest district. In 1921 there were some half a million people living in the three boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney which make up modern Tower Hamlets. In 1918 the borough had been allocated seven parliamentary constituencies, which shows its size.
The second war changed this. The East End, with the docks, warehouses, industry and in Hitler’s warped mind, 250,000 Jews, became target practice for the Luftwaffe. Many of the streets of badly built houses simply collapsed as bombs fell. Over a million homes in London alone were destroyed or severely damaged between 1939-1945 and tens of thousands of post war Britons lacked homes, in a country that was virtually bankrupt.
Hundreds and thousands of homes were needed and build them high and build them cheap became the unofficial guidance. Governments and councils of all political parties subscribed to this and therefore the consequences are shared consequences.
In the aftermath of war, planning was all the rage. London fought off the Abercrombie proposals. Birmingham and Glasgow were less lucky. In one act of extraordinary vandalism, the large section of medieval Coventry that had survived the Blitz was demolished and replaced by a now forgotten shopping centre.
Those who were displaced and re-housed told anybody who would listen that they wanted to live in houses with gardens. Planners and architects knew better and despised those lucky enough to move to New Towns were cottage states were the norm as opposed to the high rise barracks towering over areas of our cities. New wave comedians, the BBC and trendy architects pour scorn on the people of Milton Keynes in their individual houses unlike those who have moved there, and like their town.
Nothing caused more communal and housing damage than the fad for “New Brutalism”, personified by the Swiss-French Architect Le Corbusier and his excitable disciples in this country. Chief amongst these was the husband and wife team, Peter and Alison Smithson whose influence dwarfs their actual output. They only completed three large scale projects, Hunstanton School,
The Economist Building and Robin Hood Gardens Estate but still have scores of disciples. Robin Hood Gardens, completed in 1972, is simply unspeakable, it was completed “on the cheap” and badly built. Residents loathed it from the first.
When interviewed about the estate, Peter Smithson had this to say about the residents: “The week it opened, people would shit in the lifts, which is an act of social aggression.”
The Smithson’s were at the forefront of the idea of “Streets in The Sky”, although they chose to live in a Chelsea town house. One of my first cases when I was elected for this area concerned a Robin Hood Gardens family who suffered from raw sewage seeping into their flat, because the “system concrete” of the block had moved over time. The Smithson’s were not alone.
Erno Goldfinger designed tower blocks whilst annoying his Hampstead neighbour, Ian Fleming, who extracted his revenge on the troublesome architect, by using him as a character in a novel. When Goldfinger threatened to sue him, Fleming offered to rename the character and book “Goldprick”.
Residents of Ballroom Tower, designed by Goldfinger, were left to fume and lock their doors as their block became less and less attractive, whilst Ian Fleming enjoyed his royalties.
The Ronan Point disaster of May 1968 was the last gasp of this particular school, at least for a generation. Eventually, unloved estates across the country started to come down. In my political lifetime I saw the opening and demolition of the infamous Chalk hill Estate in Wembley.
The architectural community has not taken this lightly. Robin Hood Gardens is now due to join many other disasters as rubble.
Yet there was an extraordinary backlash, which seemed like parody of Pseudo Corner from Private Eye. Lord Rogers had his chauffeur drive him from his pile in Kensington to Robin Hood Gardens, step out of the limo and pronounce it the equal of “Royal Crescent in Bath” I had extraordinary emails from architectural students from around the world, none of whom had set foot on the estate. Merely, they were influenced by lecturers who had read about the Smithson’s!
Fortunately, after many stops and stops Robin Hood Gardens is to be replaced by a new, mixed development of private and affordable housing. My concern now is that these lessons have not been learnt. This part of London is seeing a housing explosion. Much of it is not designed for families and much of it, despite decades of evidence, is still high rise.
Mayor Lutfur Rahman, who tells his supporters that the housing grants coming his way are down to him rather than the British taxpayer, also bends policy to strange ends. Many developments in this borough are designated “car free”. Although larger families moving into social housing on these developments have “protected parking permits” from the Mayor. Another policy he pushes is not permitting open plan kitchens in social and affordable housing.
As a councillor I despair of the constant presentations by architects who come along with schemes that those who live in the area loath and yet are waved through. My ward has a shortage of school places, medical facilities and severe transport difficulties yet even as I write there are ongoing consultations on massive skyscrapers with proposed densities higher than that of Hong Kong.
I suppose most of it looks nicer than “new brutalism”.