Before the Second World War very few of us lived in tower blocks. It is estimated that just 0.3 per cent of households were in “purpose built high rise flats” in England. These are defined as being building over six storeys tall. During the 1980s the number of homes in that category had increased ten fold to three per cent. But in recent years the number has been falling. The latest figures from the annual English Housing Survey published last week has it down to 1.7 per cent. That is reckoned to equate to 408,000 homes – consisting of 109,000 council flats, 68,000 housing association flats and 177,000 private flats. The previous year it was 425,000.
I can’t find the equivalent figures for the rest of the UK. Most guess that in Scotland the trend will be even stronger. Cllr Meghan Gallacher recently told us what is happening in North Lanarkshire.
As Winston Churchill said:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Studies in neuroscience in the United States confirm the misery caused by modernism. One recent analysis said:
“Featureless places reliably bore humans; blank walls or empty spaces induce anxiety or produce quickened paces in a variety of tests. Preferences for traditional bounded space and other New Urbanist planning techniques are common. In general, environments that lack easy opportunities for a human presence, such as the suburban landscape of highways and sprawl, are associated with stress. In studies of these phenomena, bilateral symmetry is a frequent preference of test subjects, while jagged or impossible forms are often a deterrent.”
This is not just about housing. Studies have found that brutalist architecture can mean hospital patients taking longer to recover, prisoners more likely to be disorderly, pupils more distracted at school. While “the rise of the open office plan has offered quantified evidence of increased stress and distraction—and reduced productivity levels.”
It is found that:
“Sometimes function follows form with natural elements seeming to reliably yield lower stress levels—not merely the presence of trees, but the use of wood as opposed to unnatural elements. Reflective glass is often unwelcome. If testing of these propositions is in coeval stages, a number of authors speculate on the comfort provided by the natural aging of materials: In Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty observed that concrete’s seemingly unnatural process of ageing is disorienting and serves as an active deterrent to the appreciation of Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and ’70s.”
For most of us all this is confirmed by common sense and personal experience.
So why is Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London still such an enthusiast for tower blocks? Why is his enthusiasm still shared by so many municipal planners in town halls across our capital and in some of our other cities – even after the Grenfell Tower tragedy?
The assumption that high rise is necessary for high density has been comprehensively rebutted. But even if it was true there are alternatives to tower blocks. For instance, some of the unattractive light industrial designated land in Park Royal could be redesignated for housing and thus allow the target for new homes in the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Area to be met without Khan forcing through all these high rises.
Still it is encouraging that, outside London at least, more tower blocks are being demolished than built. Slowly this disastrous planning mistake is being corrected.