Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets.
Squeezed between the youthful rebellion of the 1960s and the supply-side revolution of the 1980s, between mini skirt and Margaret Thatcher, the 1970s is easily overlooked. And yet in many ways it is the crucial decade, the years when old certainties wilted and new views started to fructify in their place. This was certainly true in the field of architecture, social housing and town planning.
Since the 1950s, a heady mixture of architectural fashion and political subsidy had been inciting and financing the demolition of hundreds of thousands of homes and their replacement by tower and slab-blocks in open space. Architectural historians stress the intellectual legacy of Le Corbusier. They should also study the Conservative 1956 Housing Subsidy Act, which favoured high-rise housing by paying greater subsidies the higher the building. A flat in a six storey block received £38, 2.3 times the subsidy paid on a house. This multiple over a normal house rose to 3.4 for a flat at twenty storeys. High rise utopias were not just fashionable in Hampstead. They were paid for by Whitehall.
By 1975 about 10 per cent of all homes in the country (1.5 million homes in streets and squares) had been demolished to permit the brave new world of blocks in parks. The winner of one of the Department of the Environment Design awards in the 1970s was for a building half a kilometre long. By 1979 over 4,500 tower blocks had been built, usually erasing all trace of the streetscape which had preceded them.
However, it become increasingly obvious during the 1970s that either something was very wrong with the people or something was terribly wrong with the new homes. Because, put simply, the British did not like the utopias into which they were being so unceremoniously decanted.
Polling evidence was starkly clear. By 1981 one academic could conclude that “very substantial majorities of residents in high flats would prefer to live in houses according to all the studies asking about housing preferences.” It also became clear on the ground. There were numerous instances of local communities campaigning against being put in tower blocks or trying to leave them. Across the country, community groups sprung up to resist “slum clearance” and fight against decantation into tower blocks and estates. These grew in strength and number during the late 1960s and early 1970s and played a large part in shifting public policy away from high-rise blocks. In Liverpool, residents of the six year old 14-storey slab-blocks officially know as Haigh, Canterbury and Crosbie Heights (but known locally as the “Three Ugly Sisters”) campaigned for the right to leave. In Glasgow, residents of the Shawfield and Old Swan areas pressed for rehabilitation of their streets rather than being moved out. In Manchester, The Whittington Association and the Ladybarn Association campaigned to protect their terraced houses against demolition. In Birmingham, the Sparkbrook Community Association argued for rehabilitation not demolition. And in London, community groups such as the Battersea Redevelopment Action Group, the North Southwark Development Group and the North Islington Housing Rights Project all argued for the rehabilitation of their houses rather than their wholesale demolition. At one London protest meeting one question summarised the mood of residents across the country: “you claim you’re bettering us but you’re not. You’re nicking space off us – you are going to give us less than we started with. It’s a bloody farce.”
In many cases, central government civil servants colluded with the high-rise utopia against the wishes of local people. The proposal to demolish old Victorian squares in Islington and replace them with the (multi-storey) Packington Estate was opposed in a campaign led by local councillors. When this went to appeal, the Department for Local Government quickly pushed the scheme through before Ministers had a chance to consider the case, forcing them to accept it as a done deal. Schemes were almost never initiated due to local pressure. As one Deptford resident recalled, “I can’t think of anyone who really wanted to move.”
When only a very few years old, much of the new multi-storey housing became “hard-to-let” – to use the contemporary official-ese. Families and households simply refused to move in. For example, the Thamesmead Estate, completed in 1968, was only forty per cent full by 1974.
Meanwhile academics began to study the consequences. Their findings were even more disturbing. Even taking account of social and economic status, tower blocks and estate-based high-rise and multi-storey living turned out to be meaningfully correlated with social breakdown, crime and misery. Even in the best of conditions, they were hard to raise children in, tended to discourage close human relations and provided a myriad of hard to police, semi-private opportunities for crime often with multiple escape routes. For example, researchers found that mothers in flats were more depressed and lonely, that rates of mental illness rose with floor levels, that psychological symptoms increased in high-rise buildings and that those moving out of high-rise became happier and less depressed. There was also a reaction in popular culture. Whereas ten years earlier, tower blocks were cool, by 1971 Stanley Kubrick used the recently completed Thamesmead development to symbolise the vicious dystopia of The Clockwork Orange.
The consequence? Fashion and planning guidelines changed. Both parties shifted ground in response to the strong reaction against multi-storey buildings. Subsidies to build high were reduced under Harold Wilson. And, with the reduction in council housing construction under Margaret Thatcher, who also made clear her distaste for forcing people into modernist architecture, multi-storey construction slowed and high-rise construction ceased completely. No private developers were prepared to build them. For twenty years, far more houses were built than tower blocks or flats. Between 1979 and 1998 only 6 buildings higher than 35 metres were built in Britain.
Architects and town planners also lost confidence in their brave new worlds. In 1977, one of the apostles of monolithic slab-blocks, Peter Smithson, admitted that he had ‘made a big mistake’ in his monumental designs for the Robin Hood Gardens estate. In 1980, the architect Walter Segal wrote;
“To humanise huge structures by architectural means is an unrewarding task. The loss of identity, the divorce from the ground and the collectivisation of open space pose dilemmas that cannot be disguised by shape, texture, colour and proportion. A good view over landscaped space compensates only a few. The human animal does not appreciate being reduced to the scale of a termite.”
Forty years on, the pendulum has swung again and a mixture of sky high land prices and an anti-street, high-density, planning policy are again creating high-rise cities. The typical height increase in large London developments is around 227 percent. Around 240 towers of at least 20 storeys are currently being built or have planning permission in London. Many are confident that “this time it is different” and that “now we know about design.” What this confidence is based on is not very clear.
But let us hope that they are right. Because, if they are not, the research carried out in the 1970s which helped halt the previous generation of multi-storey developments will become tragically relevant again. If we ignore it we are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past and of inflicting misery on generations yet unborn. As George Santayana wrote;
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”