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High rise nightmares

From the Radio Times (paper only) of 14-20 June 2003, on the subject of the BBC4 TV programme “High Rise Dreams”, shown on Thursday June 19th:

Time Shift looks back at how a group of idealistic architects changed the face of council housing in Britain, inspired by the modernist philosophy of Le Corbusier and new materials, only to be thwarted by financial restraints, poor craftsmanship and Margaret Thatcher’s private ownership creed.

In the Radio Times of 21-28 June 2003, on the subject of the repeat showing on BBC4 TV of the same programme on Sunday June 22nd:

In the first of three programmes on architecture, Time Shift looks at how idealistic architects changed the face of council housing in Britain, only then to be thwarted.

Well that removes the obvious political bias, but I’m afraid that if the idea was to make this puff less wrong-headed, it scarcely begins to deal with the deeper problems of it.

The implication, still being assiduously pushed on the quiet by the more blinkered sort of dinosaur partisan for the Modern Movement in architecture, is that the failures of the Modern Movement were all externally imposed, by penny pinching bureaucrats and by horrid, politically motivated politicians like the hated Margaret Thatcher, and that if only more money had been made available and they’d been allowed to get on with what they were doing unimpeded by their mindless enemies, all would have been well.

A logical (if not moral) equivalent would be if the Radio Times were to talk about how a group of idealistic Nazis tried to improve the world, inspired by the philosophy of Adolf Hitler, but about how they were thwarted (a) because not enough resources were devoted to doing Nazism, and (b) because Nazism’s opponents decided, for who-knows-what wrongheaded and arbitrary reasons, to barge in there and put a stop to it. With more money and less silly opposition from ideologically motivated enemies, all could – and would – have been well. (I dare say there are still a few old Nazis around who think this.)

The truth is that if (even) more money had been made available than was, the devastation cause by the Modern Movement in architecture in Britain would have been even more devastating.

The Modern Movement was animated by numerous seriously bad ideas (and by just sufficient good ones to make all the bad ones catch on seriously). It would require an entire specialist blog to do full justice to all these errors. I’ll end this post by alluding to just two such ideas, among dozens.

The Modern Movement is shot through with the idea that to put up an “experimentally designed” block of flats and immediately to invite actual people to live in it is a clever rather than a deeply stupid thing to do. Experimental-equals-good is the equation they swallowed whole. This is rubbish. Many experiments are excellent, as experiments. But what they mostly tell you, the way his numerous failed lightbulbs told Thomas Edison, is what not to do. Imagine if Edison had gone straight to production with his first idea of what a lightbulb might be. That was sixties housing in Britain. No wonder so much of it had to be dynamited.

The idea of a “vertical street”, also made much of by certain Britain’s Modern Movement architects, is also rubbish. Streets have to be at least a bit horizontal or they don’t work. Think square wheel.

I’ve chosen those two notions in particular because they were emphasised in the programme itself, the general tone of which was decidedly different from the puffs in the Radio Times.

I think I’ve found the culprit.

21 comments to High rise nightmares

  • Guy Herbert

    Social housing is one of those problems idealistic architects have always just solved, only to discover that in a few years of occupation their miraculous solutions have turned into crime-ridden slums… This has happened through all sorts of architectural fads.

    Of course they want someone to blame. But blaming the most obvious culprits is a problem, because it defeats the very idea of “social housing”. To admit it might endanger all those future commissions.

    Architects build such places with reasonable, civilized–if poor–people in mind. What they get are those ordinary considerate people weighted (I almost wrote “leavened”) with criminals and lumpenproletariat–who set about adapting the place to their needs.

    Modern Architecture isn’t the problem. Free housing for the worst in society is the problem. Not an easily solved one. Try to provide free housing for the deserving poor, and you’ll have to be incredibly vigilant to ensure they aren’t elbowed out of the way by the undeserving.

  • ernest young

    The construction of high-rise housing in the sixties, was regarded by many to be the symbol of Socialist bureacracy, with many being named after some pillar of the world order of socialism.

    Most were poorly designed, and even more poorly constructed, with the many being constructed by the use of a ‘direct labour’ force, in the direct employ of the Local Authority. Disasters such as that at Ronan Point, where a minor gas explosion in a kitchen was enough to bring down most of the tower, and cause the rest to be demolished.

    Far from being products of the Modern Movement, they had all the grace, charm and functionality of a concrete chicken house.

    They may well have been designed by young architects as symbols of their socialist ideals, so it could be said that the fact that these monstrosities were some of the nastiest buildings ever constructed for human beings to live in, is also symbolic of the low regard the Commissars have for their residents.

    Generally, it can be said that buildings do not make a slum, people do. The exception is the Council high-rises, which were built as slums from the start by those ‘high minded, idealistic young architects’. People only made them worse slums. (For some good background on living ‘tenement style’, see a few episodes of “Only Fools and Horses”).

    The whole episode from the sixties to the eighties was one big, failure, which, it has to be said, is just about par for any socialist project.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    Modern Movement Architecture (which should be distinguished, I believe, from Modern Architecture, which is not all bad by any means) is not the only cause of trouble, but it is one of them, and you let it off far too lightly. This is not an either/or thing.

    Many of these modern blocks would have been uninhabitable even by angels, no matter how much money were to be spent on maintenance. Many have proved your attitude to be the relevant one. Private ownership, plus a concierge, and it’s problem solved. But many were beyond the private sector to rescue. They were just too badly designed.

    To take your example: crime. Modern Movement buildings make life far easier for criminals, another criticism of this stuff that the programme I refer to mentioned, in connection with aerial walk-ways.

    Those little bay windows that appear at the front of boring, old-fashioned little houses of the sort that pre-dated all these horrors, and are now being built again by the thousand, are, among other things, an anti-crime measure. Like the pods on World War II aircraft, you can see more out of them than you could just through a flat window. You can see threatening looking strangers, and being seen is itself a deterrent for criminals.

    So are small front gardens with low barriers at the front of them. The point of those being that if a criminal tries to bash his way into a house, he can still be seen doing this by neighbours (from their bay windows), which he can’t if there’s a high wall sheltering him from view. That’s just two for-instances. There are numerous other ways in which Modern Movement buildings encourage crime.

    In other words, just HOW criminal a housing estate will end up being depends, yes, partly on how many criminals yiou put in them to start with, but ALSO on how easy the architecture makes it for them to go on being criminals, and Modern Movement architecture makes it definitely easer, and thus causes the total number of people who then resort to crime to go up, because crime has become easier.

    Environment isn’t everything, but it does matter, sometimes a lot.

  • Dr Alice Coleman’s Utopia on Trial is a good book on this subject.

  • I am trying to sort out the definition of “Modernism.”
    Is it an architectural issue? or a site-planning issue? The two seem to be conflated while they don’t need to be.
    I just read an essay on “classiscism” (it was on opendemocracy.net) in which the authors seem to define “classicism” central idea as the column. That totally perplexes me. Using columns produces a good city? I don’t get it. Perhaps it’s a code-word for something —- and well over my head.
    I assume that Brian here is speaking of the “modern movement” in terms of site-planning. Yes? No? Maybe?

  • Tom

    I may be wrong, but I think I heard somewhere that the first systematic construction of these kinds of housing (outside of germany) were in the soviet union where they were called something like social condensors and were conceived of as a tool to abolish private property. With a wonderful pedigree like that it is no wonder that they are total failures as places for actual human beings to live.

    That is not to say that high rise living doesn’t work, but it cannot be part of a total(itarian) architectural environment. When more than 2 high rise apartment buildings are built by the same person at the same time in the same place, the results are almost always a disaster.

    The problem mostly goes back to the site plan. There is a very interesting book that uses geometry to study patterns in cities. As far as I understand this system, lines are drawn to represent paths of movement in a city or a neighborhood and then put into a computer to calculate the number of turns you have to make to get to any of the other streets. It sounds very simple, but the results were profound. This guy did a line map of every street in london, fed it into the computer and the system predicted the location of every major shopping street in the city. Pretty impressive, but now for the part related to this post – he also did studies of all the housing estates in london and did a similar analysis. The result was that the lower the level of integration of the site plan into the city at large, the higher the crime level in the estate itself.
    Here is a link to this book

    Now to my point. Regardless of the individual merits of these buildings, the main problem comes from grouping a large number of them together in a way that guarantees they will be dangerous. Regardless of someones position on social housing in general, this whole building program would have been alot more successful if they had been done piecemeal within the confines of the existing city instead of being built as total architectural environments. I don’t necessarilly blame modern “architecture” for this, but I do blame modern movement urban planning which deserves all the criticism it receives.

  • ernest young

    In the USA they build high-rises, but they build them with some consideration for the people who are to live in them. All a matter of supply and demand really, build them badly and they dont sell, build them well, you call them condos and they sell for a million apiece.

    It’s all in the way that you look at things, bit like life really!…

  • Jacob

    The second post below this one is “A temporary work of art” about the ugly, nihilistic nature of modern sculpture.
    Modern art in general is ugly, incomprehensible and devoid of any craftmanship – i.e – of technical quality. (Remember the Turner prizes ?). The same goes for much of modern philosophy – illogical, nihilistic. Modern architecture is part of this general cultural trend. While technology and science soar, art (literature too) plunges deeper and deeper.
    I can’t say I understand this.

  • S. Weasel

    Ernest: yeah, I suppose they build similarly nice high-rises in the UK, too (if you like that sort of thing). What they’re talking about here, though, is council housing – i.e. the Projects. And we built some fantastically ugly housing projects in the US. I took a wrong turn trying to drive past New York City once. <brrrrr…>

  • It tends to be socialists and communists more than Nazis who are the ones who proclaim that the reason communism has failed is because of the flawed implementation, and if someone really did it correctly then everything will be happiness and light, I think.

    We have a few unspeakable high rise housing estates in Australia too. Not nearly as many as in London, though. Most Australian housing estates seem to have stuck to horizontal streets (ie housing estates consisting of detatched or semi-detached houses). Some of these have ended up every bit as unspeakable as ones based on tower blocks, and some haven’t. Still, though, I don’t think I have seen a housing estate anywhere based on towers that was not unspeakable.

  • Dave Farrell

    It’s all very sad. I seem to recall that during the late Eighties the BBC itself (possibly BBC2) examining what went wrong with this “experiment” and being extremely hard on the architects for being, er, ivory tower merchants, and the councils involved.

    I note sadly that the Beeb architecture contributors can’t spell Le Corbusier (they spell it Courbusier twice, just to make sure no one thinks it’s a typo).

    Does the name Ozymandias ring any bells there, I wonder? Certainly a spelling challenge.

  • Unfortunately, Hillier’s book, mentioned by Tom above, is out ot print.

  • I love how on the BBC page you link to, Tom Ware the journalist practically gushes over the “radical young architects” and how they were “inspired by…their own post-War socialist ideals.”

    The dumb bastard should just come out and admit that he pops a woody any time someone mentions central control and social engineering.

    Thank God that in the USA this dreck is relegated to shitty campus rags and NPR, who nobody actually listens to.

  • Tom

    It is too bad that Hiller’s book is out of print. I am glad I snatched it up when they were still selling it at borders.

    This is another book by him that has the same ideas just without the pretty pictures and relevant case studies.

  • Gosh darn Thatcher! It’s always about Thatcher… I’m sure there are lots of people avoiding council housing on aesthetic grounds, holding out for a nice Frank Gehry design.

    Removing tongue from cheek, no offense guys, but your high rise blocks are the most inhuman, nasty looking designs I’ve seen, this side of the “concrete kingdom” designs you can still see in the former Com Bloc. On a visit to Birmingham a few years back, I saw one of these high rises and asked my wife what kind of horrid businesses would make their employees work in such a box. “Oh, it’s council housing” she said.

    They couldn’t be more dehumanizing if they were labeled “Individual Societal Unit Storage Spaces”

  • Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus To Our House does a pretty good job of explaining how modern architecture came to be the dominant form of architecture in the US, and does a thorough job of deflating the egos and pretensions of Corbu, Mies, Gropius, Johnson, et al.

    There’s a lot of modern architecture that I really like, but Corbusier’s housing projects and city planning were uniformly disastrous. It always amazes me to see them worshipped 30 years after the first American housing projects based on his designs (such as Pruitt-Igoe) were first dynamited. (There’s footage of Pruitt-Igoe, both before and after its spectacular demolition in Koyaanisqatsi, incidentally.)

    In contrast, Corbusier’s private residences of the 1920s, where he got his start as an architect-for-hire, were pretty nifty. But they were individually commissioned, by wealthy clients who knew what they were getting into, and specifically wanted that style–a far, far different experience than those residents of projects such as Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green, who had modern architecture inflicted on them.


  • Chris Goodman

    Modernism seems to have been a disaster area in politics, architecture, literature, music, fine art, history, philosophy, indeed everything except science and technology. That clapped out creed is still the compulsory ideology, but when being brainwashed, I mean educated, intelligent people will always rebel against an intellectully bankrupt orthodoxy. There are only so many frogs you can swallow before you vomit.

  • Chris Goodman


  • Oh come now. “Modernism” the root of all that is bad? (And we haven’t even defined it!!)

    I’m not really sure what “modernism” in politics could be, but if it is a certain fastidiousness for equity & decency in relations — e.g public disclosure laws, historic and environmental preservation, consumer protection laws, voting rights acts, anti-discrimination laws etc etc & etc — then what’s wrong with that?

    Let’s not get carried away. Life in the late 20th/early 21st is far and away superior for the vast majority of people — toffs aside — than it was ever in any past century bar none.

  • Guy Herbert

    Perhaps the programme Dave Farrell recalls was what I remember as an edition Horizon. It focused on the applications of “defensible space” (the sort of thing Brian refers to: symbolic boundaries, windows overlooking approaches,…) in, I think (it was a long while back), Philadelphia, and also showed some fine-looking new estates in Berlin, whose architects were very cocky about having solved all the previous problems.

    ‘Twould be interesting to take the crews back to the same places now and see how it all worked out.

  • One of the interesting architectural movements afoot here in the state is a sort of smart use / planned community / mixed use development, that creates neighborhoods out of whole cloth. The idea is to have spacious single family homes, closely spaced (saves land, forces a community feeling to develop) with porches in front of the houses, garages out back, sidewalks, and plenty of reserved green space. Meanwhile, small commercial developments, churches and schools are bunged in, all within walking distance.

    It’s a re-creation of traditional neighborhoods, adding the live-ability features of modern housing stock. While living in one’s neighbors’ pockets isn’t ideal, it’s a good way to live in fairly close proximity to a major city and still enjoy a modicum of space and luxurious housing.

    I live in one of the early planned communities. Having grown up in a sprawling suburb, then in a rural area, it always amazes me how well people get along on my particular cul-de-sac. Sadly, my community doesn’t have shops within close walking distance – it was built in that drive everywhere era of the late Sixties. However, there are some lovely, similarly designed communities within a few miles, to which we might move if we choose to keep our present jobs over the next few years. I know that authenticity is a leftist chimera, but the neighborhood we live in (and a lot of planned community suburb neighborhoods) have a feel to them that is natural, and more organic than high rise or suburban sprawl living.