Tall stories: who are we building for?

Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

Not long ago I was in Marseilles, looking at a housing block.  That doesn’t sound as though I’d made the most exciting of choices in this notoriously sinful city, but then this was no ordinary housing block.   It was Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, one of the most influential buildings of the last century.  Turning up in the street outside for the first time to see it, on the one hand, it seems very familiar.   This huge slab block of apartments, with the heavy concrete lines and balconies, looks not unlike slab blocks all over Europe.   The notorious Heygate and Aylesbury estates in South London, which I once knew well, looked like first cousins.

On the other hand, one didn’t have to look long to see differences.   There’s the finish to a very high standard, the sculptured staircases running up part of the ends of the block and the shaped supports for the whole block, seeming as though Henry Moore had been engaged in some way in the project.  There’s the fine landscaped park in which it sits.  Inside, the differences continue.   Every third floor has a ‘street’ running down the centre.  The apartments are often built on two floors, and some are real family homes, with up to five bedrooms.   There’s a hotel in one part of the building, and going up to the roof, you find a children’s paddling pool and art school and a running track, all beneath the shadow of the great chimney, inspired by ocean liners’ funnels.  Le Corbusier loved liners.

What’s also very quickly clear is that the Unité is a successful housing project.   The block is well cared for and popular.  There’s a long waiting list for flats there.  The flat owners and tenants though are not those people of Marseilles on benefits.  They are largely middle-class and successful professionals.   In the lobby, there’s a board on which the occupants display their personal cards, giving their names, flat numbers and often their professions.

I was intrigued to see by a quick survey that the most popular profession was architect, followed by that of psychiatrist.    This is very funny and meaningful.  In Marseilles, the Unité is often known as La Maison du Fada which in French-Provencal is “The Nutters’ House”.    There can surely be no more apt address for a psychiatrist than Corb’s Nutters’ House or for an architect than the Unité.

The meaningfulness of the survey lies in the incontestable fact that the offspring of the Unité caused not a few of their householders to go insane – if not clinically insane, certainly socially insane.  The luckless tenants of Park Hill in Sheffield or the Aylesbury in Southwark were given flats in blocks that were in essence job-lot Unités.   The same architectural inspiration, but built much more cheaply.   Indeed, the Aylesbury was built using pre-fabricated units on a system known as 12-M Jespersen.  These units were dropped into place by huge cranes, running on tracks.  Because it was cheaper to keep the tracks in long straight lines, the Aylesbury became the longest slab block in Britain.  The tenants, many of them, hated it.  Mothers, for instance, did not like being stuck so high in the sky that they could not identify their children running around outside.  Quickly, the Aylesbury and then the nearby Heygate became problem estates for problem people, red-line postcodes. Tony Blair, in fact, chose the estate to make his first speech as Prime Minister, a fate that even the most deprived place surely did not deserve, to highlight his white-hot compassion for the poorest in society.

Some brilliant work done long ago put its finger on why the Unité works so well and places like the Aylesbury failed [1].   The researcher, Jane Jacobs, took as her subject of study the Red Road tower blocks in Glasgow, a complex which has often featured on Taggart and inspired the film Red Road.    Jacobs did exhausting work, trying to tie down what sort of people would be best suited to living in such blocks, which go up to 28 storeys.   She identified these people as ones who are fairly self-sustaining, able to draw on their own resources, reasonably well-paid and very well-educated, probably with few or no children, with their own private transport.    She came to the conclusion that there is one profession that perfectly meets these qualities: that of architect.

In other words, the brutalist architects were designing for themselves, which is dangerous to do.  Even Corb himself found this out in one way which is funny as well as instructive.  In the much-hailed Villa Savoye on the outskirts of Paris, Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret built a house that is plainly a masterpiece of modernism.  Built for a rich client, it is very beautiful.  However, the wife of the client told Corbusier that all the light drove her mad.  She wanted to put up heavy damask curtains everywhere.  She also knitted a giant tea-cosy to go over the bidet, placed in a prominent position by Corb.

In the case of the Red Road towers in Glasgow, its architect Sam Bunton was said to have long dreamt of building a “Manhattan-style skyscraper” in the city; to do this at Red Road  (built to take the families from the slums of the Gorbals), he had to use steel fabrication.  And to use steel, he created one of the estate’s most pernicious inhabitants.  No, not members of the Wee Jimmie Gang.  Asbestos.   Huge quantities were needed to fire-proof the towers.   The material both imperilled the tenants and made doing something about it very difficult.  Only last year, a slab of asbestos was dropped from a great height at Red Road onto… a nursery.  Sam Brunton, close to retirement at the start of Red Road in the early sixties, was accused by critics of the time as looking at the scheme as a personal vanity project.  Certainly, he did not put himself in the shoes of the families coming up from the Gorbals, as he designed the highest housing in Europe until the Barbican came along.

Trellick Tower in Notting Hill, London, has a story with echoes of the Unité’s.   It was designed in the early seventies by the brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger for tenants of the Greater London Council.  The early tenants, mostly, didn’t much like it.  Today the tower is popular with its increasing number of middle-class owner-occupiers who pay upwards of half a million for a flat there. For upwardly-mobile professionals, a flat in the sky above Notting Hill is property paradise.   But it was meant as social housing for families.  Those original tenants that remain have mostly exercised their “right to buy” and have become rich property owners in a fashionable London post-code at a bargain price.  They too are said to like the place, now.

Erno Goldfinger was once savaged by that gifted writer Nicholas Taylor in his influential book Village in The City.   Goldfinger had made a show of spending a couple of weeks in one of his high rise flats, to demonstrate what great places they were.  This stunt, wrote Taylor, only pointed up that Goldfinger really preferred to live in a house on a street with a garden  – in leafy Hampstead.

The same book relates how Taylor was once asked to escort a celebrated Italian architect, on a visit to London, to see the grand Palladian buildings of Greenwich.  Taking him there, Taylor took some short-cuts through the back roads of Forest Hill and Lewisham, roads with the much-derided 1930s semi-detached houses, with their small gardens, leaded windows, pieces of pastiche Tudor wood beams, and little sloping tiled roofs.  The Italian asked Taylor, urgently, to stop the car.  He got out and walked up and down in front of the semis, exclaiming that here was the most brilliant, the most perfect domestic 20th-century architecture he had seen in all Europe.  These thirties semis were, of course, put up by spec builders who created houses they knew would appeal to ordinary people and would sell.  They are loved to this day.

The resilience moral, broadly, is that societies work best when they are control of their habitats.  When the habitats are designed by remote outsiders of different class and taste and needs, then you get the housing no-one deserves, which fall apart socially.

Today, the Red Road flats are condemned and lined up for demolition.  Some towers have already come down, though it has to be noted that tenants in some of the remaining blocks are resisting the dynamite charges, partly seeing demolition as the death knell of council housing in the Glasgow area.

Not many tears have been shed for the Heygate.  It’s empty except for the last three families (out of 3000 people once) and the demolition gangs are in there.  The Aylesbury is being partly demolished, partly re-built, with Southwark Council busting a gut to redeem an estate synonymous with urban decay.

Further Reading

Jane M Jacobs, Stephen Cairns & Ignaz Strebel (2006) ‘A tall storey… but, a fact just the same’: The Red Road highrise as a black box’, online papers archived by the Institute of Geography, School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, Institute of Geography Online Paper Series;GEO-023 [LINK TO PDF]

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