Skip to main content

History Towering ambition

The legacy of council housing tower blocks of post-WWII Britain has been controversial and at times misinterpreted, but the full story is only beginning to be told, writes STEFAN MUTHESIUS

IT WAS a well-known fact, though not perhaps a frequently mentioned one — namely, that several of England’s town planners and architects in the post-WWII decades were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Indeed, this group included arguably the foremost official in public housing, AW Cleeve Barr, first working for the LCC and then for central government, as well as Arthur Ling, whom one can hold as the most influential town planner of the 1950s, in London and Coventry.

 diamond geezer/Creative commons)
The Lawn, Harlow New Town, 1951 - Britain's first residential tower block by Sir Frederick Gibberd note that all the living rooms face south. (Pic: diamond geezer/Creative commons)

Which particular strand of early post-war British communism they represented and in what ways they were aiming to change British society as a whole are not issues to be assessed here. The concern is solely with their professional activity as planners and housing architects.

And it is a remarkable fact with the whole of 20th century British public housing that party politics played virtually no role at all in the decision-making processes.

The basic rationale of the new welfare state appeared eminently straightforward. The public authorities had to provide what the private sector was deemed unable to provide or not able to provide at the right standards.
 
The welfare state’s flagship institutions were of course hospitals and schools, but council housing came a close third and, in terms of the striking architectural newness of many of the blocks, one may well see them as the principal, the ubiquitous visual manifestations of the new political and social ideals.

“Power symbols of the welfare state” were the words with which the Architects’ Journal greeted the six towers of the LCC South London Brandon Estate in 1961 (pictured), rising massive and shiny above the mostly run-down terraced streets.

 G Laird/Creative Commons)
Red Road Flats, Balornock, Glasgow at 31 storeys they were then the tallest tower blocks in Europe, 1962-1969 (pic: G Laird/Creative Commons)

The story of council housing in Britain until the early 1970s can be told as one of a continuous increase in the number of floors. Occasionally in the late 1940s blocks went above the customary five storeys.

Then, from the early 1950s, the LCC jumped to 11 in its estates in Wandsworth. Brandon marked the daring step to 18, which was soon followed by the proliferation of 20-plus storeys during the 1960s throughout Britain, culminating in a small number of audacious 30-storey blocks by 1970 — particularly in Glasgow — while the absolute highest group came with Birmingham’s two “Sentinels,” at 32 floors and a height of almost 100 metres.  
         
The first task of the historian is to investigate, quite simply, who built these towers and what were seen as the advantages of this type of dwelling. Laws concerning public housing were of course issued by Parliament, but that did not lead to dubbing them as “Parliament housing.”

The British term “council housing” is tied to the way in which each block or estate was initiated by the municipal council. It was uniquely in Britain where councils assumed the role of major patrons of building campaigns.

In1960s Glasgow, for instance, it was housing convener (ie housing committee chairman) David Gibson who was known for his relentless drive for new housing output, overwhelmingly in the form of high towers.

Equally powerful were the councils’ officers, their surveyors, engineers, architects, as well as, especially in the 1960s, members of the building supply industries.

It must be stressed that overall the councils’ post-WWII output was vast by any standards, reaching over 4.1 million dwellings of any type until the mid-1970s, exceeding private housebuilding figures by almost 10 per cent.

All those dwellings were built to higher standards than those from before WWII and included separate toilets and bathrooms and, by the 1950s, central heating and hot water supply, fitted kitchens, cupboards and more.

Furthermore, most notable and unique in European public housing in the 1950s and 60s was the degree of experimentation with housing types. Up to 1950 councils had proceeded essentially with two types of council housing, suburban row houses or semi-detached houses and inner urban four or five-storey flats.

But by 1949-50 this orthodoxy began to be challenged. It was the municipal architects — and that is the younger and Modernist-minded ones among them — who advocated new types of planning and housing blocks.

A well-publicised episode occurred within the LCC where the council’s architects under Robert Matthew newly asserted their predominance in housing design. At the same time the architect and planner Frederick Gibberd, who designed the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Ilford’s Fulwell Cross Library and London Central Mosque, made his mark with new Modernist designs in Harlow New Town.

It was in Harlow and some LCC developments where tower block housing exercised a new fascination.

First, these planners and architects were convinced that a tower, or a group of towers, would provide welcome visual accents for what was then widely held to be the monotonous sameness of British housing so far.

Among many town planners and designers a complex formula arose. First of all, there was a general desire for greater density for most new housing developments. Too much land was being ‘eaten up’ by the typical outer-suburban development of small houses, which meant that flats appeared inevitable.

At the same time, nobody would or could deny that certain sections of the population, above all families with small children, were best accommodated in precisely the traditional type of suburban house with its own garden.

The young Modernist architects now argued that, by building just a few towers within in each estate, land could be freed for precisely a number of houses. The catchword of the time for this kind of planning was “mixed development.”
 
As to the modes of construction, British designers, engineers and builders had to develop them almost from scratch. There is a perception that all council towers look the same, but the facts are that no other country showed such a diversity of plans and external features.

One salient fact is that towers were extremely expensive to build. Costs for a small flat in a tower came to usually more than twice the cost of a three-bedroomed suburban house.  

Thus to create “symbols” of the new welfare state may well be taken as the principal aim of the public-minded national and local politicians of the time, working closely with their designers and building suppliers. What nobody could, or did, foresee, however, was a dislike of the towers, which broke out in the late 1960s, at a time when the highest multis were still being built.

The Grenfell catastrophe marked the peak of five decades abhorrence. Thereby the story of the towers’ demise and of the destruction of a good number of them has become much better known than the story of their building.

However, the question whether or not a flat high up makes a good home is strictly one for the occupants themselves.

As regards fire safety, there is the need for a trusted authority, but for the rest of us the council towers are landmarks that are likely to remain so for some time and a familiarity with their building history will, at the very least, remind us of a phase of British history, the first welfare state years, which are now being remembered with a new reverence.     

Towers For The Welfare State: An Architectural History of British Multi-storey Housing 1945-1970 by Stefan Muthesius / Miles Glendinning,  (Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies £ 25.00)       
is available from bookshops or directly from s.muthesius@uea.ac.uk

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 9,620
We need:£ 8,380
7 Days remaining
Donate today