Recently that ol’ internet rabbit hole lead me to a cache of photography from the renowned author of Tower Block, Professor Miles Glendinning, and I just needed to know more...
OUTSIDELEFT: Can you cast your mind back to the early 90s when you were researching your Tower Block book with Stefan Muthesius, ‘Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’... I can't remember exactly when, but by then, in many places, although tower blocks had initially been embraced by the public and planners alike, the rot, the damp and the drafts and the realisation that this was a desultory offering, had set in, right?
MILES GLENDINNING: Well actually the research for Tower Block was largely concentrated in the late 1980s and certainly by then the process of residualisation of some tower blocks was well underway, and concentrated in some particular cities, including, especially Liverpool where a quarter of all tower blocks had already been demolished by then.
There was a very significant time lapse between the first flood of anti-tower block rhetoric, which came overwhelmingly from architects who were moving on to new styles by the mid-1970s, and who attacked towers mainly on aesthetic but also on supposedly sociological grounds - there was a big time-lag between that and the actual decline of many tower blocks. That only really took place in the 90s, in the wake of Thatcherite council housing privatisation, the Right to Buy programme, which led to the residual isolation of remaining council housing, the sale or supposedly more desirable cottage -type council housing overwhelmingly left blocks of flats, and so they started to be seen as a kind of residue – something that especially applied in England, with the particular strength of the ‘cottage-as-every-Englishman’s-birthright’ discourse and the widespread feeling that flats were somehow ‘in-English’. And of course that is not a discourse that applies here in Scotland, where most urban housing has traditionally been in flats.
At any rate, I certainly wouldn’t agree with the idea that postwar public housing was a ‘desultory offering’ – for its time, most public housing, including in multi-storey flats, could not have been described in terms of intrinsic inferiority to private housing – as is generally assumed today.
OUTSIDELEFT: My friends lived in one in Acton when they were students...
MILES GLENDINNING: Acton was certainly a very ‘go-getting’ borough in terms of housing construction and clearance, especially in its South Acton redevelopment area just NE of Acton Town Station – there was a lot of variety in housing policies and practices within London, and in some other areas of England such as West Midlands, with some authorities pursuing very vigorous slum clearance and housebuilding policies and others very little at all.
OUTSIDELEFT: When I think of people like Tibor Reich who was trying to shift the culture in the 60s/post Festival of Britain days, with colour... Amazing! Were the tower blocks initially greeted like that, like (Pathé news reel voice) ‘coming to your neighbourhood soon…’
MILES GLENDINNING: I imagine that that must have been the case, given the overwhelmingly positive and boosterist public and media discourse about any kind of modernisation in the early post-war decades from 1945 to 1975, the decades that the French call ‘the 30 glorious years’.
Lift (off) panel to the skies! Retrofuturism in the flats
OUTSIDELEFT: What do architects in the public housing sector do? Obviously they have to work with astringent budgets but where do their responsibilities begin and end? Architects have their seven golden rules (something like that) or whatever to make sure buildings don't collapse - but do they... say, work with behavioural psychologists to attempt to divine the impact of their work on future residents? Or are people presumed to be glad for what they are given?
MILES GLENDINNING: I’m not sure that there is such a thing as a public housing sector in Britain any more, in view of the fact that it so hugely retrenched from the 1980s onwards – I think that any public housing nowadays tends to be designed by private practice architects rather than public or official architects as such – as opposed to the position in places like Singapore and Hong Kong (see below). I think this question is very much something in the past tense. In fact, quite a bit of the 1994 Tower Block book - the first section of that part one, ‘Design’ - includes information on these factors.
OUTSIDELEFT: How do we house people now that the needs are even greater? For instance, I really love, say, the work put in by Javelin Block in Birmingham, their reanimation of buildings, but on the whole, Britain has the smallest homes in Europe, by design, and let's say if there was a ME TOO movement among residents, most of the major players in the building industry would be in the dock?
MILES GLENDINNING: I’m not really up-to-date with contemporary housing policy in Britain, and I’m always rather suspicious of these sorts of sweeping overall statistics about the smallest homes in the world, or the largest homes, or the most overcrowded or whatever. Certainly it used to be the case that the average dwelling in Britain was somewhat larger than the average urban dwelling in continental countries such as Germany or Austria or France, and that position certainly carried on throughout the whole of the social housing construction era. But I don’t know about the position today in relation to new homes – although as so little new housing in Britain is public housing in the strict sense of the word.
OUTSIDELEFT: : One of our contributors currently lives in a petrochem wealthy area of the world, there he's seen tower blocks blown up before they've even been finished. Have you seen Julian Temple's incredible ‘Requiem for Detroit’ movie?
MILES GLENDINNING: I’m afraid I’m not much of a film expert, but anything about tower blocks of public housing in the United States is inevitably inevitably going to involve lots of blowing up and wanton destruction, given the arguably extraordinarily wasteful way in which large sums of public resources were first spent on building public housing and then in destroying it again, under the so-called ‘Hope VI’ programme of the 1990s onwards.
OUTSIDELEFT : So what for the tower blocks here, a Julian Temple gently decaying renatured future or an petrochem wealth one, or like here in Birmingham now a mini Manhattan?
MILES GLENDINNING: One of the things that particularly strikes me about the public housing heritage in Britain is the localised character of the outcomes, with some cities demolishing almost all their fertile blocks and others taking a much more cautious attitude, potentially looking on them as public assets, absolutely stuffed with embodied carbon, that would be hugely better reused than destroyed – destroyed for reasons, partly, arguably, of fashion. So, for instance, someone visiting Leeds and Sheffield today might come away with the idea that Leeds had built a lot of tower blocks but Sheffield had built almost none; but in fact in the 1980s they had almost the same number of tower blocks, before Sheffield embarked on an orgy of destruction. Some other cities in England, like Newcastle have also taken good care of their public housing stock, and in Scotland there’s an even stronger contrast between the city of Aberdeen, which is traditionally a place where people are very careful with their money and look after their assets, and where no tower blocks at all have been demolished, and the once rival city of Dundee just down the road, which had the same number of tower blocks is Aberdeen as late as 1980s, and now has almost none.And... there is a robin in this picture
OUTSIDELEFT: If the BBC wanted to send you on an international jaunt, to present public housing success stories around the world...Where would you begin?
MILES GLENDINNING: Well, there would be plenty of places to choose from, because public housing has only been portrayed as a disaster, on the whole, in a relatively few Western European countries, and in some English-speaking countries elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere, for a variety of reasons the stigma that we take for granted doesn’t exist. If I had to pick out a couple of places in particular I would point to Hong Kong and Singapore, which were cities with previously appalling housing conditions, which used strong public housing programs, targeted both at poorer citizens and also at lower middle income citizens, in a mixture of rental and homeownership tenurial modes, to help radically boost the standard of living of the population significantly above living standards in Britain. In Hong Kong, the standard public housing block is a 41 storey block containing up to 800 flats, often of quite small sizes and certainly very much smaller than any kind of average size within Britain. But in Hong Kong, although people are discontented about a lot of things at a political level at the moment, one thing that is not a bone of contention in any way is the high standard, the excellent maintenance, and the general popularity of public housing.
OUTSIDELEFT: Happier stuff... Your recent book is ‘Scotch Baronial’ was really well received, everyone loves a castle after all… Are you and co-author Aonghus MacKechnie a latter day MacGibbon and Ross? What’s happening next for you?
MILES GLENDINNING: Very early in the New Year 2021 I have a new book called Mass Housing scheduled for publication, by Bloomsbury Academic Press, which will touch on a lot of the issues I’ve been talking about earlier, for example about international comparability in housing standards and housing approaches.
Miles' Mass Housing is available from Bloomsbury, March 25th, 2021 (Bookstore order link)
OUTSIDELEFT: Who is your favourite big or small screen architect or even offscreen architect?
MILES GLENDINNING: My favourite architect is the former chief architect of the Hong Kong housing authority and subsequently secretary of housing within the Hong Kong government, Donald Liao, who steered through the huge public housing and new towns programme in Hong Kong from the mid-1960s to the 80s, and laid the foundation of the public housing patrimony of the territory today. You can find a film interview with him, describing his earliest large estate at Wah Fu on Hong Kong Island, at this link (select ‘The Birth of Wah Fu Estate’). And here’s the transcript.
No suggestion of a ‘desultory offering’ there - even although the blocks are vastly higher in density, and in height, than almost any public housing in Britain!
Mass Housing is available to pre-order now from Bookstore and elsewhere (ships March 25th, 2021)