The first wave of post-war council houses were the product of a very British strain of socialism. For a start, Nye Bevan insisted on very high standards of building, space and size. The design of the new estates was very much in what we might call the ‘garden city’ tradition, as was the emphasis on green space. The council housing built was, in consequence, solid and high quality, in a modest English kind of way. It was also very popular.
Four particular interest groups were less enamoured. The first was the state (the treasury, the ministry and to some extent the local authorities themselves): surely these houses could be built more cheaply and, if that were so, the state could cough up less or get more build for its buck. The second interest group was the architectural profession, many of whom were increasingly attracted to modernism. The third group, builders, were likewise enmoured of modern building techniques and new technologies which cut costs, as did cutting minimum standards of course. Finally, town planners and local leaders were similarly won over by modernism, and getting more for less.
In 1955 Duncan Sandys, Eden’s Minister of Housing, altered the regulation of subsidies for housing, to allow high rise construction more easily. Now, the increasingly prevalent concrete fetish became fashionable. For many, it would prove to be an unhappy moment in the history of British architecture and town planning, as a then despised Victorian Britain was swept aside, or more literally bulldozed, to make way for high rise tower blocks, planned city centres and arterial roads. By 1960, 15% of new housing was high rise (this would rise to 26% by 1966). Architects loved it, council leaders liked opening it; however, in many cases residents never really took to them with the same enthusiasm. What people really wanted were nice council houses. However, the professionals and planners tended to get their way. Mr Technocrat knew best. Too often, the result looked like the Red Rose Flats in Glasgow.
By 1968, a mixture of a gas explosion and shoddy building saw the partial collapse of a new tower block, Ronan Point. More commonly, the reality of high rise was more humdrum, but unpleasant: one friend of mine lived in one North London estate in the early ‘eighties. What I remember was strewn rubbish, vandalism, graffitti, lifts not working and, when they did, the pervasive stench of stale urine and menacing kids. Rather than generating communities, the product of much of the high density building of the era was one of a sense of social isolation. It wasn’t just high rise though, the problem could just as often be one of geographical and social segregation. Most notoriously, great estates were built to house those who had been the slums, often on the outskirts of cities, heightening the isolation so many felt: famous examples would include Glasgow’s Easterhouse (below) or Hull’s Bransholme (even Dublin’s Ballymun) The sink estate was born.
That is not to denigrate the people who lived or live in those estates. I have a friend who was brought up in Easterhouse. What was it like? If I were to use his own description I might need to refer impolitely to procreation and manure. Likewise, I used to know someone who had lived in Ballymun: he was less kind than even that about it.
I did a wee bit of teaching on the Bransholme estate, and the memory of how those poor kids’ lives were blighted by it (and how isolated they were out there on the outskirts) still sticks with me.
One argument has it that the brutalist concrete was never going to work, being alien to British traditions and aspirations. Another believes it to be have been let down but cost cutting, poor maintenance, and the lack of a social mix. There is probably something in both arguments. There is also an irony. Two examples might illustrate that irony nicely.
In 2013, one Guardian writer picked the top 10 council estates. Ironically, I know both the top two. In at number two, as they used to say, is the Bishopsfield estate in Harlow, where an old friend of mine used to live. It was a product of an open architectural competition in 1961, being completed in 1967.
It’s fair to say it divided opinions from the start. My friend found it isolating and her flat had problems with its expensive underfloor heating, and it was prone to condensation and mould. On the other hand, the main living space, with its Scandanavian style height and open plan and high windows, was pretty spectacular.
This piece of film made of the estate and its residents in 1969 is a very revealing slice of social history. I particularly like the way the modernist vision of the architect clashes with the rather more humdrum apsirations and much more homespun tastes of its residents.
The film is here:
The Kasbah, as it became known, won as many architectural awards as it did brickbats. It is now regarded by some as of genuine architectural importance. A few years ago, the council wanted to demolish it; the 20th Century Society want the whole estate listed, at Grade II. what saved was the fact that, despite gripes about poor maintenance, most of its residents liked living there and there appears to be a consensus that weathering has softened what some still see as its brutalist edge.
Before I put you all out of your suspense and reveal number one, when their readers were asked one suggestion was estate in Camden, another architect led scheme; once again, I know the Alexandra Road estate. It was built in the 1970s, at much criticised expense partly due to high land prices and the high inflation rates of the era: a subsequent inquiry, intended to foist the blame on its architect, Neave Brown, in fact exonerated him. It signalled the end of large scale modernist public housing developments, however.
Like Bishopsfiled, it looked to create an alternative high density housing to the tower blocks most loathed.
In many ways, it is classic of ‘seventies architecture and design.
By the early ‘nineties its neglect by the council and consequent deterioration had led to its residents campaigning successfully to win it Grade II listed status, and its revival began.
There may be a case for describing the number one as the herald of what might have been. For a start, its architect, Ralph Erskine, had his office on site, and widely consulted those who became residents. Architecturally, it forms a part of the landscape of the Byker Bank and our view of the north side of the Tyne. It had its problems, especially as unemployment took root in the ‘eighties and beyond. Nonetheless, as an estate it works.
But here is a genuine and robust advocate of the estate in the ‘eighties, in the form of a BBC documentary.
The new climate of the ‘eighties saw ambitious public housing schemes such as these become anathema. For sure, some were awful, though arguably the worst suffered more from cheese paring politicians (such as the Labour minister Anthony Crossland, who famously regarded balconies as a waste of money) and a lack of ambition. Inevitably, some are now beginning to gentrify. Others, like Byker, give a standard of high density living that could surely have been delivered to many more.
There is an excellent article on the Byker estate here.