Donald Short is an artist working in the UK

High-rise: Goldfinger versus George Lansbury

Originally written in 1999, this article was revised as part of an MA written submission.

In Martin Amis’ 1989 novel, London Fields the high-rise building is a place of ugliness and depravity. When the novel’s ineffectual protagonist, Guy Clinch, looks out of the window of his smart villa in Notting Hill towards the tower block where his nemesis, the philanderer and child abuser, Keith Talent resides, it is variously described as ‘dark’, ‘a fortress’, ‘looming like a callipered leg dropped from heaven’.

It’s an old and contentious argument that high-rise living debases human existence to the point that residents become miscreants, but few would probably have argued at the time with Amis’ tacit link between one man’s evil and his habitat. An earlier novel by J.G Ballard called High Rise (1973) makes a more explicit case; the building by its very design is complicit with the crimes that go on within it. In this case, the residents of an imaginary Docklands’ high rise tower block are well off media types whose descent into madness leads to murder and chaos.

The best tower blocks have by now been listed, while the worst have either been part repaired, re-clad or blown up. Among those listed is the Trellick Tower, a 31 storey concrete behemoth in North Kensington designed by the Hungarian architect, Erno Goldfinger and the inpiration for both Ballard and Amis’ dystopian tales of high-rise living. This extraordinary building was once featured on BBC’s ‘Home Front’, prompting a media cry that high-rise living had miraculously returned to fashion. A similar antipathy with Victorian Gothic was turned on its head by the listing of George Gilbert Scott’s Grand Midland Hotel abutting St Pancras Station, which at one point in the 60s came close to being demolished.

High-rise building in this country dates from the late 50s and 60s when the term modernity was commensurate with progress and their most ardent supporters were often the new tenants (the so called ‘high-rise families’) who were happy to proclaim that their new homes were a far cry from the squalid terraced houses many of them had left behind. But by the 80s, high-rise living was synonymous with poverty and squalor and their destruction and a return to a more traditional form of housing was now considered progress. Reformers referred to them as socially alienating, for others they simply should never have been built.

In the 1930s, George Lansbury, Mayor of Poplar and later leader of the Labour Party, stated adamantly that it was not impossible to find room on the ground for all who needed homes and no doubt he had in mind Modernist architects like Le Corbusier, who had proposed the rebuilding of Paris on a grid structure lined with high-rise buildings; the so called, Plan Voisin. Lansbury’s statement came at the time multi-storey apartment blocks were largely confined to the private sector with no plan, as yet, to adopt the type of large-scale social housing schemes then seen in Weimar Germany and Russia. One interesting exception is the Kensal House Flats built on the site of a former gas works at the bottom of Ladbroke Grove. Described as an ‘urban village’ it was the initiative of the Gas, Light and Coke Company who appointed the Modernist architect Maxwell Fry to head up a team. The whole is distinctly European, its parts very much ‘machines for living in’, with well-planned rooms and facilities; and as a paradigm of Britain’s determination to improve the living conditions of its poor inhabitants, Kensal House features in the opening film sequence of Korda and Powel’s rallying cry to a nation on the verge of war, The Lion Has Wing(1939). Despite its success, Fry’s prototype was not readily adopted after the war and instead Britain came up with its own less radical solution.

In 1951, in conjunction with the Festival of Britain, a ‘Live architecture’ exhibit was built on a 30 acre site in bomb-damaged Poplar, East London. Named appropriately after George Lansbury, it was made up of a mixture of houses and 3 storey flats. Brick built with pitched slate tiled roof, the Lansbury Estate is a far cry from the Kensal Flats and presents a particularly English version of social housing that was neither offensive nor exciting to look at. But although the Lansbury Estate was to provide a model for much of the new housing of mid 1950s, pressure was increasingly being put on the new Conservative government to find a cheaper solution. Faced with a chronic deficit in skilled labour and traditional materials and facing increasing pressure to safe-guard the countryside from further urbanisation, in 1957 they introduced subsidies to contractors to build higher blocks, offering increments per storey; in effect, triggering a high-rise boom that was to last until the early 70s.

At the peak of this boom in the 1960s, any thoughts of building homes of quality had been subsumed by the desire for quantity above all else, as can be seen by the housing numbers game played out by both main parties in the election campaigns during the 50s and 60s. But ultimately, the failure of this policy lay with the decision to leave the planning of these new housing schemes in local authority hands, by doing so opening up the chance for unscrupulous politicians and public sector administrators to go unchecked as they made names for themselves as urban regenerators. They in turn, employed large construction companies like Taylor Woodrow and Bovis, bringing about not only the creation of housing estates with a little external variation or character but also the disastrous adoption of so called ‘systems’ building.

‘Systems’ building involved the use of large pre-fabricated concrete panels that were then bolted on to the sides of a concrete frame. Between 750,000 and 1,000,000 buildings (including colleges, schools and hospitals) were constructed during the 1960s many of which utilised some method of non-traditional building like ‘Systems’; and all of them are now, in one way or another, showing signs of stress. In the infamous case of the twenty-two-storey Ronan Point, the building had only just been completed when, in 1968, the effect of the poorly fastened panels proved catastrophic. It was later found that when a improperly installed gas cooker exploded in a flat on the eighteenth floor it set off a domino effect that was to bring down a large portion of one side of the building, killing five people and injuring many others. Despite what was known about the panels, the tenant responsible for having the cooker installed was held to blame. It also emerged that the Danish system used to construct Ronan Point had originally been intended for buildings no higher than six storeys, which goes some way to highlighting the appalling lack of adequate site control and poor workmanship that became the norm on building sites throughout Britain in the 1960s.

The events of Ronan Point brought a swift end to the high-rise dream, but Erno Goldfinger would have none of it and declared high-rise buildings safe, moving himself and his family into Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London, a twenty-seven storey concrete prototype for the Trellick Tower, completed in 1968. From the top he could look down at the Lansbury Estate that was later to regain favour as an example of social housing on a humane scale, while further to the East he could view the patched up stump of Ronan Point.

When finally the Trellick Tower was finished in 1972 it was clearly out of step with the times. To the last though Goldfinger stood up for his profession and the ideologies of a movement he had worked so hard to promote. The only problem with high-rise buildings, he once provocatively said, was that they weren’t high enough.

Post Script
Ronan Point was eventually demolished in 1991, although a single concrete panel was saved and given to the Science Museum in South Kensington. It has never been exhibited. The remains of the building were used to create the foundations for the runway at the nearby City Airport.
Trellick Tower – once deemed by the tabloid press as the ‘tower of death’ is now one of the most sought after locations in West London with flats changing hands for six figure sums.

Jun 29, 09:57 AM by Donald Short