High hopes

High-rise homes are derided, but some show that a progressive architecture is possible argues Owen Hatherley

July 4, 2011 · 11 min read

Architecture, of all art forms, is the one most tied up with the state, corporations and large-scale clients. It’s capital-intensive, it involves the large-scale use of specialist skilled and unskilled manual labour to produce and is frequently very high-tech. Any considerations about the uses of architecture to help create an egalitarian or even anti-authoritarian society have to start with the grim fact that the power that builds, builds its power.

Experiments in freedom

There have been plenty of attempts to create architectures that don’t rely on the division of labour and the massive investment of capital or technology – and they’ve often produced interesting, if inconclusive results. In the reaction to the massive global redevelopment that followed the second world war, there were a few attempts at producing what could be called an anarchist architecture. Sometimes this was at the level of theory, as with Anarchitecture, a group in 1970s’ New York that attempted a largely imaginary architecture of chaos and accident, inspired by various ‘disasters’ caused by failed construction and dereliction.

There was Bernard Rudofsky’s hugely influential book Architecture without Architects, which catalogued forms of ‘vernacular’ building all over the globe, from the Mediterranean to south-east Asia. These were self-built, accidental townscapes and villages that somehow seemed to retain some kind of order and form. A few took from Rudofsky the notion that this pre-modern construction could be revived and continued. But the results in the gigantic conurbations and industrial landscapes where the majority of us live were always going to be more a matter of formal imitation on the part of architects, rather than office clerks and electricians getting busy with the wattle and daub.

The architect Walter Segal got further than most, with the self-build kits he designed for non-architects to construct their own houses, with local council sponsorship, in Lewisham, south London. These ‘Segal houses’ were an ‘experiment in freedom’, as one post-modernist slogan had it – but, outside of their innovative techniques and democratic promise, they looked oddly like stripped-down versions of mock-Tudor suburbia, low-rise and low-density. An entire city replanned like this would be so dispersed and sprawling as to create havoc with public infrastructure, like any other piece of suburbia. So if we can’t build our own, is there any way that architecture – controlled and bankrolled as it is by bosses and at best bureaucrats – can really assist with the creation of a new society?

The answer to this could lie in two large council estates in northern, industrial English cities, built in the post-war decades. Irrespective of the 30 years of glib scorn they have faced, the modernist estates that were built en masse after 1945 were the best working-class housing this country has ever had. These council houses, maisonettes and towers were bigger inside, following the rigorous ‘Parker-Morris’ standards (named after a 1961 government report), were largely better built, and were, at least initially, more popular than the overwhelming majority of the back‑to-backs and two-up two-downs they replaced. The refusal to build more like them since the 1980s has created a terrible shortage of working class housing and a scramble for rented accommodation on which the likes of the BNP have gleefully capitalised, blaming immigrants rather than the failure to build.

For the most part, though, their provision and management wasn’t particularly democratic, at least not in the strict sense. They were in the grey area of the post-war compromise, where that which couldn’t make a profit (health, transport and so on) was run publicly, with most else still private. For a brief moment, housing, now an almost mythical cornerstone of the Anglo-Saxon casino economy, was wrested partly out of the hands of speculators, landlords and estate agents. Residents, though, seldom got much of a choice of where and in what they would be moved after their dilapidated old housing was demolished.

The first run of redevelopments faced fierce criticism for breaking up working-class communities, either in the form of the low-density, vague, indistinct new towns such as Stevenage and Hatfield, or through creating Platonic, rationalist landscapes of towers in open space in place of pre-existing networks of social life and solidarity. There have been two famous, avant-garde, modernist attempts to change this, to create viable social spaces – and they have faced very different fates.

Streets in the sky

Park Hill, in Sheffield, was the first attempt to solve this problem. Like any other post-war redevelopment scheme, it was the product of emergency – the need to rebuild a teeming, crumbling slum of back-to-backs crowded above Sheffield’s Midland station. The key idea of the architects, J L Womersley, Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, was that there should be some way of building into the new estate the solidarity, bustle and cohesiveness that was so often lost when the unsanitary, unfit for human habitation housing of these areas was destroyed. Their solution was the development of a very old idea – ‘deck-access’, the pedestrian walkways that led into flats in hundreds of blocks built since the 19th century – into that new social space.

The ‘streets in the sky’, as they were called, were wide areas running through each of the estate’s blocks and interconnecting them. The estate was built on a sharply sloping site, so the ‘streets’ were arranged so that you could walk onto them from ground level at one end, and could continue along until you were on the tenth storey without ever going up stairs. The ground level space, meanwhile, had shops, two schools, and no fewer than four pubs.

Nowadays, Park Hill’s attempt to create a working-class community in the sky is often described as ‘utopian’. It might well seem so at this distance, but this was not at all the architects’ intention – what they attempted was merely to create a viable, working piece of city. All evidence points to the fact that for Park Hill’s first few decades, this is exactly what it was. Like anywhere else, it had crime and solidarity, mundanity and expansive, awesome city-views, was hated by some and loved by others (although perhaps the emotions were more extreme in the latter case). Moreover, it was only one part of a larger effort in council housing across the city, taking advantage of the extraordinary Peak District topography in Sheffield; each hilltop estate was intended to relate to each other.

Initially, Sheffield City Council ran a housing exchange system, so that families could leave Park Hill for the low-rise suburban estate at Gleadless Valley, and single young people do the opposite. Given the fact that by the 1970s the majority of housing in the city was run by the council, this was easy to do. Yet today, if you visit Park Hill, you’ll find at one end a reclad, shiny block of luxury flats, at the other a bustling if dilapidated council estate, and in between, a huge swathe of dereliction. What happened?

What did for Park Hill was a combination of the mass unemployment that hit Sheffield in the 1980s, decimating the city to this day; and in the 1990s and 2000s, a Blairite council bitterly hostile to council housing. Thousands of council homes were demolished here as part of the ‘housing market renewal’ scheme in a failed attempt to stimulate demand and new building. Park Hill was given to a property developer, which nearly went bust halfway through stripping the block both of its original fabric and its residents. When finished, three quarters of it will be private housing, sold on the open market. This act of class cleansing is usually accompanied by a narrative of how the streets in the sky failed miserably. Yet if you walk around the inhabited part of the estate, you will find open doors, chairs left outside, and children playing in the streets. They’re just the wrong class of inhabitant.

Walls and bridges

So, for whatever reason, the attempt to design in solidarity and community here is being destroyed. Is there another example, a different model, which could manage to do the same things by different means?

Newcastle’s Byker estate, designed by a team led by Ralph Erskine, begun in 1969 and abandoned, unfinished, in 1981, has long been both an architectural and social cause celebre. Looked at coldly, it’s hard to see why. First, it’s a council estate, and a big one, the product of post-war comprehensive redevelopment involving the mass demolition of terraced housing – none of the ‘mixed tenure’ insisted upon by contemporary planning policies.

Second, it’s full of winding paths and walkways, some of them of concrete. There are no ‘streets’, not much in the way of defensible space. There are a lot of communal spaces – parkland, squares – which have no clear ownership. Architecturally, it’s hardly in keeping with the surroundings. It’s full of bright colours, abstract forms, and a very modernist sense of sublime scale. It’s as poor as it is iconic – it even had its very own famous crime case, the duct-living miscreant ‘Rat Boy’. Surely it should be being ‘decanted’ and filled with aspirational lofts and creative clusters by now?

It’s not too far, in fact, from Park Hill, but instead of its tenants being the object of class cleansing, they have just been given effective control over the estate, and the debt the estate has accrued over the years has been written off. Tory housing minister Grant Shapps has even hailed it as ‘the big society in action’. So what’s the difference?

When you walk round it, the immediate differences are of upkeep, planting and care, rather than architecture. The bright, inorganic colours of the original scheme are still respected; the communal areas are pretty, not scrubby; ill-considered and cheap later additions to the estate are conspicuous by their absence. It looks coherent, confident, totally modern.

The fact that it still feels optimistic here is a legacy of the extraordinary care taken in the planning and design of the estate. Residents were involved from the start. Development was famously incremental, with tenants’ reactions to each part influencing the next, and the architects lived and kept their office in the area, so that they were constantly in touch with the people for whom they were building.

The result is a great architectural variety, within its coherent palette of materials and details – an undulating ‘wall’ of multicoloured brick shelters the place from traffic noise. Inside, the wall becomes a long block of flats oddly redolent of Park Hill, but it curves around a variety of different terraces, squares and a couple of tower blocks. The spaces in between are lush, with lots of parkland, benches and odd little objects taken from the old demolished district.

By the 1980s Byker had attained in local hearsay as fearsome a reputation as any big estate. But somehow its original ideas haven’t gone away. The estate is now being run by a charitable body, controlled (in theory) by its tenants, which surely means that the practice of residents’ active participation in redevelopment that it ushered in has a real, and serious legacy. The irony is that the Byker approach is being hailed by the housing minister as the ideas that underpin it are being destroyed across the country.

This sort of giant, proud, confident inner city estate, keeping a working-class population in the centre of the city, is the very thing that the government’s housing benefit proposals will eradicate (not to mention it being the sort of single-class ‘ghetto’ that New Labour abhorred). Byker’s careful, slow, bespoke (and expensive) planning is also the antithesis of the coalition’s cheap and nasty enterprise zones and free schools.

Clearly, Shapps’ hailing of the place is not to be taken seriously – imagine the coalition apoplexy if people demanded more places like Byker – but it reminds us of something. Local authorities, which now present themselves as powerless emissaries of central government, were once able to make real, viable experiments in city planning for collectivity, solidarity and modernity. They could do so again. We could have whole cities like this, rather than a few embattled, isolated enclaves. But first, we’d have to stop seeing the state and democracy as eternal opponents.

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