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Industry reaction: Architects slam report calling for wholesale tower blocks demolition

Architects have strongly condemned a think-tank report calling for all UK social housing high-rises to be replaced with terraced streets

Architects rallied to defend post-war housing estates, criticising the report by right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange for its ‘lack of real understanding’.

The organisation’s contentious Create Streets report argued flattening multi-story social housing from our cities would improve the lives of thousands of people and increase housing supply.

‘It would be helpful if the members of the Policy Exchange think tank had read at least one book before they published their report,’ said Martin Sagar of Sheppard Robson.

‘The notion of demolishing housing stock and replacing it is in this day and age utterly criminal,’ he said, calling for renovation instead.

Glenn Howells Architects’s Dav Bansal said social problems were not unique to high-rise social housing estates but were instead linked to ‘lack of community management and ownership’ of shared public spaces.

Terry Farrell and Partners said there was no ‘silver bullet’ solution but praised 60s tower blocks for becoming popular places for young and single people. ‘Our starting point as a practice is always that existing buildings are a sustainable resource.’

Andrew Beharrell of Pollard Thomas Edwards was however positive. ‘The think-tank’s proposals are not news – they are established best practice – but if this helps to persuade politicians to see the light then all the better.’

Industry responses:

Martin Sagar, Sheppard Robson
I find it extraordinary that this debate still rages when we are all working in an environment which by and large assumes the superiority of conventional streetscapes. There are some very strange assumptions in the text. For example, I am sure the vast majority of high rise buildings currently under consideration or construction in London at the moment will automatically put private apartments in the high rise blocks as it is the views that these afford which makes the high rise attractive.

The issues of high rise in the past was that they were built for people who had no choice but to live in them and had in all likelihood being removed from more conventional housing stock. The race to build homes in the 1960s was fuelled by not only the desire for physical change in our cities, but a political and societal desire to make the new world an explicitly different place. What was missing was a more studied critique of the assumption that living in an unsupervised park (in reality a great grass field due to cost constraints ) was an improvement. This was less to do with towers or densities than a lack of structure, and too low a density of occupation.

It would be helpful if the members of the Policy Exchange think tank had read at least one book before they published their report. The Death and Life of Great American cities, written in 1961 by Jane Jacobs made clear that higher densities more often than not enhanced security and wellbeing.

The notion of demolishing housing stock and replacing it is in this day and age utterly criminal, a more considered and intelligent, and dare I say better informed conclusion might have been to see these renovated for market and use the cross funding to build lower rise, street scale blocks at their base to provide housing for rent or mixed tenure, thus seizing the opportunity to repair, rather than demolish.

Demolition and rebuild of housing almost always has the ego of politicians as its motive, cutting the ribbon to a refurbishment being a slightly less photo worthy event in their eyes. A trip to Manchester to see the work Urban Splash have done in restoring ex-local authority tower blocks might have helped.

I understand the reservations about density, but again we need to be clear. As I suggested earlier density per se is not directly linked to social problems, rather historically it has been linked to neighbourhoods where people felt safe as the level of surveillance was higher.

A much greater threat it seems to me is the ill-considered assumption that large sites can accommodate solely residential. Paul Finch has referred in the past to intensity not density as they key to the consideration of successful urban design, and I think that this is a much more accurate way of defining what makes places comfortable and happy. Establishing uses which occupy the public realm at different times is another subtlety but an important issue.

Finally and more generally I am at the moment puzzled by what seems to be a maddening lack of consistency in the approach of Government as to how to solve the housing crisis, from the one extreme of explaining more clearly the extent of the problem and the provenance of the research, and at the other extreme seemingly thinking that it is an acceptable solution to build more garden cities ( another broken concept ) to solve the shortfall. Where do all these pieces of work fit together. In the absence of any shared belief in Government in the nature of our society I feel that society is ill served by this kind of report.  

Dav Bansal, Glenn Howells Architects
Many of the social deprivation issues related here to high rise towers are very similar to those present in residential estates where they have ‘conventional’ housing in streets. Therefore I believe it is not the type of building that creates these problems but the lack of community management and ownership of these environments. Coupled with poor infrastructure, such as schools, local employment and community facilities, it is not surprising why these neighbourhoods are failing. 

Well-designed high rise housing set over retail and commercial uses that in turn support the residential communities and well maintained common spaces help to foster ownership and a long term future. Historical social housing lacked pride and was largely designed without consideration to external shared spaces or complimentary uses. There are many great examples where high rise housing has been redefined focussing on the communal shared spaces, generous amenities and the wider mixed-use environment to create places which have become highly desirable to live. Examples include the redevelopment of The Rotunda in Birmingham and Sheffield’s Park Hill. 

Replacing high rise living with terraced streets in some urban locations would also damage the scale of a city. We need to improve on densities to meet the housing demand near areas of employment and economic growth, and though high rise towers may be more expensive to build, the number of dwellings delivered per hectare outweighs this cost. I would therefore look at the cost per unit instead of cost per square metre. 

We do however need to improve the provision and design of family-sized units in high rise developments, and this has been done very well in many european cities. As a nation, we seem to shy away from providing this and take the assumption that all families want to live in ‘conventional’ houses.

Heinz Richardson, Jestico + Whiles

The issue is more complicated than simply one of high rise versus terraced streets. Fundamentally the driver of density is often exceptionally high land values driving up the need to maximise return to make the development of available sites feasible. This essentially then determines the development typology and density and forces a decision based on economic rather than planning imperatives.

The solution is to drive down the cost of land or heavily subsidise residential development. High rise has its place as do terraced streets. Historically social housing tenants were not offered a choice, families were forced to live in tower blocks and the lack of ownership of external space created problem estates. It is design quality that is important not the wholesale dismissal of any one type of development model.

Brendan Kilpatrick, PRP

There is a place for existing tower blocks and for new residential development in tall buildings. The inherent density available in existing tower blocks cannot be ignored when factoring in the cost of redevelopment. If well-constructed and environmentally upgraded, the useful life of many tower blocks can be extended and in some cases their inherent value enhanced.

Apartments in certain blocks designed by Lasdun, Goldfinger and Lubetkin remain much in demand (particularly amongst architects). The high rise blocks of The Barbican constitute  one of the wealthiest postal districts in the land.

PRP are involved in the design of several current high rise residential developments for social landlords and private developers alike which are tall because they take advantage of their location in relation to views or proximity to transport hubs.

Management plans, usually involving concierge control and backed by security conscious design, will ensure the eradication of much of the social disadvantages associated with the tower blocks of the past. 

David Bickle, Hawkins\Brown
Firstly pejorative and patronising language doesn’t get us anywhere - to my mind all housing is ‘social’ and beauty is always in the eye of the beholder - neither does poorly found research or a lack of real understanding of the issues involved – economic, social, formal, historic or cultural. For the RIBA to say the findings of the report are simplistic is an understatement. Having worked for the past eight years on the regeneration of Park Hill with our clients Urban Splash, owners Sheffield City Council, affordable housing providers Great Places, English Heritage and its community of residents and broader neighbourhood, I’d like to think that we’ve learnt something about this Grade II* listed building.

Park Hill delivers so much more than we could dream of creating in these myopic, financially challenging and politically abhorrent times. Delivered at a time of great housing need (much like today) Park Hill was designed with dignity and intelligence, apartments are generously laid out (pre Parker Morris) dual aspect they respond to the sloping topography of the site capturing views and sunshine. Balconies offer amenity to every home, streets in the sky, airy passage, ease of servicing and communal neighbourly access. A district heating system, reconfigured landscape and a suite of supporting uses, shops, cafes and a relocated nursery means that it will be a great place to invest in - and I don’t just mean money here. Spacious and airy the tangled configuration of built form creates intimate gardens for play and relaxation and heroic courtyards for the socially minded to gather with neighbours – ‘streets in the sky’ embracing a civic minded generosity that ‘houses in streets’ often promises but fails to deliver.

Park Hill replaced unsanitary, crime ridden, low rise, back to back housing of exactly the type suggested by the report as being of ‘value’. Park Hill is a lasting symbol of our welfare state reminding us of a time when simple, straightforward and long held values in housing prevailed. Looking to the past the only thing we’ve lost is our nerve, verve and ambition.

Terry Farrell and Partners
At Farrells we welcome this renewed interest in the quality of the places people live, their built reality and their social impacts.  There is no single ‘silver bullet’ solution to this question – some 60s tower blocks have become great places for young and single people to live. Our starting point as a practise is always that existing buildings are a sustainable resource.

Whilst we believe the Corbusian model of tower blocks in swathes of open space has never been appropriate for our inner cities, we also distrust ‘clean sweep’ approaches to town planning which are the root cause of problems we are facing today. We must learn lessons from the past and adapt what we have. There are all kinds of subtle implications of how we shape our buildings – people in towers spend less time in the community around them, their children spend less time playing outside, there is no ownership of the communal areas, whether inside or outside. Putting the physical object of buildings aside, it is often the ‘software’ of town planning that is overlooked and yet makes the biggest difference - governance, stewardship and the intelligent use of money for public realm and refurbishment.

Our studies of housing in and around the Euston Road have also shown us that height doesn’t equal density. Tower blocks typically achieve in the region of 450 habitable rooms per hectare, whilst the ‘vernacular’ 6 storey mansion blocks of Marylebone achieve 750 habitable rooms per hectare upwards.

London, as an example, is a place with a rich mix of housing types and densities, which makes it a great, liveable and diverse place to live. There is no one solution to this question, but we should start with understanding the success stories of our current housing – more of London, more of what works.

Tony Hutchinson, Capita Symonds
Reading the Policy Exchange report Create Streets is a challenge, there is much that makes sense but overall the result is awash with nostalgia for a past that never truly existed. The stews and rookeries of pre-1945 London may not have been high-rise but they were high density. Families living in single rooms, with shared sanitary facilities. Squalor was one of William Beveridge’ s Five Giants.

The initial high density high rise developments were a pragmatic response to accommodating families who had been bombed from these slums and the Attlee Government was determined to clear the slums and build the Homes for Heroes promised in 1919. This was done despite the economy being devastated by the war and the withdrawal of American aid when Japan surrendered. Many of these buildings are elegant and continue to provide good homes.

It would be wrong to pretend that every tall building is an architectural gem and provides high quality accommodation. Yet it is equally wrong to assert that high rise developments are universally wrong. Design is critical in creating successful place but there is far more to place and community than aesthetics. Effective maintenance of shared facilities and spaces is fundamental.

It is important to recall that when Thamesmead was built and before Stanley Kubrick went there it was a desirable place to live, people had to compete for a home there. New residents had jobs and aspired to life on the edge of the city.

The loss of jobs, and the marginalization of publicly provided homes as welfare housing changed how all publicly owned housing is seen and more importantly the resources available to manage and maintain it. When once a council house was seen as something to aspire to living in social housing became a stigma.

High rise homes became doubly stigmatised, the high-profile scandals of people who exploited the subsidy system to provide excess profits for architects and builders by cutting corners of quality making homes too cheaply to provide long term homes. Bad buildings make bad homes. Bad people live in bad homes.

Would a return to streets be a panacea for the cycle of deprivation graphically illustrated in the report? I think not. The examples chosen of where high density housing works in a street pattern are affluent neighbourhoods, which have other positive characteristics, access to good jobs, schools, leisure and cultural facilities which mean that households will choose to live in a cramped mews cottage, paying handsomely for the privilege.These homes are maintained through constant investment.

Transposed to a location with fewer and less well-paid jobs, poorer schools and lack of access to amenities a similar property would be less desirable, less well maintained and less expensive.

New developments of streets are an interesting notion, and were it done with flair, panache and rigorous attention to detail like the great Georgian estates there is much to commend it. The conclusion of the Urban Task Force was that effective high density neighbourhoods worked as mixed communities, multi-tenure neighbourhoods where small scale industries operated within the weave. The condition precedent for this effective urban management.

However, what underpins the nostrums for developing the new suburbia is a raft of changes in the standards of development. The coy recommendation that building and implicitly planning regulations should be changed to allow this type of development to take place needs to be understood. These ‘changes’ are not spelled out in detail but on street parking, space between dwellings, width of roads and foot ways, cycle routes all seem to be in the bonfire. If this not done then densities achieved will not provide the number of homes anticipated.

As is now obligatory there are jibes against planners whose professional advice should be overridden by the views of self-appointed groups of the well-heeled and well housed. Consultation is only valid when it gives an outcome approved of by the authors.

Yes the report says some big questions about housing and urban design, it confuses the problems of poverty with the places where poor people live and suggests that the places cause poverty. Surely the argument is that poor people end up where there cheap places to live.

In the 1950’s the now chic streets of Notting Hill were the haunt of Heseltine and Rachmann. Deprivation is not a function of place, a place that is cheap and available to people with few options will become home to people who are deprived. It is a cycle. Effective management of regeneration can transform places, making them attractive to people with choices rather than a refuge for people with no other choice.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that this report is not motivated by a commitment to social justice and economic inclusion but by narrow sectional interests, aesthetic snobbery and a desire to increase development profits through reducing the space standards, design quality and contributions to social infrastructure.

The report is unclear on how this new utopia would be created, designed or funded; the absence of clarity on whether the new homes would be available to people who currently live in high rise properties at equivalent rents, enjoying the same rights as secure tenants indicates that these new suburbs would not be for existing residents of the despised towers.

Adam Firth, Aedas

The report appears to recycle the high-rise housing debate from the end of the last century. The debate has moved on. Modern refurbishment and decent management of many existing residential towers have transformed them into popular places to live.

New high-rise residential buildings in the right place continue to be an important part of solving the housing crisis in London. A residential tower appropriately located adjacent to open space could provide 100 homes on a site area which would only provide 20 terraced houses.

In light of the lack of land in London and the reduction in affordable housing grants, all options to provide affordable new homes or funds to pay for them should remain open for consideration within the existing democratic planning process.

Dominic J Eaton, Stride Treglown
It saddens me to say this, but I have now been an architect long enough to see this issue repeating itself. High rise residential was the panacea to all our housing problems, then they became ‘slums in the sky’ then they became popular again and now they are unpopular…..again? What surprises, and disappoints me is that the subject of ‘tower block’ tend to generate an emotive response which produces two camps, one in support, and the other against.?

I cannot understand why, with all the examples out there that have been built over decades, some successful and some not, research cannot be undertaken to find out what works and what doesn’t?

Like all complex and emotive issues, there are a lot of contributing factors. Location, tenure, quality of construction, quality of design, efficiency of the maintenance strategy, the appropriate nature of the building type to match the brief. Is ‘brutalism’ and ‘home sweet home’ a good fit? 

I have been involved in enough housing projects to know that different solutions are often required for different sites. This is why sweeping generalisations that high rise apartments are bad, and low rise housing is good, is unhelpful and counterproductive.

As a boy growing up in Sheffield in the 60s, I was aware of the effect that the Park Hill flats were having on the housing market. ‘Streets in the Sky’, pictures of milk floats driving along the access decks to each front door. Original neighbourhoods being rehoused next to each other to maintain communities. I thought it was fantastic then as I do now.

At that time I also remember visiting my grandparents who lived in a street of back to back houses. These where small and dark with shared yards that also contained the rubbish and the occasional disused piece of furniture. Although clean and homely, they clearly had their limitations, and the attractiveness of living in high rise buildings with extensive views surrounded by open space was clear to see.

Recently there have been some excellent exhibitions held on the life and work of Le Corbusier. The last one being at the Barbican a few years ago. It was brilliant, and clear to see how appealing the Unite d’Habitation was. In the Marseille sunshine, it looked heroic, and powerful. A mixed use scheme with a roof terrace, shops located half way up the building rather than at ground level, and amazing interlocking apartments with double height spaces and plans that ran through to both sides of the building.

Many architects couldn’t resist seeing this as the solution to the current housing problem. With concrete being the preferred material of choice given its flexibility and many uses. However combine this with a ‘Brutalism’ approach and the English weather, it is now apparent that this was not going to please everyone, and was unlikely to weather well.

However, what I really liked about that period in the 60’s and 70’s, was that there appeared to be a real belief that architecture could make a social difference. Even the perspective drawings of the time were full of optimism and hope for the future. This was going to be a brave new world.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out as planned, but this for me is not the issue. We seem to have lost our belief in the ability of architecture to social engineer. Buildings are more concerned with the external appearance, surface, and materials. Our brief doesn’t include a more innovative approach to solving the housing issues.

If the issue is density, lets address this. I have noticed ‘back to back’ houses featured recently in the AJ as a response to increasing housing densities, and they work. As do high rise housing in the right location.

The title of this piece, ‘Ugly Tower Blocks’ is very emotive, they don’t have to be ugly.

One of my favourite residential buildings in London is Trellick Tower. I would delight in living there, but would expect the lifts to work, the common areas to be clean and well maintained, and my neighbours to respect my needs, privacy and amenity as I would there’s. Without these common ingredients, and these apply to high and low rise housing types, the chances of success are going to be slim.

In conclusion, what is needed are well designed, detailed and constructed homes that are properly maintained. I am designing apartment building on inner city sites, high density two and tree storey houses on out of town regeneration sites, and very specific bespoke houses on some very small and unique sites. There is an approach and building type that is appropriate for these sites. Let’s be more pragmatic and embrace the various housing types available to us to deliver the best solutions possible. High and low rise.  

Roger FitzGerald, ADP
In the UK there are already plenty of low-rise terraces, but disproportionately little high-rise housing.  There is demand and a clear economic case for high-rise living in city centres and close to major transport hubs.  Nobody needs to be forced to live in towers, but if they are well designed, built and maintained, lots of people will want to live there.  Some of the 1960s blocks are dreadful and should come down, but those that are central and well-located should be replaced: high in both height and quality.

Ben Adams,  Ben Adams Architects
There are empty terraces of houses in Salford that cannot be sold, let or occupied, just as there are tall buildings all over London that offer the highest quality housing and can be maintained at the same cost as a terrace.

There is nothing inherently bad about taller buildings, or inherently good about terraced housing. Care has to be taken with the planning of neighborhoods to ensure that the needs of the community are met. The failure of tall social housing developments, much like the terraced buildings they replaced, is due to mono-use development without functioning infrastructure, mixed use buildings, community facilities and mixed tenure homes.

High density low or mid-rise development is good for inner cities, as is high density high-rise development. Camden experimented with all these forms of social housing (with decent architects) in the Gospel Oak redevelopment area in the 1970s. It is a good place to live where quality of life is not linked to the height of the buildings. Back good architects, rather than changing fashions in building heights. They will deliver.

Simon Allford, AHMM
Land prices and land banking. is what makes housing expensive less so construction. Also

mismanagement is one key to failure and this needs to be understood. A small amount of research would ably demonstrate that London’s densest areas are also it’s richest. SO It is not either/or but both.

We are designing mixed tenure residential communities for sale and rent here and abroad: some tall, some low, some dense. This is not necessarily as neatly correlated as the report suggests (tall does not mean dense)….we are also building streets with houses and apartments and tall buildings addressing them.

So we need less rhetoric and more thinking. And see if we can re-work what we have got into something better….after all that is what has happened in cities for centuries.

Piers Taylor, Invisible Studio
This is Bonkers! No doubt that terrace houses can be fantastic - but we need to be reusing buildings AND building densely. 60 per cent of the embodied energy of a framed building like a high rise is in its substructure, frame and floor plates which can effectively last for ever. Keep this aspect of the tower blocks and refit the rest - can continue doing this every 60 years indefinitely. It is absolutely potty to knock them down and start again

Chris Williamson, Weston Williamson
The terraced streets Kensington and Chelsea appear to have the highest densities so there is some sense in developing contemporary solutions using that model.

Andrew Beharrell, Pollard Thomas Edwards

It is good to read that the Policy Exchange is recommending precisely the kind of housing regeneration which Pollard Thomas Edwards architects, our clients and many other organisations have been carrying out for nearly 40 years – ever since the first post-war estates started to ‘fail’ in the early 1970s. The think-tank’s proposals are not news – they are established best practice – but if this helps to persuade politicians to see the light then all the better.

It is also important to challenge some current high-profile ‘regeneration’ schemes, which include new high-rise buildings for disadvantaged families. There is extreme pressure to increase density in order to raise cross-subsidy and replace disappearing grant funding: this means that the hard-earned lessons of the past are being forgotten, and the slums of tomorrow are lurking behind the glossy CGI images.

However, we do need to put to bed some simplistic myths:

1.       Nobody likes living in tower blocks. True, high-rise living is often a disaster for poorer families. However, we have carried out tower-block modernisation programmes for older residents, who love the privacy, views, security and sense of community they enjoy in a well-managed tower. As for the private market…the fact that wealthy people will pay a significant premium for each increment in floor level speaks for itself.

2.       Houses on streets can achieve the same density as tower blocks. Well, yes up to a point. Our practice specialises in achieving high densities without high-rise: intricate street patterns, town houses, duplexes and four to seven-storey ‘mansion blocks’ can achieve remarkably high densities while providing great homes with gardens and local parks. Street houses are also very adaptable to different types of occupier and to change over time – just look at the durability of London’s historic housing stock.

Conversely, tall blocks surrounded by acres of car-parking and neglected open space can be a very inefficient use of land. However, you cannot generalise: tight clusters of towers are going to achieve unbeatable densities and can work in some circumstances – look at Hong King, Manhattan and even the Isle of Dogs.

3.       Bad design causes social problems and good design can solve them. Architects like to think that design is everything, and it’s certainly true that the built environment influences, for better or worse, how people behave: the layout of many post-war housing estates has facilitated crime and social alienation. However, successful places require a sensitive balance between occupancy, management and design. The great thing about street houses is that they work for everyone and require comparatively little management: the higher you go the more careful you need to be about who are the occupiers and the more you need to invest in active management.

 

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