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From the AJ archive: Broadwater Farm riots, London, 1985

Archive: These articles show how the AJ and the RIBA reacted to the Broadwater Farm riots which rocked London in 1985

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Not working on Maggie’s farm

The siege of the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham underlined, as if it were necessary, the fact that architects will never be freed from blame for the massive housing programmes of the post-war years. Ronan Point, the £5 billion repair bill for non-traditional housing, the dynamiting of unlettable tower blocks, and now rioting and murder on the pedestrian walkways are all reminders of the years when 500 000 houses seemed an attainable annual target, and prefabrication a reasonable means of hitting it

It is of course expedient to blame the buildings and their designers instead of the intractable social drama that is being acted out within them, but that expedient is costing the architectural profession very dear. Why then do architects acquiesce in the deception? To his credit RIBA president Larry Rolland this time issued a statement putting the blame where it belongs, on years of inadequate maintenance and a disastrous council letting policy, but still there is no detailed defence of the design of Broadwater Farm or the hundreds of estates like it.

Many architects, it is true, simply do not believe that these Utopian structures can be defended. They take refuge in the knowledge, transparently obvious to them, that the hearts and minds of the profession are now won over to altogether more modest and humane principles of design. But the public does not take this view. Ignorant commentators and skilful politicians have succeeded in planting the uncomplicated idea that architects are to blame for the fact that one-third of our households occupy crumbling machines for living in and only half luxuriate in appreciating investment.

It is a misconception that returns again and again to haunt a profession that persistently refuses to mount a proper, and justifiable, defence of its work in the great housing years. Without such a defence the misconception can only flourish and grow: there will always be a defects scandal or a riot to bring to the surface again.

This is a matter woefully misunderstood by the leaders of the profession; men who have in the last few years financed an orgy of public relations regularly brought to nought by next week’s or next month’s headlmes. In the mass of theorising, experiment and practical experience of human habitation that took place during the heyday of the Modern Movement-when the very housing now deemed a disgrace was an object of pilgrimage for overseas visitors-there was something of value that can be cited now.

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RIBA BLAMES COUNCIL FOR RIOT ‘GHETTO’

As recriminations flew back and forth in the wake of the Tottenham riot, the RIBA stepped into the crossfire to defend the design of the battle-scarred housing estate where it all happened.

The debate continues on events surrounding the riot at Broadwater Farm council estate in north London last week, with the basic design criticised by residents and strongly defended by the RIBA. The Institute sought to draw fire away from the visual features of the borough architect-designed complex and focused instead on what it called Haringey council’s ‘dangerous policy of using the estate as a gathering ground for its problem tenants’.

In a statement prepared by the new Institute public affairs director, David Atwell, and president Larry Rolland, the RIBA blamed a ‘ghetto-like atmosphere, where only 10 per cent of the tenants pay full rents’, for feelings of discontent on the estate. ‘Faced with such a low income from the estate it is understandable that the local rate capped borough fails to meet its obligations in terms of capital resources put back into that estate,’ the Institute said. Part of the massive estate won a DOE housing award in 1971, which praised borough architect C. E. Jacob and his successor Alan Weitzel.

Shortly after completion, though, the assessors noted that ‘the initial impact was less than satisfactory in that good design features provided by the architect had almost been obscured by lack of maintenance’. The scheme, at Millicent Fawcett Court on the outskirts of Broadwater Farm, had suffered ‘a lack of upkeep to landscape areas which had been very well laid out with much amenity provided but through a lack of attention tended to look like a piece of scrubland. Most of the estate was designed in the mid ’60s and was, according to one of the job architects the big peach in the property bank of the borough’.

Unlike other, smaller infill sites, Broadwater Farm presented a virgin greenfield plot. Many of the basic design features sprang from surveyors’ fears that the culverted River Moselle which runs through the site was prone to flooding. Much of the central area, known locally as the Cauldron, is surrounded by walkways raised on concrete stilts, with garages only at ground level.

There were complaints at the time of poor finishes and overstretched building techniques. Residents have regularly complained about rainwater penetration. Architect Sylvester Bone, who worked in the borough architect’s department during the Broadwater construction, said there were arguments about the stilts solution. ‘Some of us felt the assumption that the area was liable to flooding was wrong,’ he said. ‘But in the end we were allowed only uninhabitable things at ground level-wasteland and cars.’

The creation of dark arches was one of the reasons claimed by local residents for the high incidence of muggings and vandalism on the estate. There is now no separate architect’s department at Haringey and no borough architect. The council amalgamated a technical services department a few years ago. Press enquiries to the department were being fielded last week to the council’s press office, which would make no comment.

Controversial council leader Bernie Grant, who at first refused to condemn the murder of a policeman, was not available for comment, but an aide said he was sure local people would be ‘very surprised’ at any defence of the original design. The last few years have seen several community initiatives, including a shop unit conversion to a youth club and the creation of a nursery school, opened by the Princess of Wales. ‘But sadly little has been achieved in improving the built environment’ says the RIBA. ‘Given the standards of maintenance and security in such an urban community as the Barbican, it is plain that these standards could, and should, be applied to similarly high density developments as Broadwater Farm.

And as the inquiry continues into the death of a woman during a police search, which prefaced the riot, there was a new argument over who exploited the layout of the estate during the disturbances. According to news reports, police had sealed off access points to contain the rioters. But community leaders were saying last week that local youths blocked access ways in a siege of the estate.

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DOE CONSULTANT ATTACKS ROLLAND
An angry Government consultant spoke out last week against claims by the RIBA president that the riot hit Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, London, was a poorly-maintained ‘ghetto’.

‘Larry Rolland is talking garbage,’ said Trisha Zipfel , a consultant working for the DOE’s priority estates project. ‘For the last two years people from all over the country have been visiting the estate, which is widely regarded in housing circles as a model for localised services and management by tenants of day to day affairs.’ She claims that ‘massive architectural input’ is planned for the Haringey Borough Council estate to right some of the wrongs of the original design, which has been defended by Rolland and condemned by his community architecture colleagues.

‘Haringey Council wants to set up a team of architects and it has already put together a plan to turn some of the semi-underground spaces into workspaces for small businesses. The DOE has offered architectural advice.’ Architects, she said, were simply looking for another scapegoat, ‘It’s totally absurd for anyone in their right mind to defend the design.

The whole scale is vast. It would be fine next to the Festival Hall , but it’s stuck in the middle of all these dinky Victorian streets with their neat houses with jasmine and honeysuckle in the window.’ Work done by the joint local authority/tenants panel had brought a great uplift of morale on the estate prior to the riot, claims Zipfel. ‘Before 1982, burgla ries were running at an average of 20 a month.

Last year we went for six months without a single one. There are very few muggings and I’ve never heard of a rape.’ The estate neighbourhood office oversaw a dramatic improvement in the living standards of tenants since 1982, she said . ‘The repairs team from Broadwater is better than anywhere else in the whole borough-87 per cent of repairs are being- done to tenants charter deadlines, compared with 56 per cent in the rest of Haringey.’ Voids had been reduced from 60 empty flats prior to 1982 to a current average e of 15. But, admits Zipfel, ‘A lot of people still have to be convinced about the place because it’s nearly always had a bad press. ’ About 200 families are now on the approved transfer list.

The effects of improved morale could be seen even in the aftermath of the riot last month. ‘Twenty-four hours later the place had been cleaned up,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t have known there had been a riot there, apart from the hundreds of police and the burnt-out cars.’ Design criticisms have centred on the dark ground level spaces created by concrete stilts which raise walkways above the ground, which was thought to be prone to flooding when the project was first conceived 20 years ago. A public spotlight on the estate after the riot sent architects quickly darting to opposing camps.

Larry Rolland led the defence of architects and in a statement blamed Haringey Council’s ‘dangerous policy of using the estate as a gathering ground for its problem tenants.’ Zipfel denies this, claiming- that the core of criminally active troublemakers is small and that ‘police make more visits to the estate about out of date TV licences than anything else.’ The RIBA statement did concede that ‘much has been done at Broadwater Farm over the last few years in terms of improving tenant and community relations, but sadly little has been achieved in improving the built environment.’

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