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Post-war estate regeneration: Improvement over replacement

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Europe holds important lessons in regenerating post-war housing estates, writes Ellis Woodman in an extract from Exemplar Housing Estate Regeneration in Europe

Ellis Woodman - February 2015

In a recent interview, architect and urbanist Hans Kollhoff was asked for his views on the refurbishment of the Netherlands’ post-war housing estates. ‘I wouldn’t invest another cent in them,’ he said. ‘The city and good urban architecture are solid. They’re built for eternity. It’s ridiculous to stretch the lifespan of those failed blocks of flats another 10 or 20 years by sticking a bit more insulation in the elevations.

Those buildings are totally worthless.’ Startling as this blanket dismissal of a whole era of well-intentioned architectural production may be, Kollhoff was far from the first to present it. As far back as the 1970s, Charles Jencks identified the demolition of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing estate (1) in St Louis, Missouri – less than 20 years after its construction – as conclusive proof of modern architecture’s failure to provide a model for mass housing. ‘Previously [the estate] had been vandalised, mutilated and defaced by its black inhabitants,’ he wrote, ‘and although millions of dollars were pumped back, trying to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting), it was finally put out of its misery. Boom, boom, boom.’

These doubts were shared, even by some of the architects who were most influential on the development of housing in the post-war years. In a 1970 interview about the design of their then under construction Robin Hood Gardens estate in east London (2), Alison and Peter Smithson voiced distress at the vandalism their work had suffered prior to its completion. Alison went so far as to question the very premise of state-sponsored housing provision, noting: ‘It may be that we should only be asked to repair the roofs and add the odd bathroom to the old industrial houses, and leave people where they are to smash it up in complete abandon and happiness so that no one has to worry about it any more.’ The charge sheet against housing projects of the post-war era extends across their technical, urban and social deficiencies – failings that, in numerous cases, it would be impossible to dispute.

Political developments have further contributed to their demonisation. In countries like France and the Netherlands they are widely viewed as the physical embodiment of failed immigration policies, their lack of integration with the structure and appearance of the historic city mirroring a perceived rupture in society. Meanwhile, in Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s liberalisation of the housing market drastically reframed local authorities’ sense of their responsibilities to these developments. After decades of inadequate maintenance by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Robin Hood Gardens now awaits demolition, its population set to be rehoused as part of a deal with the private sector, predicated on a significant increase in the site’s density.

Faced with such a legacy, the pursuit of the common good and the logic of the balance sheet might both seem to point to comprehensive reconstruction as the only way forward.

But are there not other considerations that demand to be weighed in the balance? The environmental cost of destroying a project that has stood for scarcely four decades, for example, or the social impact of dissolving a now well established community. The architectural merits of such projects surely also deserve a more measured assessment than the likes of Kollhoff and Jencks have been prepared to extend them. The work of the period is not without its shortcomings but there is much of quality and still more that might be enhanced through intervention.

An argument for the value of refurbishment over redevelopment lay at the heart of Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal’s PLUS, a 2004 study commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. In opposition to a national policy then guiding the replacement of the post-war banlieues with the development of reduced height and density, the authors made the case that refurbishment strategies could be delivered for less expense, while transforming the existing building stock’s space standards, environmental performance and appearance.

‘It is ridiculous to stretch the lifespan of those failed blocks of flats’

Opening with an unequivocal statement of intent – ‘Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform and reuse!’ – PLUS argued that for the €167,000 the state was then allocating for the demolition and rebuilding of apartments, it was possible to redesign, expand and upgrade between two and three units of comparable size. The report gave rise to an invited competition to test its findings on the Tour Bois le Prêtre (3) – a characteristic 1960s high-rise building located on the periphery of Paris. Druot, Lacaton and Vassal went on to win the competition. Completed in 2011, this project involved the replacement of the tower’s existing facade with a new envelope comprising three layers of enclosure. First, the building’s meanly dimensioned uPVC windows – the product of an earlier refurbishment undertaken in the 1980s – were exchanged for full-height, sliding, double-glazed doors.

Le tour Bois le Pretre by Frederic Druot, Anne-Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal

Then the building was encased in a structurally independent prefabricated steel structure, extending the floorplate by 3m on each facade. The inner 2m of this bolt-on comprises a winter garden, defined by a secondary enclosure of single glazed and polycarbonate sliding doors, while the final metre is given over to a balcony protected by a glass balustrade. Crucially, the phased nature of the works allowed residents to remain in occupation throughout construction. The dividends were many and considerable. Bringing glazing to the floor improved the penetration of daylight into the apartments and enabled the elevated views towards the city to be exploited to better effect.

Meanwhile, residents’ heating bills were reduced by 50 per cent – a saving that largely offset the small increase in rent that followed the works – while the building’s formerly dowdy appearance was transformed beyond recognition. The principal benefit, however, was the provision of additional space. In the case of the apartments occupying the corner of the block, this increase more than doubled the floor area.

These more generous dimensions enabled the removal of partition walls and the creation of multiple means of accessing rooms. Accommodation that had been originally conceived in strictly Existenzminimum terms was suddenly invested with a sense of luxury and even glamour. What’s more, the strategy’s cost benefits exceeded those anticipated by the architects when they had published PLUS – the wholesale replacement of one apartment equated with the cost of extending and refurbishing between three and four units under their approach.

The practice’s achievement quickly attracted the attention of mayors across France, leading to commissions for refurbishment projects of still-larger scale. On completion this year, its remodelling of 530 dwellings ranged across three blocks in Bordeaux will represent the most substantial application of the strategy to date.

While Druot, Lacaton and Vassal’s research has focused on the enhancement of the individual residential unit, the problems of many estates – not least Robin Hood Gardens – lie as much in the definition of their public areas. Ommoord (4), a residential neighbourhood built in the 1960s on the periphery of Rotterdam, is another example. Designed by Lotte Stam-Beese (the wife of celebrated Dutch architect Mart Stam), it occupies a parkland setting and is composed primarily of monumental slab blocks of inflected plan, each accommodating nine storeys of gallery-accessed apartments. In 2000, the housing association that manages the site asked Biq, the

architect, to develop a scheme for the remodelling of four of these blocks, which it then realised in stages over the course of nine years. The upgrading of the apartments’ technical performance was one of this project’s ambitions but another that was no less central was the resolution of the increasingly fraught relationships between

residents. As the architect explains: ‘The departure of the stable population of pioneers and the influx of new tenants with different skin colours might be a completely normal manifestation of urbanisation, but for older residents it is a threat to their ways – new families parking their children’s bicycles on the access gallery is their worst nightmare.’

The client’s desire to address these tensions meant the architect’s task became as much an exercise in political negotiation as design: the scheme emerged out of a consultation process that Biq conceived and managed with the buildings’ 2,000-plus residents. The result was a more socially compartmentalized distribution of tenures, with two blocks being designated for the exclusive use of older residents. The continuous gallery access in the other blocks was divided up into smaller lengths, supported by the introduction of additional stair and lift towers in steel and glass. The buildings’ encounter with the ground was also addressed: garages were replaced by a deeper and more powerfully articulated plinth, which was occupied by care facilities in the buildings designated for older residents and additional garden facing apartments in the others. As in Druot, Lacaton and Vassal’s work, the extensive use of prefabrication served both as a means of achieving economies of scale and of minimising disruption to residents.

The redesignation of blocks to accommodate particular demographics meant not all residents were able to remain in place but the commitment to upgrade the buildings for the continued use of the existing community stands in marked contrast to the

process undertaken at Sheffield’s Park Hill (5), where refurbishment was achieved only after the substantial privatisation of the 1960s estate.

The architect’s task became as much an exercise in political negotiation as design

‘When I was still at school [in the 1970s],’ Rick Wessels of Biq said, ‘I had a hope that one day Rotterdam’s urban reconstruction project would be finished and that then I could really enjoy it. Later, when we were in college, a book was published called

The City is Never Completed, which documented the process of urban change in Rotterdam over the course of the past decade. It included some very rough

photographs of urban decay and I began to understand that the city was not something that will reach an end; it is a process that you have to keep working on.’

A criticism often levelled at the generation of post-war architects is that they failed to appreciate that their work formed part of a historical continuity. The challenges of post-war reconstruction and their desire to forge a new social order led many to develop proposals predicated on a fundamental rupture with the past. Yet, in our present rush to sweep away the often problematic legacy that this generation has left us, do we not risk making precisely the same mistake again?

Undoubtedly, there are instances in which demolition can enable the creation of a richer urban environment than both the imagination and resources of the post-war generation proved capable of delivering. The two social housing blocks Peter Märkli completed in 2014 on Gutstrasse in Zurich, for example, represent a welcome replacement of the low-rise terraces that previously occupied their site. Of seven storeys, the new blocks each extend for more than 100m in length: an arrangement that acknowledges Gutstrasse’s status as a significant route into central Zurich altogether more convincingly. In a city like London, which faces the task of accommodating as many as one million new residents over the coming decade, there are sure to be many similar cases in which building anew offers an opportunity to clarify the city’s urban form. It is crucial, however, that we stop thinking of demolition as the default option when presented with the challenge of addressing our ageing Modernist building stock. The brave future of which the generation of postwar architects dreamt may now be a compromised and conflicted reality but it remains rich in social, environmental and cultural capital. We should not dispense of it lightly.

This essay was first published in Exemplar Housing Estate Regeneration in Europe – a collaboration between the Architects’ Journal and Karakusevic Carson Architects

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