Fact or Fiction? Tower blocks
Published by Julien Tremblin for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Featured
Fact or Fiction? Tower blocks
Despite a chequered history and questionable benefits, high-rise living is very much back in vogue. Here we give you seven ‘facts’ about residential tower blocks and ask you to work out which one is the tall story.
1. Britain's first tower block
Residential tower blocks were not commonplace in Britain until after the Second World War when the acute housing crisis facing the country saw them introduced as a cheap and effective way to accommodate thousands of people who would otherwise be left on the streets. In hindsight, given the quality of construction materials, the lack of space and the huge number of health and safety risks involved with the type of high-rises built during the 1950s and ‘60s, living in a cardboard box was probably a safer – and more comfortable - bet. The first residential block to be built in this country was ‘The Lawn’ in Harlow, Essex, in 1951. It is now a Grade II listed building and has iconic status among architecture buffs but you still wouldn’t want to live in it.
2. Streets in the Sky
The term ‘Streets in the Sky’ was used to describe a style of architecture that emerged in Britain during the 1960s and ‘70s, that sought to create ‘neighbourhoods’ within a tower block environment. Ambitious, cutting edge and utterly delusional, a famous early example was the Park Hill flats in Sheffield – now the largest listed building in the world. Generally built to replace run-down terrace housing, Streets in the Sky structures included modern-style apartments (featuring inside toilets), shops and community facilities, with the idea being that residents could wander the corridors and chat to neighbours while children played. All well and good in principle but the harsh reality was very different as controversial British architects Alison and Peter Smithson found out with their Robin Hood Gardens scheme in Poplar, East London. Plagued by structural flaws and a spiralling crime rate, the estate was derided as an example of extreme architectural folly rather than a role model for progressive housing as the Smithsons intended.
3. Ronan Point
While Robin Hood Gardens had its problems, it was nothing compared to Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block in Newham, east London, which suffered a partial collapse in May 1968 when a gas explosion demolished a load-bearing wall. Four people were killed in the incident, and 17 were injured. Seen as a cheap, affordable and prefabricated housing solution for residents of West Ham and Canning Town, the tower was built using the ‘Large Panel System’ technique which involved casting large concrete prefabricated sections off-site, then bolting them together to construct the building. It is thought that a failure to join the panels correctly contributed to Ronan Point’s collapse. The gas explosion was caused by 56-year-old cake decorator Ivy Hodge when she tried to light her stove for a morning cup of tea. Amazingly she was not among those killed. Despite the extent of the damage, Ronan Point was partly rebuilt after the explosion, using strengthened joints. Nonetheless, public confidence in tower block safety had been irreparably shaken and many were demolished during the 1980s and ‘90s to make way for low rise housing. Ronan Point itself was flattened in 1986.
4. High-rise parking solution
A high-rise tower that allows residents to park their cars right outside their flats could soon be a familiar sight in congested cities such as London. An exemplar tower costing £362 million is currently being built by Porsche Design in Miami. The 132 flats all have their own allocated parking spaces – even those on the top floor. The scheme has been made possible by a special car-sized glass lift.
5. ‘Only Fools’ tower in Christmas lights controversy
Bristol City Council angered residents of Whitemead House tower block when it switched off their Christmas lights for safety reasons when it discovered dodgy wiring during a routine visit. While the story itself was unexceptional, it was made more interesting due to the fact that the Whitemead flats starred as 'Nelson Mandela House' in the classic BBC comedy series 'Only Fools and Horses'.
6. Lakanal House tragedy
In July 2009, six people died and more than 20 were injured when a fire swept through Lakanal House, a 1950s tower block in Camberwell, London. Despite a major investigation into the cause of the blaze, which started in a flat on the ninth floor, details have still not fully emerged nearly two years later. At the time, the Communities and Local Government said the block’s unusual ‘scissor design’ was a factor in the way the blaze spread and wrote to all social housing providers asking them to investigate any buildings with a similar layout. At the time the Tenant Services Authority (TSA) mooted the establishment of a national tower block register, an idea later ditched when the Coalition Government announced its intention to abolish the TSA and switch to co-regulation, putting the onus on individual landlords to ensure their housing stock was up to scratch.
7. 'Supertower' to solve London housing crisis
Is a mile-high 'supertower' that can provide homes for up to 100,000 people really a solution to London's housing crisis. A team of architects certainly seem to think so. The 1,500ft structure has been conceived by Popular Architecture and developers Teatum and Teatum “not as a building so much as a vertical extrusion of the city". According to the rather fanciful blurb accompanying their preposterous designs, neighbourhoods would occupy a single floor – each comprising 600 people – while villages would occupy 20 floors, each with a large public space, located in the void in the middle of the tower. The 'supertower' itself is seen as a city contained in a single building, with its own parks, public spaces, schools and hospitals, and even university. To navigate the tower, residents could use the five major circulation elevators - similar in size to London Underground trains. Ultimately the concept says more about the amount of time architects have to fanny about than offering a proper solution to a very real problem.
(Scroll down for the answer)
ANSWER: Believe it or not they are all true. Despite our best efforts, even we couldn’t come up with anything as ridiculous as the London ‘supertower’ or the Miami residential car park concept.