On the radio this morning the subject of high-rise housing was being discussed, the hook being the new film adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise.
Tower blocks are widely considered to be a disaster today; they took largely working-class populations out of often sub-standard (but potentially very nice) terraced houses into technically better housing that was in reality often isolated and unsafe.
Yet, despite this hindsight, I feel we’re making something of the same mistake again, with the current rush for skyscrapers across the city – with some 435 high-rise buildings now approved. Some of those being proposed and planned, such as the Paddington Pole and the new tower in Notting Hill Gate, lack any sympathy with the surrounding buildings. (Notting Hill Gate already has a lot of ugly post-war buildings that ruin the surrounding, beautiful Victorian architecture, but it doesn’t need more).
I concede this is an issue of personal taste, and some people want a city full of modern-looking towers; I just happen to be among the clear majority who prefer traditional buildings.
Something went wrong with architecture in the 20th century, for reasons I do not know; the problems seemed to begin in the Victorian period but after the 1930s, they became worse. I suspect the decline of religion had something to with it.
Personally I'm not even opposed to skyscrapers, although the early ones were overwhelmingly more beautiful. I just cannot see why London's mayor does not restrict their construction to particular areas, namely the Isle of Dogs, rather than allowing them to spread across London, dominating other peoples' visions of the city in a way that is intrusive and makes it an uglier, lonelier place.
It brings to mind The Rare Old Times, a mournful Irish tune I like to listen to when drunk and filled with self-pity, which tells the story of a working-class Dubliner who, through the fog of booze, recalls how the town of his youth has changed beyond recognition, now filled with 'new glass cages'.
Terraces are also easier to manage; one of the reasons that high-rise worked better in Manhattan than Glasgow is that they are expensive to maintain and so, if the residents don’t have the money to maintain them, they soon become squalid.
Of course London needs more buildings, since housing costs have vastly increased in relation to earnings, but a key lesson of history is that tower blocks and skyscrapers are not even the most efficient way of increasing capacity. As the campaign groups Create Streets point out, high-rise buildings have lower density than the traditional terraced style found in Kensington and Chelsea. The proliferation of high-rise blocks in London in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as being an aesthetic crime against humanity, actually decreased the population of London. In the Create Streets report, Professor Yolande Barnes concludes that, ‘the era of very high house-building during the 1950s-70s resulted in a managed decline in housing density which both responded to and accelerated the population exodus…. it has proved to be an inappropriate response in the light of subsequent, fast-rising population.’
So we could fit more homes in and make them cheaper if our city looked more like a Richard Curtis film, rather than what it is currently on course to become, the atomised, dystopian hell hole LA of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.