Ten tower block tales

1. The Lawns, Harlow.
The Lawns was Britain's first 'point block' – a form of tower block that had become popular in the 1940s. In a point block all of the flats in the tower are accessed off a central core of lifts and stairs. This modest block of single bedroom flats was designed by Frederick Gibberd, the architect-planner of Harlow New Town, and opened in 1951 in time to be given a certificate by the Festival of Britain. He designed it as a vertical landmark for the town, like a church spire. Two months after it was opened, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, made his thoughts known on the state of town planning in the UK: ‘He is a keen advocate of blocks of flats in the country,’ reported the Observer, ‘such as that just finished at Harlow, pointing out their advantages for the newly married or the old couple’. It's listed now, and kept in tip-top shape.
Picture (c) Harlow Museum and Science Alive
 

2. Churchill Gardens, Pimlico.
Churchill Gardens is not just one but 32 tower blocks in varying styles designed by Philip Powell and Jacko Moya, who would also design the Skylon for the Festival of Britain. They were still in their twenties when they won the competition to design the scheme in 1946, to transforms a bomb-damaged wasteland. The massive, handsome, Thames-side estate wasn't finished until 1962 and is still pristine today.
3. Hutchesontown-Gorbals Area B (or Gorbals Riverside), Glasgow
These four tower blocks and accompanying low-rise maisonettes, shops and pub were designed by the firm RMJM, run by celebrated Scottish architect Robert Matthew, former chief architect at the London County Council. They were designed in 1958 and completed in the early 60s, as just one part of the massive demolition and redevelopment of the Gorbals, which spread to 5 different huge schemes. These were the first tower blocks in the Gorbals. Michael Noble, Secretary of State for Scotland, opened them in November 1962 with the promise that ‘here the world is going to see the real “Miracle in the Gorbals.”’ As the Glasgow Herald reported, his speech was followed by ‘a burst of applause from those watching, cheering when the interior lights were switched on and startled comments when a maroon-type rocket was fired with a loud report and a falling cluster of stars’. The whole estate has recently been renovated and tarted up.
4. Hutchesontown-Gorbals Area C, (or Queen Elizabeth Flats), Glasgow
Successful as Robert Matthew's flats have been, the most famous of the Gorbals high rise blocks were those designed by flamboyant Scottish architect Basil Spence. Sat in the area next to Matthew's blocks, the Queenies took an age to build due to their complex concrete construction, and took their inspiration, like so many blocks in Britain at the time, from Le Corbusier's vast concrete Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles. At first residents loved the all-mod-cons flats with their verandas in the sky. One former resident I interviewed compared them to Buckingham Palace, a flying saucer to Mars, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and mardi gras. But lack of management would eventually do for them, resulting in everything from terrible damp problems to a crime wave. They were demolished in the 1990s.
Picture (c) Simon Chirgwin
5. Cruddas Park, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne
T. Dan Smith was the leader of the Labour council in Newcastle from the late 50s and was determined to tackle the city's terrible slum problems with some quick fixes – and Cruddas Park was his first success. Initially eight point blocks were built on a slope overlooking the Tyne and Scotswood Road from old plans that had been knocking about the office for some time. By the 1980s these celebrated flats were, like the Queenies in Glasgow, besieged with social problems, particularly stemming from heroin and glue addiction. After years of decline three of these original towers have been saved while the other five have been razed, and they've been completely restyled and remodelled as Riverside Dene, luxury private apartments, though they can still be seen in their original state in the closing credits of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, framed by the doorway of an otherwise demolished Victorian tenement. Picture (c) Jim Pickett

6. The Tower, Cwmbran
Like Harlow, Cwmbran was one of the earliest New Towns, but it took until the 1960s for it to get a tower block, which, at 23 storeys, is over twice the height of pioneering point block The Lawns. The Tower was built next to the new town centre, and its distinguishing feature is a flue that runs all the way up one side: the chimney for the central area's entire district heating scheme.
Picture (c) Cold War Warrior.

7. Shakespeare, Lauderdale and Cromwell Towers, Barbican, London
The Barbican, site of the London Blitz, took years to rebuild. And when it finally was, from plans drawn up in the late 50s by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, one of their main objectives was to bring housing back into the City of London, whose residents post-WWII had fallen to less than 100. Much of the Barbican site is taken up by flats, most of them low rise, but the three towers – Shakespeare, Lauderdale and Cromwell – dominate the area. At 42 storeys they were the tallest residential towers in Europe when they were finished in the late 1960s, and the rugged concrete facade was created by pick-hammering the surface by hand.

8. Red Road, Glasgow
No city planners embraced the high rise like those in Glasgow. There were blocks as part of grand comprehensive redevelopment schemes, blocks plonked willy-nilly wherever there were gaps, but no other blocks quite like the Red Road flats. Rivalling the Barbican towers in height, these steel-framed giants were designed by city architect Sam Bunton on a scale previously unseen in the city. Over the years the flats became almost a separate town within the city, housing some of the very poorest people in Britain. Following decades of bad press and tragic tales, the blocks are slowly being demolished, not an easy task because of the amount of asbestos used in construction.

9. Bewick Court, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne
The early 70s saw the construction of proto-yuppie flats in the UK, and 21-storey Bewick Court was a great example. Built in the city centre in Newcastle over a busy road, they were designed to provide luxury accommodation to what property programmes in the noughties would routinely call 'young urban professionals'. The original residents told The Journal in 1971 such amazing comments as 'I don’t want to know about Mrs Smith’s cake that hasn’t come out of the oven properly. If I bought some fish and chips but had no salt I’d go without. I wouldn’t borrow it off neighbours. I want to keep myself to myself' and ‘I could imagine that living here can be quite horrible, but I’ve escaped what I wanted to escape from.’ These days it's been horribly clad and its luxury flat days are behind it.
10. Balfron Tower, London
In many ways the story of Balfron Tower is the opposite to that of Bewick Court. Designed by Ernő Goldfinger in the mid-sixties as council housing as part of an estate in Poplar, 27 storey Balfron Tower has recently seen most of its residents turfed out before it's refurbished as luxury flats. As with the refurbished Park Hill in Sheffield it's bad news for council residents, as those design-savvy Ernő lived there briefly in 1968, and moved out hours before a badly-constructed system built block down the road in Canning Town, called Ronan Court, partially collapsed after a gas explosion – an incident that helped spell the end of the high rise in Britain, at least until the rise of Docklands.




Comments

  1. The 3 blocks of flats on the Likely Lads credits are not at Cruddas Park but a few hundred yards away on Westgate Road - Westgate Court, Vallum Court and Todds Nook.

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