We have all looked out of our windows on a car journey or on the train to school, and every so often have found ourselves looking up in awe at one of these daunting and towering blocks of concrete, known by city planners as a multi-storey building. Upon this sight, we perhaps have then wondered why council housing could not simply take the form of a neat, quiet, and gently ordered row of houses and flats in place of the eyesore, but reality soon kicks in and reminds us that such an ideal is home only to some model village and could not possibly come about under today’s needs and circumstances. The small issue I have with this thinking is that this reality is anything but the truth.
Not only is the case for social housing to be in the form of actual houses, as opposed to tower blocks, persuasive on the obvious aesthetic grounds (that we should build for beauty instead of blind utility), but it is as clear that such a system is practically superior. On all fronts actual and beautiful housing defeats the tower block, whether it be for population density, the housing crisis, financial efficiency, and indeed for the health of citizens and the environment.
The case for beauty in buildings is sometimes a forgotten one, dismissed on false charges for being out of touch, elitist or void of practical concerns. Again, this reality cannot be further from the truth. Beauty can be valued both for its intrinsic quality and for its utility, such as its evident benefit on the mental health of those who are surrounded by it. A rich oil painting or a fragrant flower are both considered beautiful because one sees no other use for it than itself. In that moment when one is looking at the painting, or smelling the flower, they value it simply for being itself, i.e. valued for its intrinsic quality.
But the beauty of architecture is that it can be valued both for its own sake and for its ulterior benefits. The delicate bridging of Hertford College over New College Lane, which somehow always conjures up the images of romantic Venice; the symmetry imbued in the Radcliffe Camera, and the neatly ordered yet naturally ordained arrangement of an Oxford college all can be gazed at and enjoyed for their own sake, whilst also creating a sphere of calm and contentment over those who are covered by it.
This phenomenon can be observed even outside the boundary of the Cowley roundabout: countless polls and interviews with residents of tower blocks confirm time and again that they would choose to live in houses on streets if they could afford to do so. Furthermore, the ugly, atomized and dehumanizing way tower blocks are built has led to many studies showing that high-rise living has contributed to residents’ feelings of depression. A striking correlation found in a recent study1 even showed the rate of loneliness rising with the actual floor level on a given building. Alongside this are the clearly increased childhood behavioural problem2 and a tendency for more crime within multi-storey buildings, since the layouts of most tower blocks comprise of one entrance door to a hundred homes, instead of the one door leading to the one home.
Residents are safe neither from crime nor from health hazards in these towers of utility, since most tower blocks happen only to have one or two fire exits for the use of hundreds, with some facing an abnormal twenty or thirty floors until they reach ground (a point that has been imprinted in our minds since the Grenfell tragedy). It is also worth noting that sometimes, only sometimes, the very walls and concrete turn against their residents and pose as their own health and safety problem (need I mention the recent RAAC problems). There is something intrinsic about these blocks, and it is not beauty.
But there is a solution, one that is not plucked from some utopian model village, but rather one which is frightfully simple. To say that estates and tower blocks were first erected in the 1950s under the simple pretext to increase population density and to house an ever-larger population is a myth. It was and indeed still is the will of town planners and councils, but clearly not the will of the people. Not only is beauty valued in terraced housing, but so too is its utility in city planning, as it is abundantly clear that the creation of more streets and terraced housing surpasses the population density which the estates and tower blocks offer, both in theory and in practice.
…the beauty of architecture is that it can be valued both for its own sake and for its ulterior benefits”
The think tank Create Streets has produced all sorts of reports on this, defending the view that ‘we can improve current densities while reinstating the traditional street pattern’ (Policy Exchange Create Streets report, p60). Terraced housing has proven to be the most efficient model for population density, in contrast to its wasteful alternative. It is clear to see that the replacement of tower blocks and estates in exchange for more streets would serve the increasing population of London and the UK, and indeed help solve the housing crisis, by matching the ever-growing demand for houses with a massively increased supply. Figure A, given by the widely cited Andrew Wright Associates, acts as a very useful model to show how the average UK tower block matches modest terraced housing, of medium and low-rise coverage respectively, in population density (all models are at a measurement of 75 units per hectare, the standard unit of population density). Countless studies in addition to this have shown the triumph of terraced housing in this realm, one report from the other place concluding that “high density housing can be provided in built form similar to the scale of the larger Georgian terraces… acceptable developments of this type can be designed within a range of densities generally between 300 and 400 habitable rooms per hectare”, equating to 100-175 units per hectare.
Terraced housing also emerges victorious for cheap and efficient city planning. The need for vacuous open spaces in estates, which are rendered futile when a common is almost always nearby, along with the wheelchair access and bike storage (compulsory for tower blocks even if such a feature is not needed for all residents) is removed when reduced to the individual housing level. It is not far off the imagination to see how an estate or tower block, after its demolishing (something which is now heavily restricted across the board) and after its aforementioned byproducts have been recycled, could easily be transformed into a street or square lined neatly with houses and flats, of up to five storeys with slender width and modestly sized private gardens. Not only would this match or even increase the amount of residents one could house in a given area, but the creation of streets and private gardens would allow for the growth of nature.
Some critics who are self-admittedly in touch with reality will say such a utopian ideal is far removed from society as it will take more time, resources and money than is realistic in today’s economy, as opposed to the cheaper and necessary alternative of building blocks. A cursory look at the figures would inform this person that the opposite is in fact true: streets and terraced housing are cheaper to build and maintain, and provide a better long-term return. The former can be proven with this economics A Level dictum: building high is expensive. A study from UCL has shown that per square metre, a fifty-storey building was 60% more expensive than a five storey one (my personal favourite storey limit on a building). The latter claim can be proven by the simple fact that houses can be built to last for centuries, as Georgian and Victorian housing proves, with carefully laid out streets connecting one to the rest of a city being a financial incentive in itself. Instead, the average life expectancy of a tower block is no more than fifty years.
It really is not idealistic to hope for the return of a terrace in place of a tower, a curated garden in place of a ‘communal open space’, a mews in place of an abandoned yard, or even a boulevard studded with trees in place of a wasteful and spacious block. All of these scenarios are not a utopia, but rather require a change in the way we approach social housing. Quite simply, it can’t really be called social housing if houses are not being built.
1 Gifford, R. (2007), “The Consequence of living in High-Rise Buildings” in Architectural Science Review, vol. 50. pp. 6–7. 72 2 Saegert, S. (1982) ‘Environments and children’s’ mental health: residential density and low income children’ in Baum, A. & Singer, J. Handbook of psychology and health, pp. 247–271
Gifford, R. (2007), “The Consequence of living in High-Rise Buildings” in Architectural Science Review, vol. 50. pp. 6–7. 72 Richman, N. (1977), ‘Behaviour problems in pre-school children’ in British Journal of Psychiatry. 131, pp.53–58 Saegert, S. (1982) ‘Environments and children’s’ mental health: residential density and low income children’ in Baum, A. & Singer, J. Handbook of psychology and health, pp. 247–271 Gifford, R. (2007), “The Consequence of living in High-Rise Buildings” in Architectural Science Review, vol. 50. p 8., p. 10. Kunze, J. (2005), The revival of high-rise living in the UK and the issue of cost and revenue in relation to height, University College London, p. 27.
Image credit:Sam Bowman for Create Streets
Image description: A street with terraced housing, trees, bikes and life