Between the end of world war two and the beginning of the 1990s, 6,544 multi-storey blocks were built in the United Kingdom. These provided just over 400,000 high-rise homes for individuals and families in a variety of models from simple skyscraper structures to linked deck access ëstreets in the skyíand unique designs such as the Byker Wall in Newcastle. The real boom years for tower block building were between about 1953 and 1972, when the majority of housing provision in Britain was publicly funded. In 1956 the Housing Subsidies Act introduced incentives for councils to build ever higher as subsidies were increased for high-rise buildings. The trend peaked in the mid-60s, when the design of cheap system built tower blocks and new legislation which gave yet further generous grants to slum clearance and high-rise redevelopment, encouraged local councils to lavish a large part of their resources on re-locating their populations.
It is important, in the light of the Superchannel project, to remember that these new developments were initially welcomed by the residents and a 1969 report found that 90% of families preferred to live on the higher floors. They were mostly moving from cramped, infested and insanitary slums and the opportunity to have inside toilets and washrooms, central heating and space for family life must have seemed for many like an impossible wish fulfilled.
How this promising utopia fell so rapidly from favour is difficult to imagine. The tragic collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in London certainly contributed, as did the insensitivity of council department provision. As the recently established National Sustainable Tower Blocks Initiative reported:
According to Keith Jacobs and Tony Manzi of the University of Westminster tower blocks are products of a modernist culture of ìbureaucratic decision-making, involving professional control and rational organisation.î ìThese methods were adopted to ensure economies of scale and efficient allocation of resources. However, these managerial techniques were discredited as bureaucracy became identified with rigidity and unresponsiveness. Local authority housing departments were distinguished by a managerial style equated with inefficiency and paternalism.î.
Jacobs and Manzi are describing a picture from the 1950s, 60s and 70s; but this culture has been slow to die in many local authorities, and over several decades it has had an insidious effect upon the fibre of communities. Moving into tower blocks was supposed to free people of the day-to-day headaches of sorting out the problems associated with the older dilapidated back-to-backs. Everyoneís needs would be attended to on a systematic basis by the local authority. In many ways this constituted a big improvement in housing conditions. But the terms of the deal ñ that you didnít do things for yourself, the council did it all for you ñ led to an erosion of responsibility and personal investment, and of purpose, independence and confidence. When it proved impossible to maintain the efficient, scientific service systems tenants found themselves in a vulnerable position without the capacity to do much about it.
It is this capacity to ëdo something about it that a project like Superchannel inspires. Firstly, by requiring self-expression to be not only tolerated but essential to the activity of the Superchannel, the initiative generates capacities in both individuals and groups of tenants that might otherwise remain undiscovered. Secondly, the fact that the emphasis is on external broadcast rather than internal communication undermines the dependency culture that many old Labour councils cultivated in order to shore up their electoral support. A reason perhaps, why the Labour Party had no effective answer to the Thatcherite council house sales policy of the 1980s, and why public collaborative initiatives such as Superchannel can create the kinds of conditions in which privatisation does not seem such an attractive solution. Most significantly however, Superchannel can change the image of both the tower block itself and the residents - and a negative image is one of the greatest contributory factors in the tower blockís twenty year decline.
Here is another recent report on the Quality of Life in Cities
The widespread condemnation of tower blocks is frequently couched in terms of their alien nature in the British environment. Imposed on ordinary people by arrogant architects (invariably occupying historic rural mansions themselves) they are seen as one of the principal causes of the decline in urban quality of life.
The concentration on form may, however, be misleading and a reflection of the continuing failure to develop a distinctively twentieth century concept of what the British city could or should be. The fact that these blocks have become the source of such misery in the 1980s and 1990s may have little to do with their form. Poor quality construction, the use of inappropriate materials for British climatic conditions, and inadequate maintenance are probably much more important, as are social factors such as the concentration of poor and deprived households on unpopular high rise estates.
Tower blocks are not intrinsically incompatible with a good quality of life, even in Britain, but have become indelibly associated with deprivation and despair. Their demolition attracts large and enthusiastic crowds, and what follows is often an upgraded version of the terraced streets they replaced. However, experience has already shown that urban disorder, incivility and misery can be just as prevalent in low rise estates with gardens as in the high rise block. The re-creation of the visual image of the past (or its sometimes slavish conservation in those areas where it still exists) is not enough to restore a quality of life which depended on a much more complex mix of social, economic and environmental factors.
If the tower block can be redeemed in formal terms, it requires cultural shifts in attitude towards ëpoor and deprived housholdsí as well as ideas of community and the relationship between public and private space to alter the expectations of residents and onlookers or visitors to high-rise estates. SUPERFLEX, with their project, propose that part of that shift can be driven by artists and art projects that demand a reframing of artís social role and of the relationshp between artist, artwork and recipient viewer or participant. This is crucial to all their work, because they insist on their own studied neutrality in the face of demands to politicise them or suggest a kind of manifesto art for their projects. Instead they speak about tools, means to achieve objectives determined by others, though obviously tools are also designed for specific purposes.
Comparing the approach of SUPERFLEX in the 2000s with the 1950s, the era of both planned communities and radical manifesto art is illuminating. The Dutch artist and architect Constant, for instance, collaborated briefly with Guy Debord in the Situationist International and produced the following tract that must serve as a precursor for SUPERFLEX but which also defines by default a very different cultural contex
We propose creating situations, new situations, here. We count on infringing the laws that hinder the development of effective activities in life and in culture. We are at the dawn of a new era and are already attempting to sketch out the image of a happier life, of unitary urbanism (the urbanism intended to bring pleasure).
Our domain, then, is the urban nexus, the natural expression of collective creativity, capable of subsuming the creative energies that are liberated with the decline of the culture based on individualism. We are of the opinion that the traditional arts will not be able to play a role in the creation of the new ambiance in which we want to live.
We are in the process of inventing new techniques; we are examining the possibilities existing cities offer; we are making models and plans for future cities. We are conscious of the need to avail ourselves of all new inventions, and we know that the future constructions we envisage will need to be extremely supple in order to respond to a dynamic conception of life, which means creating our own surroundings in direct relation to incessantly changing ways of behaviour.
The activism at the heart of Constantís declaration in Paris in 1959 has changed by 2000 in Liverpool into a form of collaboration and understatement. The failure of the revolutionary spring of 1968, to which the Situationist International contributed, must be one of the crucial refracting lenses to explain this shift, but it seems to me to be as much connected to a rapid and continual change from the identity of the individual as a public citizen towards a singular social role as a private consumer. This process has been rehearsed many times in recent art theory, whether it be the emergence of the creed of ëthe personal is politicalí in feminist discourse in the 1970s or the pernicious influence of the commercial market on conceptual art in the 1980s and its almost total commodification in the 1990s. In relation to Superchannel however, it is more profitable to look at the current discussions in social work where theorists are developing their own perceptions of the privatisation of identity, space and ownership.
We live and work in a world of individuals who in their quest for self-fulfillment and their fear of society, turn inward and away from the social, and, ipso facto, participate in the dissipation of a sense of public life and a public good. Partially they do this because in the privatizing context the public spaces requisite for public life to take place disappear. This turning away from public life is equally visible in the places we inhabit and their relationship to each other. Spatial arrangements matter. We tend not to think about such things, especially in social work. For example, cities are spatially structured. The nature and patterns of physical facilities such as housing, highways, shopping and work areas or the very form of a city, its neighborhoods and suburbs, impinge directly on social life and social work. "It is of course a truism that spatial relations are necessarily social," geographer Kevin Cox argues. Edward Soja (1985) goes further, declaring that "spatiality situates social life". Spatial arrangements both reflect and produce social problems and determine the feasibility social strategies to address them.
Could a renewed attention and committment to tower blocks suggest a rebirth of the social and the public imagination? With the proposed attempts to create more high-rise Superchannels across Liverpool and ultimately throughout Europe, it might be that communication networks allow a different notion of the public to emerge, one defined by shared interest rather than neighbouring geographic space. Yet, paradoxically, the major effect of Superchannel in Coronation Court has been to build a stronger sense of community in the building. This is extraordinarily encouraging. The complexities of both internal and external communication seem to be addressed in a single project.
Labour Party council policies 2000 (2 extracts)
a) Visit to tower blocks
There are three tower blocks on Halton Moor, each containing 60 flats. The Council believes that there is not adequate demand to justify retaining and refurbishing all three blocks. Two have therefore been scheduled for demolition, and the remaining block has been subject to a £3million refurbishment. The residents from the blocks to be cleared will be housed in other accommodation on Halton Moor.î
Visit to Leeds by Westminster Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Eleventh Report , 3-4 April 2000
b) Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council press release 14/4/2000
TWO MORE TOWER BLOCKS TO GO
Two 1960s tower blocks on the Lion Farm Estate in Oldbury are set to be demolished later this year. Albright & Wilson Houses - two 16 storey 87 unit blocks built in 1964 - have stood empty for two years, while housing chiefs secured funding for their demolition. Sandwell's housing committee chair Councillor John Sullivan said - I am delighted that funding has been found and that these blocks are to be demolished. -Once they have gone, it will make a big difference to the area. The redevelopment of the cleared site with traditional housing will complement the work started on this estate several years ago. Four nearby tower blocks have already been demolished and the land redeveloped with houses for sale. Residents in the area will be contacted later in the year once it is known when the demolition is to be carried out.î
Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Irelandí Yale University Press 1994
http://www.lhu.org.uk/history.htm - for a history of the tower block and its relationship to social planning.