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Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius: Tower Block - Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (1994)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Reviewed by Justina Job
Miles Glendinning (born in London in 1956) and Stefan Muthesius (born in Berlin in 1939) are both architectural historians and the authors of Tower Block. In this book they blame the current public opinion for the condemnation and the problems tower blocks currently face and remind us that these structures were once seen as one of the greatest triumphs of the postwar Welfare State and of the social functionalism of Modern architecture. The two authors aim to create a more balanced attitude towards Tower Blocks in the United Kingdom with the use of this book. Tower Block is a detailed analysis and history of Modern public housing from post-World War II to the mid 1960s. Throughout their analysis the authors address two questions. Firstly, why were tower blocks held to provide good dwellings - better than any previous form of dense urban housing? And secondly, why was there such a rapid and massed building of multi-storey blocks - peaking in the mid-1960s across all urban areas of Scotland, England and Wales? These two questions addressed in this book are explored and clearly identified in the books structure. This book is split into three sections. Section one is entitled Design and divided into two parts. Part A focuses on the modern dwelling: plan, fittings and construction. Part B centres on the community life: a postwar architectural stimulus. The first question addressed by the authors is answered in section one, Part A. In this part of the section we learn why Tower Blocks were held in such high esteem during the post-war era and the symptoms that allowed this adoration for them to grow. The authors explain that the atmosphere post-WWII shaped the perfect political, social and architectural demand for an urgent reconstruction in the field of public housing and the will to abolish slums. This change was glorified by the word Modern and lead to the creation of tower blocks. The authors explain the post-war definition of Modern architecture by stating that “The postwar Modern dwelling had to be, andlook, radically different, inside and out. For many, “Modern” meant a new type of dwelling altogether…” Modern also meant something rational, logical, pure, universal or, at least, international. Most writers claimed that all elements of architecture could be explained in relation to construction and 'function', hence the creation of the term “Functionalism” used to characterize the Modern architecture movement. In section one of the book, Glendinning and Muthesius also gives the reader an extremely detailed chapter by chapter study of the types of dwellings built; their exterior appearance and interior finishes; the technologies used for construction; the innovation of bathrooms; the use of Balconies; the heating systems installed in the flats; daylight considerations and densities. How household types were matched to dwelling types and how mixed developments were planned. An in-depth study on the scientific and technical advancements during the 1950’s that contributed to multi-storey buildings, quicker construction methods and the 1960’s building higher boom is also found in this section. Here we learn how height was seen as a positive manipulation of the daylight rules:“increase in… Height…will, for a given population density, always improve the lighting conditions”. However this enthusiasm for height brought about an increase in overly ambitious projects and strain on architects, which created the decrease in architectural ideals and an increase in civic arrogance and competition from local councilors and Labour policy makers.
Part B of section one focuses on the theories behind the meaning of community as it evolved over two decades of postwar planning and designing. Here the authors study the welfare state utopia; town planning, communal open space housing layout; the neighborhood units; the sociology of community, from social reform to skepticism and nostalgia and finally; The Modern Architect in Public Housing. The utopian theories of a group well known in international modernism during the 1950’s called Team Ten and the how the theories of the “street in the sky” by the Smithsons was formed is also explored in this part of the book. Section two, entitled Production is divided into three parts. Part A focuses on “A Municipal Crusade: Modern Flats and the Defence of Housing Production in Britain.” Part B addresses “Scottish, English and Welsh Housing in the 1960s: National, Regional, and Local Variations”. Finally Part C explains the Northern Ireland's Housing Revolution. It is in this section of the book that we find the answer to the second question addressed, which was “why was there such a rapid and massed building of multi-storey blocks - peaking in the mid-1960s across all urban areas of Scotland, England and Wales?” Glendinning and Muthesius make it clear to the readers that the cause of the rapid and massed building of multistorey blocks between the 1950’s and 1960s was caused by what they refer to as a “Municipal Crusade”. The authors claim that this crusade was created by the central government's aim to tackle slum clearance. However the task was left for local authorities and politicians to decide on how it would be tackled. As a result of this local authorities and politicians frequently opted for the already popular high-rise solutions and demanded grant aid from the government, which was effortlessly received to help with the costs. The “Municipal Crusade” along with a number of practical and economic reasons was the cause of the rapid mass building of Tower blocks. However what is frequently pointed out to the reader in both sections one and two, is that aside from the “municipal crusade” a dominant factor responsible for this overkill of Tower Blocks was what the authors referred to as “civic pride”. This claim is backed by evidence presented to the reader thorough accounts, in the form of interviews. In addition Part C gives the reader a detailed account of how “civic pride” from civil servants, not politicians acted as the driving force for high-rise tower blocks in Northern Ireland. The last section in this book entitled Breakdown, consists of a brief analysis of the history of use and causes for the decline and fall of Tower blocks. Unlike the previous sections, this section is a lot shorter and not split into parts. As a way of identifying the fall and decline of tower blocks the authors pinpoint the moment the attitudes began to change and list the causes related to the changing attitudes towards Tower blocks. They do this by begin this section with a brief explanation for the rejection of Modern design and continues by identifying the collapse of “Production” as well as explaining the term “New Slum”. Doing this allows Glendinning and Muthesius to successfully address the changing attitudes that Tower blocks had on architects and the public and how these changing attitudes were influenced and formed by journalists, sociologists and `providers'. The continuous association with the term “new slum” and the direct relationship it had with poverty was just one of the examples used to explain how these changing attitudes were formed. In addition to the associations with the term “new Slum” changing attitudes towards Tower Blocks were also caused by the misrepresentation of original architectural designs as a way to cut corners and save money. The poor and non-existent maintenance and management control which deprived tenants of essential facilities and security were added factures responsible for the decline and fall of tower blocks. However the authors are quick to add that the main reason for the fall and decline of Tower blocks was actually caused by a negative reaction to the Utopian ideals that formed the creation of Tower blocks altogether. Glendinning and Muthesius put “Utopia' on Trial” for this part of section three. In an attempt to Summarizing this part of section three, which many would agree is left relatively unfinished, would be to state that, the simple fact was that in reality people detested living in “street in the sky” for the obvious social restrictions and disconnection they felt with their local community. In conclusion, this book is an amazingly detailed and thorough historical account of Modern public housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland from post-World War II to the mid 1960s. It is also an excellent report on the growth of the welfae state in Britain. In addition, Glendinning and Muthesius successfully explain and answer “why tower blocks were held to provide good dwellings - better than any previous form of dense urban housing? And “why there was such a rapid and massed building of multi-storey blocks - peaking in the mid-1960s across all urban areas of Scotland, England and Wales?” Furthermore, they explain the major reasons for the decline and fall of tower blocks and in doing so explains the reasons behind the current public opinion of judgment and condemnation towards tower blocks in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

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