There is another, less famous May 1968 anniversary this month – the partial collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in Newham, east London. Twenty two storeys high, this block was based on a Danish system that was only designed to go up to six storeys.
But it was stacked up regardless by contractors with the connivance of a penny-pinching local council.
This disaster exemplified the simultaneous death of two big 20th century ideas – that of mass council housing and the belief that modernist architecture could provide the solution to Britain’s housing problems.
Certainly there is virtually no council housing being built today. But if you live in one of Britain’s cities, you can’t fail to have noticed a resurrection of tall, modernist blocks of flats.
If you’re either affluent or a lucky “key worker”, perhaps you might even live in one. They can easily be spotted, usually clinging to rivers.
While the old modernism boasted about its honesty and truth to materials, these blocks are all about what they hide. The use of wood on the façades makes them look vaguely “green”, large windows obscure small flats, and their “public spaces” are frequently a cover for CCTV-ridden gated communities.
This return of flats is a nationwide phenomenon, but reaches perhaps its greatest extent in London. Mayor Ken Livingstone hired the architect Richard Rogers and the planner Ricky Burdett as advisors.
They intended to break with the Thatcherite housing policies of the 1980s and 1990s, with their suburban, neo-Victorian aesthetics.
Rogers and Burdett advocated what they called an “urban renaissance”, with higher density (the amount of people living in a single space), greater attention to design, and more public squares and parks. This was an effort to make British cities more akin to Barcelona or Paris than a commuter sprawl.
Superficially, these were admirable aims. But as London becomes ever more polarised between the
super-rich and the desperately poor, as house prices (even after the recent “corrections”) scrape the skies, and the new blocks built under Livingstone appear as emblems of gentrification, what went wrong?
The new exhibition Des Res, at London’s Building Centre, offers a few clues. This is essentially a giant advertisement for the “stunning developments”, “luxury loft apartments” or “yuppiedromes” that have proliferated in the biggest building boom since the 1970s.
Rooms are filled with CGI images of new blocks, with profiles telling us exactly what percentage is “affordable” (an extremely vague term), and precisely how “sustainable” they might be – a bit of insulation as carbon-offsetting more often than not.
Among them are the most luxurious “luxury flats” of all, Richard Rogers’ own One Hyde Park, which will become one of the most expensive addresses in the world.
Meanwhile, a statistic on the wall declares that two-thirds of the homes built in London are bought by investors – the regulations on who can move into or purchase the new flats are minimal, and easily circumvented.
Read between the lines at this exhibition and you can decipher how these shiny blocks paper over the cracks of a vicious, one-sided class war over the capital’s space.
For instance, the profile of the Heart of East Greenwich scheme, which is fairly typical – dense, mixed-use, with green space and glossy design – neglects to mention that the development replaces the local hospital, forcing ill residents several miles eastwards.
The “regeneration” of Grahame Park, Barnet, sums up what these policies mean for council tenants.
Some 1,771 council flats will metamorphose into 1,220 “affordable” homes and 2,220 private homes – it’s unlikely that many of the original tenants will have the “right of return”.
Another scheme here, the Pepys Estate in Deptford, has become an exemplar of the way that these redesigns of working class spaces try to promote a socially “mixed” population.
As seen on the TV documentary The Tower, one of the estate’s blocks was sold off to a private developer.
At the same time that harsh poverty continued in the rest of Pepys, the
re-clad, extended tower rapidly became yet another riverside “des res” for bankers, with no visible benefits accruing to the local population.
This “mixing” of classes on estates is a convenient obsession. As someone comments in Benedict Seymour’s 2001 film The Occupation, this “diversity” is only one-way – no council tenants are being moved into rich areas.
We need to say a little yes and a big no to this “urban renaissance”. Yes, we should be building many more new homes and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be flats or in cities.
But no, we won’t pretend that class cleansing and the refusal to build new council homes is acceptable even if it is masked by a “sustainable” modernist facade.
The Des Res exhibition is at New London Architecture, Building Centre, Store Street, London, until 14 June