The drive towards high-rise housing which began in the late 1950s is often crudely represented as evidence of the inhumanity of architects and planners and the megalomania of their local authority enablers. Leaving aside, for the time being, the question of just how misguided this trend was, the reasons for it were far more complex. A single borough can tell much of the story.
In 1948, Hackney Metropolitan Borough Council declared it would build no new housing above three storeys in height and, true to its word, in the early 1950s it built some of the most celebrated low-rise housing in the country. Yet by the middle of the decade it was approving fifteen-storey tower blocks. What happened?
The more limited ambitions of pre-war construction provide a prologue. The Council had completed 2147 council homes by 1940, over two-thirds built in the previous five years as the drive to clear the slums and alleviate overcrowding took off. These were overwhelmingly the five-storey tenement blocks of a form, with minor variations, ubiquitous across the capital.
The 160-flat Banister House in Homerton, designed by Hackney’s preferred architects, Messrs Josephs, was opened in 1935; the three block Shacklewell House, six storeys with its mansard roof, the year after. Similar blocks followed – Nisbet House in Homerton and Hindle House in Shacklewell – and the Council received special dispensation to complete Wren’s Park House and Wigan House, in Clapton, during the War in 1940. These are all solid homes but only Wren’s Park House (another Josephs design), with the Moderne balconies then in vogue, might claim any architectural distinction. (1)
Much of this work of reconstruction was nullified by the War; around 4000 Hackney homes were destroyed by enemy action, a further 3180 severely damaged. Understandably in 1945, as Henry Goodrich, the Council’s Labour leader, stated, ‘the people of this country were looking more anxiously at the housing question than anything else connected with post-war plans’. (2)
To cope with the immediate crisis, the Council erected 450 prefab Uni-Seco bungalows and requisitioned empty properties across the Borough – 3800 by 1950. (3) But the Borough’s ambition to build lastingly and better in the post-war era was shown when it asked RIBA to suggest six practices to undertake its housing design work. In the event, the star names, Frederick Gibberd and Graham Dawbarn, figures of national significance in post-war public housing, weren’t on this original list but came from onward recommendation.
Hackney’s first post-war housing was completed in Mayfield Close in Dalston in 1947 – brick-built blocks, three-storeys high as the Council had prescribed. But circumstances and fashion determined more imaginative solutions. In 1948, the housing waiting list stood at 12,157. A breakdown of applicants showed that one third required only one bedroom. (4)
The reality of diverse needs and the aspiration to build mixed communities was one incentive to move beyond the uniform two- and three-bed homes which had dominated council house-building to date. Another was the opportunity provided to design more architecturally interesting and visually appealing schemes. Gibberd was clear that ‘buildings with quite different formal qualities such as blocks of flats, maisonettes and bungalows are needed to provide “contrast” and “variety” in the “composition” of an area’. (5)
The result would be, in the words of GL Downing, Hackney’s Borough Surveyor:
more interesting and open lay-outs…and, with attention paid to landscape gardening, schemes far removed from the general pre-war conception of ‘council flats’.
This ‘mixed development’ ideal came to fine fruition in Gibberd’s Somerford Grove Estate, completed in 1949. It was based, firstly, on what he called the ‘precinctual theory’. The area’s through road was closed and replaced by a series of interconnected squares ‘throughout which the pedestrian receives priority’. It was elaborated in a ‘series of closes, each with its own character’. But it rested on a range of building types to meet a diverse community’s varied needs: three-storey blocks of two- and three-bed flats, single bed and bedsitter flats, two-storey blocks of two-bedded flatted houses with small private gardens, two-storey three-bed terraced houses and private gardens, and a terrace of single-storey bungalows for the elderly. (6)
In terms of design, additional variety and warmth was provided by the use of a range of surface treatments: in Gibberd’s description, pale pink and putty coloured walls for the flatted houses, alternating warm brick and rendered walls on the terraced houses, dark red and blue bricks for the old people’s housing.
This was the so-called New Humanism, taking its inspiration from Scandinavian social housing and reflecting too the model provided by the showpiece Festival of Britain Lansbury Estate on which Gibberd had also worked. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Somerford Grove Estate received an Award for Merit from the Festival of Britain’s architectural committee.
It was all, according to The Times, ‘encouraging proof that even dense housing need not be inhuman’. (7)
Graham Dawbarn had also worked on the Lansbury Estate. On Sandringham Road, the Housing Committee accepted his arguments that taller housing would be occupied by households without children and would add interest to the overall design. It allowed a fourth storey but this was not yet the thin end of the wedge. The three-storey maximum was reasserted at Norman and Dawbarn’s Wilton Estate. This also showed characteristic Scandinavian and Festival of Britain features, notably in its cantilevered cast concrete projecting balconies, coloured facing panels and careful landscaping. (8)
All this seems to make Hackney’s rapid and comprehensive embrace of high-rise all the more surprising and yet, in reality, the pressures and incentives to do so were very considerable.
As RIBA’s 1955 symposium on tall flats had concluded: (9)
the high cost of land, the encroachment of buildings on agricultural land and – too often – the featureless spread of housing estates beyond the confines of their cities are compelling a growing number of authorities to consider the contribution that the building of high flats can make to their housing and reconstruction programme.
Five years later, Hackney itself drew attention to the ‘lack of building sites and the ever increasing cost of site purchase [which] left the Council with no alternative but to build higher’.
Many other factors came into play too, particularly the rising number of households and the increase in smaller households – a function of both increased life expectancy and rising divorce rates. Slum clearance (reducing density), higher space standards and improved community facilities on council estates, and land zoning also reduced the area available for building. All this at a time when the private rented sector was in serious decline. The 1956 Housing Subsidies Act – which offered higher subsidies the higher councils built – was therefore both cause and consequence of the drive towards high-rise housing.
In Hackney, an influx of younger councillors, replacing a more traditionalist ‘old guard’ in 1953, eased the transition. Gibberd’s design for The Beckers on Rectory Road, which included two eleven-storey tower blocks of one-bed flats and bedsitters, was approved in mid-1955. In other respects, it remained true to mixed development ideals with its low-rise block of two-bed flats and terrace of three-bed houses. That Scandi influence remains too, seen here in the landscaping and external treatments of coloured panelling and cream rendering. (10)
The Trelawney Estate on Paragon Road in central Hackney, designed with less architectural finesse by Ernest Joseph and including two fifteen-storey towers, was approved later that year as a direct result of the subsidies legislation then going through parliament. Unexpected costs had made the impending subsidy regime more attractive and overcame the Housing Committee’s initial preference for lower blocks. Most of this large estate was completed in the early 1960s.
A Halesowen councillor who viewed the estate thought the scheme ‘made his own authority, which thought it was progressive, look like a snail which had lost its way’. (11) His words capture the more intangible dynamics which would also fuel the sixties’ drive to high-rise – the desire to impress, emulate or surpass.
By January 1961, Hackney had built 4000 homes since the war – an achievement marked in the official opening of the Morland and Fields Estates to the west of London Fields. By now, one third of Hackney schemes were being designed in-house; this last by the Borough’s Chief Assistant Architect, RH Harrison. In another sign of confident municipalism, two-thirds of the Borough’s housing was now constructed by the Council’s direct labour department. (12)
Hackney, then, had come a long way from the modest yet exacting vision of council housing it had laid out in 1945 but it’s hard to see any great betrayal in the shift towards increased size and height that had occurred by the early 1960s. The desire to house the people well was consistent but, in the end, the very scale of that ambition, alongside the practical and financial pressures which have always shaped council housing fashions, seemed to compel high-rise solutions. The new Borough of Hackney (incorporating Shoreditch and Stoke Newington), created in 1965, would build far more tower blocks and would, latterly, demolish many but that is another story.
(2) Quoted in Michael Passmore, ‘From High Hopes to Tall Flats: The Changing Shape of Hackney’s Housing 1945-1960’, Hackney History, vol 15, 2009
(3) The Metropolitan Borough of Hackney Official Guide, 1950
(4) George LA Downing, Borough Engineer and Surveyor and Director of Housing Development, Metropolitan Borough of Hackney, ‘Some Aspects of Housing in a Metropolitan Borough’, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, September 1949; vol. 69, no. 5
(5) Quoted in Harriet Atkinson and Mary Banham, The Festival of Britain: A Land and Its People (2012)
(6) Frederick Gibberd, ‘Housing at Hackney’, Architectural Review, vol 106, No 633, September 1949
(7) ‘Mixed Housing at Hackney’, The Times, September 6, 1949
(8) Love Local Landmarks: Hackney’s Locally Listed Buildings, 1-99 Wilton Estate, Lansdowne Drive, E8
(9) This, the following quotation and the analysis which follows are drawn from Peter Foynes, ‘The Rise of High-Rise: Post-war Housing in Hackney’, Hackney History, vol 1, 1999
(10) FRS Yorke and Frederick Gibberd, Modern Flats, The Architectural Press, London (1958)
(11) Quoted in Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block – Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (1994)
(12) Metropolitan Borough of Hackney, ‘The Official Opening of the 4000th Post-War Dwelling, Morland Estate, Lansdowne Drive, 21 January 1961’ (Hackney Archives)