I’m pleased to feature this week the second part of Andrew Parnell’s fascinating guest post on Charles Dickens House and its wider context. Andrew is a walking tour guide with Footprints of London who leads walks on architecture and housing history. These include his walk Modernism and Modern Dwellings: Housing in Bethnal Green which takes in Charles Dickens House. More information and tickets for Andrew’s walks can be obtained from the website.
The trend for high towers, system-building and prefabrication in the 1960s which, as described in Part I, influenced Tower Hamlets Council in the planning stages leading to the building of the 22-storey Charles Dickens House on the Mansfield Buildings slum clearance site in Bethnal Green in 1969, did not come ‘out of the blue’.
From an architectural perspective, tall building had started to be been seen in this country before World War II, with the likes of Highpoints 1 and 2, Berthold Lubetkin’s 8- and 9-storey ‘international modern’ style blocks in north London. Frederick Gibberd’s designs for Harlow New Town included a 10-storey block – The Lawn in Mark Hall North – that was built in 1949 and has been called Britain’s ‘first high block’. The Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green – one of the three boroughs that were merged in 1965 to form the London Borough of Tower Hamlets – had in the 1950s employed avant-garde architects, among them Lubetkin and the young Denys Lasdun, who produced blocks of over 10 storeys.
Lasdun’s firm in March 1955 had presented to the Bethnal Green Housing Committee a report on a Royal Institute of British Architects’ symposium on high building. Among the findings summarised in their report were: many people prefer living in high buildings because they enjoy ‘better and cleaner air’; low buildings are ‘monotonous’; high buildings can enhance the scene by ‘emphasising prominent points’; and the incorporation of maisonettes (two storey dwellings) in tall buildings had ‘overcome prejudice against living in high blocks’.(1) This report, whilst seeking to make a strong case for high-rise, nevertheless reflects the view of many design and planning professionals throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s that tall blocks should be used sparingly and judiciously alongside different styles of building (so called ‘mixed development’).
It is hard not to sense in the Lasdun firm’s report an attempt to ‘enlighten’ the Housing Committee in an area – London’s East End – where it was said by others in the field that some councillors clung to ‘pro-cottage’, ‘traditional’ views on housing design and were therefore in need of a little education by professionals! (2) If that was the report’s purpose, it seems to have worked. The Bethnal Green Council went on to commission Lasdun’s and Lubetkin’s firms to produce some noted examples of modernist housing such as Lasdun’s sixteen storey ‘cluster block’ Keeling House (1955-1957) and Lubetkin’s innovative Cranbrook Estate (1961-1966).
From a technical point of view, system-building and prefabrication can be seen as a product of the fertile period of building research and development of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s which had seen such innovations as widespread use of reinforced concrete in cross-wall frame and later box-frame construction (eliminating the need for a steel frame). Architects had embraced the new materials and techniques. They exploited the new ‘lightness’ achievable by the reinforcement of concrete. The geometrical shape and repetitiveness of a building’s structure were seen as things to emphasise, not to hide. Form followed function and produced beauty.
The other thing that these approaches to construction and design leant themselves to was, of course, prefabrication. A repetitive structure of rectangular shapes could be reduced to a kit of simple parts. By December 1965, the Tower Hamlets councillors were receiving a report on a Symposium at Olympia with the title ‘System Building: Can It Be Economic?’. The reported answer to this question was that system-building was ‘clearly cheaper’ and that in tall buildings it was ‘very competitive indeed’. The Borough Architect obtained the committee’s approval for one ‘senior member’ of his staff to attend an ‘Advanced Course on Industrialised Building’. In May 1966, members of the council reported on a ‘study tour’ they had made to Denmark to look at industrialised building there. (3)
So the proposal put to the Tower Hamlets Housing Committee in 1967 for a system-built tall block – that would be named Charles Dickens House – on the Mansford Buildings site came as no surprise.
However, in all of this Tower Hamlets was coming a bit late to the party. Nationwide, the bandwagon of high building was well and truly under way by the mid-1960s. Glasgow, in the vanguard, had built three 20-storey blocks in eight months in 1960 which kick-started the chairman of the housing committee David Gibson’s messianic, largely high-rise, housing production drive. Similar dynamism was seen in other areas, particularly large municipalities outside London. To boroughs like these, high-rise and system-building seemed the obvious way to keep up the necessary pace of their building.
The Tower Hamlets committee did not give approval for its first block over 20 storeys high until 1966, and before the 1965 local government reorganisation its three predecessor councils – Stepney, Poplar and Bethnal Green – had approved only one such block between them and the London County Council (LCC) just three in the area. (4)
This comparative dilatoriness in Tower Hamlets – which was reflected in the wider London area generally – could be ascribed partly to the influence prior to 1965 of the London County Council, which was replaced in the reorganisation of that year by the Greater London Council. The LCC had wielded greater power than its replacement, the GLC, to influence the housing policy of the second-tier London boroughs. In exercising that power, the LCC’s influential architects’ department stood firmly on the side of the ‘design faction’ – arguing for restraint in the use of high-rise building – in a schism that grew up between the ‘designers’ and the ‘producers’ from about the late 1950s onwards. The consensus among design professionals had always been that high-rise should be used sparingly to add variety (‘vertical accents’) in mixed schemes.
At the Mansford Buildings site, Tower Hamlets Council could be seen to be following, at least in the final result, the design faction’s blended approach to tall blocks. Charles Dickens House was inserted into a pre-existing plan for the site that consisted mainly of ‘cluster blocks’ of up to four storeys, producing a mix of housing for approximately 400 families, with shops, licensed premises and other amenities, all at a population density for the 9.5 acres of roughly 136 persons per acre, the density level recommended for inner London areas by the County of London Plan of 1943, a document which set out a vision for London’s reconstruction after the War in a period – the 1940s and 1950s –when the influence of the designers was at its height. (5)
By the late 1950s designers had started to turn away from high-rise altogether, towards other approaches such as low-rise, high-density developments. The concept of ‘urbanism’ gained traction – the idea that a sense of community is engendered by close proximity of buildings, rather than by leaving large open spaces between tall buildings.
The ‘producers’, on the other hand, who tended to be local politicians and officials, were driven by an urgent sense of the need to build quickly and in large numbers and sometimes saw the designers, with their concerns about aesthetics and population density, as ‘other-worldly’, even obstructive. By using the systems of large contractors who had their own design professionals attuned to the need for volume and speed, the producers could bypass those design professionals they saw as less practical.
There were strong feelings on both sides. Producers saw themselves as ‘coalface workers’ compared with the ‘quasi-academic’ designers. Many designers were contemptuous of those who were focussed on ‘mere production’ and saw the indiscriminate use of high blocks to maintain the production rate as a parody and misuse of the original concept of high-rise espoused by professionals in earlier decades. (6).
David Gibson, in Glasgow, voiced the producers’ justification for their approach in characteristically powerful and moral terms: ‘If I offend good planning principles, it is only in seeking to avoid the unpardonable offence that bad housing commits against human dignity’. For Gibson, aesthetics were never the most important consideration, but nonetheless the very shape of tall blocks – their arresting ‘modernity’ – was in keeping with his vision: ‘In the next three years the skyline of Glasgow will become a more attractive one to me because of the likely vision of multi-storey houses rising by the thousand’.
But soon the towers which had been a powerful symbol of the optimism which underlay the post-war housing production drive became the most powerful negative image of ‘modern’ housing. One contributor to the sudden, almost violent change of public mood occurred just a few miles from Charles Dickens House. In May 1968 in Canning Town, a system-built tower block, Ronan Point, partly collapsed when a tenant’s gas stove exploded in a high floor, killing four people and injuring more.
When the Ronan Point disaster occurred, plans for development of the Mansford Buildings site in Tower Hamlets had been approved and work at the site had already begun. Although the Tower Hamlets Council issued an instruction that no new proposals for high blocks were to be put forward pending the findings of a Committee of Enquiry on Ronan Point, work was allowed to continue on tall blocks in the borough that had already been approved. Later that year, the Enquiry found that high blocks were generally safe but that those built using large panel construction with load bearing walls should have their jointing checked. This included the Bison Wall Frame system being used to build the tower at the Mansfield Buildings site, so its joints were duly checked and approved. As a result, the tower, named Charles Dickens House, was completed and opened the following year.
The Ronan Point disaster probably accelerated rather than caused the decline in high flats and system-building that ensued. Public, political and professional opinion had already started to turn against modern housing and tall buildings before the disaster in Newham. A number of possible causes can be identified.
As already mentioned, design professionals’ thinking had started to move away from high-rise in about the late 1950s. By the late 1960s, the housing shortage had turned, roughly speaking, into a surplus.
Public clamour for production waned and people now asked ‘What is all this building for?’ (a question to which many in the 1960s would surely have responded: ‘Isn’t it obvious? To get people out of slums!’). The political consensus started to break up when, following wins by non-socialist parties in the 1967-1968 local elections, multi-storey building was for the first time branded ‘Socialist’. In 1968 government subsidies for high-rise building, which had been introduced in 1956-1967, were abolished (although this subsidy had probably always been more of a consequence than a cause of the high-rise trend). Later, the 1970s in particular saw the emergence of management problems and severe anti-social behaviour in some modern developments.
The subsequent history of Charles Dickens House is fairly typical for buildings of its kind. By 2003 – then over 30 years old – it was in a state of serious disrepair: interiors of flats were in a poor state and insulation needed improvement. Residents were concerned at the inadequacy of internal security. With local authorities’ housing budgets now severely limited, Tower Hamlets Council was unable to finance the work needed to bring the block up to the government’s Decent Homes Standard. Borrowing limits meant it could only afford £2.28 million for the building’s regeneration.
In accordance with the ‘new model’ for social housing provision, Tower Hamlets Community Housing – a housing association with access to private borrowing not available to councils – was able to offer £18.5 million. Tenants – some of whom had exercised their ‘right to buy’ and owned long leases to their flats – were presented with a stark choice in terms of the ability of the competing owners to fund needed upgrades and opted for transfer to the housing association. (7)
In recent years, flats in the building, advertised as having ‘unbeatable views…in a well-maintained ex-local authority building’ have been offered for sale at prices in the region of £340,000 (2015) and £450,000 (2016). (8) How far the building can now be said to offer accommodation truly affordable to the section of the community it was built for must be questionable, but the prices at which flats seem to be changing hands must also call into question the often cited ‘truth’ that tall towers are universally viewed as undesirable places to live.
Over time, architectural preferences and the public mood change, often quickly and radically. Where once the view was expressed that old terraces of housing were ‘past modernising and want blowing up’, they are now cherished and it is tower blocks which, literally, have in some cases been blown up. Charles Dickens House was fortunate to be built before the curtain came down on tower block building and is perhaps fortunate to be still standing and providing homes today. Concerns were expressed about the safety of system-built blocks following Ronan Point and were cited as reasons for some of the tower block demolitions. It is worth noting, though, that Bison Wall Frame blocks in Edinburgh, about which such concerns had been expressed, survived the detonation of 2000 charges of high explosive and had to be smashed by a giant battering ram.
Was it their structural weakness which caused us to start demolishing high towers, or an effect of the changing cycle of public opinion about building styles? Will the cycle one day move on again so that blocks like Charles Dickens House are seen in a more favourable light, as the product of a massive housing production drive that was to no small degree motivated by ideals that deserve our respect?
With thanks to Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives for permission to use the images credited above.
(1) Minutes of Bethnal Green Borough Council Housing Committee, March 1955
(2) Page 180 of Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Yale University Press, 1993), a work on which the analysis of the history of high-rise blocks in this article is largely based and from which the quotations of individuals involved, other than in relation to Tower Hamlets, have largely been drawn
(3) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing Committee, May 1966
(4) Gazetteer I, Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block
(5) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing, Building and Development Committee, June 1968
(6) The tension between the concerns of designers and the pressure to produce housing output is described at pages 153ff of Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block
(7) This account of the later history of Charles Dickens House is drawn from Stephanie Polsky, Dickensian Blocks: East London’s contemporary housing landscape, published in Soundings: A journal of politics and culture, issue 60, Summer 2015, pp 95-106
(8) Rightmove and Find Properly websites