No Mean City: The well-meaning pipedream of high-rise social-housing

Image courtesy of Dirty Modern Scoundrel

High-rise housing is synonymous with social deprivation. Like many of the stereotypes surrounding deprived communities, the notion that high-rises are unpleasant places to live is not untrue but is also slightly unfair: many examples of thriving high-rise communities exist and not all tower blocks are dangerous, drug-ridden, or crime-infested. Even the monstrosities that gave rise to the gritty stereotype, were not all bad. But enough of them were — or still are — bad enough that their reputation, fair or not, precedes them.

Like many hapless eras of human endeavour, it’s easy to look back in hindsight, from our vantage point in the present, and sneer at those who naively approved a building program that would, for so many, come to symbolise urban decay. However, the idea of stacking poor people vertically probably seemed rather clever in the mid-20th century, when decades of population growth, fuelled by consecutive industrial revolutions, was the curtain raiser to a new rotating cast of social problems that would characterise poverty for decades to come.

In the grip of economic expansion at the end of the 19th century, with so many material spoils to pursue — and plenty of work available — it would have been hard to foresee (or care about) the socio-cultural blowback lurking on the hazy, smoke-filled horizon as Western civilisation bellowed, burned and steamed its way confidently into the 20th century. This period of economic growth led to the creation of the modern world, as we know it, and remains unparalleled in human history. It was the first time living standards and wages had risen consistently and mass-production, made possible by manufacturing machinery, wrought changes on industry and as well as the emerging global economy. But nowhere was this change more tangible than in the lives of ordinary working people, which were fundamentally transformed by technology.

However, this phase of growth, fuelled by imperial adventure, overreached and inevitably slowed. As the British Empire receded from every corner of the globe after the First World War, the unforeseen social consequences of such rapid population growth began to find expression, not only in an economic depression, but more ominously, in the social conditions, health and behaviour of the lower classes.

In Glasgow, successful industrial suburbs like the Gorbals, where native and immigrant populations had exploded in the 19th century, became culturally strained, diseased and unlivable. Workers, growing tired of the poor living standards and atrocious working conditions, began to organise and forced concessions from government that became the basis of human rights in areas like employment and housing. These included a reduction in the working week as well as the first Housing Act, in 1919, guaranteeing the basic living standards we now take for granted like electricity, running water and flushing toilets.

But despite these advances, by the 1930s, the Gorbals had descended into deprivation continued and soon became a by-word for violence: often referred to as the most dangerous place in the UK. The housing stock of the day had been hastily fashioned to meet rising demand and it wasn’t long before the homes, providing accommodation to roughly half-a-million people, became untenable; families of five, six and more often crammed into single rooms on street after street of run-down tenement housing.

A range of solutions were proposed. One involved the design and creation of ‘housing-schemes’: residential areas built on the city’s outer-rim that made use of wide-open space away from the inner-city. These would help to ease the burden on areas like the Gorbals, which were now dangerously over-crowded. These ‘housing-schemes’ would advantage of the extra space and, as well as rehousing families in more modern accommodation, they would also provide leisure spaces where people could mingle and be. However, these plans were interrupted by the Second World War and not resumed for many years. The government’s ‘after war’ program pledged to build 50,000 new homes per-year in a bid to clear the slums. But unlike the ‘housing-schemes’ like Pollok, Easterhouse and Castlemilk, which lay on the outskirts of Glasgow, back in the city, ground-space was scarce and this presented a challenge for planners.

In the ‘50’s, high-rise social housing, imported from continental Europe, was touted as the solution for these inner-city urban areas and by the ’60s, high-flying architects like Sir Basil Spence were parachuted in to redesign the slums. ‘When you’re cramped for space’, said one news reporter at the time ‘you have to build high’, the footage appearing in the 1993 documentary High Rise and Fall. And, as the film vividly illustrates, build high is exactly what they did. Iconic multi-storey structures rose from the ashes of the slums as a fitting tribute to the skyward ambitions of the city’s people. But, while the housing schemes appeared, at least initially, to be a success, to the horror of politicians and residents alike, within 18 months locals had renamed the tower blocks Alcatraz, Barlinnie and Carstairs — two being violent prisons and the other a remote Scottish hospital for the criminally insane.

Many of the tower blocks, despite their early promise, came to be regarded by locals as dirty, dangerous and undesirable places to live. As well as structural problems that created dampness, and windows that were known for blowing in during high-winds, drug-dealers were also lurking on the periphery looking for new economic opportunities to exploit. As traditional industries, like steel and coal, were wound down, unemployment rose and many people became idle and demoralised. The undeniable failure of tower-block housing in this part of the city — and others like it — was devastating, not only for local officials but more so for residents, who had just moved out of slums to start their new lives in the ‘sky-scrapers’ of the future.

These multi-storey ‘gardens in the sky’, and the socialist principles they embodied, were not only grand but also earnest and ambitious attempts to substantially raise the standard of living for working class people; going as far as integrating the rich and storied history of the local community into the contours of the architecture itself. Spence, designer of the infamous Queen Elizabeth high-rises that became ground-zero of the horrendous stereotype, envisioned that the three towers, side-by-side, would give the majestic appearance of tall ships in full sail.

It’s a lovely idea, but as one resident, referring to the maritime motif, observed: ‘The only way you got that impression was if you walked over to Richmond park’ — a green space which was easily a mile from the tower blocks. It’s quite absurd to think that this potentially awe-inspiring tribute to European utopianism, which seamlessly consummated the union of high-art and social need, only cohered when viewed from a distance. A far less pretentious way of saying this is simply that the flats made more sense the further away from them you got — which created a dilemma for the people living there. There was something about the way Spence perceived the community that was fatally flawed. Something about the assumptions he made about what working class people wanted and needed that no amount of technical skill, artistic flare or noble intentions could correct. A lack of consultation with the community itself, about their needs and aspirations, and a design phase riddled with well-meaning but privileged assumptions, meant that within 20 years many of these cutting-edge structures were either being torn down or scheduled for demolition. And in communities like the Gorbals, gathering excitedly to watch your community’s history being raised to the ground, has not only become a tradition, but an expectation. One which endures to this very day.

High-rise housing in the Gorbals was a humbling and costly lesson in urban regeneration and the cultural legacy for these missteps still casts a long shadow on the city. Thousands of families, already struggling to make ends meet, were placed under so much strain that it altered them physically, psychologically and emotionally. What was left of the local economy adapted to supply the community’s mutating demands; off licences, public houses, chip-shops, bookmakers and, latterly, drug dealers, provided temporary relief from the grim reality of deindustrialisation. But these seemingly harmless activities soon became vices for many that would later find expression as public health epidemics. In such oppressive and downtrodden social conditions, people began to distrust public institutions and the various authority figures, like police and social workers, despatched to mop up the rising tide of social problems.

This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Poverty Safari, available in September on Luath Press.

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