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Friday, May 7, 1999 Published at 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK


High rise living

Council-built flats in tower blocks are the new city des res

Ten years ago, all people wanted to do was blow them up, but city centre council flats are now as trendy as they are high - the des res for the turn of the century.

British people on the whole have never quite embraced the concept of high rise living.

We only use the word apartment if a living space comes complete with concierge and private porterage - perhaps even underground parking.

A decidedly less glamorous view has been taken over the years of homes which fall into the category of social housing.

[ image: The demolition of blocks of flats always draws cheering crowds]
The demolition of blocks of flats always draws cheering crowds
"Flat" has dictionary definitions which include, "dull, lifeless, monotonous" and a "collection of rooms, usually on one level, used as a dwelling".

But council-built blocks are enjoying a rebirth, with home buyers actively seeking to move into them, reversing the traditional perception of tower block dwellers as people who would rather be elsewhere.

Not only are council-built flats coming on to the market in increasing numbers, as a result of the '80s housing policy of giving tenants the right to buy.

But they also tend to be a bit cheaper than their privately constructed equivalents - and much bigger.

Iain Borden, an architecture lecturer at University College London, and an expert in urban space, said: "There is a certain section of London society that is seeking to move into council properties.

"They tend to be young, tend to be childless, urban professionals - maybe graphic designers, and they're often gay."

Speaking at a debate entitled Tower Blocks: Love them or loathe them? at the Museum of London, he said people chose to live in council blocks because they loved the dynamism of being slap-bang in the centre of town, and the fantastic views from up on high.

And they benefited from council block design, which he said was "a lot better than your typical Victorian house conversion".

There was also, he said, a growing appreciation of the work of some of the world class architects who had designed council tower blocks.

[ image: Now, tower blocks are cool]
Now, tower blocks are cool
Perhaps the most celebrated example of this is the cult status now enjoyed by Trellick Tower in west London.

The distinctive landmark was designed by Erno Goldfinger and completed in 1972. It was made a grade II* listed building in December 1998.

It has an active residents association, which has campaigned for a number of changes to the building and housing policy over the years including better security, and only putting people there who want to go there.

Chairman of the residents association Lee Boland is a staunch proponent of high rise living, saying that problems only came if tower blocks were not well-built and maintained, and had people living in them who did not want to be there.

Trellick Tower

Flats in Trellick Tower are selling for more than £150,000 - and there is no shortage of people wanting to buy them.

Ms Boland once told reporters: "I met Mr Goldfinger in the lift once. I didn't know who he was but he kept asking me about the faults and what I liked and didn't like.

"I said I liked everything, except the designer hadn't put a broom cupboard in the kitchen. 'Bloody women,' he said. 'Never satisfied'."

[ image: Working in high rises is somehow more acceptable to people than living in them]
Working in high rises is somehow more acceptable to people than living in them
But despite their recently bestowed modish status, council tower blocks didn't earn their down-at-heel reputation for nothing.

People were placed in them when they didn't want to go. As cities underwent restructure after the war, whole communities were split up and rehoused in sometimes shoddily put together anonymous grey blocks.

There was often no communal area for children to play in - or at least not one within easy sight of their parents.

And poor maintenance of lifts could mean that the simple act of putting rubbish out might involve trekking down and up 27 flights of stairs, possibly with small children in tow.

On a psychological level they represented a loss of privacy, and when blocks were badly built, the noise from neighbouring flats intruded from all directions.

Architect Sam Webb said he viewed tower blocks as a failed social experiment. He said they were a quick-fix political decision that forced people to live in poor housing conditions.

He added: "They are uneconomic. If it was cost efficient to build housing in great tower blocks, Barratts would be doing it all over the place."

But whatever their history, tower blocks are coming into their own, and the people moving to live in them value them more than ever.

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23 Dec 98†|†UK
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