September 6th, 2008


Our home, tower home

Have a look at this trailer for the 2006 thriller Red Road, set in the Glasgow tower block of the same name.

The clichés of urban alienation -- tagging, plastic bags on the breeze, concrete, disorder, paranoia, sex and violence -- are all present and correct. All that's missing is the Massive Attack song. But does high rise living have to be this way? Mightn't the disrepute residential tower blocks have fallen into since the 1980s, and particularly in the UK and the US, be something to do with this mythology itself? Mightn't right wing politicians, from Thatcher and Reagan on, have been trying to smash the socialist utopian agenda built into the 1960s tower blocks and shift everyone into suburban private homes with mortgages?

To people who say that tower blocks are synonymous with massive attacks of urban alienation, Dr Stephen Cairns and Jane Jacobs -- currently working on The Highrise Project at the University of Edinburgh -- are here to say "It ain't necessarily so". Interviewed on this week's Thinking Allowed, Cairns argued that if you go to Asian cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, the highrise is seen as a vibrant, viable and lively form of living. The same message emerges from the residents of places like Glasgow's Red Road tower, who -- once the usual horror stories are out of the way -- tell tales of communal bonhomie rather than spouting clichés of concrete anomie.

Jacobs and Cairns chose to research and contrast attitudes to the Modernist residential highrise block in two cities, Glasgow and Singapore. The Highrise Project "has been set up, rhetorically," Cairns told Laurie Taylor, "to explore a hunch: that, despite the apparent repetitiousness of globalisation, the inside of architecture, the sites of people's lives, unfold in quite distinctive ways." The highrise was chosen as one of the most notoriously repetitious architectural forms, and two cities on either side of the world were selected to see whether -- as Richard Sennett said in the previous week's programme about urban living -- globalisation really is resulting in cookie-cutter similarity; making it difficult to know if you're in London or Caracas.

What The Highrise Project found out was that even if the Modernist grid of the exterior of a tower block looks the same wherever you are in the world, the insides of the flats are quite different. And that's because the insides of people's heads are different in the East and West. People have different attitudes to things like density, community and public order, and their political feelings about public housing and the central, state organisation of human needs differ too. There are also different feelings about Modernist rationality; a lingering Romanticism has made the British revile figures like Le Corbusier to this day. Even Ikea had to battle it when they launched in the UK.

When I used to live in a Stalinbau on the Karl-Marx-Allee -- in a landmark high density public housing project built by the communist East German government -- I'd sublet my flat each summer while I travelled in Japan. Two summers in a row, my tenant was Lynsey Hanley, who was writing a book about public housing. Granta published Estates, her "intimate history" of UK housing estates, last year. As she explained to Grant Morrison in The Guardian, Hanley, as someone who grew up in one estate in Birmingham and moved to another in East London, "resents the vilification of those who live there - all that sneering at scum, chavs, pikeys and the great unwashed. More importantly, she believes the greatest division between people today isn't the work they do or what they earn or whether they have children, but the kind of homes they live in. And she wants to understand why being housed by the state has come to be seen as a confession of failure... Other European nations were perfectly happy living in skyscrapers where every fourth wall was made of glass - why couldn't Brits be?"

Hanley's answer is that she, too, sees public housing estates as "cages" and "hutches" which make the heart sink. "The architecture of the estate, a vast people-locker "designed by a cyborg", had insanity written into its plan: "How can you fight something as concrete, as concretey, as this?"

But fight highrise public housing is exactly what people began to do; Margaret Thatcher made it a political priority. "By 1979, nearly half the British population lived in local authority housing; then came Thatcherism and the Right to Buy, and now only 12 per cent of us do. Hanley is no rabid opponent of home ownership (she'd be a hypocrite if she was, since she recently joined the club). But she does regret some of its consequences: the dearth of state accommodation for those who need it (there's currently a waiting list of 1.5 million); the widening gap between the mortgage-paying haves and the low-rent have-nots; the loss of the Utopian impulse towards social integration. As she says, "this is no longer a society in which you can be proud, still less be seen to be proud, that your home has been provided by the state".

What we have to realize is that we think of tower blocks the way we do because that's how we want to see them: as "failed states in the sky". The belief that public housing leads to no-go high-crime zones soundtracked by Massive Attack becomes, in the West, a self-fulfilling prophecy as white- and middle-class flight leaves Resident Evil-like landscapes of drugged zombie-losers in the crumbling, asbestos-clad towers ringing winner-takes-all cities. Call Group 4! Install CCTV! Get Irvine Welsh writing about it! But Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong and countless new cities rising in China show that it's only so if you make it so.

At a time when imaginative new solutions to housing problems are desperately needed, say Cairns and Jacobs, it's a shame that self-fulfilling clichés like these have taken highrise public housing off the agenda in the West. They show how a different attitude -- the attitude exemplified, for instance, in highrise community magazines like Our Home, produced for highrise citizens in Singapore in the early 1980s -- can make these "failed" towers into successes. Our home can be -- why not? -- tower home.