When Modernist Britain Fell Down

The histories of l’année soixante-huit always omit Ivy Hodge. That even detailed chronologies of the events of 1968 skip over her is puzzling; because in following her usual routine on May 16, this resident of Canning Town, in east London, set off a chain of events which had the British government’s reformist social policies in tatters.

At 5.50 on that spring morning Mrs Hodge, a fifty-seven-year-old cake decorator, who nine weeks earlier had moved into a new council flat on the eighteenth floor of the handsome Ronan Point development, got up and made herself a cup of tea. She struck a match to light the kitchen stove. “I remember filling the kettle,” she told a journalist, “but the next moment I was on the floor. I remember coming to and staggering to the landing door and shouting for help.”

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Gas had been leaking into her kitchen since the building was connected, and the vapours ignited. But what should have been a gassy pop confined to one room caused an engineering disaster. George McArthur, a night watchman at the £2 million project, witnessed all: “I heard cracking and banging and I saw concrete flying around. I ran like hell. A whole wing of the building came down.”

Mrs Hodge’s next-door neighbours, John and Jean Bruns, were jarred awake as walls of their flat blew out: “Our front door and front wall had gone, and I had to remove rubble with my hands to get to the staircase to escape.” Another man three storeys below had the floor collapse beneath him. Terrified, he was flung against a concrete wall, then carried by this intact slab as it dropped fifteen storeys to the ground. Down on the thirteenth floor, Brenda Maughan had been snoozing in a lounge chair. She was awakened by being tossed across the living room, then left perched on a ledge over a void where her flat had been. She clung tightly to the door frame. On the seventh floor, Jim Chambers and his wife Bea were sound asleep when their bedroom wall “fell away with a terrible ripping sound”. He recalled:

We found ourselves staring out over London. Our heads were only a matter of two feet away from the eighty-foot drop. The room was filled with dust and showers of debris and furniture were plunging past us. Suddenly, we heard screams. I think it must have been someone falling with the debris. I grabbed my wife and we got out of the flat as soon as we could. I thought the whole place was going to collapse.

When the couple got to street level they joined families in pyjamas and dressing gowns milling half-dazed on Clever Road. Some were nursing bloody gashes and scrapes. Above they saw that a corner of their new building had just fallen away, having broken into giant concrete slabs which dropped to the ground like playing cards. Grey clouds of dust and choking grit were now wafting down. Firemen and police who arrived at the scene looked up to see “dressing tables, electric fires, chairs and sofas left perched on the remains of some of the floors”. Several critically injured tenants were still trapped inside the tower. The bodies of another four residents would be recovered from the rubble later that day.

With nine identical tower blocks going up, Ronan Point represented the latest stage in consecutive government schemes to rehouse Britain. This had begun after the Second World War with a need to replace shattered sections of cities and towns. The first, rushed efforts were estates of prefabricated individual houses, often in districts flattened by the Luftwaffe; meanwhile various borough councils resolved to erect “new towns” on urban peripheries. Political leaders were in broad agreement that national reconstruction required suitable planning efforts by local and county authorities, as well as genuine measures to house the poor in affordable hygienic dwellings of a basic standard. However, these civic ideals did not readily translate into a practical plan of action.

The full enormity of the task ahead was only evident over 1949-50. Eight million British homes had now been assessed as unfit for habitation, of which seven million were without hot water and an inside toilet. A fifth of homes in London alone were categorised as slums, a figure which would have been higher had not a warren of mean, tubercular dwellings around the docklands been obliterated by the Blitz. Public impatience escalated, Britons seeming to expect more reconstruction than any government might realistically deliver.

A decade after war’s end, following piecemeal solutions involving estates which mixed abutting town-houses and small blocks of units, attention shifted to residential towers going up on the Continent. They were not only economical. Enoch Powell, a new junior Housing Minister who was demanding greater slum clearances, talked up high-rise construction as an indicator of energised progress: modern apartment blocks would embody a confident, technologically-savvy and compassionate Britain. This was what his parliamentary colleagues wished to hear. So in 1956 an innovative scheme was launched to subsidise the building of municipal apartment towers, payments being greatly scaled up with increasing height.

Within months the Poplar Borough Council had proudly announced that several Blitz-damaged streets in London’s East End were being replaced with four seventeen-storey modernist blocks of flats. There was opposition—although concerted efforts at local level went into explaining to potential tenants the many benefits, including larger rooms, central heating, hot water, indoor toilets and communal laundries with modern washing machines.

High-rise construction peaked under Harold Wilson’s government. He had promised more investment in public housing during the 1964 election campaign, and the number of council houses and flats built lifted from 119,000 to 142,000 annually in the succeeding two years. In east London, Labour used the Ronan Point estate to publicise this concerted action on slum clearance and housing approvals, so any accident there reflected directly on the government.

The cause of the gas leak in Ivy Hodge’s kitchen was a sub-standard fitting; although how a gassy pop in one kitchen brought down a building beggared belief. Investigators uncovered gross deficiencies in the management of construction, beginning with the workmen. Most were unskilled labourers and were kept under pressure, their take-home pay dropping if they failed to meet weekly deadlines.

Lack of supervision, unqualified workers and haste led in turn to unauthorised cost-cutting and safety breaches. Take cavities between wall sections which were to be filled with concrete. Investigators found labourers either plugged them with newspaper or left them empty. Likewise, instead of being set in cement as specified, the massive pre-cast concrete panels were each supported by only two bolts, which began rusting with the first rain. Besides, they were not intended to be load bearing, so all the bolts cracked under the strain.

The chief deficiency discovered arose from basic engineering. Larsen Neilsen’s system had been designed for, and only ever tested on, six-storey buildings. It wasn’t certified for high-rise blocks. However, with sixty-six single-bedroom and forty-four double-bedroom flats in each twenty-two-storey tower, all nine apartment blocks at Ronan Point were outside the listed structural tolerances for the Danish method.

The report on the accident sent shockwaves around the globe. Larsen Neilsen’s system had been used for housing in a dozen countries, and the safety of similar residential blocks standing across Europe was in question. Was their height excessive? Anthony Greenwood, Britain’s Minister for Housing and Local Government, was beside himself. The report affected all municipal apartment towers in Britain, not just those using a concrete panel system. There were 162 blocks of flats in Scotland alone, over a third of them towering above Glasgow. The safety of each one was in doubt. A nation-wide structural survey was urgently needed.

Britain’s civic construction boom was one aspect of a social transformation. Awareness of the urbanised lower class was shifting. So even as new council estates were built, this change in perception overtook the English novel. Beginning with John Braine’s Room at the Top (1957), Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960), fiction underwent a surge in gritty stories of restless—perhaps upwardly mobile—young men bucking social mores in the industrial north. Instant best-sellers, these books were rushed into celluloid along with the similarly themed The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959) also by Sillitoe, and David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960).

On close reading, domestic arrangements in these stories were unchanged from the era of Arnold Bennett and D.H. Lawrence, a stolid background of pinched brick dwellings massed into bare narrow rows of tight cobbled streets. This was precisely the outmoded residential pattern that civic redevelopment was aiming to do away with. Actually, the phrase used for the title of Braine’s novel, Room at the Top, which gestured to the typical lie of a midlands-cum-northern townscape unchanged since the Coketown of Dickens’s Hard Times, would shed its popular meaning with the spread of modern high-rise flats.

As for the municipal apartment tower, it initially figured in novels portraying Britain’s future. Characteristic was The Wanting Seed (1962), a dystopian comedy by Anthony Burgess, in which twenty-first-century London is imagined as a sprawling concrete grey metropolis. The once “progressive” high-rise housing program has resulted in the city’s millions of inhabitants being squeezed into tiny modernist bed-sits in dour skyscrapers up to a hundred storeys high.

The Wanting Seed came to be overshadowed by a striking and more plausible dystopian novella written in three intense weeks by the same author. A Clockwork Orange (1962) was fuelled by two experiences. One was the harrowing rape of Burgess’s pregnant wife by four GI deserters during a wartime blackout. The other was the author’s recent visit to Leningrad, where he encountered some Stilyagi (“Style boys”), wild American-fixated youngsters openly disaffected with Soviet culture. Burgess said when travelling back to Britain his imagination was already shaping “a kind of young hooligan who bestrode the Iron Curtain and spoke an argot compounded of the two most powerful political languages in the world—Anglo-American and Russian”. With an eye on the fiction of Sillitoe, Barstow and northern writers, he crafted a richly detailed yarn of youth delinquency set amid post-war residential estates in a decade’s time.

Alex, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, lives with his parents in Unit 10, on the eighth floor of Municipal Flatblock 18A, between Kingsley Avenue and Wilsonsway. The town is unidentified so the story’s location might be anywhere across Britain. Alex leads a group of three clueless louts who indulge in behaviour typical of young and bored working-class males: a cycle of neighbourhood mayhem centred on drink and soft drugs, minor vandalism, pointless fights, opportunistic theft, joy rides in stolen cars, quick sex where they can get it. But this slides into brutal violence, rape and a murder. Following arrest and a quick trial, Alex becomes “Prisoner 6655321” serving a fourteen-year sentence in Staja 84F, a state jail. A chance at early release sees him volunteer for an experimental rehabilitation program which involves neural reprocessing to curb violence and anti-social behaviour. But there will be complications.

There was a serious intent to the story. Questioning the ethics of converting those who do not conform into mindless “clockwork oranges”, a metaphor for mechanised sweetness, the author argues for free will with each individual making their own moral choices. All is resolved in the final twenty-first chapter, which corresponds to Alex’s age by this point, and stresses how reckless teens mature as adulthood nears. There was no need to meddle with Alex’s brain. Setting aside childish things, he relishes the prospect of marriage and fatherhood.

A Clockwork Orange took some time to find its audience. British readers were, in turns, appalled and enthralled by this confessional narrative set in an impudent adolescent voice, and most inventively using the underclass teen slang of a projected highly urbanised future. Through Alex’s grassroots commentary, the novel confronted real social problems simmering in some parts of Britain following civic redevelopment.

Attention was likewise slow to build in the United States, although reviewers there were taken by apparent connections with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), revered as a modern American classic. This was a fair comparison. Stylistically, the fictional Alex did echo and invert Salinger’s narrator Holden Caulfield, a wayward, if privileged, teenager butting against what he feels is a constrictive background. Over-eager critics wandered into a hall of literary mirrors: because just as Burgess inverts The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger had grappled with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It was an instance of strong novels begetting each other, a creative process described by T.S. Eliot in his justly famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1920). Missing what British readers could plainly see, some Americans even opined that aspects of Huck absent from Holden were made to re-appear in Alex.

Anthony Burgess himself considered the American edition of his novel ruined. His New York publisher had deleted the final chapter, and, hiding behind a legal clause in the contract, refused to reinstate it. That redacted novel without the twenty-first chapter is still in print and is the only version currently available from Australian and British booksellers.

Stanley Kubrick did not anticipate the storm ahead when he began filming A Clockwork Orange. This was over the winter of 1970-71, and the movie director planned an economical shoot, avoiding costly set production and elaborate special effects. So he chose for location camerawork a new high-rise estate on the very edge of London.

Kubrick’s film version of the story was a coda to his previous feature film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where it toyed with a fiction that human intelligence was engineered by alien intervention, A Clockwork Orange confronts the seeming aspirations of modern government planners and clinical psychologists to engineer people mentally, aligning social policies so as to refashion those at the bottom into pleasant and compliant drones.

After looking at several potential locations for a setting, Kubrick chose Thamesmead (above), a council estate rising on the Erith marshlands east of Woolwich. This cast-concrete utopia comprised a set of twelve-storey tower blocks clustered in a geometric pattern with smaller residences between. All was neatly organised around an artificial lake, with connecting elevated walkways, and garages beneath. The government had great expectations of the design. Thamesmead had even been visited by a Soviet urban planning delegation headed by V.S. Vysotski, chief architect at the Russian Institute of Town Design. The Times reported that they were interested in the sociological implications of its integrated design.

Kubrick’s camerawork made the estate bleak. Overshadowed by ultra-modern residences, Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) saunters along raised concrete walkways profusely littered with smashed furniture, packaging and domestic rubbish. In a voiceover he says the estate is named “Linear North”, a bland bureaucratic designation. Other scenes show his gang kicking a tramp to death in one of the pedestrian underpasses, and, beneath grey housing towers, Alex fighting others at the artificial lake’s paved edge. Blocky buildings from Thamesmead are used in outdoor camerawork right through the film, including a segment at a medical research institute.

Back at the movie studio, interiors were constructed in keeping with the estate’s style. The largest set acted as the ground foyer of Alex’s block of flats, with the designer copying fittings from Thamesmead. But the foyer was vandalised and filthy for the film. Rubbish from overflowing bins is scattered around, underwear dangles from stair railings, lift doors and foyer chairs are smashed, obscene graffiti is daubed on an agitprop mural. That large pictorial feature had been referred to in the novel. Alex says it was installed by a council authority, the defaced figures having initially been “very well-developed, stern in the dignity of labour, at workbench and machine”. The mural shown in the film adopts the official art style imposed by 1930s Italian Fascism, and portrays muscular Olympian labourers wearing loincloths. It is the sole departure from Thamesmead’s real design style.

There was always going to be a reaction against what is a confronting feature film. A Clockwork Orange revelled in graphic violence—the three early sexual assaults are stomach-turning. Wherever it was screened around the globe, audiences and critics questioned the morality of what was a most disturbing visualisation of Burgess’s dark novel. The author himself loathed it. But the eruption in Britain upon the movie’s release was unprecedented. The social historian Dominic Sandbrook explains why:

As a terrifying vision of utopian modernism gone wrong, teenage thugs running amok in a world of concrete tower blocks and a repressive government struggling to keep a lid on a broken society, A Clockwork Orange could hardly have appeared at a more appropriate moment. By the time of its premiere, the miners’ strike was just days old, while the papers were full of angst at the spectacle of one million unemployed and the mounting bloodshed in Northern Ireland. In this context, Kubrick’s stylised hooligans became the focus for a moral backlash of unparalleled intensity.

Not that the broader public could watch the movie, because the controversial film hadn’t gone into general release across the British Isles. As a marketing device, Warner Bros was limiting national distribution for the first twelve months to one cinema in London. The queue outside was long, many viewers booking their seats—which is why a special screening had to be arranged for inquisitive parliamentarians.

After months of Fleet Street harping, with no diminishment in rancour, Stanley Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from circulation in Britain. The final straw was the murder of a tramp in Buckinghamshire which the tabloid press alleged had been inspired by one scene in the film. Lawyers at Warner Bros warned Kubrick his movie was about to be made a scapegoat for every gang-related violent crime and sexual assault. So British prints of A Clockwork Orange were consigned to the company vaults for a decade.

Thamesmead, the location used for A Clockwork Orange, was a folly of post-war planning. Designed to house 60,000 tenants, it struggled to reach 12,000 within four years of opening. The entire estate was blighted by a ridiculous location. Sitting across the Thames from Ford’s immense automotive plant at Dagenham, the site was formerly a mucky tidal marsh that once extended to the river’s estuary. Before building could commence, a bog had to be drained and a retaining lake established to manage the groundwater. Even then specialised engineering was required to set foundations in the unstable peaty soils. This work had begun in January 1967.

Given the site was always prone to fog, many flats were afflicted with condensation and damp when finished. Mould also got into the confined service spaces and concrete carparks. Normally muggy air is cleared by ventilator systems or opening windows, but at Thamesmead this could bring in a noticeable odour, on some days a stink, because the estate was set beside the sewerage works which handled south London’s effluent.

Thamesmead’s residents were hardly unique in suffering from an unfavourable site. Local weather patterns were the bane of many high-rise estates. Concrete walls became stained with green damp and mould, while seasonal ice and snow ensured the slightest crack grew. Within a decade of completion, sixty local authorities across Britain had spent over £200 million on tower blocks dealing just with leaking roofs, cracked cladding and mildew getting into flats.

Winds were the bane of Glasgow’s municipal estates. During a gale there in January 1968 many high-rise towers had windows sucked in, electrical lights and lifts broke down, and furniture crawled across rooms on some upper floors. Recurring gusty days at Clydeside drove Eileen McConnachie to leave her eighteenth-floor flat in the Red Road estate: “On one particularly windy night my husband found that the wardrobe had moved four inches because of the tilt of the building,” she told a reporter.

The worst-positioned project was undoubtedly the Hutchesontown-Polmondie Estate in the Gorbals. Consisting of a dozen seven-storey blocks surrounding two twenty-four-storey towers, it was built over disused mineshafts filled with polluted water seeping from the Clyde River. There were always damp problems once building got under way in 1968, workmen needing to cope with flash floods after rain. The site was stricken with black mould, creeping tendrils taking hold of entire corridors and flats even before they were completed. A painter sent to wallpaper badly afflicted sections couldn’t get the rolls to adhere because the damp had set in too deeply. Fifteen years after completion the whole estate was closed for environmental health reasons.

Few who lived in municipal estates were surprised when a survey of tenants’ wellbeing noted a slump in personal health after people moved into tower blocks. Conducted for the new Department of the Environment, it was expected to show improvements in public health. But people were not taking the walks they needed, staying indoors in an upstairs flat all day. Not getting sufficient fresh air pushed up respiratory ailments among children and the elderly, bronchitis and asthma becoming rife in towers with damp problems. Fitness levels most declined among the infirm and disabled, whose activities were hampered by frequent lift breakdowns. Once the police had to carry a wheelchair-bound Sheffield woman with multiple sclerosis up twelve flights of stairs to her flat because the lifts stopped.

The sociologist Pearl Jephcott kept hearing the same complaints when interviewing tenants across estates for her book Homes in High Rise Flats. Physical limitations were a curse, with shops distant and recreational amenities lacking. Thamesmead’s tenants had to trek over three miles for basic groceries, while the nearest drinking spot was a small pub a mile south at rural Abbey Wood. Few estates had anywhere for young children to play. And pathways were too often impractical, meandering in broad curves instead of leading directly between the buildings and estate entry points.

Certain problems were social. Residents spoke to Jephcott of lawlessness, of drunks vomiting and urinating in lifts, of vandalism and escalating graffiti; but also of bossy management. Dictatorial notices—“No Loitering” signs especially—were common across estates. Rude municipal circulars on maintenance, and overbearing instructions about rubbish disposal, were routine. Jephcott noticed how “the highly artificial character of the layout of the multi-storey estate demands extra-careful upkeep”, and when necessary maintenance was disregarded, vandalism set in. Roystonhill’s tenants said council neglect soon led to broken windows and discarded rubbish in public areas, then lifts jammed on purpose, beer bottles rocketing down waste chutes at all hours, and noise. Other councils did nothing about railings ripped out, handles pulled off fire-doors, smashed telephone switchboxes, roof and basement safety doors kicked in. The £12 million Avebury Estate in Southwark was vandalised so badly that £2 million had to be spent on repairs four years after construction finished.

Neglect of maintenance led, in turn, to youth gangs, petty crime and a general sense of alienation. It was long known that bullying louts and teenage gang activity went hand-in-hand with a lack of youth amenities. However, the public storm triggered by A Clockwork Orange saw regional media across Britain fix on how vandalism, deprivation and despair had set in on certain local estates. For years councils had tried to cover up, denying what was occurring. The Greater London Council had even run an upbeat publicity campaign to camouflage problems at one dysfunctional estate in the making.

Investigative journalists found that housing authorities and local officials shoved around tenants who wanted action on poor services, while hushing up the growth of youth delinquency and related crime. National alarm peaked when, clasping her two-year-old son, a young mother jumped from the eleventh floor of a Birmingham residential tower. She felt trapped in an oppressive prison.

The audience always laughs when the architect speaks of his fee. This is in the 1971 feature film Get Carter; but what cinema viewers do not realise is that the empty restaurant the actors are performing in would remain unlet for the life of the real building. Shot on location in Newcastle, Get Carter used as a symbol of corruption a seven-tier carpark, and its unfinished rooftop restaurant, in the new fifteen-storey Trinity Square development. Finished in “brutalist” style bare concrete, Trinity Square was the centrepiece of a lavish government-funded urban renewal program.

A late scene in the film has the hoodlum Jack Carter (played by Michael Caine) in anger pick up a local crime boss then throw him off that carpark. Nearby two posh architects are waiting in the ugly shell of the incomplete restaurant. The man just killed had been meeting them to finalise the venue’s design, but he rushed out to see Carter. As the camera cuts from the victim’s mangled body splayed on a car far below, one architect remarks, “I have an awful feeling we’re not going to get our fees on this job.”

Urban renewal projects were poised to unravel as Get Carter was filmed. An election in June 1970 had ousted Labour and elevated Ted Heath to Downing Street; but that did not cause the change. Instead, the catalyst was Ray Fitzwalter, a journalist with the Bradford Telegraph and Argus. He had covered a court case after town hall employees were caught taking backhanders from local businessmen. After his newspaper report, Fitzwalter received a serious tip-off. It was so significant he travelled to Companies House in London to check on a strange firm. This building company, which didn’t possess even a wheelbarrow, kept landing government contracts across Britain’s north, then would sub-contract work out to genuine construction firms. In its registration papers, Fitzwalter found listed as the company directors a roll-call of public officials and politicians, including a former Home Secretary.

So began a tangled corruption investigation that shook Britain in the early 1970s. It ended with assorted northern powerbrokers either fined or sent to prison, among them T. Dan Smith. As the mastermind behind the redevelopment of Newcastle, he was the man responsible for that bleak carpark where the killing spree started in Get Carter. The never-leased restaurant overlooking Gateshead had been Smith’s idea.

The current soon turned against architects and civic planners, as evident in J.G. Ballard’s quirky short novel Concrete Island (1974). Slyly alluding to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it follows a forward-thinking architect who crashes his Jaguar at a motorway interchange and is marooned on the central reservation. Being in the business of designing civic utopias, he finds the tangible experience of this man-made “island” a rude awakening. Why are there no seats on the plantation, or anything people might use? You cannot even get water. Stuck there for days, this frustrated Prospero stews as a passing tramp and a young prostitute—examples of those he considers riff-raff—provoke him à la Caliban and Ariel.

More subtle is Margaret Drabble’s state-of-the-nation novel The Ice Age (1977) which includes an affluent couple, both self-professed socialists, who are riding the municipal construction boom. Arriving at a Yorkshire town, the woman exits its railway station to confront “an enormous roundabout, the beginning of a flyover, a road leading to a multi-storey carpark, and an underpass” which is choking with car exhaust and ankle-deep in litter. We learn her civic developer husband is responsible for this concrete-and-bitumen eyesore. Elsewhere in the novel, he contemplates the architect’s model for another council project his company is putting in, thinking its perfection will be spoiled once common townspeople begin using it: “the grass would be covered in dog shit, the trees would be vandalised and killed”.

Britain was housing more than one and a half million people in tower blocks by 1975. London alone had more than 68,000 high-rise flats, Birmingham another 24,000, followed by Liverpool with 19,000, then Leeds 12,000. The national economy was in trouble with the pound sinking, and those residential towers were not only looking expensive to build and maintain. They were synonymous with the poorest areas of each metropolis, the sad seats of unemployment, disadvantage and distress. Their greatest concentrations were in Greater London, the West Midlands, Glasgow and the North-East.

This association with the lower levels of society deeply affected a now volatile public debate on planning. People were angered at how the decision-makers did not (would not?) live in their own municipal developments. Architects and planners were accused of trying to be social engineers. The Greater London Council’s chief planner, David Eversley, felt besieged: “‘The Planner’ has become a monster, a threat to society, a breaker of communities, a divider of families, a promoter of neuroses,” he lamented in a 1973 book on the practice.

Supporters of high-rise estates relied largely on the theories of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, originator of the all-white minimalist room. Biographers trace his ideas to a Greek pilgrimage he made in 1911 to inspect the remains of classical buildings. While there, the youth spent a fortnight at Mount Athos, a closed and self-governing monastic state. Touring its monasteries on a donkey, and resting at night in monks’ stone cells, he was taken with the frugal simplicity of these tranquil communities basking under a Mediterranean sun. Years later, in writings on architecture and urban planning, Le Corbusier gestured to Mount Athos as prompting his thoughts on how people might contentedly live alongside each other.

After the Second World War, Le Corbusier persuaded the French government to solve its reconstruction housing problems with modern apartment blocks, designing one himself—the Unités d’Habitation at Marseilles. The French judged his showpiece a white elephant when it opened in 1952, although architects from other nations were fascinated. Several planners from the London County Council squeezed into a pre-war Morris and drove all the way down. They were awe-struck at how 337 flats were stacked grid-like into a massive concrete slab, along with a concourse midway up for a row of shops, bar, crèche and gymnasium, then a rooftop sundeck and play area. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) responded by awarding Le Corbusier its esteemed gold medal. Four years later the Unités d’Habitation was decisive in persuading British politicians that high-rise flats were the way to deliver quality mass housing on a budget.

The Macmillan government’s decision to build residential towers prompted the RIBA, in conjunction with the Building Centre, to stage an exhibition, “Le Corbusier and the Future of Architecture”, over winter 1958-59. It made a strong case for high-rise living. BBC radio’s Third Program devoted an episode to the show, daring to add interviews with two modern architects critical of the Unités d’Habitation.

Unswayed, municipal planners wouldn’t hear a word against the master. And, certain they could realise Le Corbusier’s vision of a socially cohesive architecture, they kept on idolising him through to the early 1970s. Advocates of utopian modernism wondered if the problems being experienced across Britain stemmed from housing the “wrong” sort of people in modernist towers. Vandalism, gangs, violent crime, communal breakdown—surely this arose from a social imbalance? A different mix in the class of tenant was needed.

J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise takes place in an apartment block on the Thames, described at the outset as “a huge machine designed to serve”. This forty-storey building is two miles from central London, one of five identical towers in a docklands development. The first nine storeys have modest, lower-priced flats. There is a concourse on the tenth floor which houses a supermarket, bottle shop, bank, beauty salon, swimming pool, gym with squash courts, small cinema and infant school. Progressively larger flats are found above, then a restaurant on the thirty-fifth floor along with saunas and a smaller swimming pool. The remaining floors have spacious luxury apartments, then two penthouses on the fortieth floor, with a rooftop sculpture garden and children’s play area.

Accommodating 2000 people, this building aspires to be “a small vertical city” (a favourite Corbusier phrase). Its tenants, who hold ninety-nine-year leases, appear “a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people—lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, senior academics and advertising executives, along with a smaller group of airline pilots, film-industry technicians and trios of air hostesses sharing apartments”. These like-minded folk talk the same talk, have similar tastes in furnishings and décor, cars and clothes, food and wine. They slip into a habit of staying in the tower, holding parties each evening.

Who socialises with whom leads one resident, Robert Laing, to liken each floor to a village. However, Adrian Talbot, a psychiatrist from the twenty-seventh floor, believes tenants are forming clans: “We’ll soon be refusing to speak to anyone outside our own enclave.” He sees ascending floors as doubling for a social hierarchy. So families with children reside on the lower floors, whereas the pedigree dogs belong to tenants in swish upper-floor flats. This leads Helen Wilder of the third floor to suggest floors resemble neighbourhoods. Some echo average suburbs, as against others which are smart districts “where the corridors were clean and the children would not have to play in the streets, where tolerance and sophistication civilised the air”.

This internal order sets tenants jockeying for position: “The old social sub-divisions, based on power, capital and self-interest, reasserted themselves here as anywhere else.” Far from trying to build a friendly community, as soon as they move in neighbours bicker over trivial things: noise, parking space, faulty elevators or air-conditioning, children in the swimming pool. It’s the unspoken rule that blame for any problem will descend, residents from the bottom levels being the target for all complaints and abuse. Mind you, every evening those partying on high toss wine bottles off balconies onto residents’ cars parked below.

A fifteen-minute electrical blackout affecting several floors, including the busy concourse, gets the plot into main gear. Panic ensues. People are assaulted in the dark. Women are touched sexually. A dog is deliberately drowned in the pool. Further blackouts and malfunctioning facilities lead to more poor behaviour. Then someone jumps through a closed window and plummets to death. Or was he pushed? In succeeding months antagonism rises and tenants regress to a tribal state. Marauding clans from different floors vandalise the facilities (electricity, plumbing, lifts, air-conditioning) then prey upon each other.

Regression is a recurring theme in Ballard’s fiction. His novels show the psychological vulnerability of seemingly civilised people, following characters trying to cope in the absence of a supportive community. The better angels in human nature rarely prevail.

There are broad affinities in this with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, as well as the fiction of the French Existentialists. Those works had grappled with the anxieties of a generation which had to deal with a world war where any pretence of moral norms was abandoned. Tellingly, when asked about his aims with High-Rise, Ballard referred to the experience of living in colonial Shanghai during 1941 (the subject of his roman-á-clef Empire of the Sun):

The reality that you took for granted—the comfortable day-to-day life, school, the home where one lives, the familiar street and all the rest of it, the trips to the swimming pool and the cinema—was just a stage set. They could be dismantled overnight, which they literally were when the Japanese occupied Shanghai … The experience of spending nearly three years in a camp, especially as a teenage boy, taking a keen interest in the behaviour of adults around him, including his own parents, and seeing them stripped of all the garments of authority that protect adults generally in their dealings with children, to see them stripped of any kind of defence, often losing heart a bit, being humiliated and frightened—all of that was a remarkable education. It was unique, and it gave me a tremendous insight into what makes up human behaviour.

It is surely significant that Ballard uses the third person here, a potential means of distancing used to handle emotionally sensitive memories.

High-Rise conveys much about human regression through the author’s signature motifs. All creators have subtle phrases or thematic notes which identify their handwork, performing as alternative fingerprints. Within Ballard’s writing, light and the sun are always pregnant with cryptic meaning. Both have been steady symbols in Western thought since Plato’s allegory of the cave, but Ballard gives the heliotrope his unique twist. The illuminating sun beats down relentlessly while civilisation collapses in his early novels The Drowned World (1962), Drought (1964) and The Crystal World (1966). Likewise his late work, Empire of the Sun, uses solar symbolism and intense light in layered allusions to the feared Japanese military ensign (a rising sun emitting rays) and, simultaneously, the atomic flash at Nagasaki which ended the war.

High-Rise handles these signature motifs in a differently nuanced way. Chaos and primal violence ensue during the residential tower’s escalating electrical blackouts, those dangerous periods without light. They are contrasted with quite still moments when characters pause during a glorious sunset over London. However, the silhouetted city looks more distant each time, as if the apartment building is physically moving away from civil society.

High-Rise was Ballard’s largest fictional canvas. If the apartment block allows a big cast to portray the disintegration of civil society, his plot fixes on three men: Robert Laing, Richard Wilder and Anthony Royal.

Dr Robert Laing serves as protagonist. Recently divorced, he lives alone in a comfortable flat on the twenty-fifth floor and teaches physiology at a medical school nearby. His thoughts seemingly set the book’s psychological tone. Laing reads communal dysfunction into nearly everything taking place in the high-rise. He studies others’ relationships from an emotional distance, noting and analysing which marriages and families are decaying, and in what way, as well as ruptures in friendships.

The surname “Laing” has shed its 1960s connotation, although when Ballard was writing it pointed straight at R.D. Laing, a counter-cultural icon. Puzzled that schizophrenia lacks an organic basis in the brain, this Scottish experimental psychotherapist came to believe individuals are made mentally ill by those around them. Laing’s fame initially arose from three quasi-existentialist books he wrote: The Divided Self (1960), Self and Others (1961) and Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964). They warned of an oppressive “family nexus”, how parental affection towards children is “violence masquerading as love”, and that social relations fracture the individual into a “divided self”. This outlook soon drew converts among a progressively-minded readership; although blaming mental illness on family or community dysfunction was what those who ridiculed bourgeois values wanted to hear in the 1960s. (Opened in 1965, Laing’s own mental clinic, Kingsley Hall at Bromley-by-Bow, was a short-lived disaster. Refusing to sedate patients in psychotic distress, and giving to others hallucinogens including LSD in the hope of inducing a shamanic state, Laing’s alternative therapies proved positively hazardous.)

Early in High-Rise Laing becomes friendly with Richard Wilder. As his name foreshadows, “Wilder” becomes an aggressive survivor in the urban jungle, excelling as the tower reverts to a tribal state. He and his wife are raising two infant boys in a basic third-floor flat when the novel begins. A former sports star turned television producer, Wilder is sent to cover a prison riot early in the plot. Upon his return, he carries a cine-camera around the building, telling other tenants he will make a documentary on the corrosive nature of high-rise living. But, missing every chance to film events being played out, he procrastinates.

Laing also has a weekly squash game with the chief designer, Anthony Royal. This figure stands out in any group due to his signature white safari jacket, stainless-steel walking cane, and German shepherd dog always at his side. Again a surname is significant, residents from the middle and upper storeys looking to “Royal” as equivalent to a local squire or titled figure.

This mature character lives in the penthouse with a trophy younger wife. He is a dreamer who aspires to shape lives, intending the building to mould tenants into an oligarchy. Royal soon believes he has given residents “a means of escaping into a new life, and a pattern of social organisation that would become the paradigm of all future high-rise blocks”. But in time his upper-floor elite proves unable to do anything without seeking his approval.

British readers recognised in Royal a caricature of the modern architect Erno Goldfinger. Since the 1930s many Londoners had abhorred his stark geometric buildings, calling them foreign, an affront to sound British values. It didn’t help that this talented Jewish-Hungarian émigré, a chum of Le Corbusier, had a knack of unintentionally rubbing people up the wrong way. Businessmen were unsettled when the architect tried to explain how straitlaced building exteriors they admired gave a poor impression of the firms inside. And there was the site agent at a complex project Goldfinger put up: “One day he will fall off a roof,” the man would mutter. The trainees who passed through his small office say the architect could be volcanic, his unorthodox thoughts racing away in overdrive: “He was riveting company,” one recalls. “He’d leap several points ahead of you in an argument then turn around and berate you for not having caught up with him.”

Goldfinger claimed to be a committed Marxist, an anti-bourgeois, a modest man of plain needs; yet people noticed his self-indulgent tastes, dining in ritzy restaurants and using a bespoke Jermyn Street tailor. Among them was the commercial writer Ian Fleming, a race-conscious snob, who used the architect’s surname for the ruthless foreign criminal in a James Bond novel, adding personal mannerisms to the character. Defamation was considered, then abandoned when the author threatened to adjust the name to “Goldprick”.

Fleming was being spiteful because Goldfinger had just won a prestigious competition to design Alexander Fleming House, the Ministry of Health’s new office block, and also an accompanying cinema. These were key components in a redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle, still a pile of sooty rubble since being blitzed in 1941. Goldfinger was the first of several modernists who landed commissions for this civic project, intended by the government as a stirring symbol for a progressive city. Their scheme was flawed but he added a touch of flair. “In ten years London could be a beautiful skyscraper city,” Goldfinger told the Sunday Times, “and the view from the river could be as it was in Wren’s London, except that instead of churches you would have skyscrapers towering over lower buildings.” When it was finished, the media turned against the entire development.

Erno Goldfinger came into his own with the contract for a block of municipal flats at Poplar, within sight of London’s docklands. He designed a twenty-seven-storey high-rise with a “service spine”, that is, a separate shaft tower for the elevators, mains power and plumbing, which was connected to the building by eight suspended walkways. Constructed entirely in poured concrete (not pre-cast modules), it was made to last. Even before completion in February 1968, Balfron Tower, a grey edifice which looms menacingly over its disadvantaged neighbourhood, had become an East End landmark. Contemporary architects extolled this commanding statement in the “Brutalist” style; although local voices chimed in agreement when the Tory poet John Betjeman, a redevelopment sceptic, likened it to an atomic bunker built above ground by mistake. Over the years Balfron Tower has been much used as a grim location setting in crime dramas produced for British television.

Erno and Ursula Goldfinger were the tower’s first tenants, moving into Flat 130 on the twenty-fifth floor. The architect milked the publicity. “I want to experience at first hand,” he told one journalist, “the size of the rooms, the amenities provided, the time it takes to get a lift, the amount of wind whistling around the tower.” Well-designed flats enhanced residents’ lives, he continued, making them more fulfilled and culturally richer people, and he mentioned how Le Corbusier theorised that a true modernist apartment block would build a thriving community. “All architects should live in a home they have designed,” he opined in another interview with the Guardian. Some of those words appear to have been later taken by J.G. Ballard and worked into passages describing Royal’s thoughts.

After three months, on May 15, the Goldfingers vacated the council flat and returned to their real home in affluent leafy Hampstead. Their timing was opportune. The very next morning, less than a mile from Balfron Tower, Ivy Hodge lit the gas stove in her kitchen—and a tower of those cheap system-built flats despised by Erno, standing at the rival Ronan Point development, came tumbling down.

Christopher Heathcote, a frequent contributor, lives in Melbourne. He contributed “From Bullitt to Dirty Harry via the Supreme Court” to the March 2019 issue.


5 thoughts on “When Modernist Britain Fell Down

  • DG says:

    When I was studying architecture in the late 70s the ‘heroes’ of the game, mentioned in the article, were promoted to us students as our heroes too, in uncritical adulation of sculpture builders…builders, I might add, of the humiliatingly anti-people sculptures that later Melvin Charney (a guest performer at our school) told us, only looked good as scale models (“looking good” is about the highest critical analysis that architects’ work was given then…maybe still is, but with more flowery and obtuse language, I dare say).
    Not a word was spoken about the human or social disasters that these buildings produced…Corb’s ( Le Corbusier ‘the crow’ in English) works were particularly lauded. Many were great, but those that had an obvious sculptural role more than those meant for regular humans who had to live in them.

    Architecture then, and I hope less so now, was divorced from people, and pretended to be ‘art’ rather than ‘socially beneficial shelter’ with human flourishing at its chief objective. Far better than we had been asked to read some of the novels mentioned in the article than admire the unpeopled photographs of buildings parading as something other than what they were…buildings.

  • pgang says:

    I’m pretty sure I saw Mrs Hodge’s story on the televisionator a while back, so her legacy has not quite disappeared. It might have been one of those engineering disaster shows.

  • pgang says:

    Wonderful writing – a pleasure to read.
    I must have been fortunate in picking up a full version of The Clockwork Orange some years ago, as I consider the ending to be the one of the best ever written – dripping with irony. Remarkably I still have the book, which is quite unusual. The Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, disappeared a long time ago.

  • Dave Carter says:

    Interesting factoid- some editions of A Clockwork Orange had the last chapter expunged, for reasons I haven’t been able to pinpoint, maybe to tie in with the ending of Kubrick’s film adaptation, but maybe also a busybody censor. My paperback was one a chapter short- I never knew until last year, when a Finnish bloke who had wanted to read it in English noticed the omission.
    In the last year, there has been a wonderful long essay on a website (Architectural Review? City Life? Some two-letter .com out of the U.S. I think, but I can’t quite dredge it up exactly) about the dreadful history of Britain and France’s mass housing projects and estates, and how anti-social tendencies and sites for crime were built into the slabwork. Ring a bell for anyone?

  • Dave Carter says:

    Found it!
    An interesting and excoriating read. Not trying to outflank you Christopher! My hard copy arrived today- which is country normally late, plus a bit of Wuhannannigans time- I’ll make sure that it finds its way under the noses of some of my old Architecture school pinko chums.

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