Future Homes for London, 13th/14th April 2018, RCA

https://www.rca.ac.uk/schools/school-of-architecture/school-architecture-events/future-homes-london-alternate-models/

Here’s some notes, in a not terribly organised fashion, from two very productive days at an event last week organised by the RCA’s school of architecture. In fact it was a kind of co-production with StART – the St. Anne’s Redevelopment Trust – a community-driven Trust based in Haringey, that is looking to purchase a site in the borough being sold by the local NHS Trust, and build genuinely affordable housing on it.

The event title was open, but what it was really about was how we might begin to build the homes that the UK really needs, that are affordable by the people who really need them. The focus was on models: Community Land Trusts, Co-operatives, and – to a lesser extent – CoHousing. (I know, CoHousing is my thing, bear with me.)

I won’t try and try and reproduce all the discussions or presentations here – a lot of ground was covered. Also, there should be slides posted from all the speakers at some point, and I’ll add/link to these.

Instead, here’s what I thought was interesting / useful to know / or struck me as important.

A bit about StART

Their own site tells you lots – they’re a Trust, but seem to think that the most likely form they will take will be a CLT, or Community Land Trust. Key to this is that the Trust is controlled by the local community, which allows the land owned by the Trust to remain in its ownership in perpetuity, to be used or disposed of only under the rules of the Trust.

Not to be confused with co-operatives or CoHousing, neither of which are strictly speaking about ownership.

Here’s what Vanessa Rickett from StART described as their four primary aims:

FIRST:  The Trust must have control, in perpetuity. This means ownership of the freehold.

SECOND:  The homes on the site must be genuinely affordable, in perpetuity.

THIRD:  Control over who gets to live there: local people, those with a specific housing need, but a mix.

FOURTH:  Control over the physical form of the homes and the overall development: green space (1), specialised housing for vulnerable, good quality – and high density! (2) homes built to much better than market standards.

(1) Interestingly, the Trust is keen for the green space to be used as a ‘porous border’ both by its own residents and those recovering from mental health issues on the part of the site to be retained by the NHS.

(2) The NHS Trust had planned for 470 homes on the site. StART have found that in fact, there is broad local support for almost double that density, IF they are genuinely affordable.

Post blog news: GLA purchases the site! 

Projects from other countries

A pretty inspiring mix of projects from elsewhere in Europe, and Australia, a quick roundup…

Although there were two CoHousing projects presented from Berlin, I might write about these separately, so will jump over these for the moment. Both followed the Baugruppe model, which in this context is pretty much CoHousing. As such, both schemes were privately owned by their residents, not the co-operative or CLT models that were the focus of much of the subsequent discussion. (Silvia Carpeneto from Carpaneto Schöningh Architekten in Berlin wasn’t able to be there, but I know her and the Co-operative project, Spreefeld, well, and touched on it in a previous post.)

 

dabkccmvaaatife-1-e1523891017652.jpg

Anyhoo, the others:

La Borda – an ambitious new co-operative in Barcelona that’s also a CoHousing project. The group seems to have channelled a fantastic amount of local energy into creating a project – now nearing completion – that has managed to pull off a mix of low-cost but inspired, environmentally efficient design that’s both affordable and physically integrated into the public realm.

Kraftwerk I – an impressive part of Zurich (and Switzerland’s) huge co-operative housing sector. English here. Some factoids about co-operative housing in Switzerland:

  • a whopping 20% of Zurich’s housing is co-ops, likely to increase (!) to 35% in the foreseeable future. (!!)
  • Co-operatives are the model for social housing provision, with 10-20% subsidised for this purpose, but also serve a much larger slice of the population.
  • Although we have many housing co-ops in the UK, some of these are not owners of their own housing or freeholds, In Switzerland, all housing co-ops are more like CLTs – the members each hold a ‘co-operative share’, and also pay rent to the co-op. They are, effectively owners for the time they live there, but can’t buy or sell their share, i.e. they can’t use their home as a speculative asset.
  • Yes, Zurich does have a crisis-level shortage of affordable housing, but recent legislation ensures that it can sell housing land ONLY to housing co-operatives.

The Nightingale Model, Melbourne. Melbourne’s housing market seems spectacularly broken even by British standards, especially in environmental terms. Jeremy McLeod of Breathe explained how he had self-financed the start of a chain of housing projects that cut out the large house builders to create some housing that was he described as “just good-normal housing” – apartment blocks that offers less-is-more, stripped down, green design at a lower than market price. This is achieved through many ideas: cutting out the sales and promotion costs of big developers, stripping out unnecessary levels of finish, fighting – successfully – against the nonsensical planning requirement for car parking, and using the spare space created for discount-rented startup business in its place.

Notably (for me and my work, especially) – he emphasised a particular aspect of market failure: younger people are being told ‘renting is fine, you’re a flexible, mobile generation’. But what happens when those now young renters hit retirement age? He noted that at one of his first projects (where he also lives I think?) – the social glue is essentially three women over 60 (also, a guy who doesn’t talk much but walks his dog for him).

Key thoughts

My own thoughts, not necessarily reflecting exactly what was presented on the day:

  1. What CLTs, Housing Co-ops, CoHousing have in common: all are trying to offer people what the housing market is totally failing to do.
  2. But also, sadly, what the state is failing to do. In fact, local authorities, health trusts and others in possession of land are often not trusted to do the right thing with that land, because those authorities so strapped for cash; selling off the family silver to plug a hole in their operating costs.
  3. Community Land Trusts have the specific aim of creating housing that is removed from speculation; something that is a home, not an asset class.
  4. Touched on, but not explored in great depth: who actually is ‘the community’? In rural situations this might actually be clearer; in urban areas it makes sense that the community is local people. And that the housing should be provision for a range of people in greatest need. But more than one person from StART admitted they were struggling to reach those who are probably in greatest need.
  5. Drawing on both 2. and 3. – under what legitimacy are decisions made by a Community Trust, particularly in terms of housing allocation?
  6. Not a talking point on the day… but a young friend of mine who was there pointed out (to me) that many young Londoners who rent are forced to move often; they are never able to become ‘local people’.

And the biggest issue: financing and access to land. The seemingly impossible challenge is, of course, how a community groups gets money to buy land, especially in the southeast and London, in order to produce housing that can be removed from market speculation in the first place.

StART are fundraising, and need £50million. Do get in touch with them if you’re up for a donation.

What was very interesting though was the input toward the end of the Day 2 by Pete Gladwell (Head of Public Sector Partnerships, Legal & General Investment Management). He painted a picture of growing pension funds looking to invest more directly in housing provision than previously, much of which had been done through lending to central and local government, as well as to housing associations. Key is that what such funds are seeking is ‘patient’ investment, nowadays the opposite of what the major house builders are looking for, and that community-driven projects might find this an increasingly fruitful source of financing.

Finally, in my ‘own realm’ of older people and CoHousing, Stephen Hill, speaking about the K1 CoHousing project in Cambridge, touched on the fact that some older buyers with equity had been able to invest in the first phase as a kind of ‘kickstarter’ effect. I might have misunderstood that particular comment (will revisit this at some point). But it did occur to me that something that might provide one small part of the funding solution is this:

Community Land Trusts have a community, but need capital

Many (I know, not all) older people have capital, but lack (local) community

Just sayin’.

 

Advertisements

Self-Build Homes

I’ve contributed a chapter to a new book about self-build homes. It’s called Self-Build Homes. Helpfully, publisher UCL Press has a policy of including a free download version, so no excuse.

Even more excitingly, there’s a launch event, Friday 11th May 2018 at 17.30, do come along if you’re in London. Free drinks and nibbles? Yes.

sel-build-homes-cover

In fact, ‘self-build homes’ is a term that in this context encompasses a range of approaches and practices that are more than ‘just’ physically building your own home, or those annoying couples you see on Grand Designs*.

Rather, it examines – among other things – the creation of homes through various perspectives of co-production, community, neighbourhood, culture and politics, as well as case studies and commentaries on actual projects.

My chapter’s called Senior co-housing: restoring sociable community in later life, in which I followed two groups of older people (back in 2015) attempting to create new-build co-housing projects, one in north London, the other near Colchester in Essex.

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________

*How about a series special called Grand Designs: Bank of Mum & Dad, where Kevin-bloody-McCloud talks to the people who actually pay for the inevitable but mysteriously-uninvestigated £600k cost overrun incurred by the pair of dumb graphic designers from Highbury who’ve decided to leave the rat race (i.e. North London) and convert an iron age hill fort near Swindon into a vast pseudo-modern-timber-and-recycled-rusty-cladding project that is, at the end of the day (cue panning shot with Kevin’s voiceover) “what good architecture is really all about…”

Nicht allein, und nicht ins Heim!*

*Not alone, and not in a home!

It’s easy to lose yourself in your own academic thinking bubble when you’re doing a PhD. Hence a post to let a little daylight / other people into my world at the moment.

I spent from April till the end of last year doing fieldwork in the Berlin, essentially interviewing, observing and generally hanging out with some different groups of (mainly) older people who have formed intentional communities together, in these cases various models of Co-Housing (see earlier post). The background to this is that I’m interested in how community-based housing models might offer some responses to the challenges of an ageing, increasingly isolated population.

As noted in previous blogs, intentional communities, Co-Housing, building groups (Baugruppen), and other forms of living that have some community or shared element are pretty common in Berlin, and Germany. But what isn’t common is groups who are specifically older getting together to do this. I found three in total. Or I thought I had – it turned out to be a bit more complicated.

Of the three, the first one hadn’t quite played out as the groups founders had planned, in that members often had primary homes and lives elsewhere, making their shared Berlin project more of a pied-à-terre. The second one I’d come across – a group who live in a ‘cluster-apartment’ or WG that’s part of the larger and well-publicised co-operative development at Spreefeld – isn’t strictly a group of older people at all.  The age range is roughly 50-somethings to 70-somethings (plus a couple of younger folk) and they didn’t set out to be an age-based project. These may seem like fine distinctions, but when you’re picking this apart for a PhD, such distinctions become important.

So while the first two groups have certainly ‘informed my research’, I’ve focussed mainly on the third one. They’re called “Allein Wohnen in Gemeinschaft”. Or “AlWiG” for short. Or “Living alone in community”, for long again.

They’re interesting in all kinds of ways, but in the context of what I’m doing, especially  because:

  1. They’ve been together as a group for over a decade now, whereas the most established comparable group in the UK (OWCH – Older Women’s CoHousing) moved in together not much more than a year ago.
  2. They were explicit about being a group of older people, who would be there for each other as they grew older.
  3. Very unusually, for a co-living group of any age, they didn’t construct a bespoke housing project with individual apartments with a central, shared facility at its core (generally the model for Co-Housing), but instead, they rent a ‘cluster’ of apartments on an existing (social) housing estate in a less affluent area of south-east Berlin.

 

I feel like this third thing is especially current at the moment, as co-housing just isn’t going to scale up in any real way if it remains something that involves the huge palaver of in effect becoming a developer: finding a site, BUYING that site, building the housing, and all self-financed while still needing an existing home to live in. Many drop out along the way, and if you’re doing this as an older group, some members might not make it at all. And not least of course, all this makes it very exclusive, limiting the model to those with a lot of (economic) capital.

Adapting existing buildings has got to be at least a part of the answer, a so-called ‘retrofit’ approach that I know the UK Co-Housing Network were talking about a while back.

As noted above, the group also rents, which in Germany is a far more secure tenure than it is in the UK. Although I can’t ignore the fact that some of those I interviewed in other groups did regard full ownership (or a tenure that amounts to it) as important, in terms of security as a retired person.

Anyhoo, some photos.

A couple of images of the Spreefeld co-operative. Architecture!

spreefeld-2

Aerial view of the three blocks that form the whole Spreefeld development (Image: id22)

 

spreefeld-plan

Typical ‘cluster’ over two floors – shared space highlighted in yellow (Image: fatkoehl architekten)

 

spreefeld-1

Shared external space (Image: id22)

 

I still have memories of the site before the project was built – Sunday afternoons spent dancing on top of (or inside) the boathouse at Kiki Blofeld, across the river from Bar 25 (which now of course the newly emergent Holzmarkt development, which I’ll write about another time, promise).

Here’s a picture of the Rollberg estate, where AlWiG live. Doesn’t look much from this view, but it’s (also) quite an interesting development in architectural terms, completed in 1982 and something of an exemplar of its day. A separate post on this, maybe.

alwig-1

Back in Berlin, and collaborative housing.

Have been back in Berlin since May (here till end of October), for research purposes. No, really. I’m a recipient of ESRC funding to do a PhD looking at cohousing in Berlin, specifically what can be learned from groups of older people coming together and creating their own housing projects. I did a short study of two such groups in London in 2015, but both were in the development phase – I wanted to look at groups who were actually long-established and living together. And also spend my entire summer in Berlin*.

I first came across cohousing for/by older groups, when one was being built right across the canal from me when I last lived here. I quickly and incorrectly assumed that:

a) all cohousing was created for and by older people, and

b) that the one I’d seen was just one of loads that existed in Berlin

Cohousing turned out to be for people of all generations (although it’s not quite as simple as this, as I will be exploring at some later date). And the one example of a specifically older group turned out to be one of…  only two in Berlin. Thus these are the two Berlin examples that I have selected. To be fair, there do seem to be a large number of cohousing projects done by older groups that are in progress and likely to open within the next year or so, but that’s no use when you want to look at how it’s working out in practice.

Anyhoo, what is cohousing? Good question. It’s an intentional community (intentional neighbourhood is a term often used) where a group has come together to live in individual dwellings, but clustered around a common space. It’s nota commune. The ‘intentional’ bit comes from an agreement by all involved that they will work to actively maintain a community, with regular events, sharing a meal together weekly, and so on. It’s better described here.

My question of ‘what might the UK learn from examples in Berlin?’ is perhaps slightly undermined by the strong tradition of community-driven housing that already exists in Germany (and Berlin in particular). Here there’s a lot of different forms of housing – legal, financial social and architectural that make up a kind of ‘field’ of alternative community housing, and cohousing often overlaps with some of these. As one background element to my own research, I’m exploring some of these – the following is an attempt at describing a couple, just some thoughts rather than a full or accurate description:

  • A Baugruppe [‘Building Group’] – essentially where a group gets together and commissions or builds their own housing development, just how they want it. Self-funded private Cohousing often uses this model, and could in principle be done more in the UK, but but in Germany there’s more of an established legal model, specialist lawyers and other specialists etc, who make this a relatively common thing.
  • A Genossenschaft (= co-operative, sort of) – these have a long tradition in Germany / Berlin, and form the major part of what we in the UK would view as social housing, similar in some ways to housing associations, and which often receive(d) state funding.
  • A ‘new-generation’ Genossenschaft – often overlapping with Baugruppen, a group come together and sets up a housing co-operative, raising their own funds, with the co-op owns the land/buildings, and everyone rents. Each co-op member/renter has a right to their tenancy in perpetuity, and the rent is theoretically lower as no external owner is making a profit. Cohousing could use this model too – it’s arguably closer in practice to Community Land Trusts in the UK.

 

In the case of one of the groups I’m looking at, it’s none of the above – the group rents apartments in an existing housing estate (better than that sounds), along with an additional apartment that they rent jointly as a communal space. It therefore exists essentially as an idea more than a physical form, but socially seems to work very well.

You might be thinking this all sounds a bit Scandinavian (it is) and seems like a good-idea-in-principle-but-not-my-sort-of-thing-really. I can understand that. But the aspect that appeals to me personally is what it might offer as we get older – a group of friends, or at least amenable acquaintances – who are proximate, who you can do stuff with or drop in on without having to travel miles, and who can support each other when family are (increasingly) far away.

The questions I’m asking are rooted in sociology and gerontology (How does it work out in practice? How do we differently negotiate the exigencies of later life through such communities?) which was… something of a struggle for a while, as it’s not my background.

__________________________________________________________

*Ha ha, I said to friends in London, I’m off to spend an endless summer in Berlin, enjoying proper ice cream and al fresco electronic dance music, while you all remain in London moaning about the weather and going to work a lot. Not so. It has been raining in Berlin since late April**, and shows no sign of stopping as I write this in July.

**I’m exaggerating, but not a lot. The weather has been much better in London. But I have eaten some good ice cream, and also some clubbing, things no longer possible in the UK capital since all ice cream outlets, clubs, pubs, decent bars, markets, sports facilities, public swimming pools, parks and libraries have been redeveloped into thirty storeys of luxury apartments***

***By which we all now, of course, mean shit apartments. But with a concierge, gym, Cafe Nero and Sainsbury’s local cluttering the ground level in place of a decent public realm. Or an ice cream shop.

Grey Matters

An opinion piece written on older people and housing for the 40th anniversary publication of an architecture firm I used to work for. Came out late 2016; I also did several other interview pieces that feature throughout: article.

Jim Hudson asks whether a new generation of people reaching old age might mean a completely different approach to their housing needs

The percentage of people over 65 in Britain is forecast to increase from its current 18%, to almost a quarter of the population by 2040, bringing with it problems of isolation and loneliness, and placing an increasing demand on already stretched health services. But are current models of housing and care provision responding fast enough to this fundamental demographic shift? If you pick up a brochure for sheltered housing, for instance, chances are it will feature a smiling couple in their 60s, with text that emphasizes security and a 24-hour pull cord response. The buildings in the background will no doubt be a low-rise quiet enclave of some form, and will include a communal lounge where residents can attend coffee mornings.

It’s not just that there will be more older people in the future; older people will be different. Those reaching retirement age now and over the next decade are the baby boomers – the first ‘consumer generation’ who are arguably more demanding, and much more diverse, than previous generations. What are they making of the current housing options available to them – private or publicly supported – and might we soon have to rethink the idea of specialist housing for the ‘over 55s’ altogether, when an active 65 or 70 year old will have no interest in anything that’s aimed at ‘the elderly’? The demand for housing geared towards providing more intensive support and care services will undoubtedly grow, especially for dementia care. But for others – people who are perhaps in need of some degree of support services, but want to remain firmly in control of their lives – there are indications of a change in thinking by more than one of the Care Providers that Baily Garner works with. There’s a view that the ‘extra care’ model, while continuing to provide important services, has grown into a monolithic system, with a tick-box approach that has often led to the over-provision of communal spaces and shared amenities such as hairdressing salons, that are simply not used. Increasingly, there is only demand for such accommodation by those who are much older – in their 80s rather than the now rather arbitrary ‘over 55’ line drawn in planning regulations – and who might be having to accept something they don’t feel is ideal, in return for the care services which they do need.

And although the appearance of many retirement schemes has evolved into something less institutional in feel, there are a number of schemes that strongly reject the typical image of an insular ‘old folks home’ tucked away somewhere in suburbia. Some housing association clients are looking for schemes to have a more ‘exclusive’ feel, with apartment blocks that might have a function room at ground level, or a small restaurant – the kind where you make a booking rather than something that feels like a school dinner sitting. But the real change is location; the aim is to build on central urban sites, next to transport nodes and proper local amenities – high streets with decent shops and some life at street level. Such approaches are very rare in the UK so far. But countries such as the Netherlands show how a completely different attitude to older people and housing has meant that urban, city centre high rises for older people, with communal facilities at ground level are common. Greater flexibility in providers’ use of public funding also means longerterm capital investment decisions are possible, reflected in better quality finishes rather than the drive to minimise capital build costs – the buildings simply have a feel of better quality.

Of course, such central locations mean housing providers competing for sites that are in demand for all residential uses, especially in the southeast where demand is highest, and social providers are hit by a double whammy of right-to-buy and dwindling public funding. But there is perhaps a role here for local planning authorities to create opportunities on selected sites, if they really are serious about creating genuinely mixed neighbourhoods.

In the private sector, Baily Garner is involved in a scheme that is admittedly ‘high-end’, but is exploring alternatives to the traditional ‘coffee mornings and pull-cord’ approach, with innovative ideas and facilities that are aimed at responding to new consumer demand; instead of acres of parking, there is a small pool of electric vehicles (helped by a sponsorship deal with the manufacturer, made possible by the ‘exclusive’ nature of the development) and a concierge service that actually is a service, closer perhaps to a hotel reception. The developer believes strongly that there is a real market for older people looking to downsize into smaller, adaptable homes, where they won’t have to suffer, say, party noise from younger neighbours every weekend, but will be able to benefit from good locations and facilities. In all areas of housing provision for older people, we need to continue to see a move away from ‘responding to care needs’ as a goal in itself, toward policies and approaches that start with an independent person in their home (of whatever type), with support tailored around this. NHS England has warned repeatedly of the ‘crippling costs’ of caring for elderly patients in hospitals where the root cause is actually loneliness and isolation. Successful new housing solutions need to play a role here, with more creative approaches to supporting sociable communities that keep people active and engaged, rather than just creating dependency on care services.

In the US, the “villages” model has emerged, where networks of older people in a neighbourhood jointly commission support services, but through doing this also create mutually supportive social networks. In several north European countries the idea of ‘senior cohousing’ is becoming established, where groups of older people develop their own small housing communities, each with their own home but also with a social space, and hope to mutually support each other to encourage more sociable – and therefore it is argued healthier – lives. In the Netherlands the model has become almost mainstream, where it’s a significant portion of all housing and receives public funding. Here in the UK, it’s yet to make an impact, but the first senior cohousing group will move in to their new homes in north London later this year (known as Older Women’s Cohousing, OWCH for short), with more schemes in the pipeline. Of course, ideas like these won’t appeal to everyone – we don’t all want to live in the same place, or with the same kind of people. But there is a need to recognise the housing for older people in the future will need to be as diverse as older people themselves, and support us all (we are none of us immune from ageing, after all) in continuing active and useful lives for as long as possible. Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves of any scheme that we’re involved in for older people is: would we move in here tomorrow? And if the answer is ‘no’, should we expect others to?

High Rise (Lo Res)

This is a piece I did for the inaugural edition of a new Swedish publication, Lo-Res, which aims to bridge the gap between academic and more freely written texts. The edition took the theme of High Rise both in the sense of the Ballard novel and also in the sense of buildings that are very tall. Being British, and being a bit of a Ballard fan, I was asked to write a piece on the novel, which I chose to relate to thoughts about London’s current high-rise apartment boom. 

 

High-Rise

November 2013, London. Newspaper reports describe how High Point Village, a new gated development of 600 homes on the western edge of the city, has witnessed a social breakdown between wealthier and poorer ‘affordable housing’ residents.[1] Matters came to a head over a temporary fault in the water supply: the wealthier ‘inner gated’ community was given a temporary hose supply while the poorer occupants were denied access to the hose, even though it crossed their ‘zone’. Even the car parking was separated by gates, and mysteriously the housing blocks of the less affluent residents were left unnamed on the location signs around the development. It was not long before one online commenter referenced High-Rise, the 1974 novel by J. G. Ballard.

In the book, the residents of a vast new 1 000-apartment tower quickly descend into barbarism and violence as the building becomes separated into a class hierarchy, with the ‘upper class’ residents on the upper floors and penthouses, and the lower orders at the bottom. Anthony Royal, one of the tower’s architects and resident of the top floor penthouse, establishes himself early on as the ‘master’ of the building, presiding over a situation where cocktail parties soon evolve into raiding parties to other floors. As the building’s services fail and food becomes scarce, a resident’s dog goes missing – taken for food as it turns out – and eventually the residents turn on each other. Following a recurring theme in Ballard’s work, the protagonists voluntarily isolate themselves from the surrounding city, and seem to willingly descend into a state of barbarity.

It is often assumed that Ballard drew his inspiration for High-Rise from west London’s Trellick Tower, the Brutalist edifice designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger and completed in 1972. There is clearly some truth in this: the tower seems to physically fit the author’s description of “an architecture built for war,” and Trellick was the tallest and arguably most ‘Brutalist’ of the towers of that period. It quickly became notorious in the press, with reports of social strife between floors, problems with elevators and rubbish disposal, noise, muggings and assaults, fires, and an overwhelming lack of security.[2] Furthermore, Trellick also has a ‘sister’, the Balfron Tower, on the other side of London. The block (as well as a shorter tower forming part of the complex), was also designed by Goldfinger, and was a kind of proto-Trellick, coarser perhaps, less refined, and completed five years before its younger sibling. To much PR fanfare at the time, Goldfinger even ‘lived’ in a 25thfloor apartment for two months, where he and his wife threw champagne parties for the residents to find out what they thought, (before retreating back to the comfort of their two-story Hampstead home). The incident was widely reported at the time[3] and unlikely to have escaped Ballard’s notice when placing his own fictional architect in High-Rise‘s penthouse apartment. The construction of both towers should be seen against a background of rising public animosity to high-rise social housing[4], which gained wider currency in part due to an infamous gas explosion that caused a partial collapse of the Ronan Point tower in East London in 1968.

Yet it would be wrong to read High-Rise as a critique of the failure of large-scale social housing projects of the period, or indeed as a critique of modernism as a style. In fact, the focus of Ballard’s writing was rarely on contemporary social issues in terms of class or housing policy. His fiction was surrealist, using elements of realism and juxtaposing these against a violent, swift and often spectacular social breakdown among a particular group.   Often, such a breakdown is set against a backdrop of Brutalist architecture and emergent technologies. His recurring theme, learned through savage childhood experience, is that modern society is merely a surface illusion; that given the opportunity, our psycho-pathological nature will drive us to violence. As in so many of Ballard’s stories, an apparently realist premise moves beyond any direct analogy with society at the time; towards the end of High-Rise, a surreal scene suggests that a kind of matriarchal micro-society has emerged from among the tower’s survivors.

Another factor that suggests we should resist a literal comparison with the high-rises of Trellick and Balfron, and other towers of the period, is that the residents of Ballard’s fictional tower are all private owners – there is no element of social housing, with its links to the state and wider society. These residents are able to pursue their own will undisturbed by the wider world; at one point Anthony Royal’s wife suggests complaining to the owners about the ongoing slide into chaos. “We are the owners,” replies her husband. It is this very fact of ‘ownership’ that Ballard is able to use as a key device to isolate the residents, or rather that allows the residents to isolate themselves, from the outside world.

In theory, the residents are also a homogeneous group – Ballard’s characters are almost invariably middle class professional technocrats – who despite this quickly divide themselves into three classes: floors zero to 10 for the lower classes, 10 to 35 for the middle, uppermost floors and penthouse for the upper class. The character of Richard Wilder feels driven to conquer the tower itself, and literally becomes a social climber as he ascends from the lower levels towards the penthouse.

Ballard’s views on modernism in architecture also resist simplification, and in his own writing he could often seem ambivalent. “I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton” he wrote, in an article that, arguably, laments the ending of the ‘heroic’ period of modernist architecture.[5] Ballard’s novels are rarely without some form of architectural presence: the architectural realm is both backdrop and protagonist. It is architecture that presents itself as ‘the future’, but a future that seems unable to cope with its own implications. His protagonists in High-Rise, sealing themselves off inside the tower, quickly regress to a pre-civilized state, seemingly driven by, or in sharp contrast with, their modernist, machine-like environment. Thus Ballard uses the architecture as a further tool to allow the isolation of his characters, a concept that recurs in several of his novels, most notably Concrete Island and The Drowned World.

At the same time, it is interesting to note that the fictional tower is so specifically located in London’s Docklands, a post-industrial area to the east of the city’s core. At the time he was writing, the vast area of dockyards and warehouses along the river Thames was in terminal decline or already wasteland. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy project of Docklands regeneration, that gave birth to the glittering towers of Canary Wharf, remained entirely in the future.[6] Although only a couple of miles from the financial center of London, Docklands was at the time, and in some ways remains, physically and economically far removed from the rest of the city – perhaps a further literary isolation device.

Clearly then, although Ballard may have taken some inspiration from existing towers, High-Rise is in no way a critique of the high-rise public housing projects of the era. Instead it is perhaps an extension of his own, at times extreme, vision of the human condition. It is also tempting to read Ballard as a hugely prescient author, as many critics have done over the yearsto the extent that author Martin Amis, in a 2011 introduction[7] for Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, wrote ”Is prescience a literary virtue? And should the work of J. G. Ballard be particularly prized (as some critics maintain) for the ‘uncanny’ accuracy of its forecasts? The answer to both these questions, I suggest, is a cheerful no.” He goes on to make a strong case for this, with which few would disagree. And yet there is something fundamental about the novel High-Rise that seems to be set more in the London of 2014 than that of 1974. At that time, private residential towers were almost non-existent in the UK, the only notable project in London being the Barbican complex, with its three private residential towers built between 1973 and 1976.

Today, the London skyline tells a very different story. The capital is currently witnessing an explosion of new, private residential towers. At the beginning of 2014, there were 189 residential towers of 20 stories or more, either in planning or under construction[8]. This seems a particular aberration, given that the English much prefer to spread out rather than to go up, driven to suburbanization by an innate dislike of apartment living and an unwarranted respect for the grand myth of the Garden City movement. But London, as distinct from the rest of the UK, is currently suffering from a kind of hyper-gentrification, in large part due to the capital’s opening up to international investment cash, whatever its providence.[9]

As recently as ten years ago, the Balfron tower stood alone, the tallest structure by far in the poor residential district of Poplar. But now the building rubs shoulders with a cluster of new private residential tower developments, and Balfron itself is being refurbished as apartments for open market rent[10]. The social housing tenants, with family close by and a social network of support built up over years, are being pushed out to the city’s periphery[11].

The residents of the new towers, whether as owners or renters, will be attracted first and foremost by the perception of privacy and security. After all, a ‘luxury’ apartment block is really just code for a vertical gated community – all but the most oligarch-affordable dwellings will fail to deliver luxury in terms of space. These new residents, who seem unlikely to choose their high-rise location based on close family ties or emotional attachment to a particular area, are in effect voluntarily isolating themselves from wider society, from the life of London’s streets and long-established communities and cultures. This is particularly evident in Docklands, where, more than twenty years after the ‘year zero’ that created the shining towers of Canary Wharf, a second wave of development is under way, albeit this time underpinned by a ‘social cleansing’ of the existing population rather than rising out of a wasteland. Here there is a double self-enforced seclusion: in a hermetically sealed, securitized tower, and in the Docklands location that is ever increasingly a world apart from the rest of London. The new residential towers are becoming the physical representation of a new nation. It is a nation of upscale shopping and dining facilities, of exclusive gymnasiums and yes, private swimming pools.

Martin Amis, reviewing High-Rise in its publication year[12], suggested that eventually whole cities, not just Ballard’s single tower, would “take on that quality common to all Ballardian loci,” becoming “suspended, no longer to do with the rest of the planet, screened off by its own surreal logic.” In the London of 2014, it seems as if this vision of the future may increasingly become reality.

IMG_20140926_154726266

Notes

Note 1: Ben Quinn, “Unsocial housing? Gates within gates divide the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’”, The Guardian, October 22, 2013.

Note 2: http://www.housingprototypes.org/project?File_No=GB010

Note 3: http://designmuseum.org/design/erno-goldfinger

Note 4: Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block – Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Section 2, Part C. (Yale University Press, 1994).

Note 5: J G Ballard, “A Handful of Dust” The Guardian, March 20 2006: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/mar/20/architecture.communities

Note 6: For an evocative glimpse of the period, see John Mackenzie’s 1979 film The Long Good Friday, where Bob Hoskins’ gangster is planning the redevelopment of Dockland’s as, presciently enough, an Olympic venue.

Note 7: J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World (UK: Fourth Estate, 2014. New edition with new introduction by Martin Amis).

Note 8: “Growing Up”, exhibition and report by NLA (New London Architecture).

Note 9: “Tall Towers 2012: London’s high-rise residential developments” – report by Knight Frank Residential Research www.knightfrank.com/research. According to the report, 85% of the buyers are non-UK citizens, who view the capital as a relatively safe investment, and a large proportion of the homes have remained unoccupied long after completion. This is often a deliberate move, as investors wait for prices to move upwards before reselling or renting, increasingly known as ‘buy-to-leave’ properties, and have been described by Simon Jenkins in the Daily Telegraph as “bank accounts in the sky”. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/investmentinproperty/10103226/The-foreigners-buying-Londons-high-rise-high-price-homes.html

Note 10: http://novaramedia.com/2013/08/social-cleansing-in-tower-hamlets-interview-with-balfron-tower-evictee/

Note 11: Heather Spurr, “Dramatic Rise of families forced out of London” Inside Housing, July 18, 2014 http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/care/dramatic-rise-of-families-forced-out-of-london/7004728.article and Nick Duxbury, “Londoners Housed Outside Capital Doubles” Inside Housing, November 1, 2013. http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/londoners-housed-outside-capital-doubles/6529299.article

Note 12: Martin Amis, “High-Rise Review”, New Statesman, November 14, 1975. http://sdicht.wordpress.com/2008/12/09/high-rise-review-by-martin-amis-1975

Woolwich and the Carbuncle Effect

I’ve just read that Woolwich Central, the enormous new blob of apartments that sit uncomfortably on top of a Tesco,  has won the Carbuncle Cup – Building Design magazine’s award for Britain’s worst new piece of architecture.

IMG_20140720_152114425_HDR

The irony of writing ‘Every little helps’ in huge letters on a hugely overscaled building was lost on me at the time. I was too busy noticing the hugely overscaled building.

Actually, I don’t hate the architecture that much (runner up Vauxhall Tower irks me much more for some reason). Yes, Woolwich Central is very big. Yes, its single architectural ‘idea’ is not a subtle one, and fails to negate the building’s enormous bulk. And as a bonus it creates a desolate wind tunnel between in conjunction with the new Woolwich town hall (itself a previous Carbuncle nominee).

The vast block also gives no indication of being even slightly aware of Woolwich’s previous architecture, most notably the rather charming Edwardian building that it menaces across the town square.

IMG_20140720_152059964_HDR

It does I guess interact with its surroundings in a way, albeit that this interaction comprises people going in and out of Tesco, 24 hours a day.

I once read somewhere of Woolwich belongong to the north of England; not a part of London or the southeast at all, and this has always rung true to me. But times are a-changing. Bits of south and east London that have previously been oddly disconnected, despite being relatively close to the city’s core, are now suddenly an explosion of new apartment towers and transport links that place them “only X minutes from London Bridge/Canary Wharf/the City”. Places such as Lewisham, Greenwich and Deptford are being immersed in an expanding foam of new buy-to-let-investor apartment blocks. What strikes me most in BD’s commentary on the shortlist is the problem of overdevelopment that typifies so many of the nominated schemes – the attempt to cram as much stuff onto each site as possible.

However awful some of London’s new housing developments may be, they represent an urban expansion unprecedented in London’s postwar development.  I was watching a short John Betjeman programme from 1959 the other night (on one of the Beeb’s excellent archive collections) and it reminded me just how easy it is to forget the sheer emptiness of London for many years after the war; a world of bomb sites and middle class flight to the suburbs. The population of ‘inner’ London began to fall from the 1920s onwards, and between 1951 and 1991 Greater London as a whole lost over a million people, largely from its core. But between 2001 and 2011 there has been a dizzying rise of over a million (which interestingly is split roughly equally between inner and outer areas) and looks set to continue strongly towards 9 million. Figures here. Having been away from the city for seven years, the accelerating change is stark: it feels that there are just more people here, and in terms housing, it seems it will be quantity not quality that counts.

Just beyond the new world of Woolwich Central and the Royal Arsenal regeneration, the old Woolwich of working class housing survives, for now. Wandering along the river I passed what I guess is an abandoned lido that made use of a pair of former dry docks as pools for the use of the surrounding estates. Sadly, I can’t see such an idea fitting in with the ubiquitous basement gym/pool/sauna template of the many new ‘luxury’ housing blocks likely to sprout from the banks of the Thames here over the next decades. Woolwich will be far too central for that.

IMG_20140720_162604220_HDR