“As blocks increasingly vanish from Britain’s horizons, our project seeks to draw attention to the importance of multi-storey housing as part of the lived experience of the twenty and twenty-first centuries…”
For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to catch up with the team behind The Tower Block Project. The Tower Block Project is a University of Edinburgh initiative, funded by the Heritage Lottery Project, that seeks to document the story of multi-story living across the UK since World War II. It began as Professor Miles Glendinning’s personal project, but now it is an effort to include the wider public in a discussion about the UK’s recent architectural heritage.
What provided the initial impetuous for the Tower Block project?
“many of the blocks depicted have now been demolished and had gone relatively undiscussed as a national history.”
The Tower Block project really began in the mid 1980s, when Miles Glendinning (the head of the project and Professor of Architectural Conservation at University of Edinburgh) began taking photos of every multi-storey development across the UK. His drive to catalogue high-rise postwar housing resulted in a collection of 4000 Kodachrome slides.
This resource represented a fragile heritage in two ways: the physical fragility of the slides themselves meant that we ran the risk of losing the images forever, whilst many of the blocks depicted have now been demolished and had gone relatively undiscussed as a national history.
The original impetus behind this project then, was the need to digitise these images and ensure they were made public and catalogued as part of fully searchable and freely accessible database and image archive. Whilst the initial funding for the project was through English Heritage, a more recent grant from Heritage Lottery Fund has allowed us to continue with this digitisation and to add a public engagement component.
Why do you feel that the project is necessary?
“…our project seeks to draw attention to the importance of multi-storey housing as part of the lived experience of the twenty and twenty-first centuries, and as part of an urban environment.”
In Great Britain, tower blocks have been stigmatized as undesirable places to live, and are increasingly being demolished to make way for new, more ‘modern’, and largely lower rise housing. The UK is therefore host to a vanishing built heritage, one that it seems is likely to continue to disappear due to the popularity of the purportedly cheaper and quicker demolition option among local authorities, over repair and conservation.
Although in Britain municipal ‘council housing’ blocks were once the most prominent and dramatic legacy of the post-1945 reconstruction drive, mass demolitions over the past 25 years, still continuing today, have depleted this vast heritage, leaving it obscured or incomprehensible to the public.
As blocks increasingly vanish from Britain’s horizons, our project seeks to draw attention to the importance of multi-storey housing as part of the lived experience of the twenty and twenty-first centuries, and as part of an urban environment. We feel this can be done through gathering information and images in a single digital resource – as well as images, the database gives details of notable dates, such as when local authorities approved the developments and when construction began or finished, information on the local authorities, architects, and other agents involved in the processes of commissioning, designing, and constructing mass social housing.
This makes previously disparate information accessible, and means that multi-storey housing can be researched and understood as a coherent UK-wide heritage.
How are you soliciting public involvement with the project?
“We feel it is important to provide forums for discussion and the sharing of memories, without forcing an overly romanticised view of what living in multi-storey housing meant, and means now.”
Our public engagement activities will involve workshops, mini-exhibitions, talks, guided social history walks and research days. The first of these is based in Cumbernauld on the 24th of September 2016, and comprises a mini-exhibition about the social and architectural history of both the blocks and Scotland’s New Towns. We’re also running guided social history walks throughout the day, which, like the exhibition, are free. During the event, the Heritage Lottery Funded-Scotland’s Urban Past Project-will also be there, scanning local people’s photos and adding them to Canmore (the official historic record of Scotland’s built environment).
We feel it is important to provide forums for discussion and the sharing of memories, without forcing an overly romanticised view of what living in multi-storey housing meant, and means now.
We are also ensuring that when the database and image archive is launched, each development will have a comments section/forum for each development, so residents and ex-residents can engage with the project and each other and add their own memories to the database.
What kind of response have you got so far?
Although we are in the early stages of the project, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Both architecture enthusiasts and the residents of areas with multi-storey housing have engaged with the project through social media and our meetings with community groups.
What do you hope that people take away from the Tower Block project?
“We… hope that our project can draw on the experiences and memories of residents and ex-residents of blocks, ensuring that any histories created are co-produced and balanced.”
There has been a movement in popular culture over the last five years which prizes postwar architecture and brutalism, along with a more general and nebulous idea about the postwar ethos and aesthetic. This renewed interest is welcome and often constructive, and we hope to connect it with tangible and intangible sources for thinking about multi-storey housing, and to complicate the discussion about why these buildings should retain a place in UK social and architectural history. We also hope that our project can draw on the experiences and memories of residents and ex-residents of blocks, ensuring that any histories created are co-produced and balanced.You can find out more about what the University of Edinburgh’s Tower Block Project has planned (and search their slides by location) by visiting their website. You can also follow them on Twitter for project updates, highlights from the collection and general news about post-war British architecture. Inquires and queries can be directed to UoE’s Elin Jones by e-mail. If you’d like to read more interviews with people engaged in doing urban history follow this link.