The collapse of Ronan Point 40 years ago silenced all talk of cities in the sky. But that happened in a different world, and the one we’re in now needs the tower block
Lincoln cathedral was completed in 1311 and at 160m became the world’s tallest building, knocking the Great Pyramid off the top spot. It was the last time a British building dominated the skyline so emphatically. Ely cathedral and the Gherkin aside, vertical construction has never been a fundamental element of our architecture.
That almost changed in the post-war building boom when our first true residential tower block – “The Lawn” in Harlow, Essex – opened its doors in 1951 to delighted residents. But its imitators turned tower blocks into a cheap fix to house the underprivileged. When Ronan Point collapsed in 1968, high rise lost all credibility.
In the current economic conditions, building high rise is the last thing developers want to commit to. But when conditions improve it must be revisited. After all, millions across the globe live happily 20-plus storeys up and with our growing population we’re going to have to follow. When the Ronan Point estate was demolished, buildings that had housed 2,000 were replaced by 20 two-storey houses accommodating about a hundred.
And we have learned a lot since then, not least that high rise does not suit families; and that it must be designed for occupiers, not distant property investors. The next generation will be for sheltered housing, key workers, students, hotels and, of course, private sale with the option of extended lower levels for shops, gyms and restaurants.
Construction and technological capabilities have developed to deal with previous failings. Extensive use of natural materials, particularly wood and glass, is now possible, sophisticated sound insulation can protect residents from the noise of plumbing, heating and next door’s music and air quality and air flow can be effectively controlled.
Ecologically, high-rise makes sense. With deep piled foundations the buildings are ideally suited to ground-source heat pumps, and CHP and biomass work well. Tall facades can accommodate solar panels and wind turbines may be viable. Apartments need less heating than houses and taking an apartment to Code for Sustainable Homes level four costs about 20% less than for a house.
However, entrances must be secure and manned, fire risks minimised, the refuse system efficient and the lift must always work. Most important of all, apartments must feel spacious. The British already live in the smallest rooms in the developed world and if we take that mean-spiritedness into the clouds it will be as if the sixties hadn’t happened. And that would be a pity since tower blocks can offer privacy, security and community. And think of the views …
John Spence is chief architect at Calford Seaden