The Edinburgh College of Art professor has received nearly £54,000 of Heritage Lottery funding to create a public visual archive of the UK’s tower blocks. Why, and why now?
A high-rise archive. Any particular reason for starting one?
While writing a book I published 30 years ago on modernist public housing on the UK, I had amassed nearly 4000 slides of towers all over the UK. The idea was to do something with it all and Kodachrome film isn’t the most stable medium, so it made sense to digitise it. I’d like to think it carries forward the critical study I started back then – that these towers weren’t built by mistake or corruption but for genuine social and architectural reasons.
You’ve got the Gorbals, Hulme estate in Manchester, and Broadwater Farm and Ronan Point in London. Isn’t it just a rogues’ gallery?
The discourse of failure reached its height in the 1980s, coupled with a demand for radical surgery, and I have to say that architects played a large part in fomenting this. Happily, we’re well past that now and modernist towers are viewed less critically. The point about the archive is that it’s not just about the famous or infamous ones but the anonymous – the Everton flats in Liverpool or Chelmsley Wood in Birmingham.
Do you think that in bringing these blocks into an academic context you might be reifying them and making them targets for gentrification?
I don’t think so. The penchant for gentrifying old Lubetkin blocks is very reflective of housing demand in the south east. This archive gives no more emphasis to London than Salford or Newcastle. We’re even covering ones that don’t exist anymore as a lot have been demolished since my book was published. It’s as much an archaeological study as an empirical one.
You say you want to make the archive part of a community outreach initiative?
Outside London, where land values are less of a driver, towers are being abandoned and demolished and I’m worried that if the built environment is looked upon negatively it can contribute to the decline of those areas. The archive is not about idealising our towers. As part of the study we’d just like to encourage people living in them to tell us their stories and experiences. I’ve found that high-rise communities are genuinely interested in where they live and actually want to find out more about it, and I’d like to think this archive will help them do that.
Admit it – British people just don’t like living in high rises?
Bit of a cultural stereotype! Englishmen might like their terraces and gardens but Scottish people have a long history of living in medium rise tenements, so in that regard we are a lot more European than you seem to be giving us credit for! I’m conducting a study of mass housing around the world so I’ll get back to you.
STORIES ABOUT STOREYS
Tower Blocks – Our Blocks! has been described as a 'Domesday Book' of the UK’s post-war reconstruction and will contain images of every multi-storey public housing project in Britain. It will be compiled by the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) and partnered by both the 20th Century Society and Docomomo Scotland. The three-year Heritage Lottery-funded project will digitise and make searchable 3500 images from the 1980s as part of the Tower Block Slide Archive. Colin McLean, head of the HLF in Scotland, feels the archive is important to document a disappearing legacy from a key period of British history, saying: ‘As the high rise towers that have dominated the skylines of many towns and cities begin to disappear, it’s important for us to capture this heritage and give voice those who live in these flats and communities.’