Saturday, May 02, 2009

More damage than Goering

Last night's "Romancing The Stone" on BBC Two confirmed my prejudice about major architectural projects: they're run by people in interesting spectacles, people who are keen on having things that look good on their company website but no intention whatsoever of living in anything they build. This episode was about Park Hill flats in Sheffield, one of those Le Corbusier-inspired abominations thrown up everywhere during the 50s. It's fallen into disrepair. The council wanted to knock it down but English Heritage decided it had special architectural merit and should be preserved. A trendy developer called Urban Splash was brought in and they hacked it back to its skeleton. Then came the credit crunch, the decline in property prices meant Urban Splash couldn't raise the money and work stopped. The skeleton was left, waiting for the wind to make it unsafe.

Everybody who appeared in the film, from the posh bloke from English Heritage to the Minister for Yorkshire and The Humber (there's a job that needed creating) was encouraged by a laughing voice off-camera to ascend the ladder and knot their own noose. The most telling thing about the whole film was what it omitted. Apart from an archive clip at the beginning where a toothless old lady born in the 19th-century described Park Hill as "heaven", there was no mention of who had lived there in the past and, more importantly, who might live there in the future and how. I thought Le Corbusier's theory was that form followed function. If so, why didn't they start with some idea of who the customers were going to be? Further reading tells me that it's the usual plan: upmarket apartments and business units. I think one of the planners in the film mentioned an organic supermarket, surely the mark of a man who has a First Class return ticket in his waistcoat pocket.

I learn from a friend in the property game that Britain is now full of redeveloped old buildings turned into sun-kissed City Living spaces for young professionals. They were having difficulty moving them long before the recession and so the council use them for their problem clients. The more the council do this the less desirable these places become for the young professionals. It's brutal but it's the truth. Do the men in interesting glasses ever have these kind of discussions?


  1. A group of good friends at Sheffield University lived in a sister block called Hyde Park Flats in the early 80s. Even then, the only people prepared to live there were those with literally no other choice. Dank, dangerous and ugly, it was as far from Heaven as anywhere on these islands. At one point the pest man came round, and to hoots of triumph, informed us that with seven individual infestations, their flat had just nosed ahead of his record. Highly unusually to have pigeon-foul mites AND fleas from the last owner's dog in the same gaff apparently. These places are an abomination, and the only people who don't agree are the ones who can open the doors of their own houses onto a garden.

  2. It's a nicely done series:
    The housing market seems to be a huge case of jam tomorrow with these inner city scheme designed and planned by people who have no intention of ever living there. This immediately means people only stay long enough to upgrade to a surburban semi which in the UK is what most people want. It's not helped by the fact that the develeopment a mate lives in Leeds hasn't got a shop (even an inorganic one) let alone a pub , post office etc.

    Oh and one thing problem corbusier never solved was rain. There's a fair bit in the pennines not so much in marseilles.

  3. When I wor a lad Leeds was a sooty but stolid Victorian city that you could find your way around. When I visit nowadays it looks like a scrap yard of half-realised initiatives that neither pedestrian nor motorist can negotiate. And they must have spent *fortunes* to turn it into the mess it is.

  4. Reminds me of the song 'High Rise Towers in Medium Size Towns' from Darren Hayman's Pram Town album: “They didn’t stick around to see the towers let us down.”

  5. kinzakana6:06 pm

    One of my students, from the Czech Republic, told me he was amazed to see we had tower blocks in the UK - he thought you only got them in Communist countries...

  6. Anonymous7:29 pm

    There was a hilarious piece in the Observer (I think) recently about one of Le Corbusier's designs. The point of this particular development was that it was "worker housing", flats for the working class. Anyway, as usual with these developments, it turned into just the worst kind of inner city high-rise which no-one in their right mind would live in. So they gutted it and now it's full of lawyers etc.

    So did the writer of this piece blame the failure of this project on the Le Corbusier's design? Of course not! He blamed it on the working class! Now that it was full of lawyers and the like, it was a roaring success!

    By the way, if you haven't already read it, Tom Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House" is a wonderful attack on Le Corbusier and his disciples.


  7. I can't remember the last time I saw a block of flats/apartments being built (in England or the USA) that didn't have the word "luxury" in its description. Do they build any other kind of flat these days?

  8. *cough* Your link was passed along to me.. um.... while I think what you say has some merit, there are far more projects being built than what is 'publicised'. And far more people who care about what they do than you seem to think. Remember, happy people rarely make a good story.

    As for highrises- there are many very good examples of highrise living in cities world wide. Just because there's a stigma here for various reasons doesn't mean that there is something inherently wrong with a highrise as an idea. Look at NY or Hong Kong or Tokyo.

    On the other hand, try to get a flat at the Barbican for cheap. And that's a building complex I don't even like.



  9. As someone who lives in such an architecturally-splendid inner-city development (one of recent vintage), I can vouch for the fact that the 'business units' so popular with developers are indeed a tough sell.

    Of the thirty or so units available, only four have been filled in two and a half years. There's a posh coffee shop that no-one visits, and posh beauty parlour that no-one visits, an estate agency run by the developers themselves, and a call centre renting space at a hugely discounted rate in order to make the place look busy.

    And yes, there are rumours of an organic supermarket.

    On the other hand, there's a quite lovely feature when the setting sun reflects off some brightly painted walls and bounces off the courtyard water features, giving everything a nice spangly sheen. I suspect that a lot more time was spent on this than anything else.