Erno Goldfinger at Trellick Tower, Cheltenham Estate, North Kensington, London, 1968. Images courtesy of RIBA Library Photographs Collection.
The success of the government’s post-war social housing initiatives has long been debated, and nowhere is this more evident than in contemporary documentary photographs. RIBA Photograph Curator Justine Sambrook assesses how the initial high-rise optimism quickly evaporated into critical reflection.
Selling Modern architecture through photography
An estimated 2,000,000 homes were destroyed by enemy action in the UK during World War II, with a massive 60% of those in London. Britain was unprepared for this level of homelessness but the new Socialist government embraced the clean slate left by the Blitz as an opportunity to tackle the poor living conditions that persisted across the country. In an effort to optimise land use, and free up space for healthy leisure activities, new high-rise, high-density blocks of flats were erected.
Photography’s symbiotic relationship with architecture had reached its apex in Britain during the inter-war years when journals such as the Architectural Review were responsible for promoting the emerging Modernism to a sceptical public with their seductive imagery. Photography was being harnessed not just to record but to sell architecture. The ensuing post-war years of optimism and the advent of the Welfare State prompted the use of photography to endorse the government’s new housing programme and the supposed success of architecture as a social service, with the architect or planner portrayed as the conquering hero. Images such as Sam Lambert’s impressive shot of J. L. Womersley, City Architect for Sheffield, standing proudly in front of his newly built Park Hill estate or Ernö Goldfinger posing next to his West London magnum opus, Trellick Tower, emphasised the message that these new developments were the saviours of the country.
Thamesmead, Greenwich, London, c. 1970, by Tony Ray-Jones
Building a better tomorrow with Modern architecture
Photographs of these early estates epitomise the nation’s fervent desire to build a better tomorrow. Photographers shared a fascination with the sudden rash of high-rise developments and the exciting visual possibilities they offered. Henk Snoek’s photograph of a child looking eagerly up at Basil Spence’s Hutchesontown C is symptomatic of the desire to escape from the foetid Glaswegian tenement blocks of the past.
It was not long before this optimism began to evaporate in the face of an increasing prioritisation of speed over quality, the employment of substandard building techniques and the onset of social problems on the estates. In 1965 subsidies for high-rise building were dramatically cut, but the demand for high-density housing persisted with cash incentives still available for slum clearance. Tower blocks needed to be quicker and cheaper to build. Design declined and shoddy construction increased, culminating with the Ronan Point disaster in 1968 in which all floors on one corner of the infamous block in Newham collapsed following a gas explosion. Five people were killed and the government quickly dumped its hand-outs.
Yorkshire Development Group housing system, c.1970, by Tony Ray-Jones.
An ambivalent view of Modern architecture
Consequently, photographs of later developments proffer a more ambivalent viewpoint. In particular, those by Tony Ray-Jones taken for the Architectural Review’s controversial Manplan series, adopted a more dynamic approach and contributed to the journal’s scathing criticism of much of what had been built during the preceding two decades. The series, published in just eight issues between 1969 and 1970, overturned convention by using well-known photojournalists in-place of traditional architectural photographers to critique the state of the nation’s architecture. Instead of appreciative large format depictions of unpopulated buildings under sunny skies, these photographers used grainy 35mm film to document the frustrations of everyday Britain.
An uncertain future for Modern architecture
Today these estates face an uncertain future. Some have been demolished; some like Park Hill will be revamped; many are now filled with privately owned residences that become more popular with middle class buyers as house prices rise and rise. While the quality of life in some estates has been questioned, the issue of demolition is unfailingly met with controversy. Trellick Tower in particular, the focus of tabloid tales of social dysfunction in the 1980s, provoked a long campaign to save it from mutilation or demolition. It is now Grade II listed and its flats in high demand from design-conscious urbanites, though other sections of the Cheltenham Estate it rises above are still under threat.
L. Womersley at Park Hill, Sheffield, Architectural Press Archive.
For more images from Edwin Smith, visit ribapix.com