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Tower block archive to document Britain’s high rise heritage

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February 12 2015

Tower block archive to document Britain’s high rise heritage
Amidst ongoing demolition of Britain’s high-rise heritage the Edinburgh College of Art has begun a project to catalogue every tower block built in Britain in the post war era to populate a freely accessible digital archive.

The Tower Blocks – Our Blocks has been made possible by a £52,900 grant from the Heritage Lottery which will fund digitisation of 3,500 photographs documenting the rise and fall of the typology.

Prof Miles Glendinning, author of many of the featured photographs and head of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies at the ECA, said: "We hope this project will help contribute to the ongoing shift in public attitudes towards the post-war Modernist housing heritage, which is fast turning from an object of dislike and alienation into a force for potential community empowerment.

"Council tower blocks were once the most prominent and dramatic legacy of the post-1945 reconstruction drive, but mass demolitions over the past 35 years, still continuing today, have depleted this vast heritage, leaving it obscured or incomprehensible to the public at a time when popular interest in post-war Modernist heritage is sharply increasing."

Amongst the schemes which will be available for view when the project completes in 2017 are Glasgow’s notorious Red Road estate, at one time the highest flats in Europe but which are now in process of demolition.
Edinburgh's Leith Fort towers were pulled down in 1994
Edinburgh's Leith Fort towers were pulled down in 1994
Sir Basil Spence's Hutchesontown scheme, Gorbals, demolished in 1993
Sir Basil Spence's Hutchesontown scheme, Gorbals, demolished in 1993

The death of a spectator at the demolition of these Gorbals blocks delayed Glasgow's demolition programme - but it is now back in full swing
The death of a spectator at the demolition of these Gorbals blocks delayed Glasgow's demolition programme - but it is now back in full swing
These Wester Hailes slab blocks have since been partially demolished
These Wester Hailes slab blocks have since been partially demolished

7 Comments

SJF
#1 Posted by SJF on 13 Feb 2015 at 00:33 AM
I only positive that can come out of this cataloging is to highlight how badly wrong things can go, assisting future generations in avoiding these mistakes. Oh, hold on.... Glasgow Harbour?
Art Vandelay
#2 Posted by Art Vandelay on 13 Feb 2015 at 09:00 AM
Ultimately they're just as much a part of our built heritage (rightly or wrongly) as the tenement and the broch - documenting them is a worthwhile exercise.
Roddy
#3 Posted by Roddy on 14 Feb 2015 at 02:22 AM
I don't know the context of the quote from the venerable Professor but I suspect the priority of those living in dank,damp,draughty and dangerous accommodation would not be the incomprehensibily
of its heritage.
It is easy to fetishise many of these highrises.I have done so myself. Look at the power of the shuttered concrete legs or the modulation of the balconies and fenestration at the Hutchie blocks. Then look at the photos again.Winston Smith's flat was at least wind and watertight.
This will hopefully be a valuable project to begin to understand why there were some successes of modernist high rises but also manifold failure.
james
#4 Posted by james on 14 Feb 2015 at 12:54 PM
What is the purpose in documenting this phenomena photographically unless something is going to be learned by future generations? Is the professor's kitty of 50G's enough to comment on the ideological, economic, industrial, technological and SOCIAL reasons why this built environment was 'foisted' on a certain strata of society from the days of the 'white heat of technology' onwards? My experience is that this exercise will be no more than the production of effete wrapping paper rather than the contents of an Adam Curtis film, or Asimov's foundation series. My hope is that someone, somewhere, sometime will take this paper off and expose what it truly covers up.
Roddy
#5 Posted by Roddy on 14 Feb 2015 at 14:54 PM
@ #4 .."My experience is that this exercise ...."

Please expand.
Interested to know what experience has allowed you to draw such conclusions?
james
#6 Posted by james on 15 Feb 2015 at 10:28 AM
Regarding the 31-storey Blocks 1 and 2 of the Red Road development, Architect Sam Bunton proclaimed, 'Housing is no longer domestic architecture: it's public building'. (Sam Bunton Jnr. )

'...So let us not talk falsely now
The hour's getting late...' (B. Dylan 1967)

My argument is this: That a one hour video/programme such as Simon Schama's on Van Gogh, David or Carivaggio is infinitely more incisive, revealing and unashamedly of an informed opinion and of far more use and accessible than any unread thousand page tome on the matter. For example, Schama's portrayal of the role of David as a political animal illuminates his work more than the paintings themselves.

Yes, of course a digitised dry photographic record will fill a gap in the 'record' and perhaps will be useful to future historians, but my point really is that Miles Glendinning (who is coming up for sixty) is a well-placed author / historian to at least try and be more communicative in an accessible medium rather than working for inaccessible academia, which is self-serving and protectionist as any other establishment bureaucracy when viewed from the outside. To my knowledge, he has already written three academic tomes, copies of which can be guaranteed will be gathering dust in some warehouse somewhere...

I happen to believe that a learned guy such as him, who will have lived through the whole social phenomena (and that is key perhaps) would spend time better (mea culpa!), for example, forming and writing a challenging TV film documentary on high-rise in order to get this narrative to a wider audience. There is a global and dramatic story to be told and he would be the ideal person to tell that story, before it falls into the hands of some charlatan (at least as far as architecture is concerned) like Alain de Botton, who would gladly rewrite this highly dubious period in history. I don't think he'd have much luck with the BBC though, (irrespective of their previous ludicrous anthropological 1976 foray into Lilybank)...not given his on-the-record political affiliations, which is maybe why in the end he'll maybe just stick with academia and keep his head below the parapet). Such is effete life.

Incidentally, my 'overwhelming experience' which does not 'allow' me, but rather compels me, happened while working in Barmulloch, standing beneath the Red Road tower blocks, listening to that living breathing wall of compressed humanity, no more than battery chickens, and to the sound it made like an industrial factory and I knew that this was a grotesque evil - where mankind is purposefully reduced from humanity to workforce.

Of course, I am aware that what i have said above is really all conjecture, but what the hell, we'll all be dead soon. I just think this whole phenomena deserves a bit more than Jackie Bird on Reporting Scotland mentioning the funding for this project as the amusing human 'fill' story while smiling wistfully at the world.
Roddy
#7 Posted by Roddy on 15 Feb 2015 at 13:11 PM
@#6 ...'what I have said above is really all conjecture...'

That's certainly putting it kindly.

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