Your eyesore is my home
Could council tower blocks that wobble in the wind and smell bad become chic?
In February 1989, residents of The Wood, the spectacularly unprepossessing, economy-sized Birmingham estate on which I grew up, cheered the sight of three vast towers going up in smoke. They hadn't come out in such numbers since the Queen and Prince Philip had arrived to open the swish (for about five minutes) new shopping centre 18 years earlier. Although I'd never lived in one of the numerous identikit tower blocks, my older cousins, 19th- floor dwellers, told me that every time the wind blew, they had to hold on to the dinner table to avoid falling over; and the lifts were invariably full of pee. Obviously, they had to go.
It was not hard to tell apart those of us who'd come from elsewhere to watch the controlled demolition frenzy - in which the first three out of an anticipated nine blocks were to disappear at midday sharp - from those who were about to watch their homes being destroyed by the mayor's index finger. While we arrivistes gasped, then clapped and cheered, the others wept. They may not have been ideal homes, but homes they were, and it didn't take more than my school-age grasp of town planning to realise that the blocks had originally gone up for a reason - to house a lot of people in a little space.
A year or so later, a series of attractive, Brookside-style semis went up on the levelled ground, into one of which my mother's best friend and her young family moved. The homes had gone up so quickly that their garden subsided several feet between the day they were shown the new house and the day they moved into it. Plus ca change, indeed. In the interim months, however, the initial plan to blow up a further six blocks on the estate had been quietly dropped. Possibly the local council had done its own maths and realised that it would never be able to rehouse everyone left homeless as a result. This was a far cry from Birmingham City Council's recent decision to knock down all 315 of its tower blocks in the next 15 years, protesting that its planned wholesale stock transfer would render the blocks too expensive to refurbish or maintain under their new management.
The Wood's six remaining towers were instead, and with great fanfare, designated "Over-50s Only" communities, and furnished not only with plush carpets and silk flowers in the stairwells, but with a live-in lift engineer and a social club on the ground floor of each block. Just over ten years later, the difference between the drab outdoors and the snugly welcoming indoors of these homes is so marked that it feels like you're entering a parallel, and not quite real, universe. Just as the somewhat utopian architects of the tower block revolution had envisaged in the eye- poppingly optimistic Sixties, everyone here really does know each other; they can leave their doors on the latch, and they have replicated the neighbourly closeness of a time that existed before upward-looking modernism.
I was reminded of this happily successful experiment several weeks ago, when, again at bang-on 12 o'clock, two giant's-feet rumbles signalled the demolition of another two tower blocks near my home in the East End of London. Cavan House and Antrim House were part of a trio of tower blocks on the Old Ford estate, which is currently undergoing a sustained programme of rebuilding. The third tower, however, stayed put as a result of a lengthy consultation with residents which revealed that, yes, some people actually enjoy living in tower blocks and would rather not have their homes blown up. With the pro-tower lobby having been decanted into the remaining block, the space left by Cavan and Antrim and the surrounding area will eventually provide nearly enough homes to replace those lost. Residents of Crossways, another three-block estate in nearby Bromley-by-Bow, are currently being encouraged to decide whether to knock down one, two, or all three of its towers, again according to how many vote to stick with high-rise living.
Households, old or young, without children or pets are far more likely to opt to continue living in flats, provided that the blocks are well maintained and they don't mind the occasional wobble in bad weather. The combination of stunning views - particularly in London - and spacious, Le Corbusier-pioneered convenience can be an ideal design for living when you don't have children, whose only play areas are concrete walkways.
Council-house chic - website designers and ad execs chuckling at the "ironic" coolness of their ex-council penthouse - can be a little hard to swallow, but the modernist architect Denys Lasdun's Keeling House in Bethnal Green shows an imaginative recycling and regeneration in an area that needs it.
After gaining Grade II listed status in the late Nineties, the 40-year-old block was bought by developers and now boasts everything from a glass foyer to kit-lifestyle retro furnishings.
Similarly, Trellick Tower, once an Eighties horror story in west London, has a waiting list of nearby Portobello Road fashion victims queuing to snap up the few flats that ever go on sale. Its little-known doppelganger, the slightly less imposing Balfron Tower in the East End, has few such trendy fans, but nevertheless has a vocal supporters' club of its own: in the local paper, one 18th-floor resident of 20 years' standing sang the praises of its London-wide views and full-time concierge.
"The only time I'm scared," says Mabel Browning, "is when there's a storm and the tower seems to rock." Perhaps the Millennium Bridge's wobble-fixers could do something about that?