Architecture: Paradise lost

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney meets Alice Coleman, Thatcher’s utopian thinker.

Over the road from where I live in west London is the Mozart housing estate. Thirty years ago this densely packed site of low-rise flats was an inner-city badland notorious for muggings and drug-dealing. In the late 1980s, it was regenerated and its reputation slowly improved. But recently its former notoriety has resurfaced.

The past year has seen a spate of violent incidents. One afternoon, a few days before Christmas, a young man was shot on my street. A few months earlier, three young women, all teenagers, one holding a baby, were caught in a shotgun blast as they enjoyed a warm autumn evening. I walked past them about 15 minutes before the gunman rode up on a bicycle. He meant to fire at a group of youths who scattered when he pointed his gun.

Rivalries with gangs from nearby estates are blamed. It's not unusual: so-called "postcode violence" is a London-wide problem. But its presence on the Mozart estate carries an added charge. For it was here in the 1980s that Margaret Thatcher's favourite architectural thinker first put her theories about building design and crime prevention into action.

Thatcher's guru was Alice Coleman, then professor of geography at Kings College London. In 1985, Coleman published the book Utopia on Trial in which she advanced the provocative argument that badly designed social housing turned its occupants into criminals. By "badly designed" Coleman meant the thousands of blocks hoisted up across Britain after the war - the "plague of flats", she called it. "These are the blocks that breed anti-social people," she warned.

The Mozart flats were among 4,100 blocks surveyed by Coleman and her team in London. Her aim, inspired by the New York urbanist Oscar Newman, was to record signs of "social malaise" such as litter and vandalism and find out if they were linked to the way buildings were designed. According to her research, there was a statistical correlation between crime and architecture. The greater the prevalence of certain design features - overhead walkways, multiple storeys, shared open spaces and 12 other categories - the worse the rate of litter, vandalism and so on would be. Bad urban planning, she concluded, was the primary cause of crime. Rehabilitate the housing and you'd prevent crime. Supporters on the right acclaimed her, while critics on the left accused her of ignoring social factors.

Coleman is 88 now and lives in Dulwich. I meet her at her old workplace, Kings College. She walks with a cane, has a forthright bouffant hairstyle redolent of her political patron and possesses a remarkably acute memory. At one point she refers to the "four blocks of flats opposite your house" as if we were looking at them from my front door.

Poverty, in her view, is no excuse for crime, even in an estate such as the Mozart, which suffers some of the worst child deprivation in Britain. She cites her upbringing in Broadstairs, Kent during the Depression, when her father struggled to find work. "I think I belonged to one of the poorest families in the country and it has no relationship to crime," she says.

Le Corbusier's vision of a "Radiant City" of tower blocks surrounded by parkland is her nightmare, the "great Utopian blunder". The urban planners and architects who followed in Le Corbusier's wake have, in her view, arrogantly suppressed people's innate desire to have their own private space, preferably a house with a garden, like the one she grew up in. Her observations don't apply solely to Englishmen and their castles. "It's a general characteristic of human beings that living in a shared block isn't a good idea."

While writing Utopia on Trial she was commissioned by Westminster Council to apply her ideas to the Mozart estate. Her first act was to tear down four overhead walkways. The police told her the burglary rate went down 55 per cent. But her efforts to remodel the estate were thwarted when she fell out with the council. "My goodness, they mucked me about," she says. So it was a botched rehabilitation? "Oh, very much botched."

Utopia on Trial's success gave Coleman another chance to test her theories. In 1986, she met Thatcher in Downing Street. Thirty minutes later she emerged with a five-year, £50m contract to redesign several other "problem estates". Thatcher's environment secretary Nicholas Ridley asked if she'd like to spend her retirement going around the nation's council estates sorting them out. She beams at the memory: "Oh, what a wonderful prospect!"

Once again Coleman was thwarted. Thatcher was overthrown midway through her contract and the political window of opportunity slammed shut. "If only Margaret Thatcher could have stayed in power, I could have done more," she laments. Instead she feels her work has not received its due, at least in her homeland: the Dutch have apparently been more receptive. As far as she's concerned, her findings are unchallenged. Would the Mozart estate today be suffering gang problems if her redesign had been completed? "No, I don't think it would," she says.

Coleman, I think, is wrong to attribute the violence in my neighbourhood to architectural design. Utopia on Trial's horror of "the plague of flats" strikes me as reactionary. Yet, however contentious her concept of the ideal home may be, it carries a salutary message. In an age when social housing is hardly being built in London, and a dysfunctional, unequal property market is wreaking havoc on the city's social fabric, the idea of a decent living space for all has so fallen from favour that it now places Coleman among the ranks of the utopians.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex