High-rise blocks represent a huge challenge for the urban architect if they are to fulfil residents’ needs and have a positive impact on the environment. Eleanor Joliffe calls for some fresh thinking, from conception to construction

Eleanor Jolliffe

High-rise residential buildings make up a big part of the life of architects in big cities, including me. I live in one, I am working on delivering several, and the tragic fire in one of them catalysed an overhaul of building regulations and legislation that will affect every architect in the country.

Almost every residential scheme pushes to build higher than the surrounding datums and, while some of this is good architecture, much is not. I like the tower I live in a lot. Cladding issues aside it’s a great place to live for the stage of life that I’m at. 

Towers arguably hang in our collective consciousness as a necessary evil, a pragmatic approach to high densities, high land prices and booming housing demand; but perhaps not, if we’re totally honest, where many of us would want to live for the rest of our lives if we had the choice.

Our new tower blocks are different, we know we’re building them to be better … but will they end up the same?

The spectres of the failed 1960s slab blocks and collective remembrance of JG Ballard’s High Rise are always lurking in the back of our minds. Our new tower blocks are different, we know we’re building them to be better … but will they end up the same? 

In the interests of understanding from a slightly different perspective I talked to Nicholas Boys Smith, head of the government’s new Office for Place and (as I was emphatically told) the non-partisan think-tank Create Streets, which exists to ”help solve the housing crisis and help communities, landowners [etc] create and manage beautiful, sustainable places of gentle density”.

I am a fan of the theory behind much of its work and impressed by many of its reports, but sometimes reach slightly different conclusions as to what I think a beautiful and sustainable place looks like.

We agreed that high-rises have a place, and it’s not in a small village or town. That they are more expensive to maintain (once you get above a certain height) and that, from about the sixth floor up, the connection with the street is all but divorced, making natural surveillance and community cohesion more difficult.

Boys Smith also believes that tower blocks are less resilient to changing housing demand; the compromises of lifestyle are more significant than in a house – for example raising children or owning pets is more complex in a block of flats than a house, be it terraced, semi-detached or detached. Despite having just been turned down for a rescue dog,  partially because I live in a block of flats, I am less sure of this one.

There is a demand for smaller, denser housing in cities. We all make compromises based on the type of life that we want to lead. I imagine that, when I decide the compromises associated with life in a tower in a city are too great, there will be someone else who is happy to make them and buy me out.

The poorly planned village or town extensions of the major volume housebuilders can be as much of a problem as a tower block

As such, I don’t know if housing typologies need to be as flexible in inner cities as in less densely populated areas. For me a well-designed and maintained tower is preferable to a poorly designed and built terraced house; but I imagine here Boys Smith may disagree.

It was here also that the architect v non-architect divide began to emerge. I am beginning to believe that the poorly planned village or town extensions of the major volume housebuilders can be as much of a problem as a tower block: the isolating effects of the street patterns, the low level of amenities, the minimal public realm and the build quality horror stories that we have all heard and seen.

For me, these are just as compromised, if not more so, than life on the 10th storey of a high-rise block. Arguably this is the architect and eternal optimist in me – a belief that good design and high quality building can solve most problems. Whereas the engaged policy expert with (I believe) no formal architectural or urban training in Boys Smith is more cautious, preferring to stick with models that, when built well, have fairly reliably delivered over previous decades – though he is very critical of some of the very low density “drive-to cul-de-sacs” of the recent past. 

We did not “solve” the problem in our conversation, but I had never hoped to. I spend a lot of time discussing problems of architecture and urbanism with other architects (usually in my large-practice London bubble); but to speak to someone with a keen and equally, if not more, passionate interest, coming at the same problems as me but with a different set of eyes added the sort of creative tension it would be good to see more of in architectural debate.

We are facing a fast changing environment for construction and design and the climate crisis may require more resilience and adaptation than humanity has needed for centuries. Creative and collaborative tension could be the key to solving the problems we will face, and we need everyone’s talents at the table.

Plus – though I hesitate to type it in black and white – architects with utopian dreams have rarely been proven correct by history. It’s just not our skill-set.