Concretopia by John Grindrod

Issue section: 
(386)

Published by Old Street, £25

I should probably start by saying that I live on one of the concrete, brutalist housing estates that John Grindrod writes about. Before moving there in the 1980s, I had lived mostly in Victorian terraces.

But it didn't take long for the charms of modernism to win me over. With big windows, outside space, clean lines and communal heating it's everything my previous homes weren't.

Admittedly, not all estates built in the post-war period have been as successful. Our estate has been listed by English Heritage, and many of the residents (still overwhelmingly council tenants) are proud of both the community we built as well as the startling architecture.

However, there is a debate about the aesthetics of what many people call post-war "concrete monstrosities".

Towns such as Croydon, and estates such as New Addington where Grindrod grew up, are often portrayed as the epitome of "chav" culture. This is where Tia Sharp was murdered and hidden in an attic, where the racist tram-woman was filmed abusing a fellow passenger and the lowest voter turnout in the South East.

And it was in Croydon where the full effects of the 2011 riots were felt. Shops here were burnt down, and alienated young people imprisoned for stealing chewing gum.

Concretopia looks at the dreams, and sometimes nightmares, that lay behind the building of these estates.

Post-war Britain faced a housing crisis of epic proportions with some eight million homes unfit for habitation. In 1949, a fifth of London homes were classified as slums. People in Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield lived in appalling poverty with severe overcrowding.

As late as the 1950s it was not unusual to find up to eight households sharing a single outside toilet or whole families living in a single room. So when the post-war Labour government embarked on a programme of housebuilding, the new homes were greeted enthusiastically.

Some of the first homes were mass produced prefabs. Neil Kinnock grew up in one of these. It was, he said "like living in a spaceship". They had built-in kitchen appliances, boilers and bathrooms. The demand for them was so great that housing officers had nervous breakdowns as they struggled to meet it.

Whole new towns and Garden Cities were created such as Stevenage, Corby and Cwmbran. Town planners set about creating not just places to live, but communal green spaces, transport systems, schools and hospitals.

Many were influenced by the ideas of modernist architects such as Corbusier. But not all. For every Barbican, Park Hill or Trellick Tower there were also streets of traditional houses with gardens front and back.

But as demand for housing continued to rise, more high-density schemes were approved. High-rise tower blocks sprang up and massive estates were built.

As the Labour government gave way to the Tories in 1951 the ideals of town planning began to be replaced by private enterprise. New Addington was a product of this period. It was not a utopian vision of how people could live a better life, but a hotchpotch of buildings outsourced to the lowest bidder.

It's not surprising that the post-war housing boom came crashing down in a financial scandal. In 1968, Ronan Point, a tower block in east London collapsed. Four people died. Soon, other buildings were to suffer a similar fate.

Companies such as Taylor Woodrow were implicated in cutting corners, using unskilled workers whose pay was dependent on speed, and building blocks higher than the design was meant to support.

Worse was to come in the 1970s as John Poulson, head of Europe's largest architectural practice, was convicted of fraud and T Dan Smith, known as "Mr Newcastle", of corruption.

Their trials exposed a murky world of bribes and kick-backs. Cities and towns were created for personal gain. Contracts were awarded on the basis of "long lunches, jollies and conferences in grand hotels".

Key figures caught up in the scandal included senior executives of British Rail, the National Coal Board, a cabinet minister and the Secretary of Leeds Hospital Board, who later became one of Poulson's consultants.

For many the dream of creating new ways to live never recovered from the scandals.

But one of the strengths of Grindrod's book is that he continues to find humanity in the best of the buildings, estates and towns that were created during this period.

When they work, they can be wonderful places to live. Many of the prefabs are much loved by their inhabitants. The Barbican is one of London's most desirable addresses.

John Grindrod's book is a delight. Because behind the corruption and disasters there is the story of the attempt to build a better way of life for ordinary people. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't.

But the vision of Concretopia can still how us an alternative to some of the worst new builds being thrown up today by companies with no interest beyond the bottom line.

Concretopia is available from Bookmarks bookshop.