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Towers For The Welfare State

Updated: Sep 23, 2020


An Architectural History of British Multi-Storey Housing 1945-1970

By Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, publ. Edinburgh 2017

Housing on a large scale and of a suitable quality cannot be provided by private enterprise - thus the widely held conviction of the Post WWII decades. To build houses and flats was a primary task of the new British Welfare State, next to health and education. Quality in housebuilding meant that flats in particular had to be of the most modern standards, as light and airy as possible, accessible by lift and serviced by central heating. The great spirits of innovation of those decades, among planners, architects and builders is hard to imagine today. To build a large part of council housing as towers, 10, 20, up to 32 storeys high was the principal manifestation of the new enthusiasm, which also disregarded the fact that such tower dwellings could cost twice as much as ordinary houses.

Most basically, a tower would be built either to lessen inner urban congestion or to reduce suburban sprawl. The book begins with introducing the basic elements of Modernist flat-planning, measurements and costing. It then introduces the spectrum of innovators, state and municipal, especially the latter, and their teams of experts, the architects, engineers and builders. It proceeds with a short narrative of the progress of height, from 6 to 32 storeys. This is followed by detailed discussions of the diverse rationales for building high, with all the associated innovations in planning, construction and environmental design, be they formal-aesthetic, practical and constructional or symbolic. Finally, a large part of the book is given over to the story of towers in any given place, the story of each particular municipality and its desire to innovate and to impress.

Our work through the decades:

Our work on the history of 19th and 20th century mass housing in the UK goes back to the 1970s. Our first joint publication in 1986 was a booklet on the history of post WWII public housing in Norwich (Provincial Mixed Development). It was followed by Miles’s book on Glasgow housing based on his PhD dissertation on Scottish high-rise housing (Tenements and Towers. Glasgow Working Class Housing, 1990). In 1994 Yale University Press, with help from the Mellon Foundation, published our consolidated, 420-page study on British high rises: Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block. Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The larger part of this book deals with the structures of state and municipal decision-making and all the protagonists involved in that, based on countless interviews. Another part is devoted to the planning, constructional and other architectural issues. In addition the book contains an extensive list of periodical references, ordered geographically, as well as a Gazetteer, presenting data of all 6544 municipal blocks of six storeys and above. This book, Tower Block, has since been made available free on the Internet ( including the Gazetteer. The latter has since been worked on by Miles and his colleagues at Edinburgh University and converted into a searchable public-access database, enriched with illustrations.

During 2014-17 we worked on a new book, Towers for the Welfare State, which tackles the subject more straightforwardly, in a much shorter and more user-friendly way (and at half the cost). In particular, there is a clear geographical organisation, allowing, of course, for a large section on London, but the book also includes 18 pages on Glasgow and 13 on Birmingham etc. The number of illustrations, in comparison with Tower Block, is actually larger, 534, and almost all of them are new.

In order to meet reproaches from various quarters, one factor must be emphasised: our work is one of architectural history, not of sociology or housing policy. The experiences of the inhabitants, the question whether or not tower block flats make good homes, we consider a separate field of study. That said, the final chapter of Tower Block, accessible on the Internet (“Section Three Breakdown”), presents a detailed account of the story of tower block condemnation.

Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers for the Welfare State. An Architectural History of British Multi-Storey Housing 1945-1970, publ. by Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, Edinburgh University, 2017 ISBN 978-1-9999205-2-4. 224 pp. 534 illus. col. & b.&w.

From Bookshops: £ 25.00 Available also from the Distributor, at the reduced price, for members of Docomomo, C20 Society, local amenity and similar kinds of societies

£ 18.00 (incl. p&p.)

Miles Glendinning is Professor of Architectural Conservation at the University of Edinburgh. His books include A History of Scottish Architecture; Modern Architect, the Life and Times of Sir Robert Matthew; The Conservation Movement – a History of Architectural Preservation (Antoinette Forrester Downing Award); Tower Block. Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (with Stefan Muthesius, Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion of the Society of Architectural Historians). He is presently researching post-1945 mass housing in Hong Kong, Singapore and worldwide.

Stefan Muthesius taught at the School of World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia. His books include Victorian Architecture; The English Terraced House (Banister Fletcher Prize); Art Architecture and Design in Poland 966-1980. An Introduction; The Post War University. Utopianist Campus and College and more recently The Poetic Home. Designing the 19th century Domestic Interior (shortlisted for the Banister Fletcher Prize).

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