Thursday 14 December 2017

Does Grenfell Tower prove high-rise 'dream' was really a nightmare?

The Grenfell tower blaze. Photo: GETTY
The Grenfell tower blaze. Photo: GETTY

Patricia Casey

The London skyline has its share of high-rise flats. Some, like the Barbican Centre, are for the wealthy, with art galleries, shops, restaurants and a concert hall being interwoven with large luxury apartments.

Most, like Grenfell Tower, are owned by the council and the inhabitants are poor and often alienated. It is a coincidence, though, that 1974 - the year Grenfell was opened - was also the year that the terrifying blockbuster The Towering Inferno was released. The link is ominous and eerie.

Aside from the tragedy that has engulfed Grenfell and that has turned the lives of many of those living there upside down - rendering them homeless, bereaved and angry - high-rise living has its own inherent pitfalls.

Why do these complexes attract the downtrodden and dispossessed?

The dream of the high-rise came from a Swiss architect, Le Corbusier (a pseudonym Charles-Édouard Jeanneret adopted after his work was heavily criticised), who died in 1965. He had an interest in concrete and his objective was to turn high-rise buildings into towns in the sky. Literally.

Le Corbusier, along with a number of modern architects, wrote the Athens Charter to address the approach to public housing in Europe in the 1930s.

There was to be a common, uniform style and he favoured tall office towers for work, surrounded by lower residential blocks in which to live. He developed the surreal ideal of tower blocks built on pylons and winding like highways through large cities like Rio de Janeiro.

The most famous of his buildings, known as Cité Radieuse (Radiant City), is located in Marseille and was completed in 1957. It is made of concrete and consists of apartments over 12 storeys, all suspended on large columns.

Cité Radieuse incorporates shops, recreational and medical facilities and corridors run through the long axis of the building like a street. Some rooms lack windows but there is a communal garden on top. Le Corbusier believed that these complexes were the optimum solution for rehousing the millions who had been displaced during the Second World War.

He viewed a house as a "machine for living in". UNESCO regards Cité Radieuse as a World Heritage Site and it is still occupied - by many of its original occupants and wealthy families.

Internally, the units are duplex in design so the 'streets' that traverse it are necessary only on every third floor.

While Le Corbusier was driven by idealism, city planners in many countries chose to adopt his ideas - but without incorporating the luxury of the facilities found in Radiant City.

These resulting tower complexes are usually on the outskirts of cities. They are poorly maintained and, almost without exception, house poor, unemployed and socially disadvantaged populations.

In Ireland, the Ballymun flats typified the architecture and social problems that these complexes were associated with. They have now been demolished.

But why do flats like this breed or attract dysfunction?

According to Danish architect Jan Gehl, they remove people from the chance encounters that happen on the street.

People in high-rise complexes leave them less frequently and so are more removed from street encounters and from outdoor life. They are like vertical gated communities or enclaves, cut off from the world at large.

Others believe that high-rises are not built to a human scale and one has to look to the sky to try to see the personalising details that are readily visible on the streets - for example, pictures on the walls, flower pots, and so on.

Thus the people inside them become depersonalised.

Others point out that because of the isolation such buildings generate, many people move out and so loneliness is common among those left behind.

According to psychologist David Cappon - author of the paper 'Mental Health in the High-Rise', published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 1971 - children and the elderly, particularly, are likely to lead unhealthy lives in tower blocks, choosing to stay inside watching television or playing computer games rather than mixing with peers and exercising in the open air on the street or local park.

"We must not go on blindly building these vertical coffins for the premature death of our civilisation," he concluded.

His words are more prescient than ever in light of the terrible events of recent weeks.

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