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Invasion Of The Monoliths

June 25, 2012
by the gentle author

In the Beginning

“The rich got richer and the poor got bathrooms” – this is photographer John Claridge’s caustic verdict upon the invasion of the monolithic tower blocks in the East End of his youth, as recorded in this set of pictures taken between 1962 and 1982, and published here for the first time.

“In the terraces of two-up two-downs, people could talk over the garden fence but in the towers they became strangers to each other. The culture of how they lived was taken away from them, and I knew a lot of people that got fucked up by it.” John told me, still angry about the wilful destruction of communities enacted in the name of social progress. “It was a cheap shot. People were making a fortune out of putting up crap.” he revealed in contempt, “I don’t think anyone has the right to destroy other people’s lives in that way and tie it up with a silk ribbon.”

While in London’s richer neighbourhoods old terraces were more likely to be renovated and preserved, in the East End and other poorer districts pressure was exerted through slum clearance programmes to force people from their homes, demolishing swathes of  nineteenth century housing in preference to simply installing modern amenities. In retrospect, many of these schemes appear to have been driven by little more than class prejudice and created more social problems than they solved, dislocating communities and systematically erasing centuries of settled working class culture.

John’s photographs record how the monoliths first asserted their forbidding presence upon the landscape of the East End, arriving like the Martian fighting machines in the War of the Worlds. “You made fun of it and got on with your life,” he admitted to me and, with sardonic humour – adopting titles from cinema and jazz – he confronts us in these pictures with a series of mordant graphic images that imprint themselves upon the consciousness.

Today, as new tower blocks rise at the top of Brick Lane and the proposal to replace the London Fruit & Wool Exchange in Spitalfields with a larger block is referred to the Mayor of London after being rejected by Tower Hamlets, John Claridge’s vivid photographs of the monoliths remain as resonant as ever.

On Dangerous Ground - “They didn’t half put them up quick, I’m telling you.”

Gloomy Sunday

Room With a View - “Which is the view, from this window or from the block?”

The Dark Corner

The Four Horsemen

Foggy Day

Three Steps to Heaven

Caged - “An old lady who lived in a block in which the lift broke told me she felt like a caged animal.”

Freedom is Just Another Word - “Prefabs offered one kind of freedom and tower blocks offered another – but then the word didn’t mean anything anymore.”

Stranger on the Third Floor - “Once the small businesses go, people became estranged from their local environment.”

Odds Against Tomorrow - “There were still a few people left in this derelict terrace because they didn’t want to move out, but the odds were against them.”

House of Cards - “When a gas stove blew up and part of Ronan Point collapsed, my father, who was a qualified engineer, went to check it out – there were bolts missing and it had been constructed on the cheap.”

Dark Water -”These reminded me of apartment buildings in the Eastern Bloc.”

House of Strangers

Undercurrent

Out of Nowhere

High Wall

Dark Passage

Lift to the Scaffold

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s East End

Along the Thames with John Claridge

At the Salvation Army with John Claridge

In a Lonely Place

A Few Diversions by John Claridge

This was my Landscape

John Claridge’s Spent Moments

Signs, Posters, Typography & Graphics

Working People & a Dog

32 Responses leave one →
  1. Beach-Combing Magpie permalink
    June 25, 2012

    I love the beauty of all this type of photo, wherever they come from, they’re all so evocative with their urban landscapes and inhabitants.

  2. June 25, 2012

    Superb photography. The ‘planners’ inflicted something very similar on Glasgow around the same period. Fortunately many of their worst efforts have since been pulled down. Always enjoying your wonderful blog!

  3. June 25, 2012

    John,

    I am so looking forward to seeing a new collecting of your images every time you sent them to me. The consistence is of such high standard which is not easy when you work on a project for a long time. It can become repetitive but your images just broadens your view of what it was like in the sixties. Congratulations.

    Rolph

  4. June 25, 2012

    Great text, John. These words go very well with your photographs. The angry voice of a concerned photographer. I like it!

  5. Lee permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Beautiful to see that genuine old cargo ship on the Thames in “ Undercurrent.” I note that nothing much has changed overall ( “The rich get richer ”. )

    The shots somehow reminded me of the scenes from the TV series “ Quatermass and the Pit “
    ( 1959 )

    Thanks.

  6. June 25, 2012

    very powerful images. The recent Secret Life of London Streets on TV, in particular Deptford High Street illustrated clearly how these communities were taken apart.

  7. JanieB permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Wonderful, tragic, heart-breaking photo’s. How did this ever be called ‘Social’ housing? ANTI-social, I would have thought.

  8. cindy hacker permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Nothing changes, eh?

    Wonderful images and thoughtful text.

  9. June 25, 2012

    John, again another great set of social documentary images, as someone else said, every city got these Monolithic blocks of Flats, in Belfast and surrounding areas we had them. The most famous ones in Belfast were the Divis Flats, featured strongly throughout the “Troubles” The Army had a lookout post on the top of one of the blocks and the only safe way to get soldiers in and out of them was by helicopter..

  10. Lesley permalink*
    June 25, 2012

    I lived in the block in the foreground of the Dark Water photograph for 10 years. We were right on the top floor and the flat itself was lovely. We had an uninterrupted view of Canary Wharf being built and the view out of the windows on firework night and whenever there was a thunderstorm was amazing.

    Beautiful photographs in their own way. There were lots of people who lived in old houses with no bathrooms and lousy (literally) conditions who were pleased to be offered brand new flats with all mod cons (my parents amongst them). It’s easy to look back with hindsight.

    Keep these marvellous photographs coming please, Gentle Author!

  11. Sarah Lily permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Wonderful. Thank you Gentle Author.
    The photographs remind me of Terrence Davis ‘ Of Time and The City’
    I am currently witnessing the erection of a monolith which will forever change my room with a view-a landscape that is leaving.
    Look forward to reading you every day.

  12. June 25, 2012

    Great pictures with provocative story

  13. Ros permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Excellent, excellent photos from John Claridge again – they are always so good and so powerful. And the text reflects and illuminates. Thanks all round.

  14. Penelope Dearsley permalink*
    June 25, 2012

    The last photograph intrigues me. It looks the same as Maydew House, which overlooks Southwark Park, except I do not recognise the graveyard. I lived in Maydew for a number of years, still owned by the council but it’s future now uncertain with developer interest. Locals call it ‘Mildew House’ . A similar block on the riverfront in Deptford, Aragon Tower, was purchased by Barretts and renamed the ‘Z’ building.

  15. the gentle author permalink*
    June 25, 2012

    This picture is Braithwaite House in Bunhill Row, overlooking Bunhill Fields. I know because I once lived in it for six months, I could sit up in bed in the morning and see Williama Blake’s tombstone in the graveyard below.

  16. June 25, 2012

    Great set of pictures to remind us of architectures ‘dark’ period. I love the river shots – boats and cranes from a nicer time.

  17. Linda permalink
    June 25, 2012

    I was greatly saddened to see these images and to read the heart-felt words of the photographer.
    I thought we benefited from looking at history and learning from it and yet….another block on Brick Lane apparently and, of course, the proposals for the Fuirt & Wool Exchange.

  18. June 25, 2012

    A set of images that are singularly deep, brooding, and with a hint of menace. Perhaps I have seen too many post-apocalyptic films in my time?

  19. Adrian Taylor permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Soul crushing.

  20. June 25, 2012

    Town planners . . . don’t you just love them! . . . I guess they mean well in trying to transform
    run-down areas into more acceptable social housing . . . but didn’t they get it horrendously
    wrong in the 50s, 60s and 70s . . . transforming, as JC so graphically depicts, societies into
    social prisons.

    As always JC’s stunning images and cutting commentary are spot on!

  21. sarah marsham permalink*
    June 25, 2012

    Amazing photography : our city’s history brilliantly captured. The writing is brilliant too! The piece about “Ronan Point ” proves that nothing changes ; A greedy man’s sack is never full and the poor are basically condemned .This too is quatified in the recent series of “History of our streets” on the bbc . Where Georgian houses in working class areas were bulldozed (the york road side of Caledonian Rd N1, Deptford high street) whereas in the middle class areas, the Richmond avenue side of the Caledonian rd and Greenwich were left. Great Photography.

  22. June 25, 2012

    I have always loved these pictures John especially the cranes,all of them so thought provoking and of a time that I remember so well – in awe at a very young age of where I grew up.The terrible high rises that were supposed to be the salvation of so many and ended up as
    the last image of the folio!! .

    Communities completely cut off – I had friends who lived in them,and every visit made me oh so grateful that at least we lived at ground level. Haunting pictures.

  23. June 25, 2012

    More wonderful images from the greatest ‘unknown’ London photographer there is, but I do find your commentray marrying the council flats of the 60′s and 70′s with the new developments encroaching on the East End a little odd. Today’s tower blocks have little in common with those of the past. They’re not social housing. They’re not a (very misguided) attempt to give working class people a bathroom and a better standard of life. They’re luxury apartments for the kind of person who might very well read these pages and dream of living in an affluent and colorful London ‘village’ like Spitalfields/Shoreditch/Brick Lane. Or offices for companies who wouldn’t have been seen dead in this part of town a few decades ago. The lights in their high rise buildings might burn all night but there’s no one home.

  24. simon meyrick-jones permalink
    June 25, 2012

    Isn’t it interesting,with his pictures of local people (the last series-I think) John avoided any sense of judgement or comment,but in this series even though they are of inanimate buildings,you can almost hear the outrage and displeasure at what’s being done to the locality.They don’t even need the captions.

  25. Matt Johnson permalink
    June 26, 2012

    More wonderful East End photos from John Claridge. Very evocative. I vividly remember, as a little boy, watching from the balcony of the Two Puddings pub I lived above, as the towers started rising on the horizon. They did go up remarkably quickly. Looking back it really was a disgrace the way the working class were the subjects of such social experimentation .. and still are in many ways.

  26. Alice Neal permalink
    June 27, 2012

    I have worked with architects for many years and have found most of them really don’t appreciate the impact their ‘creations’ have on the people who live in them. As John said it really has changed the way people interact with each other. No more chats over the garden fence or looking out on laundry day to all the crisp white sheets blowing in the wind. Do you even know your neighbours name?

    Thank you John for reminding us that we should all stop and take a moment to view and think about our environments.

  27. June 28, 2012

    Dear John,
    I feel humbled to have seen these stunning prints and soak up your profound words. I like all of them. In the last one, it speaks to me of a ‘mass grave’ amongst individual graves. In short John, it’s gobsmacking, stonking, heart-ripping stuff!! Love it.
    In a way that’s entirely spirit-crushing and desperate; the monolithic blocks stand like tall dark soul-less strangers, towering over and cloaking (harbouring, if you like) these ‘ripped apart’ communities. Each image mirrors your own anger and pain, for the spillage of blood, weeping from the arteries of the street’s you grew up on and are in your veins.
    Tragic!
    What a fucking bad idea that was huh?, to strangle and dismember the very essence of London; her cog, like a rampant psychopath. Logic decrees this was implemented by a bunch of twats to weaken the very fabric and backbone of society. Sadly they succeeded and ‘love thy neighbour’ became fear thy neighbour. Put man in a cage and his anger will dominate; take his values and he becomes middle class.
    Such vulnerable images though, John and of historic importance; considering that photographic film documentation such as yours, is all that is left.
    Thank you for sharing your depth of passion and understated brilliance. x

  28. Marien de Goffau permalink
    June 29, 2012

    Massive stone photographs, telling your feelings in each image. Great photography.

  29. July 1, 2012

    invasion indeed – especially noted where we see the old and the new, side by side – like ‘High Wall’, ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ and ‘Lift to the Scaffold’

  30. john edwards permalink
    July 3, 2012

    Brilliant roll of shame – I feel the cold anger still. Never forget or forgive. Col.Seifert, who was the RSM architect from Hell the main perpetrator. Alison & Peter Smithson who were great pals of Nigel & Judith Henderson & Eduardo Paolozzi kept winning architecture contests , but never did their humane schemes get built. The house in Chisenhale that Pete Samuels & me got from Nigel / Eduardo was 3 bed big & garden on the canal. Still there but not 8 shilling a week. Last time it went was for £425.000.
    Some of the better tower blocks [ Lasdun - Goldfinger etc ] have been saved from mad councillors & are very good / expensive flats – now landscaped they show their best. Goldfinger’s Trellick is, at last terrific. Speight nailed it all: Alf Garnett – ‘ took the slums and stuck them on end ‘ – ‘ couldn’t find the wife for a week. opened the front door & there she was. Been doing the steps. all 17 floors of them.
    Valium had a field day. Lifts pissed in – what did they expect? Going shopping took hours, then desolate exhaustion in 10 x 9 boxes with 8’6″ ceilings. Seifert in his lovat & brogues lived in a pillared [mock] Georgian pile in the ‘ Home’ Counties. Last block to go in Stepney had ‘ one careless owner £5 ono.’ painted down the entire 17 floors – We should’ve had a Gamekeepers Gallows on a windy corner of every borough. Strung ‘em up. Bastards. Absolute Shower. Brilliant JC.

  31. November 18, 2012

    Bulgaria and Romania are so monotone and gray because of this Communist Monolith buildings – they need to be reconstructed

  32. December 2, 2013

    I live in a lovely Trrace hose that survived.

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