Return Of The Monoliths
This week, I learnt of a thirty-three storey tower proposed in Whitechapel on top of Sainsburys’ supermarket and last week, I was told of a twenty-five storey tower proposed for the Holland Estate beside Petticoat Lane. Meanwhile, campaigns to prevent blocks of more than forty storeys at the Bishopsgate Goodsyard and thirteen storeys in the Conservation Area in Norton Folgate have been running for months.
All of which makes John Claridge‘s photographs of the construction of monoliths in the East End in the last century especially pertinent. Many of these structures were subsequently regarded as mistaken in conception and have long been demolished. Yet as we embark upon a new wave of taller, meaner monoliths, it seems that no lessons have been learned.
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.
“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.
As new, even larger, tower blocks rise over the East End today, 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.”
Room With a View - “Which is the view, from this window or from the block?”
The Dark Corner
The Four Horsemen
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
Out of Nowhere
Lift to the Scaffold
Photographs copyright © John Claridge
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