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Return Of The Monoliths

April 23, 2015
by the gentle author

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.”

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

Follow the East End Preservation Society

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Click here to join the East End Preservation Society

14 Responses leave one →
  1. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    April 23, 2015

    So’ “schemes imposed upon the people based on little more than class prejudice”, HA HA, in England when was it ever any different ? ? even casually observe the workings of the ELITIST political classes of ALL persuasions and you will soon notice that almost EVERYTHING they do is based on CLASS PREJUDICE, you will be hard pressed to find ANY politician living the kind of lifestyle they ARBITRARY IMPOSE upon OTHERS, my sister once had the misfortune to live on the 17th floor of Ault point, an identical block adjacent to Ronan Point, the block that subsequently collapsed, I remember visiting her flat one evening and being alarmed by the fact that you could actually feel the block swaying in strong winds, even at that point in time I remember thinking those buildings were unsafe, I walked from school to see Ronan Point the day it fell down, it was shocking to see in real life, how so many people managed to escape death that day I will never know, as a young man in the 60s I remember the massive “slum” ? ? clearance schemes that were going on in the East End, whole streets of Victorian terraces the vast majority of which were completely intact disappearing virtually overnight and their inhabitants either being enthusiastically encouraged to “get out of London” or if they stubbornly had the audacity to refused they were bundled of to one of the new cardboard boxes in the sky that were hastily being slung up all over the gaff, with the promise of “futuristic living” in the cloud’s, as we know, in fact the only thing that was really in the clouds were the HEAD’S of the MORONS who designed and IMPOSED these MONSTROSITY’S into the lives of their unwilling inhabitants, “class prejudice” ?? “WHAT”, you want somewhere DECENT to live ? ? get back to the slums of the East End where no one IMPORTANT will ever have to see you, you OBNOXIOUS TROUBLEMAKER, what are you some kind of COMMUNIST ? ? you filthy PEASANT.

  2. Rachel, Neal, Ella and Jude permalink
    April 23, 2015

    And to add to this…. another on the Majestic Wine Site, Shoreditch High Street! 30 plus floors! with a pretty glass box, views of london, whilst you enjoy an overrated cocktail! Looking down on all us local folk …. “the Iron Wall of Crude Towers continues!” REDEVELOPMENT OF 201-207 SHOREDITCH HIGH STREET AND 1 FAIRCHILD STREET… check it out!

  3. Helen permalink
    April 23, 2015

    The difference this time is that the rich will get richer and get the bathrooms – neither the poor, nor even the modestly comfortable, will get anything as there will be no ‘affordable’ places to live in London anymore. Born & bred in London I despair at what’s happening to communities all over the city I love.

  4. Arcarti permalink
    April 23, 2015

    Govt scared wr will join forces cos we have had eought lies and may disintegrate to mob rule
    Answer- squeezr peasants out of town.
    Hv to keep some for ‘ menial’ stuff tho.

  5. April 23, 2015

    You only can call it “Non-Architecture” — just good for blowing up!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  6. alison homewood permalink
    April 23, 2015

    What a sobering reminder of what we lost and what we stand to lose in Norton Folgate and elsewhere.

    Just because the new monoliths are mainly glass now (British Land, Norman Foster, BORIS et al), doesn’t mean today’s towers have any more soul – and the density of them is much much worse.

    I was shown around a one-bed flat in the new-build Lexicon on City Road last week. The kitchen-cum-living room was just 16 sqm with a view onto the Canaletto tower, oh joy! And the “water feature” was a canal cul-de-sac strewn with litter – no-one cared enough to clean it. The flat was being sold by someone who had bought it off-plan and never lived in it. The price – £675,000. London will surely be flooded soon with these ‘opportunities’….

    Interesting how today’s marketing materials just say ‘tower’ – the block got lost along the way, and hey, tower sound so much nicer, more like a castle or a fairy-tale than communist bloc.

    I walked back from St Leonard’s church last night, where my Huguenots ancestors were baptised, married and buried, past the boarded up remaining terraces of Norton Folgate awaiting their fate, and could have cried.

    I’ll help man the barricades when/if the time comes….

    Let’s hope Tower Hamlets do the right thing….

  7. joan permalink
    April 23, 2015

    We moved into a flat on the thirteenth floor of Latham House, opposite the Troxy, at Christmas 1963 when it was brand new, as was I – being only 6 months old. We moved out 16 years later when Tower Hamlets council rehoused us to a lower rise flat in a new estate alongside the Troxy. My mum and dad were thrilled to have been rehoused (from Wapping’s Stephen and Matilda house) to a flat with underfloor heating and all mod cons. Undoubtedly the build quality wasn’t brilliant (I can remember all sorts of creaks in the wind – my sister and I were never allowed to see tower block disaster movies like Towering Inferno for fear that they would worry us!) but the community was there. Communal areas and lifts were specially swept and cleaned if a wedding or funeral was to take place (I particularly remember this from when my sister got married in 1977) and we certainly knew our neighbours and were frequently in and out of each other’s flats. I have vivid memories of the three day week and how many neighbours came into our house to boil kettles on our gas hob (most people having electricity). And people helping each carrying shopping up the stairs when the lifts were out. The death knell for our particular block was when Tower Hamlets got rid of the caretaker and decided that high rise living should be for single people rather than families with young children. The people who moved in – particularly students who weren’t intending to stay long term – had no desire to keep the community or cleanliness going.

    There were undoubtedly some real downsides. My parents wouldn’t allow us out to play in the streets because there were big roads to cross to the park. But even there the corridors became our play spaces and I remember much time spent sitting in the communal airing cupboards at the ends of each corridor.

    Joan

  8. Eddy permalink
    April 23, 2015

    Thanks for a moving and heartfelt post. And thanks to Mr Claridge for sharing these powerful images. They are new to me and deserve a large audience. But how sad that we have learned so little. This beautiful sentence came to mind…

    “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” – Jane Jacobs

  9. Jackie K permalink
    April 23, 2015

    My grandparents lived in Cann Hall Road, Leytonstone for 40 years before they were “re-housed” by the council to the Langthorne Estate. Although by no means tall buildings, they are (still) wide, monstrous monoliths which basically trapped them on the second floor. They passed away within 18 months of moving.

  10. April 23, 2015

    It is really scary what it happening there. Perhaps they expect the ‘natives’ to understand that the city workers, bankers and smart young things need a place just round the corner from their places of work. The greed of the builders, planners and investors seems to grow with the height of the buildings they want to erect. They just don’t give a damn about the ‘ordinary’ people they are driving away. The higher the building, the lower the morals – brave new world indeed. Valerie

  11. Catherine Morris permalink
    April 23, 2015

    There are also plans further east in Mile End to build a 33 floor tower block of flats on the corner of Mile End Rd and Burdett St. It will stick out like an eyesore from the much lower adjacent features on the cross road

  12. April 23, 2015

    A wonderful record. History is repeating itself.

  13. Alex permalink
    April 23, 2015

    More information on the Sainsbury Whitechapel project can be found here: http://www.j-sainsbury.co.uk/whitechapel

  14. Jonty permalink
    April 26, 2015

    It is easy to place all of the blame for these obvious failures of urban renewal and housing schemes on “The Rich,” but many of the original planners were just as likely to be well-intentioned Labour politicians as they were to be the popular image of the money grubbing Tory. As dreadful as these towers were in terms of damage to established communities and aesthetics, the slums were awful, too, and many outsiders were shocked that so many people lived in such cramped and squalid houses, often with exterior toilets and other issues that seemed inhumane and Dickensian in the later part of the twentieth century. These towers were an easy answer to a difficult question, and most of the blame for shoddy construction should be placed at the feet of the building contractors, who won the contracts because they placed the lowest bid and then cut corners to extract maximum profit. In hindsight, the failures of these housing plans for the poor are clearly evident, but it is too simple to look at the period in which they were created through the lens of the London of today. Yes, there was greed manifested by some of the players, but the plans themselves arose out of a general concern for the poor followed by action, however ill-suited it may seem today. Today, land in London has reached such epic levels of value, there will never be projects like this again. Unlike then, there is no genuine concern for London’s poor today, let alone any actionable plans to create affordable housing for them. In an age when Sloane Rangers have been priced out of their own neighbourhood and millionaires compete in bidding wars for houses in Spitalfields, I doubt there will ever be such a level of action taken for an ever growing demographic: those who simply cannot afford to live in London. These plans of the past were very bad indeed, but no plans at all will be truly catastrophic.

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