Tower Blocks - End of Project (31/10/2019)

As of 31st October 2019, ‘Tower Blocks- Our Blocks!- A National Community Heritage Database for Postwar Mass Housing’, a Heritage-Lottery Funded project which ran from 2014 to 2019, draws to an official close. The purpose of the project lay in bringing together public engagement and an open source image archive in an attempt to emphasise the social and architectural importance of tower blocks, and to frame multi-storey social housing as a coherent and accessible nation-wide heritage through the archive, and also a variety of community workshops, talks, walks, and events. The project was generously funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant as well as a University of Edinburgh College of Humanities and Social Sciences Knowledge Exchange and Impact Grant, without which this project would not have been possible. In-kind support was also provided by Edinburgh College of Art, including the participation of MSc Architectural Conservation students in supporting event organisation.

This project has seen the successful creation of a unique database, 'Tower Block UK', containing almost 4,000 photographs of tower blocks across the UK; their compilation in a fully searchable and publically accessible online database transforms a fragile archive of historic colour slide photographs of postwar housing into a nationally accessible legacy resource. Accompanying and promoting this resource, our outreach and engagement programme has been wide-ranging in scope and in activity. We’ve delivered a total of twelve events taking place across both a national and local level. A number of these events have attracted the attention of local and national media such as Cumbernauld News and STV News. Our community outreach programme has been wide-ranging and far-reaching; events have included walking tours, social history walks, exhibitions, talks, workshops, film-screenings, research days and conferences, and have taken place all across the country, from Aberdeen to Manchester. The project has enjoyed a lively social media presence, reaching an audience of over 600 followers, and has used this platform to share numerous events, news, and other information. The project has also created several legacies in addition to the 'Tower Block UK' Archive itself, as the dataset generated through the creation of the Archive has been translated into new platforms such as Datashare and Wikimedia, thus increasing public access and contribution; and in addition, data from this resource has been used in other relevant and worthy projects, such as the development of a Fire Safety App at the University of Leeds using data obtained through the Tower Block UK Archive.  In addition to this translation of data, the project has also seen the creation of two exhibitions: ‘Cumbernauld: A Short History of a New Town’, and ‘’Tower Blocks: A Short History of Public Mass Housing in Britain’, based upon Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius’s work Towers for the Welfare State. The latter exhibition also included ‘Living the High Life: Tower Block UK Travelling Micro Museum’, a portable and versatile museum space which could be tailored to each specific location of the exhibition or event. Using all of these resources, we’ve worked to help transform public perceptions of the surviving postwar housing heritage from rejection of it as an alienating left-over into an acceptance of it as a force for potential community empowerment at both a local and a national level. We hope that the legacy of this project in the form of this fully accessible 'Tower Block UK' public database, will continue to contribute to discussions and knowledge-sharing surrounding high-rise buildings, as well as contributing to steps towards banishing the negative assumptions surrounding life in multi-storey social housing.


Post-war Housing History Day: Motherwell and Cumbernauld, October 2017 

On 26th October 2017, Tower Block UK ran a free research morning at the North Lanarkshire Heiritage Centre in Motherwell. The focus of the event was post-war social housing and local history. Led by local architect Wiebke McGhee (CultureNL) and architectural historian Diane Watters (Historic Environment Scotland), participants were invited to take part in a series of sessions whcih offered an overview of the national and local history of post-war social housing. Furthermore, this event provided participants with an introduction to the tools and sources available for carrying out independent further, future research. 

First of all, participants were offered a tour of the North Lanarkshire Archives, browsing some fo the collection materials relating to post-war development. The group then travelled to Cumbernauld where Diane, who grew up in the town, led an architectural-historical walk taking in the site of some of the last tower blocks (which were demolished earlier in the year) as well as much of Cumbernauld's other, notable architecture, including the town centre megastructure and some of its earliest low-rise housing in Seafar.



Dispossession Film Screening, July 2017

Tower Block UK joined Built Environment Forum Scotland in July 2017 to host a screening of director Paul Sng’s (Sleaford ModsInvisible Britain) feature documentary Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle . The screening took place in the University of Edinburgh's George Square campus, and was well attended. The film, narrated by Maxine Peake, focuses on the neglect, demolition and regeneration of council estates across the UK and investigates how the state works with the private sector to demolish council estates to build on the land they stand on, making properties that are unaffordable to the majority of people. The screening was followed by a Q and A session featuring director Paul Sng. 



ReimagiNation: Cumbernauld! May 2017

In May 2017 Tower Block UK took part in ReimagiNation: Cumbernauld!, the first of a five-stop tour of Scotand's New Towns in 2017 and 2018, as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival: On the Road.  The Cumbernauld festival was all about bringing stories out of the shadows of the town’s architecture, from famous poets and playwrights to residents past and present alike. Writers, artists, musicians and poets including Liz Lochhead, Denise Mina, Jenny Colgan and Graeme Macrae Burnet joined audiences in celebrating science fiction, crime writing, poetry, football and the stories of Cumbernauld’s residents. To this wonderful medley of varied events, Tower Block UK contributed a walking tour of the town, titled ‘Utopia to Carbuncle’, which was led by Dianne Watters of Historic Environment Scotland, and the Tower Block UK project leader Miles Glendinning.



Housing History Day, 24th October 2016

On the 24th October 2016, Tower Block UK hosted a Housing History Day, based at Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and in Wester Hailes, Edinburgh. The day was intended to introduce members of the public to ways in which they could research the history of postwar housing in their area, and the resources available to them, as well as to give a wider historical context to postwar residential architecture. Attendees met at 10am at the offices of HES and were given an introduction to researching postwar housing by architectural historian Diane Watters, before having the opportunity to browse the extensive collections in the HES archive themselves (including plans, minutes, sketches and letters). 

After a free lunch at HES, the group were taken to Wester Hailes, where they were given an introduction to the archive of the community newspaper the Sentinel by Caroline Richards of Prospect Housing. The Sentinel ran in the 1980s and 1990s, at the time when Wester Hailes' high rise housing was being heavily criticised for its poor living conditions, and the archive of the paper is now held at Prospect Housing's Wester Hailes offices. After Caroline had presented the archive and given a talk, the group were taken on a social history walk of Wester Hailes by resident and co-founder of the 'Our Place in Time' local history initaitve, Eoghan Howard. 



Cumbernauld exhibition and social history walks, 24th September 2016

Multi-storey housing in Cumbernauld has long defined its skyline. Indeed, tower blocks were originally planned by the Cumbernauld Development Corporation as visual markers, to add to the 'Italian hill town' aesthetic which they had intended. 2016 saw the evacuation and demolition of several of these blocks, with 2017 promising the disappearance of the town's remaining high rise housing. On the 24th September 2016, Tower Block UK ran an exhibition to commemorate the disappearance of the tower blocks such as Stuart House, and to remember Cumbernauld's place in the history of postwar architecture more generally. The exhibiton was held in the newly-opened Cumbernauld Community Enterprise Centre, and drew 133 visitors over the course of one afternoon (despite typically Cumbernauldian weather conditions!). As well as 12 specially designed and written exhibition boards, the Scotland's Urban Past team were also collecting and scanning in local people's photos of the town, to add them to Canmore, Historic Environment Scotland's official record of the built environment. This resulted in residents sharing stories, memories and photos, both with the team and with each other.

In addition to the exhibition, Cumbernauld resident Jean O'Reilly braved the rain and ran two social history walks of the town, leaving from and returning to the exhibition site. These took in the tower blocks, as well as Cumbernauld's other notable architecture such as the town centre megastructure and some of Cumbernauld's earliest low-rise housing in Seafar. The Tower Block UK team are currently working with Jean to develop her social history walks in to pamphlets, which would allow visitors to take the walk on their own, with all the information from Jean's walk in print.



RTPI talk and demonstration, Aberdeen, 1st June 2016

As part of the Festival of Architecture in June 2016, the Tower Block UK team travelled to Aberdeen to give a talk and working database demonstration to the Royal Town Planning Institute, Grampian Chapter (covering the Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and Moray council area). Professor Miles Glendinning (Project Convenor) gave a 45 minute talk on postwar multi-storey housing in a global context, and the ways in which mass housing has developed differently across the world. As the database was nearing completion, Elin Jones (Research and Public Engagement Assistant) was able to conduct a live demonstration, showing attendees how the database worked and how it could be used as part of research in to mass housing more widely. Elin also gave a talk about multi-storey housing as a UK-wide vanishing heritage, and the ways in which heritage and conservation professionals might tackle buildings which have such polarised feeling about them.