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The ideologues behind the RAAC crisis Reckless post-war architects built death-trap institutions

Why should children suffer? Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Why should children suffer? Matt Cardy/Getty Images


September 7, 2023   5 mins

At six o’clock in the morning of 16 May 1968, a 56-year-old cake decorator, Mrs Ivy Hodge, went to make a cup of tea in her 18th-floor tower block flat, Ronan Point, in East London. She filled the kettle, rested it on the hob and turned on the gas. The immediate and resulting explosion destroyed the four flats above her, ripped out the walls, and punched through every living room beneath her all the way to the ground floor, killing four of her neighbours.

Amazingly, Mrs Hodge survived — though any lingering public acceptance for “system-build” blocks, assembled from pre-fabricated concrete panels, hoisted into position and then bolted together, did not. Across the country, new tower and slab blocks became “hard to let”, to use the contemporary officialese, as potential tenants simply refused to move in. The Thamesmead Estate, completed in 1968, was only 40% full by 1974. Across London in Haringey, 55% of housing applicants wouldn’t move to the Broadwater Farm Estate within five years of its completion in 1971. Castle Vale, which opened in Birmingham in 1965, was so unpopular that by 1981 one-third of the apartments were empty.

Today, journalists are debating what the Department of Education did or didn’t know about the concrete RAAC crisis in school buildings. But the scandal cannot be blamed entirely on modern politicians: the seeds of this crisis were sown 60 years ago. Why was it acceptable then to build so shoddily? And what does it tell us about the philosophy of place-making and how we choose to live and build?

Let’s go back to the construction of these schools, and the corresponding homes and hospitals, in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. It was a brave new world. British cities had been bombed by the Luftwaffe and tarred by 200 years of coal-consuming fireplaces. The NHS was young. Anything and everything Victorian was besmirched with the heavy legacy of war and ornament. All over the country, tall, well-aerated Victorian schools and hospitals were abandoned for more modern constructions with cleaner lines, flatter roofs, more car parking and a simpler, machine-age aesthetic.

What could be more natural than to build modernity out of modern materials and methods? Why sully the future with bricks that need hand laying or wood that needs crafting or joining when new, lightweight, low-cost concrete can be poured and shaped in (at least nominally) automated factories? And why build sloped roofs to let the rain run off, as humans had done for 1,000 years, when modern materials could defeat the weather?

This mania for modernity infected every aspect of housing policy. Sheffield’s iconic Park Hill housing estate was modelled, according to Roy Hattersley, the chairman of the housing committee, on the UnitĂ© d’Habitation in sunny Marseilles, designed by the Swiss high priest of architectural modernism, Le Corbusier, who had famously proclaimed that houses were “machines for living”. Surely schools and hospitals could likewise be machines for learning or curing, undistracted by corbels or columns, pilasters or pedestals?

This was certainly cheaper: no fiddly bits to fix, no craftsman to employ. The seven firms that dominated the construction market pushed this agenda mercilessly and oiled it with parties for public officials. Some even offered backhanders and bribes. Architects and public officials convinced themselves that it was also morally better, responding to the “spirit of the age” and to the unprecedented needs of “modern man”.

But, and here is the rub, it was all total nonsense. Baloney. Unevidenced. Spurious. Faux science. A triumph of assertion over observation, of faith over facts, of hope over reality. In ripping up all organic experience, in defying the weather, in experimenting recklessly with new materials for fundamental parts of buildings, the “modern men” of the Fifties and Sixties made two fundamental errors.

First of all, they forgot that humans are not machines: they are emotional beings with hopes and fears, with needs for community and for belonging, for beauty and for purpose. Despite 70 years of trying, people have still not been able to attach themselves to a modernist building aesthetic that treats them as cogs in the machine not souls to be nurtured. As the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster put it 60 years ago, the modernist vision “presupposes a barrenness of spirit to which, despite every indication of its ultimate achievement, we have not yet quite attained”. We still haven’t. In every single visual preference survey conducted across multiple countries, between 70% and 90% of people prefer streets and buildings which are more organic, more sinuous, more textured, and that don’t necessarily conform to the machine-age aesthetic created two generations ago.

This is more than a question of taste: it is about the way people live. In fact, much of the data on health and wellbeing suggests that architecture affects how well people feel. Consistent evidence now shows that we get better faster and more reliably in more beautiful, natural hospitals than in the ghastly, climate-controlled white boxes we have created over the last 70 years.

Post-war architects were shockingly dismissive of public preferences. Le Corbusier had exhorted his acolytes to take courage from Louis XIV or Napoleon: “Golden moments when the power of the mind dominated the rabble.” The British architect Maxwell Fry agreed. He warned that architects should address “ourselves only to those capable of understanding us, and let the rest go hang”.

The post-war building boom had a second problem: innovating with building design is different to innovating with how you design your cars or phones or coffee machines. Buildings are meant to stick around. The great advantage of tried-and-tested materials and forms is that, if they are still with us, we know they last. No innovator or engineer, no matter how brilliant, no matter how well-intentioned and thoughtful, can truly be certain that their wonder material or form will survive in the real world, as the tragedy of Ronan Point and the current concrete scandal both show.

One of the first post-war schools, Hunstanton Secondary Modern School, offers another example. After opening in 1954, it suffered from many years of poor performance. The critic Martin Pawley wrote in 1984: “It is in a class of its own for glazing failure, heat loss, acoustic reverberation and maintenance.” Sadly, he was wrong. Many other post-war buildings have been just as bad.

That’s not to say that we should not innovate in the buildings we create. Of course, we should — all the time. Ceaselessly, energetically and ambitiously. But in doing so we should be respectful of the weather, of common sense, and of observed reality. And we should be humble about how we use new materials when we are not certain of their staying power.

New buildings should get better, not worse, with the centuries; as we get richer, new buildings’ utility, beauty, and longevity should improve not degrade. Sadly, we still get this wrong too often — and in some “traditional” designs as well as modernist ones: thin veneer bricks so brittle that rubberised mastic fault lines with a lifespan of 20 years are necessary to absorb the movement; short-lived plastic trays to collect the rain, which then seeps out through unseemly weep-holes.

No parent should say, as I do today, “thank heavens my children use school buildings constructed in the 19th century not the late 20th century”. That we are tearing down shoddy buildings created in living memory only goes to show the fickle nature of architectural progress.


Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets


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Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
8 months ago

As an architect, and an historian, I’m afraid the author of this article is correct. Architects, many of whom are narcissistic and egotistical monsters, were given carte blanche to experinent with peoples lives largely unchecked in the post war era. To be sure, there is some good Modern architecture, but most is rubbish. We are now living with the consequences and legacy of this folly, and it is only going to get worse. Interestingly, and rather oddly, Victorian architects designed and built buildings to last. Modern architects may have laughed at their over-engineered forms, but they’ve stood the test of time. With a little regular maintenance (I know, I live in one), such buildings will last another 150 years, easily. Much Modern architecture, on the other hand, was only ever designed to last 20-30 years, amazingly. After this life-span, governments failed to undertake the necessary and rather heavy maintenance required to keep them standing. Most should not be, and here we are!

John Williams
John Williams
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

Even in the early seventies the high rises were being described as ‘slums of the air’. “

D Glover
D Glover
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

Why did anyone think it was a good idea to build schools and hospitals out of a material with a 30 year lifespan? That would be appropriate in car manufacture, but not buildings, surely?
It’s not a party political issue, because this has been going on under successive governments since 1950.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
8 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

Planned obsolescence?

John Dewhirst
John Dewhirst
8 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

It’s the syndrome of not being around to have to worry with the consequences, the ultimate strategy of kicking a can down the road. You can always talk away the potential problem with incessant optimistism that things will sort themselves out or be replaced through the inevitable march of progress. The tyrrany of modernity is the belief that somehow we know better than our forebears and have learned the lessons of history.

Anthony Sutcliffe
Anthony Sutcliffe
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

What’s the state of the profession now, Graham? We see all these awful box estates popping up everywhere. I understand that this is mainly because there are no architects involved. Would it improve matters to have architects involved or would it be that far too often we’d get a load of modernist awfulness?

Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
8 months ago

Rudderless, sadly. The ARB (Architects Registration Board) is in the process of radically watering down educational requirements and qualifications, while the RIBA is far more concerned with ideology and politics than practicalities. Both asleep at the wheel, I’m afraid. There will be more such disasters coming down the line. Just look at the flammable facades debacle of recent years.

Last edited 8 months ago by Graham Bennett
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

And yet, amusingly, the mass market developers still advertise their “little boxes, all made out of ticky-tacky” as “architect designed”.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

Yet the Hogarth Flyover*, built by that paragon of virtue, the late Ernest Marples in 1968 still stands.

(* Sometimes called the Cherry Blossom Flyover.)

Last edited 8 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

Thank you!

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

It’s telling how few architects seem to live in modern houses of their own design and how many live in highly desirable Georgian properties.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
8 months ago
Reply to  Graham Bennett

Excellent article and very valid comment. Also look what is happening today – eg around Battersea . Block upon block of soulless apartments shutting out the light. Dire. The slims of tomorrow indeed.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
8 months ago

What the media is euphemistically calling “the concrete crisis” should be a wake up call for individuals to push back against the over-credentialised, blinkered, ideologically materialistic neophytes who believe they know better than every generation that has lived before.

Just as Le Corbusier nonsensically proclaimed that homes are “machines for living”, the UN’s IPCC has declared that “Well-being needs are met through services 
. For example, illumination and transport are intermediary services in relation to education, health care, meal preparation, sanitation, and so on, which are basic human needs.” (Chapter 5.2.1.1, page 514, of Part 3 of its most recent climate assessment report). This worldview – that humans are passive things to be managed, controlled, directed, satiated, and serviced – pervades not just the UN’s dotty prognostications on climate change, but almost everything that our dystopian, technocratic, near-universal mode of government does.

I firmly believe though that all it will take to turn this around is for a few more ordinary people to summon the courage to stand up and follow the advice of those crazy Grange Hill kids and “just say no”. No I won’t use your car park with its automatic number plate recognition. No, I won’t accept your assertion that we must achieve “net zero” at literally any cost; and no, our long and proud tradition of individual liberty isn’t a “cultural lock-in” that needs to be removed. No, I won’t pay by card or use your silly app. No, I won’t pay your unjust fines. No, I won’t parrot your gibberish ideology and I will say what I actually think. No I won’t accept your medical intervention if I don’t think I need it. No, I won’t accept that it is just the way things are going, or do things just because everyone else is doing them. No, I won’t keep my head down at work & take my pay, I will speak up and challenge you.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
8 months ago

The author is overlooking a key reason for the shift to modern building techniques: the radical increase in the value of laborers’ time. To build a building the old-fashioned way – with all those skilled craftsmen laying bricks one-by-one, for example – is wildly more expensive than it used to be. Those Victorians erecting all those remarkable buildings did not have universal health care and universal education and weeks of paid leave and site-safety regulations and all the other expenses and costs of a modern labor force. If we decided that our buildings should all be showpieces of traditional technique, it would come at a dramatic increase in construction cost. Maybe still worth it!

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

The thing is, with modern art you can love it or loathe it, and if it only appeals to a minority it doesn’t matter. It hangs in rich peoples homes, or in galleries where we can choose to go and see it or not.

Modern architecture shares the same radicalism, the same elitism and the same contempt for ordinary people and their tastes. With the difference that those same ordinary people are made to live in it, work in it and see it every day – whether they like it or not.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

So is it a good thing, or a bad thing, that the elite has now largely moved on from inflicting it’s pretentious, elitist aesthetic ideas on the rest of us – and is now pushing its pretentious, elitist woke morality down our throats instead?

Tim Cross
Tim Cross
8 months ago

This all said, it sounds like there are around 3 or 400 schools with this problem – out of 32,000+ in the UK. That’s around 1% at most. Serious yes, but perhaps, as usual, we collectively (especially the media) make too much of these sorts of problems? Felix

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
8 months ago

Back in the 60s, the father of one of my friends was in business as a builder, and my friend tells me that his father was very concerned about the Ronan Point method of building when these types of flats were first being built. He may even have tried to feedback his concerns to the authorities, to no avail.

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
8 months ago

It is funny, you can use this exact same text and replace ‘housing’ and ‘building’ by ‘modern medicine for chronic illness’ and make perfect sense..
when are we going to wake up and see medicine for what it is: a big economical machine fixing bits of us and forgetting we are complex living beings…

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
8 months ago

Great point, but the tip of the iceberg of a discussion on modern medicine and indeed old age care

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
8 months ago

The short-term outlook of elected decision-makers might be, in part, a problem of democracy. There are only five short years between general elections, so as long as the building stays up for five years before it collapses then the collapse will be someone else’s problem.
Same problem with our perennial shortage of doctors. It takes six or seven years to train a doctor, so definitely after the next general election. Not surprising, then, that health ministers can always find excuses for not expanding medical schools.

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
8 months ago

…. one of the issues with doctors is burnout because they are asked to practice a medicine that is (apart from some of the acute medical stuff) completely out of touch with the reality of illness and the complexity of our ‘bodies and minds’.. they have simply not the answers for what their patients need.
And when on the other side of the world a declaration is made alongside the G20 meeting that there are solutions: nobody in the press makes any mention of it…. make you wonder… https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/who-traditional-medicine-summit-2023-meeting-report–gujarat-declaration

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago

The London County Council blocks of flats and schools built between the 1880s and 1920s are fine : we had elections then. The Brutalism introduced post WW1 as explained by Robert Hughes explains the turning away from brick and based upon classical proportions to brutal buildings constructed in concrete.
The Shock of the New – Wikipedia
What I think is ignored is the quality of local politicians. Up to 1920s, local politicians tended to be professionals and local businessmen and women who had desire to improve their community ; they were not career types in the main. If one had had a factory, business premise or house built for oneself, one wil lhave learnt something about construction.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
8 months ago

Commonsense and observed reality? Surely not!

Graham Bennett
Graham Bennett
8 months ago

Two things that are very much out of fashion these days! I was told recently that commonsense and reality are the last refuge of unredeemable ‘bigots’?

Sonny Ramadhin
Sonny Ramadhin
8 months ago

Need anymore be said about British government that the last good houses were built around the 1920s?

John Dewhirst
John Dewhirst
8 months ago
Reply to  Sonny Ramadhin

You can’t be so simplistic. The circumstances of the 1920s and the relative cost of economic resources differed massively, let alone the size of population needing to be housed. It’s hardly as if building plans from the 1920s would be relevant or even practicable.

Robert Afia
Robert Afia
8 months ago

This article is naive. New construction techniques appear and get used because they are believed to be better and/or cheaper. It’s a fact of life that when using new techniques, some unforeseen problems emerge, sometimes only many years later. It’s mostly nobody’s “fault”. Certainly not the architect, who will not know about concrete, not the structural engineer who will be satisfied at the time that the construction is sound. Possibly the manufacturer of the product who may be “optimistic” about the product, sometimes criminally, but takes the risk for profit motives. But many new materials and techniques go on to be successful and benefit society.

Ross Jolliffe
Ross Jolliffe
8 months ago

Mmm all a bit general. This article does not explain the cause of the gas leak or what actually causes RAAC to fail – let-alone why it gets into that unhappy state.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago

Good grief, I thought we looked back on the 50s and 60s etc as halcyon days. Maybe not.
It appears that the first time the BRE flagged a potential problem was 96. Albeit an ‘information’ paper. Whether that got anywhere near a Minister we don’t know…yet.
Things really start to kick off 2018 with a collapse in a Kent school. From that followed Alerts and requirements to check, and eventually up to today. Sunak and Gove get criticised for cancelling/limiting school rebuilding which would have removed some of the problem but the RAAC issue not really right in front of politicians it appears until 2018. That is though 5 years ago.
And of course how immediate closures get held until a day before term starts just a metaphor for the current incompetent Govt we have.
More broadly sometimes it takes a proper crisis for fundamental change to be triggered. Let’s hope so.

John Dewhirst
John Dewhirst
8 months ago

The challenges faced in the 50s and 60s are no different in essence to those of today, to find seemingly transformational solutions at the least expense to the taxpayer. To know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
8 months ago

This is spooky. I pretty much paraphrased this article in a rant last night.
Were Unherd bugging my house?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago

It is the nature of training architects in the UK. They lack adequate understanding of structural engineering, materials, project management and actual time spent as a labourer on a site. It is easy to test the strength of concrete after 7 or 30 days. What is difficult is to assess how concrete will behave over 50 or 100 years.The British climate is damp and what has not been determined is how concrete behaves when water and carbon dioxide seep into over 50 or more years.
Since 1919 Brutalism and the machine age has influenced design. Those who have gone through the horrors of war or worked in heavy industry which is hot, dusty, smelly and noisy invariably desire beauty, grace and tranquility. Hence many of those involved in heavy industry enjoyed allotments.
Brutal design which is unsympathetic to people: bad design followed by shoddy workmanship; materials which degrade in a damp climate; a dose of corruption; arrogance and incompetene from architects, civil servants and politicians have caused the problems. They are also the causes of many problems in Britain. If one look at London schools those built pre and post WW1 in brick; work well ; rooms are light; they are warm in winter and cool in summer and repairs easily undertaken.
There is a more important aspect; a decline in discernment; people with an eye for quality, an acceptance of coarsesness and crudity which is a result of the decay of the spirit.