Council to appeal decision to give city tower blocks listed status

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They were to be the solution to city housing problems, towering high above the rooftops and providing residents with a head for heights, a bird’s eye view of the world below.

Multi-storey flats sprouted across British urban landscapes from the 1950s onwards; a perfect way to cram dozens of families onto a relatively small footprint even if from the outside they looked like giant concrete boxes.

While social problems plus the costs of maintaining the ‘streets in the sky’ led to many being razed to the ground in spectacular demolitions, in Aberdeen, at least, a group of Brutalist high-rise homes which have dominated the skyline for over half a century has received the ultimate in historic protection.

The eight concrete and granite Gallowgate blocks, some reaching 19-storeys high, are now as architecturally significant to the nation as the likes of Edinburgh Castle.

The decision by Historic Environment Scotland to declare the flats as A-list structures has effectively bubble-wrapped the concrete giants for future generations to enjoy, while simultaneously igniting fury among city councillors.

They say listing Gilcomstoun Land, Porthill Court, Seamount Court, Virginia Court, Marischal Court, Thistle Court, Hutcheon Court, and Greig Court, makes it harder and more costly for essential upgrades to ensure the flats are warm and energy efficient.

And they argue it will lead to extra routine and repair costs, which will have to be borne by council tenants and private owners.

“It is unfair to private owners and the council as owners of most of the flats will have to bear the additional costs that a Grade A listing will cause,” says Aberdeen City Councillor Douglas Lumsden, convener of the City Growth and Resources Committee.

In an effort to halt the move, the council has instructed its officials to look into lodging an appeal.

According to HES, however, the Gallowgate multi-storeys with their massive concrete pilotis and sculptural concrete is “an outstanding example of the modernist New Brutalism style in multi-storey housing”. Of particular interest is its “innovative” arrangement of maisonettes and use of granite, reflecting the traditional style of North-East properties.

Even the flats’ multi-storey car park is singled out for its “exceptional design”.

Visible from miles away, dominating the Aberdeen skyline and unlike many tower blocks which have been lost to progress, the Gallowgate flats’ future seems secure.

“They are like marmite. You either love them or hate them,” says Stephen Flynn, SNP MP for Aberdeen South, whose constituency includes the Gilcomstoun Land and Thistle Court multi-storeys.

“Some people don’t think they should still be there in 30, 40 or 50 years. But it’s the practical aspect of listing them that is the problem.

“People living in A-Listed buildings have enormous challenges in terms of basic things like getting windows replaced,” he adds. “To have eight buildings like this listed is unique and extremely frustrating.”

Of course, it’s far from the first time that the value of multi-storeys value – or lack of – has sparked differences of opinion.

Seen as a cost-effective way to replace out of date and slum housing, high rise homes began to appear across British cities from the 1950s, creating communities in the sky. Inspiration had come from the French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret – known as Le Corbusier – whose preference for using “beton brut”, or raw concrete, coined the term Brutalist.

Eventually, however, local authorities were in a race to see who could construct the highest of the high rises.

In Glasgow, the 31-storey Red Road flats rose in the late Sixties to become the tallest in Europe, providing homes for around 4,700 people.

Not everyone was a fan: one leading architect, Nicholas Taylor, condemned the scheme’s “nightmare sublimity”, while playground pioneer Lady Allen of Hurtwood, described them as a “kind of psychological pollution”.

When social researcher Pearl Jephcott analysed the new flats as part of research into the impact of high-rise living, she highlighted problems, from inadequate lifts to the high proportion of children, poor public transport and a lack of basic services to serve communities, such as shops, doctors and dentists.

“In the many visits which research staff made to the flats at Red Road, they rarely came away without feeling depressed, particularly at the thought of children being required to grow up there,” she wrote.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1970s high rise living was common in cities and even towns where there was far less pressure to build up and not out, partly driven by a government subsidy that provided extra finance for every storey built.

Before long, councils were pointing to the high costs of maintaining high-rises, and as repair programmes drifted tower blocks across the country were seen as bleak urban dystopias – even if most residents took pride in their high-rise homes.

Once a feature of the skyline, towers from Cumbernauld to Dundee toppled.

In Paisley, the ‘Five Fingers’ flats in Foxbar were demolished in 1996, and in Sighthill in Edinburgh, three tower blocks which had stood for 45 years were flattened in 2011.

The last Red Road flats were demolished in 2015. Perhaps a sign of how a shift in affection for tower blocks, a plan to blow up five multi-storeys as part of the 2014 Commonwealth Games’ opening ceremony was met by complaints that it would be insensitive and that they should instead be brought down “with sympathy”.

They haven’t all gone quite yet, but the death knell is certainly sounding for many.

A 25-year plan to knock-down all 48 high-rise blocks dotted across North Lanarkshire has begun, while earlier this month plans to tear down two high rise flats at Caledonia Road in the Gorbals, was confirmed.

The decision split residents, with some expressing sadness that they would soon be lost forever.

Professor in Architectural Conservation at Edinburgh University Miles Glendinning, who initially proposed to HES that the Aberdeen flats deserved listed building status, suggests local authorities across the country have been too quick to call tear down such significant symbols of social and housing history.

He says other countries with similar tower blocks instead value what they bring to city centres.

“There’s a throwaway culture towards public housing,” he says. “Large amounts of money were spent on these places, there weren’t a cheap way to build and there was a lot of municipal pride in them when they were built.

“The predecessors of today’s councillors had very high ideals and they wanted to bring about social reconstruction: mass housing was seen as a key way to do that.

“Aberdeen is a very good example, and these flats are monuments to them. They are unique at UK level but also internationally.”

He says there’s a fresh appreciation particularly among a younger people for multi-storey housing, with genuine sense of loss when they are gone.

“Younger people see modern architecture as something that’s intrinsically good,” he adds.

The future of the Galloway tower blocks seem secure even if the HES decision has baffled some.

Seamount Court resident Andy Rudgley says: “The building is undergoing work to establish the level of structural integrity which is thought to be in question.

“A-listing a building that is potentially structurally unsound is ridiculous.

“Other buildings that have been deemed not fit for purpose, particularly in the Central belt, have been demolished.”

Now protected by category A status, at least one of the Galloway tower blocks seems set to be propelled to even greater, indeed, global prominence.

From this weekend, Peterhead-born director Jon S Baird is in Aberdeen with the cast and crew of Tetris – including Rocketman star Taron Egerton.

The film will tell the story of the creation of the iconic computer game, with plans to focus part of the filming on Seamount Court – in the role of an austere Soviet-era Russian housing block.

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