Sunday, 30 May 2010


They should dynamite that building. It's so ugly.

So said the woman standing near me at the lookout at the top of the Parc de Belleville. She was referring to the building on the left of this photo. A block of social housing. Built in the 1960s or 70s. Full of family homes, where children have grown up, where parents have become grandparents, where people have argued, laughed, cried, loved. Homes full of old photos, favourite toys, carefully chosen curtains and wallpaper.

But you can't see all that from the outside. From the outside you see a tall grey block. With a repetitive facade. You know it is social housing. You subconsciously think of the social problems that are often connected to social housing. And in this particular case, the rectangular grey blocks interrupt the picturesque Parisian panorama. A five storey high pale sandy grey panorama. The Eiffel Tower and the dome of the Pantheon (and the tour Montparnasse) silhouettes in the distance.

Would the view be more beautiful without the buildings on the left?
Who decides what is ugly and what is beautiful?
Can ugliness alone ever be reason enough to demolish something?

There are programs in place to demolish similar buildings in cities all across Europe. Thirty four demolitions are already planned in Glasgow alone over the next decade. The reasons are complex. But it is a phenomenon that stems from the fact that 60s and 70s social housing blocks are deemed ugly. They have been stigmatised. Turned into an image that signifies crime, fear and social breakdown.

But we have to learn to look at them differently. To look at them from the inside out. Last week I interviewed the architect Frederic Druot. He has collaborated with Lacaton+Vassal on the study PLUS, establishing a method by which such buildings can be renovated. They currently have a project on site, the renovation of the Tour Bois-le-Pretre in Paris. They photographed the interior of every flat. When they present the project to people, and show some of these images, people are shocked - it suddenly hits home that these deeply personal interior spaces are what has been threatened with demolition - rather than an abstract and distant concrete block.

I have a lot more to say about this subject. Treat this as an introduction. It is one of the big subjects of the moment. Post-war social housing has come to an age where it is demanding attention. Repair, renovate, transform. Restore, preserve, conserve. Demolish.

Demolition is the easy option. Easy for the planners, the developers, the money men, the decision makers. Not so easy for the displaced residents. Demolition doesn't require us to engage with these buildings, to re-imagine them, to use what works well and transform the rest.

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