Concrete tower blocks have become the bogeymen for all manner of ills – but what’s really behind it?

Antipathy to the “concrete jungle” is rooted in the assumption that concrete-heavy environments are by nature detrimental to psychological health. One study of more than 4 million Swedes, published in 2004 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, seemed to suggest that moving from a rural to an urban environment had a detrimental effect on individuals’ mental health. Researchers at Exeter University, meanwhile, have used data from the British Household Panel Survey to show that mental health is improved in the long term by moving to greener areas.

‘Inspired by the artifacts of war’: Ernö Goldfinger’s 27-storey Balfron Tower in Poplar, east London
‘Inspired by the artifacts of war’: Ernö Goldfinger’s 27-storey Balfron Tower in Poplar, east London © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

... in the lean decades after the war, concrete was often used experimentally to build urgently needed housing, and in direct response to shortages of traditional materials and skilled labour.

Others go further, arguing that the legacy of concrete is nothing short of the success of the welfare state, reliant as it was on a creative and transformative physical infrastructure. “If you look at early 20th-century rates of child mortality in Birmingham – these things saved lives,” says Otto Saumarez Smith, a historian of postwar British planning at Warwick University, of concrete buildings. “Nebulous ideas about ‘community’ look small compared to that.”

This is the point: getting people housed in better conditions was a job that had to be done. “At the time, a lot of people didn’t necessarily believe that they were long-term solutions,” says Grindrod of the huge 1960s estates he and I lived on. “They were seen as stopgaps to getting somewhere – they weren’t designed to be there in 400 years.” The same goes for now-desirable Victorian terrace houses. Balfron Tower, with its bespoke concrete design, is today being turned into luxury housing.