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“Look On Our Works, Ye Mighty…” – The problem with grand projects

9 Sep

Atlantic Wharf

When I first moved to Cardiff in 2001, there were acres of the city now occupied by apartment buildings and houses that were still wasteland, but those areas which had been developed were gleaming and new. For a spell I lived in an area between the city and the bay known fancifully as Atlantic Wharf, surrounding the old Bute East Dock. Here, developers had built an L-shaped complex of Albert Dock-style apartments, offices and shops, and a friend of mine lived there, overlooking the water. I, meanwhile, lived in a nearby maze of cul-de-sacs, and was envious.

Fast forward to 2014, and while walking to a job interview in the bay I decided to take a brief detour along the Bute East Dock, but what I saw there was depressing. Though it had never been crystal clear, the water was stagnant and covered in a film of algae and weeds, with a flotilla of plastic bottles and fast food cartons bobbing on its surface. The walkway around the dock’s edge was severely overgrown with unplanned buddlejas, and of the ground floor shops and offices, all but one had “FOR LET” signs in their windows. The place had really gone to seed.

Apollo Pavilion

By chance, that evening I watched a documentary about abstract art which featured the artist Victor Pasmore, and the brutalist concrete pavilion he created for Peterlee new town in 1969. The Apollo Pavilion, which formed a bridge over a small, man-made lake, was intended by the artist to be a “…sculpture of purely abstract form through which to walk, in which to linger and on which to play”. Within a decade it had become a magnet for vandals and petty criminals, and was a no-go area for many locals, who came to despise it. When the developers who commissioned the pavilion disbanded, the local council refused to take on the responsibility of its upkeep, and it was left to rot until 2009, when it received a £400,000 restoration grant from the National Lottery.

The pavilion’s failings were two-fold. Firstly, Pasmore didn’t so much underestimate human nature as approach it with complete and utter naivety. Educated at Harrow, perhaps he simply hadn’t met the kind of teenagers most of us grew up with – or, indeed, were – and thought that creating a secluded concrete hut on a housing estate might give us the 20th Century’s answer to ancient Greek gymnasia, where great thinkers and their students gathered to discuss philosophy and mathematics. Needless to say, this wasn’t the case.

High Rise

Still, Pasmore wasn’t alone in his utopianism. The pavilion project began in 1955, a time when cities across Europe were rebuilding themselves, and using their poorest inhabitants as the guinea pigs in a series of social experiments. In a bid to meet the demands of a booming population, while giving residents wide open spaces, architects looked up, and gave us the council high rises that became such a mainstay of British housing in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Buildings such as Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower have acquired a kind of cult following (not to mention Grade II listed status), and when you compare many of them (including Trellick) to today’s equivalents, they often boast more space, more light and a better build quality, but there was still a fundamental flaw to the thinking behind high rise housing that would see them fall out of favour. Place people below and on top of their neighbours, and you diminish the amount of everyday contact they have. Suddenly, your neighbours aren’t the people you nod to every morning but the thump thump thump of footsteps across the living room ceiling, or the annoying music coming up through the floor. 

This isn’t to say estates such as Trellick Tower’s in North Kensington have no sense of community whatsoever – I’m sure the locals there feel otherwise – but simply that treating people as units to be stacked for the sake of convenience can’t help but exacerbate community breakdown.

“Trunkless Legs of Stone…”

Another problem with many of the housing estates that sprang up in the 1950s and ’60s was their isolation. While planners were sure to give each estate a small block of shops and maybe even a pub, urban sprawl left the majority of these estates isolated from major hubs. On top of this, in many small-to-medium sized cities, residents of those estates often have to contend with unreliable or unaffordable public transport. 

These grand projects, both residential and commercial, are signed off with little in the way of dialogue between developers and local authorities, and with virtually no long term planning, and so the Apollo Pavilions of the world are left to rot until some Lottery Funding comes along, and the waterside walkways of Atlantic Wharf become overgrown with weeds. On the Greek island of Kos last year, I saw what happens when grand projects meet with periods of decline, and it’s left the place scattered with half-built hotel complexes. Kos is lucky enough to be blessed with year-round sunshine, so that even in this state, it has a certain beauty.


But with our often grey skies and unforgiving weather, it seems unlikely that Britain could survive another dance with boom and bust without becoming an exceptionally ugly place to live.


Atlantic Wharf by me.

Apollo Pavilion by John Lord via Flickr.

Trellick Tower by Ben B via Flickr.