I don't often bother to write about my past in the UK but after posting about the Georgian terraces here, I can't resist doing this bit of research on the buildings I built in the days when I was an junior engineer in the late 60s and early 70s.
For my first job in London I was thrown in at the deep end.; Armed with a maths degree and not much else I was sent off to Manchester once a month to sort out the problems on site on the largest housing estate in Europe in Hulme, Manchester. This was one of those nice concrete panel constructions beloved of socialist countries but built in large numbers in the UK as well. Back to back terrace slums were decanted (wonderful term for temporarily rehousing the occupants) and demolished to be replaced by the so-called horizontal streets in the sky, plus a few tower blocks. Altogether 1000 homes were built in four groups of what were fancifully called crescents modelled on the famous Georgian Royal Crescent in Bath. One was even called John Nash Crescent after the architect in Bath. At the time, the 'Crescents' won several design awards.
It was a pretty surreal start to working life, bluffing my way through problems I had not much idea how to solve, but I developed a way of encouraging people to help me to find solutions, a skill I rely on very much nowadays. Another surreal part of the work was the site office in the middle of the mud and concrete. The so-called Zion Institute, a red brick building, housed the builders' offices, the Halle Orchestra rehearsals and a ballet school. As a result, girls in tutus mingled with workers in overalls and muddy boots, and I frequently shared the ladies loo with the harpist while she was practising.
Tne of my first tasks during the construction was to help sort out the mess caused by the collapse of Ronan Point due to a gas explosion. One corner of this tower block in East London collapsed like a pack of cards, largely because it was built of concrete panels balanced on one another just like a pack of cards. As a result, the blocks in Hulme were being redesigned so the panels were at least tied together, and the heating was being changed to electricity instead of gas. This latter was a disaster. I had the job of checking the heating when the first group of tenants moved in. I had 30 tenants all with complaints about their heating. I had to do some vaguely scientific tests on the heating which showed that the design of the heating was undersized and too expensive to run.
Most of the blocks built in this way developed mould and condensation as electricity became too expensive to heat them properly. The joints between the panels leaked. The "streets in the sky" became escape routes for vandals and hooligans who terrorised the inhabitants. Drug dealers and thugs took over the neighbourhood. Anyone who could get rehoused elsewhere did so, making the blocks housing of last resort for council tenants.
Far from being architectural monuments like Georgian terraces, they looked like rather typical run down housing block in Soviet towns and must have been similar to live in.
I was not hopeful of finding photos for reasons which will become apparent but in fact I found there is an ex-Hulme website here, from which I borrowed the following photos and where you can read the history of the area, and watch a TV video of the problems caused by this type of housing.
In the late 60s it was the largest housing redevelopment in Europe when these crescents were built. By the 1990s it had to be demolished and the whole area regenerated again with low rise housing. Many blocks like these were demolished by controlled explosions, but there don't seem to be any photos for Hulme.
Happily the Zion Institute is still alive and well. It survived bombing in the Second World War,
and has survived two redevelopements. It's now an Arts Centre here.
I am not sure whether I should be proud of my first building project or proud that it no longer exists.