Claywood Tower blocks

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Individual buildings have a life cycle. Demography is about population distributions. Sheffield is seeing the death of tower blocks built in the 1960s and 70s. There are many stages in the life cycle of the building.



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This is often just a matter of fashion, or herd instinct. There seems to be a stage in city development where every big company wants its own skyscraper. Europe has a strong heritage industry so Paris for example has just a few skyscrapers at La Defense, but the Banlieux Rouges to the South of the city comprise many tower blocks. These were initiated by socialist local governments to provide good quality housing for the working classes. In the Far East they just knock down anything of the old era to try and make their cities cleaner and bigger than anything in North America.

Most council tower blocks were initiated before the Thatcher regime. That regime stressed 'individuality' and attempts to write class struggle out of history. That is a pity because the ruling faction depended on allies in whose interests often were against progressive emancipation of the masses. Banks and mortgage companies would never want to finance affordable residential blocks -- what the French call 'Ashelem', (H.L.M or Habitations de Loyer Moderees).

Other countries undertook large tower block developments to satisfy the workers on key installations often belong to particular favoured tribes and ethnic groups. The growth of tourism has also seen the transformation of many coastal cities.

There is still a big difference between rented and owned accomodation. When the private housing market accounts for a large sector of the economy productivity in other areas falls, and engineering is often a casualty. This describes contemporary UK.


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When there is a fashion for tall buildings similar designs can be recycled, so the design process is often much quicker for the late starters.

As far as the quality of buildings is concerned good designs often remain just that. The designs are never actually tried out. Energy efficient designs which rely on clever systems of circulation have been around in the Middle East for centuries. Persia is a good example of this. The combination of cheap oil and air conditioning put these types of design on hold for much of the twentieth century.

The invention of the lift made skyscrapers possible in New York and Chicago, but it was strong air conditioning that made for the development of Florida and Texas.

England has seen few tower blocks built for rich residents. The idea of combining car parking,, offices and and shopping along with residential units has not been so popular as it is in Singapore.

Many who become professional architects are from the richer classes. This means that some of them end up designing buildings where they would never consider living themselves. The real proletariat now live in containers, trailer parks, or worse. This type of accomodation is haphazard, and usually bought off the shelf. Some of Sheffield's 1960s tower blocks have large balconies and fine views. These are much better than in some of the more recent developments. A good size balcony is still a desirable feature. The Park Hill architects wanted each house to have a lobby suitable for parking a pram, and a balcony sufficient for out door eating. Even the rich are not getting this in Sheffield.

The one thing that 1960s designers failed to appreciate was the growth of car ownership. Failure to excavate sufficiently deep basements, or inability to convert the lower floors to car parking has added to letting problems.


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This is the stage where people decide which consultants and contractors get the paid work. Many projects go wrong at this stage. When many buildings are going up a recent completed project is the best way to be awarded the next. Gleason built many Sheffield tower blocks including Claywood.

Bidding is often most difficult when there are few other tower blocks around. Other residents of the area may raise objections and otherwise hinder progress. The bidding process involves much tedious estimating, and proposals often require months of work. Computers don't really help because they enable people to take more things into account and the additional complexity drives up back office costs.


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During 1969 I tried to get a job on the Claywood project. I was cycling around Sheffield and I looked in at the site office to ask for a construction job, but I seemed too small for that sort of work. I eventually got hired at the Brown Baily steel mill at Attercliff. It seems construction techniques have changed little since then. A reinforced concrete core goes up in the center, and the edges come later.

Delays in construction usually follow faults in the bidding process. A contractor may go bank rupt, or there may be strikes because the managers fail to get the cooperation of the workers. The outbreak of civil war may also hinder this phase. Some of Beirut's towers suffered this fate. Ljubljanas prestige office towers suffered a ten year hiatus during the squabbling that preceded the break up of Yugoslavia. One of Bangkok's big shopping mall projects became a shell, inhabited by squatters, for several years.

Sometime delays in construction lead to dereliction and collapse of the building before it is ever completed.

Low cost residential flats are unique amongst tall buildings in that the workers who actually put up the buildings may actually be able to live there.


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Many buildings are left empty after construction. This is usually because the owner wants tenants to pay higher rents, but it can also happen because the building was wanted more by the project partners than any potential inhabitants. Riyadh and Jeddah had vast unnocupied tower blocks during the 1980s because Korean companies wanted the contracts but the local people preferred to live in courtyard style villas. Many of these buildings got refugee inhabitants during the first gulf war. Leaving valuable buildings empty is a means of controlling access to the buildings. If the owners can afford enough guards, then the buildings are secure.

Buildings which are regarded only as assets may remain empty for years.


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Residential tower blocks for low income families represent some of the hardest management problems. It may take some time to recoup the capital cost from rent payments so some form of subsidy is implicit. People may call this type of thing 'affordable housing' but that begs the question about the distribution of resources in society. Why does everyone not earn enough money to afford the housing ?

Occupation tests design. The people in the building should like to be there, unless the building be a hospital, a prison, or the temporary home of an exploited worker.

Access control can be a problem. Residential blocks allow people to come and go at any time. The more expensive the building, the better the security.

Since this piece is written for an arts based organisation it is fair to mention that one of the England's best twentieth century illustrators saw fit to devote an entire book on high rise living. Heath Robinson's book 'How to Live in a Flat' celebrated high rise living for the ordinary man.

I think many English people are complainers. Many people seem unaware that Afghan refugees kicked out of Iran have to live in the open behind low walls for windbreaks in freezing winters. Tenants meetings in Parkhill often show a level of prejudice against the poor and vulnerable which is common in many working class communities. The trouble with many of these complaints is that local politicians use them as an excuse for drastic solutions such as clearence and demolition. The labour government's grand idea of bringing council housing up to standards seems laughable. Those Claywood flats seem far superior to the purpose built student accomodation going up all over Sheffield. These flats offer rip off London style prices for small rooms with shared cooking facilities. The trouble with 'improvement' is that it seems a new word for destruction of the facilities. Other approaches focus on a narrow minded policing approach with orders for security cameras and tree felling rather than more late night shopping and higher quality cafes and bars.

In the UK the police never like council estates. In France it's far worse. You regularly hear of the police shooting or beating Arabs in the 'Banlieux'. The French now have laws where people can be sent to prison just for loitering on stairays, or in lobbies. France also has the cult of individualism, just like Thatcher's Britain.

Many tower blocks house new arrivals, often young workers, or students. This often adds extra dimensions to social segregation, especially if the new arrivals speak foreign languages or otherwise seem different.


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Horizontal streets were cleared to make way for better housing or road projects. Tower blocks are usually cleared because they are hard to rent. When the rules of renting change, then buildings become may become harder to rent. These rules are generally set by banks who are themselves the main sponsors of skyscraper office blocks.

Sheffield and other northern cities all seem to have their 'Empty Quarters'. Look at the flats between Burngreave and the Don Valley. These areas of deprivation usually share a feature: loss of retail banking services because of branch closures during the 80s and 90s.

Tower blocks from the 60s and 70s become slums. Socio economic factors are to blame. Council housing is segregated housing. Because owner occupiers have a majority in the UK people who live in the council rented sector are often stigmatised. They have also been subject to political manipulation in certain London boroughs. The Homes for Votes scandal in Westminster involved the heiress to the UK's most profitable supermarket chain, TESCO. This is a form of social cleansing.

The USA is the same. Their draconian drug laws often decree a doubling of penalties if drug violations occur in municipal housing. There is much said about crime on council estates, but little is said about the more serious professional crime that goes on in highly outsourced organisations. There is much theft of contractor's vehicles and heavy machinary. Outsourcing is meant to cure another crime problem where council workers sometimes do second jobs in building while officially at work for the municipality. This sort of corruption always goes at the top where well heeled executives often take on lucrative consultancies for their rich friends, doing several jobs at once. Chirac was mayor of Paris for more than ten years and the municipality paid for his drinks bill.

The Claywood Flats were cleared quite slowly. Some people actually wanted to stay there and hung on for years. Cash incentives are used to get people to move, but the cash is the sort of money that can quickly go on drugs, alcohol or consumer stuff such as new carpets and furniture.


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Detroit is supposed to be dereliction capital of the World, It's in rust belt territory, and they had a fierce uprising during the 1960s. The old train station is an abandoned ruin. Detroit is motor car town, and railways were not popular amongst the corporations based there. Detroit and other rust belt towns show the typical 'Flight to the Suburbs' syndrome.

Abandoned homes at the periphery and sky high prices an accomodation shortages in the center are the result of a badly skewed economic system. This is a system where long term planning is seen as a form of socialist aberration which is totally out of sync with free markets. But the truth is that infrastructure projects require long term planning and this sort of planning requires expertise that goes outside the range of law and accountancy.

In Sheffield derelict buildings are stripped of valuable boilers and pipes at an early stage. This theft may be amateur or professional depending on the transport resources deployed.

As you can see from the pictures the amount of goods left behind shows a parlous state of the recycling industry. It's likely that some tenants were too poor to pay for heavy removals, while others just spent their home loss payments on buying new.

These derelict home could give valuable insights into the social history of our time. The junk mail alone would give information on indebtedness. The murals indicate much creative art which could get some of the people jobs as interior decorators if they could get the right sponsorship. Other flats could easily get the owners on trash TV such as 'How Clean is Your House'. It is seldom that you can get access to hundreds of abandoned homes in peacetime.


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In the USA and Europe many housing projects have been demolished. St Louis had large numbers of flats blown up in the 1970s. These demolitions are often a symptom of segregation rather than bad design. Earthquakes demolish buildings.

The Claywood flats are being demolished piecemeal. Mechanical claws are starting to rip out the lift shaft of one of the towers.

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You can also get further information about Sheffield developers

Eviction from Claywood flats
HTA projects mentioned for Parkhill
MJGLEESON Builder of Claywood