Alcatraz, The Jungle
This is the National Theatre in London. It opened in 1976. It still enjoys the unusual distinction of being simultaneously one of the capital's most
loved buildings and also one of its most hated.
It was also several years overdue. The building had been planned back in the 1960s and the many terraces and foyers are testaments to the idea that
equality and happiness can be engineered through architecture.
Because this wasn't just a theatre. As the programs from that very first season put it, this was a social space, an area of casual encounter, a theatre
of the crowd.
Now, this kind of high-minded utopianism was all very well in a playground for middle-class Guardian readers. But what about in the places where real
people actually lived?
Streets in the Sky
Commentator "The children of Cardiff are facing a future city which will rise from the fall of a condemned past and bring to the surface a way of new
life. In a way removed from disorder. A way of reaching some concrete expression of tomorrow."
The story of how the 60s vision of streets in the sky became the concrete jungles of the 1970s is one of the most sobering lessons of recent history.
On the face of it, these new homes with their fitted kitchens and indoor loos should have been a vast improvement on the Victorian slums they replaced.
The problems, however, were on the other side of the window. In the kind of communal spaces that seemed so convivial in a building like the National Theatre.
The youth of society were making a hobby of breaking windows. Along with the vandalism came the violence.
One housing estate in Nottingham summed up everything that had gone wrong.
Commentator "Welcome to Alcatraz, the jungle, because that's what the people who live on this estate call it. This is Hyson Green in Nottingham and
there are hundreds of places like it all over the country. I suppose it took about 100 years from what our ancestors built to turn into slums. And it's
taken just 10 years for Hyson Green to turn into a modern slum."
So why did these new estates deteriorate so badly, so quickly? Of course, the architecture didn't help, but the problem wasn't just how they were
built, it was about the kind of people that the council put in them.
By the end of the 70s, all sorts of marriages were ending in divorce and one in 10 children was born out of wedlock. Along with the elderly, single
parents and homeless families were among those most in need of council housing. What reporters discovered in places like Hyson Green was what happened
when these vulnerable people were tightly packed together.
Commentator "Earlier this year, Hyson Green, and in particular, Valley Walk, became a national byword for juvenile crime and vandalism. Over a period
of eight months, a gang of children and teenagers terrified and tormented the old lady who lived here at number 22. Mrs Linda Bilson, a wiggle, was
living alone. She was robbed and kicked. Her furniture was destroyed and a group of children were even alleged to have you urinated on her."
It was a desperately depressing story. But here in Hyson Green in 1978, it seemed that for once, something might actually be done.
The residents themselves had a plan to revive the sense of community that seemed to have been sucked out of their estate. They wanted to turn their
vandalised garages into a sports centre and workshops.
The workshops did get built and in the end they sustained about 30 businesses but it was all too little, too late, and by the mid-1980s, the
Council decided that Hyson Green needed a complete rethink.
Hyson Green Today
So, this is Hyson Green today. A supermarket.
In the end, the housing estate lasted barely 20 years. Like so many concrete dreams of the 1960s, it ended up on the wrong side of a wrecking ball.
The best communal housing, it turns out, is one that gives people a sense of individual space. Nottingham council had already learned that lesson
in 1978, when it started building these new houses, literally next door to Hyson Green. These were the kind of forms that people wanted to live in and
given the chance, to buy.
But the failure of the high-rise housing experiment was hugely damaging in a deeper sense too. It helped to fuel a growing mistrust of Government
planning and a loss of faith in their supposedly benign bureaucrats who'd taken it upon themselves to manage the lives of millions of people.