The Invisible Castle

Henri Kopra's winning submission for this year's Vectorworks Design Scholarship envisions a new future for Nottingham's most prominent social housing complex

The Vectorworks Design Scholarship produces some great submissions. The winning entries typically excel in two areas - great creativity or phenomenal research. This year's UK winner, “The Invisible Castle” by Henri Kopra of the University of Nottingham, falls into the latter category, and hypothesises the development of social housing in Nottingham with a remarkable journey through the history of social housing. Henri's research was carried out in collaboration with Nottingham City Homes and under the supervision of Alison Davies' Studio Unit 5A, celebrating the centenary of the Addison Act that enshrined council housing in 1919.

The Title of his submission, “The Invisible Castle“, refers to Victoria Flats, a sprawling high-rise development in the centre of Nottingham, which houses council tenants and which is largely unseen by Nottingham residents in the Street below, despite it being the tallest building in Nottingham. The title also serves as a metaphor for the dwindling percentage of council house tenants in the UK, down from 40% in 1980 to just 7% now, and the diminution of their status. Henri argus that it is time we revisited the provision of housing to working class families and those unable to afford the rapidly rising costs of home ownership and private rents.

His views are supported by a comprehensive review of Government initiatives and acts since the mid 19th century to the present. Concern about a rapidly rising population and the concentration of industrial workers in growing cities and their satellites led to the growth of 'Victorian slums'. From 1848 to 1898, act followed act with the Public Health Act, the Artisans and Labourers Dwelling Improvement Act, leading up to Ebeneezer Howard's 1898 plans for Garden Cities, designed to draw people away from the adversities of city dwelling and place them in healthier leafy suburbs with green spaces and more of a rural outlook.

Little was done to achieve this until the aftermath of the First World War, as soldiers returned to their slums. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George promised to build "Homes fit for heroes" and so the 1919 Addison Act was passed, which authorised local councils to provide good quality housing on a large scale - acting upon advice from the 1917 Tudor Walters report, which suggested that all homes should have a parlour, living room, 3 bedrooms, bathroom and larder. The Garden City was adopted as a template with developments that still attract approval today, and in the 1920's 5 million houses were built to such standards, costing an average of 500 pounds each - the equivalent of two year's civil servant's salary.

The Second World War triggered a different response as soldiers returned to rebuild shattered cities. A similar rush to build was initiated but suffered from inadequate consultations with architects and planners, and the process was characterised by low construction quality, poor maintenance and overcrowding, and the reputation for council housing declined.

The focus also switched away from Garden Cities to higher density high rise buildings, adopting modernism as a philosophy and moving away from suburban sprawl. The emphasis was on function rather than ornamentation, supplemented by off-site prefabrication - the flimsy, short-lived and unloved prefab.

A slew of Government Acts moved the process forward, including the 1956 Housing Subsidy Act which subsidised Councils more the higher they built, until that was cut following the Ronan Point disaster in 1969, leading to the rapid decline in quality and reputation of high-rise estates. A period of Post-Modernist development followed, which moved away from the blandness of the functionalist ethos and attempted to provide a degree of diversity of style, culture and interest in high-rise construction. The best example of this is the Nottingham Woodlands development, upon which £18 million was spent, and which resulted in a significant drop in crime in the area, promoted by the Nottingham Cities Homes NCH initiative.

The biggest changes, though, were initiated by the Government's 'Right to Buy', which saw the volume of available public house fall from 40% to just 7% today. Now homes are generally seen as an investment rather than habitation, with a drop in the standard of accommodation and a major shortage of affordable housing. The interest now is in short-term profits and the construction of overpriced houses which are out of reach to most, either to buy or rent privately.

Conceived in the 1960s by Artur Swift & Partners as a concrete and glass megastructure mixed-use housing and shopping centre around three public areas for pedestrians, Victoria Flats was completed in 1970, although its construction was somewhat compromised because of the oil crisis at the time. Victoria Flats now consists of a number of tower blocks from 7 to 23 stories in height, built on top of a two-storey shopping mall in the vicinity of Victoria Station. Entrance to the flats is via the shopping mal, the largest enclosed mall in the world at that time, over a covered car park which shared its distinction. When the mall is closed, tenants have to use a rear entrance in Milton Street, with restricted entry to residents supervised by a security guard.

The 2,100 flats have just 6 lifts between them - often broken down - and are connected to the access lifts and an adjoining Tesco's by 'relentless' narrow corridors and many fire doors. The flats are basic and all very similar with high windows which you can't see out of when you are seated, and which have been covered with tinted film to cut down on overheating -which gives tenants the impression that they are constantly wearing sunglasses. There is space on the roof areas for small garden plots but they are largely unused grassy patches.

Henri included a series of very positive interviews with a number of tenants, but the underlying impression was that the configuration of the flats didn't encourage much social cohesion among the tenants, and had a lack of amenities - the width of the corridors and access mitigated against mums with prams and bicycles.

Some attempts have been made to improve the flats. In 1994 pink and blue pebble dash was added along with the window tinting. But the more than 2 million pound cost of updating the 5,104 windows, and the environmental cost of replacing the embedded carbon by tearing the structure down and rebuilding, are considered to be excessive.

Henri put forward an alternative by reconfiguring the existing flats to provide a more varied topology that would cater for a wider demographic, with a variety of open spaces, double height areas, balconies and multi-aspect windows. He based his ideas on examples from Le Corbusier and other architects who have had greater success in integrating communities in high-rise buildings.

Passive, as well as mechanical ventilation and energy generation would be improved to reflect current requirements and reduce operational carbon requirements and emissions, and the corridors reconfigured to provide 'pocket' parks as relief spaces. Existing spaces, such as the roof garden with its 1.6 hectare space available, would be rehabilitated and used more effectively.

Ultimately, the reconfigured flats would be clustered in a number of Communes. So for example Commune 4 would consist of 3 or 4 clusters of 15 bedsits, flats, maisonettes, or town houses - both horizontally as well as vertically.

To change the configurations of the uniformly constructed flats would require some of the concrete panels to be be cut into, reshaped and subsequently reinforced. Structural elements, such as tension trimmers and cross-members, would be used to create cantilevered balconies and other overhanging features.

In an interesting extension, excess heat from the shopping mall would be used as a 'shop-source' heat pump to provide an early morning central heating boost - countered by new cladding and a thermal buffer of vigorous planting schemes,

Henri's thesis highlights the role of comprehensive research when planning major social projects. How many of the issues in the original designs for Victoria Flats would have been implemented if a proper analysis of its occupation had been carried out? We regularly conduct in-depth research and analysis for current projects, but how will they fare in 50 years time against future expectations? Henri's submission gives much food for thought and a well laid out solution.