Opinion: Shoddily built, dangerous and a bit ugly - but we should all stop to think about the legacy of Biart Place and buildings like it

Many would say concrete tower blocks like Biart Place are ugly, cramped and dangerous - so why would anyone have any interest in stopping to think about the legacy of these sorts of buildings when we hear that there's a demolition to begin within weeks?

Wednesday, 15th January 2020, 6:04 pm
Updated Wednesday, 15th January 2020, 9:29 pm
Biart Place.

In 2018, when we first heard the news that Biart Place was to be demolished, we asked residents to share their memories of living there.

The response told a story that echoed people's experiences with these blocks across the country.

Initially they were perceived as modern, clean and airy - but things went wrong.

A relative of mine lived in a high-rise block in the West Midlands for some time in the late eighties - and her memories won't be a surprise to many.

The stairwells and lifts used to stink of wee (or worse) and people would sniff glue in the corridors.

But perhaps the most memorable thing for her was the site of a group of teenagers destroying the snowman that she and her young daughter had just built.

In the case of Biart Place, built around 1968, we've had people write in to talk about their happy memories of pleasant flats and good neighbours.

But these were all people writing about their experiences of life in the blocks in the sixties and seventies - almost no-one had anything good to say about their recent time there.

Anyone writing about the last 20 years there forwarded those familiar reports of anti-social behaviour, drugs and 'fragrant' stairwells.

One reader, who moved into a flat there around 2013, spoke of mold, worries over asbestos, lifts being constantly out of order and a fence being put up around the block he was to stop anyone getting to close and being struck by debris from the crumbling building.

"It felt like we were just put in there to be out the way and forgotten about.

"I am glad to be out of there now and I know a few people that lived in the flats say the same," the reader said.

While today developers are busy building row upon row of faux-Victorian houses - we can't forget that in the mid twentieth century an influential section of this country fell in love with a mix of concrete and height expressed in the form of brutalist architecture.

This was partially (as Patrick Dunleavy wrote in the Architects' Journal) down to a government subsidy introduced in 1956 which was worth more money for every additional storey on a block of flats.

And there appears to have been an artistic motivation too - while it's true that brutalist architecture might look dingy and stale to some nowadays, it's hard to imagine how impressive and new it must have looked in the age of the Carry On films and the Morris Minor.

Whatever you think about brutalist architecture, the fact some examples are now Grade-II listed (think Trellick Tower, Barbican Estate) shows that influential people consider these concrete monsters to be part of our heritage and our culture.

And, if we're being honest, they are.

Biart Place is a monument to contradiction: good intentions poorly executed.

It was built using the dangerously-flawed Large Panel System - the same system used to build the Ronan Point tower block in East London, which killed four people when it partially collapsed after an explosion caused by a gas hob in 1968.

And, as the survey conducted in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy revealed, the flawed building method used at Biart Place was made even worse because the blocks were built to poor standards - meaning they posed even more of a potentially deadly risk.

But over 50 years Biart Place has been a home to probably thousands of Rugbeians and formed part of the town's skyline.

It was built to be cheap, comfortable and space-saving. But ultimately high rise blocks ended up not being significantly cheaper or more space-saving than houses.

And Biart Place has ended its service life as a place residents (or at least the ones who spoke to us) hated living in.

Councillors Neil Sandison and Sue Roodhouse explained this contradiction very well in a joint press release sent to the Advertiser at the time Rugby council was deciding whether to attempt to revamp or demolish the blocks.

They wrote: "Biart Place was constructed over 50 years ago to replace railway workers' cottages and to meet the need for social housing.

"It was in its day a regeneration project. It has served the housing needs for many people and some residents have lived there for many years."

But then they explain the many issues they have helped residents of the blocks to deal with - including failing fixtures and fittings, noise and fly-tipping.

So as we watch the blocks being gradually torn down over the next year, maybe it's worth us all pausing for thought and thinking about what its legacy is.

Biart Place, in its own way, represents a mix of the very best and the worst of the decade it was built in.

On one hand it represents a drive to give ordinary people a clean, modern and comfortable home they could rely on - allowing them to thrive.

But on the other - a slightly bonkers 'throwing out the baby with the bath water' policy to replace traditional housing with huge blocks on the basis of the artistic preferences of the chattering classes and some shaky economic reasoning.

In an age of concerns over the amount of social housing and sardine-tin newbuild houses that cost far more than many can afford, Biart Place, for all its flaws, is a relic to a society that made great efforts to try to see millions of people adequately homed. Let's celebrate that want to have so many people housed, and let's push for it to be done in a better way in the future.