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Ridiculing symmetry: Hundertwasser’s KunstHausWien (©2016 KUNST HAUS WIEN, FOTO: EVA KeLETY)

One of the 20th century’s main advocates of high-rise tower blocks was the architect Ernő Goldfinger. To address the acute housing shortage following the Second World War, he designed concrete monsters including the Trellick Tower in Kensington, which was completed in 1972, and Balfron Tower in Poplar, completed in 1967. Living with Buildings, at the Wellcome Collection, London, until March 3, 2019, explores how buildings affect our physical and mental health. The exhibit points out that Goldfinger himself moved into the Balfron Tower to disarm early criticism. In 1968, he and his wife went for a well-publicised stay at Flat 130, as he said, “to taste my own cooking”, which he found “most satisfactory”.

What the exhibition does not show is: that he lived in the tower for only two months. That he threw a string of lavish parties there. And that he still had his house in Hampstead at the same time. Anybody who visits his house-turned-museum, 2 Willow Road, a stone’s throw from Hampstead Heath, will enjoy its glass front with sprawling views of greenery. Airy and bright rooms characterise the house, in which some of the inner walls can be moved aside to host bigger soirées, as the friendly National Trust volunteers will readily tell you. Meanwhile, his tower blocks inspired J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High Rise.

The exhibition provides an impressive range of historic material. It sets off in the 19th century, when half the British population moved into cities, following the industrial revolution. Overcrowded slums and poor sanitation brought disease. Charles Dickens  set the tone. In the preface of Oliver Twist, he wrote: “Nothing effectual can be done for the elevation of the poor in England, until their dwelling places are made decent and wholesome.”

There are maps drawn by Charles Booth, a 19th-century businessman who lobbied the government to introduce school meals for the poorest children and old-age pensions. In an attempt to document London’s living conditions, Booth coloured in the streets of maps with somewhat eyebrow-raising labels like “wealthy”, “upper-middle and upper classes”, “very poor, casual” and “vicious, semi-criminal”.

In the 1850s, Sir Titus Salt began building the Saltaire village outside Bradford, the plans of which are on display. The cotton mill tycoon wanted to escape the polluted town centre for greener pastures, and made the bold decision to take his business and employees with him. At Saltaire, his workers had secure housing, schools, parks, churches and a hospital. There was fresh water and good ventilation, so that life expectancy was significantly better there than in neighbouring industrial towns.

Elsewhere, the Wellcome exhibition reminds us that the UK still fails to provide safe housing for all in the 21st century. When housing isn’t regulated properly, it can have the most disastrous consequences, as Grenfell has tragically shown.

A large part focuses on the architecture of hospitals. There are objects on display such as the elegant Paimio chair. Designed by Alvar Aalto in 1932, its ergonomic lines helped tuberculosis patients to breathe optimally.
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December 20th, 2018
9:12 PM
It is customary, when elaborating on the delivery of enough shelter for the population, to ignore any factors exacerbating the apparent shortfall. To nitpick, the Chancellor is, in reality, one Mark Serwotka t/a Philip Hammond and is very happy with life as a socialist votary.

December 6th, 2018
8:12 AM
Wonderful. If only our housing market was free of the big builders and nimbys and we could revitalise our home-owning democracy.

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