‘Barbican Estate, 1968’ a sketch by Norah Glover of the London estate © Norah Glover/RIBA

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“How do you think I can adapt myself to these modern surroundings?” asks an elderly woman in Stephen Willats’ “Vertical Living”, a bleak late-1970s multimedia portrait of a high-rise London estate.

Willats’ artwork, currently on display at Tate Britain, depicts a world of isolation, confinement and quiet despair. It was created at the low point of high-rise housing in Britain: an era of badly maintained council estates seen by some as catalysts for family breakdown and crime.

Almost 40 years later, the idea of high-rise living is undergoing a revival. London has 436 new towers in the pipeline, of which three-quarters are wholly or mainly devoted to homes, according to the think-tank New London Architecture (NLA). In contrast with the earlier era of brutalist estates, this new crop of towers is largely made up of high-end apartment blocks, with concierges and glass façades, aimed at those wealthy enough to afford the now rare privilege of living in central London.

Yet the debate over their value as living spaces still rages. A petition signed by a host of luminaries, including architect David Adjaye, sculptor Antony Gormley and hedge fund financier Sir Michael Hintze, argues that towers are “neither essential to meeting housing needs, nor the best way to achieve greater densities. Their purpose is more to create investments than homes or cohesive communities.”

Property developer Roger Madelin, who led the transformation of London’s King’s Cross, does not agree. Now with the property giant British Land, Madelin is working on a master plan for Canada Water in south-east London, a 46-acre site that will include a series of buildings about 40 storeys high.

Researching designs for high-rise living, Madelin visited London’s Barbican, a postwar estate designed for the middle classes that houses 4,000 people and an arts centre, and is increasingly in demand as a place to live. After falling out of favour in the 1980s, the Barbican’s return to popularity has mirrored the renaissance of inner cities; prices for its apartments now average almost £1m. It is one of the few residential areas in the City of London, drawing some part-time residents seeking a bolthole close to their offices, but also attracts families and retired people.

“We absolutely love it,” says Dilys Cowan, a retired doctor who lives in one of the Barbican’s three towers, two of which have 44 storeys, while the other has 43. “It’s a proper community — there are gardens downstairs, children’s playgrounds, tennis courts, amenities put in when they were built . . . it feels like a proper place as opposed to just a development.”

An apartment at the Barbican, 1974 © Edmund Sumner/Getty Images
An artist’s image of a ‘sky garden’ at Manhattan Loft Gardens, a residential tower in east London © Hayes Davidson

Such shared resources are vital to creating a sense of community in a high-rise, say architects. Berkeley Group, a London housebuilder, is constructing South Quay Plaza, a 68-storey tower on London’s Isle of Dogs that will be one of Europe’s tallest residential buildings. It has a series of plans for fostering social links in the building, such as an events space, hiring a community organiser and holding an annual festival.

Yet Julian Chen, a Copenhagen-based architect with Henning Larsen Architects and a local representative for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, says many high-rise buildings are instead designed as what the US architect Cass Gilbert famously called “a machine that makes the land pay”.

“In the traditional high-rise building you try to have as small a core as possible — the services part, like the lifts and the plumbing — and you try to squeeze in as many units as possible,” says Chen. “But that means when you leave your flat in the morning, you walk through this artificial corridor to the elevator, hop in, listen to some shopping centre music with the other occupants, and disperse as soon as you can. There’s little social experience in that process.”

A larger core, and one at the side rather than the centre of a building, can help create more generous communal areas. “But that’s more expensive. You are killing square metres to create this quality social space,” says Chen.

The Pinnacle@Duxton in Singapore © Andrew Rowat/Getty Images
Seating stands on the 50th-floor ‘sky bridge’ of the public housing development © Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

The Pinnacle@Duxton, an award-winning 50-storey public housing development in Singapore, took a different approach: the seven towers are linked by “sky bridges” at the 26th and 50th floors which house a children’s playground, open-air gym and running track. Similarly, the property developer Harry Handelsman plans to incorporate three “sky gardens” in the design of his Manhattan Loft Gardens — a residential tower in Stratford, east London — the highest being 400ft above ground.

However, communal spaces and services such as concierges that create a sense of security can come with significant running costs. The largest penthouses in the Barbican incur annual service charges of more than £15,000 a year. Indeed, one of the reasons for the early deterioration of UK high-rise social housing was a failure to provide for the ongoing costs, says Nicholas Boys Smith, founding director of Create Streets, a research group that favours terraced houses and low-rise blocks.

“The bigger and more complex a building is, the more stuff you have to put in to make it safe and workable, as they discovered in the 1960s and 1970s. It costs a lot to build and maintain lifts, to clean windows. There are inbuilt inefficiencies that come with scale and height,” he says.

Madelin says another factor in the Barbican’s success is that its towers are set among lower-rise buildings, rather than rising starkly from the ground.

CGI of 68-storey South Quay Plaza opposite Canary Wharf in London
CGI of a ‘pocket park’ at South Quay Plaza, London
High-rise buildings near False Creek, Vancouver © Michael Wheatley/Getty Images

Peter Murray, chairman of NLA, agrees. “In Vancouver, for example, there are a lot of tall buildings but there are developments in the lower parts of the buildings which include family housing, retail and things like that,” he says. “They create busy streets, rather than being stuck in rather empty and not very well-maintained grassed areas. That is a model we should be emulating in London.”

Even among advocates of high-rise living, the question of housing families and children divides opinion. Tony Pidgley, chairman of Berkeley, describes it as the key challenge in designing London’s South Quay Plaza. A report by Create Streets says many studies have found associations between high-rise living, childhood behavioural problems and slower development, although it acknowledges much of the academic literature dates from decades ago.

While more high-end city apartments can come with large balconies and terraces, the absence of gardens is a sticking point for many parents. Yet Ian Simpson, an architect who lives at the top of a tower he designed in Manchester, argues this is a culturally specific urge. “It’s a tradition of the English approach to the rose cottage with the garden — that’s the idealised English home, but on the continent there’s always been a history of living in apartments in the city . . . The balcony and the roof terrace can be very special and precious spaces.”

Simpson prefers high-rise living for its “sense of serenity”. “The sense of living in a tall building is that it’s very much like an oasis, a place to retreat from the bustle and noise of the city. You still hear it as a hum in the background but the fact that you move vertically and sit above it — you do feel very calm . . . But the beauty of it is that 30 seconds later by lift, you can be in the city.”

Residential towers in Hong Kong © Simon Li/Getty Images
Flats in Hong Kong © David Wong/Getty Images
Hong Kong high-rise block © Getty

Such serenity, however, does require that apartments be adequately soundproofed — something not included in UK building regulations until 2004. One high-end New York development, the Walker Tower, boasted of its 18in-thick walls as a selling point.

Cowan, the Barbican resident, agrees with Simpson’s assessment of high-rise living, although at first she admits that she found the quietness unsettling. “It’s very different living in the sky. When I first came I found it unbelievably quiet. No one walks past your window. You end up feeling that you need to go out.”

Such feelings are characteristic of many Europeans who grew up in houses, says Chen. “In Europe there is an emphasis on city life, on eye contact with the ground level — on being part of the city’s social fabric.”

In Hong Kong, where Chen grew up, high-rise living is far more the norm. He has no sense that growing up in a tower detracted from his childhood.

“When I was a kid, me and my sister would sit on our balcony and there was a neighbour about 30 metres away who used to come out and play his saxophone,” he says. “We would come out and the kids on other floors would come out too, and we’d sit listening to him. It might sound a bit romanticised, but there was this kind of accidental life, up in the air.”

Judith Evans is the FT’s property correspondent

Photographs: Getty Images; Norah Glover/RIBA; Edmund Sumner/Getty Images; Andrew Rowat/Getty Images; Sanjit Das/Bloomberg; Hayes Davidson; Simon Li/Getty Images; Michael Wheatley/Getty Images

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