Ronan Point

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

A gas explosion in Newham changed the way towers blocks would be built.

Ronan Point Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Architect:
Newham Council

 

Construction Date:
1968 (demolished 1986)

Location:
Newham, London

House of Cards

On 16th May, 1968, Mrs Ivy Hodge, a council tenant in a block of flats called Ronan Point in east London, wandered into the kitchen of her 18th floor flat. She leaned over her cooker and struck a match. Instantly, an explosion blew out the pre-cast concrete panels which formed the side of the building. The entire end of the block collapsed like a house of cards. Mrs. Hodge survived, but four others died.

It was modern architecture's Titanic, and spelled the end of the high-rise as a viable solution to the post-war housing crisis as well as plunging modern architecture and the architectural profession to a low level of public esteem.

Over 200 feet tall and containing 110 flats, Ronan Point was assembled from pre-fabricated concrete panels lifted into position by crane and held together by bolts. It was a 'system-built' block- an easily assembled structure more like a giant meccano set than a work of architecture. But system-built blocks were an easy way to build lots of houses quickly, and in the year previous to the disaster, 470,000 new flats and houses had been built- the largest number recorded.

The sheer scale of this production meant that architects were often not directly involved in the production of these blocks- this was considered more of an engineer's job. But since World War Two, high-rises had become virtually synonymous with the Modern Movement, and their fall from grace inevitably impacted on the public's opinion of Modernism in general.

The Only Way Is Up

Ronan Point and other system-builds had as much to do with politics as with architecture. Municipal leaders saw high-density housing as a means of preventing population drain: the more people they governed, the stronger their city's position would be vis-a-vis Whitehall. And since the 1956 Housing Act introduced subsidies to local councils for every floor they built over five storeys, there existed a clear financial incentive to build high.

Ronan Point was in effect a visible symbol of post-war political rhetoric. When people saw these blocks going up quickly, they could be sure that whichever government was in power was striving to fulfil its promises to tackle the housing problem.

Unfortunately, quality control, certainly at Ronan Point, was almost completely absent. When local architect Sam Webb examined joints within the structure he found them to be filled with newspapers rather than concrete. Instead of the walls resting on a continuous bed of mortar they rested on levelling bolts, two per panel, and rainwater was allowed to seep into the joints. The whole weight of the building was being taken on these bolts, which were under enormous pressure as a result. This caused the load bearing concrete wall panels to crack.

The Backlash Begins

Ronan Point was rebuilt, but eventually demolished in 1986. The entire Freemason estate has now been replaced with two-storey terraces. Politically, Ronan Point also undermined careers of several prominent local and national politicians, as the press began to investigate connections between them and companies which specialised in system-built tower blocks. But the effect of Ronan Point's collapse on the reputation of the Modern Movement was even more profound.

Since World War Two, modernism had been the vehicle by which much of Britain was rebuilt. New Towns like Cumbernauld, and housing estates like Alton West at Roehampton and Keeling House had promised to solve Britain's chronic urban problems and contribute to a better, modern, country.

Now a flimsy tower block (which would have horrified and appalled Le Corbusier) had started a backlash against Modernist architecture which would tarnish the Movement in Britain for the best part of the next thirty years.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

The Brits Who Built The Modern World - Episode two Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Nathan Kendall/OFTV article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

The Brits Who Built The Modern World - Episode two

Episode two focuses on the 1980s, when modern architecture was deeply unpopular.

Article
Berthold Lubetkin Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

Berthold Lubetkin

For Berthold Lubetkin, architecture was a means to a political end.

Article
The Modernist Movement: Arrival (1928 - 1939) Creative commons image Icon tpholland under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

The Modernist Movement: Arrival (1928 - 1939)

During the 1930s, modernism moved from being a middle-class dream to a direct influence on working people's lives.

Article
Le Corbusier Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

Le Corbusier

The man who believed that a house was a machine for living in - and set about making that work.

Article
What's your heritage? Map: How to share Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU video icon

History & The Arts 

What's your heritage? Map: How to share

Need some help adding your heritage to the map? Our video takes you through the process.

Video
5 mins
Conspiring Against The Queen Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Conspiring Against The Queen

In 1594 Roderigo Lopez was hung, drawn and quartered for trying to poison Queen Elizabeth I. Many historians have argued that he was framed - but David Katz believes he can prove his guilt.

Article
250 Years of the British Museum Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

250 Years of the British Museum

Not just a treasure house of objects, but a living collection and active centre of education, research and discovery for its visitors, the British Museum remains one of the most popular and dynamic museums in the world. Having now passed its 250th anniversary, it continues to offer free access to everyone.

Article

History & The Arts 

Atom Bomb in Popular Culture

German surrender brought the Second World War in Europe to an end. But all feared that war with Japan would drag on and on. Behind the scenes, the US had been working on a secret weapon – the most powerful ever devised – and by August 1945… it was no longer such a secret. These films explore A-Bomb in Pop Culture or: How The West Has Changed its Portrayal of the Atomic Bomb Through Time, from the dropping of the very first atomic bomb, through to the Cold War and right up to the present day. The films conclude by asking whether or not these types of weapon should have existed in the first place, and questioning what the future holds for the A-Bomb. The films relate to the Open University Course A327 Europe 1914-1989: war, peace, modernity

Video
20 mins
Review: The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: John Murray Publishers article icon

History & The Arts 

Review: The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010

Selina Todd's book can take its place alongside EP Thompson and Owen Jones, says Ruth Percy.

Article