Scottish tenements, English terraces

Growing up in our tenement flat in Scotland I would listen to the sounds of my father’s footsteps echoing up the closey – a Scots term for a stairwell. At first I would hear the door at the bottom of the stairs slam shut behind him. It was wide and heavy. Then I would hear light and quick taps becoming gradually slower and heavier, as the three flights of our tenement building began to take his breath and slow his ascent. From our third-floor living room of this Victorian building, you could see for miles over the dramatic Firth of Tay, and beyond into the Fife hills. The sunsets were spectacular.  You felt safe here, as if no one could harm you. Our building was set back from the street by a small front garden, officially for private use of the two ground-floor flats, but providing the building with a buffer zone between the communal stairwell and busy street. The ornamental stone bollard at the entrance steps seemed to stand for a Victorian Pride that was crumbling by then. Above the door was a plaque: “Gowrie Place, 1865”.

From my bedsit window here in Cambridge, on a narrow street in the densely terraced east, I can hear and see everything. The girl in the house opposite sits facing out the window, working on her laptop. Her neighbours’ windows were painted recently. I am bemused by how many people have a set of keys for that one dwelling. The merriment of closing-time at the Cambridge Blue, a local pub, invites boozy cyclists to my front door where they attempt to unlock their bikes, chained to the streetlamp whose light keeps me awake. I can hear their every word. Yet, as in Scotland, I feel safe. This is my street. The street’s narrowness and the terraces that open straight onto the pavement make this community feel protected from outsiders.

© Andrew Hoolachan
Fig. 1: A terrace view, Cambridge

These two distinct forms of dwelling – the Scottish tenement and the English terraced house – developed in roughly the same period and for roughly the same purpose: to provide homes for the rapidly expanding working and lower-middle classes of late Victorian Britain.  Most of my friends in both Scotland and England rarely consider differences between these two countries. Yet, having lived in both, I’m struck by how Scottish and English cities differ and radically alter feelings of privacy and intimacy in the home and the street. Housing design also affects the way we think about the city as a whole, and our place in it.

If vernacular architecture can say something about a nation, surely the English terraced house is part of its national story. Watching Britain’s oldest soap opera, Coronation Street, one can hardly fail to notice its opening credits, which feature terraces of slated rooftops and chimney pots. The camera  pans slowly downwards into the street, and we glimpse a cat negotiating a garden wall. This is a dense terraced housing area of Manchester. On maps that show industrial areas of English cities, one can see uniform street patterns like those in Coronation Street: rectangular blocks with a service lane running through the backs of the houses, which are adjoined and face the street. These districts are so commonplace that they often go unnoticed. Few English people would consider this housing type as anything other than “normal.” But in fact, it is unique.

Late 19th century cities of northeast America, for example, are designed differently. Systems of land use and law unique to America, combined with modern construction techniques, resulted in the tenements and brownstones we see today in Chicago, Boston and New York. On the continent, large, four-sided apartment buildings became the norm, usually comprising five or six storeys surrounding an internal courtyard. In some cases, as in the poorer districts of Berlin, the internal courtyards were built upon further, with added extensions to the building. Hamburg, Prague, Vienna and Turin all display similar 19th century residential design, and all differ from England.

In the field of urban geography, cities are sometimes described as comprising a central core, which is often labelled a Central Business District or CBD. Surrounding this area is a ‘ring’ of industrial-era growth, containing warehouse and residential districts. The main differences between Scottish and English urbanism are found in this ring. If we compare Manchester’s Fallowfields or the area surrounding Mill Road in Cambridge, to Glasgow’s Dennistoun or Edinburgh’s Marchmont, this difference becomes apparent. The inner ring of residential terraces in England creates a low-rise Victorian typology like the Cambridge street described previously. We sometimes see shop conversions, cafes, and other activities that dense housing areas generate along main streets. The Scottish equivalent is similar in many ways. The dense residential tenement areas produce active shop-filled streets of shops and so on, but with the buildings being three times as tall, the streets are wider, with far less low-rise sprawl. The main benefit of this is that Scottish tenement districts cover a smaller area owing to their density.

Manchester terraces
Edinburgh tenements
Berlin courtyards
©Google Maps, 2014

Scottish tenements combine elements of European apartments and English terraced streets. The Scots tenement has one communal entrance, and two apartments per floor. Each building is around three to four storeys in height and adjoins its neighbours like an English terrace. Unlike the English terrace however, back gardens are communal (sometimes called the Backies or the Greeny). According to the 2001 census, around half of Glasgow lives in such dwellings, which range in grandeur and cosiness. In the widespread nature of such dwelling, and its location in the centre of the city rather than suburbia, Scotland resembles its continental neighbours. Upon visiting Edinburgh, my German friend (living in England at the time), remarked how the high ceilings reminded him of his native Hamburg. And likewise, I sometimes feel more at home in Hamburg than in England.


Design, Privacy and Crime

In 1972 Oscar Newman wrote Defensible Space, an explanation of the failure of post-war Modernist developments like Sheffield’s Park Hill. The same year, Pruitt-Igoe, a mass-housing scheme built in St Louis in the 1950s, was deemed a failure and demolished. This demolition later featured in Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi (1980). Its soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, seems to capture a sense of failure and nostalgia that now surrounds Modernism. Indeed, it is often said that Pruitt-Igoe’s fall marked the end of Modernism.

But why did Modernist schemes such as Pruitt-Igoe fail? People often say they are ugly or blame the tenants for poor maintenance. Newman provided an analytical explanation for why they were notorious for crime, writing based on observation and from the perspective of design. His analysis centred on control and access. Many Modernist blocks were inspired by the concept of “streets in the sky,” a flawed attempt to recreate the conviviality of street life on an elevated level. The “streets in the sky” failed because the semi-public spaces they offered were too anonymous. Most spaces can be classified somewhere upon a spectrum of public to private. In many public housing projects, communal stairwells and walkways outside flats feel public because the main entrance is accessible to all. However, they are not fully public, because their thresholds demark their purpose, as being “for” the residents. This gives them the intermediate status of semi-public space. The same principle may be applied to a gated community, which combines communal areas such as the car park, and private areas such as individual gardens.

Most dwellings have a relationship to the street, usually with a buffer zone of semi-public or semiprivate space, which allows the resident a form of control and shared responsibility over that space. In the case of the “streets in the sky,” dozens of flats shared a communal walkway. How would one know if passers-by were neighbours? Keeping track of 7 or 8 different households who share semi-public space is difficult at the best of times, and so perhaps it isn’t surprising that such dwellings become antisocial and undesirable: lack of control over one’s immediate environment, and lack of responsibility in the context of a mass housing block inevitably made them hot-spots for criminal activity and vandalism, and many spiralled into decay. Eventually they became synonymous with poverty, state-dependency and the failure of the post-war welfare state.

Again, design was a crucial factor: too often Modernist blocks abandon the street. Set within arbitrary green space, they feel distant and exposed. Newman wrote of the importance of being connected to the life of the street, whilst maintaining a small buffer zone of privacy, such as a front garden. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs notes the importance of windows overlooking the street, for making streets feel safe and secure. The network of acquaintances that a dense urban street provides prevents the need for gates, CCTV, and private security. Which is safer, low-density sprawl or a bustling street?


Neighbourliness and the City 

Although Scotland and England have been tumultuous neighbours, not least in the constitutional question Scotland has asked itself in 2014, their divergent residential architectures pose similar challenges and strengths. A strong commonality between the tenement and terraces is that they have both been criticised for being too dense. High-density living is often associated with disease, crime, delinquency and political agitation. Yet many high-density cities flourish, while low-rise sprawling suburbs can be plagued with crime. Unfortunately, most successful high-density areas like our tenements and terraces are often forgotten. Whenever I mention “tenements” to people who are not from Scotland, they assume I am being derogatory, as if tenement is synonymous with the word “slum”.  But prior to their demolition, many dense districts enjoyed strong social networks, safety and a feeling of vitality offered by their design. For example, many mothers found it easier to go out to work, since the dense network of family and friends in the immediate area provided accessible childcare. Children could play in the street supervised by a vague but dense network of local acquaintances. Contrast this to archetypal American suburb of the 1950s where vast distances and a lack of social and familial networks encouraged mothers to stay at home, and children to play in the confines of the garden. Although tenements and terraces were once slums, such as London’s East End and the Gorbals in Glagsow, this is less due to any inherent design fault than it is to socio-economic conditions that existed prior to the 1945 welfare state. Indeed, since the 1970s we began to rediscover what we had all along – buildings and streets that work. This is evidenced by the fact that these districts and their architecture are now so desirable, given a new socio-economic context.

On my street in Cambridge, I have got to know my neighbours’ routines without getting to know them, which is a very useful safety network. To retreat to green space, all I have to do is go into my back garden: a central tenet of English housing culture. Likewise, in Glasgow and Edinburgh, privacy and intimacy are key elements for efficient living, but in different ways. Perhaps the climate determines the fact that tenement living does not come with one’s private garden, or maybe’s it’s the socialist tendencies of urban Scots to be happy sharing “the commons”. In any case, other factors make up for a lack of private green space. The inside of a tenement flat presents vast amounts of space, high-ceilings and big windows allowing for lots of light. The communal stairwell, with two flats on each side, provides both privacy and intimacy: one neighbour on your landing, but also anonymity from the street, with no one peering in your window.

©Andrew Hoolachan
Fig. 3: Tenements in Pollokshields, Glasgow

As the closey is the central column running down each block, they are sites of neighbourly chats, or negotiations over whose turn it was clean them. Many tenement blocks have informal committees who organise rotas for cleaning, bike storage, garden facilities or even parties. Outside each person’s door may be just a pair of dirty boots, airing out the damp from a day traipsing around the Glaswegian rain. Some have plant-pots, decorative arts, or creatively written names on the letter box, so that the postman delivers to the correct address. Finding the right flat in tenements can be a headache for logistics companies. A warm childhood memory is the array of dinner time smells as I descended that same closey which made my Dad breathless. Chicken. Onions. Curry. Cigarettes.

Dense living is not for everyone. The appeal of the suburbs is more space and family living, lower cost of living, perceptions of safety, and access to green space. But through good design, we can combine the density and vitality of cities without compromising space, access to greenery, and cost. This is evident in long-term plans for the London 2012 Olympic Legacy, which is one of the largest ongoing regeneration projects in Europe. Incorporating many of the lessons learned in the last few decades of planning, design and architecture, it represents a powerful articulation of urban thinking in 2014. The housing plans around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will draw on a ‘London vernacular’ reflecting the dense, terraced and mews dwellings Londoners have been used to, but built and designed to be as energy-efficient and carbon-neutral as possible. Hence, they combine an older form of architectural knowledge with contemporary understandings of ecology.

Our housing problem today is severe: affordability is for the few. New private developments turn their backs on the street, are built with thin walls, small ceilings and windows, and often built behind gates, killing street life. We feel that we need more safety, so retreat into ever more sprawling suburbs, or behind higher gates. We allow the super-rich, who often contribute very little to our cities, to buy up properties they rarely occupy, turning swathes of central London into ghost towns and putting unsustainable pressure on ordinary families to move further and further away from their places of work. Private security and CCTV have replaced the natural networks and safety of a vibrant mixed community whom have long been priced out. To reconnect with our neighbours, to love our streets, to become citizens, let’s remember the benefits of the tried and tested design of our tenements and terraces. We can create sustainable and affordable places to live without turning our backs on the intimacy of urban living, whether in England or in Scotland.


Scotland’s national poet Liz Lochhead writes ‘Something I’m Not’, evoking the simultaneous privacy and intimacy of tenement living; noticing peculiar details about her neighbour, whilst completely hidden from others. The architecture of the closey is portrayed in the inhabitants’ talking, which “comes tumbling before them down the stairs”.

Something I’m Not
Liz Lochhead

familiar with, the tune
of their talking, comes tumbling before them
down the stairs which  (oh I forgot) it was my turn
to do again this week.
My neighbour and my neighbour’s child. I nod, we’re not
on speaking terms exactly.

I don’t know much about her. Her dinners smell
different. Her husband’s a busdriver,
so I believe. She carries home her groceries in Grandfare bags
though I´ve seen her once or twice around the corner
at Shastri´s for spices and such.
(I always shop there – he’s open till all hours
making good.) How does she feel?

Her children grow up with foreign accents,
swearing in fluent Glaswegian. Her face
is sullen. Her coat is drab plaid, hides
but for a hint at the hem, her sari’s
gold embroidered gorgeousness. She has
a jewel in her nostril.

The golden hands with the almond nails
that push the pram turn blue
in the city’s cold climate.


Andrew Hoolachan has completed his PhD in the Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge. He specialises in urban planning and is working on the politics of urban sustainability around the London 2012 Olympic Legacy. He is starting a job at LSE Cities in 2016.