Tower block

A tower block, block of flats, or apartment block, is a multi-unit high-rise apartment building. In some areas they may be referred to as MDU standing for Multi Dwelling Unit.

Apartment blocks have technical and economic advantages in areas with high population density. They have become a distinguished form of housing accommodation in virtually all densely populated urban areas around the world. In contrast with low-rise and single-family houses, apartment blocks accommodate more inhabitants per unit of area of land they occupy and also decrease the cost of municipal infrastructure.


Ancient Rome

Insulae (singular insula) were large apartment buildings where the lower and middle classes of Romans (the plebs) dwelled. The floor at ground level was used for tabernas, shops and businesses with living space on the higher floors. These buildings were usually up to six or seven stories. Some went as high as nine stories before height restrictions came into effect.

United Kingdom

Tower blocks were built in the UK after the Second World War. The first residential tower block, "The Lawn" was constructed in Harlow, Essex in 1951; it is now a Grade II listed building. In many cases Tower Blocks were seen as a "quick-fix" to cure problems caused by crumbling and unsanitary 19th century dwellings or to replace buildings destroyed by German aerial bombing. Initially, they were welcomed, and their excellent views made them popular living places. Later, as the buildings themselves deteriorated, they grew a reputation for being undesirable low cost housing, and many tower blocks saw rising crime levels, increasing their unpopularity. One response to this was the great increase in the number of housing estates built, which in turn brings its own problems. In the UK, tower blocks particularly lost popularity after the partial collapse of Ronan Point in 1968. Some say the city of Glasgow in Scotland contains the highest concentration of tower blocks in the UK - examples include the Hutchensontown C blocks in the Gorbals, the 20-storey blocks in Sighthill, and the 31-storey Red Road flats in the city's north east. However, on the whole, London has the largest number of high-rise residential buildings in the UK.

In recent years, some council or ex-council high-rises in the United Kingdom, including Trellick Tower, Keeling House, Sivill House and The Barbican Estate, have become popular with young professionals due to their excellent views, desirable locations and architectural pedigrees, and now command high prices. There are plans to redevelop the Little London and Lovell Park areas on the fringes of Leeds City Centre into luxury flats for 'Young Urban Professionals'. The plans entail demolishing all of the council housing and refurbishing the highrise flats. This demand has lead to many councils rethinking plans regarding their demolition.

After a gap of around 30 years, new high-rise flats are once again being built in Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, London, and Manchester; but this time for wealthy professionals, rather than the `lower classes`. Their developers market these properties by using the American term 'apartment buildings', perhaps in an effort to distance these newer buildings from the older tower blocks from the 1950s and '60s. These are usually taller then their older counterparts and generally built in and around these provincial city centres. They are often glass and aluminium clad. However there has been strong debate over their success. Many say this is shortlived, this was highlighted when Tonight with Trevor McDonald, highlighted that in Leeds and Manchester (perhaps the cities that had seen most development) only approxamatley half were occupied and with owner occupation often being as low as 10%.

Tower blocks in Northern Ireland were never built to the frequency as they were in other cities in Britain and Ireland. Most tower blocks and flat complexes are found in Belfast and Derry, although many of these have been demolished in recent years and replaced with traditional public housing units. The Divis flats complex in west Belfast was built in between 1968 and 1972 was demolished in the early 1990s as the residents demanded new houses due to mounting problems with the flats. Divis Tower, built separately in 1966 still stands however, and in 2007 work began to convert the British Army base at the top 2 floors into new dwellings.

In the north of the City the iconic 7 towers complex in the New Lodge remains, although so too the problems that residents face, such as poor piping and inadequate sanitation. Further north the 4 tower blocks in Rathcoole still dominate the local skyline, while in south Belfast the tower blocks in Seymour Hill also remain standing.

Republic of Ireland

Tower Blocks are called flats in Ireland. Most of the flats in the country are in Dublin. All of Dublin's flat complexes were built by Dublin Corporation as part of Dublin slum clearances and to solve the housing problem. Flats such as Liberty House and the now-demolished Sheriff Street flats, both in North Inner City, Dublin, were built as early as the 1930s. Ballymun Flats were built between 1966 and 1969 consisting of seven 15-storey towers, nineteen 8 storey blocks and ten 4 storey blocks. Dublin flats include Ballymun, Sheriff Street (demolished), Fatima Mansions (demolished and redeveloped), St. Joseph's Gardens (demolished; replaced by Killarney Court flat complex), St. Teresa's Gardens, Dolphin House, Liberty House, St. Michael's Estate and O' Devaney Gardens and a lot more mainly throughout the North and South Inner City of Dublin. These flats were badly affected by a heroin epidemic that hit working-class areas of Dublin in the 1980s and early 90s.

Over the last five years the largest cities such as Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway have witnessed new large apartment building. Some large Towns such as Navan, Drogheda,Dundalk and Mullingar have also witnessed lots of modern apartments being built.

Eastern Europe and Russia

Russia is currently undergoing a dramatic buildout, growing a commercially-shaped skyline.

Middle East

Tower blocks were built in the Yemeni city of Shibam in the 16th century. The houses of Shibam are all made out of mud bricks, but about 500 of them are tower houses, which rise 5 to 11 stories high, with each floor being an apartment occupied by a single family. This technique of building was implemented in order to protect residents from Bedouin attacks. While Shibam has existed for around 2,000 years, most of the city's houses come mainly from the 16th century.

Shibam is often called "the oldest skyscraper-city in the world" or "Manhattan of the desert", and is the earliest example of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect because these buildings are predated by Ancient Roman insulae by more than a thousand years. The city has the tallest mud buildings in the world, with some of them being over 100 feet (over 30 meters) high, thus being the first high-rise (which need to be at least 75 feet or 23 meters) apartment buildings and tower blocks in the Middle East.

Far East

The unpopularity of tower blocks in Europe is in marked contrast to many Asian countries.

In South Korea the tower blocks are called Apartment Complex (Apartment Danji). The first residential towers began to be built after the Korean War. The South Korean government needed to build many apartment complexes in the cities to be able to accommodate the citizens. In the 70 years since, as the population increased considerably, tower blocks have become more common. This time however the new tower blocks integrated shopping malls, parking system and other convenient facilities.

In Singapore and urban Hong Kong, land prices are so high that almost the entire population lives in high-rise apartments. In fact, over 60% of Hong Kong residents live in apartments, many of them condominiums. Tower Palace in Seoul, South Korea, is the tallest apartment complex in Asia.



In Canada tower blocks are usually know as apartment buildings or apartment blocks. The city of Toronto contains the second largest concentration of high-rise apartment buildings in North America. Most were built in the 1950s and 1960s to provide modern affordable housing in what was then the periphery of the city, following what had become popular in many European nations; notably France. Today many lie isolated from amenities and rapid transit corridors, and a few have deteriorated into ghettos such as the Jane and Finch, Malvern, St. James Town and Jamestown neighborhoods.

United States

In the United States tower blocks are commonly referred to as midrise or highrise apartment buildings, depending on their height, while buildings that house fewer flats (apartments), or are not as tall as the tower blocks, are called lowrise apartment buildings.

Some of the first residential towers were the Castle Village towers in New York City completed in 1939. Their cross-shaped design was copied in towers in Parkchester and Stuyvesant Town residential developments.

The government's experiments in the 1960s and 70s to use high-rise apartments as a means of providing the housing solution for the poor resulted in a spectacular failure. All but a few high-rise housing projects in the nation's largest cities, such as Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, Penn South in New York and the Desire projects in New Orleans, fell victim to the "ghettofication" and are now being torn down, renovated, or replaced.

In contrast to their public housing cousins, commercially developed high-rise apartment buildings continue to flourish in cities around the country largely due to high land prices and the housing boom of the 2000s. The Upper East Side in New York City and Chicago's Gold Coast, both featuring high-rise apartments, are the wealthiest urban neighborhoods in the United States.

South America

The planned city of Brasilia, capital city of Brazil, was created as a vision of Le Corbusier, and includes some of the most (in)famous apartment block architecture in the world.


High-rise living in Australia was limited to small pockets of bohemian inner Sydney until the 1960s, where a short-lived fashion saw public housing tenants located in new high-rise developments, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. Due to the stigma these enormous and impersonal developments gained, high-rise living fell out of favour until a new wave of developments aimed at the affluent inner urban middle class began from the 1970s onwards. Developers have enthusiastically adopted the term 'apartment' for these new high-rise blocks, perhaps to avoid the stigma still attached to housing commission flats.


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