Open House London, 2018: A Tour of the Capital’s Council Housing

The most important buildings in London – those with the greatest social significance for the mass of its people and those which have made the greatest visual impact on the capital – are council houses. In 1981, at peak, there were 769,996 council homes in the capital and they housed near 31 percent of its population.

It’s partly this ubiquity and familiarity that means most council estates don’t make it into Open House London, the capital’s annual celebration of its built heritage taking place this year on the weekend of the 16-17 September. In fact, there are rather fewer this year than previously.

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Housing crisis and protest

Let’s be fair here, not all municipal schemes have represented the very best of architecture and design.But there’s another process in play – the marginalisation of social housing and its contribution to the lives of so many. We are asked to forget all that social housing has achieved, just as we are asked by some supporters of a boundless free market to discount it as a solution to the present housing crisis.

This post offers an alternative perspective: a chronological tour of the Open House London venues which do mark an alternative and progressive history – council housing to savour and celebrate.  I’ve written on many of these in the past so click on the links to get to those earlier posts and further information. Open House locations are picked out in bold.

Houses on the Risley Avenue and Awlfield Avenue junction: a 'butterfly junction' of the type pioneered in Letchworth Garden City

Houses on the Risley Avenue and Awlfield Avenue junction, Tower Gardens Estate: a ‘butterfly junction’ of the type pioneered in Letchworth Garden City

We’ll begin, appropriately, with the Tower Gardens Estate in Tottenham – designed and built by the London County Council (LCC) before the First World War: a cottage estate for working people inspired by the Garden City and Arts and Crafts movements of the day.  Just under 1000 homes were built on the Estate before the war halted construction; a further 1266 houses and flats were added – in plainer style but in keeping with Garden City ideals – in a northwards extension to the Estate between the wars.

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Dickson Road, Progress Estate

The Progress Estate in Eltham wasn’t a municipal scheme.  It was built by the Ministry of Works during the First World War and designed by the Ministry’s Chief Architect, Frank Baines; its role, to support the war effort by providing high-quality housing to the workers of the nearby Royal Arsenal Munitions Works.  Almost 1300 homes were built in the single year of 1915, showing what can be done when housing needs are prioritised. Originally named the Well Hall Estate, it was renamed in 1925 when the Government sold it to the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society.  Fifty-five years later, the 500 remaining social rented homes were sold on to the Hyde Housing Association.

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26 Chittys Lane, Becontree, with a plaque marking it as the first house completed on the estate

The Estate was a crucial influence on the 1918 Tudor Walters Report which in turn did much to shape the form and nature of council housing in the interwar period when the LCC alone built 89,049 council homes in the capital.  Some 26,000 of these were built on the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, first mooted in 1919 at the height of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ campaign.   It was the largest of the LCC’s interwar estates, housing by 1939 a population of 120,000.  Such size (and an unpromising site) led some – despite the planners’ best efforts – to criticise the mass and uniformity of the Estate but to many, moving from inner-city slums, ‘it was heaven with the gates off.’

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Berthold Lubetkin

Becontree was born in the (brief) era of ‘Homes for Heroes’ which marked the end of the First World War. A second world war and a landslide Labour general election victory in 1945 inaugurated a  social democratic vision of Britain’s future and for no-one was this truer than Berthold Lubetkin, the architect of the Finsbury Health Centre, who famously declared that ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’.  He fulfilled this vision in the Spa Green Estate, to the north, opened in 1949 and described by the Survey of London, not prone to hyperbole, as ‘heroic’ and by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the most innovative public housing’ of its time.

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Bevin Court

Neither of these appear in Open House but two of Lubetkin’s schemes for the Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council – one of the most progressive in the capital – are featured.  Bevin Court was opened in 1954; the Cold War having put paid to plans to name the building after Lenin (who had once lived on it site).  Its innovative seven-story Y-shape capitalised on its site and ensured none of the flats faced north but, visually, its crowning glory is its central staircase.  Visit to see that and the newly restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.

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Kendal House and Reddington House, Priory Green Estate

A few minutes’ walk to the north, you can also visit Lubetkin’s Priory Green Estate, completed three years later.  It’s a much larger estate – 288 homes in seven large blocks but with similar attention paid to lay-out and landscaping and more striking, sculptural staircases.  The Estate was transferred from Islington Borough Council, Finsbury’s successor after 1965, to Peabody in 1999 and, having fallen on hard times, has since been renovated with the aid of a £2m Heritage Lottery grant.

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Goldfinger at Balfron

Another leading architect of the day was Ernő Goldfinger who designed  Balfron Tower for the Greater London Council in 1968. Balfron is famous (or infamous according to taste) as one of the most imposing Brutalist designs of its time but it was, first and foremost, housing for working-class people being moved from local slums. Now the block’s council tenants have been ‘decanted’ and the flats are to be sold to those with the means to buy them on the open market. With a history of ‘art washing’ intended to sanitise this loss of social role and purpose, it’s perhaps a good thing that Balfron doesn’t feature in Open House this year.

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Trellick Tower without the heavy scaffolding currently in place for a major renovation

Fortunately, Balfron’s younger sister designed by Goldfinger, Trellick Tower and opened in 1972, does, despite Right to Buy, remain social housing built by the Greater London Council but owned and managed by the now infamous Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  You can visit a social enterprise, comprising furniture workshops and showroom and café on the lower floors.  I’ve not written on Trellick but the posts on Balfron will give you some background.

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The World’s End Estate

Another landmark estate, this one created by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in happier times is the World’s End Estate. It’s an estate set on the banks of the Thames  completed in 1977 when the working class were still permitted river views.  Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms it comprises seven 18 to 21-storey tower blocks, joined in a figure of eight by nine four-storey walkway blocks but the whole, clad in warm-red brick, possesses a romantic, castellated appearance, providing  great views within and without.

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Ted Hollamby

In some respects, World’s End marked the end of an era of large, high-rise construction. As Chief Architect for the new (post-65) Borough of Lambeth, Ted Hollamby had concluded that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’.  Hollamby believed that ‘most people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments.  They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not’.  His vision can be seen enacted in the Cressingham Gardens Estate.

Cressingham Gardens was described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’. It’s a beautiful estate nestling on the edge of Brockwell Park which manages superbly, in Hollamby’s words again, to ‘create a sense of smallness inside the bigness…and to get the kind of atmosphere in which people did not feel all herded together’.

It’s a well-loved estate with a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, as part of Lambeth’s commendable pledge to build new homes at council rent in the borough, it has become another victim of ‘regeneration’; in actual fact, once more the threat of demolition.

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Cressingham Gardens

The principal driver of this policy in London is money or the lack of it – the pressure to sell council real estate and build private housing for sale in order to raise capital for social housing at best or so-called ‘affordable’ housing at worst.  A second is ‘densification’ – a belief that working-class homes must be built at greater density to accommodate the capital’s growing population.  Not all regeneration is bad but where it means the destruction of good homes and the wiping out of existing communities it should be opposed.

A second signature Hollamby estate, not featured in Open House this year, Central Hill, is also threatened with demolition. The residents of both estatea have active campaigns fighting to preserve their homes and communities.  See Save Central Hill and Save Cressingham Gardens to find out more and lend your support.

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Thamesmead as envisaged in the mid-1960s

Thamesmead on the southern bank of the Thames Estuary represented planning and construction on a much grander scale. A gleam in the eye of the LCC from the fifties and then, from 1966, the Greater London Council’s ‘Woolwich-Erith Project’, it was envisaged as a ‘town of the 21st Century’ with a population of between 60- to 100,000 people.

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Thamesmead south and central, 2017 © Kleon3 and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Only 12,000 had settled by 1974 and the estate – with its difficult location, poor transport links and lack of facilities – was considered by many a failure. Taken over by Peabody in 2015, benefiting from new investment and the now delayed arrival of Crossrail in 2019, it’s on the up now and worth visiting for both its past and future promise.

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Ferry Lane

New to Open House is the Ferry Lane Estate in Tottenham Hale, Haringey, designed by Jack Lambert for the GLC.  Completed in 1981, it’s another low- to medium-rise estate which marks the changed sensibilities of its era.  There’s an unusually full and detailed description of the design and history of the estate on the Open House website which will provide much fuller information.

The low-rise, high-density housing revolution of the later sixties and seventies was pioneered and most stunningly executed by the progressive borough of Camden under the enlightened leadership of Borough Architect Sydney Cook. Cook rejected the system-building then in vogue as the means to build as much as cheaply as possible – ‘I’ll use standardised plans if you can find me a standardised site,’ he said.

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Stoneleigh Terrace, Whitington Estate

This can be seen firstly in the Whittington Estate, begun in 1969, designed by Peter Tábori, a young architect then in his mid-twenties. It’s a larger, grander scheme than those of Lambeth – in signature Camden style, six parallel linear stepped-section blocks of light pre-cast concrete construction and dark-stained timber.  It was designed to be a ‘form of housing…which related more closely to the existing urban fabric than the slab and tower blocks, and which brought more dwellings close to the ground’. Each home had its own front door and a walk through the front door of 8 Stoneleigh Terrace during Open House will allow you to glimpse the innovative interior design of the housing too, chiefly the work of Ken Adie of the Council’s Department of Technical Services.

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Neave Brown

We’ll conclude fittingly with another Camden scheme which is widely judged to be one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, Alexandra Road, listed Grade II* in 1993.  It was the work of Neave Brown, awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects  in October 2017. He sadly died three months later.

The estate is better seen than described but, in its scale and confidence, it marks (in the words of modernist architect John Winter), ‘a magical moment for English housing’.  Make sure to visit the recently renovated Alexandra Road Park and Tenants’ Hall (also featured in Open House), both integral to the design and original conception of the estate.

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Rowley Way, the Alexandra Road Estate

Alexandra Road was completed in 1979 – the year in which such high ambition would be consigned to the graveyard of history.  It’s a sad irony that some of the very best of our council housing was built just as its near-century long story of practical idealism and shared social purpose was drawing to a close.

i-love-council-houses-south-london-1I hadn’t intended this tour of some of London’s finest council estates to be so elegiac but the contemporary picture of social housing’s marginalisation and market-driven ‘regeneration’ creates a poignant counterpoint to the energy and aspirations of previous generations.  If you visit any of the estates on show during Open House London, my plea to you is to think of them not as monuments to a bygone era but as beacons of what we can and should achieve in a brighter future.

 

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Open House London 2018: Town Halls – Civic Pride and Service

My first post marking Open House London 2018 offers a broadly chronological, whistle-stop tour of the municipal seats of government featured, in various forms – some grand, some humble – on the weekend of 22-23 September. (Open House venues are picked out in bold; the links relate to previous blog posts.)

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City of London Guildhall © Prioryman and made available through Wikimedia Commons

It’s appropriate then to begin with the oldest and one of the most impressive of these, the City of London Guildhall and its present Grand Hall, begun in 1411 – the third largest surviving medieval hall in the country.  Externally, it’s probably the 1788 grand entrance by George Dance the Younger in – with apologies to contemporary sensibilities – what’s been called Hindoostani Gothic that is most eye-catching.  The adjacent Guildhall Library and Art Gallery are also open to view – great facilities along with others provided the City but, as the Corporation is hardly a triumph of democracy, we’ll move on.

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Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow

At the other end of the scale what is now the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow is a modest affair.  It started life in the mid-18th century as a workhouse but included a room set aside for meetings of the local vestry.  It was later adapted as a police station before becoming a very fine local museum in 1930. If you can’t make Open House, do visit it and Walthamstow Village at another time.

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Old Vestry Offices, Enfield © Philafrenzy and made available through Wikimedia Commons

The Old Vestry Offices in Enfield, a small polygonal building built in 1829, originally housed the local beadle – responsible for local enforcement of the Poor Law – and then, until the 1930s, a police station.

This was an era of minimal – so-called night-watchman – local government when ad hoc, largely unrepresentative bodies administered basic services largely related to public safety.  As towns grew and expectations – initially focused on health and, increasingly, on housing – increased, the more ambitious vestries took on enhanced roles and garnered greater prestige.  One such was Shoreditch.

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Shoreditch Town Hall

Shoreditch Town Hall almost matches the Guildhall in its civic pretensions – chutzpah indeed for a building, designed by the impressively named Caesar Augustus Long and opened in 1866 for a vestry. But Shoreditch Vestry took particular pride in its path-breaking municipal electricity undertaking and here its motto, and that of the later Borough, ‘More Light, More Power’ took on more than merely metaphorical meaning.  You might recognise the figure of ‘Progress’ enshrined in the Town Hall tower too. After a long period of decline, the Town Hall was reopened in 2005 and is now a thriving community venue operated by the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust.

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Limehouse Town Hall

Limehouse Town Hall, opened in 1881, is a humbler building despite the Italian palazzo styling adopted by local architects Arthur and Christopher Harston. It also started life as a Vestry Hall but one intended nevertheless as ‘a structure that…shall do honour to the parish of Limehouse’.  It went on to serve as offices for Stepney Metropolitan Borough Council – while its great hall hosted balls and concerts and even early ‘cinematograph’ shows.  It was well known to Clement Attlee, mayor of Stepney in 1919 and later the area’s MP.  It’s been run by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust as a community venue since 2004.

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Ealing Town Hall © PG Chamion and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Ealing had a local board of health from 1863 and didn’t become an urban district until 1894 under the Local Government Act of that year.  Ealing Town Hall, a grand neo-Gothic building, designed by Charles Jones and opened in 1888, replaced a smaller town hall (still standing, now a bank on The Mall) built just fourteen years earlier but now deemed too small for purpose.  The newer town hall was itself extended in the 1930s and includes an impressive double-height council chamber.

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Battersea Arts Centre

Battersea Town Hall, begun in 1892 – an ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’ design by Edward Mountford – survived a disastrous fire in 2015.  Fortunately, repairs and renovations have re-established what is now the Battersea Arts Centre as a wonderful local resource.  In fact, the grand scheme – building but adapting innovatively and excitingly  on its past – has been just been completed and is well worth a visit.

Its local government heritage survives, however – a worthy memorial to the time when Battersea’s radical politics earned it the title, the ‘Municipal Mecca’. For more images of the town hall, visit my Tumblr post here. (The Latchmere Estate, a fifteen minute walk to the north and the subject of my very first post, was the first council estate in Britain to be built by direct labour in 1903.)

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Richmond Old Town Hall

Richmond, a municipal borough founded in 1890 in the County of Surrey, was a more conservative body although it can boast (since its incorporation into Greater London in 1965) the first council housing built in the capital. Richmond Old Town Hall, also designed in Elizabethan Renaissance style by WJ Ancell, was opened in 1893 and now houses (since the creation of the London Borough of Richmond) a museum, gallery and local studies archives amongst other things.

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Finsbury Town Hall

Finsbury Town Hall was opened in 1895, another Vestry Hall at that time, designed by C Evans Vaughan in ‘free Flemish Renaissance’ style according to Pevsner.  Look out for the Art Nouveau entrance canopy and internal fittings too.  It’s a beautiful building making good use of a tricky site, subsequently home to one of the most radical of London’s Metropolitan Borough Councils.  Nearby, you can visit the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board, opened in 1920, just up the road at New River Head.

Back to Finsbury Town Hall, it’s been the home of the Urdang Academy – a school of dance and musical theatre – since 2006 and, in its words, ‘an inspiring and fitting environment in which to train’.  The Town Hall is still a local registry office for weddings and, for that reason, close to my heart and that of the woman who puts the ‘dreams’ into ‘municipal’.

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Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower

Croydon, created a County Borough within Surrey in 1889, didn’t amalgamate with London until 1965 but the Town Hall, built to plans by local architect Charles Henman, was opened in 1896 to provide ‘Municipal Offices, Courts, a Police Station, Library and many other public purposes’. The Croydon Town Hall and Clocktower complex retains some local government functions – the Mayor’s Parlour and committee rooms – but also offers a museum, gallery, library and cinema.

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Tottenham Town Hall, fire station and public baths illustrated in 1903

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Tottenham Town Hall today

A visit to the Tottenham Green Conservation Area gives you an opportunity view a whole slew of historically significant buildings.  With my municipal hat on, I’ll draw your attention to Tottenham Town Hall (HQ of Tottenham Urban District Council from 1904 to 1965) and the other examples of local government endeavour and service adjacent – the public baths next door (now just the façade remaining but, as the Bernie Grants Art Centre supported by Haringey Council, still serving a progressive purpose), the fire station (now an enterprise centre), and technical college (built by Middlesex County Council). Passing the new Marcus Garvie Library, you’ll come across Tottenham’s former public library built in 1896 just up the road.  It’s as fine an ensemble of civic purpose and social betterment as you could find in the country. Some further images here.

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The Victoria Hall, Woolwich Town Hall

And without doubt, Woolwich Town Hall, an elaborate Baroque design by Alfred Brumwell Thomas, is one of the most impressive town halls in the capital.  You’ll find more images of the town hall in this Tumblr post. Queen Victoria presides over the main stairway of the building’s staggeringly impressive central lobby but the building was opened, following Labour’s capture of the Metropolitan Borough Council in 1903 by local MP and dockers’ leader Will Crooks.  That take-over by one of the largest and most active Labour organisations in the country (don’t neglect the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society here) heralded a proud era of reform to raise the health and living standards of the local working class.

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Lambeth Town Hall

Lambeth Town Hall can’t compete with that but it’s a fine building, also Edwardian Baroque, whose redbrick and Portland stone facades are capped by an imposing corner tower. It was the work of Septimus Warwick and Austen Hall, and was opened on 29 April 1908 by the then Prince and Princess of Wales. Its dignified council chamber and some lavish interior rooms remain impressive.

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The UK Supreme Court, formerly Middlesex Guildhall © Pam Fray and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Moving to the immediate pre-war period, the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster – originally housing, amongst other things, the offices of Middlesex County Council – was an unusual building for its time, designed by Scottish architect James Gibson in free Gothic style.  It was sympathetically adapted in 2009 to serve as the headquarters of the UK Supreme Court.

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Islington Town Hall © Alan Ford and made available through Wikimedia Commons

Islington Town Hall, opened in 1925, takes us into the heyday of local government as councils assumed ever greater powers and purpose. It was designed by ECP Monson again. Its neo-classical style has been described as old-fashioned for its time but it’s finely executed.

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Hornsey Town Hall

Conversely, Hornsey Town Hall, completed a decade later, captures stylish modernity in full flow and has been dubbed ‘the quintessential English modern public building of the decade’. It was designed by the 27-year old New Zealander Reginald Uren but owes much to the Dutch and Swedish influences of Willem Marinus Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall and  Ragnar Östberg’s Stockholm Town Hall. (Dudok was also a direct influence of Clifford Culpin’s Greenwich Town Hall opened in 1938.)

The Town Hall lost its principal role when Hornsey was absorbed into the new London Borough of Haringey in 1965 and from 2004 was in a moribund state.  It’s in the process of being revived as an arts centre and hotel with some swish apartments thrown in.  That’s been controversial to some locally but it’s good to see the Grade II* building and its sumptuous interiors restored and put to use.  (You’ll find some images of the interior prior to restoration on my Tumblr post here.)

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Hackney Town Hall

Hackney Town Hall, designed by Henry Lanchester and Thomas Lodge, is also formally neo-classical but its lines and styling are sleeker, more modern and, internally it’s a masterpiece of Art Deco.  When formally opened in 1937 by Lord Snell, Labour Leader of the House of the Lords, he described it as a building:

devoted to the business of living one with another to the benefit of all…It represented something more than mere stone and wood put together; it embodied the ideal of social living…a symbol of their idealism and a focal point for the services of their great borough, and he hoped they would find in it an atmosphere of quiet dignity, purity of administration and of love for the purpose to which it was devoted.

That’s an ideal of local governance that we would do well to remember and revive in these straitened times.

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Hammersmith Town Hall

Over in West London, the new Hammersmith Town Hall (since 1965, the HQ of the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham)was begun the following year and largely complete by 1939. It’s been described as ‘Swedish Georgian’; another fusion of Scandinavian,  Dutch with English Regency motifs added.  It was the work of Ernest Berry Webber, a specialist in municipal architecture who also designed town halls in Southampton and Dagenham (see below).

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Walthamstow Town Hall

SN FellowshipThe consummation of this ambitious era of municipal construction is found in Walthamstow Town Hall (now belonging to the Borough of Waltham Forest) and the adjacent Assembly Hall – a magnificent civic complex fronted by sweeping lawns and a grand central pool and fountain.

The Town Hall, begun in 1937, was designed by Phillip Hepworth, after a competition attracting 70 entries, in a stripped down classical style owing something to Scandinavian contemporaries.  It was completed in 1942 under straitened wartime circumstances which curtailed the initially more sumptuous plans for its interior but its Art Deco touches remain impressive.

Do walk around the back of the building to see the five sculptures by John F Cavanagh, representing Education, Motherhood, Work, Recreation and Fellowship – the latter modelled appropriately on local son William Morris. There are further images in this Tumblr post.

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Walthamstow Assembly Hall

The Assembly Hall, also designed by Phillip Hepworth in similar style, is famed for its acoustics and has become a favourite recording venue. The front of the Hall,  is inscribed with the words of William Morris (which also provide the Borough motto), “Fellowship is Life; Lack of Fellowship is Death’.

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London City Hall © Garry Knight and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Finally, we can bring the story up to date by referring to some 21st century examples of new civic architecture. City Hall, the home of the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly, was opened in 2002 – a high-tech building created by Norman Foster and Partners. Not everybody likes its appearance but the building is notable for reflecting current imperatives of sustainable design.

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Brent Civic Centre

The new Brent Civic Centre, opened in 2013 near Wembley Stadium lets us end on a positive note.  The building unites Brent’s civic, public and administrative functions under a single roof – in the words of its designers Hopkins Architects, ‘a new hub and heart for the community where residents can meet, shop and eat’.  The latter, of course, is another reflection of changed times and priorities and an ethos in which public service is at best complemented by commercial imperatives and, at worst, subordinated to them.

I haven’t seen it but it looks, to be fair, a rather stunning building and, since it houses a community hall and library as well as a civic chamber and offices for the 2000 employees who keep the borough’s services going, let’s celebrate it as a worthy update to the civic heritage this post records.

Next week’s post takes a look at the council housing featured in this year’s Open House London.

The Jubilee Pool, Penzance: ‘Municipal modernity and faith in a brighter, more enlightened future’ UPDATE

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I don’t normally update posts but four years ago, when I last visited the Jubilee Pool in Penzance, it was closed and storm damaged. A fundraising campaign was in place to secure its repair and re-opening.  Well, last week I saw that the campaign had succeeded magnificently so I’m pleased to add to that earlier post and bring things up-to-date. (The revisions are in italics.)

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Jubilee Pool, August 2018

Municipal Dreams is on holiday this week but the Jubilee Pool in Penzance is so municipal and so dreamy it just had to be shared. Opened in 1935, the pool is maybe the finest of Britain’s open-air lidos – a beautiful Arc Deco memento of a municipal commitment to health, fun and modernity that illuminated an otherwise gloomy decade.

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My original photos were taken in August 2014 and show the pool closed and awaiting repair.

Penzance became a borough in 1614 and seems over the years to have been a rather enterprising one – a reservoir to supply the town with water was constructed in 1759, the first gas lighting arrived in 1830. In 1849, the Corporation was one of the first to form a local board of health and numerous improvements followed.

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The Prom: originally built in 1843, this is the 1896 renovation with pink tinted slabs to reduce glare, August 2018

Fishing, minerals and trade formed the basis of its early prosperity but the Napoleonic Wars (which prevented the wealthy travelling to watering places on the Continent) opened new possibilities as one commentator praised the town for ‘the mildness of its air, the agreeableness of the situation and the respectability of its inhabitants’. He dubbed it ‘the Montpellier of England’. (1)

The Corporation built a seaside promenade to the west of the town in 1843 and the first Borough Surveyor built wide new roads to its rear from the 1860s. The rail link to London established in 1859 made these aspirations to resort gentility far more realistic. The first large hotel, Queen’s, opened in 1861. In its interwar resort heyday, Penzance was hailed as the ‘Cannes of the Cornish Riviera’. (2)

To its working population, Penzance was less idyllic. Battery Square – an area of run-down cottages and industrial works to the south of the town centre and adjacent to the promenade – was ‘one of the slummiest parts of the town’. (3)

In 1933, it was cleared. In a couple of years, large new municipal housing estates were built on the outskirts of town but meanwhile the Corporation focused on Penzance, the resort. Where Battery Square stood, the Borough Surveyor, Captain Frank Latham, created pleasure gardens and – a sign of the times – a car park.

At this time, Penzance was also lamenting the ‘unkind act of nature’ which had destroyed ‘the lovely beach which once ran from the Battery Rocks to the Tolcarne river’. A solution suggested itself – a lido built on the Rocks themselves.

The view from Tolcarne towards Battery Rocks and the Pool, August 2014

In this, Penzance was following the fashion of the day: (4)

By the early 1930s, open-air pools had become emblems of municipal modernity and of faith in a brighter, more enlightened future, in much the same way as public libraries had become a generation or two earlier.

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Undated photograph © Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd.

The pools also reflected a greater independence enjoyed by women a cultural shift but, in this context, a practical one too made possible by new swimwear designs which allowed them to take up swimming in addition to the more sedate bathing previously judged more seemly. 

Opening Day, 1935 © Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd. 

As we saw in Victoria Park, East London, Herbert Morrison – leader of the Labour administration which ran the London County Council from 1934 – had declared London would be ‘a city of lidos’. In the year that the Jubilee Pool opened, the Tinside lido was opened in Plymouth, Saltdean in Brighton and open-air pools in Ilkley, Norwich, Peterborough and Aylesbury.
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The Jubilee Pool was officially opened on 31 May, 1935. It was, the programme stated, ‘ the consummation of one of the most important projects undertaken by the Borough of Penzance’ . The celebratory prose went on to praise the clearance of the:

slum property that had marred the eastern approach to the Promenade – today this depressing and unattractive scene has been swept away and a complete transformation effected.

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‘Professor Hicks’ takes the first plunge at the official opening © Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd. 

A full programme of activities followed with the accompaniment of the Penzance Silver Band.  ‘Professor’ Hicks, ‘the Cornish Veteran’ and former West of England swimming champion whose swim career had begun in 1868 was present and his inaugural laps were followed by a ‘programme of aquatic sports and exhibitions’ including races for ladies and girls. The ‘Beauty Parade of Bathing Belles’ was perhaps less of a blow struck for feminism. SN Opening plaque

Prices, at 6d (2.5p) for adults and 3d for children, were relatively high but more controversial to some was the fact that the pool was to be open on Sundays and Councillor Birch went so far as to proclaim that ‘people in favour of Sunday labour were tyrants’.  The Mayor himself declared he would rather the pool be permanently closed than open on Sundays but later took part in the opening ceremony nevertheless. By 16 votes to 9, the Council overruled the primarily religious objections to Sunday opening (4a)

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Members of the Penzance Swimming Association and Water Polo Club, mid-1950s (?) © Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd.

The Jubilee Pool was 330 feet long by 240 feet wide at its greatest extent, not the biggest of its time but, apparently, the largest by volume of water – seawater regularly replenished by seven sluice gates. The size was designed to meet national and international standards for swimming and water polo matches. 

August 2014

But beyond the dry detail, the pool is a thing of beauty, spectacularly sited on Battery Rocks with commanding views of Mount’s Bay, resting, in the words of the latest Pevsner:

sleekly like a liner at anchor projecting into the sea…a subtle Art Deco composition of curvilinear concrete terraces in cool blues and whites, separated to accommodate sunbathers below and spectators of the arena-like space within or views of the town without.

As the local press noted at the time, the pool wasn’t ‘only a fine piece of engineering’. It was also:

a work of art. The monotony of straight walls and right angles – the domain of the compass and ruler – has been entirely avoided. Instead there are graceful curves and pleasing lines.

The programme, in full awareness of these artistic credentials, commented conversely on ‘the cubist style … adopted in the interior in the matter of diving platforms and steps’. 

August 2014

The architect of this masterpiece was Borough Surveyor, Captain Latham. He usually gets a name-check in descriptions of the pool but I’m intrigued by him. He had been appointed to the post in 1899, aged 25. His rank came from a commission in the Royal Engineers during the First World War. He retired, awarded the Freedom of the Borough, in 1938 and died in 1946.

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Captain Frank Latham

In his younger years, he had written The Construction of Roads, Paths and Sea Defence, published in 1903. That expertise was clear in the skilful use made of Battery Rocks for the pool’s foundations. The same local press report was pleased, more prosaically, to record that, as a result, the whole project cost £14,000 whereas comparable pools elsewhere had cost over £100,000.

St Michael’s Mount to the rear and war memorial to right, August 2014

Latham – as I imagine him, this practical man and local government bureaucrat – somewhere possessed the soul of an artist. The design of the Pool was inspired, so he said, by watching a gull alight on the sea. Its architecture is a beautiful confection of Modernism and Art Deco, typical of its time but all of its own and making superb use of its site.

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August 2014

It represented too, in the fashion of its day, fresh air and healthy exercise. As the mayor opined at the pool’s opening, ‘there can hardly be any better form of bodily exercise than swimming’. In any case, he added, ‘people who live by the sea and those who live on the sea should be able to swim’.

But the pool – which had seemed such a benefit to the town and its inhabitants and visitors, ‘an event of the greatest importance’ as the headline proclaimed – had come by the 1960s to seem a ‘white elephant’.

The lido craze didn’t last. War broke out within four years. The post-war world of foreign travel and indoor leisure centres – and, always, the vagaries of the English weather – contrived to make these outdoor pools seem old-fashioned, even rather uninviting. Somehow, the Jubilee Pool survived but, by the 1990s a sceptical local council reckoned each swim cost the local ratepayer between £16 and £18 and the case for closing it seemed strong. (5)

The Friends of Jubilee Pool were formed in 1992 and they achieved their first victory in the following year when the Pool was Grade II listed. Major funding followed from English Heritage and the European Regional Development Fund and a grand re-opening took place in May 1994.

Now lidos and open-air pools up and down the country are enjoying a revival though many are still dependent on the voluntary efforts of local enthusiasts. The ups and downs of the Jubilee Pool itself continue. February’s storms caused significant damage to the Pool and have prevented its opening this year.

Catching the full force of a winter storm © The Friends of Jubilee Pool

The most recent news is positive, however. A joint bid from Cornwall Council, Penzance Town Council and the Friends of Jubilee Pool for £1.95m funding from the Coastal Communities Fund was approved by the Department for Communities and Local Government this month.

The Friends are continuing their own fund-raising campaign to ensure that the Pool will be reopened with a wider range of activities that should safeguard its future in years to come. Captain Latham and the enterprising councillors whose vision created the Jubilee Pool in the 1930s would be pleased.

2018

A £3m renovation programme, supported by the Coastal Communities Fund and matching funding from local authorities and the Friends of Jubilee Pool, was completed in 2016 and the pool reopened in May that year.

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August 2018

The Pool is now owned and managed by the Friends of Jubilee Pool operating as a Community Benefit Society committed its survival as a community asset.  The latest stage in this is the drilling of a geothermal well to provide renewable energy which will enable part of the pool to be heated.  A fundraising share offer is in place to complement the grant funding provided by the European Union. (6)

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August 2018

Finally, that future is properly supported by a celebration of the Pool’s past. ‘Jubilee Pool Stories‘ is a project to create a digital archive as well as new media work and exhibitions. If you’re interested or can contribute your own memories, please follow the link.  My thanks to them for providing the historic photographs included in this post.

Sources

The amended post benefited from an exhibition in the Penzance Exchange gallery, ‘The Jubilee Pool: Then, Now, To Come’, which is running till 22 September 2018.

(1) WG Maton in 1794, quoted in Peter Beacham and Nikolaus Pevsner, Cornwall (2014)

(2) JH Wade in 1928, quoted in Cornwall Archaeological Unit, Cornwall and Scilly Urban Survey Historic characterisation for regeneration: Penzance (September 2003)

(3) The quotations are taken from ‘An Event of the Greatest Important’, The Cornishmen, a June 1935 newspaper report republished online in The West Briton, May 27, 2010

(4) Janet Smith, Liquid Assets: The lidos and open air swimming pools of Britain (English Heritage, 2005) quoted in Tom de Castella, review, New Statesman, 29 August 2005

(4a) ‘Penzance Town Council. The Bathing Pool’, The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph, 15 May 1935

(5) See Martin Nixon, ‘Jubilee Pool: Enormous Liability or Massive Opportunity?’ for some of this later history. The figures are taken from the de Castella review.

(6)  Visit the Jubilee Pool’s dedicated website for full details on past work and future plans.

With planning permission granted for the proposals, Dezeen have just published ‘Penzance could become “spa town of Cornwall” with revamp of art-deco sea pool’

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, ‘Prefabs’ Book Review

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, Prefabs (Historic England, 2018)

We thought we’d reached paradise.  The bathroom, indoor toilet, central heating, kitchen fitted with an oven, refrigerator and folding table were miracles of luxury. The spacious bedrooms and living room, the integral drawers and cupboards, the huge windows, the large garden and Anderson coal shelter were, to us, more palace than prefab.

Those are the words of Neil Kinnock, describing the South Wales prefab he lived in from the age of six till he went on to university (‘the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university’ if you remember his speech when elected Labour leader) at the age of 18.

Cover

They capture much of the vital story of these prefabricated homes so finely and fully captured in this new book from Historic England. It reminds us these were, predominantly, working-class homes for generations of people moving from the slums. It tells us that, contrary to the cute, folksy image that understandably prevails, these were modern – indeed modernistic – homes, embodying a cutting-edge technology and providing unheralded amenity and convenience for their new residents.

We’re talking here of the post-war prefabs, part of a £150m programme inaugurated by the 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act under which some 156,623 prefab homes were erected across the country by 1949.  An appendix provides full details of the range of forms and technology applied.

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Wake Green listed Phoenix Prefab, Birmingham © Elisabeth Blanchet

Designed to last around ten years, there were still 67,353 in use in 1964 and in London some 10,000 were occupied into the 1970s. A few survive to the present and some are now listed: six on the Excalibur Estate in south London, 16 on Wake Green Road in Moseley, Birmingham (the latter can be viewed on open days on the 6 and 7 September this year).  Others have been adapted and preserved, notably in Redditch and around Inverness Road in Ipswich where the 142 prefabs form the largest surviving estate of their type.

Tarran prefabs, Ipswich

Tarran prefabs in Ipswich, 2016 © Elisabeth Blanchet

For all that longevity, these post-war prefabs were temporary homes. The wider value of the book lies in its full coverage of prefabricated homes planned as permanent. This longer history and the range of non-traditional forms devised and constructed will surprise many – it surprised me and I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert.

In this, private enterprise has played its part.  Henry Munnings ‘portable colonial cottage’ from 1833 will be new to most; the Sears Roebuck mail order homes in the US are better known with over 100,000 sold between 1908 and 1940.  It’s interesting to learn – and somehow entirely appropriate – that IKEA are currently pioneering a form of emergency flatpack home in conjunction with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

But true to form, I’ll focus on the role of the national and local state and here the recurring motif is the desire to meet pressing housing needs as rapidly and economically as possible when traditional brick-built housing was proving both too slow and expensive to build

Eldon Street Labourer's Concrete Dwellings

‘Labourers’ Concrete Dwellings’, Eldon Street, Liverpool, 1905

Liverpool City Engineer John Brodie built the prefabricated ‘Labourers’ Concrete Dwellings’ in Eldon Street as early as 1905. A version was featured in the Cheap Cottage Exhibition in Letchworth Garden City the same year and it survives (Grade II* listed) at 158 Wilbury Road.  The exhibition brochure expressed an intent and context which would persist in different forms across the years.  This, it said, was a ‘system of building’:

designed … with the special objective of providing a thoroughly sanitary and economical building, suitable in every way for the housing of the poorest classes displaced owing to the demolition of insanitary areas in Liverpool.

Eleven years later, in the midst of the First World War, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen of the Royal Engineers devised the hut that bore his name. One-hundred thousand Nissen huts were erected to serve military needs by 1918. It’s pleasing that a few were built for peacetime housing purposes in the 1920s, though sadly – as this recent blog post records – not with any great success.

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Nissen-Petren houses in Ryme Intrinseca, Dorset © John Boughton

This was part of a broader wave of experimentation in non-traditional construction methods, promoted by the 1919 Housing Act and the newly-established Standardisation and New Methods of Construction Committee. The Committee received 90 proposals of which 75 were approved. The steel-framed Dorlonco homes of the Dorman Long Company, Airey’s Duo-Slab system combining precast and in situ concrete, and Lord Weir’s steel-clad, timber-framed homes were among the more widely built. In total, some 50,000 prefabricated homes had been erected by the end of the 1920s.

Aylesham Kings Road 1926-27 (Heritage Centre)

Dorlonco housing, King’s Road, Aylesham, Kent © Aylesham Heritage Centre

A second world war – and, with it, the same urgent need to provide decent housing for the many who needed it – provided a new impetus to prefabricated housebuilding.  (A 1945 White Paper estimated that 750,000 new homes were required immediately and a further 500,000 to replace existing slums.)  The wartime government anticipated a repeat of the shortages of skilled labour and traditional materials that had hit construction in the early 1920s and set up the Interdepartmental Committee on House Construction (the Burt Committee) in 1943.

To the Architects’ Journal in June 1943, as to many others, there was:

one solution only to the problem of post-war housing. It can be expressed in three words – use the machine

The book again provides an invaluable guide to the range of new prefabricated homes constructed. There were steel-framed BISF (British Iron and Steel Federation) houses, for example, designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, of which 40,000 were built.

Airey House

Airey Houses © Historic England

Other designs utilised precast reinforced concrete (PRC).  Here the Wates (60,000 built), Airey (26,000), and Orlit houses (17,000) stand out. The so-called Cornish Units, developed by the English China Clay Company using concrete in which aggregate was a fine sand by-product from their mines, are an interesting variant; around 10,000 were built principally in the south-west.

Cornish Units

Cornish Units, Hoo Street, Werburgh, Kent © Historic England

They and the 17,000 aluminium-framed AIROH homes, developed by the Aircraft Industries Research Organisation on Housing illustrate another aspect of the prefabrication drive – the desire to maintain wartime industries in full production in peacetime conditions.  Conversely, some 5000 timber-framed houses – the so-called Swedish houses – were imported in flatpack sections from (you guessed it) Sweden.

Swedish House

Swedish Houses © Historic England

Generally, these homes have stood the test of time though construction and materials flaws emerged in some (nearly all the Orlit homes have been demolished due to a defective concrete mix) and others have required substantial renovation in recent years. Some were disliked due to their unconventional appearance. Generally, cost savings were small if any. Traditional brick-built houses remained more popular and, but for a small spike of prefabricated construction during Macmillan’s housing drive in the 1950s, took centre-stage once more as shortages eased.

This was not, however, the end of ‘the machine’.  An era of mass public housing, rooted in the determination to end slum living forever, took off in the sixties and, in the confident modernity represented by what Harold Wilson had called the ‘white heat’ of the ‘scientific revolution’, system-building emerged as the seemingly obvious solution to the need to build at pace and at scale.

Aylesbury

Building the Aylesbury Estate: the LPS method in operation

The Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, currently suffering a slow demolition against residents’ protests, and the Hulme Crescents in Manchester are among the best known, both variants of the very widely employed Large Panel System of construction (LPS).  Due to what was in too many cases very poor build quality and the problems which followed, such estates were rapidly dubbed ‘notorious, none more so than Ronan Point, a Newham LPS tower block which partially collapsed after a small gas explosion in May 1968, killing four.

Ronan Point seemed to mark the end of the apparently hubristic hopes placed in system-building though – suitably modified – system-built schemes continued to be built into the early seventies. A closing chapter of the book, however, tells of a small-scale revival of prefabricated construction in the present housing crisis, both in the UK and globally, and suggests – lessons learned, rigorous standards ensured – that prefabrication remains a plausible and perhaps necessary means of building the affordable homes many millions need.

Catherine Bazell

Catherine Bazell’s family in front of their prefab in North London, 1950s © The Prefab Museum

This brief summary – focusing as it does on numbers and forms – might suggest a dry history but a huge quality of Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova’s work is its focus on the lived experience of those that have lived – and continue to live – in prefab homes over the years.  This is a rich social history, full of colour and detail, beautifully illustrated, replete with resident memories and testimonies – a powerful and humane telling of a story in which technology was mobilised to serve human need and societal necessity.

100,000th Prefab

A ceremony marking the completion of the 100,000th, Wandsworth, 1947 © Historic England

Though the authors’ closing words take us back to those seemingly quaint post-war prefabs, they might stand for the broader enterprise this fine book describes:

Although modest to the modern eye and by no means perfect, these temporary prefabs really did change people’s lives by giving them the opportunity to be masters of their very own detached homes – their ‘little castles’. The tenants considered themselves lucky, and the prefabs were a testament to the will to make life better for people after the trials of the Second World War.

You can sample the book via this link. You’ll find publication and purchase details here

The Prefab Museum is an online archive containing further information, images and testimonies illustrating the history of the temporary post-war prefabs and an interactive map of their past and present locations.

Orchard Park, Hull, Part II: ‘It’s never had it better than now’

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We left Orchard Park in Hull in last week’s post in a bad way, in some ways a typical peripheral estate with what by now seemed the usual problems but in other respects an example writ large in terms of its poor quality design and level of social disadvantage.  A further element was introduced by what appeared to be rising problems of criminality and antisocial behaviour.  In this week’s post, we’ll examine the ongoing attempts to revive and improve such increasingly stigmatised estates for which Orchard Park was a significant test-bed.

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Orchard Park © Charlie Baker and used with permission

It certainly qualified as a hard-to-let estate, a phenomenon identified by the Labour government of James Callaghan in 1978 and then targeted in the Priority Estates Programme (PEP) inherited by the Conservative government which succeeded.  Its emphasis was on modelling systems of local management and repair and promoting tenant participation.  A growing assumption was also that particular housing forms encouraged crime.

A retrospective Home Office study of three PEP estates (two in Tower Hamlets, London, and the other the Orchard Park Estate) concluded that while all ‘had high crime rates and adverse design’, Orchard Park ‘had a greater level of disorderliness, associated with youth in particular, which fostered a greater sense of insecurity amongst residents, particularly women’. (1)

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A worthy entrant for the gardening competition? © Charlie Baker and used with permission

All this played into the mix of changes carried out in Orchard Park in PEP-related activity from 1986 to 1992.  A local estate office was established to deal with repairs, caretaking and lettings. Neighbourhood Management Committees were set up in 1989; various security and environmental initiatives ensued.  A Gardening Competition for residents inaugurated in 1993 takes us back to the domestic respectability promoted by similar such competitions in the cottage suburbs since the 1920s. (2)

There was also some attempt to use the lettings policies in supporting established residents and engineering a more socially beneficial mix of new tenants. The Home Office report captures the contradictions and limitations of such a policy in the face of the intractable realities governing council housing allocations in a period of growing shortage and increased hardship.

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Lingcourt, Orchard Park

The report concluded that ‘Territoriality, social cohesion and “empowerment” increased among the residents of the houses’.  Among new tenants, the single mothers, generally provided houses (rather than flats), seem to have complemented the more established residents living disproportionately in the estate’s low-rise homes and contributed to their relative low turnover and ‘respectability’.

At the same time, the combination of a declining economy, homelessness legislation and the shortage of council housing stock ensured that:

a greater number of young poor people and those discharged from institutional care were coming on to the estates. Their arrival at a time of high unemployment and into conditions of poverty created a destabilising influence, swelled the numbers of vulnerable tenants and encouraged more disorderly activities and lifestyles.

These new tenants were housed disproportionately in high-rise flats and:

Despite a programme of improvement to the security of the tower blocks, and better management of the estate as a whole, the newcomers – that is the young, childless poor – displaced many of the previous, elderly residents and attracted crime to themselves, both as perpetrators and victims, concentrating crime in their part of the estate.

It’s all a reminder that council estates are disproportionately required to bear the burden of social and economic problems beyond their purview or, as I would argue, that estates are a victim of societal failings but not their cause.

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Orchard Park © Charlie Baker and used with permission

The Home Office report (found, appropriately, on the National Police College website) focused on crime prevention and the various attempts to ‘design out’ crime.  It epitomised a critique and prescription for troubled council estates which became mainstream from the mid-eighties, aimed at, in its words:

1. Creating better dwelling security and more ‘defensible space’

2. Halting a spiral of deterioration … [by] reducing ‘signs of disorder’ and fear of crime

3. Investing in the estate so that resident’s will develop a positive view and thus a greater stake in their community …

4. Increasing informal community control over crime both through increased surveillance and supervision by residents and housing officials and facilitating the development of a set of norms and expectations against offending on the estate.

That’s a pretty good summary of the ‘design disadvantagement’, ‘defensible space’ theories that were popularised in the UK (and simplified) by Alice Coleman in the mid-1980s though, in Orchard Park (its high-rise blocks notwithstanding), it was applied not to modernist, multi-storey housing but to a generally low-rise estate.

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Knightscourt © Ian S and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Another, perhaps not altogether disinterested, account celebrates the design modifications implemented across the estate. (3)

Monotonous, unkept [sic] pathways in front of terraced houses were transformed by creating fenced off private yards for each household. A programme of colourful redecoration to external areas did much to brighten the estate’s formerly drab façade.

And ‘attractive tiled canopies were erected around the entrances’ of the three Mildane high-rise blocks, ‘creating a pleasing appearance, as well as giving protection from falling objects’.

At the same time, entryphone systems were installed and CCTV within lifts and ground floor communal areas, the latter at the time apparently accessible to view by tenants on a dedicated TV channel through a communal aerial, bringing a whole new level to our obsession with crime drama on the box.

The article concludes that offences committed by non-residents ‘virtually ceased’ and that the ‘few cases of theft and vandalism’ that persisted were attributable to ‘a minority of residents’.  The changes clearly represented an improvement and there’s no need to sneer at sensible crime reduction initiatives which reduced its prevalence and meaningful environmental improvements even if the overall argument seems a little overstated.   Generally, things were looking up; the chair of the Danes Management Committee concluded ‘The estate is a cleaner, happier place. Repairs are done quickly, the local office is run efficiently.’ (4)

Nevertheless, Orchard Park remained a ‘problem estate’ into the 2000s even as, of course, it continued to provide a decent home to most of its residents.   Of those homes, Right to Buy having wrought its changes even in this apparently unpromising terrain, only around 68 percent were social rented by 2011 with now nine percent let by private landlords.

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‘Tinned up’ homes in Feldane Orchard Park © Charlie Baker and used with permission

It remained an unpopular estate to outsiders; when some choice existed between 2001 and 2003, the vacancy rate stood at 26 percent and the average re-letting period at 322 days, three times worse than any other Hull estate. Fifty-two percent of OP residents were satisfied with their neighbourhood against an average of 72 percent city-wide. (5)

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Ribycourt

When the urban design consultancy Urbed worked with Gateway Pathfinder to create (in their words) ‘an engagement and capacity building programme for tenants and residents’ in Orchard Park, the vision of some seemed modest at first glance though the attitudinal shift they wanted might have been life-changing for some: (6)

My vision for Orchard Park is that it comes in line with all the other communities in Hull and it’s not singled out, when my son is eighteen and goes for a job he isn’t discriminated against because his postcode is HU6.

The veteran local Labour councillor Terry Geraghty articulated a similar ambition:

We need to get away from the idea of Orchard Park being on its own; we are all one community and we need to break down those barriers. The image the area has is not deserved, 90% of the people that live here are incredibly hard working people and we need to get the information to those in business that just because someone lives in Orchard Park it doesn’t mean they are any less capable of doing the jobs that everyone else in Hull can do …

At the time, unemployment among the economically active was at 27 percent on the estate, compared to 12 percent in Hull as a whole and six percent nationally.  The Estate was among the five percent most deprived in the country; the Danes, tainted by its original design and construction flaws, was in the worst one percent. Meanwhile, for all the previously lauded design modifications, the Estate suffered the highest crime rate in Hull. (7)

Martin Crookston, an advocate for the cottage suburbs and their revival, concluded uncharacteristically that:

Orchard Park, created at the tail-end of the long years of estate-building, and at the outer edge of its city as that city started to run out of economic steam, was probably always an estate ‘too far’ – at the problem rather than potential end of the corporation suburb spectrum.

He counselled ‘radical change’.

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High-rise and clearance © Charlie Baker and used with permission

In many ways, the Council has acted on that advice.   The first three of the high-rise blocks to be demolished went in 2002, including ironically two of the Mildane blocks improved by those ‘attractive tiled canopies’ back in the eighties.  The twenty-two storey Vernon House in Homethorpe was demolished in 2004.  In 2008, the council began planning the clearance of the remaining seven.

This obvious, apparently radical change wasn’t universally welcomed.  With little in the first instance to replace them, one local resident feared it as a sign of ‘managed decline’.  An elderly resident of one of the tower blocks, confounding stereotypes, lamented their loss: (8)

I like the flats as they are, I don’t want them changed at all. I leave my door open most of the day but I lock it at teatime … We’ve got beautiful views, you must admit, you get away from everybody, you don’t answer the door if you don’t want to. I would miss my view, I would never go and live in a house and look across at somebody’s back yard.

She suggested they reserve her block for those aged over 55, a solution to tower block living adopted in two of the estate’s towers.

Highcourt demolition

Highcourt demolition, March 2015 © Keith Jackson

Despite initial stays of execution for Gorthorpe and Kinthorpe blocks in 2012 (such was the housing shortage), demolitions continued.  Twenty-storey Highcourt, was demolished in March 2015. Residents’ comments capture the mixed feelings of the event: (9)

I was a young girl living in north Hull when this block of flats was built. I remember the new building being celebrated because there was a houses shortage at the time but now it’s demolition is being celebrated.

For another, it was an eyesore but he’d miss it on his morning walk.  The last of Orchard Park’s high-rise blocks went with the demolition of the Gorthorpe flats in 2016.

Meanwhile, Orchard Park and Hull more widely was subject to the initiatives governing housing policy and finance nationally.  The Housing Market Renewal or Pathfinder programme laudably aimed to ‘provide lasting solutions for communities blighted by derelict homes through investment and innovation’; its chosen means – which seemed to focus on the demolition of sometimes decent housing and market-led solutions – were far more controversial.

The Hull and East Riding Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (or Hull Gateway) was established in 2005 but plans to tackle the Thorpes in Orchard Park came to nought and the initiative as a whole was defunded in 2010. (10)

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The cover of Hull’s PFI document, August 2010

The Council also entertained hopes that the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), introduced by John Major but significantly expanded under New Labour, might enable the sweeping changes many nevertheless thought necessary.  The title of the 2008 bid document, The Transformation of Orchard Park – Shaping the Place, Creating a Fruitful Future, captures those hopes; its 16 sections and 29 appendices reflect their breadth; and the price tag – at £142m – suggests the extent of the work deemed necessary. (11)

In summary, the proposals envisaged the demolition of 752 council houses, 255 privately owned houses, and 33 council bungalows and their replacement with 1020 new homes in the private sector and 680 new homes for social renting. This was a net gain of 660 homes but the figure conceals a net loss of 105 social rented homes.

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Courtpark Road

It’s worth pausing – amidst the money talk and statistics – to examine what’s going on here and how powerfully it symbolises the policies and presumptions of the era.  Firstly, we have the dependence on private capital – the minimisation of state investment reflecting both a callow political fear of public spending (better understood as investment) and an unquestioning belief in the efficiency and ultimate beneficence of the market.

Secondly, perhaps less controversially still, there is the belief in so-called mixed communities (ignoring the fact that estates already accommodate a mixed community) and mixed tenure.  It marks a moment when council estates as such were deemed to have failed socially and economically.  For all the specific design shortcomings of Orchard Park, we might think it the victim of social and economic failure rather than its agent.  And we should certainly question why all these contemporary ‘fixes’ to long-term housing problems seemingly require the loss of desperately needed social rented homes.

The Orchard Park PFI was awarded £156m in July 2009.  In one of the first substantive acts of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, all new PFI schemes (including Orchard Park) were cancelled in November 2010.  Given the huge and ongoing expense of the PFI programme and its complexity and troubled implementation, that might seem a relief but it left Hull still scrabbling for finance and dependent on partnerships with private developers or housing associations which could access capital.

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New homes being built in Homethorpe © Humberbusiness.com

Nevertheless, some of that has borne fruit in the construction of new homes in the Danepark area and a recently completed scheme in association with Wates and the Riverside Group housing association at Homethorpe creating 52 new homes for rent including 16 one-bed council flats. A major refurbishment programme providing external cladding to the 1668 ‘No Fines’ homes in Orchard Park began in 2016.  The Harrison Park extra care apartments for those who need to assisted living are some of the finest in the country.

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The Orchard Centre

The £14m Orchard Centre (a local council hub and health centre) opened on the southern fringe of the estate in 2009. A new community park and multi-use games area has opened.  Remodelling of the run-down shopping centre has made that a more attractive space.

How to conclude? What to conclude?  If you want an illustration of the power of selective narratives, let’s look at two recent press reports.   A March 2018 report in the local press recounts three recent stabbings and residents’ fears that violence on the estate was ‘getting out of hand’.   A few months earlier, another report had been headlined ‘We’ve lived on Orchard Park for 50 years – and it’s never had it better than now’. Mrs Gray moved with her husband to their terrace house in Cladshaw in 1966 and has lived there ever since: (12)

I know some people have bad things to say about Orchard Park but we have had no trouble and we brought up our children here.

Let’s finish with that – not because Orchard Park has been untroubled or without failings, some of which could have been foreseen and forestalled with greater investment and better design, but because it reminds us it’s been a home to many thousands, usually a good one and, hopefully, an improving one.

Sources

My thanks to Charlie Baker for permission to use images contained in his report for Urbed, Orchard Park (September 2006). You can find more of his evocative photography on his website.

My thanks also to Tim Morton for providing the 1993 PEP report referenced and Keith Jacobs for supplying photographs of the demolition of Highcourt.

(1) Housing, Community and Crime: the Impact of the Priority Estates Project (Home Office Research Study 131, 1993)

(2) ‘Orchard Park, Hull’ (Priority Estates Project, 1993)

(3) Roy Carter, ‘Designing Crime Out of the Urban Environment’, Orchard Park Case Study, Architect and Surveyor, vol 64, no 9, October 1989

(4) ‘Orchard Park, Hull’ (Priority Estates Project, 1993)

(5) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow?  A New Future for the Cottage Estates (2016)

(6) Quoted in Charlie Baker, Urbed, Orchard Park (September 2006)

(7) Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow? 

(8) Angus Young, ‘Orchard Park’s Gorthorpe and Kinthorpe tower blocks to be demolished after Hull City Council U-turn’, Hull Daily Mail, May 2, 2014

(9)Quoted in Claire Carter, ‘Gone in Eight Seconds’, Daily Mail, 9 March 2015

(10) The Urban Rim website Gateway Pathfinder provides full details.

(11) The Urban Rim website also provides a full chronological account of the Orchard Park PFI.

(12) Phil Winter, ‘’”Orchard Park violence is getting out of hand”: Fear as estate sees three stabbings in under a monthHull Daily Mail, 21 March 2018 and Kevin Shoesmith, ‘We’ve lived on Orchard Park for 50 years – and it’s never had it better than now‘, Hull Daily Mail, 30 September 2017

Orchard Park, Hull, Part I: ‘One of the poorest peripheral estates in Britain’

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By the early 1980s, Orchard Park in Hull was described as ‘one of the poorest peripheral estates in Britain’. (1)  Anne Power was describing its relative affluence – or lack of it – but for many people her words would also reflect a judgment on the quality of the design and build of the estate.  The long story of Orchard Park might justify that – it’s a tale of good intentions, poor execution, hostile circumstance and, perhaps in the longer term, lessons learned.  In this post, we look at the apparent missteps and failings.

OSM Orchard Park

A contemporary map of the estate © OpenStreetMap

Hull had built some 10,700 homes before the Second World War. As a result of wartime devastation – over 1000 hours of raids destroyed 5300 homes outright in the city and damaged almost 115,000 – and the prevalence of the remaining slums, post-war ambitions were even higher.

Bransholme, with a planned population of 26,000, was the largest Hull estate (though not, as frequently claimed, the largest in Europe).  Orchard Park, with 10,000 residents, was smaller but formed a significant part of the large-scale building programme. Overall the Council built some 35,400 homes in the post-war period and housed, at peak, in 1981 some 47 percent of the city’s households.

Orchard Park under construction

Orchard Park under construction

Planning for Orchard Park, on open farmland on the fringes of the North Hull Estate, had begun as early as 1951 but early proposals were stymied by the conflicting interests of the various local authorities and developers involved.  The present-day estate emerged from 1963 under the aegis of City Architect David Jenkin.

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Courtpark Road, the Courts

The estate takes the form of four so-called ‘villages’. The first, named ‘the Courts’, to the east of North Hull,  was completed in 1965 – 764 homes, almost all traditionally built two-storey houses with gardens front and back. It’s said to have ‘always been one of the more popular areas of the estate with a stable population’. (2)  The overall layout is a fairly crude form of Radburn with service roads and garaging provided to the rear of homes generally facing grassed open spaces.

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Milldane flats from Hall Road, 2008 © Paul Glazzard and made available through a Creative Commons licence

The original intention was to complete all four phases of the estate to similar design but, with a new City Architect in place in 1964, JV Wall, Village 2 – the Danes, on the north-western corner of the estate, took a very different form.  Radburn principles – that separation of cars and people – were maintained but the homes, predominantly two-storey, three- and four-bedroom houses, were built in long and – to critical eyes – monotonous terraces: (3)

In many ways, ‘the Danes’ are similar in appearance to old terraced housing – rows and rows of high density terraces, all facing the same way. It is almost as if the design is an attempt to recreate the community feeling of the old slums.

Another distinctive aspect of the Danes was the large-scale use of Wimpey ‘No Fines’ housing, built of concrete (with no fine aggregates) cast in situ.  The upside of the method was the speed of construction; some 27 ‘shells’ were completed weekly at peak.  But there were downsides to which we’ll return.

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Cladshaw, the Shaws © Charlie Baker and used with permission

Village 3, the Shaws, was begun in 1965 and finished in 1967.  This phase saw a return to traditional, brick construction, carried out by the Council’s own Direct Labour Organisation. The tried and trusted methods applied seem to have ensured this part of the estate remained popular and problem-free.

Finally in Village 4, the Thorpes, on the north-eastern fringes of Orchard Park, there were around 500 terraced and semi-detached two-storey houses and some 48 town houses plus three ten-storey towers each comprising 47 one-bed flats.

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‘View of blocks on Thorpepark Road’, 1987. With thanks to the Tower Block UK

Across the estate, eleven tower blocs were erected, most of 17 to 19 storeys with two at 22 storeys, the tallest residential buildings in Hull.  The intent here, in this basic form of mixed development, was to achieve some greater housing density among the generally dispersed low-rise estate and to offer visual interest and contrast within Orchard Park’s low-lying flat terrain. (4)

In all, housebuilding was complete by 1969. In contrast, community facilities followed slowly and a promised neighbourhood centre never materialised.  A modest shopping centre finally opened in 1974.  By then, the estate was already seen as problematic.

One issue was the system-built Wimpey ‘No Fines’ housing.  As we noted, its speed of construction was impressive but a 1985 report from the Centre for Environmental Studies (CES) described it as having ‘all the hallmarks of a “crash programme”’ – and not in a good way.  It had been, they continued, ‘the root of many of the estate’s problems ever since’, unsurprisingly given the issues of condensation and internal rot and mould they refer to.

The problem here – as with system-built estates with similar flaws across the country – is not only the obvious discomfort for the residents directly affected but that estates (or parts of them) become unpopular and ‘hard to let’ and come to house typically those with least choice when it came to rehousing, the more vulnerable and disadvantaged of our community.

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Garages and open space, Orchard Park © Charlie Baker and used with permission

The same CES report also criticised the layout of the Danes, noting the designers’ intention that each of its homes have, in effect, ‘two “front” entrances’, one linking with pedestrian routes, the other to the service areas.  This was a version of the Radburn system that existed across most of Orchard Park but, as Martin Crookston concluded, ‘so bastardised a version and so badly done, that the concept’s originators would not even recognize it’. (5)  The CES report noted a lack of privacy with pedestrian walkways up against front windows and ‘functionless “open space”, criss-crossed by informal “paths”’.

This combination of housing form and estate layout, in conjunction with the estate’s peripheral location, left Orchard Park in a parlous state.  Crookston, an advocate for the so-called cottage suburbs, is uncharacteristically critical of Orchard Park:

The overall layout has produced a lot of shapeless underused space which has no clear ‘ownership’ as well as a locality with no recognizable shape or sense of place.  A walking trip is a long plod through nothing very much, and bus stops on the main loop road … feel as though they are in the middle of nowhere … the housing itself [is] frankly unattractive – boxy little rows running off at an angle to the sweeping over-designed through-roads.

This, as he acknowledges, is a harsh judgment on a place many people call home but, superficially from an outsider’s perspective, it’s a hard one to disagree with.

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Orchard Park, later aerial view

All this comes to look archetypical of a certain form of edge-of-town estate characterised by the town planner and urbanist Sir Peter Hall in a 1997 article. It first identified a number of physical problems often associated with such peripheral estates: poor housing stock, ‘an impersonal and alienating physical environment’, lack of variety in housing types and sizes, geographic isolation.  Most of these can be applied, in part at least, to Orchard Park, as can the social problems the article linked to such estates. (6)

By 1981, unemployment in Orchard Park stood at 18 percent. This was four percentage points higher than the Hull average which itself was among the highest in the country. Youth unemployment on the estate was said to reach 80 percent.  Ninety percent of tenants were on Housing Benefit, by some way the highest proportion in the city (on the adjacent North Hull Estate, by contast, the figure stood at around 40 percent).  If we take larger families and single-parent households as metrics of relative social deprivation (I mean poverty), there too Orchard Park scored highly – almost 11 percent of households had three or more dependent children.

There were other indicators too of an estate with problems, seen most powerfully, in housing terms, in the 11.3 percent annual turnover rate for the ‘No Fines’ houses which were only marginally more popular than the estate’s high-rise flats where the turnover rate reached 12 percent.

Anne Power’s description of Orchard Park as ‘one of the poorest peripheral estates in Britain’ was more than justified and its associated problems of design and form seemed almost overwhelming. What could change?  We’ll take a look in next week’s post.

Sources

My thanks to Charlie Baker for permission to use images contained in his report for Urbed, Orchard Park (September 2006). You can find more of his evocative photography on his website.

(1) Anne Power, Hovels to High Rise: State Housing in Europe since 1850 (1993)

(2) Outer Estates in Britain: Orchard Park Case Study (CES Paper 25, 1985)

(3) Outer Estates in Britain: Orchard Park Case Study (CES Paper 25, 1985)

(4) Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning, Towers of the Welfare State. An Architectural History of British Multi-Storey Housing 1945-1970 (Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, 2017)

(5) Martin Crookston, Garden Suburbs of Tomorrow?  A New Future for the Cottage Estates (2016)

(6) Peter Hall, ‘Regeneration Policies for Peripheral Housing Estates: Inward- and Outward-looking Approaches’, Urban Studies, Vol. 34, Nos 5-6, 1997

Let our Municipal Dreams flourish once more

My first reblog and a little self-serving but I would also recommend Red Brick to anyone with an interest in contemporary housing policy. Apologies for the recent lack of original posting but normal service will be resumed shortly.

Red Brick

John Boughton’s ‘Municipal Dreams’ website was a breath of fresh air when it first appeared four or five years ago. The Government had ended direct investment in new social rented homes, the housing sector had all but given up the struggle, and the council housing finance reforms, developed by John Healey when Labour was in power but implemented by the Tories in 2011, which had offered hope for a new generation of council homes, had been undermined to the point where they had become almost worthless.

It felt like a last act of defiance when the SHOUT campaign for social housing was launched in 2014 – although things were to get worse (the 2015 Housing and Planning Act) before they started to get better. And then Grenfell changed everything.

‘Municipal Dreams’ took a different approach from the economic and political arguments that SHOUT deployed. The website started with the aim…

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Nottingham’s Council Housing by Bus and Tram

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A few weeks ago, I was in Nottingham to give a talk on my new book to the good people of Five Leaves, independent bookseller of the year in the 2018 British Book Awards.  It was a chance to meet in person some people I’ve got to know on-line and, of course, to visit the city’s fine and particularly interesting array of council housing.

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The definitive book on Nottingham’s council housing history – Chris Matthews’ Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses – has already been written so I won’t try to replicate that in this post.  You can also read the guest post by Alex Ball on this blog on Nottingham’s earliest council housing. What you’ll get here is an exploration and lots of photos – a journey undertaken principally on the number 35 bus (courtesy of Robert Howard, you’ll find an map of the route and many of its points of interest online here) with a tram ride and a fair amount of walking thrown in.

The 35 arrives regularly – every ten minutes or so – courtesy of Nottingham City Transport. It’s one of ten publicly owned bus companies in the country and is regularly voted UK Bus Operator of the Year.  (Technically, it’s run at arms-length with Transdev, a private company, owning a five percent shareholding.)   In Greater Nottingham, bus travel makes up 34 per cent of all journeys and is increasing whilst in sharp decline elsewhere. The case for public ownership and management of this public service – outlawed in the 1985 Transport Act – seems self-evident.

We’ll start at Lenton, just to the west of the city centre. The area to the south of Derby Road was once the site of the five Lenton tower blocks and a purpose-built shopping precinct replacing the shops demolished on Willoughby Street.  The 17-storey point blocks and their 480 flats were completed in 1967, system built by the Bison wall frame method.  They survived until 2014, structurally sound but poorly insulated, some in low demand. Nottingham City Homes, the arms-length management organisation in charge of the city’s council housing,  concluded their replacement better value for money than costly refurbishment.

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Palmer Court, Lenton

What you’ll see now is a brand new development. The showpiece is Palmer Court, 54 independent living apartments and winner of the 2017 Constructing Excellence LABC award for the best social housing development in the UK. I got to look inside and was very impressed by the quality of the building and facilities.

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New build in Lenton

In the surrounding streets are 88 family homes, an eclectic mix of houses, bungalows and flats. The overall total is 142 new homes, with ownership split between the City Council and Nottingham City Homes.  With around 25,000 fully managed homes, it is one of the largest in the country and, with currently almost 900 new homes planned or proposed, one of the biggest builders among them.

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The Lenton Centre

While you here, take a quick look at the Lenton Centre on Willoughby Road. It’s a social enterprise now but the Lenton Cottage Baths, as they were once known, were opened by the City Council in 1931 and originally comprised a washhouse and two sets of slipper baths, twelve for men and eight for women. The washhouse included two washing machines, innovative for the time, which could be hired by the hour.  A long proposed swimming pool, funded by the William Olds Trust, was finally added in 1966 and continues – alongside a range of other facilities – to serve a still evolving local community. (1)

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Wollaton Park aerial view (from Stanley Gale, Modern Housing Estates [1949])

Travelling east, the next stop is the Wollaton Park Estate, begun in 1926 in an interwar era when Nottingham, under City Architect Thomas Cecil Howitt, was among the foremost builders of council housing in the country in number – over 17,000 – and quality.  Wollaton Park exemplifies the garden suburb ideals of the early post-First World War period with leafy streets and cul-de-sacs radiating from Farndon Green, the attractive open space at its centre. You’ll notice two shops (one a miraculously surviving local post office) with Arts and Crafts detailing, and then, as you enter the estate proper, among the 422 homes, a local peculiarity – the Crane bungalows.

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Wollaton Park, Farndon Green

William Crane was a building trades businessman and the Conservative chair of the Council’s Housing Committee from 1919 to 1957. In the early 1920s, a time of rising costs and severe shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour, there was considerable interest in finding innovative means to build prefabricated housing, generally using concrete or steel.

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Wollaton Park, Crane bungalow

Crane’s solution was a steel frame house (nearly all the Wollaton Park examples are, in fact, bungalows) completed with walls of precast concrete. (I discussed a similar form of construction, though one of very different appearance in my recent post on Nissen-Petren houses.) He persuaded the Council to commission 1000; presumably it helped that he was chair of the Housing Committee though the homes also received the necessary imprimatur of the Ministry of Health.

Unusually also, the homes were originally built for sale; a semi-detached house could be bought for £490 on a Council mortgage with a £40 deposit and weekly payments of 14s 6d (75p). Though there don’t appear to have been any build issues with the new homes, they didn’t sell very well and only 500 were built. A large proportion of those which didn’t sell were added to the Council’s housing stock and offered for rent. (2)

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Lenton Abbey Estate, Woodside Road

Further evidence of Howitt’s influence is seen at our next port of call, the Lenton Abbey Estate straddling the tree-lined dual carriageway Woodside Road, also built in the later 1920s. Again, it’s a classic cottage suburb – all crescents, greens, avenues and closes – of very attractive appearance.

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Lenton Abbey Estate, street sign. Alan Sillitoe, the novelist and chronicler of working-class life in Nottingham, was born at no. 38 Manton Crescent in 1928.

Look out too for some early street signs of a type you’ll still see dotted around the city’s estates – a distinctive circular sign on a short single post. With all the current talk of place-making, I hope the Council will retain these and replace them appropriately when necessary.  There have been changes. Many of the homes – those not bought under Right to Buy – now have thick white thermal cladding. Somehow, the present mix of white cladding and red brick seems to work.

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Lenton Abbey Estate

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Grangewoood Road, Wollaton Vale

Back on the 35 bus, it’s a six minute hop to Grangewood Road in Wollaton Vale. The mid-1970s estate of low-rise flats was a North British Housing scheme originally envisaged as Phase II of the larger Balloon Woods development just to the north.

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Balloon Woods Estate

Rosedale Avenue, Wollaton Vale (1)

Kirkdale Close, Wollaton Vale

Crossing the railway line, you’ll see a small social housing estate built in the late 1980s, a mix of traditional brick-built bungalows and semis. It couldn’t – very purposefully, one assumes – be more different from the housing it replaced. The original Balloon Woods estate was a concrete, system-built housing estate (developed by the local authority consortium the Yorkshire Design Group) comprising some 647 flats in fourteen seven-storey and nine six-storey blocks. Completed in 1970, it lasted fourteen years.

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Bilborough Estate, Stotfield Road Tallan Newland house

Four stops on the 35 gets us to Stotfield Road.  We’re in Bilborough now which, with neighbouring Broxtowe and Aspley, contain huge swathes of council housing, begun before the Second World War and expanded massively after.  Though most of its houses now look like conventionally built post-war semis, you’ll see some surviving examples of the original and unreconstructed housing.  These homes were originally Tarran Newland prefabs.

We’ve seen how shortages of traditional building materials and skilled labour impelled an examination of non-traditional methods of housebuilding after the First World War. Similar pressures, alongside even greater ambition to build at scale, were anticipated in the Second.  A Ministry of Works competition inviting designs for prefabricated construction attracted over 1400 entries.  Tarran Newlands houses comprised a concrete and steel frame with infill precast reinforced concrete panels.

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Bilborough Estate, Byley Road

Byley Road, adjacent, offers just one example of the traditional brick-built housing which predominated even as, by 1951, over 156,000 prefabricated homes had been built across the country. 

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Bilborough Estate No-Fines houses

Hop back on the bus and travel north, you get to Burnside Green where you’ll see further examples of post-war non-traditional housing.  The Wimpey No-Fines homes were built of concrete (with no fine aggregates) cast in situ. Traditional brick and blockwork and a generally rather grey weather-proofing rendering completed the building.  You’ll see a range of such homes in this area, some recently renovated but a few reflecting their more austere original appearance.

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Bilborough Estate BISF houses

You can walk the next bit onto Bracebridge Drive. You’ll see a health centre, a library and shopping parade here (still anchored by the Coop as was often the way when the new estates sprang up), and for our purposes, you’ll find various examples of yet another form of traditional hosing briefly trialled in the post-war period, the BISF house.

These were produced by the British Iron and Steel Federation to a design by Sir Frederick Gibberd.  Naturally enough, given its provenance, it’s a steel-frame house with a characteristic steel-trussed sheeting panels on the upper storey (hence the ‘tin tops’ name the homes are sometimes given.  Across Bilborough, Nottingham City Homes has added external cladding to around 450 Wimpey No-Fines and BISF houses to improve insulation and appearance.  It’s an unremarked irony of Right to Buy that if you look around estates now, it’s as often as not the socially-owned homes that are better maintained, especially when it comes to the higher costs improvements sometimes needed with certain types of building.

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Bilborough Estate, bungalows off Bracebridge Drive on prefab sites

Walk to the end of Bracebridge Drive and Monkton Drive and Staverton Road which lie off it to the south and you come to a dense network of bungalows, separated by narrow walkways. It’s a surprisingly intimate ensemble, unusual in its scale and form – and it has a simple explanation.  These are homes built to replace around 90 post-war one-storey prefabs erected as a temporary measure. Expected to last about ten years, the prefabs here weren’t demolished until the early 1980s.  Even then when they were finally cleared, their residents liked them so much that they were able to persuade the Council to replace them with the small homes you see presently, built on the existing footprint of the prefab bungalows they replaced.

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Broxtowe Estate, Whitwell Close

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Broxtowe Estate Bradfield Road

Back on the 35 and a ten minute ride takes you into Broxtowe (the Nottingham estate, not the neighbouring borough). Broxtowe was built in the 1930s to rehouse those displaced by slum clearance.  Its boxy neo-Georgian housing is a little plainer than its predecessors built in more generous times but it retains the same Garden Suburb ideals exemplified in its curving streetscapes and occasional closes and greens.  It’s now among the ten percent most deprived areas of England but the housing and estate look well-maintained and it remains to serve its founding purpose – the provision of decent, affordable housing to those who need it.

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Aspley Estate, Broxtowe Lane

Travel ten minutes by bus to the east to the Aspley Estate, over 2800 homes completed in the later 1920s, you see that earlier era and ambition in full spate with the striking Arts and Crafts-inspired gable ends and mansard roofs of some of its houses.
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Cinderhill Estate, Munford Circus

Ten minutes on, the Cinderhill Estate takes us to the 1930s and a more economical style, perhaps reflecting the impact of the Great Depression. Dulverton Vale and its solid red-brick semis provides the suburb; Munford Circus, just off it, offers some garden.

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Leonard Street rebuilt Tarran Bungalows

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Leonard Street unmodified Tarran Bungalow

Finally, on the 35, we’ll travel towards its terminus and Bulwell.  Towards the end of Cinder Hill Road, there is a series of small closes on your left and another set of bijou bungalows.  These are the late-1990s replacements of another early post-war Tarran scheme, this time prefab bungalows. Among them, on Leonard Road itself towards the end of the estate, you’ll see a few in their original state.

For all what is now their rather archaic appearance, these were once state-of-the-art homes with a ‘plumbing unit’ containing a cooker, refrigerator and sink unit. The bathroom contained a heated towel rail and the living room fire provided a form of central heating through warm air ducts into the two bedrooms. Generously supplied fitted cupboards completed this modern ensemble. (3)

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Cinderhill Walk

A short walk further on is a rather undistinguished 1970 scheme, Cinderhill Walk (part of the Crabtree Farm Estate) though the mature trees and greenery provide a pleasant environment and, no doubt, the flats themselves represent an advance on what was new and up-to-date in the late 1940s.

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Victoria Dwellings, now Park View Court

That’s the end of the bus journey.  If you’re following the route, you can take the tram from Bulwell station and alight at David Lane for a ten minute walk to Stockhill Lane. This, with the exception of two unusual tenement schemes built for Corporation employees in the 1870s (the Victoria Dwellings, now renamed Park View Court, now privately owned, remain in Bath Street).

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Stockhill Lane

The Stockhill Lane scheme was commenced in 1919, the first in the city built under the Addison’s Housing Act of that year.  The 225 semi-detached houses, some along Stockhill Lane itself, the rest grouped around a central circular green, are distinguished by their pitched roofs, prominent gables and painted pebbledash exteriors.  The privet hedges remain a characteristic feature of Nottingham’s interwar council housing.

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Hyson Green

Retrace your steps to take the tram four stops further on to Hyson Green Market. Hyson Green was another troubled 1960s council scheme. The mix of 593 flats and maisonettes was a system-built estate using Bison wall frame. Construction defects – water penetration, condensation, poor heating and soundproofing – manifested themselves early and its design – with walkways connecting the various blocks – would also be criticised as fashionable ‘defensible space’ theories blamed it for problems of crime and antisocial behaviour. The hard-to-let estate became a troubled area as it came to house disproportionately more vulnerable tenants with little choice as to where they were housed.

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Hyson Green, Braidwood Court, now The Pinnacle

The scheme was demolished in 1987, replaced by the mix of new houses and the Asda supermarket you see today.  Of the original buildings, only the 17-storey Braidwood Court remains, now in private ownership, subject to a major refurbishment in 2006 and now renamed The Pinnacle.

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Victoria Centre

Back on the tram, four more stops takes us back to the city centre and close to the Victoria Centre.  This was another unusual scheme, begun in 1967 when the Council was under Conservative control and intended to provide a modern city centre with accommodation provided above a large new shopping mall.   The accommodation element, designed by the private architect Arthur Swift, comprised 464 flats arranged in a series of conjoined towers rising at peak to 22 storeys.

These council flats were built on a 99 year lease from the shopping centre developers who purchased this prime city centre site from British Rail when they closed Nottingham’s Victoria Station. Rented as social housing, they have had special lettings policies applied for much of their lifespan, with the added irony that the flats are no longer subject to the Right to Buy due to the remaining length of the lease

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Brightmore Street

It’s a five-minute walk to the south to get to a small 1937 council scheme on Cranbrook Street and Brightmore Street off Goose Gate.  At this time, the Council was demolishing the inner-city slums and building small developments on the cleared plots. It’s a little bit of council suburbia in the heart of the city.

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Narrow Marsh slums

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Red Lion Street improvement scheme, 1923

This is more strikingly the case in the Cliff Road Estate, a ten-minute walk to the south. This was once Narrow Marsh, one of Nottingham’s most notorious areas of slum housing.  Clearance was first mooted in the Red Lion Street improvement scheme of 1923; the modified scheme you see today was built in 1934.

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Cliff Road Estate

It’s an unpretentious estate but the ambition to build these little redbrick houses with gardens in an inner-city location is impressive and made more so by their location, perched beneath the sandstone outcrop of St Mary’s cliff and the dense urban development atop and around it.

From there it was a short walk to the station and trains elsewhere.  If you’re more fortunate, you’ll have more time to explore Nottingham and I dare say there’s a few of you that won’t spend so much time looking at council housing.  For the latter, there’s plenty more to explore including the large estates to the north and east of the city which, together with those we’ve explored today, provided the over 50,000 homes which once housed almost half the city’s population.

A special thank you to Dan Lucas, strategy officer at Nottingham City Homes, for his guided tour of the new Lenton scheme and nearby estates and the guidance and detail he provided to support the visit described above.

My thanks also to Chris Matthews and Robert Howard for sharing their own local knowledge of the city and its housing.

Chris has written guides to Aspley, Broxtowe and Cinderhill and Beechdale, Bilborough and Strelley which cover many other local points of interest as well as housing.  You’ll also find Chris’s research and writing on his blog, Internetcurtains.  

Robert Howard’s own deep knowledge of Nottingham history is referenced above and his illustrated blog of a walk through Bilborough and Strelley can also be found online.

Sources

(1) Robert Howard, ‘About the Centre

(2) ‘The Crane Houses Of Wollaton Park: Simply Ahead Of Their Time?’, Lenton Times, issue 1, October 1988

(3) ‘Council’s Choice of “Prefab” Bungalow Full Description of the “Tarran” Type’, Christchurch Times, 24 February 1945 (pdf) [With thanks to Roy Hodges]

 

 

 

Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing

My apologies for not posting much on the blog recently. My book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing was published by Verso in April and things have been hectic since then. I’ve more posts in the pipeline – on Nottingham, Hull, Thetford, Liverpool and London but just need to find the time to complete the research and write them up. Guest posts from people with expertise in their local area are also still very welcome.

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In the meantime, there have been some great reviews for the book – from Lynsey Hanley in the Guardian, Rowan Moore in the Observer Hugh Pearman in the Spectator and Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times amongst others. And lots and lots of media interest – I’ve been on ‘You and Yours’ on Radio 4, on BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio London and local radio stations in Hull and Newcastle with Lancashire and Leeds forthcoming.  I also did a slot on Sky News and recorded an interview for BOOKTalk on BBC Parliament.  I’ve done talks on the book to groups in London, Manchester and Nottingham with more coming up across the country.

So that’s my excuse but, if that comes across as self-important, I want to say two things. Firstly, a big thank you to everyone who has read and supported the blog since it began over five years ago.  Your interest helped the blog succeed – it’s had over 960,000 views to date – and the book which followed would not have been possible without you.

Secondly, that welcome for the book and media interest tells us that its subject-matter is timely and important.  This reflects, I think, both a very broad concern over the current housing crisis and an increasing belief that a significant programme of public housing is needed to solve it.  People are hungry for a positive (but open-eyed) narrative of council housing which records its past achievements and testifies to its potential.

Nearly all the interviews have revolved around three key questions.

One, ‘why council housing?’  The simple answer is that the private sector has never been able or willing to supply decent affordable housing on the scale required, not in the nineteenth century, nor today.

Two, ‘what went wrong?’  I will always challenge the premise and prejudice of that question; beyond the stigmatising stereotypes, so much didn’t go wrong for so many.  But I also try to explain what did change and how, in many ways, council estates are better understood as the victim of that change rather than its agent.

Three, ‘can we build again?’  The answer, of course, is ‘yes’.  We have built huge numbers of decent council homes in the past when the country was poorer than it is at present, sometimes in periods of genuine austerity. We have the means to build; we require the political will and vision.

In an interview with Forbes Magazine, I made the economic case for a renewed programme of public housing as both an investment in our people and their well-being and as an essential part of any broader housing market. Currently, we choose to subsidise an inefficient market system and private landlordism.  Investment in secure, decent and affordable social housing would improve the lives and well-being of millions and in the longer-term, pay for itself.  In the shorter term, it might – as the tragic case of Grenfell Tower reminds us – save lives.

And that brings us back to the moral case for properly funded and resourced public housing, as compelling now as it was when the long, proud story of council housing began in the mid-nineteenth century.

Panelák Prague: Communist Social Housing in the Former Czechoslovakia, Part Two Housing the City

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I’m pleased to feature the second of two posts by Ben Austwick on Prague’s post-war public housing.  You should also read Ben’s earlier posts on the Amsterdam School, Expressionism and Experimentation and A New Model for Living.  Ben is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk and photography on Instagram @benaustwick. He’s on Twitter @benaustwickart

In part one of my essay on communist housing in Prague, I looked at prefabricated concrete construction and the central role Czechoslovakia played in its development. As the technology was refined, Czechoslovakia was able to speed up its rehousing programme, building large estates on the outskirts of its towns and cities. In part two of my essay, I will be looking at Prague’s communist housing estates.

13 Krc

Krč © Ben Austwick

The first of these estates – sídlište in Czech – were built in the early 1960s. I visited two from this era, Krc in southern Prague and Malešice in the west. The five-storey blocks of Krc retain socialist realist elements that belie their age, with grand, austere classical doorways and pitched roofs with crenellated decorations. In a layout that was to become familiar, roads are kept to the rear side of the blocks with paths winding through landscaped grounds at the front. There were mature trees, planted when the blocks were constructed, so many that the open spaces felt like woodland. The blocks are painted in bright yellows and blues, with the occasional one in plain brown render, applied over the concrete panels but yet to be painted.

14 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

Krc was probably my favourite of the sídlište I visited, the solid, well-built blocks obviously from a more careful era than some of the later ones I saw, mature trees as tall as the buildings themselves submerging the estate in woodland, winding paths and benches sat in dappled shade. Malešice in the west was similar, five-storey blocks nestling amongst the trees, and I saw a couple of rare, raw blocks of concrete panels amongst the cladding, clean and pristine and possibly in the middle of renovation. The cladding of concrete panels in render began in the late communist era.

15 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

As in the West, grey concrete went out of fashion in the 1970s and there was a move away from standardisation to individualism. It started with subdued browns and burgundies, then brightly-painted balconies, moving towards brightly painted blocks in the 1980s, a process that sped up with the end of communism and the era’s reaction against anything reminiscent of that past. It is rare now to see visible concrete panels or even unpainted render, pastel blues, pinks and yellows being the most popular colours. Although not exclusively a Czechoslovakian phenomenon, as in other areas of social housing construction Czechoslovakia does seem to be a pioneer. The suburbs of Budapest are overwhelmingly grey and concrete in comparison. Relative wealth no doubt plays a part.

16 Krc

Krč © Ben Austwick

The five storey blocks of Krc and Malešice are very much of their era. In the Soviet Union a massive programme of social housing construction in the 1960s built millions of flats in ’Khrushchyovka‘ (named after Khrushchev, the then leader of the Soviet Union), five-storey concrete panel blocks that still dominate the towns and cities. It is interesting that despite Czechoslovakia’s innovation in this area, in many ways ahead of the West, the Soviet Union employed a French company to build the panel factories and guide construction. The Czech economy was simply too small to take on such a gigantic programme. This shows that despite Churchill’s rhetoric of an ’Iron Curtain‘ separating the communist East and capitalist West, which unfortunately has very much informed our view of East-West relations in this period, there was considerable cooperation in solving a housing crisis that affected the whole continent. Academics and engineers in Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, France and even the United States exchanged ideas and attended each other’s conferences, and there is evidence of this cooperation everywhere. For example, the Uni-Serco temporary prefabricated bungalows that Britain built as a short-term solution to the housing crisis after World War II draw on Czechoslovakian and Scandanavian design.

17 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

It is in this light that we must see the rapid progress of panelák technology in the 1960s. By the latter half of the decade, giant blocks containing hundreds of units were being built. The largest, on Zelenohorská in Staré Bohnice, is 300m long with 18 entrance doors. I visited Nové Dáblice in the northern suburbs, where similar gigantic slabs stretch at right angles from an arterial road, parkland, sports pitches and community buildings filling the gaps in between.

18 Novi Dablice

Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

These blocks still carry echoes of socialist-realism in their plain lines which, along with rows of chimneys for the communal heating systems, plant them firmly before the next phase of panelák building, which was to dispense with all superfluous trim. It was the logical end point of a process that had increasingly moved away from architecture into industrial design.

19 Novi Dablice

Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

20 Novi Dablice

Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

I visited two of communist Czechoslovakia’s later housing developments while I was in Prague. The first, Jižní Mesto on the eastern outskirts, is famous as the setting for Panelstory, Vera Chytilová’s 1980 film drama concentrating on life in a Prague sídlište. This is an important film for anyone interested in communist housing, being the only one to escape the censors while being made, although it wasn’t long before it was banned.

21 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

Panelstory focuses on community relationships with Jižní Mesto as a backdrop, but we do learn some things about the estate – that people were moved in when it was half built, having to cross building sites and climb wooden crates to get to their doors; that there was a five year waiting list for families to move in, and waiting lists to register with a doctor as amenities lagged behind housebuilding; that flats were let partly furnished, with cookers and fitted kitchens; that some of the fittings were of poor quality, with doors and windows being flimsy and unpredictable. Mainly though the themes of Panelstory are the universal ones of their time – urban alienation, the isolation and domestic drudgery of women, the anonymity of the new housing.

22 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

As the date of the film attests, Jižní Mesto was built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the high-rise building boom in the UK was over. It is vast, housing 100,000 people. Blocks are large, but not as large as the 1960s blocks of Nové Dáblice. New building techniques added plastics to the concrete, allowing for more rapid, lightweight construction, but also meaning poorer sound insulation. They are very plain, as Czech communist social housing reached an end stage of uniformity and utility. It is hard to imagine how oppressive this huge estate would be in grey concrete panels, although by the time they were built it is likely that an application of render and paint wouldn’t have been far away – although from the lessons of Panelstory, this may have taken some time to complete. The estate is now mainly painted yellow, green pale blue and salmon pink, but I saw some bare concrete panels.

23 Jizni Mesto

Jižní Město © Ben Austwick

On a summer morning it was quiet and empty with lawns of parched grass between the blocks – none of the mature trees of the older sídlište. I walked a small circuit westwards of Háje metro station and was surprised that the estate ended within a short distance, disappearing into woodland. Maps show that it rises again beyond this, contradicting the idea of a vast, uniform expanse. Planning was obviously a concern. Nevertheless Jižní Mesto was the least successful of the estates I visited, although that being the result of its construction in the late stages of Czech communism was contradicted by a visit to two other late 1970s-early 1980s sídlište, Nové Butovice and Hurka on the western outskirts.

24 Novo Butovice

Nové Butovice © Ben Austwick

The time of day undoubtedly helped. I walked out of Nové Butovice metro station in the evening sun among commuters hurrying home to their flats, and the place felt like a busy, living community. It is also beautifully planned: the metro station opens onto a narrow plaza between commercial premises topped by panelák blocks, the striking modernist Slunecní Church in the distance, painted the same pastel blue as the paneláks.

25 Novo Butovice

Nové Butovice © Ben Austwick

Between Lužiny and Hurka stations, the B line of the Prague metro crosses a valley in a stunning red tube of a viaduct, built in 1990 just after the fall of communism, briefly leaving one hillside and disappearing into another. It passes over a man-made lake surrounded by parkland, which on this summer evening was filled with families. Panelák blocks in pastel shades surround, one with the date of construction – 1979 – stencilled below the roof like the nineteenth-century buildings of the city centre.

26 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

It’s here that the end of communism mingles with the architecture of the period after, not as radical a change as you might think. Investment in the far-flung concrete suburbs marks the Czech Republic’s attitude to its communist housing stock and invites comparison to the West. The communist nations of Eastern Europe were not the only ones to use system-built mass housing.  In Britain, the 1960s and 1970s saw the building of similar estates using similar construction techniques. The mixture of social and construction problems these estates suffered led to abandonment and demolition from the 1980s onward. In Prague this hasn’t happened; the sídlište have been kept and renovated.

27 Hurka

Nové Butovice © Ben Austwick

In Britain, there were significant construction problems in panel system housing, often the result of subcontractors cutting corners, for example not using the requisite number of bolts to tie panels. As examined in Adam Curtis’s early film The Great British Housing Disaster, the buildings were seen as beyond saving and demolition as the only answer.

28 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

Why this didn’t happen in the former Czechoslovakia could be down to a number of reasons. There is the possibility that they were better constructed, not being subject to the convoluted chain of subcontracting that allowed the corner-cutting and outright corruption seen in Britain. While the sídlište certainly had their problems, soundproofing being the most notorious, that they are still standing shows they weren’t as badly built as Britain’s were perceived to have been.

29 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

This perception is important, as the demonisation of Britain’s council estates saw some perfectly decent ones demolished along with the badly built. As still seen today, local authorities in league with property developers are often keen to redevelop social housing into something more profitable, and there can be pressure from private companies to demolish and rebuild just for the sake of it, paid as they are for doing so.

30 Krc

Krč © Ben Austwick

The pressure to do this might not be as strong in the Czech Republic. It isn’t as wealthy as Britain and there may be more of a need to make do. A much bigger proportion of Czechs are housed in system-built estates – 3.1 million out of 10.5 million, in 1,165,000 apartments in 80,000 blocks – and their large scale demolition might just not be practical. Whatever the reason, Prague’s sídlište were renovated, transport links improved and new business and shopping areas built, as around Nové Butovice metro station. They followed a very different trajectory to Britain’s shunned, abandoned then demolished estates.

31 Malesice

Malešice © Ben Austwick

The most important legacy of this is a proliferation of cheap, good quality, well-connected housing in a large, desirable city, at odds with much of Western Europe and particularly in our opposing example, Britain. In the communist era, rents were as low as 1.6 percent of family expenses in 1958 and were never higher than 5 percent. They are still kept cheap by rent controls. Studies have shown that Czechs like their prefabricated homes, a 2001 survey finding that 64 percent of panelák residents thought their accommodation was ‘ideal‘. Even Panelstory ends on a positive note, as a woman gazes at the sun setting over the tower blocks and says she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

32 Hurka

Hůrka © Ben Austwick

After decades of undesirability, Prague’s panelák blocks are also becoming fashionable, something Czechs in the era of Panelstory would find very hard to believe. This is part of a phenomenon that has seen British Victorian housing, hated and demolished en masse in the post-war era, become desirable from the 1970s onwards; and good quality modernism, hated in the 1980s, become desirable in the present day. Nostalgia, historical interest, the demolition of the worst examples and the renovation of others, contribute to a phenomenon of rehabilitation so common as to seem inevitable and ubiquitous. That something so formerly hated as Prague’s mass communist housing should now be the subject of exhibitions, blogs and interior design shoots should be noted in planning and herald a less wasteful approach to regeneration.

33 Novo Dablice

Nové Ďáblice © Ben Austwick

The extraordinary scale of panelák building, and the urgency it was embarked on not just in construction but in theory, science and design can provide lessons in a new era of chronic housing shortage. Perhaps more controversially, the subservience of architecture to design could be re-examined, and ideas of mass prefabricated housing revisited using modern technology. While anonymous high-rise estates are far from the pinnacle of what is possible in architecture, decades of underinvestment have not left us in a position to be choosy, and I would certainly prefer to live in one than my insecure, substandard and overpriced privately-rented home. The political will to do this is another thing altogether – but as we have seen, it is possible.

With special thanks to Luise, Lubi, Theo and Freda

Ben Austwick is a social housing surveyor in East London. His writing is available on his blog benaustwickart.blogspot.co.uk and photography on Instagram @benaustwick.

Bibliography

Owen Hatherley, Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015)

John Jordan, ‘Industrialised Building in Eastern Europe’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Maros Krivý, ‘Greyness and Colour Desires: the Chromatic Politics of the Panelák in Late-Socialist and Post-Socialist Czechoslovakia’, Journal of Architecture, 2015

Maros Krivý, ‘Postmodernism or Socialist Realism? The Architecture of Housing Estates in Late Socialist Czechoslovakia’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 2016

Karel Storch, ‘Stages in the Industrialisation of Building’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Jirí Voženílek, ‘Prague’s Future’, Architects’ Journal, 1967

Kimberley Elman Zarecor, Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia 1945-1960 (University of Pittsburgh Press 2011)

Web

Sarah Borufka, A Look Behind the Thin Walls of Czech Panelák Apartment Buildings (2010)

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/czech-life/a-look-behind-the-thin-walls-of-czech-panelak-apartment-buildings

Benjamin Tallis, Panel Stories: Public Lies and Private Lives in Paneláks and Sídlištes (2015)

Cemented In: Prague’s Panelák Estates

Film

Vera Chytilová, Panelstory (1980)

Adam Curtis, Inquiry: The Great British Housing Disaster (1984)