Harlow: ‘Sculpture Town’


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Last week’s post looked at the ideals which generated Harlow New Town’s unique programme of public art works and its early years.  Frederick Gibberd, Harlow’s architect-planner, had envisaged its civic centre as ‘home to the finest works of art’ both a homage to the past and its Renaissance glories and a mark of the cultured urbanism aspired to in England’s new Elizabethan age.

This is a record of my visit last year, an eclectic mix therefore, rather than a comprehensive record  a sympathetic attempt to see and understand the works in situ and in the context of the mission Gibberd proclaimed.

By the early sixties, Harlow town centre – Gibberd’s broadly conceived civic centre – was taking off. FE McWilliam’s Portrait Figure­, stands in West Walk, bought by the Harlow Art Trust in 1957 after featuring in the London County Council’s open-air sculpture exhibition that year. It’s a portrayal of the sculptor Elisabeth Frink when McWilliam’s student at the Chelsea School of Art.

SN McWilliam Portrait Figure

FE McWilliam, Eve (1956)

Another female figure of much greater vintage was acquired in 1960.  Auguste Rodin’s Eve (part of an unfinished duo – Rodin died before completing Adam) can be found in the Water Gardens rather awkwardly placed just in front of Five Guys – a burger chain, nothing more laddish.

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Auguste Rodin, Eve (1882)

Not too far away is Ralph Brown’s Meat Porters, commissioned by the Trust from the artist (persuaded to change its original and appropriate name, Figures with a Carcass) and placed in the recently completed Market Square in 1961: ‘a focus of views in two kinds of civic space, a square and a street…and a pivot between them’.  There’s also something fitting, though far less high-minded, about its current backdrop.  It’s another striking work which seems to have a happy association with Harlow childhoods.

SN Brown Meat Porters

Ralph Brown, Meat Porters 1959)

Gibberd’s Civic Square – his Florentine piazza – and its complement, the Water Gardens, were completed in 1963.  I’ll confess to missing one of the latter’s most striking elements, William Mitchell’s Seven Reliefs/Mosaics which served as fountain heads for the Garden’s elongated water features – my apologies to the redoubtable artist who, born 1925, remains alive and kicking.  That perhaps is a commentary on the now truncated form of this space.  Despite Grade II listing and a vigorous campaign by the Twentieth Century Society, Lady Pat Gibberd and others, new values took priority and, if you Google ‘Harlow Water Gardens’ now you’re more likely to be directed to the ‘300,000 sq ft of retail space and a 70,000 sq ft new town hall’ completed in 2004.

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The front page of this early brochure on Harlow shows the Water Gardens and Mitchell’s reliefs in their original form and place. The first Town Hall stands to the rear.

Also easily missed is a work entitled Returning from Work placed at the entrance of Harlow’s Central Library, ‘assumed’ by the Harlow Art Trust to be by Carl Heinz Müller and purchased in 1963.

SN Muller Returning from Work

Carl Heinz Muller, Returning from Work (date unknown)

The New Town was taking off and its now bustling centre received another notable sculpture, Trigon, by Lynn Chadwick, bronze-cast in a Swiss foundry and placed in Broad Walk in 1966.  It’s reminiscent in form of another of Chadwick’s works, The Watchers, placed by the LCC in the Alton Estate in the same year.

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Lynn Chadwick, Trigon (1961)

Back in the Water Gardens, Elisabeth Frink’s Boar, though small, is a more eye-catching work.  It was Frink’s first commission, in 1957, the result of a visit by the then Patricia Fox-Edwards to the artist’s 1952 exhibition at the Chelsea School of Art.  Originally made of concrete, it was first placed in Bush Fair, the second of Harlow’s neighbourhoods to be completed, but weathering and vandalism caused it to be recast in bronze and relocated in its present position in 1970. (1)  By 1973, the Harlow Art Trust had installed 27 sculptural works on public sites across the town.

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Elisabeth Frink, Boar (1957) in its original location

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Boar, recast in 1970, in its current location

Leon Underwood’s clenched fist is Not in Anger.  The original Portland stone version was sculpted in 1925 and can now be seen at the Gibberd Garden designed by Gibberd himself in his later years and surrounding the home, a few miles from Harlow, which he occupied until his death in 1984. The cast bronze version was purchased by the Trust in 1979 and now has a place in The Stow neighbourhood centre.

SN Underwood Not in Anger

Leon Underwood, Not in Anger (1975)

Another re-sited work is Echo by Lithuanian-born Antanas Bradzys placed, in 1970, within the Staple Tye shopping centre and moved to an adjacent nearby when the centre was redeveloped.

SN Brazdys Echo

Antanas Bradzys, Echo (1970)

Three other works by Bradzys feature in Harlow; the largest and the one most remarked upon by residents for its location and visibility is Solo Flight (1982), commissioned by the Harvey Centre and located in the shopping mall until replaced by a lift.  It now occupies a striking position on First Avenue across from the St Mary-at-Latton church though it’s more likely to be noticed by passing traffic than walkers-by.

SN Brazdys Solo Flight

Antanas Bradzys, Solo Flight (1982)

Since this is a blog dedicated to celebrating the work of local government and unfairly maligned local councillors I’m pleased to record that it’s been dedicated in its new site to the memory of Sonia Anderson, a Labour councillor in Harlow for 41 years and onetime trustee of the Harlow Art Trust:  a champion of ‘social causes, the arts and education’, who died in 1998.  She had arrived in England, courtesy of the Red Cross, a refugee from Nazism of German Communist parents.  To her grandson, she taught ‘the importance of a broad education, reading and the arts…to see past people’s foibles and stand by what you believe in’. (2)  In this, she seems to personify the very best of what Harlow stood for.

Westgate, a rather depressed corner of Harlow town centre, might seem to represent some loss of that vision but it still houses Still Life by Fred Watson, his first major commission in 1985.  Its books surely represent a more elevated of their purpose than the premises just behind.

SN Watson Still Life

Fred Watson, Still Life (1985-86)

Anthony Hawken’s Iceni, 1995, a tribute to the Celtic tribe, stands outside a smaller terrace of shops in Colt Hatch, incongruous perhaps but in a good way – a significant artwork placed in the midst of an unremarkable suburban setting.

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Anthony Hawken, Iceni (1995)

Shenzhou by Simon Packard is one of the most recent additions to the Harlow scene, commissioned by the Harlow Heath Centres Trust in 2008 and prominently located in the new Addison House Health Centre.  Perhaps that much-visited site, as much as its arresting form and fabric, accounts for the attention it has received, not all of it complimentary.  ‘It looks like it’s done out of tinfoil’, according to one observer. (3)

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Simon Packard, Shenzhou (2008)

And finally on my way back to the station I noticed Butterfly, made by Madeline Allen for Barratt Homes in 2008 and sited off Fifth Avenue in a modern housing development.

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Madeline Allen, Butterfly (2008)

I went to look at the housing – you can find my earlier blogs on the early years of the New Town and its later development by following the links – but I came away glad to have seen such an array of public art, sometimes for its incongruity but more often for its quality and presence. It was good to see the civic realm – it seems an antiquated phrase nowadays – so prized; pleasing to see Harlow continuing to attempt to live up to its founding values from that era when a post-war Labour government sought to ‘assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation’.

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Gwen Dymond, Harlow (1968) – a celebration by a local artist of some of the town’s major landmarks

In Lucy Lippard’s words, ‘public art is accessible art of any kind that cares about/challenges/involves and consults for or with whom it is made’. (4)  Has Harlow’s collection lived up those ideals?   The evidence seems mixed.  Clare Healey found just under half of her local respondents thinking that its public art made the town ‘a distinctive place to live’, a little under a third believing it had added to their sense of identity. But then again, almost half wanted more public art.

Typically, her sample liked most those works to which they connected personally on some level – Family Group, Meat Porters and Still Life were singled out in this way and ‘it became clear that residents had trouble relating to the more modem and abstract pieces in Harlow’.  That, I suppose, is a tribute to the gentle humanism which typified earlier post-war works.

All that might seem a limited response to the idealistic vision outlined by Frederick Gibberd on the town’s inception but that ‘taken-for-grantedness’ might be taken as natural as Harlow and the other New Towns become more ‘ordinary’ places.  Familiarity – the fact that these varied works become so easily part of the unremarked day-to-day background of busy lives – breeds, if not contempt, a certain casual disregard.  I dare say the citizens of Florence pass by Michelangelo’s David (or at least its current replica) outside the Palazzo della Signoria on a daily basis without so much as a glance.

SN Harlow Sculpture Town


As a visitor, I remain impressed by the range and quality of Harlow’s artworks and grateful for their placement amidst shops and streets and houses.  For Gibberd the ‘purpose of the sculpture [was] not to decorate the town.  It [was] not a form of costume jewellery’. Rather it was: (5)

To be enjoyed for its own sake as visual art, and to add interest and visual diversity to the urban spaces in which it is set.

In those terms, certainly, Harlow’s efforts have succeeded. ‘Sculpture Town’ may be a bit of touristic rebranding but Harlow deserves the accolade


(1) Historic England, Wild Boar Sculpture

(2) Cole Henley, ‘Phenomenal People: who’s your inspiring woman?’ (March 2012)

(3) Quoted in Clare Healey, ‘Is Public Art a Waste of Space? An Investigation into Residents’ Attitudes to Public Art in Harlow’, MSc in the Built Environment, University of London, 2008

(4) Quoted in Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (1997)

(5) Quoted in the Historic England exhibition, ‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’, Somerset House, February-April 2016. The exhibition is currently showing, free entry, at Bessie Surtees House, Newcastle upon Tyne

Details of the artworks are taken from Harlow Arts Trust, Sculpture in Harlow (2005)

Harlow New Town: ‘Home to the finest works of art’


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There aren’t too many people perhaps who would compare Harlow to Florence, or at least not favourably, but withhold the cynicism because the Italian city did inspire an important part of the New Town’s founding vision. Frederick Gibberd, Harlow’s architect-planner, believed that the ‘Civic Centre should be home to the finest works of art, as it is in Florence and other splendid cities’.  Later, his book Town Design set out his vision of the ‘kind of environment he hoped to achieve, one in which the creative arts were to be valued and given an important role in the community’. (1)

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Gerda Rubinstein, Portrait bust – Sir Frederick Gibberd (1979) in the Gibberd Gallery, Harlow Civic Centre

What follows is a roughly chronological run-through of some of the sculptures and art works dotted around Harlow which aimed to fulfil the ideals of Gibberd and those who supported him. It’s not a comprehensive account – the Harlow Sculpture Trail guide lists 84 works across Harlow – but rather a record of those which caught my eye when I walked the town (it was a long walk!) last year. (2)

It looks at their origin and form and, in practical terms, it looks at them in their physical context rather than as isolated works of art – not in an ‘ironic’ way but rather in an attempt to assess the extent to which what we’d now call Gibberd’s place-making has been successful in giving Harlow and its community a shared sense of civic pride and identity.

To begin with, though, there is a broader context – a post-war world which, in the words of Labour’s 1945 election-winning manifesto, aimed ‘to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation’.  The open-air sculpture exhibitions organised by the LCC in 1948 were only one aspect of this but its first great flowering was the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Of the many works of art commissioned specifically for the Festival, four were to find their way to Harlow in its earliest days, their transfer approved by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, Hugh Dalton.

SN Hepworth Contrapuntal Forms

Barbara Hepworth, Contrapuntal Forms (1951)

By far the most celebrated of these was Barbara Hepworth’s Contrapuntal Forms, initially created for the Arts Council with a South Bank setting.  Hepworth herself wanted it placed in the Civic Centre – perhaps echoing Gibberd’s own sense of its defining role and status – but, with that being very much work in progress, she accepted it be located in one of the first residential areas completed, Glebelands in the Mark Hall neighbourhood.

Their reception seems to have been mixed.  A local pub landlord thought he could have done no worse with his own hammer and chisel; local women apparently asked why posts for clothes lines were erected – they would have been more useful.  A ‘water-works engineer’s wife and mother of three small children’, whose windows directly overlooked the work: (3)

Felt disappointed when the figures came. Most of us did. A couple of tall, flat-headed forms with holes through their middles. I can understand something beautiful, or something really grotesque…but these, I can’t see where the art comes in.

But she smiled and added, ‘if they were not there we should miss them’.  And indeed, when a proposal was made to re-site it centrally, local residents objected to losing ‘their sculpture’.  It remains in its suburban setting, perhaps accepted as much as loved but a local fixture nonetheless.

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Part of Alan Sorrell’s Working Boats from Around the British Coast (1951)

Another Festival of Britain piece was Alan Sorrell’s Working Boats from Around the British Coast, originally made to decorate the Nelson Bar on HMS Campania, a converted aircraft carrier which toured the country’s ports as a mobile exhibit for the Festival.  In Harlow, it originally found a place in the Moot Hall, the 19th century vicarage converted to serve as a community centre for Mark Hall but disappeared from view till acquired by the National Maritime Gallery in 2014. (4)

A third seems to have been the design of the architect Leonard Manasseh for a bar – the ’51 Bar – at the Festival site itself but details of how and in what form this reached Harlow are sketchy. Does anyone know?  Manasseh himself died, aged 100, in March this year – the last surviving architect to have been directly associated with the Festival.

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John Piper’s The Englishman’s Home 1951) in location at the Festival of Britain

The trajectory of John Piper’s mural The Englishman’s Home, the final Festival piece to be relocated, is much clearer.  Its home was initially the Assembly Hall of the Harlow Technical College where it remained until 1992 when the building was remodelled and subsequently demolished.  You’ll find it now, ‘price on request’, with Liss Llewelyn Fine Art in Bond Street. (5)  The small black and white image of the work in place on the South Bank hardly does justice to its rich and dramatic use of colour and form.

All this might seem a little careless but, despite these losses, Harlow has cherished and greatly expanded its arts collection and we’ll examine a cross-section of the wide range of works which remain in place in the paragraphs which follow.

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Mary Spencer Watson, Chiron (1953)

With Mark Hall the first neighbourhood completed and the Stow as its first neighbourhood centre, it was fitting that Chiron (the eldest and wisest of centaurs in Greek mythology) by Mary Spencer Watson was placed before the Moot Hall in 1953, a celebration of the coronation.

Chiron was donated by the Harlow Development Corporation but in June 1953 the Harlow Art Trust was formed to oversee future acquisitions.  The Trust was, as you might expect at the time, a body of the great and the good – its first chair was Philip Hendy, Director of the National Gallery and among the trustees were the philanthropist Patricia Fox-Edwards and Gibberd himself. Ms Fox-Edwards would become Lady Gibberd in 1972 when she married Frederick after the death of his first wife.  Fox-Edwards was the youngest trustee – she eventually succeeded Hendy as chair in 1971 – but she played a formative role in the Trust’s early development, visiting degree shows and researching the work of young sculptors to buy or commission.

SN Moore Family Group

Henry Moore, Harlow Family Group (1954)

The signature acquisition of the Trust at this time, however, was commissioned from one of the most celebrated of contemporary sculptors, Henry Moore who happened to live not far from Harlow in Perry Green.  Moore suggested a work ‘conceived on human and classical lines’ and his Harlow Family Group possessed a striking resonance for a New Town dubbed by the Daily Mirror ‘Pram Town’: in 1957, almost one in five of Harlow’s population was below school age.  Moore himself had recently become a father too.

It was unveiled in May 1956 by Sir Kenneth Clarke, the chair of the Arts Council, who congratulated Harlow ‘on behalf of all those who believed in civilisation – for maintaining the great tradition of urban civilisation in making a work of art a focal centre of a new town’.  Quite an imprimatur. Originally placed on an open site near St Mary-at-Latton church in Mark Hall, the Times report suggests it gained an early popularity: (6)

Within an hour of its unveiling, the Family had already entered into the life of Harlow. Small boys were getting up on the pedestal, clambering over the woman and taking occupation of the empty place in the man’s lap. At one moment, indeed, the family of three had expanded to one of seven.

Although it was later moved and now occupies a site in the main foyer of the new Civic Centre, it seems to have retained its hold on the affection of local people, singled out as special to Harlow and linked with the personal memories and childhood associations of its residents. (7)

SN Moore Upright Motive No 2

Henry Moore, Upright Motive No 2 (1955-56)

Just outside the Civic Centre in the remodelled Water Gardens lies another Moore sculpture, Upright Motive No 2, also created by Moore in the mid-1950s but bought by the Trust in 1963 with the aid of the Gulbenkian Foundation.

SN Soukop

Willi Soukop, Donkey (1935)

In contrast, there’s something charmingly homely about both the setting and the form of Willi Soukop’s Donkey. The original was cast in 1935 for Dartington Hall in Devon but this version was made for Harlow in 1955 and placed unobtrusively in the middle of an ordinary-looking (though, in fact, architect-designed – by Jim Cadbury-Brown) housing estate in Mark Hall South.  It’s actually quite hard to find but seek it out, adjacent to 5 Pittmans Field, and you might treasure it as much as this young girl did.

SN Soukop Donkey 2

An earlier image (c) Harlow Museum

You can continue to follow this journey and the chronology of Harlow’s public art in next week’s post.


You can read my earlier posts on the origins and early years of Harlow New Town and its later evolution by following the links.


(1) Gilliam Whiteley, ‘Introduction’, Harlow Arts Trust, Sculpture in Harlow (2005)

(2) Harlow Sculpture Map

(3) ‘Miss Hepworth Puzzles a Town: the Contrapuntals’, Yorkshire Post and Intelligencer, 29 December 1951

(4) Royal Museums Greenwich Collection, Working Boats from around the British Coast

(5) Liss Fine Art, John Piper: The Englishman’s Home, 1951

(6) ‘Mr Moore’s “Family Group”: Work Commissioned for New Town’, The Times, 18 May 1956

(7) Clare Healey, ‘Is Public Art a Waste of Space? An Investigation into Residents’ Attitudes to Public Art in Harlow’, MSc in the Built Environment, University of London, 2008

The Speke Estate, Liverpool II: ‘Speke is not Sarajevo; Speke is quite a nice estate’


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Last week’s post left Speke, in the 1960s, a thriving community. It would be easy now to focus on its decline and later troubles, to lapse into the language of ‘failure’ that has been affixed so readily to it and other council estates with its implication of some Original Sin, some fatal flaw of conception and planning but, in fact, the Estate has been a good home to many people over time.

The McCartney family were early residents.  Paul spent his early years in 72 Western Avenue and then at 12 Ardwick Road in Speke. The Harrisons lived in a tiny terraced house with outside toilet in Wavertree until, in 1950, they and George moved to a brand new council house at 25 Upton Green, Speke.  (You can read more about the childhood homes of the Beatles in an earlier blog post.)

George Harrison Upton Green Speke

George Harrison at 25 Upton Green, Speke

Their success story could hardly be typical but plenty of others look back to these years fondly.  You’ll find many of these recollections on the community forums but I’ll begin with one example – from ‘Gillian’ who thought she had better write something or else risk collapsing in ‘floods of sentimental tears’: (1)

My family moved to Speke 1950; from what they had moved from this was luxury. My sister Agnes told me about everything being new, hot running water, toilets inside, the only downside to this paradise was for a while was it was a building site, very, very muddy. In time things changed but it was very much a community, groups and activities were formed. OK, there wasn’t enough schools but other arrangements were made.

She remembers spending time at what passed for the local beach on the Mersey shoreline at Oglet. She recalls her own childhood home, a small block of flats ‘with their three floors of landings and stairs [which] had been brushed and scrubbed and neatly finished off with whiter than white edges and front doorsteps’.

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Central Avenue

Another correspondent, resident in Speke for over forty years describes it as ‘a great place to live in the 60s and some of the early 70s’.  But, in a common refrain, he’d ‘seen it change over the years’: (2)

It used to be a lovely place to live…

I lived by the Park when I was younger and it was a lovely park.  There were bowling greens, tennis courts, the lads could play football.

It was a good area for employment when I was younger…

You won’t miss the elegiac tone in those comments, something more than a typical nostalgia for younger days. Those comments contain their own codas: ‘a lovely place to live…Yes, about ten or fifteen years ago’; ‘a good area for employment…and now there is nothing’.

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Ardwick Road

Speke did suffer from the outset from its location some seven miles from the city centre. The 45-minute bus ride wasn’t too much of an issue so long as the Estate was, as planned, relatively ‘self-contained’ and economically self-sufficient but that isolation – that sense of ‘an enclave surrounded entirely by the barrier of roads, fields, the airport runway and the River Mersey’ later proved a problem.

Dunlop Rubber Co Works and Environs, Speke, 1952 EAW047310 (c) Historic England Britain from Above

‘Dunlop Rubber Co, Works and Environs, Speke, 1952’ EAW047310, Britain from Above (c) Historic England

The major problem, though, was the collapse of a once vibrant local economy.  Between 1978 and 1985, Liverpool as a whole lost 40,000 jobs but Speke was particularly hard hit.  British Leyland had opened its Speke Number Two Plant in 1970. Industrial relations were poor and the TR7 unsuccessful. The closure of the plant and 3000 redundancies were announced in 1978.  Dunlop announced the closure of its Speke factory with the loss of 2400 jobs in 1979.

Eddie Loyden, the local Labour MP, estimated 8000 jobs lost in his constituency in two years: (3)

If one recalls the dream of the post-war period that Merseyside would develop alternative industries to deal with the decline in the docks, in transport and in warehousing, upon which the city had depended for so long, one can see the serious problem on Merseyside.

Loyden would lose his seat to the Conservatives in 1979 and the first attempt to revive Speke’s fortunes was signature Thatcherism – the creation of the Speke Enterprise Zone in 1981. Enterprise Zones offered tax breaks and infrastructure incentives to private companies to relocate to areas of high unemployment.

In Speke, however, the (more or less) free market failed to work its magic – not a single company opened in the Speke Airport Enterprise Zone. As one later observer noted: (4)

Even with the tax incentives nobody wanted to come here – the place still looked awful, still felt awful, still performed really poorly…The area was extremely unwell, almost terminally ill, and the [Enterprise Zone] was like a couple of paracetamol.

The creation of the Merseyside Development Corporation in 1981 was a small boost but, in Speke, nothing much happened until the formation of the Speke Garston Development Corporation in 1996, a joint initiative between the North West Development Agency and Liverpool City Council benefiting from some £14m government funding. (5)

Economic regeneration efforts have continued. Liverpool Vision – an economic development company (the first Urban Regeneration Company established in England) – was established in 1999 and from 2008 has funded the redevelopment of Speke’s district centre. The arrival of Morrisons, Iceland and TK Maxx, alongside smaller retailers, mark the retail successes now taken as an essential marker of economic well-being.

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The new Speke Centre

Overall, it’s reckoned that 20,000 jobs have been created locally by the late 2000s though many of these were in the new biopharmaceutical and biomanufacturing sectors – skilled employment in an area where, only a few years earlier, 43 per cent of people had classified themselves as unskilled. (6) The success of Jaguar Land Rover’s Halewood plant just across Speke Boulevard, with its workforce of around 4200, is a welcome boost to more traditional working-class employment in the area – a further £130m extension was announced in January this year. (7)  Printing firms Prinovis and Communisis are also providing good jobs to local people. (8)

In reality, none of this is easy. It’s true that earlier and more direct interventions by the local and national state created substantial employment in Speke’s early years (boosted by the war and post-war prosperity) into the 1970s. But, despite the vigorous efforts of the local labour movement to retain jobs, globalisation (abetted by neoliberalism) has taken its toll on this generation of industry and has created an unemployed working class ill-fitted to the new high-tech industries.  Call centres – aided by the perceived friendliness of the Scouse accent – sprang up in Speke in the 1990s and, no doubt, more zero-hours, unskilled jobs have been created since. (9)

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Central Avenue

Meanwhile, an estate which had once catered for a disproportionately (and relatively) affluent Liverpool working-class – those in work who could be reliably expected to pay above-average council rents – was now one of the poorest areas of the city, indeed of the country.  In 2000 it was the judged the second most deprived ward in England; only Benchill in Wythenshawe fared worse.  In 2002, average household income was £5000 below the city average.  Those statistics reflected the high unemployment in Speke (in 2001 over 8 per cent of the ‘economically active’ were unemployed compared to the national average of 3.4 per cent) and the high level of sickness and disability (almost 17 per cent; over three times the national average).

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All Saints Road

This was an indication of both the economic tsunami which had befallen Speke in particular and the more general transition of council housing since the 1970s to housing for the least well-off of our society.  In Speke itself around 46 per cent of homes remained social rented but that term denotes another shift – from ‘Corpy’ houses to housing association, largely the result of a large-scale voluntary transfer of stock from the Council to South Liverpool Housing in 1999.

Urban regeneration (as opposed to economic) has affected Speke too.  As the population fell and unsightly voids rose, some housing was ‘tinned up’ and then demolished (which added its own sense of blight for a period) in the late 1980s, some unpopular maisonette blocks were ‘top-downed’, and some new housing built.  The scheme announced by South Liverpool Homes in 2012 offers a cameo of this new world – 110 ‘residential units’ in all: 66 for ‘affordable rent’, 16 for shared ownership and 28 for private sale. (10)  In this case, it is perhaps not so far from the founding vision of Speke as a township ‘planned to accommodate all classes of the community’.

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New South Liverpool Housing scheme (artist’s impression)

The difficulties of social engineering through housing design and tenure are well illustrated by the story of the Dymchurch Estate, built earlier on the western edge of Speke to accommodate predominantly older people.  The Estate’s closed court, Radburn-style layout proved unpopular and its homes were increasingly allocated to young and transient single people: ‘the flats became notorious for drug abuse and giro drops’. (11)

For a time Dymchurch was judged locally to the worst part of Speke (the Liverpool Housing Trust has led later regeneration efforts) but the Estate’s residents had become to a more generalised stigmatisation – the taxi-drivers who would refuse to drive to the area were typically the most visible element of this.  Paddy Ashdown, then Liberal Democrat leader, visited in 1998 (presumably he didn’t need a taxi) and likened Speke to Sarajevo, then in the throes of civil war.

That was a gross caricature as one resident commented: (12)

Speke is not Sarajevo; Speke is quite a nice estate. The only problem is that you have people, who come flying in here, there and everywhere who actually don’t live on the estate, nor can they see the potential of what is going to happen over the next few years.

SN South Liverpool HousingAnd indeed much has happened since then.  I won’t privilege my own flying visit over the knowledge and experience of local residents who I invite to add their own impressions but the Estate looked fine to me, its housing in good nick, not visibly depressed and with very little evidence of vandalism and anti-social behaviour and certainly none out of the ordinary.  New schools, a new library, a revived shopping centre look to have lifted the Estate and, of course, it continues to offer decent homes to many.

The story of Speke continues. The story to date is, unavoidably perhaps, of high ambition only partially or perhaps briefly fulfilled – a reminder that we need an economy that works for people as much as those people need good, affordable housing.


(1) This quote from 2012 and the following from 2014 are from the Speke Guestbook.

(2) The following quotes are drawn from David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’ in Ronaldo Munck (ed), Reinventing the City?: Liverpool in Comparative Perspective  (2003)

(3) Eddie Loyden, House of Commons Debate, Dunlop Plant, Speke (Closure), 26 March 1979

(4) Rob Monaghan (Liverpool Vison) quoted in London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Enterprise Zones: Only One Piece of the Economic Regeneration Puzzle (July 2012)

(5) Thomas Ellerton, Exploring the impact of New Labour urban regeneration policy at the local scale: the implications of an approach to ‘joining-up’ on the coordination of urban regeneration, University of Sheffield PhD thesis (April 2014)

(6) Pavan Mehta, The Impact of Urban Regeneration on Local Housing Markets – A Case Study of Liverpool (ND)

(7) Alistair Houghton, ‘Jaguar Land Rover Extending Halewood in £130m Investment‘, Liverpool Echo, 30 January 2017

(8) My thanks to Kenn Taylor whose comment above pointed me to this positive detail.

(9) Linda Grant, ‘Calm Yourself Down’, The Guardian, 10 July 1999

(10) Homes and Communities Agency, Speke Regeneration Liverpool (November 2013)

(11) Liverpool Housing Trust quoted in David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’

(12) Quoted in David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’

The Speke Estate, Liverpool: a ‘satellite town…planned to accommodate all classes of the community’


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Speke, lying just over seven miles south-east of Liverpool’s city centre, wasn’t planned as just another large council estate.  The Corporation envisaged it as a ‘satellite town…planned to accommodate all classes of the community’. (1)  At times, the reach of that ambition must have seemed close to fulfilment but by the 1980s some called it – and not in a good way – ‘Beirut’ or, a few years later as civil war raged in the former Yugoslavia, ‘Sarajevo’. (2)  That was never fair and much has changed since.  This post looks at the longer history, the hopes and the fears and the more complex story of the community’s ups and downs.

Housing estate, Speke

‘Housing Estate, Speke’

Liverpool – a securely (though idiosyncratically) Conservative authority until 1956 – built over 42,000 council homes in the interwar period, most in large cottage suburbs such as Norris Green, some famously in imposing ‘Continental-style’ tenement blocks.  The Speke Estate represented another strand in this ambitious agenda, providing not just housing but employment as the Corporation sought far-sightedly to shift the city from its dependence on precarious and low-waged dock labour.

The keystone of this approach lay in the 1926 Liverpool Corporation Act which empowered the council to develop industrial estates and parallel housing developments. The Corporation bought the Speke estate – the local gentry family had died out in 1921 and the land had been placed in trust –for £200,000 in 1928.   Then in the neighbouring Rural District of Whiston, the area was formally incorporated into the County Borough of Liverpool in 1932.

Speke Aiport (c) Dave Wood Creative Commons

Speke Airport’s original terminal building, built 1937-40 to the designs of EH Bloomfield of Liverpool Corporation Land Stewards and Surveyors Office (c) Dave Wood and made available through a Creative Commons licence

Speke Airport, operational from 1930, was the first fruit of this new venture – one of 35 municipal airports opened between 1929 and 1937.  Near at hand lay the Speke Industrial Estate, the first factory completed in 1934.  By 1939, 28 factories were built or under construction, eleven of these provided directly by the Corporation which also advanced over £300,000 in loans to encourage firms to locate in the new estate.  Some 7000 jobs had been provided, most – as war loomed – in the government airframe factory. (3)

SN Little Heath Road

A contemporary image of Little Heath Road

Factories needed workers.  At the same time, Liverpool citizens living in the city’s many slums needed decent homes.  In 1935, the Corporation had committed itself to an eight-year programme clearing 15,692 slums and the construction, within five years, of some 5000 new homes.  The Corporation’s transfer of 650 acres of land in Speke to the Housing Committee in April 1936 was central to these plans.

By 1939, 1631 homes had been completed on the Estate although demand was much higher. Companies drawn to the industrial estate by the lure of local housing for its workforce complained about slow progress and the failure of the Corporation to fulfil its side of the bargain; Rootes alone claimed it needed 1285 homes for its workers. (4)  This urgency led to Speke’s early housing being built without subsidy under the 1925 Housing Act.

Lancelot Keay

Lancelot Keay

Just over 50 per cent of this housing were parlour homes, a high percentage in these straitened times and an indication of the prestige of the Speke scheme and the commitment of Speke’s mastermind Lancelot Keay, Liverpool’s dynamic Director of Housing, to high-quality housing.  Even the non-parlour homes were – at 750 square feet – relatively spacious and included upstairs bathrooms. (5)  The rents – reaching 18s 6d (92.5p) for a three-bed parlour home in 1939 – were relatively high and, although some 88 per cent of heads of household were classed as skilled or semi-skilled, there were reports of a high turnover of former central slum dwellers who had moved to the Estate. (6)

These homes were, in the fashion of the day, laid out on ‘Garden City’ lines though, in this case, the lines themselves were rather pronounced.  The existing village of Speke housed around 400; its parish church was judged ‘not of such importance as to be made the focal point of the new development’.

SN 1936 Report Plan 1

A 1936 proposal for the layout of Speke, later modified, drawn from Keay’s 1936 Report to the Housing Committee

Furthermore, the ‘absence of any natural features, the levels of the grounds, and the regularity of the boundaries,…all tended to suggest a formal layout and the consequent need of a central spacious boulevard and one main cross-road’. (6)  Western Avenue running north-south and Central Avenue east-west continue to mark that original plan with the Estate’s basic grid broken up by the cul-de-sac ways and closes which nodded towards Ebenezer Howard’s more bucolic ideals.

Speke plan

A post-war layout scheme, from Gale. Modern Housing Estates (1948)

Typically, for all community ideals proclaimed at the Estate’s inception, other facilities were slow to follow.  In 1941, tenants were complaining that only three shops had been provided though they had been resident for two years.  (7)

The war had naturally hindered further construction though the important military role of the airport and industrial estate no doubt played its part in the permission granted to build an additional 367 houses during the war itself.  Post-war efforts were dedicated – in the words of Labour’s 1945 election poster, to winning the peace. The attempt to fulfil Speke’s founding ideals was redoubled.

In 1949 Stanley Gale described Speke as ‘unique among housing estates developed by local authorities’.  Although it was not yet a ‘self-contained community’ as planned, its 29 factories were reported to employ some 11,000 workers; the completion of the Estate’s 6000 homes confidently projected.

Greyhound Farm Road, Speke

Greyhound Farm Road, Speke (later the home of the actor Leonard Rossiter)

It’s worth looking at the detail of the latter: that total was made up of over 5143 two- to four-bed family homes with living room and dining room (the change of terminology from ‘parlour’ was itself telling of new times), 250 cottage flats for the elderly, 92 single person flats, and 221 two- to four-bed flats for families with living room and dining room.

This was the ‘mixed development’ – a larger range of housing types to accommodate people in different life stages and circumstances (though, as yet, without high-rise) – which became standard in the post-war years.  In Speke, there was an important added element to reflect that original intent to ‘accommodate all classes of the community’ – 294 large houses with garages and four bedrooms for ‘professional men, managers, etc.’. (8)

Houses with garages Speke

‘Houses with garages’, Speke

Here Speke had anticipated the ethos of the New Towns programme launched in 1946 and reflected the vision which Aneurin Bevan – who argued council housing shouldn’t be just for the poor – outlined eloquently in 1949.  Bevan insisted that the ‘segregation of the different income groups [was] a wholly evil thing’, creating ‘castrated communities’, and his new Housing Act removed the stipulation that it be specified as working-class housing.

Gerneth Road Speke

Gerneth Road, Speke

Lancelot Keay, who considered Speke his last major project, echoed these ideals and hoped, in 1946, to oversee the scheme’s completion – ‘a projected community of about 30,000 persons with all the buildings that will be necessary and with houses for all those who may desire to share in the life of that community’ – in three years. (9)  In a period of such genuine austerity that was over-optimistic.  Keay retired in 1948.  The Estate was completed in the late 1950s with those 6000 homes and a population (its peak population as it happened) of around 25,000.

But Keay understood that Speke’s new community required more than just good housing.  It was, he said:

most essential that we should endeavour to bring back a greater measure of gaiety into the lives of ordinary people.  They should have the opportunity of enjoying all those excitements and pleasantries of life which are too often reserved for those in the higher-income levels. It is for this reason that a central community building will provide, with its dance hall, concert hall and restaurant, for the pleasures as well as the adult education of the people.

The phrasing remains a little patrician, a little ‘improving’ although there’s no mistaking the good intent.  That good intent, however, was slow to be fulfilled.  Keay’s successor as Director of Housing, Ronald Bradbury lamented three years into his term (he served till 1970) that it had ‘not been possible as yet, owing to present conditions, to erect the Civic libraries, departmental stores, swimming baths, hotels, etc., for which sites have been reserved’.  (10)

Austin Rawlinson Swimming Baths, Speke

Austin Rawlinson Swimming Baths, c1965

Speke Central Library

Speke Central Library, c1965

The new Austin Rawlinson Swimming Bath and Civic Laundry (named after a local swimming Olympian and national coach) and Speke Central Library weren’t opened till 1965.

We’ll leave Speke in its heyday – a place with decent housing, facilities and, most importantly – always the economic underpinning of working-class prosperity – good jobs. Next week’s post will examine its later more troubled history and recent attempts to revive the Estate conceived with such high hopes.


(1) ‘Housing Progress at Liverpool: Estate for all classes’, The Times, 17 September 1937

(2) David Hall, ch10 ‘Images of the City’ in Ronaldo Munck (ed), Reinventing the City?: Liverpool in Comparative Perspective  (2003)

(3) Stephen V. Ward, ‘Local industrial promotion and development policies 1899-1940’, Local Economy, vol. 5, no. 2, August 1990

(4) Madeline McKenna, The Development of Suburban Council Housing Estates in Liverpool between the Wars, University of Liverpool PhD, 1986

(5) Colin G Pooley and Sandra Irish, The Development of Corporation Housing in Liverpool, 1869-1945, University of Lancaster, Resource Paper for the Centre for North West Regional Studies (1984)

(6) City of Liverpool Housing Committee, Speke Estate: Report of the Director of Housing on a Proposal for the Building of a Self-Contained Community Unit, 21 October 1936

(7) Pooley and Irish, The Development of Corporation Housing in Liverpool, 1869-1945

(8) Stanley Gale, Modern Housing Estates (London, 1949)

(9) LH Keay, ‘Post-war Housing’, RIBA Journal, vol 53, no 7, May 1946

(10) Ronald Bradbury, ‘The Technique of Municipal Housing in England: with Particular Reference to Liverpool’, The Town Planning Review, vol 22, no 1, April 1951

Most of the earlier black and white images are drawn from Liverpool Corporation, Liverpool Builds 1945-1965 (1967)

Mobilising Housing Histories: Learning from London’s Past: a Review

Peter Guillerry and David Kroll (eds), Mobilising Housing Histories: Learning from London’s Past (RIBA Publishing, 2017)

Back in July 2013, in the very early days of this blog, I attended an invaluable conference hosted by the Institute of Historical Research entitled ‘Mobilising London Housing Histories: the Provision of Homes since 1850’.  I’m pleased to see some of the fine contributions to that conference collected and revised for publication in this new book.  It’s a diverse volume, though pleasingly designed and well-illustrated throughout, with no central theme other than that we can and should learn from our housing history.  As David Kroll’s Introduction suggests:

The book does not provide solutions, but rather affords glimpses into aspects of how similar problems to those faced now were dealt with in the past.

To get the most from the book, accept that simple premise and, in the meantime, enjoy some well-researched and well-written chapters covering a wide range of London’s housing history.


Given the prevalence and continuing and evolving significance of later Victorian and Edwardian speculative housing in the capital – predominantly those terraced homes whose popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years but which now, in London’s overheated housing market, often provide very desirable residences indeed – it’s right and proper that these feature heavily.

The Minet Estate in Lambeth, the ‘miles of silly little dirty houses’ (as they were described by Eric Gill) in south Battersea, gentrified Canonbury, each get informative and detailed coverage as exemplars, both representative and distinctive, of their type.  A later chapter on the ‘sustainable retrofit’ of Victorian houses is highly relevant to contemporary concerns – of high-minded environmentalism at best and middle-class doing-up more cynically.

I’m off-piste here – this is a blog about council housing and we’ll come to that later – but these chapters are important when there’s an almost universal consensus that we must build more homes and, in particular, more genuinely affordable homes.  Today the top ten building companies control around 47 per cent of the new build market (as late as 1980 there were over 10,000 small and medium sized housebuilders; by 2014 that number stood at just 2800) and their primary purpose is to make profits rather than homes.  Together the top ten own sufficient land on which to build well over 600,000 homes but landbanking, restricted supply and higher house prices suit their margins better. (1)


The Minet Estate, Lambeth: Cormont Road gates, Myatts Field Park  (c) Robin Stott and made available through a Creative Commons licence

In Lambeth, the land-owning Minet family promoted large-scale construction by a number of smaller building enterprises.  Design and quality were overseen by their active surveyor; contractor profits were realised by a leasehold arrangement enabling builders to pay a manageable annual ground rent which cut out the capital costs of land purchase.  At a time when inflated land values and corporate capitalism both in their different ways conspire to reduce housing supply, perhaps this is something, as David Kroll suggests, we can learn from.

Shaftsbury park estate

A plan of the Shaftesbury Park Estate, Battersea, built by the Artizans, Labourers and General Dwelling Company from 1872

Colin Thom’s contribution on Battersea makes a similar point about the role of small builders whilst arguing, in the present-day, that local government and the social housing sector should play a more interventionist role in ensuring that rehabilitated terraced housing remains affordable to other than the well-heeled middle-class who dominate this sector of the London housing market.  The general argument that such housing now provides a popular and adaptable housing form is now widely accepted.

Peter Guillery’s chapter on South Acton (he also provides a useful Historical Overview of housebuilding trends and housing fashions since 1850) reminds us this wasn’t always the perception.  South Acton was a rather isolated and largely working-class community; by the 1890s, its 200 laundries had earned it the soubriquet ‘Soapsud Island’.  By the interwar period and with the later assistance of Hitler’s bombs, the need for the replacement of these terraces – at first piecemeal and then by large-scale redevelopment – became pressing though some questioned the loss of community which might result.

South Acton 1962 II

South Acton, 1962

Guillery takes us expertly through the various phases of the area’s public housing history: mixed development to high-rise to the problems and backlash which followed to the comprehensive regeneration of recent years – from a broadly ‘liberal and democratising capitalism’ through post-war socialism to present-day neoliberalism. It’s an empathetic account which understands the unintended consequences of well-meant actions.  Several tower blocks have been demolished; the most recent masterplan envisages the ‘complete replacement of post-war housing’ with the new low-rise, high-density, mixed-tenure developments now preferred.

That might send alarm bells ringing as we look at how similar plans have already affected or threaten to impact the homes of established communities across the capital.  Simon Pepper provides a useful outline of how and why high-rise developments took off in London from the 1960s and why that trend reversed.  The collapse of Ronan Point in May 1968 offers only a partial explanation.

Fig 1 Balfron Tower

Balfron Tower

Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, Grade II listed in 1996, survives and it won’t be demolished but it is being sold off to the private sector and its social housing residents evicted.  David Roberts campaigned to have this social housing heritage honoured, not as ‘exemplar’ but as the essential element of its future use.  Sadly, as he would be the first to acknowledge, Historic England’s Grade II* listing of the building in 2015, made only a token reference to Balfron’s social purpose.

Roberts’s excellent chapter also invites us to re-think how we approach such buildings.  Residents’ participation was central to his campaign, a belated contribution coming long after the media and architectural academics had pronounced their own judgments, positive and negative.  He reminds us too how freighted the term ‘failure’ is and how readily it rests (or is rebutted) on perceptions narrowly grounded in aesthetics or intent rather than lived experience.

Broadwater farm

Broadwater Farm, Tottenham – allegedly one of the ‘sink estates’ targeted by David Cameron.  Its residents are fighting back against plans to demolish and redevelop parts of the estate.

Issues of perception and labelling are also central, once you get through its rather abstruse academic style, to Ben Campkin’s contribution on ‘sink estates’.  He examines how the label, once applied sociologically to estates in decline, morphed into something cruder and pejorative and how it became the political pretext for an attack on those estates and their communities.  He points too to how resistance from these communities can be rooted in part in the very marginalisation and insult they have suffered.

Peabody Avenue

Peabody Avenue (1895)


The new extension to the estate

There’s plenty more.  Irina Davidovici’s article gamely seeks to rescue the reputation of some of the early Peabody Estates, widely condemned by housing reformers as well as the working class for their austere ‘barracks-like’ appearance. She suggests that recent Peabody buildings and refurbishments do offer a viable and attractive solution to the question of housing density that we are now wrestling with.  Richard Dennis addresses this directly in his chapter on the mansion blocks built mainly but not wholly for the middle class from the 1850s.


It would have been nice to see somewhere a straightforward advocacy of new council housing.  We know the mistakes – many corrected in what turned out to be the swansong of council housing in the 1970s – and we know the traductions, many now being questioned.  There’s no secret that policies which confined council housing to the poorest whilst catastrophically reducing overall stock in the context of an economic maelstrom which robbed so many of decent employment have hurt estate communities.  These are to a far larger extent than we are allowed to think political choices and a brave politics might yet reverse them.

Depending on their politics and professional and personal perspectives, readers will emerge with different take-aways from this volume.  For what it’s worth, mine is how susceptible to changing fashion our views on housing are. One lesson we might draw from the volume overall therefore is that we might be more humble in our judgments and more willing to learn from its best practice.

Mobilising Housing Histories is available now from RIBA Bookshops or from their online store.  


(1) Market shares from Tom Archer and Ian Cole, Profits before Volume? Major Housebuilders and the Crisis of Housing Supply (Sheffield Hallam University Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, October 2016); landbanking figures from  Graham Ruddick, ‘Revealed: housebuilders sitting on 600,000 plots of land’, The Guardian, 30 December 2015


Charles Dickens House, Bethnal Green II: The Tide of Tall Building Turns


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I’m pleased to feature this week the second part of Andrew Parnell’s fascinating guest post on Charles Dickens House and its wider context. Andrew is a walking tour guide with Footprints of London who leads walks on architecture and housing history. These include his walk Modernism and Modern Dwellings: Housing in Bethnal Green which takes in Charles Dickens House. More information and tickets for Andrew’s walks can be obtained from the website

The trend for high towers, system-building and prefabrication in the 1960s which, as described in Part I, influenced Tower Hamlets Council in the planning stages leading to the building of the 22-storey Charles Dickens House on the Mansfield Buildings slum clearance site in Bethnal Green in 1969, did not come ‘out of the blue’.

SN Charles Dickens House 3

Charles Dickens House today

From an architectural perspective, tall building had started to be been seen in this country before World War II, with the likes of Highpoints 1 and 2, Berthold Lubetkin’s 8- and 9-storey ‘international modern’ style blocks in north London. Frederick Gibberd’s designs for Harlow New Town included a 10-storey block – The Lawn in Mark Hall North – that was built in 1949 and has been called Britain’s ‘first high block’. The Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green – one of the three boroughs that were merged in 1965 to form the London Borough of Tower Hamlets – had in the 1950s employed avant-garde architects, among them Lubetkin and the young Denys Lasdun, who produced blocks of over 10 storeys.

The Lawn SN

The Lawn, Harlow New Town

Lasdun’s firm in March 1955 had presented to the Bethnal Green Housing Committee a report on a Royal Institute of British Architects’ symposium on high building. Among the findings summarised in their report were: many people prefer living in high buildings because they enjoy ‘better and cleaner air’; low buildings are ‘monotonous’; high buildings can enhance the scene by ‘emphasising prominent points’; and the incorporation of maisonettes (two storey dwellings) in tall buildings had ‘overcome prejudice against living in high blocks’.(1)  This report, whilst seeking to make a strong case for high-rise, nevertheless reflects the view of many design and planning professionals throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s that tall blocks should be used sparingly and judiciously alongside different styles of building (so called ‘mixed development’).

SN Keeling and Cranbrook

Keeling House (to the left) and the Cranbrook Estate

It is hard not to sense in the Lasdun firm’s report an attempt to ‘enlighten’ the Housing Committee in an area – London’s East End – where it was said by others in the field that some councillors clung to ‘pro-cottage’, ‘traditional’ views on housing design and were therefore in need of a little education by professionals! (2) If that was the report’s purpose, it seems to have worked. The Bethnal Green Council went on to commission Lasdun’s and Lubetkin’s firms to produce some noted examples of modernist housing such as Lasdun’s sixteen storey ‘cluster block’ Keeling House (1955-1957) and Lubetkin’s innovative Cranbrook Estate (1961-1966).

From a technical point of view, system-building and prefabrication can be seen as a product of the fertile period of building research and development of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s which had seen such innovations as widespread use of reinforced concrete in cross-wall frame and later box-frame construction (eliminating the need for a steel frame).  Architects had embraced the new materials and techniques. They exploited the new ‘lightness’ achievable by the reinforcement of concrete. The geometrical shape and repetitiveness of a building’s structure were seen as things to emphasise, not to hide. Form followed function and produced beauty.


‘Charles Dickens House, Bethnal Green Road, 1967. Bison block showing the varied kind of facing given to the prefabricated panels’ (c) Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

The other thing that these approaches to construction and design leant themselves to was, of course, prefabrication. A repetitive structure of rectangular shapes could be reduced to a kit of simple parts. By December 1965, the Tower Hamlets councillors were receiving a report on a Symposium at Olympia with the title ‘System Building: Can It Be Economic?’. The reported answer to this question was that system-building was ‘clearly cheaper’ and that in tall buildings it was ‘very competitive indeed’.  The Borough Architect obtained the committee’s approval for one ‘senior member’ of his staff to attend an ‘Advanced Course on Industrialised Building’. In May 1966, members of the council reported on a ‘study tour’ they had made to Denmark to look at industrialised building there. (3)

So the proposal put to the Tower Hamlets Housing Committee in 1967 for a system-built tall block – that would be named Charles Dickens House – on the Mansford Buildings site came as no surprise.

SN P14033 Mansford St area, 1972 300 DPI024

‘Mansford Street area’, P14033, 1972, showing Charles Dickens House to right (c) Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

However, in all of this Tower Hamlets was coming a bit late to the party. Nationwide, the bandwagon of high building was well and truly under way by the mid-1960s. Glasgow, in the vanguard, had built three 20-storey blocks in eight months in 1960 which kick-started the chairman of the housing committee David Gibson’s messianic, largely high-rise, housing production drive. Similar dynamism was seen in other areas, particularly large municipalities outside London. To boroughs like these, high-rise and system-building seemed the obvious way to keep up the necessary pace of their building.

The Tower Hamlets committee did not give approval for its first block over 20 storeys high until 1966, and before the 1965 local government reorganisation its three predecessor councils – Stepney, Poplar and Bethnal Green – had approved only one such block between them and the London County Council (LCC) just three in the area. (4)

This comparative dilatoriness in Tower Hamlets – which was reflected in the wider London area generally – could be ascribed partly to the influence prior to 1965 of the London County Council, which was replaced in the reorganisation of that year by the Greater London Council.  The LCC had wielded greater power than its replacement, the GLC, to influence the housing policy of the second-tier London boroughs. In exercising that power, the LCC’s influential architects’ department stood firmly on the side of the ‘design faction’ – arguing for restraint in the use of high-rise building – in a schism that grew up between the ‘designers’ and the ‘producers’ from about the late 1950s onwards. The consensus among design professionals had always been that high-rise should be used sparingly to add variety (‘vertical accents’) in mixed schemes.

At the Mansford Buildings site, Tower Hamlets Council could be seen to be following, at least in the final result, the design faction’s blended approach to tall blocks. Charles Dickens House was inserted into a pre-existing plan for the site that consisted mainly of ‘cluster blocks’ of up to four storeys, producing a mix of housing for approximately 400 families, with shops, licensed premises and other amenities, all at a population density for the 9.5 acres of roughly 136 persons per acre, the density level recommended for inner London areas by the County of London Plan of 1943, a document which set out a vision for London’s reconstruction after the War in a period – the 1940s and 1950s –when the influence of the designers was at its height. (5)

SN P14032 Birds Eye View Mansford St area, 1969 300 DPI025

‘Bird’s eye view Mansford Street area’, P104032, 1969 (c) Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

By the late 1950s designers had started to turn away from high-rise altogether, towards other approaches such as low-rise, high-density developments. The concept of ‘urbanism’ gained traction – the idea that a sense of community is engendered by close proximity of buildings, rather than by leaving large open spaces between tall buildings.

The ‘producers’, on the other hand, who tended to be local politicians and officials, were driven by an urgent sense of the need to build quickly and in large numbers and sometimes saw the designers, with their concerns about aesthetics and population density, as ‘other-worldly’, even obstructive. By using the systems of large contractors who had their own design professionals attuned to the need for volume and speed, the producers could bypass those design professionals they saw as less practical.

There were strong feelings on both sides. Producers saw themselves as ‘coalface workers’ compared with the ‘quasi-academic’ designers. Many designers were contemptuous of those who were focussed on ‘mere production’ and saw the indiscriminate use of high blocks to maintain the production rate as a parody and misuse of the original concept of high-rise espoused by professionals in earlier decades. (6).

David Gibson 1950

David Gibson in 1950

David Gibson, in Glasgow, voiced the producers’ justification for their approach in characteristically powerful and moral terms: ‘If I offend good planning principles, it is only in seeking to avoid the unpardonable offence that bad housing commits against human dignity’. For Gibson, aesthetics were never the most important consideration, but nonetheless the very shape of tall blocks – their arresting ‘modernity’ – was in keeping with his vision: ‘In the next three years the skyline of Glasgow will become a more attractive one to me because of the likely vision of multi-storey houses rising by the thousand’.

But soon the towers which had been a powerful symbol of the optimism which underlay the post-war housing production drive became the most powerful negative image of ‘modern’ housing. One contributor to the sudden, almost violent change of public mood occurred just a few miles from Charles Dickens House. In May 1968 in Canning Town, a system-built tower block, Ronan Point, partly collapsed when a tenant’s gas stove exploded in a high floor, killing four people and injuring more.

When the Ronan Point disaster occurred, plans for development of the Mansford Buildings site in Tower Hamlets had been approved and work at the site had already begun. Although the Tower Hamlets Council issued an instruction that no new proposals for high blocks were to be put forward pending the findings of a Committee of Enquiry on Ronan Point, work was allowed to continue on tall blocks in the borough that had already been approved. Later that year, the Enquiry found that high blocks were generally safe but that those built using large panel construction with load bearing walls should have their jointing checked. This included the Bison Wall Frame system being used to build the tower at the Mansfield Buildings site, so its joints were duly checked and approved. As a result, the tower, named Charles Dickens House, was completed and opened the following year.

SN Ronan Point

Ronan Point

The Ronan Point disaster probably accelerated rather than caused the decline in high flats and system-building that ensued. Public, political and professional opinion had already started to turn against modern housing and tall buildings before the disaster in Newham. A number of possible causes can be identified.

As already mentioned, design professionals’ thinking had started to move away from high-rise in about the late 1950s. By the late 1960s, the housing shortage had turned, roughly speaking, into a surplus.

Public clamour for production waned and people now asked ‘What is all this building for?’ (a question to which many in the 1960s would surely have responded: ‘Isn’t it obvious? To get people out of slums!’). The political consensus started to break up when, following wins by non-socialist parties in the 1967-1968 local elections, multi-storey building was for the first time branded ‘Socialist’. In 1968 government subsidies for high-rise building, which had been introduced in 1956-1967, were abolished (although this subsidy had probably always been more of a consequence than a cause of the high-rise trend). Later, the 1970s in particular saw the emergence of management problems and severe anti-social behaviour in some modern developments.

The subsequent history of Charles Dickens House is fairly typical for buildings of its kind. By 2003 – then over 30 years old – it was in a state of serious disrepair: interiors of flats were in a poor state and insulation needed improvement. Residents were concerned at the inadequacy of internal security. With local authorities’ housing budgets now severely limited, Tower Hamlets Council was unable to finance the work needed to bring the block up to the government’s Decent Homes Standard. Borrowing limits meant it could only afford £2.28 million for the building’s regeneration.

In accordance with the ‘new model’ for social housing provision, Tower Hamlets Community Housing – a housing association with access to private borrowing not available to councils – was able to offer £18.5 million. Tenants – some of whom had exercised their ‘right to buy’ and owned long leases to their flats – were presented with a stark choice in terms of the ability of the competing owners to fund needed upgrades and opted for transfer to the housing association. (7)

In recent years, flats in the building, advertised as having ‘unbeatable views…in a well-maintained ex-local authority building’ have been offered for sale at prices in the region of £340,000 (2015) and £450,000 (2016). (8) How far the building can now be said to offer accommodation truly affordable to the section of the community it was built for must be questionable, but the prices at which flats seem to be changing hands must also call into question the often cited ‘truth’ that tall towers are universally viewed as undesirable places to live.

SN Charles Dickens House 2

Charles Dickens House today

Over time, architectural preferences and the public mood change, often quickly and radically. Where once the view was expressed that old terraces of housing were ‘past modernising and want blowing up’, they are now cherished and it is tower blocks which, literally, have in some cases been blown up. Charles Dickens House was fortunate to be built before the curtain came down on tower block building and is perhaps fortunate to be still standing and providing homes today. Concerns were expressed about the safety of system-built blocks following Ronan Point and were cited as reasons for some of the tower block demolitions. It is worth noting, though, that Bison Wall Frame blocks in Edinburgh, about which such concerns had been expressed, survived the detonation of 2000 charges of high explosive and had to be smashed by a giant battering ram.

Was it their structural weakness which caused us to start demolishing high towers, or an effect of the changing cycle of public opinion about building styles? Will the cycle one day move on again so that blocks like Charles Dickens House are seen in a more favourable light, as the product of a massive housing production drive that was to no small degree motivated by ideals that deserve our respect?


With thanks to Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives for permission to use the images credited above.

(1) Minutes of Bethnal Green Borough Council Housing Committee, March 1955

(2) Page 180 of Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Yale University Press, 1993), a work on which the analysis of the history of high-rise blocks in this article is largely based and from which the quotations of individuals involved, other than in relation to Tower Hamlets, have largely been drawn

(3) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing Committee, May 1966

(4) Gazetteer I, Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

(5) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing, Building and Development Committee, June 1968

(6) The tension between the concerns of designers and the pressure to produce housing output is described at pages 153ff of Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

(7) This account of the later history of Charles Dickens House is drawn from Stephanie Polsky, Dickensian Blocks: East London’s contemporary housing landscape, published in Soundings: A journal of politics and culture, issue 60, Summer 2015, pp 95-106

(8) Rightmove and Find Properly websites

Charles Dickens House, Bethnal Green I: ‘Clear the Slums!’ – the Surge that Produced Tall Blocks


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I’m very pleased to feature, this week and next, two more excellent guest posts, these by Andrew Parnell.  They’ll focus on a particular and, in many ways, unremarkable tower block in Tower Hamlets but will also provide much of the wider story of the era’s high-rise and system-building programme.

Andrew is a walking tour guide with Footprints of London who leads walks on architecture and housing history. These include his walk Modernism and Modern Dwellings: Housing in Bethnal Green which takes in Charles Dickens House. More information and tickets for Andrew’s walks can be obtained from the website. 

A rectangular slab of 22 storeys, Charles Dickens House in Bethnal Green is a typical high block of flats of the mid-1960s, one of the many towers that are now an accepted part of our city skylines and go largely unremarked upon; what little comment they do attract these days tends to be of a negative, often hostile kind. The 1960s is hardly today seen as a golden age of public housing design in this country.

SN Charles Dickens House

Charles Dickens House today

But when high blocks of this kind were being built – as they were in enormous volume in Britain during that decade – they were viewed much more positively. A closer look at the circumstances surrounding the building of Charles Dickens House helps to reveal some of the concerns, pressures and forces of opinion behind the strong tide which brought high blocks to our cities. Even before this particular building was completed, that tide was turning and starting to pull with equal force in the opposite direction, ushering in the widespread condemnation of such high residential towers.

Charles Dickens House was built between 1968 and 1969 for Tower Hamlets Borough Council, one of the relatively new, enlarged London Boroughs produced by the local government reforms of 1965. (1)  An entry in the minutes of that council’s Housing Committee in May 1965 notes that a Compulsory Purchase Order for the ‘Mansford Buildings site’, an area including the current site of Charles Dickens House, had been made in 1963 under Part III of the 1957 Housing Act – legislation which enabled local authorities to acquire and redevelop areas that were deemed unfit for human habitation – slums. An appeal was lodged, delaying the implementation of the order. The committee minutes quote the senior judge hearing the appeal, Lord Justice Salmon, describing the circumstances on the site as: ‘ninety families living in revolting conditions’. (2)

The compulsory purchase order covered an area of 9.5 acres on which stood, among other buildings, a number of tenement blocks built in the late 19th century. They included Mansford Buildings, after which the clearance site was named, Toyes Buildings and Meadows Dwellings which occupied roughly the plot where Charles Dickens House now stands and which had been built in 1893 by the East End Dwellings Company, one of the philanthropic companies forming the Victorian housing movement which produced this country’s earliest social housing.

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‘Toyes Buildings, 1968’, P14569 – before the site was redeveloped (c) Tower Hamlets Local History LIbrary and Archives

Rehousing tenants during the redevelopment of slum areas was always a major task for council housing departments but Bethnal Green encountered some unusual additional difficulty at the Mansford Buildings site. The council had started to rehouse residents of the site whilst the appeal against the compulsory purchase order was pending but members of the Housing Committee were ‘dismayed’ to be told that the owners of Mansford Buildings who had lodged the appeal, Quiltotex Limited, had re-let homes vacated by rehoused tenants notwithstanding that the premises had been ‘admitted to be in an outstandingly unfit condition’.

The Council successfully prevented further such re-lettings at Mansford Buildings but councillors’ dismay resurfaced when they were advised by Mr J Wolkind, the Town Clerk, that after the appeal was rejected the Council still had an unavoidable legal duty to rehouse the fifteen ‘new’ tenant families allowed in by Quiltotex, meaning that the Council had to go through the rehousing process twice. After the intervention of an indignant member of the Committee, Councillor McCarthy, the Council’s Housing Officer, Mr JM Simpson, was asked to enter into correspondence with Quiltotex’s letting agents, Messrs Donaldsons. It emerged from this that the majority of the fifteen new tenants had no prior connection with the borough so they would not have been given priority by the council for housing in Tower Hamlets. However, Donaldsons declined Mr Simpson’s request that Donaldsons themselves and their clients Quiltotex find alternative accommodation for the new occupants they had allowed into the building, arguing that they and their clients, in re-letting the condemned homes, had been ‘performing something of a public service in assisting these tenants in their housing problem’. (3)

It was not only councils in parts of London like Bethnal Green that still – twenty years after the end of the Second World War – regarded elimination of slum conditions as an unfinished task. The necessary repair of damage to housing done by that war had, to some extent, interrupted and delayed the process of eradicating slums that had started before it. Up and down the country in the 1960s, councillors and local government officials still saw getting people out of slums into decent accommodation as a burning need, sometimes expressed in forceful language like that of Bill Reed, Deputy City Architect for Birmingham: ‘For god’s sake get on and build those houses—and get people out of the slums’. (4)


Bill Reed (in centre) with then Birmingham City Architect Alan Maudsley, 1969 (c) Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

Councillors referred to local people besieging them with demands to be rehoused. In Glasgow, probably the country’s most dynamic municipality in terms of house building during the period, planning officer, Ian MT Samuel said that that people ‘couldn’t get out of the old condemned houses fast enough.’ He recalled:  ‘I had a stream of people coming to my office…with the same question: ‘When’s ma hoose coming down?’’ Undoubtedly there were often other, less exalted, motives at play in the minds of these local leaders – electoral advantage, preservation of rateable value, even sometimes corruption – but it is hard to discount completely the sincerity of their stated desire to improve living conditions.

The fact that the new housing to which residents of slums were to be moved enjoyed modern conveniences rarely found in old Victorian dwellings such as the terraced housing of Bethnal Green – like electrical points in every room, water and space heating, kitchen fittings and generous space – was undoubtedly an attraction for residents being rehoused and offset concerns about moving to flats from more traditional housing. In the words of RD Crammond of the Department of Health for Scotland (responsible for housing): ‘To someone coming out of the slums, the idea of going into a house with a bedroom, a proper kitchen, hot water – it was the millennium for them, it was a dream – and it didn’t matter a damn to them if it was in a multi-storey block or a cottage’.  In these post-war decades, the ‘modernity’ of the design, construction and fittings were perceived as a positive, even exciting feature of the new style of housing.

NPG x165598; Bob Mellish by Walter Bird

Bob Mellish, 1965

Increasing the perceived scale and urgency of the problem, there was – in addition to the need to replace slums – insufficient housing to satisfy general need in many areas of the country. There was a resulting groundswell – almost a tidal wave – of pressure to build houses, accompanied by a considerable degree of political consensus that the housing to meet the need should predominantly be built by local authorities. The Tower Hamlets Housing Committee in late 1965 was reminded that there was an ‘enormous housing shortage in Greater London’. (5)  Robert (later Lord) Mellish, at the time a London MP and member of the government, urged local authorities: ‘Get ahead, get full steam ahead, get bloody building!’.

At the same meeting of the Tower Hamlets Housing Committee, mention is made of what was seen as one of the primary tools available for solving the problem – industrialised building: non-traditional ways of building using modern materials such as concrete and modern methods that sought to bring the techniques of the factory to the building site. These ‘systems’ made use of prefabricated components manufactured off site and assembled on-site using tower cranes. Large construction companies developed their own systems and offered them to local authorities.

‘System building’ was promoted – and perceived by many – as providing an economical, fast and efficient way of building housing in the form of tall blocks that provided both the density levels required in urban contexts and space between buildings for the other desired facilities such as play and parking areas. Building in this way largely eliminated the need for scaffolding, reduced the amount of skilled labour required and used far less steel than the methods that had been widely used for constructing tall buildings in the past. The last two considerations were particularly important given the onset of building shortages in the mid-1960s. The Tower Hamlets Committee was told: ‘The Ministry [of Housing and Local Government, then headed by Richard Crossman MP]  goes so far as to say that increasing demand in the building industry can only be met by supplementing traditional methods of building and making the best use of new methods and materials’.

Bison flat 2

‘Concrete Ltd, Bison Wall-Frame System (1962)’ (c) Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block

It was natural, then, that after the appeal against the Mansford Buildings Compulsory Purchase Order was finally rejected the proposal put to the Housing Committee for the site, in October 1967, included a system-built 22-storey tower block of flats. (6) The system to be used was the Bison Wall Frame System developed by Concrete (Southern) Limited – the company name could be that of a caricature 1960s building firm! – which was one of the most prolifically used systems nationally.

With the Bison system, a two-bedroom flat could be constructed from 21 precast components produced in one of the Concrete Group’s five factories nationwide. Most of the components were floor or wall panels with wooden door and window frames included (reducing carpentry needed on site) and provision for wiring and piped services embedded in them. Among the 21 parts, there were separate sections forming stair or lift wells (extending over three stories), staircases and a single bathroom and toilet unit weighing over seven tons (still well within a tower crane’s capacity to hoist up to the required level). (7)

SN Monteith Road under construction

‘Monteith Road under construction’ (c) Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Tower Hamlets Council’s first fully industrialised high-rise block was Bacton Tower built by the contractor Wates in 1966. But it was Concrete (Southern) which established a contractual relationship with the council that would produce a series of seven blocks in a ‘production line’ typical of the high-rise building of the time. All seven were of 22 stories containing 130 dwellings. The first three were at sites in Monteith Road (two blocks) and Wellington Way in Bow.

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Monteith Road opening with Anthony Greenwood (c) Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

The cost of building was of particular importance at a time of national financial difficulty. The pound had been devalued in 1967 and in December the following year the Minister of Housing, Anthony Greenwood, had urged the council: ‘we must secure a substantial surplus on our balance of payments’. At an earlier site at Roman Road, the Borough Architect and Planning Officer, Mr J Hume had recommended a last-minute switch from the contractor Rowley Brothers’ planned ‘traditionally built’ 20-storey tower to one of Concrete (Southern)’s 22-storey Bison blocks in order to produce a £1000 per dwelling reduction in cost required to satisfy the government’s ‘cost yardstick’ for obtaining ‘loan sanction’ for funding. He presented comparisons to the Housing Committee showing the traditional 20-storey tower producing 115 dwellings for £568,000 while the Bison 22-storey tower produced 130 dwellings for £455,806.

The committee was not best pleased that substantial professional costs had already been expended on the to-be-discarded traditional building at Roman Road and would now be wasted. They called for an ‘investigation of reasons’ for the situation by councillors with the borough’s professional advisers and officers. Mr Hume obtained approval to proceed with the Bison tower, but the meeting and subsequent ‘investigation’ may not have been entirely comfortable for him! (8)

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Bison blocks at the Monteith Road and Wellington Way sites Tower Hamlets

When it came to the Mansford Buildings site, it was decided that the first stage of the development should take the form of another Bison block under a contract negotiated ‘in the same way as Monteith Road’ with Concrete (Southern) with whom the Council had ‘an excellent negotiating relationship’. Mr Hume reported that ‘after much study’ it had proved necessary to revise plans for the site by including a 22-storey block. This would make it possible to develop the site ‘properly’ to the required population density, to keep within the government’s cost yardstick and to provide ‘necessary play spaces, parking spaces and all other amenities required’. (9) He was here voicing some of the principal perceived attractions of industrialised high-rise building.

The stage was now set for Charles Dickens House be built.  We’ll follow that story in next week’s post.


With thanks to Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives for permission to use the images credited above.

The photograph of Bob Mellish is by Walter Bird and is made available by the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons licence.

(1) TFT Baker (ed), A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green,(Victoria County History, London, 1998), republished by British History Online provides a comprehensive history of the politics and buildings of the area

(2) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing Committee, 1965

(3) Ibid., 1965-1966

(4) Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Yale University Press, 1993) on which the analysis of the history of high-rise blocks in this article is largely based and from which the quotations of individuals involved, other than in relation to Tower Hamlets, have largely been drawn.

(5) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing Committee, November 1965

(6) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing, Building and Development Committee, October 1967, Report of Architect and Planning Officer

(7) The Architects’ Journal, 11 July 1962 and illustrated in Glendinning and Muthesius, Tower Block (see note above) at page 86

(8) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing Committee, September 1966

(9) Minutes of Tower Hamlets Borough Council Housing, Building and Development Committee, October 1967

The Chinbrook Estate, Lewisham: a ‘tremendous improvement in environment and standard of living’



We’re looking at ‘Corporation suburbia’ – less eye-catching and less controversial than the high-rise which disproportionately grabs people’s attention when it comes to public housing but actually its most representative form.  A small corner of south-east London helps us tell this story.  Last week’s post looked at the Grove Park Estate, one of the best of the ubiquitous interwar cottage suburbs.  This week’s focuses on the Chinbrook Estate, planned by the London County Council from 1961 and completed by the Greater London Council after 1965, representing, in my view, one of the most attractive and thoughtfully designed post-war estates.

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‘Chinbrook Estate, Grove Park: residential tenements’ (1967) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk

Last week, we left Lewisham and the country in 1939 about to be plunged into war.  The Borough, industrial to the north but with extensive residential districts on the bombers’ flightpaths, suffered more than most.  Of Lewisham’s 56,000 homes, 10,303 were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by enemy action; almost 9000 further were seriously damaged but judged habitable.  By November 1945, there were 11,945 families on the Council housing waiting list of whom 4541 had been rendered homeless by the Blitz. (1)

The first duty of central and local government was to alleviate the unprecedented housing crisis.  A crash programme of repairs was an immediate priority, beginning before the war’s end.  The Council reckoned that, at peak between 1944 and 1946, 6400 ‘workmen’ (and perhaps a few ‘workwomen’ at this time) were repairing the Borough’s war-damaged homes. (2)

As of March 1947, 3806 private houses had been requisitioned, providing homes now for around 5000 households.  Conservative legislation in 1955 ended councils’ requisitioning powers and required properties be returned to their owners by 1960.  Many of the almost 1400 properties held by Lewisham into the late 1950s were purchased by the Council. (3)

The housing crisis provoked less official responses too. As part of a national wave of squatting action, 30 huts on an anti-aircraft site in Blackheath were occupied by homeless families in September 1946 and 19 huts next to Ravensbourne Station, formerly in military use, shortly after. The Council laid on water and electricity and provided ‘sanitary conveniences’.  Twenty-one military huts on a site at Hilly Fields in Brockley were officially allocated to the Council.  Some 125 wooden ‘hutments’, built to last two years, were also built in the Borough.

The other major element of the emergency response were the prefabricated bungalows – factory-built, rapidly erected, planned to provide modern, well-equipped family homes for an anticipated ten-year life-span.  The 1944 Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act committed £150m to the programme which ended in March 1949 and a total of 156,623 prefab homes were erected across the country, allocated to local authorities according to housing need.

Marnock Road prefab

A Lewisham prefab; this one was sited on Marnock Road in Brockley (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

Lewisham’s needs were pressing and a total of 1484 prefabs – 660 by the LCC and 824 by the local council – were provided across the Borough on 70 separate sites.  One of the largest – and certainly the most persistent of those – was the Excalibur Estate; 187 homes built on former parkland to the north of the LCC’s Downham Estate. Here and elsewhere in Lewisham, most were of the Uni-Seco Mark I and Mark III type, constructed of resin-bonded plywood or light timber framing clad in flat asbestos cement sheeting with a wood wool core.  A small number were of the steel-framed Arcon Mark V model.

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Kingsley Wood Drive, Coldharbour Estate (c) www.robclayton.co.uk

Permanent post-war reconstruction was marked by Nye Bevan’s opening of the first new home in Woolwich’s Coldharbour Estate in July 1947, built to the east on the last remaining farmland within the LCC’s borders.  It comprised around 1700 homes on completion in the mid-1950s.

Meanwhile, the prefabs remained.  One of their largest sites – with around 209 homes – was an area of farmland between Grove Park Road and Marvels Lane acquired by the LCC.  They seem to have provided decent homes and for children – with a recreation ground, Chinbrook Meadows and the River Quaggy close to hand – a happy childhood. (4)  As they grew up, the Chinbrook pub (later the Grove Park Tavern) on the opposite corner offered more grown-up entertainment. The pub was demolished in the 1990s, replaced by retirement flats (though, confusingly for newcomers, the local bus stop retains the name).

Those prefabs were demolished in the early 1960s. In their place, the LCC projected and the GLC completed an attractive, predominantly low-rise estate – a modest, small estate at first glance but one which in its own terms was a state-of-the-art fulfilment of the latest planning and architectural thinking.  The Chinbrook Estate deserves a closer look.

SN Grove Park Youth Club

‘Grove Park Youth Club: exterior’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk

Firstly, the 1961 plans show sites set aside for a youth club and an old people’s clubroom.  The great criticism of the earlier (and much larger) cottage suburbs had been their lack of community facilities, their dormitory feel.  Here, a conscious attempt was made from the outset to provide social amenities which would support community and local identity. (We’ll come back to this.)

SN Chinbrook Collage 3

‘Chinbrook Estate: residential tenements’ (1968) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk

SN Chinbrook Collage 4

‘Chinbrook Estate, Grove Park Road: residential tenements’ (1967) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk

The estate’s pedestrianised layout wasn’t innovative – Radburn-style plans (which separated cars and pedestrians by a system of cul-de-sacs, feeder roads and walkways) had been recommended in the Ministry of Housing’s 1953 Manual.  But, on a smaller estate such as the Chinbrook, with garaging and parking spaces reasonably integrated with the housing, they seem to have worked better though they look neglected at present. Those 1961 plans which allocated parking to around half the estate’s households must also have seemed pretty forward-looking at the time in their anticipation of a more affluent and car-owning working class.

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To the left: ‘Chinbrook Estate, Grove Park Road: residential tenements’ (1967) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk. To the right, a contemporary image of the same block, Kingsfield House, from the rear (c) www.robclayton.co.uk

The mixed development which Chinbrook embodies – a range of housing types and forms to suit a varied mix of households – was also an established concept by the early sixties but the estate provides an impressive cameo.  There are two eleven-storey point blocks – Merryfield House to the north next to Grove Park Road and, tucked away in the south-east corner of the estate, Kingsfield House, together comprising 177 of the estate’s 395 homes.

SN Lambscroft Avenue

Homes on Lambscroft Avenue (c) www.robclayton.co.uk

These are attractive blocks in landscaped grounds, ‘in keeping’ with the wider estate and a fine fulfilment of mixed development’s aesthetic ideals.  The rest of the Estate comprised some 218 two-storey terraced houses which provided family accommodation while low-rise flats were built for couples without children and elderly people.

What was exceptional – and what is even clearer from the early photographs of the Estate before the depredations of Right to Buy – is the overall architectural and design quality of the Estate.  It’s an intimate space on a human scale with its mix of homes and its footpaths, service roads and open spaces forming an integrated whole.  In contemporary terms, placemaking is the prized ideal.  The built environment of the Estate and its cherished community facilities seem, to me, to fulfil this ideal.  As the mass rehousing drive of the sixties took off – on a scale and in a form often much criticised since – Chinbrook is a reminder of the best that might be achieved with proper investment and careful planning.

SN Chinbrook Collage 6

‘Chinbrook Estate: completed housing development’ (1963) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk

That was certainly the belief of the Civic Trust who commended the Estate in 1967. In their words: (5):

The elevations have been consistently and simply handled in red brick and white shiplap boarding forming a pleasant and bright background to the well-proportioned pedestrian ways and squares formed by the layout. The landscaping, both hard and soft, is well detailed and has been carried through with functional simplicity. The design, heights and interrelated use of screen brick walls and railings very successfully interplay enclosure and openness as one walks through the area.

As a reminder that even the best estates need continued upkeep and investment, we might note the regret they also recorded that ‘the high standard of detailing in the landscape has been rendered widely ineffective by poor maintenance’ but the favourable comparison with the nearby and more traditional cottage estates remained.  Chinbrook illustrated:

the tremendous improvement in environment and standard of living which results through the segregated layout, open-space amenities, well-proportioned pedestrian streets and effective landscaping, compared with the front access and unsympathetic layouts of the earlier housing estates adjacent.

SN Lambscroft Avenue and Kingsfield House

Kingsfield House and flats along Lambscroft Avenue (c) www.robclayton.co.uk

The Greater London Council’s justifiable pride in the Estate was shown when Chinbrook was selected – alongside two other GLC showpieces of the day, the Pepys Estate and Thamesmead – for a visit by delegates of the Housing Centre’s annual conference in 1969. (6)  The Estate was also featured in a celebration of the Council’s work, GLC Architecture 1965/70, published in 1970.  The latter reminds us too – as housing responsibilities within the capital itself were increasingly devolved to the new London boroughs – of the GLC’s housing schemes in the expanded and overspill towns of the later 1960s, many of which resembled Chinbrook in form and ethos.


The Span estate of Corner Green, Blackheath (c) Twentieth Century Society

Another significant point of comparison is with the much admired Span housing of the period.  Span was a private property development company formed in the late 1950s by Geoffrey Townsend and the architect Eric Lyons which built around 2000 homes in London and the Home Counties with some of its most notable schemes in nearby Blackheath.  These were homes intended, in the company’s own words, ‘to span the gap between the suburban monotony of the typical speculative development and the architecturally designed, individually built residence that has become (for all but a few) financially unattainable’.(7)

The genius of Span was to combine modernist design – open plan interiors, large windows, flat roofs – with traditionally more ‘suburban’ features in the use of brick, tile-hung walls and timber panelling. Of equal importance was a setting designed ‘hand-in-hand with the design of the dwelling’, integrating roads, car parks, play spaces and aspiring to create ‘an ambience and scale hitherto unknown in housing for ordinary people’. (8)

SN Mirror Path

Mirror Path

That, to me, is strongly reminiscent of both the design and ambition of the Chinbrook Estate – with one key difference.  Span’s ‘ordinary people’ were aspiring professionals whereas one of the earliest residents of Chinbrook (who had moved from a post-war prefab) recalls that ‘most of [its] families were young and came from New Cross, Deptford, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Blackfriars and other inner London suburbs’ – hence, it was said, the huge support for Millwall on the Estate. (9)  I’m guessing that no-one liked Millwall on the Span estates.

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Old people’s bungalows (c) www.robclayton.co.uk

I can’t trace any direct association between Span and the GLC’s schemes and, unfortunately, I can’t name the individual architects and planners directly responsible for the Chinbrook Estate.  With the public service ethos strong, the Estate is credited more collegiately to the GLC’s Department of Architecture and Civic Design; KJ Campbell, was Principal Housing Architect at the time. (10)

By the 1980s, public service had become – in the mind-set of the governing Conservative Party at least – a discredited concept.  Right to buy was a deliberate attempt to break up and shake up council estates and its legacy is plain to see on the Chinbrook Estate. The quality of Span’s middle-class housing is preserved by covenant; no such restrictions have conserved the design sensibilities and architectural consistency of Chinbrook.


The effects of Right to Buy

There’s no snobbery at all in decrying the fashion for pebbledash and other such accretions which seems to have afflicted many of the newly owner-occupied homes in the 1980s.  In fact, even in market terms, one can’t help but think that the value of that private housing would be enhanced had the overall look and ‘feel’ of the Estate been better maintained. Ironically, the fittings and fixtures in the communal areas of the tower blocks have been superbly preserved and provide a wonderful glimpse of in-situ 1960s modernism.

We’ll give the current landlords of what we must now call the Estate’s social housing some credit for that although – from my talks with local residents – there is little affection for London and Quadrant (L & Q) in general.  A ‘large-scale voluntary transfer’ of some 1099 council properties and 350 leasehold in Chinbrook and adjoining Grove Park estates took place in 2008.  On a 55 per cent turn-out, 77 per cent of those balloted, supported the transfer from the council to the housing association.  It was, as was the way, an offer that was hard to refuse.  Decent homes upgrades were required by law, security and environmental improvements were desired by residents, and Lewisham – in common with other councils – was denied the necessary public funds to carry out the work.

L & Q, which now owns and manages around 70,000 homes in London and the South-East, is now the largest landlord in the capital.  It’s also one of the most aggressively entrepreneurial of the new breed of housing associations, self-described as ‘one of [London’s] largest residential property developers’. It’s small wonder, then, that parts of the Chinbrook Estate might look and feel somewhat neglected.  The shine of that promised investment rapidly dissipated.

SN Chinbrook Collage 2 Old People's Clubroom

‘Chinbrook Estate: exterior of clubroom’ (1968) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk

Typically, given the drive to monetise assets, one of L & Q’s first actions was to demolish the old people’s clubroom.  The Estate’s ageing population now has to attend a nearby general purpose community centre.  The superb building has been replaced by two plain and undistinguished semi-detached houses which make little reference to surrounding architecture.

SN Youth Club

The youth centre today (c) www.robclayton.co.uk

The purpose built youth centre on Marvels Road was closed by Lewisham Council in 2013 and residents fear that it could be demolished and the land sold for housing.  It has been neglected since this closure but, look more closely, remember its past and imagine its future, and you will see an outstanding community facility.  It was designed for the LCC’s Education Department by some of the most distinguished public architects of its day and created as an adaptable and flexible space incorporating the ideals and practices of some of the key architectural movements of the twentieth century.

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‘Grove Park Youth Club: interior’ (1966) (c) London Metropolitan Archives, collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk

With a design eye, you’ll see the influence of the Bauhaus movement and its credo ‘truth to materials’; you’ll see too the ‘people’s detailing’ of Swedish modernism.  As a local resident, you might remember the centre as a community hub – not only a valued resource for the young people of the estate but, as I was told, a regular venue for wedding receptions and many other community functions.

But, ultimately, this isn’t about architecture (though the loss of such a fine building would be criminal) and still less is it about nostalgia.  This is about a facility which is needed by local children and teens and which could, in the imaginative but highly practical plans of the community group campaigning to save it, serve the wider community in many ways. (11)

SN Charlesfield 2

Charlesfield (c) www.robclayton.co.uk

When the Chinbrook Estate was built five decades ago, the GLC – as a progressive and innovative council – took care not only to provide good homes and a decent environment but also the amenities to support and sustain community. Such values have been eroded and the reforming role of local government disastrously curtailed.  Nowadays, it seems we must fight these battles again.


My thanks to Rob Clayton for his guided tour of the Estate and his photographs.

Thanks again to the London Metropolitan Archives for permission to use images from Collage, their wonderful on-line picture archive.

(1) Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham, Housing: Report of the Housing Committee on the Post-War Housing Activities of the Council up to 31 March 1947

(2) The Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham: the Official Guide of Lewisham Borough Council (1948)

(3) The Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham: the Official Guide of Lewisham Borough Council (1958)

(4) Various recollections of the Mottingham prefabs can be found on the Francis Frith site here and here.

(5) Civic Trust Awards, ‘Chinbrook Estate, Lewisham/Bromley’ (log-in required)

(6) ‘Conference Study Tour, 9th July 1969, to Thamesmead, Pepys and Chinbrook Housing Estates’, Housing Review, vol 18, no 3, September-October 1969. (The Housing Centre Trust was a voluntary organisation which acted as a meeting ground for organisations and individuals engaged in housing and as an information centre on housing issues.)

(7) Quoted in Modern Architecture London, ‘Span Blackheath

(8) Eric Lyons quoted in Barbara Simms, ‘Landscape Conservation on Span Estates’, Landscapes of the Recent Future: Conserving the 20th Century’s Landscape Design Legacy, Docomo E-proceedings April 20101

(9) ‘Paragonslate’ comment on Francis Frith, ‘Mottingham Prefabs: a Memory of Mottingham

(10) One little known fact is that Eric Lyons adopted a lot of standardised building components for Span schemes which were originally developed by Oliver Cox for the LCC which then commissioned their manufacture by private companies. My thanks to Tom Cordell of Utopia London for this information (personal communication, 13 February 2017).

(11) You can read more of these plans in An Alternative Plan for Grove Park Youth Centre: A Community-Led Plan to Regenerate Grove Park and should visit the website of the Grove Park Youth Club Building Preservation Trust set up to save the youth club for further information on the campaign.

The Grove Park Estate, Lewisham: ‘a real “Garden City”‘


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In 1928, Southern Railway advised ‘there is so much open country all around Grove Park that no one need fear for the present it is going to become a part of London’. (1)  This was ironic given that its book was intended to promote the growth of suburbia (and lucrative commuterdom) on London’s fringes. It was also dishonest given that London County Council’s Downham Estate – over 6000 homes when completed in 1930 – was being built just to the west of Grove Park station.

Britain from Above Downham.JPG

‘The London County Council Downham Estate from the south-east, 1929’ (c) Britain from Above, EPW028496  (Grove Park station is on the bridge on the right edge of the image.)

Speculative housing built for middle-class owner-occupation did spread rapidly but the remarkable feature of this area of south-east London – for the purposes of this blog at least – is its swathe of what Martin Crookston has called ‘Corporation suburbia’. It stretches west to east, almost uninterrupted, from Downham itself to Lewisham’s interwar Grove Park Estate, to the GLC’s 1960s’ Chinbrook Estate, to the LCC’s 1930s’ Mottingham Estate, and finally Woolwich Council’s Coldharbour Estate, begun in 1947.

Beaconsfield Road, Mottingham (c) Rob Clayton.jpg

Beaconsfield Road, Mottingham Estate (c) Rob Clayton

A brisk 45-minute, two and a half mile walk provides a potted history of a form of housing – the garden suburbs – that, by Crookston’s reckoning, accounts for around one-sixth of English homes and some 40 per cent of the country’s current socially-owned housing stock. Here this amounts to over 11,000 homes.

This post and the next will concentrate on a smaller area and two of the smaller estates – Grove Park, a fine example of interwar planning and construction, and the unsung but remarkable Chinbrook Estate, one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished estates of the 1960s.

Lewisham Metropolitan Borough Council was securely Conservative throughout the interwar period and its housing efforts were modest. There had been short-lived plans, instigated by Deptford Borough Council and in cooperation with Bermondsey, for a jointly-owned ‘garden city’ on land owned by Lord Northbrook in Lewisham. Lewisham withdrew its support in 1920 and the plans fell through. Later the land was acquired by the LCC and would form the basis of the Downham Estate. (3)


Romborough Gardens

Lewisham’s contribution to the ‘Homes for Heroes’ drive of the immediate post-war era was limited therefore but it did build a small estate of 86 houses – solid, stripped-down neo-Georgian, two-storey terraces – under the terms of the 1919 Housing Act in Romborough Way, near Lewisham Park.  The short cul-de-sac and enclosed green of Romborough Gardens forms a particularly attractive enclave.

In February 1925, the Public Health Committee, alarmed by the Medical Officer of Health’s reports of increased overcrowding in the Borough, passed on its concerns to the Housing Committee. The latter identified a 43 acre site, east of Grove Park, as suitable for building. It had been bought speculatively by a local builder from Lord Northbrook in 1923 for £3600. In July 1926 it was acquired by the Council by Compulsory Purchase Order for an arbitrated price of £8825 – almost two and a half times what Mr Durbin had paid for it three years earlier. A reminder of how land values and the market distort our housing provision and how readily private interest profits from public need.


Grove Park Estate layout (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

Building on the site, undertaken by three local contractors, began in August. Eight acres were set aside as a recreation ground and 1.5 acres for allotments. A site was provided to the LCC for a new primary school; the rest was allocated to housing.  And to its credit, the Council determined to build well; to erect ‘the best possible type of house that could be provided in a municipal undertaking’ and at the largest size permitted under the 1924 Housing Act.


An early image of the Grove Park Estate (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

It appointed the eminent architect-planner WR Davidge – an early supporter of the Garden City movement, elected President of the Royal Town Planning Institute in 1926 – to design the Estate. Davidge’s pedigree is first seen in the use of existing topography – an undulating terrain which added, in the words of a Council brochure, ‘a pleasing feature to the general appearance’ of the new estate’.  Moreover: (4)

In the preservation of some of the old trees on the estate and the green in Roseveare Road, and more particularly by encouraging the cultivation and upkeep of the gardens, the Council have endeavoured to ensure that the Estate shall become a real ‘Garden City’.

An annual best-kept garden competition with a victory shield and prizes provided some of that encouragement; the rent collector’s weekly visit possibly provided some discipline. As Pauline Payne, who moved onto the Estate as a child in 1939, recalls, if he spotted an untidy garden or a hedge that needed cutting, ‘you would get a polite notice reminding you of the conditions of your tenancy agreement and a certain time limit to put things right’. (5)

Grove Park early 3.JPG

An early image of the Grove Park Estate (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

Davidge also ensured that the housing was of pleasing and varied appearance – as many as six types on a single street, it was said.  With justifiable pride, it seems, the Council concluded that:

The completed estate has the merit of combining convenience in the planning of roads, spacious and well-appointed houses and harmony in the design and conception of the whole.  Roofed with red hand-made sandfaced tiles, the walls of the houses have generally been externally dressed with cement left rough from the plasterer’s float and treated with various shades of colour wash. Doorsteps, window sills and chimney stacks have been carried out in purple and red facing bricks, which blend with the colour of the roofs.

In terms of accommodation, two blocks of what the Council called ‘storey flats’ provided 32 of the Estate’s homes but the bulk were solid three-bedroom houses; 136 of the so-called Type B with parlours and 336 Type A, non-parlour.  Internal arrangements included, to modern eyes, perhaps some surprising mod cons.  Pauline Payne noted an ‘enormous walk-in airing cupboard on the landing’, cupboards under the stairs and, either side of front door, a walk-in cloakroom and a walk-in larder.


An early image of the Grove Park Estate (c) Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

In the first phase of construction, gas provided lighting for both housing and streets.  In the second, electricity was used – the first streets in the Borough to be lit by electricity.  In other respects, arrangements were much more of their time although still, presumably, a vast improvement to most new residents.

Pauline Payne describes ‘a large iron pot-bellied copper in the kitchen [which] provided hot water for the whole house’. The bathroom (‘absolutely freezing in winter’) was next door to the kitchen with hot water ladled by hand from copper to bath.  The toilet stood next to the back door.


Mayeswood Road, Grove Park Estate, contemporary image

Payne’s experience was, as she recognises, perhaps exceptional.  She was an only child (she recalls families of eight and thirteen children living either side of her new home in Cobham Street) of lower middle-class parents. The family moved to the estate when their own home was bombed and her first impressions were, perhaps for that reason, underwhelming:

Upon getting the keys for our first sight of our new home was gloomy indeed as the whole house was painted chocolate brown.  For years we had to live with that colour…and even after the war the council only varied the colour to bottle green.

This was the other side of municipal housing – the dull uniformity it could sometimes impose on its residents.

Public transport was poor in those days as well and local shopping limited but she has happier memories too – Chinbrook Meadows nearby (declared a public park in 1929) were ‘a paradise for children’; the tunnel under the nearby railway another play spot.


Leafy Oak Road, Grove Park Estate, contemporary image

By 1939, Lewisham could declare proudly that the borough was ‘notably progressive in the matter of Housing’.  In terms of numbers, the Council had provided 558 houses and 211 flats (in 1930 60 flats were built in five blocks – since demolished – along Winchfield Road in Lower Sydenham).  This was a relatively small number but, in general, the standard was high. (6)

The war which broke out in 1939 would change much.  Its destruction forced the Borough and the capital to build on unprecedented scale.  A new politics emerged too, one that – for a time at least – placed the needs of the country’s working class to the fore.  We’ll see both play out in next week’s post.


My thanks to the Grove Park Community Group and John King for generously supplying some of the historical information within this post.  John King’s history of the area provides more detail.

My thanks also to Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre for providing additional useful resources and for permission to reproduce some images from their collection.

(1) Southern Railway, Country Homes at London’s Door (2nd ed, 1928)

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

(3) John King, Grove Park Revisited (2011)

(4) Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham, Grove Park Housing Estate (ND – probably 1929)

(5) Pauline Payne, A Council House Kid, 1939-1957: Growing Up at Grove Park (typescript manuscript, ND, Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre)

(6) The Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham: the Official Guide of Lewisham Borough Council (1939)

Berlin’s Modernist Interwar Estates II: ‘Light, air and sun’



Last week’s post examined two of Berlin’s strikingly modernist interwar estates and the politics which created them.  We’ll examine two more this week, built just before Weimar Germany’s famously progressive politics succumbed to Nazism.

That politics was, of course, always fiercely contested and the cultural battle for the German soul is clearly seen in the so-called Dächerkrieg (or Roof War) which erupted in Berlin in 1928.


An early image of Großsiedlung Siemensstadt

The point at issue resided in an apparently arcane architectural debate between the relative merits of flat and pitched roofs.  The social democratic and trades union building cooperative GEHAG had constructed a modernist (and therefore flat-roofed) estate in the southwestern Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf.  The Gemeinnützige Aktiengesellschaft für Angestellten-Heimstätten (GAGFAH building society), representing the salaried, lower-middle classes, opened a combined architectural exhibition and more traditional, pitch-roofed housing estate adjacent to it.


The Roof War’s competing estates (with thanks to Atlas Obscura)

A battle royal ensued.  Modernist commentators berated the GAGFAH estate and argued that it – in its failure to build simple, functional homes – lacked public spirit and should be denied public funds.  Their opponents defended the estate as representing a specifically German style of architecture.

In other contexts, the question of roof forms might be seen as a simple and practical issue and certainly one susceptible to compromise. In interwar Germany, no such compromise was possible – ‘opinions as to what was the appropriate architectural style for the German home were essentially irreconcilable between progressives and conservatives’: the Roof War represented an existential struggle ‘of traditional versus modern, the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat, rural versus urban, the former regime versus the current republic’. (1)


Weiße Stadt: head-building at entrance to estate by Bruno Ahrends

The Weiße Stadt (White City) Estate with its flat roofs, cubical forms and white walls, built between 1929 and 1931, represented modernist architecture in stark form.  It was built by the Gemeinnützige Heimstättengesellschaft Primus mbH, a municipally-owned housing association, on a greenfield site in the northern suburb of Reinickendorf, funded by a municipal grant of 15m Reichsmarks as tax receipts from the housing interest tax dwindled.  That space allowed a more extensive design than that of the inner-city Carl Legien Estate but the emphasis – as the Great Depression hit – remained on economy.  Of its 1268 flats, four fifths comprised just 1½ to 2½ rooms. (2)


Weiße Stadt: bridge house by Otto Salvisberg

Designed by the Swiss architect Otto Rudolf Salvisberg and two Berlin architects Bruno Ahrends and Wilhelm Büning, it reflects the functional efficiency championed in the architectural style dubbed Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).  It presents a striking appearance, seen most notably in the five-storey portal buildings marking the entrance to the estate and the impressive Brückenhaus (bridge house) erected across Aroser Allee.  The spare white appearance of the blocks is at once offset and highlighted by their brightly coloured guttering, window frames and entrance doorways.


Weiße Stadt: Schillering – blocks by Büning to the left and Ahrends to the right

The apartment buildings are characteristically long four-storey ribbon blocks, including one of 230m length beyond the bridge house facing a school and an open terrain of sports fields.  Greenery and open space, designed by landscape architect Ludwig Lesser, remained a key element of the overall design with communal garden courtyards with benches and playgrounds between the housing.


Weiße Stadt: Emmentaler Strasse community building by Ahrends

Heating and hot water were supplied by a central plant.  Twenty-four shops, dotted around the estate, a pharmacy, kindergarten and health centre provided the estate with the facilities and community identity for which its planners strove.

At the same time and across the city to the south-west, Großsiedlung Siemensstadt was emerging. This was the most diverse of the modernist estates.  While Hans Scharoun was responsible for the estate’s masterplan and some of its housing, he commissioned a number of other architects to design individual blocks: Walter Gropius, Hugo Häring, Otto Bartning, Fred Forbat and Paul Rudolf Henning.  Like Scharoun, most were members of Der Ring (the Ring), an architectural collective formed in 1926 committed to modernist principles hence the name occasionally given to the scheme, the Ringsiedlung.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: ‘Der Panzerkreuzer’ by Hans Scharoun

For all this common allegiance, their designs – apart from the de rigeur modernist flat roofs – were diverse.  Scharoun designed the access to the estate with a grand head-building with retail outlets on the ground floor which became known as the Panzerkreuzer (armoured cruiser – it sounded less sinister before 1933) for its liberal borrowing of ship motifs: a ‘consciously anti-traditional, machine age aesthetic’ (3) Across the Jungfernheideweg he built a five-storey residential block with similarly deep-cut balconies and angles.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: Goebelstrasse – laundry building and apartments by Walter Gropius

Moving into the estate proper beyond the railway bridge, you reach two long blocks, in a palette of creamy white and grey, designed by Walter Gropius fronting Goebelstrasse: ‘sharply defined and crisp in their contours and dynamically elegant in the functional austerity of the rows of identical buildings’ (3) Gropius had founded the Bauhaus School some ten years earlier.  Here he applied its design ideals – ‘to create the purely organic building, boldly emanating its inner laws, free of untruths or ornamentation’ – to social housing.

Otto Bartning’s 388m-long block along Goebelstrasse marks the southern perimeter of the estate and acts as a buffer to the railway line just behind. It’s a similarly functionalist grey-rendered block, broken by patches of exposed brickwork and splashes of cerise framing.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: blocks on Goebelstrasse by Hugo Häring

Facing it along Goebelstrasse are nine blocks, aligned Zeilenbau-fashion on a north-south axis, designed by Hugo Häring, very different in outward form in which yellow-brown bricks, smooth beige plaster and dark brown main doors are used to complement the greenery of the open courtyards designed by Leberecht Migge.  Kidney-shaped balconies add an expressionist touch.  Six similarly disposed blocks to the north by Paul Henning echo Häring’s natural restrained shades.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: blocks by Forbat along Geißlerpfad

Along Geißlerpfad on the eastern fringe of the estate lie the two long blocks designed by Fred Forbat, white-walled but with cut-out and protruding balconies with yellow brick to add to their texture.

Each in their different way captured the modernist aesthetics and ideology of their time.  Gropius and Bartning, ‘in accord with the pragmatics of the factory assembly line or the aesthetics of the Tiller Girl’: (4)

created strongly rational and anonymous structures that used repetitive forms to generate a fixed number of forms in terms of size and occupancy…In contrast to this rigid adherence to the ideologies of mass production and mass entertainment, Scharoun and Haring produced housing blocks that, although fully committed to modernism, were also wilfully allusive and organic in their design.

This divergence of form represented, to one architectural theorist, ‘one of the most serious ruptures within the modernist movement’ but, as a simple place of residence, the estate forms a signified and attractive whole and represents an ambition to decently house the working class rarely matched in later years.


Großsiedlung Siemensstadt: apartment blocks by Scharoun on Goebelstrasse at the entrance of the estate

The average size of apartment in the Großsiedlung Siemensstadt was just 54 square metres, a reflection of contemporary austerity.  Later affluence would expect greater space and more mod cons but the estate and its counterparts across the metropolis provide an uncommon example of architectural ideology committed to social service and progressive politics.

Berlin’s five modernist interwar estates – I’ve covered perhaps the most celebrated, the Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) in Britz in an earlier post – were exceptional, providing only around 6700 of the 140,000 new social homes built between 1924 and 1932.  Most of the new-build was of more conventional form although it uniformly represented a huge advance on the ‘rental barracks’ which had been the lot of the Berlin working class before the war.

All were provided with significant, and often direct, support from the local and national state although, as noted, in a manner very different – though more common on the Continent – than that in the UK where central government grants and local government provision were the norm.  It’s another model, closer to the housing association model which has largely undertaken the provision of social housing in this country (such as it is) since 1979.

With the direct participation of social democratic politicians and trades unions it was a potent one, although not without its critics.  The increasingly powerful Communist Party welcomed the new homes and rationalist mass production which delivered them but argued – with some justice – that socialised housing remained too dependent on land and construction material prices dictated by a capitalist free market.


That cleavage in the left was one factor which eased Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.  After 1933, left-wing ideals and activism, in whichever form, were damned and dangerous. Scharoun remained in Germany under the Nazi regime in a form of internal exile.  He would return to prominence in the 1950s to design his most famous building, Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall.  Bartning too remained in Germany, retreating to the safer terrain of church architecture for the duration of the Nazism. Häring attempted to convince the new regime that the new architecture was German rather than international (6). Forbat moved first to Hungary and then Sweden where he died in 1948.  Gropius fled to Britain (where he designed Impington College) and ended his life and career in the US.

Of the chief protagonists of Berlin’s Neue Bauen (New Building movement), Taut, who died in 1938, fled first to Japan and then to Turkey. Martin Wagner too spent time in exile in Turkey, where he briefly resumed collaboration with Taut, and devised a new city plan for Ankara. He took a position with the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1938 and died, an American citizen, in 1957.  All this represented a tragic loss of talent and social purpose to the German nation; many millions of others paid a far heavier price.


The aim of Berlin’s modernist estates had been to bring ‘light, air and sun’ to its citizens.  What followed was among the darkest periods of human history.  In 2008, the five estates were granted UNESCO Heritage status – a fitting tribute to the energy and ideals which inspired them.  They are now a properly celebrated aspect of a prouder German history and well worth a visit.

You’ll find some additional images of the two modernist estates featured here on my Tumblr page.


(1) Mark Hobbs, Visual Representations of Working-Class Berlin, 1924–1930.  University of Glasgow Department of History of Art PhD thesis 2010 and this well-illustrated article on the Atlas Obscura website.

(2) Ian Boyd White and David Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin (2012)

(3) Ronald Wiedenhoeft, Berlin’s Housing Revolution. German Reform in the 1920s (1971)

(4) Jörg Haspel and Annemarie Jaeggi (eds), Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style (2007)

(5) Boyd White and Frisby (eds), Metropolis Berlin

(6) Eric Paul Mumford, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960 (2002)

You’ll find more detail online including this comprehensive record of the five estates:  Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style: Nomination for Inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  The architects’ images and the two colour images of Großsiedlung Siemensstadt are taken from this source.