A council estate which has been described as ‘ruggedly romantic’ and as a ‘civilizing, elegant and exciting environment for young and old’ is probably one worth seeing or, better still, living in. (1) That’s the much-praised Lillington Gardens Estate in Pimlico for you. It’s won four major architectural awards, it’s Grade II listed, and it’s a conservation area. What’s all the fuss about?
In terms of the bare facts, Lillington Gardens was built, in three phases, between 1964 and 1972, and comprises 14 blocks, mostly between three and eight storeys high, providing 540 homes for around 2000 people.
But what you notice, firstly, is red brick. The blocks are constructed of reinforced concrete but are faced with handmade red-brown brick. As you venture further, you register the Estate’s complex overall design which is spectacular but never overbearing – ‘a craggy cliff…that projects and recedes, rises and falls, as it winds alongside Vauxhall Bridge Road’, in Rowan Moore’s words. All that drama is, in any case, offset by careful landscaping which creates a series of intimate green spaces and enclaves, giving this particular public housing scheme a strong sense of privacy.
Before the Estate, the area comprised a series of run-down Victorian streets. Heavily damaged during the war, it had been marked out for redevelopment in the 1955 County of London Development Plan and in 1960 the City of Westminster compulsorily purchased 13 acres of land. Eventually some 400 homes would be demolished to make way for the new estate. The church of St James the Less, designed by George Street in 1860, would remain.
Conservative-controlled Westminster City Council had a proud record of building high quality council housing. The Churchill Gardens Estate, built between 1946 and 1962, was one of Britain’s finest and its architect, Phillip Powell, was selected as the judge of a competition to design the new development. The winner was 26-year-old John Darbourne who would form a partnership with Geoffrey Darke to complete the plans.
For Rowan Moore, the finished product represented ‘a determined reaction against the sterility of modern architecture’. For others it is a pioneering example of the ‘new vernacular’ or, more voguishly, ‘ratrad’. Nicolaus Pevsner thought it ‘admirable – admirable in itself and admirable for its understanding of High Victorian values’: a tribute to the Estate’s integration of Street’s church and its subtle echo of that church’s exuberant brickwork. (2)
That was clearly deliberate but Darbourne offered a refreshingly pragmatic case for the choice too – rendering would have been expensive to replace and good-looking concrete (on the Barbican model) would have cost ‘a fortune’: (3)
…with brick you can get the mortar over the face and the joint out of place, but even done poorly it is just about acceptable. That is not the case with concrete.
There was a similar pragmatism in the evolving design of the Estate. The three phases are distinct – though always unified by materials and overall appearance – and the third, at the southern end of the Estate, is distinguished by its inclusion of private gardens.
The Estate was unusual already in the richness and texture of the open space it provided but the architects had concluded that ‘parents were reluctant to allow their children play at ground level when their home was several storeys up…children went deprived’. The inclusion of private gardens was a conscious corrective to some of the problems associated with tower blocks then becoming apparent.
That said, this is a high-density development – at around 218 persons per acre. This is a density which easily matches the high-rise schemes of the period, not least because many of the latter were placed in what became, in practice, rather bleak and open terrain.
It was also a mixed development, intended to function as a community and feel like a neighbourhood. The original brief specified the inclusion of schools and playgrounds, a community hall, 90 sheltered homes for the elderly and other housing adapted to those with special needs, two doctors’ surgeries, a range of shops and several pubs.
Architectural descriptions of Lillington Gardens are abundant – more eloquent and descriptive than mine. But it was Ian Nairn – understanding that good design resided in an alchemy of people and place – who took the time to study the community of the Estate. He praised the integration of accommodation for old people and the council’s allocations policy – he interviewed an older resident who liked that her neighbours were also elderly and that less able tenants had been given bedsits.
Typically Nairn also spent time in the pub – designed by the architects, a proper pub in Nairn’s terms but not a ‘pastiche’. In that, it might stand for the Estate as a whole. (4) The pub itself – the Pimlico Tram (recently renamed The Cask) – is Grade II* listed.
Despite the plaudits, Lillington Gardens is not without critics. The architect David Mackay slams ‘a warped aesthetic of crumpled facades and disordered dwellings’ and design priorities which created awkward internal layouts and poor integration of external space. (5) In general, however, it is probably precisely the lack of clean lines and ‘rational’ or machine-like design which creates what most perceive as the more ‘humane scale and detailing’ of the Estate. (6)
To English Heritage, as ‘the first low-rise high-density scheme, Lillington Gardens was epoch making’. (7) And it’s widely credited with pioneering the break with the tower and slab block designs which dominated in the sixties’ rush to build. In fact, Darbourne and Darke would go on to apply the same principles in their design for the Marquess Estate in Islington, completed in 1975, but here the same complex layout, walkways and separation of pedestrians and cars encouraged vandalism and, in conjunction with a number of construction faults, led to the development becoming a notorious ‘sink’ estate.
Lillington Gardens conversely remains ‘much sought after’ – popular with MPs since Right to Buy for its proximity to Westminster. It’s a reminder that we should resist any simplistic approach which ‘explains’ the problems of some council estates as a simple function of their design whilst ignoring the often determining social and economic realities that shape all our lives – for good or ill.
In 1978, Colin Amery and Lance Wright wrote in a much-quoted appraisal that Darbourne and Darke had: (8)
pioneered a new view of living in the public housing sector. It could be argued that what they have done is to middle-classify the council house, but there is more to their achievement than that. Their approach should be seen as an expression of the idea that the egalitarian society is more easily realised by building on the ‘middle class’ than it is by building on the old notion of the ‘working class’.
It’s a beguiling piece of writing though hard to decipher when looked at closely. It certainly lacks historical perspective. The writers can be forgiven for not knowing of socialist Bermondsey’s inner city garden estate of the 1920s but to ignore the interwar garden suburbs of Becontree, Downham, Wythenshawe and elsewhere seems strange. Perhaps they simply mean that working people shared a ‘bourgeois’ desire for privacy and a bit of outdoors space. In this Darbourne and Darke were not so much pioneering as returning to earlier ideals of the quality and style of housing that working-class people desired and deserved.
Lillington Gardens is novel though in respecting these earlier aspirations whilst doing so in a high-density and defiantly non-suburban setting. It offers architectural bravura whilst, most importantly, providing good homes in a high-quality environment. That is an egalitarianism we can respect and it comes – or should come – without class labels.
(1) The two quotations come from, respectively, Rowan Moore, ‘Nice Places: Lillington Gardens Estate, SW1’, Evening Standard, 2 December 2008 and Tony Aldous, ‘Achieving a communal identity’, The Times, 13 September 1972. The architectural awards are the Housing Design Award 1961, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government Award for Good Design 1970, a RIBA Award in 1970 and a RIBA Commendation in 1973.
(2) ‘Ratrad’ is ‘rationalised traditional architecture’. The term is used to describe the Estate in Graham Towers, Building Democracy (2003). The quotation from Nikolaus Pevsner is from ‘Victorian Society Annual Report, 1972-73’ quoted in Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (2012)
(3) Quoted in John R. Gold, The Practice of Modernism: Modern Architects and Urban Transformation, 1954–1972 (2007) which is also the source of the quotation which follows.
(4) Ian Nairn on Pimlico in ‘No Two the Same’ (1970) – also broadcast as ‘The Pacemakers No.19’
(5) David Mackay, Multiple Family Housing: from Aggregation to Integration (1977)
(6) Westminster City Council, Conservation Area Audit: Lillington and Longmoore Gardens (2012). This offers a full and detailed, and easily accessed, architectural and design assessment of Lillington Gardens.
(7) As described in the listing text of a number of the Lillington Garden blocks including, here, Stourhead House and the Pride of Pimlico public house
(8) Colin Amery and Lance Wright, The Architecture of Darbourne and Darke (1978) quoted in the English Heritage listing of Wisley House.