Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth is one of the finest council estates – I use that maligned term deliberately – in the country. Superbly designed to make the best use of its site adjacent to Brockwell Park, it’s an apt tribute to the ideals and professionalism of its chief architect Ted Hollamby and a generation of local councillors who believed council tenants deserved nothing but the best. It’s sad to report that this legacy is now under threat.
Back in 1974, with regrettable prescience, Hollamby lamented the contemporary tendency for architects ‘to work for business and lucrative contracts rather than local government’. (1) His was a different generation – part of a post-war wave of architects and planners who believed that ‘architecture should be for the people, ordinary people’. (2)
Hollamby and his wife Doris were members of the Communist Party (he finally left the Party after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) but his mother’s gentler politics – she was a member of that unsung group, the Cooperative Women’s Guild – was an equal influence, as was his stint as a young architect working for the Miners’ Welfare Commission.
But it was at the London County Council’s Architects’ Department that Hollamby truly cut his architectural teeth:
It was the most wonderful place to work in, we had the most wonderful work to do. We had a Council that wanted to do the most wonderful things and the sheer opportunity to do them, and that was where those ideas of making a better world, we thought we were actually doing it’
In 1962, he was appointed Chief Architect for the Borough of Lambeth. Interviewed in the Council Chamber with half the councillors present and appointed there and then, Hollamby describes the process as ‘inspiring’ – he was ‘amazed that there were such interesting and progressive views that were being put out by the councillors’.
One question and response was revealing. He was asked by Council Leader Archie Cotton, ‘What do you think about that chap, le Corbusier? Do you think we ought to ask him to do something here in Lambeth?’ Hollamby demurred – le Corbusier ‘would not be bringing to Lambeth something which was essentially part of its history…What he would be interested in doing is imposing one of his sculptures’.
Hollamby’s own contribution to Lambeth housing would be of a very different stamp but first he was given the freedom to organise his own department, a first for Lambeth as it was to be enlarged and given new powers in the forthcoming reorganisation of London local government. Hollamby determined it would be ‘multi-professional’, equipped to deal with strategic town planning, development control, architectural design, rehabilitation and conservation work – ‘the whole design field’. At its peak, it would comprise over 750 architects, planners and construction workers.
In the sixties, Hollamby and Lambeth Council worked harmoniously at the cutting edge of housing and planning policy, pioneering the extensive use of rehabilitation and infill housing with Hollamby himself described as ‘the acknowledged leader in high density housing with low buildings’. (3) Cressingham Gardens takes its place in this pantheon.
These progressive policies withstood the arrival of a Conservative majority – described by Hollamby as ‘very empirical’ – on the Council in 1968. In fact, one John Major was the deputy chair of the Housing Committee which approved the Cressingham Gardens scheme.
A bigger shock came with the arrival of Ken Livingstone and a new generation of Labour councillors –suspicious of council officer power – in 1972 but eventually a guarded mutual respect emerged. (4) However, Hollamby could not survive – or no longer wished to – the political take-over by Ted Knight (‘Red Ted’ to those of you with longer memories) in 1978, despite the support of some Labour councillors including Peter Mandelson. In 1981 he jumped ship to become Chief Architect and Planner to London Docklands Development Corporation, retiring from that position in 1985. (He died in 1999.)
I’m sorry if all this seems to have taken us some away from the focus of this post, Cressingham Gardens, but it seems important to establish this context and remember an era when local government had the power to innovate and held still to a vision of transforming the lives of our people. In this project, it attracted some of the most idealistic and able individuals in the country; not all were ‘big names’, of course, though we have focused on those here.
Back in the 1960s when Labour and Conservative governments were vying in the number of council houses they could construct, a chief element of that transformative power lay in housing – in razing the slums and building (massively) anew. In 1964, Richard Crossman, Labour Minister of Housing and Local Government (the terminology is telling), requested London’s new councils to prepare a seven-year housing programme.
Lambeth responded enthusiastically. Hollamby was not totally opposed to high-rise – though he preferred point blocks to slab. Lambeth Towers, designed by George Finch, approved in 1964 but not finally completed until 1971, was a flagship Lambeth scheme – a group of eleven-storey blocks which included a medical practice, old people’s club, post office and shops: ‘a microcosm of the 1960s Welfare State’ according to one source. (5)
But central government was insisting increasingly that priority be ‘given to industrialised building systems and the rationalisation of building techniques’. (6) Lambeth architects used large-panel systems in a number of schemes at this time but their insistence on customised designs precluded cost-savings and strong reservations about the suitability of point blocks for families remained.
Here Hollamby’s philosophy of architecture and design was crucial: (7)
People do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings – but do they really like the monotonous, equally vast and characterless suburb?…[Most] people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments. They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not.
This approach complemented another of Hollamby’s priorities – community: (8)
We are not just dealing with housing as such. We are building a community. We don’t look at this in terms of so many houses. Rather we think in terms of the functions of a community. We don’t, you see, have club rooms for tenants but centres for a community. We don’t have old people’s homes set aside on their own. We integrate them into other things we are planning.
‘Community’ was, of course, a central theme of planning discourse in the post-war period but it was one more easily fulfilled by the smaller-scale and design detail of Hollamby’s housing schemes for Lambeth in this period. Hollamby sought, in his words, ‘to create a sense of smallness inside the bigness…and to get the kind of atmosphere in which people did not feel all herded together’. (9)
These principles were trialled in a number of Lambeth housing schemes of the late sixties – at Central Hill near Crystal Palace and in Virginia Walk and Cherry Laurel Walk on Tulse Hill, for example. How did all this play out in their Tulse Hill neighbour, Cressingham Gardens?
Next week, we’ll look more closely at the estate itself and how these high ideals worked out in practice. We’ll look too at the threat currently posed to Cressingham as ‘regeneration’ is mooted.
(1) Quoted in ‘Hollamby’s Approach to Architecture’, Building, 1 February 1974
(2) Ted Hollamby, interview with Jill Lever, 1997. National Life Story Collection: Architects’ Lives, British Library. Other quotations from Hollamby are taken from the same source unless otherwise credited.
(3) Jill Craigie, ‘People versus Planners’, The Times, 14 September, 1968. Hollamby also appeared in Craigie’s BBC documentary, ‘Who are the Vandals?’, screened in February 1967.
(4) Ken Livingstone later wrote ‘We got on really well, except that I wanted things done overnight and Ted’s nature was to go over the details of every development until it was perfect’. Ken Livingstone, You Can’t Say That: Memoirs (2011)
(5) Utopia London, Lambeth Towers
(6) Lambeth Borough Council Housing Committee minutes: 4 April 1965
(7) Hollamby speaking on ‘The Architect’s Approach to Architecture’ at RIBA, 24 January 1974, quoted in the Architects Journal, 6 February 1974.
(8) Quoted in ‘Lambeth – Edward Hollamby talks to Peter Rawstorne’, RIBA Journal, July 1965
(9) Quoted in Concrete Quarterly, January-March 1972
For more information on the residents’ campaign against regeneration and background on the estate, visit Save Cressingham Gardens.
If you’re impatient for more description, analysis and illustration of the estate, visit the excellent blog post by Single Aspect.
If you’re in London, do visit it yourself during the Open House London weekend on 20 and 21 September.