This is a story about fashion – the changing ideas and shifting trends which shape popular beliefs about housing and the planners’ briefs which emerge. It reflects also – and perhaps unfashionably in discussions around the architecture of council housing – on how these affect those for whom this housing was intended whose needs (as the latest round of ‘regeneration’ shows even more strongly) are often marginal to the talk and decisions which take place.
Camden’s Highgate New Town redevelopment, begun in the late sixties and completed in 1981 by which time the door had slammed on such municipal dreams, offers as fine a case study of council housing’s fickle fashions as you could wish for. Follow me on this three-part journey.
Camden itself was becoming ‘trendy’ in the sixties and the new council formed in 1965 made the most of this – it was a (predominantly) Labour borough with the style, ambition and the rateable value to build council housing of the highest quality. We’ve looked at its fine Alexandra Road and Branch Hill Estates already and today we examine another of its flagship schemes, the Whittington Estate.
Trend One: the demolition of rundown Victorian terraces
Highgate New Town was an area of working-class terraced housing developed in later nineteenth century. Multi-occupied from the outset, parts rapidly acquired a poor reputation and, as 75 per cent of the homes lacked bathrooms, it was a natural target for the planners and politicians of the sixties in their aim to rid the country once and for all of the slums which still housed many of our working-class. (1)
We’ll see that aim or, at least, that strategy questioned later but it’s worth remembering just how substandard those homes were and how far superior in space and facilities the local authority homes which replaced them. The old terraces were seen as unhealthy and monotonous and those who moved out generally felt little affection for the world they left behind.
Trend Two: Low rise, high density
Camden’s planning of Stage One of the redevelopment scheme – what became the Whittington Estate – began in 1968. The collapse of Ronan Point, a system-built tower block, in May that year had provided a final impetus to the increasing opposition to high-rise but, in this, Camden was ahead of the game.
Instead, the Council was developing what became its own signature house style: (2)
the linear stepped-section block…A form of housing was sought which related more closely to the existing urban fabric than the slab and tower blocks, and which brought more dwellings close to the ground.
The Estate’s pre-cast concrete construction and dark-stained timber are also typical features of the Camden housing schemes of the era.
The design emerged, almost unbelievably, from the diploma project of a young Hungarian architect, Peter Tábori, then in his mid-twenties. So impressed was Camden Borough Architect, Sydney Cook, with the project that he commissioned Tábori to design the final scheme.
The Whittington Estate comprises six parallel terraces – 271 dwellings housing around 1100, ranging from one-bed flats to six-bed houses – enclosing four pedestrian streets. The bare description does little to capture the scheme’s attractiveness, firstly the intimacy of scale achieved by its thoughtful use of a sloping site.
Then there are the terraces which are varied in form and broken up by staggered throughways to ensure each has a distinct character and appearance; the green spaces and play areas between them; and finally, the more informal planting which provides a greenery that obliterates any starkness that could linger in the Estate’s design. If this is Brutalism, it’s very domesticated.
The individual homes, each with their own directly-accessed front door, received similar attention. Kitchens were placed to overlook the pedestrian walkways and allow supervision of children, anticipating the current vogue for what is called ‘the natural surveillance of the streets’. All homes had a south-facing outdoor space – a balcony or terrace – and in dwellings of more than one floor living space was generally placed at an upper level to maximise internal light – glazed walls separated the living room from the terraces.
The interiors, mainly designed by Ken Adie of the Council’s Department of Technical Services, were planned for flexible use – walls were divided into panels by storey-height doors, double doors and sliding partitions allowed for rooms to be opened up or closed according to need. (3)
If all this gets a contemporary thumbs-up, another nod to prevailing wisdom – the provision of a huge underground car park based on one car space per dwelling – now looks decidedly dodgy and became very problematic. The full-time attendant planned didn’t materialise as local government belts were tightened and design features – attempts to introduce natural light and multiple entries – failed. Not overall a good use of the £611,890 spent on providing 268 car parking spaces. (4)
Still, in these less environmentally and apparently more status conscious times, Su Rogers, for one, was more concerned that ‘the status symbol of having your car parked outside the front door’ was neglected and only partly compensated for by the planned ‘Sunday morning workshops and “car washing clubs”’. (5)
For all the good intentions, the actual construction of the Estate was plagued with problems. Building began in 1972 and was scheduled for completion in 1974. The original contractors had problems with the scheme’s precast concrete panels and went bust in 1976. Construction defects then required elements of the scheme built to date to be demolished and rebuilt. In all, the Estate cost over £9m to build – well over twice the original estimate – and wasn’t finished until 1979.
The practical difficulties encountered in Stage 1 were a major factor in the decision to embark on a very different design for the second phase of redevelopment south of Raydon Street. Changing tastes were another.
Trend Three: ‘Back to the Future’ – the rejection of estates and a return to streets
In this, and in the main thrust of her critique, Ms Rogers was far more prescient:
It is difficult not to question the policy of building housing “estates”, “areas”, “schemes” isolating one use from the more natural and spontaneous surrounding areas…I wonder how long it will be before the next generation will be appalled by the enormous acreage, albeit low-rise, of housing developments, self-contained within themselves with standard pedestrian decks, coloured front doors, toddler play areas, estate supermarkets and community centres which are the utopias of the local authorities.
Not long was the answer. Written in 1973, this was an early anticipation of current wisdom – a wholesale rejection of the council estate model rooted in nostalgia for traditional streetscapes and the community which they (allegedly) fostered.
There’s much to unpick here – not least the romanticised notions of earlier housing forms and the disingenuous assumption that market-driven decisions (determined by class, relative power and wealth) are somehow innocent or ‘natural’. But it reflects thinking that became the norm and was – without hyperbole – seismic in impact, not just on council housing but on the wider economy. When planning is the enemy and the unfettered free market an ally, we open the door to the inequality and exploitation, the greed and division, which so mark contemporary society.
That politicians and planners made mistakes goes without saying, of course, some recognised in the very thinking which inspired the Whittington Estate. Elsewhere, however, even as the Highgate scheme took off, reconditioning of older properties was becoming the vogue, not least in Camden itself where the Council’s wholesale purchase and refurbishment of such homes preserved many for working-class occupation. (6) Elsewhere in London these properties are now the des res’s of the middle-class, unaffordable to all but the most well-heeled.
We’ll follow the continuing story of the Whittington Estate next week and look at the very different housing built in Stage Two of the Highgate New Town development – a continuing study in the contexts and trends that have shaped our social housing and, as importantly, our perceptions of it.
(1) Camden Council, Dartmouth Park Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Statement (January 2009)
(2) James Dunnett, ‘The Work of the Department of Technical Service’ in Camden Libraries and Arts Department, Modern Homes in Camden (1984)
(3) Fabian Wilkinson, ‘The Rebuilding of Highgate New Town’, Highgate Society Buzz, Winter 2001
(4) London Borough of Camden, Housing (Development) Subcommittee, 29 October 1979
(5) Su Rogers, ‘Preview: Highgate New Town’, Architectural Review, September 1973
(6) Owen Hatherley, ‘This Property is Condemned’, Mute, 30 April 2013
With thanks to the excellent resources and always helpful staff of the Camden Local Studies and Archives department.