Last week’s post looked at Stage One of the Highgate New Town development – Peter Tábori’s Whittington Estate. That’s the estate which sets architectural pulses racing now but back in the day it was unfashionable even before it was finished in 1979; it was Stage Two – very different in design and conception – that won awards and kudos.
The construction problems and delays associated with the Whittington Estate had led Camden to decide upon a very different path for later phases of the redevelopment as early as the mid-seventies. In the first place, however, the Council opted for a quick fix but the prototype design it selected was surprisingly innovative in both technique and form.
Trend Four: High Tech
The two new terraces – of shops and maisonettes along Chester Road and maisonettes and bedsitters on Balmore Street – were designed by Bill Forrest and Oscar Palacio of the Council’s Department of Technical Services in the emerging High Tech form, marked by a ‘preference for lightweight materials and sheer surfaces, a readiness to adopt new techniques from engineering…and the celebratory display of a building’s construction and services’. (1)
But there the comparison with the Lloyds Building ends. The scheme was completed ahead of time in March 1978 and its ‘rather delicate prefab aesthetic…its light touch, thin blue railings against white and terracotta asbestos-cement panels…looked fine when finished – and for a few months after’. After that, however, it came – in the eyes of one astringent commentator, at least – to look more like ‘a pair of abandoned trams or the beat-up housing compounds of migrant workers in Africa, its form and construction ‘quite unsuited to public housing’. (2)
The terraces, given a life-time of 25 years, would somehow survive another thirty years, replaced only recently by the current state of the art development we’ll examine in the next post. (3)
In the interim, the next stage of Forrest and Palacio’s plans – usually called the Dartmouth Park Hill Estate – was designed with a very different aesthetic and garnered very different reactions.
Trend Three again: ‘Back to the Future’ – the rejection of estates and a return to streets
Stage One, the Whittington Estate, had had a difficult birth and turned out – in architectural terms at least if not to the many it provided a fine new home – an unwanted child.
Roger Stonehouse, writing two years after its completion, captured the mood: (4)
It is a typical story of the 60s and 70s – a dramatic swing of attitude away from massive high density redevelopment in complex forms of innovative construction, towards gradual renewal at lower density in low rise, traditional forms of housing using traditional construction.
This was reflected in the new guidance from the then Department of Environment supporting gradual renewal of run-down areas through a combination of rehabilitation and selective infill. Camden itself had adopted a policy requiring all families with children to be housed on the ground floor.
Thus it was that around half the houses originally scheduled for demolition in the succeeding phase were retained and refurbished. The new-build began in 1978 and was finished in 1981 at a total cost a little over of £1.5m, providing homes for some 287 people in a combination of two and three-person flats and four to five-person houses.
Camden’s signature dark-stained wood remained and the scheme retained some colourful elements and flourishes in its glazed and metal-framed access stairways, white panelling and red-brick detailing. But, brick-built and two-three-storey, it was in essence – as Stonehouse describes – ‘a return to housing which is more clearly related to its surroundings’.
To Lionel Esher in A Broken Wave – an early elegy on the ebbing of the briefly-linked tides of Welfare State ambition and architectural modernism – Dartmouth Park Hill was a key example of this shift in thinking: (5)
Even the Camden Borough architects, hitherto whiter than white, switched to yellow brick with red stripes and pretty ironwork.
The Civic Trust, which commended the scheme in 1983, was more positive, indeed effusive; the new housing suggested: (6)
memories of Edwardian villas and the welcoming scale of a delightful suburbia. Every element of the design, down to the last detail of sign-writing, has been carefully considered and sensitively handled. The environment created is rich in content, colour and texture, and the imagination is stimulated by a wealth of delightfully rendered images and totems – entrance urns, porches, balcony ironware, trellises, archways. It is not often that nineteenth century housing appears at a disadvantage in comparison with new-build, but this scheme enhances the surroundings.
If all this does suggest to modernists a too homely and home-spun design, the scheme remains striking, particularly in its long three-strong barrier block fronting Dartmouth Park Hill. The red, green and white detailing adds colour and interest and the block possesses a scale and presence. The access stairways break up the long terrace, creating a deliberate echo of the Edwardian homes facing, but it’s still the later development which has more bravura.
Balconies to the rear provided a little outdoor space though Stonehouse expressed concern that some were already ‘a little cluttered’ – a minor point perhaps but (as we’ll see next week) one that can cause alarm to those for whom this small sign of council house tenants taking ‘ownership’ of their homes can spoil the aesthetic they seek.
The short terrace of houses on Raydon Street facing the Whittington Estate looks timid in comparison – a ‘thoroughly turned-tide, pointless humility’ according to Douglas Murphy (7) – but the small triangle of houses built around an attractive, green open space on Doynton Street looks pretty good and the resident I spoke to was happy to live there and happy to have it photographed once she’d ascertained there was no nefarious purpose.
While wandering around the Estate, I also met the widow of one of the original team of architects – also a resident (and a tenant, mark you, not a leaseholder), she too was very fond of the scheme and proud to have it recognised. It’s due to have its heating and water systems updated and she was anxious that new exposed pipework would disfigure the archways providing through access. I hope the Council will be sensitive to this.
Finally, and a clear prefiguring of another concern that will take centre-stage next week, the public open spaces of the scheme were kept to a minimum for reasons of maintenance and – the key issue perhaps – security. Roads were retained either as roads or as pedestrian through-routes – this was ‘good’ open space – offering permeability in the modern jargon. The separation of traffic and pedestrians and the very enclosedness that was an initial virtue of the Whittington Estate were now seen as problematic, estates themselves had become a problem.
The next post will look at the next trend that would mark our understanding of council estates, the theories of ‘defensible space’ that dominated the nineteen-eighties. It will examine the fall and rise of the Whittington Estate, the changes of tenure which have transformed council housing and the very latest building forms and principles which replaced the flawed design of the High Tech element of this second phase of the Highgate New Town development.
We’ll conclude today, however, with words spoken in 1983 which were, sadly, even then anachronistic. Whether you applaud the architectural bravura of Stage One or the more ‘in keeping’ urbanism of Stage Two, we should remember above all this was housing built to serve the needs of the people. As Cllr Bill Birtles, then chair of the Council’s Housing Development Committee stated: (8)
Not only have we the obligation to rehouse thousands of people in the borough; we also have an obligation to house them well and to house them in the most pleasant and elegant surroundings we can manage.
Camden did that in some style.
(1) RIBA, High Tech (‘The Brits who built the Modern World’)
(2) ‘Astragal’ in the Architects’ Journal, 1980, quoted in Fabian Wilkinson, ‘The Rebuilding of Highgate New Town’, Highgate Society Buzz, Winter 2001
(3) My thanks to Modern Architecture London for permission to use photographs taken in August 2011 just prior to demolition. Its post on Highgate New Town offers a range of good images and further detail on the development as a whole.
(4) Roger Stonehouse, ‘Building Study: Housing of Highgate New Town, London N19, Architects’ Journal, 12 August 1981
(5) Lionel Esher, A Broken Wave: the Rebuilding of England 1940-1980 (1981)
(6) Quoted in Camden Council, ‘Press Release HNT Stage 2 got Civic Trust award’, 29 November 1983
(7) Douglas Murphy, ‘A Trip to N19’, 7 September 2011
(8) Quoted in Camden Council, ‘Press Release HNT Stage 2 got Civic Trust award’
With thanks to the excellent resources and always helpful staff of the Camden Local Studies and Archives department.