The most important buildings in London – those with the greatest social significance for the mass of its people and those which have made the greatest visual impact on the capital – are council houses. It’s partly that ubiquity and their relative accessibility that means most council estates don’t make it into Open House London – the annual celebration of the city’s architecture and design taking place this year on the weekend of the 19th and 20th September. And, then – let’s be fair here – there’s the fact that not all municipal schemes have represented the very best of architecture and design. That is not true of the London County Council’s pioneering Boundary Estate in Shoreditch, opened in March 1900.
But there’s also a larger and more sinister process in play – the progressive marginalisation of social housing. We are being asked to forget or even malign all that social housing has achieved. And, by the supporters and beneficiaries of a boundless free market, we are being asked to discount it as a solution to the present housing crisis.
A ‘pure’ focus on architecture and design can be complicit in this. Indeed, Open House London is complicit in this – its listing on Trevelyan House, which it describes rightly as ‘a classic 1950s Grade II listed Brutalist building designed by Denys Lasdun’, ignores the cardinal fact of its existence: that it was built by Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough Council to provide high-quality and affordable homes for local people. This is a kind of architectural social cleansing to match the sad reality on the ground in London.
This post offers an alternative perspective: a chronological tour of the Open House London venues which do mark this progressive history – council housing to savour and celebrate. I’ve written on many of these in the past so click on the links to get to those earlier posts and further information. Open House locations adjacent or relevant to the estates listed are picked out in bold.
We’ll begin in north London at the Tower Gardens Garden Suburb – designed and built by the London County Council before the First World War: a cottage estate for working people inspired by the Garden City and Arts and Crafts movements of the day. Just under 1000 homes were built on the Estate before the war halted construction; a further 1266 houses and flats were added – in plainer style but in keeping with Garden City ideals – in a northwards extension to the Estate between the wars.
Those interwar years are largely absent from Open House though the LCC built 89,049 homes during the period. Few are ‘statement architecture’ – just plain neo-Georgian houses and gardens in the suburbs (along the later lines of Tower Gardens) or the pervasive five-storey walk-up tenement blocks of the inner city – but they provided the first decent homes many Londoners had known.
In Becontree, the LCC built what was by most measures the largest council estate in the world – 24,000 houses on 3000 acres of market gardens, cottages and country lanes beyond London’s eastern borders in Essex: ‘built in England’, as its first chronicler Terence Young notes, ‘where the most revolutionary social changes can take place, and people in general do not realise that they have occurred’.
The Estate may be unfashionable but as one long-term resident recalls, ‘as far as my Mum was concerned, it was heaven with the gates off’. Fortunately, this history has been recorded by the Mobile Museum which can be visited during Open House weekend at the estate’s Valence House Museum. (1)
One of the early eight-storey blocks on the original estate
Housing needs, of course, became even more pressing after 1945, firstly in the need to replace homes damaged or destroyed in the Blitz and secondly, from the mid-1950s, in the national drive to clear the country’s slums. Woodberry Down, begun in 1946, was the first major post-war LCC scheme, heralded then as the ‘estate of the future’. Its earliest eight-storey blocks marked the times – by their height and innovative use of lifts and by their construction of reinforced concrete from recycled air raid shelters.
The Open House Woodberry Down Urban Sustainability and Place-making Tour speaks a more contemporary language and marks the recent and ongoing regeneration of the Estate but, if you go, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to look at the wider development. Woodberry Down is by far one of the least bad examples of regeneration (I’ve even avoided the scare quotes for once) – 41 per cent of new homes are for social rent and shared ownership but the glitzy private new build in prime locations and the marginalisation of the Estate’s previous community tells its own story of contemporary priorities, values and pressures.
The LCC also built the more celebrated Lansbury Estate in Poplar, opened initially in 1951 as a living ‘Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning, and Building Research’ for the Festival of Britain that year. It’s easy to be unimpressed by its modest yellow-brick terraces and small blocks of flats and maisonettes – and much contemporary architectural opinion was – but take time to savour a moment when (in the words of the Festival’s on-site town planning exhibition) our politics were driven by ‘The Battle for Land’ and ‘The Needs of the People’ and the question ‘How can these needs be met?’.
You’ll be visiting Frederick Gibberd’s Chrisp Street Market and clock tower, built to provide facilities and a focal point for the new estate – the first pedestrianized shopping street in the country. That too is subject to ‘regeneration’ by the local housing association landlord Poplar HARCA – after all it’s so close to that beacon of our new world, Canary Wharf.
‘The vision’, according to United House Developments, is ‘to create a new food shopping destination, with new outside eating areas’ which, it is claimed, will benefit local traders and residents. That begs the question which local traders and residents – it looks more like gentrification to me and a local campaign is demanding ‘fruit and veg and social housing, not corporate brands and luxury flats’. (2)
Straying from our chronology briefly but keeping close geographically, the more controversial Balfron Tower, designed by Ernő Goldfinger, is a five-minute walk to the east – controversial at the time of its construction by the LCC and its successor, the Greater London Council, in the mid-1960s as one of the starkest and most imposing examples of Brutalism; more controversial now as an illustration of the meaning of contemporary regeneration: its tenants ‘decanted’, the flats to be sold (by Poplar HARCA) to those with the means to buy them on the open market.
Balfron Tower doesn’t appear in Open House this year but its younger sister Trellick Tower in West London does and this, fortunately, despite Right to Buy, remains for the most part social housing owned by the Royal Borough Kensington and Chelsea. I haven’t written on Trellick but I hope the post on Balfron can provide some useful background.
Jumping forward again but keeping our geographical focus, a two-mile work westwards along the Thames brings you to another Kensington and Chelsea scheme, the World’s End Estate, designed by Eric Lyons (of Span fame) and built between 1969 and 1977. It’s a dense, high-rise development of 750 homes in seven high-rise tower blocks of between 18 and 21 storeys joined by nine 9 four-storey walkway blocks in a figure of eight.
But its red-brick cladding, polygonal towers and green courtyards give it a romantic, almost castle-like appearance, enhanced by its spectacular Thames-side setting. More importantly, it’s been a good home to generations of ordinary Londoners, built at a time when riverside settings and views weren’t reserved to the wealthy.
A brisk thirty-minute walk eastwards along the Thames and a quarter-century backwards, the Churchill Gardens Estate, officially opened in 1951, returns us to post-war idealism. Built by Westminster City Council and designed by two architects, Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, in their mid-twenties, it is – in my view – one of the most attractive council estates in the country and voted by the Civic Trust in 2000 as its outstanding building scheme of the last forty years.
The sheer size of the Estate is impressive – a 30 acre site, 1661 homes, 36 blocks, housing a population of some 5000 – but it is the quality of architecture, layout and landscaping which should be stand out from a walk through its blocks and terraces.
It’s the Pimlico District Heating Undertaking, in the centre of the Estate, which is on the Open House itinerary but don’t feel short-changed. According to Ian Nairn, its ‘best single building’ was ‘the crisp and elegant boiler house at the bottom of the big polygonal tower’.
We’ll continue our tour of Open House London council housing venues in next week’s post.
(1) Find out more about the Mobile Museum and its record of estates in Barking and Dagenham at its website here.
(2) You’ll find the proposals from United House Developments here and a Poplar HARCA consultation to which you can respond on-line here. You can follow @ and the campaign against the redevelopment of the market on Twitter.