Part One of our tour of Open House London council estates – the event is scheduled for the weekend of the 19th and 20th September – left us in Westminster at Churchill Gardens, one of the very few schemes envisaged in Patrick Abercrombie’s visionary Plan for the post-war reconstruction of London to be completed. Still, the arduous work of slum clearance and rebuilding continued, nowhere more so than in the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green whose council, so unfairly ignored in the Open House guide, was among the most ambitious and innovative in the capital.
Completed in 1958, Trevelyan House (alongside the adjacent Sulkin House) was a pioneering example of the cluster block, designed by Denys Lasdun with a central, free-standing tower containing lifts and services and the separate towers containing accommodation and intended to allow more light and air into the building whilst simultaneously providing greater privacy and quiet to housing areas.
You can see all this worked out more fully and on a larger scale in Keeling House, a fifteen-minute walk away to the east off Bethnal Green Road. Completed one year later, it was 16 storeys-high, four blocks around the central service core containing 64 homes in all – 56 two-storey maisonettes and, on the fifth floor and deliberately visible in the building’s profile, 8 single-storey studio flats.
After a history of neglect and unable to pay for necessary repairs to the now Grade II-listed building, it was sold by Tower Hamlets Council to private developers for £1.3m in 1999. I was told, on good authority, that almost half its current residents are architects.
Perronet House, designed by Roger Walters and built by the Greater London Council, was opened in Southwark the Elephant and Castle in 1970. It won a Good Design in Housing award from the Ministry of Local Government and Housing a year later, commended for the ‘boldness and conviction’ of its design and its ‘good mix of amenities’. Eleven storeys high, it’s noteworthy for its split level scissor section layout – the three-storey flats are wrapped around a central communal corridor and each enjoys a dual aspect outlook unobstructed by external corridors.
At around the same time in the leafy southern hinterlands of Southwark, another innovative design (from a young Kate Macintosh) was built by Southwark Borough Council. Dawson’s Heights – comprising two red-brick faced ziggurat-style blocks rising to twelve storeys at peak – stands on a commanding hilltop site in East Dulwich. Despite effusive praise from English Heritage, commending its ‘striking and original massing’ and its ‘evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns’, the Estate isn’t listed yet but it remains largely social housing under the management of the Southern Housing Group.
Macintosh’s fine work has fared better in her sheltered housing scheme at 269 Leigham Court Road in Lambeth which was listed this year. Sadly, the threat is all too real as residents in two of Lambeth’s superb housing schemes, both featured in Open House and designed under the visionary leadership of Borough Architect Ted Hollamby, know only too well.
Central Hill in Upper Norwood, completed in 1973, is also a stepped development designed to make best use of its attractive site but it reflects Lambeth and Hollamby’s signature style of this time in its intimacy and human scale – a deliberate attempt to escape the alienating size and impersonal quality of many of the larger and much-criticised local authority high-rise schemes of the 1960s. Hollamby believed that ‘most people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments. They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not’.
It’s worked; it’s a well-loved estate with a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, as part of Lambeth’s commendable pledge to build 1000 new homes at council rent in the borough, it has become another victim of ‘regeneration’; in actual fact the threat of demolition.
All these council estates – like homes everywhere – require upkeep and maintenance (and too many have fallen prey to poor maintenance over the years) but ‘regeneration’ in this context means the destruction of good homes and the wiping out of existing communities. One driver of this madness is ‘densification’ – an ugly term to describe the ugly reality that many of our politicians and planners believe working-class homes must be built at greater density. The other is money or the lack of it – the pressure to sell council real estate and build private housing for sale in order to raise capital for new social housing, at best, or so-called ‘affordable’ housing at worst.
The lunatic logic of this should be plain to all but those with a naïve faith or vested interest in the unfettered market – the very market which failed ordinary people in years past and fails us now.
The plans to wreak this havoc on Cressingham Gardens, one of Lambeth’s finest estates – described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’ – have already been approved, its residents still fighting valiantly a rear-guard action. It’s a beautiful estate nestling on the edge of Brockwell Park which manages superbly, in Hollamby’s words again, 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’. It’s worth a visit and its residents deserve our support.
Just as Lambeth had developed its own house style by the 1970s, so had Camden under the enlightened leadership of a progressive council and the architectural ideals of Borough Architect Sydney Cook. This can be seen firstly in the Whittington Estate, begun in 1969, designed by Peter Tábori, another young architect then in his mid-twenties.
It’s a larger, grander scheme than those of Lambeth – in signature Camden style, six parallel linear stepped-section blocks of light pre-cast concrete construction and dark-stained timber. It was designed to be a ‘form of housing…which related more closely to the existing urban fabric than the slab and tower blocks, and which brought more dwellings close to the ground’. Each home had its own front door and a walk through the front door of 8 Stoneleigh Terrace during Open House will allow you to glimpse the innovative interior design of the housing too, chiefly the work of Ken Adie of the Council’s Department of Technical Services.
When you leave take time to visit a later stage of the Highgate New Town scheme along Dartmouth Park Hill, marking a turn away from the estate conception to streetscape and more in keeping with local vernacular form but still housing of very high quality. Finally, a view of the Chester-Balmore Scheme, built to Passivhaus standards to ensure the highest levels of sustainability, at the corner of Raydon Street and Chester Road opposite the Whittington Estate, will show you the very latest trends in social housing.
The other Camden scheme in Open House is often regarded as the one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road Estate, listed Grade II* in 1993. You’ll also have a chance to visit the Tenants’ Hall (also designed by Neave Brown – the only living architect to have had all his British work listed) with an exhibition on the Estate and the newly-restored linear park integral to the overall conception and liveability of the scheme. It’s all better seen than described but, in its scale and confidence, it marks (in the words of modernist architect John Winter), ‘a magical moment for English housing’. It was completed in 1979 – the year in which such ambition would be consigned to the graveyard of history.
It’s a sad irony that some of the very best of our council housing was built just as its near century-long story of practical idealism and shared social purpose was drawing to a close. I hadn’t intended this tour of some of London’s finest council estates to be so elegiac but the contemporary picture of social housing’s marginalisation and market-driven ‘regeneration’ creates a poignant counterpoint to the energy and aspirations of previous generations. If you visit any of the estates on show during Open House London, my plea to you is to think of them not as monuments to a bygone era but as beacons of what we can and should achieve in a brighter future.
It’s been pointed out that I haven’t mentioned the Noel Park Estate in Haringey. It was built by the Artizans, Labourers and General Dwellings Company (and so strictly didn’t qualify) between 1881 and 1927 but, taken over by Haringey Council in 1966 and a fine example of high-quality social housing, it’s definitely worth a visit.
The residents of Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens both have active campaigns fighting to preserve their homes and communities. See Save Central Hill and Save Cressingham Gardens to find out more and lend your support.
SHOUT (Social Housing under Threat) has its own website and is actively campaigning to defend social housing and promote it as the best and necessary solution to our housing crisis.