The Brandon Estate in Southwark is ‘one of the most novel’ of the London County Council’s housing schemes. (1) There’s a lot to talk about – its visual presence, path-breaking high-rise, pioneering mixed development and, conversely, an early rehabilitation of Victorian terraces. Then there’s maybe the more familiar tale of descent – from ‘showpiece’ to ‘problem estate’.
To begin with, the Estate was intended as a statement – part of the LCC’s attempt to regenerate ‘the decaying and lifeless south bank of the Thames’. This had begun in 1911 with County Hall, now shamefully debased (a metaphor for our times) into a tacky tourist attraction. It was developed, in a grander post-45 vision, with the Festival of Britain and its legacy. The LCC proclaimed: (2)
the slim white towers of the LCC’s Brandon Estate at Kennington Oval have added a new and dramatic feature to the South London skyline…the 20th century South London Panorama is at last beginning to rival the older glory of the scene across the river.
All this replaced, in the words of the Council, ‘a depressing area of dingy 19th century terrace houses interspersed with bomb sites’, acquired by the LCC in 1952. The housing was overcrowded, lacking basic amenities and in poor repair but it was ‘for the most part structurally sound’. In another age, these might have become the des res’s of a gentrifying middle class; in social democratic Britain, 182 of these houses were converted into 328 self-contained council-owned flats and maisonettes which formed around one quarter of the new estate.
These are best seen in Lorrimore Square, retained from an existing but substantially adapted street pattern at the western end of the Estate. One side of the square is formed of substantial three-storey Victorian terraces and two sides of equivalent modern homes. The other is occupied by the new St Paul’s Church, a modernist Grade II-listed building of reinforced concrete designed by Woodroffe Buchanan & Coulter in 1959-1960 to replace one destroyed by wartime bombing.
The rehabilitation drive is rightly associated with the later 1960s’ disenchantment with estate design but it had been prefigured in a neglected clause of Nye Bevan’s 1949 Housing Act which provided 75 per cent Exchequer grants to councils for the purchase of homes for improvement or conversion. More famously, that Act declared a classless vision of council housing by removing the stipulation it be considered solely working-class accommodation. Different times and a lost alternative history.
Forsyth Gardens, on the Estate’s main artery Cook’s Road, was a new square lined with brick-faced four-storey maisonettes designed by Gregory Jones, intended to maintain, in Pevsner’s words, this ‘revival of Georgian town planning traditions’. (3)
Rehabilitation and the retention of an existing streetscape will please contemporary critics but the latter was the cause of some anguish at the time when the principle of separating cars and pedestrians was very much the governing wisdom.
The Council lamented that it had been ‘impossible to provide an ideally comprehensive system of independent footpaths’ but concluded that: (4)
by closing certain roads, through traffic had been canalised in Cook’s Road and every effort has been made to cater imaginatively for the pedestrian…a third of the inhabitants will in fact have uninterrupted pedestrian access to shops and open space.
Apparently, this wasn’t enough for early residents, two-thirds of whom wanted less traffic, and the author of the Architects’ Journal review of the Estate urged the closure of Cook’s Road too. You can make up your own mind of the rights and wrongs here but it’s a reminder at least that later judgments should be humble.
Further east, the Estate assumes its more striking and daringly modernist form. Across Cook’s Road lies the ten-storey Napier Tower, a gateway to the Estate’s pedestrianised shopping precinct, and beyond that its signature six 18-storey point blocks carefully set in a new extension to Kennington Park. In 1957, these were the highest blocks the LCC had built.
If you visit the Estate, you’ll see that these towers are not some alien and overpowering presence in the terrain but fit, as the architects intended, comfortably into their landscape. Their mix of bush hammered (providing texture) and precast finishes, pattern of strong horizontals and range of solid and glazed balconies gave, it was said, ‘a more humane scale and greater architectural sophistication than earlier points’. (5)
The high-rise development at the Estate’s eastern end was necessary to achieve the required density of 137 persons per acre – in total, the completed Estate would house a population of 3800, 600 more than had lived in the area prior to redevelopment.
The key principle of the Estate, designed by an LCC Architect’s Department team headed by Ted Hollamby, was ‘mixed development’. This was the coming idea of the mid-1950s, promoting the ideal of a range of housing forms intended to break both the monotony of traditional forms of working-class housing – public and private – and provide housing appropriate to a range of people and households in different life stages. It also licensed the idea of building high at a time when it was not envisaged that tower blocks would house young families.
Brandon is the acme of the mixed development idea in a number of ways. It’s seen, most obviously, in its: (6)
range of building types designed to cater for as many tastes and requirements as possible – bungalows for old people, two-storey houses and maisonettes for families who want gardens (and one person in three on this new estate will have a garden), together with flats ranging in height from three storeys to the 18 storey tower blocks.
But it’s there too in the variety of external materials used – ‘the list would read like a building exhibition catalogue of cladding materials’ according to one somewhat sceptical observer. He went on to criticise ‘an exaggerated fear of monotony, reflected in some strangely inconsistent and unprincipled detailing and a wilfully random choice of finishes’. But ultimately he was won over by: (7)
a conscious attempt to embody something of the visual intricacy and complexity which characterise, and attract us, in the organic and slow-grown parts of our older cities. It succeeds in this, to a greater extent than most recently planned environments built in one piece.
This attention to a humane environment was seen also in other details of the Estate. It included, for example, a number of small and secluded courtyard spaces – to the apparent consternation of the Housing Manager who foresaw ‘immorality in all sheltered corners’. In this, of course, Alice Coleman would prove a worthy successor.
It was seen as well in the artworks and decorative elements which adorned the Estate, notably the work of Anthony Hollaway and Lynn Easthope, employed by the LCC’s Housing Committee ‘as consultants for decorative treatment on housing estates’. Hollaway’s ‘hairy mammoth’ (marking the discovery of a fossilised mammoth tooth during site excavation) on the exterior wall of the club room survives as does his decorative frieze at the top of Napier Tower but the illuminated sign created for the Estate pub, the Canterbury Arms, and the broken tile mosaic in the precinct commemorating the Chartist meeting in 1848 on Kennington Common and other elements have been lost.
All this art came at a cost of £3215 which included Hollaway’s £1760 annual fee. He was rather resentful of the £8000 spent on the Estate’s masterpiece, Henry Moore’s Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 3 (donated at cost price by the artist), located in front of the Cornish House. (8)
All this is important as an indication of the care, attention and money (around £3.6m) that Hollamby and the LCC invested in the Brandon Estate, intended as a showpiece and not just another anonymous council estate. But the Estate stands or falls as a home for its people and, in this too, standards were high.
Firstly, it was designed as a community. Apart from the shopping precinct and club room already mentioned, there was a doctor’s surgery, a library, a housing area office and nine play spaces for toddlers and four playgrounds for older children.
The six point blocks contained 64 two-bedroom flats with all the modern conveniences to be expected in public housing – a bathroom and separate toilet, an electric drying cupboard, a linen cupboard and broom cupboard plus warm air central heating (from a central boiler room) and constant hot water. Each flat also benefited from a full-length private balcony at its front and a second, smaller, balcony in front of the kitchen windows.
At the top of each of the point blocks were four bed-sitter penthouses with private patios. The Housing Manager, moral antennae twitching, insisted that these be let to either all men or all women in any one block. One observer described these as ‘the only genuine metropolitan penthouses’ she knew ‘to be had for £4 a week with heating thrown in’.
It was with understandable pride, therefore, that the Estate was formally opened in December 1960 by Mrs Florence Cayford, chair of the LCC, as she ceremonially handed over the keys of no 62 on the 16th floor of Cornish House to Mr and Mrs O’Brien.
Another early resident was Mr Lawrence Fenton – an accountant of a music publishing firm and perhaps a quiet embodiment of Nye Bevan’s classless vision of council housing, the 30 year-old chair of the Estate’s tenants association and a leading light of its cine club. In the following year, the Estate was given a Civic Trust award for its design excellence. (9)
What could possibly go wrong? We’ll follow up in next week’s post.
(1) Elain Harwood, Space, Hope and Brutalism, English Architecture, 1945-1975 (2015)
(2) This and the preceding quotation are drawn from London County Council, Brandon Estate Southwark (ND)
(3) Bridget Cherry, Nikolaus Pevsner, London 2: South (1983)
(4) ‘Housing at the Brandon Estate, Southwark’, Architects’ Journal Information Library, November 1 1961
(5) ‘LCC Brandon Estate, Southwark’, Architecture and Building News, 3 January 1957
(6) ‘First of the “high altitude” tenants gets his key’, South London Observer, 21 January 1960
(7) ‘Housing at the Brandon Estate, Southwark’, Architects’ Journal Information Library
(8) Dawn Pereira, ‘Henry Moore and the Welfare State’ and ‘Current condition of LCC Patronage artworks’
(9) ‘Brandon Estate Clubs Get Off to Photo-Start’, South London Press, 23 December 1960. You can see some of the efforts of the Cine Club and much of the early life of the Estate on YouTube.