A brief bonus post this week to mark the exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives celebrating the ‘housing designed and built for Londoners by the London County Council (LCC) and Greater London Council (GLC)’. The exhibition runs till 26 May, full details at the bottom of the post.
It’s a small show – just the tiniest glimpse into the rich photographic and documentary record held by the Met Archives – but it offers a representative overview and some stunning images. There is also a ten-minute film show featuring excerpts from three LCC/GLC films – ‘The Changing Face of London’ (1960), ‘Somewhere Decent to Live’ (1967) and Thamesmead 1970 (1970). These put the human face onto a proud housing record and remind you of the high hopes and ideals, not always fulfilled, which informed the work of the Councils and their architects. Thamesmead looks wonderful, by the way, ‘a city of the 21st century’ as the commentary claims – and maybe it will be yet.
The image of the slums of Tabard Street at the entrance to the exhibition reminds us why we built. The LCC’s first estate was, famously, the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, opened in 1900.
Whilst tenements – designed with fine arts and craft sensibilities – were necessary in the inner city, the Council also built cottage suburbs such as the White Hart Lane Estate in Haringey which captured the Garden City ideals of the day.
This 1934 map of LCC estates shows just how much was achieved in a short period as council house building in London took off – the LCC built around 10,000 homes before 1914 and over 89,000 between the wars, over half of these located in the new cottage suburbs.
Flats were still needed in inner London and by the 1930s there were attempts to make them more attractive to would-be tenants. The Oaklands Estate in Clapham with its sweeping, moderne, ocean liner-style balconies is one of the finest examples.
Post-war construction saw some of most striking highs and lows – literally and metaphorically – of London’s council housing. The Alton Estate built in two phases in the 1950s and early 1960s – Alton East reflecting the Scandinavian-influenced, ‘New Humanist’ wing of the LCC Architect’s Department; Alton West, the le Corbusier-inspired ‘Brutalists’ – represents the very best.
In this period, the LCC possessed the world’s largest architects’ office with, in 1952, a staff of over 1500 including 350 professional architects and trainees. This shot of an Alton home reminds us that equal care was given to designing comfortable, modern interiors.
By the 1960s, much new council housing was high-rise – the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in Newham in May 1968 is traditionally taken to mark the end of this fashion. The St George’s Estate, opened in Stepney in 1972, was among the last of the point blocks.
In 1981 there were 769,996 council homes in Greater London, many built by the boroughs. Forty-three per cent of London households lived in council homes. All this was a stupendous achievement, sometimes imperfectly executed but the solid mark of a state and society which believed in its duty to decently house all its people.
This is just a brief selection of the images – and a whistle-stop tour of the history – included in the exhibition. My thanks to the London Metropolitan Archives for supplying most of the images above (a couple of the lower-quality ones were taken by me at the exhibition).
The exhibition is running from the 24 to the 26 May between 9.30 and 19.30 at the London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Rd, London EC1R 0HB. Full details are posted on their website.