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 their ubiquity and relative accessibility that means most council estates don’t make it into Open House London, the capital’s annual celebration of its built heritage taking place on the weekend of the 17-18 September this year. 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.
But there’s another process in play – the marginalisation of social housing and its contribution to the lives of so many. We are 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 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’, still ignores the cardinal fact of its existence (despite my comments last year): 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 are picked out in bold.
We’ll begin with the country’s first council estate, the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, opened in 1900. It doesn’t feature in Open House this year but I want to publicise the Boundary Estate Fun Palace, taking place on October 1. You’ll find Fun Palaces up and down the country that weekend, all dedicated to a belief in ‘the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better’. Check out the great programme of the Boundary Estate Fun Palace, including lots of significant social history for those of you who are interested.
I’ll cheat slightly with my next suggestion too. The Progress Estate in Eltham was built by the Ministry of Works during the First World War and designed by the Ministry’s Chief Architect, Frank Baines; its role, to support the war effort by providing high-quality housing to the workers of the nearby Royal Arsenal Munitions Works. Almost 1300 homes were built in the single year of 1915, showing what can be done when housing needs are prioritised. Originally named the Well Hall Estate, it was renamed in 1925 when the Government sold it to the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Society. Fifty-five years later, the 500 remaining social rented homes were sold on to the Hyde Housing Association.
The Estate represented the fullest flowering of the Arts and Crafts garden suburb ideals of its time, ideals enshrined in the 1918 Tudor Walters Report which shaped the massive growth of council housing in the interwar period – 89,049 council homes were built during the period by the London County Council alone. The estate remains a tribute to the best of social housing and almost to the present a pastoral idyll, well worth a visit for its architecture and history.
The Becontree Estate in Dagenham, first mooted in 1919 at the height of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ campaign, represents the other side to these ambitions – the desire to build at massive scale to meet the pressing housing needs of the day. It was the largest of the LCC’s interwar estates, comprising by 1939 over 26,000 homes and housing a population of 120,000. Such size (and an unpromising site) led some – despite the planners’ best efforts – to criticise the mass and uniformity of the Estate but to many, moving from inner-city slums, ‘it was heaven with the gates off.’
If you’re there, make sure to visit the Mobile Museum too which will based at Barking Town Square, in Clockhouse Avenue, a mobile library van converted by the artist Verity-Jane Keefe to collect the memories and artefacts of those who have lived in Becontree and the other council estates of the Borough of Barking and Dagenham. Valence House, on the Estate, a 15th century manor house purchased to serve local needs by the LCC in 1926, is a now a local museum recording the distant and more recent history of the area, including some interesting records and re-creations of Becontree.
The Lansbury Estate in Poplar would serve as a model for another era of post-war council housing when it was opened in 1951 to serve as a living ‘Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning, and Building Research’ for the Festival of Britain. 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?’.
The Estate epitomises the ‘neighbourhood unit’, a key element of post-war planning envisaged as a means of preserving and enhancing an ideal of ‘community’ which some felt betrayed by larger, more anonymous council estates such as Becontree.
Its centrepiece was Frederick Gibberd’s Chrisp Street Market and clock tower – the first pedestrianised shopping centre in the country. For Open House, you can visit the micro-museum on the Lansbury set up by the V and A in collaboration with the National Trust and Poplar HARCA and have a rare opportunity to climb the clock tower.
If you visit, go critically with eyes and ears open to the tensions and contradictions of the ‘regeneration’ which is being visited here as on so many of our council estates. Poplar HARCA and developers have plans to make Chrisp Street a ‘new commercial and leisure destination’. Of course, all the right noises are being made about respecting local heritage and the interests of existing traders but some locals – campaigning for ‘fruit and veg and social housing, not corporate brands and luxury flats’ – see an insidious process of gentrification underway, in part legitimised by what some see as the ‘art-washing’ of the V and A and National Trust.
With Canary Wharf just to the south and Balfron Tower a five-minute walk to the west, such fears are not groundless. Designed by Ernő Goldfinger and opened by the Greater London Council in 1968, Balfron is famous (or infamous according to taste) as one of the most imposing Brutalist designs of its time but it was, first and foremost, housing for working-class people being moved from local slums.
According to Ursula Goldfinger (she and Ernő lived briefly in the block on its opening to gauge its successes and failures), its early residents ‘all said the flats were lovely’; she ‘never heard anybody express regret for the terrace houses they have mostly come from’. Now the block’s council tenants have been ‘decanted’ and the flats are to be sold 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, also designed by Goldfinger, Trellick Tower in West London, opened in 1972, does and this, fortunately, despite Right to Buy, remains social housing owned by the Royal Borough Kensington and Chelsea. I haven’t written on Trellick but I hope the posts on Balfron can provide some useful background.
As we’ve skipped our chronological focus for a geographical one, I’ll continue here by taking you five minutes to the south to Robin Hood Gardens. Balfron was Grade II listed in 1996, Trellick Grade II* two years later. Despite the best efforts of the architectural great and good, no such security has been granted to Alison and Peter Smithson’s path-breaking scheme, opened in 1972 and now due for demolition as part of the Blackwall Reach regeneration project.
Run-down, largely cleared, Robin Hood Gardens presents a sorry picture now but visit it before it’s gone and savour something of its scale and grandeur. While not all its aspirations were fulfilled, its ‘streets in the sky’ and overall design sensibilities represent some of the highest ideals of social housing. The Estate’s subsequent real-world difficulties – understood sensitively – also have much to teach us.
And, finally today, back to Trevelyan House, built – I’ll labour the point – by a Labour council determined to rehouse a working-class population living in some of the worse slum housing in the capital, wrestling with the problem of limited land and awkwardly shaped plots, yet reluctant to build too high.
The Council commissioned Denys Lasdun to provide a solution and he devised (with the adjacent Sulkin House) a pioneering example of the cluster block – a central, free-standing tower containing lifts and services with separate towers containing accommodation. The eight-storey block comprises 24 maisonettes arranged in a design which maximises their light and air whilst simultaneously providing greater privacy and quiet.
Lasdun was determined to build maisonettes, approximating more closely to the two-storey terraced housing from which most new residents had come. Enjoy the ‘modern re-design’ on view this year but don’t forget its history.
A fifteen-minute walk away to the east off Bethnal Green Road, you can see a more fully worked-out and larger-scale version of the cluster block design by Lasdun in Keeling House (not in Open House), completed one year later. Sixteen 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, the block 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.
I’ll continue this look at the council housing heritage celebrated in Open House London in next week’s post.