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. In 1981, at peak, there were 769,996 council homes in the capital and they housed near 31 percent of its population.
It’s partly this ubiquity and familiarity that means most council estates don’t make it into Open House London, the capital’s annual celebration of its built heritage taking place this year on the weekend of the 16-17 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.
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 all that social housing has achieved, just as we are asked by some supporters of a boundless free market to discount it as a solution to the present housing crisis.
This post offers an alternative perspective: a chronological tour of the Open House London venues which do mark an alternative and 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, appropriately, with the Tower Gardens Estate in Tottenham – designed and built by the London County Council (LCC) 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.
The Progress Estate in Eltham wasn’t a municipal scheme. It 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 was a crucial influence on the 1918 Tudor Walters Report which in turn did much to shape the form and nature of council housing in the interwar period when the LCC alone built 89,049 council homes in the capital. Some 26,000 of these were built on the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, first mooted in 1919 at the height of the ‘Homes for Heroes’ campaign. It was the largest of the LCC’s interwar estates, housing by 1939 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 Valence House too, a 15th century manor house purchased to serve local needs by the LCC in 1926, and 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.
While there, you’ll see Balfron Tower which is a five-minute walk to the west. 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. 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. With a history of ‘art washing’ intended to sanitise this loss of social role and purpose, it’s perhaps a good thing that Balfron doesn’t feature in Open House this year.
Fortunately, Balfron’s younger sister designed by Goldfinger, Trellick Tower and opened in 1972, does, despite Right to Buy, remain social housing owned by the now infamous Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. You can visit a social enterprise, comprising furniture workshops and showroom and café on the lower floors. I’ve not written on Trellick but the posts on Balfron will give you some background.
This was an era when the ‘starchitects’ of the day were part of a social democratic vision of Britain’s future and for no-one was this truer than Berthold Lubetkin, the architect of the Finsbury Health Centre, who famously declared that ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’. He fulfilled this vision in the Spa Green Estate, to the north, opened in 1949 and described by the Survey of London, not prone to hyperbole, as ‘heroic’ and by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the most innovative public housing’ of its time.
Neither of these appear in Open House but two of Lubetkin’s schemes for the Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council – one of the most progressive in the capital – are featured. Bevin Court was opened in 1954; the Cold War having put paid to plans to name the building after Lenin (who had once lived on it site). Its innovative seven-story Y-shape capitalised on its site and ensured none of the flats faced north but, visually, its crowning glory is its central staircase. Visit to see that and the newly restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.
A few minutes’ walk to the north, you can also visit Lubetkin’s Priory Green Estate, completed three years later. It’s a much larger estate – 288 homes in seven large blocks but with similar attention paid to lay-out and landscaping and more striking, sculptural staircases. The Estate was transferred from Islington Borough Council, Finsbury’s successor after 1965, to Peabody in 1999 and, having fallen on hard times, has since been renovated with the aid of a £2m Heritage Lottery grant.
Finsbury’s progressive counterpart to the east was Bethnal Green and Lubetkin designed the Cranbrook Estate, built between 1955 and 1966, for the Borough. With 529 homes in total – arranged in a geometric ensemble of six tower and five medium-rise blocks artfully diminishing in scale to the single-storey terrace of old people’s bungalows on the Roman Road – it is one and half times the size of le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. Lutbetkin’s biographer, John Allen, rightly describes it as a ‘stupendous tour de force’ and only detracts from that compliment by seeming to lament the ‘domestic intricacies of municipal housing’ which lie behind it. I’ll take those – as Lubetkin would – as, in fact, its crowning achievement.
When she designed Dawson’s Heights, in East Dulwich, for Southwark Borough Council, Kate Macintosh, aged just 26, was no such star though she’s since become one of the most renowned of council housing architects and a doughty defender of the sector’s value and continuing purpose. Dawson’s Heights literally crowns its dramatic hill-top setting, so much so that English Heritage (in a listing proposal rejected by the Secretary of State) was moved to almost lyrical praise of the scheme’s ‘striking and original massing’ and its ‘evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns’. The Estate, two large ziggurat-style blocks designed to offer views and sunlight to each of their 296 flats, was built between 1968 and 1972.
Another estate which capitalises on its superb setting is the World’s End Estate, completed in 1977, set on the banks of the Thames across London and built, in happier times, by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms it comprises seven 18 to 21-storey tower blocks, joined in a figure of eight by nine four-storey walkway blocks but the whole, clad in warm-red brick, possesses a romantic, castellated appearance, providing great views within and without.
Three miles to the north at the top end of the Borough lies the Silchester Estate, built in the early 1970s by the Greater London Council on land cleared of slums in Notting Dale. Grenfell Tower and the Lancaster West Estate lie immediately to the east. Grenfell offers its own tragic indictment of the marginalisation of social housing residents and cost-cutting regeneration – I won’t add here to the mountain of words and outpouring of grief that catastrophe engendered except to say that I hope lessons will be learnt.
Silchester offers its own lessons. You are invited to view a ‘new development of 112 mixed tenure homes, community and retail facilities delivered jointly by Peabody and Kensington and Chelsea’. It’s a symbol of the new world of social housing – new build financed by the construction of homes for sale and the mantra that mono-tenure (i.e. working-class, social rented) estates need to be ‘improved’ by an injection of middle-class affluence and aspiration. Some social housing has been replaced on a like-for-like basis; 70 percent of the new homes are said to be ‘affordable’ though that, as you will know, is a slippery and all too often duplicitous term.
Take a look at the adjacent, older estate while you there – four 20-storey tower blocks and a range of low-rise blocks set around the leafy Waynflete Square. It’s well-liked by residents who cherish their homes, their community and the estate’s attractive open spaces. All, in recent years, have been subject to plans to demolish and rebuild. A strong residents’ campaign and recent events at Grenfell may have postponed that threat but such estates and communities across the capital deserve our support.
Nowhere is this truer than in Lambeth. As Chief Architect for the new (post-65) Borough of Lambeth, Ted Hollamby had concluded that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’. Hollamby believed that ‘most people like fairly small-scale and visually comprehensible environments. They call them villages, even when they are manifestly not’. His vision can be seen enacted in two very fine council estates on show during Open House.
Central Hill in Upper Norwood, completed in 1973, is a stepped development designed to make best use of its attractive site but it reflects Lambeth and Hollamby’s signature style in its intimacy and human scale. 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 new homes at council rent in the borough, it has become another victim of ‘regeneration’; in actual fact, once more the threat of demolition.
The principal driver of this policy in London 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 social housing at best or so-called ‘affordable’ housing at worst. A second is ‘densification’ – a belief that working-class homes must be built at greater density to accommodate the capital’s growing population. Not all regeneration is bad but where it means the destruction of good homes and the wiping out of existing communities it should be opposed.
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 rearguard 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’.
Ten miles to the east, Thamesmead on the southern bank of the Thames Estuary represented planning and construction on a much grander scale. A gleam in the eye of the LCC from the fifties and then, from 1966, the Greater London Council’s ‘Woolwich-Erith Project’, it was envisaged as a ‘town of the 21st Century’ with a population of between 60- to 100,000 people.
Only 12,000 had settled by 1974 and the estate – with its difficult location, poor transport links and lack of facilities – was considered by many a failure. Taken over by Peabody in 2015, benefiting from new investment and the arrival of Crossrail in 2018, it’s on the up now and worth visiting for both its past and future promise.
Meanwhile, across the capital, another progressive borough, Camden – under the enlightened leadership of Borough Architect Sydney Cook – had also developed its own striking house style. Cook rejected the system-building then in vogue as the means to build as much as cheaply as possible – ‘I’ll use standardised plans if you can find me a standardised site,’ he said. And he rejected high-rise, particularly the tower blocks set in open landscape popular at the time.
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.
Aside from Cook, Camden’s superb council housing of this era is chiefly associated with Neave Brown, the only living architect to have had all his UK work officially listed. This year’s Open House features, the Dunboyne Road (formerly Fleet Road) Estate (no. 36 to be precise), designed by Brown in 1966 and finally completed in 1977.
Its three white, stepped parallel blocks and now mature gardens provide a striking ensemble, noted by English Heritage in their 2010 Grade II listing for its ‘strong modernist aesthetic’ and a ‘simple, bold overall composition’ belying the scheme’s complexity and sophistication.
The other Brown scheme in Open House is generally judged one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, the Alexandra Road Estate, listed Grade II* in 1993. It’s 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’. Make sure to visit the recently renovated Alexandra Road Park and Tenants’ Hall (also featured in Open House), both integral to the design and original conception of the estate.
Alexandra Road was completed in 1979 – the year in which such high 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.
The Silchester residents’ campaign to defend their estate can be found at Save Our Silchester. The residents of Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens also 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.