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Mark Swenarton, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, 2017)

To Mark Swenarton, the work of Sydney Cook (Camden Borough Architect from 1965 to 1973) and his talented team represents ‘an architectural resolution unsurpassed not just in social housing in the UK but in urban housing anywhere in the world’.  Usually that kind of comment might be dismissed as hype but here I think huge numbers would agree. This fine book makes the case comprehensively and convincingly.

SN CoverCook’s big idea, shared and executed brilliantly by the architects he recruited to Camden, was for housing which was low-rise and high-density.  It directly challenged the architectural fashions of the day – the tower blocks which (in perceptual terms at least) dominated new council housing from the mid-1960s and the mixed development ideas which licensed them.  Equally, he rejected ‘off-the-peg’ system-building.

The new direction pioneered in Camden offered, in the words of Neave Brown, Cook’s best known recruit, an opportunity not only to re-engage with the ‘traditional social and physical form and virtues of the city’ but, crucially, ‘to try and improve on them’.  This wasn’t some pastiche revival of the old terraces but rather, as Swenarton claims, a ‘modern urbanism’; one that ‘could be generated without creating a rupture with either the existing grain of the city or the prevailing way of life’.

And then, essentially, there was the politics; unlike some historians of architecture Swenarton is good on the politics.  Camden was, by some way (excepting the Cities of London and Westminster), the richest borough in London, with a rateable value of £3,994,000.  Moreover, it was from inception a left-wing borough (despite a significant Tory interregnum from 1968 to 1971), determined, as one its leading members Enid Wistrich stated, ‘to be the tops’.  Housing was to be the chief expression of its progressive and innovative politics.

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Fleet Road, image by Tim Crocker

Neave Brown, recently awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for lifetime achievement, takes centre stage. His first Camden project, Fleet Road designed in 1966-67, established the philosophical keynote of Camden’s new housing. In Brown’s words, the ‘primary decision’ was taken:

to build low, to fill the site, to geometrically define open space, to integrate.  And to return to housing the traditional quality of continuous background stuff, anonymous, cellular, repetitive, that has always been its virtue.

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Alexandra Road, image by Tim Crocker

This was followed through on majestic scale at Alexandra Road.  Here there would be terraces, not the voguish streets in the sky which excited many architects of the day.  They would form, Swenarton says, ‘a continuous fabric…interspersed with public or semi-public squares’; ‘rather than the buildings being objects surrounded by space’, as was the case in the prevailing mixed development schemes, ‘the buildings should define the space’.

Much more could be said and it is covered in great detail in the book but Swenarton also gives due space and credit to other Camden architects.  Peter Tábori, though barely 27 when appointed by Cook to design the Highgate New Town development in 1967, brought an impressive architectural pedigree, having been tutored by Ernő Goldfinger (remembered by him as ‘a born educator’), Richard Rogers and Denys Lasdun no less.

Tábori was firmly opposed to the estate concept which dominated public housing at the time, taking his ideas of ‘through routes and visual connection’, self-policing public space and clearly defined private space from the newly influential writings of Jane Jacobs.

It’s a necessary – though sad – reminder of the limitations of architectural good intentions to learn that by 1983 the estate (because it was in essence an estate) was deemed ‘a haven for hoodlums…a warren of lonely walkways and blind spots’.  Fourteen years later, another journalist concluded ‘as an experiment in social housing, the Highgate New Town development has failed’. It hadn’t, of course, but it had gone through (and has since recovered from) troubled times. The simple fact – though complex reality – is that wider societal dynamics often influence our residential experience far more than design itself.

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Branch Hill, image by Tim Crocker

However, it was the Branch Hill Estate in Hampstead, designed by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, begun in 1971 and finally completed in 1978, which best captures both the increasingly fraught housing politics of Camden and the design brilliance.  Chapter 6 ‘Class War in Hampstead: the battle of Branch Hill’ describes the former – ‘it was a classic tale of privilege versus the people’ in Swenarton’s words.  Chapter 7 ‘The Poetics of Housing: Benson and Forsyth at Branch Hill’ powerfully evokes the latter.

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Branch Hill, image by Tim Crocker

The Labour Group was determined to build council housing in leafy, affluent Hampstead; the Conservative Group (though internal differences existed) mostly opposed.  The cost of the project with respect to the initial purchase price of the land and the design and constructional fixes that a difficult site and restrictive covenant required, brought this conflict into sharper focus.  In the end, Labour – back in power in Camden in 1973 and nationally from 1974 – won out and the housing was built.

It was quite probably, as hostile commentary claimed, ‘the most expensive council housing in the world’ – 21 pairs of two-storey houses in three rows, costing in total some £2.8m.  But it is also, according to Derek Abbott and Kimball Pollit, ‘the most sophisticated semi-detached housing in the world’.  The covenant on the land insisted upon a two-storey maximum height and semi-detached homes. That Benson and Forsyth achieved a resolution in signature Camden style – stepped terraces, external walls of board marked and smooth white concrete, and dark-stained timber joinery – yet unique and distinctive is a tribute both to the architects and the political will and vision of the Council.

Underlying this, for Benson and Forsyth, was:

the fundamental belief that, while buildings must satisfy practical requirements empirically, they must also embody those abstract properties which arouse the senses and satisfy the mind.

Branch Hill, and Camden’s other architect-designed estates, fulfil this dictum with style and panache.

The tide, however, was turning.  The Conservatives’ 1972 Housing Finance Act stipulated so-called ‘fair rents’ closer to the market rents of the private sector (albeit offset by a comprehensive national scheme of rent rebates). Camden, alongside other Labour authorities, initially pledged to resist the legislation but capitulated. (Famously, only Clay Cross Council in Derbyshire fought the Act to the bitter end.)  The ensuing high rents were another problem for the Branch Hill scheme.

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Mansfield Road, Gospel Oak – an example of ‘urban dentistry’, image by Tim Crocker

By 1975, it was Anthony Crosland, Labour’s Secretary of State for the Environment, declaring ‘the party’s over’. Economic hard times and financial crisis called time on the public sector expansion which had marked much of the post-war period. In Camden, there were other straws in the wind.  A middle-class, owner-occupier revolt had scuppered earlier plans for the comprehensive redevelopment of Gospel Oak back in 1966.  It anticipated a broader sea-change – a move against large-scale slum clearance (indeed, a questioning of what constituted a ‘slum’) and a drive towards rehabilitation of what were now called ‘twilight areas’.

In the 1970s, this change was reflected in an expanded policy of municipalisation – the Council’s acquisition and management of formerly private rental properties.   Its counterpart was what Swenarton calls ‘urban dentistry’ – selective demolition of housing deemed beyond repair and small-scale infill, often designed (though to typically high Camden standards) by private practices.

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Maiden Lane, image by Tim Crocker

As noted by Swenarton, Labour’s 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act represented another shift – though its longer-term consequences were poorly understood – in the nature of council housing with its codification of needs-based allocation.  Another Benson and Forsyth scheme (though their original designs were significantly modified), Maiden Lane caught the brunt of this:

The result was that many of the tenancies…were channelled by social services straight to homeless families and others with greatest need. This was a social composition very different from most of the Camden estates.

Maiden Lane became notorious, one of those estates demonised by the media as dysfunctional and crime-ridden. The architects insist that its ‘architecture, quality of place internally and externally….was elegant, humane and economic’ and blame ‘ineffectual management, social conflict, and banal architectural intervention’ for the estate’s later woes.  There’s some truth in this for sure but it’s another reminder that architecture – whether deemed good or bad – is far from solely determining the lived experience of residents.

Maiden Lane has been substantially redesigned since and, if you’re seeking a symbol of just how far we’ve come from the heady idealism of Cook’s Camden, the Council has recently built 273 flats on the estate: 149 for sale on the open market, 53 for shared ownership and 71 new council flats. Those for sale reflect the new wisdom that private capital must be harnessed to finance the regeneration and expansion of social housing.  But, unusually, the development as a whole increased council housing stock and Camden Council continues to own and management most of its social housing. (1)

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Alexandra Road, image by Tim Crocker

Alexandra Road, Grade II* listed in 1994, had its problems too though these related to the complex saga of its drawn-out construction and escalating cost. ‘Conceived in 1968, in the period of optimism generated by the post-war boom, but constructed during the crisis decade that followed’, the finished estate of 520 homes took twice as long to build as projected and cost, on completion in 1979, some £18.9m.  At the same time, it became a pawn in Labour’s internal politics as a ‘hard left’ faction (some may dislike Swenarton’s use of the term) led by Ken Livingstone wrestled for control against what had now become Labour’s old guard.

Livingstone, elected a Camden councillor in 1978, became chair of housing and used a Council-instigated public inquiry into what was now widely seen as the Alexandra Road debacle as a means of discrediting the former leadership.  In truth, the inquiry found no blame attached to the Architect’s Department (though it noted staff shortages, for which it was blameless, were a factor) and there were myriad problems – relating to the site, changing specifications and, above all, contemporary troubles in the building trades – which did account for the scheme’s financial difficulties.

However, at the last minute, the Council itself inserted a clause suggesting that some of the increasing costs might have been avoided ‘if the Architect himself had exercised more foresight with regards to the demands of the project’.  Livingstone moved on to the bigger stage of the Greater London Council. Incredibly, Neave Brown, so unfairly impugned, would not work in Britain again.

A sad end to what John Winter has called a ‘a magical moment for English housing’.  At the outset, for Sydney Cook and his team:

the challenge was to address the deficiencies of the housing that had been, and was still being, produced by local authorities across the country: to take forward the project of the welfare state – but to do it better.

By 1979, and decisively under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, it was, as Swenarton notes, ‘no longer the deficiencies of the form of housing produced by the welfare state, but the welfare state itself that was under attack’.  In the end, in this brave new world, Camden’s path-breaking housing programme had minimal domestic impact though it was influential on the Continent.  Alexandra Road, and the Borough’s other pioneering schemes, suffered ‘from having been released into a different world to that in which it was conceived…set on the very cusp of the change from socialism to the me-generation’. (2)

You’ll find all this discussed more fully in the book and much, much more – in particular a rich analysis of architectural influences and forms which I’ve barely touched on here. I’m sorry to gush but it’s hard to imagine a better book on its topic.  OK, I’ll earn my reviewer’s credentials by wishing for a bit more on the buildings’ after-lives (discussed a little more fully in some of my blog posts) but the book does what it sets out to do superbly.

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Lamble Street interior, Gospel Oak, image by Tim Crocker

The photography stands out – Martin Charles’ earlier images and Tim Crocker’s wonderful contemporary photographs of which I include a selection.  The schemes themselves are pretty photogenic in skilled hands but Crocker’s shots of lived-in interiors and real live people inside and out bring out their qualities in a more humane and personal way than is common in architectural photography. These are complemented by a profusion of maps, plans and architectural drawings.

Congratulations to Stefi Orazi for the book design, to the publishers Lund Humphries for their commitment to the highest production values, and, above all, to Mark Swenarton. His scholarship and hard work have surely produced what is and will remain the definitive account of Cook’s Camden.

Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, by Mark Swenarton, is published by Lund Humphries (HB £45) The book is for sale on the publisher’s website with free UK postage. If you insert the code CAMDEN10 on check-out, single copies will receive a £10 discount.   

References

(1) David Spittles, ‘It’s a game changer: Camden is first council to build homes to sell’, Evening Standard Homes and Property, 19 November 2014. The article incorrectly states that the whole of the scheme was built for private sale.

(2) Martin Pawley, ‘Living on the Edge of Time’, The Guardian, 2 April 1990

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