Tjerk Ruimschotel, Architectural Guide London (DOM Publishers, 2021)
Firstly, an apology: new posts have been pretty sparse recently. Firstly, for obvious reasons, it’s been hard to get out and about over the last year and libraries and archives have been closed. Secondly, I’m writing a new book and that has to take priority in my current writing and research. I’ll try to keep things ticking over and, of course, I’ll be as grateful as ever for new guest posts on estates that you have researched and know well.
But one of the good things that has happened recently is receiving a copy of the new book by Tjerk Ruimschotel. I met Tjerk after a talk I gave a couple of years ago when he told me about his current project. I’m delighted to see it finished and to such a high standard. Tjerk is a Dutchman, a lecturer and urban designer, formerly chief urban designer for the city of Groningen. His knowledge of and familiarity with London deserve to make him an honorary citizen of the capital.
The book’s subtitle is ‘Twentieth-Century Housing Projects’ and that gives you a pretty good idea of its focus. As he points out in his introduction, London ‘has always been a residential metropolis’ but by projects he means not the ordinary and ubiquitous, primarily suburban, housing that characterises the city but estates and buildings that are in some respects extraordinary in terms of their design or architectural and historical significance – in Tjerk’s words, ‘a representative cross-section of projects that not only provided a good home for their inhabitants but also made a significant contribution to the spatial quality of the surrounding environment’. Of these just over half are, broadly defined, social housing.
Many of the latter will be familiar to aficionados and are rightly given due recognition here. The work of the London County Council features prominently, both in its early tenement buildings, its interwar cottage estates and its later showpiece, predominantly high-rise, schemes. Camden, of course, is featured and many more borough developments too numerous to list but including some personal favourites of mine such as Churchill Gardens and Central Hill – the latter (as he notes) tragically under threat of demolition.
I know a bit about council housing and I found his concise summaries accurate and informative. A strength of the book is that it extends beyond the narrowly architectural and provides some description of the social and political context of the estates both in their inception and their later evolution. I could stress that context more heavily in terms of how estates – and their communities – have evolved but he demonstrates a sympathetic awareness of the myriad factors that have shaped both the realities and, perhaps more importantly, the perceptions of social housing over time.
Conversely, a real quality of the guide is its coverage of a wide array of private schemes. Some of these – such as the Isokon Building, Pullman Court and Highpoint I and II – will be well-known to architectural enthusiasts but others perhaps less so. The quality of the pre- and post-First World War Webb Estate in Croydon and the 1930s Modernism of Gidea Park stood out for me as well as the proper notice given to some of the better interwar mansion blocks such as Cholmeley Lodge in Haringey and Du Cane Court in Wandsworth. But you will have your own favourites and discover some others.
In overall terms, the book is impressive for its balanced coverage and geographic and chronological range with seven sections reaching from Parnell House in Bloomsbury, the first of the ‘model dwellings’ built for the working class back in 1848, to Dujardin Mews in Enfield, designed by Karakusevic Carson Architects for the Borough of Enfield in 2017. An epilogue on the ‘past, present and future’ of social housing in London provides a useful overview.
Tjerk’s analysis is fluent, knowledgeable and precise throughout but – and in no way detracting from that – for me the stand-out quality of the book (and what distinguishes it from potential competitors) is its high production values. It features high-quality colour photography throughout, excellent and genuinely useful mapping (even QR codes that help you navigate to the buildings discussed) as well as two indexes, one to the schemes themselves and one to their architects. The illustrations provided should give some impression of that quality. This is a good book, one to keep on your coffee table or to carry around as you explore the wonderful variety and frequent quality of London’s more recent housing.