In 1939, the Times described the London County Council’s new White City Estate as ‘the largest and finest estate of flats which the council has yet built’. (1) By 2004, one jaundiced journalist was describing it as ‘a blighted area where nobody wants to live’. (2) Now, in 2017, it lies at the epicentre of a regeneration project which has seen the local area transformed. The White City Estate might look unremarkable at first glance but it contains a rich and complex history.
The first clue to that lies in the Estate’s designation and the unreconstructedly imperialist names of its main thoroughfares. In 1908, it had been the site of the Franco-British Exhibition. Its whitewashed, stuccoed steel and concrete pavilions gave the later White City Estate its otherwise inapt appellation; the Exhibition’s celebration of Europe’s twilight heyday of empire (continued in four subsequent exhibitions held prior to 1914 before the site fell into disuse) explain Bloemfontein Road, India Way, Canada Way and Australia Road which bisect the contemporary estate.
Older readers will recall the White City Stadium, built for the 1908 London Olympics but chiefly remembered for its greyhound racing until eventual demolition in 1984. (Today’s fun fact is that the official length of the modern marathon, adopted in 1921, derives from the distance between the starting point of the 1908 marathon at Windsor Castle and its finishing line in front of the royal box in the White City Stadium.) Its site is now occupied by the buildings of BBC White City, now largely sold off as White City Place. BBC Television Centre had been opened further south on Wood Lane in 1960. The latter – Grade II listed in 2009 – survives but it’s been sold off too; a business and media centre now also containing some high-end accommodation.
But this is to jump ahead. Back in 1935, the LCC bought 52 acres of the redundant exhibition site and plans for an estate of 2286 flats in 49 five-storey tenement blocks housing some 11,000 were in place by 1937. In the event, only 23 blocks had been completed by 1939 when the war temporarily halted construction but in 1953 the finished estate – with 35 blocks and 2011 homes housing a population of around 8885 – substantially fulfilled this earlier vision.
All this represented a significant shift for the London Labour Party which had wrested control of the LCC in 1934 having long been critical of tenement schemes, invariably described in the Party’s earlier propaganda at least as ‘barracks-like’. Back in 1918, Herbert Morrison had declared the Party’s official position to ‘build no more tenements, or monotonous rows of houses, however much red and white and green there might be around them’; Labour backed ‘new towns where possible or Garden Suburbs where that was the best [it] could do’. (3)
Such idealism could hardly survive the pressing practical necessities of slum clearance and reconstruction in the 1920s and the need to build at density for a poorer inner-city working class. By 1934, a Party Housing Research Group convened by Morrison had concluded, far more pragmatically, that on ‘the question of how many storeys there should be in Central London dwellings (for in such areas block dwellings are inevitable), it is unwise to dogmatise’.
But if flats were now seen as inevitable – even Ada Salter whose Bermondsey Borough Council had most fiercely opposed tenement building in the 1920s had come to accept that – the new onus was to make them attractive to tenants. Modernist architectural advocates and some socialists also argued well-designed flatted schemes could promote community and offer far better amenities than conventional cottage estates. (4) Ironically, as the preceding Municipal Reform (Conservative) majority pursued a policy of building more cheaply to secure more affordable tents, the standards and facilities of the LCC’s tenement schemes had deteriorated.
The 1923 ‘Normal’ flat combined kitchen and bathroom. The ‘Simplified’ design authorised in 1925 provided a detached (though private) scullery and WC and a bathroom and washroom shared between two flats. Most controversially, the ‘Modified Type B units’ introduced in 1932 (seen on the Honor Oak Estate, for example) saw bathroom and washroom facilities shared between three flats. Further economies were achieved by lower standards of finish and reduced space standards – the ‘Modified B’ flat was one third smaller than the ‘Normal’ flat of 1925.
In 1934, the incoming Labour administration quickly introduced a conversion programme to make the ‘Modified Type B’ homes self-contained. Larger ambitions were shown by the Continental Grand Tour of European urban housing schemes undertaken by Lewis Silkin (the chair of the LCC’s Housing and Public Health Committee) and two Council officers at the end of 1935 and its influence can be seen in the design of the White City Estate and some of its homes.
Silkin’s report concluded, for example, that there was: (5)
little doubt that staircase access secures greater privacy for the tenants and tends to make a flat more homely, better lighted and more attractive internally than one to which the only access is from a common balcony.
By 1937, the LCC was officially committed to bringing flat design ‘more to accord with the modern outlook in housing provision’. (6) Here, the main thrust was to replace balcony-access – the basis of the existing five-storey walk-up blocks – with staircase access, each landing serving two to three homes. Whilst most of the White City blocks were of traditional design, 312 tenements of the ‘New Flat’ design were prominently pioneered on the northern edge of the Estate.
With their higher standard of finishing and additional features, the Times concluded they:
almost qualify for the house-agents’ description ‘luxury flats’. They are approached by internal staircases, each of which has a dust-chute for disposing of rubbish. The flats with three, four or five rooms each have their private balcony, with permanent concrete window boxes. The kitchen has direct access to the living room through doors which slide wide apart.
The downside was that their rents reached 24s 6d for a five-room flat compared to the 18s 3d charged for an equivalent flat of traditional design but the Council believed that ‘a proportion of the working-class population for whom it is the Council’s duty to provide accommodation…[were] able and willing to pay higher rents’. (7)
Meanwhile, all the flats had their own bathroom with tiled floor and wash-basin and the larger ones benefitted from ‘a lavatory in a separate compartment’. Flats were not yet – if they ever were – the accommodation of choice for most but the economy drive which had prioritised affordability at the expense of working-class living conditions had been reversed.
Elsewhere the LCC had also experimented with a revised aesthetic – the 1936 Oaklands Estate in Clapham was distinguished by the strong horizontal lines of its moderne styling marked by its banded brickwork and wide steel windows and, most notably, its sweeping, ocean liner-style balconies. Paler versions of this can be seen in some of the Estate but the blocks of ‘New Flats’ stuck more to the LCC’s established neo-Georgian form with only the prominent, slightly curved, glassed stairwells breaking with its conventional, somewhat boxy look. (8)
The White City Estate was, however, innovative in at least one other respect – it represented the Council’s first attempt to apply the new ideas of slum clearance and comprehensive redevelopment contained in the 1935 Housing Act. Again, it also reflected (or was intended to reflect) best European practice; Silkin himself acknowledged that ‘facilities for social welfare, rest and recreation’ had been better provided in the showpiece Continental schemes than in London.
The ‘desirability of a reasonable provision in respect of social services’ was recognised by the Council by reserving sites ‘for 14 shops, an administrative building and possible schools, medical clinic, reading rooms, etc., and children’s playgrounds’. Some heralded the Estate as a ‘new town’ and the British Commercial Gas Association entitled its promotional film (albeit promoting the use of gas as much as the estate itself), A Town in Born.
One other influence of Silkin’s tour (and broader contemporary architectural thinking) can be seen in the attempt to implement the fashionable Zeilenbau principles of layout pioneered in Germany. This prescribed, in Silkin’s words, ‘the adoption of a generally north-south line whereby access of available sunshine is made possible on both main fronts of the buildings’. The ideal was only partially fulfilled on the White City Estate as it conflicted with another goal of the planners – the provision of attractive enclosed courtyards – but closed quadrangles were mostly avoided by leaving the southern side of the elements undeveloped. (9)
On a bright winter’s day such as when I visited, the courtyards with their mature trees and greenery looked attractive but the overall Estate didn’t receive the critical acclaim this careful planning might seem to warrant. The Architects’ Journal asked rhetorically: (10)
Why all the five-storey blocks? Why the soulless mechanism of the layout? Why not, with the golden opportunity of unhampered space, some really high blocks (with lifts instead of…dreary flights of stairs) making way for terraced houses for the larger families?
It wanted something more excitingly modernist and its call contains an anticipation of the mixed development ideas (demanding a range of housing forms to create greater visual interest) which took off in the 1950s.
Pevsner concurred, decrying what he termed ‘the deadening utilitarian ranks of the vast White City Estate’. Writing later, he also noted how far the Estate – ‘built (like the out-county estates) with a singular lack of amenities’ – had fallen short of the ‘new town’ ideals proclaimed on its inception. (11) Typically, housing was prioritised at the expense of community facilities.
For the time being, the LCC’s proclaimed aim in its treatment of housing ‘to maintain an appearance of domesticity whilst keeping within the bounds of economy’ held sway and another element of the planners’ description – they noted how ‘the repetition of blocks of similar size and arrangement lends itself to rapid and economic construction by a process of multiple contracts’ – seems more telling of the finished product. (12)
Nevertheless, the Estate, the flats certainly, represented a significant advance on the penny-pinching economies of Honor Oak and it’s provided a decent home to many thousands as at least one resident recalls: (13)
I want to say how proud I am to say I lived on the estate…There was a wonderful sense of community on this estate and the flats were a design success apart from the small kitchens. My memories of living here are of children – lots of children, all playing in safety and in harmony (well as far as kids do!).
The outbreak of war and subsequent post-war austerity didn’t help fulfil the larger ambitions of its creation and in the succeeding decades, White City probably seemed a rather ordinary and even dull estate to some distinguished by its size but in other respects hardly reflecting the more extravagant claims which initially surrounded it.
By the turn of the new century, as the Estate grew old and its community fell on hard times, some politicians viewed council housing not as a solution to social problems but as one of their causes. The Estate was ripe for regeneration but that would be, as we shall see, a controversial and contested process.
(1) ‘2,166 White City Flats’, The Times, 21 July 1939
(2) Susan Gray, ‘Great white hope; What hope is there for a blighted area where nobody wants to live?’, Evening Standard 22 March 2004
(3) Quoted in Simon Pepper and Peter Richmond, ‘Upward or Outward? Politics, Planning and Council Flats, 1919-1939’, The Journal of Architecture, vol 13, no.1, February 2008 which also provided much of the detail in the following paragraphs.
(4) These ideals were pursued by Director of Housing Lancelot Keay and Liverpool’s Unionist city council. See Liverpool’s Interwar Multi-Storey Housing: Building an ‘A1 community in a properly planned township of flats’
(5) LCC, London Housing (1937)
(6) LCC, Working-Class Housing on the Continent and the Application of Continental Ideas to the Housing Problem in the County of London. Report by the Chairman of the Housing and Public Health Committee of the Council, Mr Lewis Silkin MP as the result of a visit to Continental Housing Estates in September and October 1935 (October 1936)
(7) LCC, London Housing
(8) Nicholas Merthyr Day, The Role of The Architect on Post-War State Housing: A case study of the housing work of the London County Council 1939-1956, University of Warwick Department of the History of Art PhD Thesis, June 1988
(9) LCC, Working-Class Housing on the Continent and the Application of Continental Ideas to the Housing Problem in the County of London
(10) Architects’ Journal, 27 July 1939 quoted in Pepper and Richmond
(11) Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, London 3: North West (1991)
(12) The first quotation is from LCC, London Housing; the second from in JA Yelling, Slums and Redevelopment: Policy and Practice in England, 1918-45 (1992)
(13) Douglas Gray who contributed his memories and this photograph to the Britain from Above website. Go to the page for extended memories of the Estate’s tradespeople and community in its earlier years.