Here’s a quick and simple guide to some of the more interesting housing schemes – for me, those are principally public housing projects and others of broadly progressive intent – featured in this year’s Open House London which runs between 8 and 21 September with most events taking place on the weekend of the 17th and 18th.
The entries are listed in roughly chronological order. The highlighted links in bold show Open House descriptions; earlier relevant blog posts are shown in bold and italics. Open House’s tagging is somewhat inconsistent. I’ve ranged across the categories but you can let me know if I’ve missed anything.
The Bedford Park estate in Chiswick, privately developed from 1875 and featuring housing by Norman Shaw and other leading architects of the day, is considered Britain’s first garden suburb, a prototype for much that was to follow though more often in attenuated form.
Brentham Garden Suburb is significant as a co-partnership scheme intended by Ealing Tenants Ltd to cater for at least the more affluent of the working class. From 1907, Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, emerging as the two of the country’s leading architects and planners, developed the estate along garden suburb and arts and crafts lines.
Roe Green Village (Brent) was designed by Frank Baines in 1916, chief architect of the Office of Works, as housing for workers engaged in First World War armaments production. He had earlier designed the exemplary Well Hall Estate in Eltham for the same purpose. It offered a model for the ‘Homes for Heroes’ that were promoted at war’s end.
The Honor Oak Estate in Lewisham, built by the London County Council (LCC) in the 1930s, was a very different animal comprising the typical four/five-storey, walk-up, balcony access tenement blocks intended to provide higher density housing for the inner-city working class. Early criticisms of the estate’s design saw it described as a ‘warning for planners’ in 1945.
The Crossfield Estate, further north in Deptford, is another London County Council Estate of the same era and form. Transferred in poor condition to Lewisham Borough Council in 1971, a visit will also cover the estate’s later, more bohemian history.
The high ambitions of the best of post-Second World War council housing are illustrated in the Golden Lane Estate, designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (also responsible for the Barbican scheme) for the City of London. The visit here focuses principally on sometimes controversial more recent renovation. Crescent House, a later completed section of the estate strongly influenced by Le Corbusier, features separately.
The Vanbrugh Park Estate was another Chamberlin, Powell and Bon scheme designed for Greenwich Metropolitan Borough Council in the later 1950s – a more modest scheme of 64 flats, low-rise terraced houses, and maisonettes planned to respect its surrounds and promote community.
The ambition of Finsbury Metropolitan Borough Council was obvious in the commissioning of Berthold Lubetkin to design Bevin Court, opened in 1954. Visit to see its crowning glory central staircase and the recently restored Peter Yates murals and bust of Bevin in the entrance lobby.
Meanwhile, the architects of the LCC were designing in Roehampton, west London, what an American commentator described as ‘the best low-cost housing in the world’. Alton East, from 1952, was designed by the New Humanists of the department who took the ‘softer’ lines and appearance of Scandinavian social housing as their principal model; Alton West, from 1954, was designed by those who favoured the ‘harder’, more monumental Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. The visit focuses on the landscaping that was a crucial component of the ensemble.
The self-guided walking tour of Bethnal Green takes in a variety of venues and sights including Denys Lasdun’s Keeling House cluster-block tower designed for Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough Council opened in 1959.
Back to the LCC which began planning the Pepys Estate in Lewisham in the early 1960s. In the event, this showpiece estate was completed by the Greater London Council (GLC) that took over in 1965. The 78 metre, 26-storey Eddystone Tower is one of the three original tower blocks of the scheme and the visit provides fine views from its top floor. Arguably better views are offered by Aragon Tower, nearer the river, but that was sold to Berkeley Homes for £11.5m in 2002. This is your regular reminder that regeneration schemes promoted by local authorities and housing associations in partnership with private developers invariably lead to a net loss of social rent house, however self-promotingly sold.
Thamesmead, conceived as a new town of some 60,000 population to the east of London by the GLC in 1966, never lived up to its early hype but some fine and daring architecture was created in the process – much of it, sadly, now being demolished. Two walking tours – Thamesmead: Beyond Brutalism and Town of Tomorrow: Thamesmead Through Film – capture some of this as well as the area’s later growth and reinvention.
Ethelburga Tower in Battersea was another LCC scheme completed by the GLC in 1967, part of the Ethelburga Estate which comprised 578 homes in a range of otherwise medium- and low-rise blocks. Architect designed and of in situ reinforced concrete construction, it pre-dates the fashion for off-the-peg and system-built schemes that would soon become significant in the post-1965 Borough of Wandsworth as elsewhere.
The new Camden Council, established in 1965, and Borough Architect Sydney Cook famously eschewed such ready-made solutions and in so doing created what Mark Swenarton has called in his book, Cook’s Camden: the Making of Modern Housing, ‘an architectural resolution unsurpassed not just in social housing in the UK but in urban housing anywhere in the world’.
The terrace of five three-storey houses in Winscombe Street, Highgate New Town, completed in 1965 and designed by Neave Brown for himself and four of his friends initially as a co-op eligible for financial support from the council, represented the essential prototype for much to follow. Brown is the best-known figure in the talented team of architects that Cook assembled but the borough’s signature style of white pre-cast concrete and dark-stained timber was followed by his colleagues. This was the low-rise, high-density backlash to some of the high-rise missteps of the 1960s.
Peter Tábori designed the six stepped parallel terraces of the Whittington Estate, built between 1972 and 1979, as Stage 1 of the Highgate New Town development, creating 271 homes housing in total around 1100 people. A visit to 8 Stoneleigh Terrace allows you to see the interiors, characterised by double doors and sliding partitions allowing flexible use, that were as impressive as the scheme’s external appearance.
17a–79b Mansfield Road are part of the long terrace of 64 flats and maisonettes – an updated version of much of the housing they replaced – in Gospel Oak completed in 1980. Their architects, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, had worked with Brown on the celebrated Alexandra Road Estate and would go on to design the Branch Hill Estate, neither of which feature in this year’s programme.
Lambeth was another borough that pioneered low-rise solutions to housing need. Its Borough Architect, Ted Hollamby believed that ‘people do not desperately desire to be housed in large estates, no matter how imaginative the design and convenient the dwellings’. The design and popularity with residents of Cressingham Gardens in Tulse Hill, completed in 1978, earned plaudits from Lord Esher, president of RIBA, who described it as ‘warm and informal … one of the nicest small schemes in England’. Its current residents are fighting plans to demolish and rebuild the estate as are those in Central Hill, a similarly inspired scheme designed by Rosemary Stjernstedt.
Southwark lacked such signature style but it built, to a design by another early and significant female architect Kate Macintosh – still around and still fighting for high quality public housing – one of the most distinctive council housing schemes of its day, Dawson’s Heights, built between 1968 and 1972. Crowning a prominent hill in East Dulwich, the estate’s two large ziggurat-style blocks offer views and sunlight to each of their 296 flats and moved English Heritage to praise their ‘striking and original massing that possesses evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns’.
The profile of the 98 metre, 31-storey Trellick Tower– distinguished by the free-standing service tower of the block – is equally eye-catching and perhaps better known. The younger sister of Balfron Tower to the east, the block was designed by Ernő Goldfinger for the GLC and completed in 1972. Unlike Balfron, sold off to the private sector, Trellick remains in local authority hands, managed now by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
The Walter Segal self-build houses in Walters Way, Honor Oak, couldn’t seem more different but they have one thing in common – the role of a local council, in this case Lewisham which provided the land for the scheme and supported the self-builders, initially selected from the council housing waiting list, with a council mortgage. The homes were built using the simple post-and-beam system using standard and easily acquired building materials – principally wood and woodwool for insulation – devised by architect Walter Segal. [In Bromley, the Open House at 13 Nubia Way and exhibition provide an important history of Europe’s largest black-led community self-build for rent initiative.]
The Walters Way homes were completed in the 1980s, by which time new council housebuilding had ground to a virtual halt as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s hostility to public ownership and belief in free enterprise. Neoliberalism and the market look far less plausible now in housing terms and much else besides than they may have done to some at least in that earlier era.
So, we conclude this survey by looking at regeneration – a positive thing to the extent that many estates needed improvement and renovation as a result of expected obsolescence and regrettable neglect. But regeneration as implemented was mixed with the new conventional wisdom – an antipathy to public spending (better understood as investment) that forced a reliance on public-private partnerships with commercial developers.
The other mantra was ‘mixed communities’ secured by the provision of a range of housing tenures. The concept neglected the reality that most council estates were mixed communities and was rooted in an antagonism to ‘mono-class’ (i.e. working-class) areas seen as a drag on local uplift, gentrification in other words.
In practice, the number of new homes for sale and private rental ensured that social rent housing lost in such schemes was not adequately replaced. Across the country and combined with the impact of Thatcher’s flagship Right to Buy policy, we have around 1.4 million fewer social rent homes now than we had in the early 1980s.
Open House London features three regeneration schemes. Acton Gardens was formerly – in a geographical sense at least – Ealing’s South Acton Estate, built by Acton Borough Council from 1949 and growing eventually to comprise some 2100 homes. Comprehensive regeneration was planned from 1996. The visit concentrates on the first new homes built in 2012 and a revised masterplan agreed in 2018 that will clear all the old estate.
The Silchester Estate was a GLC estate in south Kensington (Grenfell Tower lies immediately to the east) built in the 1970s. Open House London focuses on a new development of 112 mixed tenure homes, community and retail facilities designed by Haworth Tompkins architects.
The South Kilburn Estate, was developed by Brent Council from the mid-1960s, originally comprising 11 tower blocks and a range of lower-rise housing. The walking tour of Unity Place looks principally at the modern mansion blocks designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Alison Brooks Architects, Gort Scott and Grant Associates to replace two of the 1960s’ towers.
It’s good, of course, to see high-quality, architect designed schemes being built though many of the new so-called ‘affordable’ homes are not let at social rent. I remain nostalgic for a time in the 1970s when 49 percent of qualified architects were employed in the public sector in a state and society that took seriously its moral and practical duty to provide genuinely affordable housing for all in need – when public spending on the direct provision of housing was understood as an investment, a value not a cost.