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 – and the fact, of course, that most council housing is happily ‘ordinary’ – that explains why few council estates make it into Open House London, the annual celebration of built heritage taking place this year on the weekend of the 21-22 September.
Open House itself has, to put it kindly, an ambivalent relationship to social housing. It features, as we will see, genuine celebrations of council housing’s past and present but too often controversial regeneration schemes are showcased with no reference to the disruption of established communities and the loss of social rent homes they entail.
This post offers a chronological tour of the Open House London venues which do mark council housing’s progressive history and present necessity. This year, the Open House locations will be picked out in bold with the relevant link to the venue’s webpage and I’ll add links (in bold blue), where possible, to past blog posts which provide further information.
We’ll begin, however, with a brief reference to some of the early garden suburbs which, while overwhelmingly middle-class in character, did provide a model for later council schemes.
The bohemian Bedford Park Estate, begun in 1875, might be described as the first cottage suburb. Gidea Park, promoted by several Liberal MPs (including Sir Tudor Walters of the famous wartime report on post-war housing) from 1897, is notable for the architectural contribution of a number of architects who would go on to design council schemes including Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin. The latter were the chief architects of the Brentham Garden Suburb in 1910 – important as a co-partnership scheme intended to cater for at least the more affluent of the working class.
Hampstead Garden Suburb, founded in 1906 by Henrietta Barnett, was intended as a mixed community though it rapidly – given the quality of its design and build and relatively high rents – became a rather select middle-class enclave. Unwin and Parker were again key figures and the guided walk offered focuses on the Suburb’s ‘Artisan Quarter’.
Turning to council housing proper, it’s good to see Tower Gardens (or the White Hart Lane Estate) featured – 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.
Roe Green Village wasn’t a council scheme – it 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. Both provided important inspiration for the ‘Homes for Heroes’ and council estates which emerged at the end of the war.
In terms of size and ambition, there was no more important such estate than Becontree in east London. The LCC built 89,049 council homes in the capital between the wars; some 26,000 of these in the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, first mooted in 1919. 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.’ Take the opportunity, if you go, to visit the Valence House Museum which contains interesting exhibits on the estate.
The Bellingham Estate in south London was another large interwar LCC estate with over 2000 homes and a population of 12,000, largely complete by 1923. The Fellowship Inn, now repurposed as a community venue including bar, cinema and café by Phoenix Community Housing, is an interesting example of the ‘improved public house’ that the Council hoped would ‘improve’ council house tenants.
It’s a stretch to include 16th century Eastbury Manor House in this listing but I’m fond of it and it has a rich municipal history amongst other things. It’s incongruously but delightfully situated plumb in the middle of another interwar council estate.
The guided walk I’m leading which starts at the 1948 Gascoyne Estate (yet another LCC scheme in inception) takes in other similar interwar tenement blocks as well as some representative modernist high-rise. Vaine House and Granard House on Gascoyne II were inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation and would provide a model for the more famous Alton West scheme. It’s an eclectic mix and the walk sets out to illustrate a tapestry of London’s council housing over the years rather than present any of its better-know showpieces. (Please note numbers are strictly limited.)
The Acton Gardens Estate was formerly known as the South Acton Estate or even (as a reference to a local laundry industry) ‘Soapsud Island’. Begun under a post-war slum clearance and redevelopment programme in 1949 and built over 30 years, South Acton became, with almost 2100 homes, one of the largest council estates in west London and it reflected that history in its range of housing and, in particular, the high-rise blocks that emerged from the later 1950s. It became a ‘problem estate’ and comprehensive regeneration was planned from 1996; the 21-storey Barrie Tower was demolished in 2001. You’re invited to admire the very significant changes that have taken place in the design and form of the estate since then and perhaps rightly so but it’s worth noting that the new estate contains 900 fewer affordable homes than its predecessor. (1)
The Golden Lane Estate, inaugurated in 1950 and designed for the City of London by Powell, Chamberlin and Bon (who went on to design the neighbouring Barbican), is rightly celebrated for the innovative thinking and architecture which provided a model for the best of post-war council housing, particularly in the facilities intended to sustain ‘community’ and create ‘neighbourhood’ in an urban setting. Note that current plans to ‘densify’ the estate are opposed by many residents.
The fight to save Balfron Tower is already lost. Designed by Ernő Goldfinger for 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 Grade II-listed block’s flats are in the hands of property developers Londonewcastle and being marketed to the affluent and hip middle classes. Visit Balfron Tower by all means but please don’t disregard this betrayal of the social purpose that built it.
Fortunately, Balfron’s younger sister, Trellick Tower, opened in 1972, remains – despite the depredations of Right to Buy – in council ownership.
Another landmark estate, this one created by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in happier times is the World’s End Estate. It’s an estate set on the banks of the Thames, completed in 1977 when the working class were still permitted river views. Designed by Eric Lyons and HT (‘Jim’) Cadbury-Brown, in plain terms World’s End 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.
In some respects, World’s End marked the end of an era of large, high-rise construction. 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 the Cressingham Gardens Estate.
Cressingham Gardens was described in 1981 by Lord Esher, president of RIBA, as ‘warm and informal…one of the nicest small schemes in England’. 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’.
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, 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.
A second signature Hollamby estate, also featured in Open House this year, is Central Hill in Upper Norwood, completed in 1973. It’s 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 too is threatened with demolition. The residents of both estates 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.
West Ken and Gibbs Green are two neighbouring estates of 760 homes in total in Hammersmith (built in 1974 and 1961 respectively) which have been fighting against demolition as part of a massive commercially-led redevelopment scheme since 2009. Residents are now campaigning to form a community-owned housing association which can protect their homes and community. As importantly, their ‘People’s Plan’ (created in collaboration with Architects for Social Housing) shows that necessary regeneration can be achieved not only without the loss of social housing but with its expansion – in this case, with 250 new homes built for sale on the open market to pay for the estate upgrades and seventy new social rented homes. Visit the residents’ website West Ken and Gibbs Green – the People’s Estates for further information.
Thamesmead on the south bank of the Thames Estuary represented planning and construction in an earlier era of high ambition. 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 now delayed arrival of Crossrail in 2019, it’s on the up now and worth visiting for both its past and future promise. The tour, led by the Twentieth Century Society, will allow you to visit some of the highlights of the original architecture of the GLC 1968 masterplan, some of which sadly are now under threat.
From the late 1960s, a new era began in council housing design as discredited tower blocks were replaced by new forms of low-rise, high density housing. The Brunswick Centre, completed in 1972, was originally planned as a private development. Due to financial difficulties, the residential section was leased to the London Borough of Camden for use as council housing while the developer retained ownership of the structure and shopping areas.
Though not a Camden scheme as such, the Centre fits well with what became the celebrated signature style of Camden Borough Council into the 1970s. This can be seen firstly in the Whittington Estate, begun in 1969, designed by Peter Tábori, a young architect then in his mid-twenties. It’s a scheme in typical 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.
Another Camden scheme is widely judged to be one of the most attractive and architecturally accomplished council estates in the country, Alexandra Road, listed Grade II* in 1993. The Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate was the work of Neave Brown, awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in October 2017. He sadly died three months later. The estate is 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’.
Despite knowing the area pretty well, I have to confess the Page High Estate in Wood Green was new to me. It’s social housing, designed for a consortium consisting of Haringey Council, Sainsbury, Woolworth’s and World of Housing Property Trust (later Sanctuary Housing) by the Dry Halasz Dixon Partnership in 1975. To be fair, the estate is easy to miss – built six and seven storeys above the ground on top of a car park and store. The Tenants’ Association offering the tour was set up in 2017 to improve repairs and maintenance and campaign for the improvement of the estate. Please support them.
Finally, we come to post-1979 schemes and all of you reading this will understand the changed world that council housing – social housing as we must now call it – has inhabited since that date. Dujardin Mews in Ponders End is an Enfield Council scheme designed by Karakusevic Carson Architects. The first phase, completed in 2018 is lovely and multiple award-winning while the scheme as a whole is part of the larger Alma Estate regeneration. Despite researching assiduously, I’ve not discovered the tenure details of Dujardin Mews (I will amend or add to this if anyone can tell me) but the larger scheme offers the usual mix of ‘affordable’, shared ownership and properties for sale – an increase in homes and a net loss of social rent homes.
The Kings Crescent Estate was originally built by Hackney Council in 1969. The estate’s two nineteen-storey tower blocks were demolished in 2000 and 2002 alongside some of the lower blocks, around 357 homes in all. The current regeneration scheme creates 273 new homes overall but of these only 76 are social rented; a further 101 social rent homes will be refurbished. It is a further reminder of the twisted economics of current social housing finance.
I’m sorry not to be more positive. There is a small uptick in council housebuilding. Councils are being allowed to borrow and many new schemes are underway but, almost invariably, they are small-scale and financed – through both necessity and choice – through public-private partnerships which too frequently prioritise non-social rented homes. 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 exemplars of what we can and should achieve in a brighter future.
(1) For further detail on the South Acton Estate, read the excellent chapter by Peter Guillery in Guillerry and Kroll (eds), Mobilising Housing Histories: Learning from London’s Past (RIBA Publishing, 2017)