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Concrete Utopia

The rise, fall and revival of London's modernist public housing

 

Wanting to own a piece of an overpopulated city like London, with its high rent and soaring house prices, can seem a bit of a pipe dream. Yet some of the best architect-designed housing in London is also the most affordable. Much of it was built by the state for ‘ordinary people’ following the Second World War, when huge swathes of Britain, and London in particular, were flattened by the Luftwaffe bombings. The government, faced with a major housing crisis, began an ambitious building programme to rehouse the nation. Full of post-war utilitarian optimism, the majority of new housing in the capital was built by the London County Council (LCC) in the hope of renting to low-income households. The LCC employed renowned architects such as Berthold Lubetkin and Ernö Goldfinger, to give Londoners a bright new future in clean, modern homes with all modern conveniences. Many of these architects were émigrés, from Russia or Hungary, for example, and they brought radical ideas influenced by the likes of Le Corbusier with them from the continent, both in terms of aesthetic language and social visions.

The austerity of the 1950s gave way to a renewed national self-confidence in the 1960s. There was a fantastic push to create a better country and to provide citizens with a good basic standard of living. Concrete became the favoured material of architects as it gave them new freedoms and possibilities in design. Up and down the country, new schools, libraries, council flats, shopping centres and hospitals were built in uncompromising, bold, sculptural raw concrete.

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The Barbican. Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images.

Nowhere in London is the vision of 1960s utopian living more evident than the well-known Barbican Estate, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. Designed in the 1950s by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon for high-income earners, it was funded by the Corporation of London. This exceptional masterpiece in urban planning comprises over 2,100 flats and houses with an array of elevated walkways, terraces raised on huge concrete pilotis, looming sky-scrapers, artificial lakes and private landscaped gardens. It also houses two schools, a church and an international arts centre — the Barbican Centre. Taking thirty years to build, it was finally completed in 1982, and it is here, in the late ‘90s, that I found my first London home.

Soon after graduating from art college, I was offered a position at a magazine as junior designer. I moved up to London from the costal town of Portsmouth and spent the first couple of months staying on my sister’s sofa before embarking on the daunting task of finding a ‘proper’ place to live. I barely had enough money in my bank account for a night out, let alone a deposit for a flat. Fortunately, and unaware of how much it would impact my future, the magazine’s art director had a spare room in his Barbican flat and offered it to me at an affordable rate.

Back in the ‘90s, the Barbican wasn’t the desirable place it is today. People thought of it as a weird concrete jungle, a monstrosity, a maze of confusing walkways you had to navigate through on your way from the tube station to the arts centre. They even made a joke of it; I bought a pin badge on eBay recently with an illustration of a maze and the words, ‘I found my way to the Barbican Centre.’ It certainly wasn’t a place many people of means would choose to live. But how, in such little time, did public opinion turn so radically on modernist architecture?

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Ronan Point during the collapse in 1968. Photo: Wikicommons.

The pressures put on councils during the ‘60s and ‘70s to build more homes quickly and cheaply meant a drive towards system-built tower blocks, which were often poorly constructed. The famous case of Ronan Point — a system-built tower — collapsing on one side like a pack of cards following a gas explosion, coupled with a growing scepticism toward the impracticalities of high-rise living, meant that by the 1980s, Britain’s experimentation with Brutalism was over. Worst of all, Margaret Thatcher’s drive towards home ownership made council housing a dirty word and brought a near end to the construction of council estates. Concrete and the architects behind these experimental schemes became synonymous with everything that was wrong with society. Fashion had changed in favour of boxy individual little houses with pitched roofs and private gardens — the Barbican, although of superior quality, was not immune. As soon as it was completed, it was criticised.

On my first visit to The Barbican, I remember being completely gob-smacked by the place as I walked from the arts centre across the bridge, over the artificial lake overlooking an amazing concrete waterfall and fountains. Was this really central London? The contrast between the luscious green landscape and the bush-hammered concrete looked incredible. How could anybody not think this was beautiful? And so my love affair with post-war modernist architecture began. I ended up living in that spare room for seven years.

By the time I realised I was outstaying my welcome, rents and house prices in London had gone through the roof. Friends were moving further and further out to the suburbs. My solution was to stay central, but move into smaller and smaller apartments.

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Golden Lane. Photo: Peter King/Getty Images.

By my mid-thirties I managed to get a rung on the housing ladder by buying an ex-council studio flat in the Barbican’s neighbouring Golden Lane Estate — also designed by Chamberlin Powell and Bon. Barely 340 square feet, every square inch of it had been thoughtfully and beautifully designed. The circulation space was kept to a minimum with the clever use of sliding doors and there was plenty of built-in storage and a rich texture of materials. With enough room for a small sofa, a dining table and a bed, I didn’t care that my friends nicknamed it ‘the shoebox.’ I loved it, I loved the architecture, the community, the neighbourhood, the fact I could walk into the West End in twenty-five minutes and trendy East London in fifteen. I had a cinema, the arts centre and a plethora of restaurants on my doorstep. Best of all, during the weekend all the city workers were gone and the place turned into a peaceful urban idyll. I lived happily there for several years— as architecture critic Ian Nairn once said, ‘My idea of a home is a very small flat and no possessions much, and the whole of the city as my living room, or dining room’.

As the big four zero began to loom, however, the prospect of entering middle age without a separate bedroom began to play on my mind. As a self-employed graphic designer the chances of being able to afford a bigger apartment in the area was out of the question, and so I embarked on a journey in search of a place further out. By this point, I was so obsessed with post-war architecture that I didn’t even consider anything besides an ex-council flat. Over the course of a three-year period of house hunting, I realized that nothing could pull me away from my beloved studio flat and neighbourhood, not even the size of the apartment. The places I did like were either too far or too expensive. It was clear there was no other choice but to live in a one-room apartment for the rest of my life.

It was by chance that one day, while training for a half marathon, I ventured out of my usual comfort zone and headed to Hampstead in North London and through Gospel Oak. The area had been part of a large post-war redevelopment programme and was home to mainly uninspiring large blocks of council flats. But I ran past something that looked very different — a 1970s’ long, white, flat fronted, concrete low-rise terrace with dark stained timber windows. It was visually so at odds with the blandness of its surrounding buildings that I had to stop and look. The building was in a pretty poor state, like other council estates, it had suffered years of neglect— the exterior paintwork was peeling off and the metal work was rusting. But despite its worn condition, it looked incredibly modern.

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Alexandra Road. Photo: Alex Donohue/CC.

I had recently seen a flat in this block was on the market, but dismissed it. The following day I made an appointment with the estate agent to view it. I was prepared to feel the usual sense of disappointment, but as I walked down the set of stairs into the flat and into the split-level open space of the living room — with full-height and width glazing, and sunlight pouring in — I felt the hands of the architects on my shoulder.

The architects responsible were Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth. They belonged to a young team of architects working at the London Borough Camden. The 1965 London Government Act saw the amalgamation of three Metropolitan boroughs: Holborn, Hampstead and St Pancras into the new Borough Camden. Holborn, although small with a tiny population, was very central and as such had a high land value; Hampstead was already a wealthy area and St Pancras was a poorer, but left-wing borough. It was a perfect storm — it made the new borough extremely wealthy but with a social agenda. Camden wanted to put itself on the map as a leader in housing and appointed architect Sydney Cook to head its architecture department. Cook recruited a fresh young team of architects many straight out of architecture school. He encouraged them to lead their own projects and come up with innovative and radical approaches. They rejected system-building and the high-rise trend, instead opting for low-rise schemes that responded to their locations. Camden soon gained a reputation for high-density low-rise avant-garde designs.

A major and influential member of this formidable team was Neave Brown. A graduate of the Architectural Association, Brown had spent a few years working in private practices including Lyons Israel Ellis. His first major solo project was a group of five houses near Dartmouth Park, also in the Borough of Camden, designed for his own family and a group of his contemporaries who formed a housing cooperative. Camden agreed to sell them an awkward patch of land and loan them the money to build the houses, on the basis that they would be built within Local Authority standards and space allowances. What Brown managed to achieve within the budget restraints was incredible. Using simple materials of concrete, brick and timber, he built a row of five, three storey terraced houses. He was able to reinterpret the traditional English street, preserving its scale and intimacy but in a thoroughly modern way. The cleverness is in the unusual internal planning of spaces — the division the ‘adult zone’ on the top floor, the children’s bedrooms on the ground floor (with direct access to a communal garden) and the kitchen and dining areas in the middle. These themes became a prototype for many of the Borough’s council housing during their ‘golden era’.

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Branch Hill. Photo: missarrashid/ CC.

Brown went on to design two schemes for the borough, the last, largest and most striking of which is Alexandra Road in Swiss Cottage. As in his previous scheme, he opted for high-density low-rise blocks, with each dwelling having a direct connection to the street and its own front door. The long continuous concrete blocks run east to west, with a seven-storey ziggurat block running along the edge of a railway line (forming an acoustic barrier), opposite a four-storey block. Both blocks overlook a 350-metre terracotta paved street. The brief was gargantuan — it included a community centre, shops, an estate office, a youth club, a building department depot and underground car parking. Brown enlisted the help of fellow AA graduates Benson and Forsyth. The project took over ten years to complete, and in 1970 Sydney Cook, concerned that Benson and Forsyth were becoming too bogged down with the project, gave them their own housing brief for a site in the wealthy area of Hampstead—Branch Hill.

Built on a site of an Edwardian mansion, there were restrictive covenants on the land, which meant that any development was limited to being two-storey semi-detached housing. The result was twenty-one pairs of exceptional modernist houses which step down a sloping site in three rows, served by a grid of pedestrian alleys akin to a Mediterranean hill town, all surrounded by the mature trees that were on the mansion’s grounds. Similar themes to the other Camden schemes are seen here, such as white concrete renders and dark stained window frames. The kitchen, dining area and living rooms are one split-level space. The use of partitions, skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows make the spaces feel deceptively much larger than they really are. The main bedroom is at the top and children’s bedrooms on the lower floor (as in Neave Brown’s houses). Most striking are the roof terraces, which are accessed by connecting bridges from the living rooms, so each house has a large terrace on the roof of the house directly below it.

It’s hard to believe these striking houses are council houses at all, let alone in London. Benson and Forsyth went on to design two further schemes for the borough — the terrace of flats and nine houses in Gospel Oak and a larger scheme, Maiden Lane near King’s Cross. What sets the Camden architects of this time apart is that they weren’t concerned with designing ‘good council housing’, they wanted design ‘good housing’ and Camden provided them with the funds, space and freedom to do so. Camden’s ‘golden era’ housing were some of the last large-scale ambitious social housing schemes to have been built in the UK before the bubble burst on social housing. Of the forty-seven estates built under Sydney Cook, five are now listed and protected by Historic England. It was an extraordinary time of political and economic commitment to provide social housing on a significant scale. The quality, scale and ambition of the Camden estates has not been surpassed, and I’m proud to call one of them my home.