In the mind's eye, social housing does not have soft edges — at least not aesthetically. The term conjures up images of Brutalism, stern geometry and — excepting the occasional washed-out shade of local authority turquoise — a reserved visage.
But the Boundary Estate, which has stood since 1890, defies this stereotype. It’s arguably the world’s oldest council estate, but it also has a claim to being one of the most architecturally unique.
Its Grade II listed buildings are modest, but have dignified curves and embellishments; the estate spirals outwards from Arnold Circus — a splendid community fulcrum with gardens and a bandstand. The shapes which radiate from that roundabout are receptive and airy, rather than imposing.
Rubber-stamped in 1890 by the then new (and now defunct) London County Council, the estate trialled a new form of philanthropy. Officials opted to flatten the Old Nichol slum — a notorious no-go zone whose fearsome reputation was promulgated in novels like A Child of the Jago. In its place went up beautiful red-brick, Arts and Crafts-influenced homes for those they felt "deserved" them.
Judging who deserved a tenement in the new builds, and who should be banished to some other slum, was deemed by some to be a cruel and arbitrary process. But the Victorians were capable of blurring poverty and immorality even more than our own tabloid era of "benefits cheats" and "sink estates".
Gentrification of the area has seen privately-owned flats within the estate become increasingly sought-after. But around two-thirds of the 500-odd premises remain under the control of Tower Hamlets Borough Council, and a unionised residents’ group is determined they remain so. In 2006, they rallied against a move to hand over the estate to a housing association.
Although there's not much traffic, the Circus is a bustling social cauldron. But it’s also a destination in its own right, easily explored from the northern extents of Brick Lane and Shoreditch High Street. On the Sunday we visit, tenants clutching plants from the nearby Columbia Flower Market cross paths in the Circus with pushchair parents and Hoxton’s coffee nerds who filter into the artisanal outlets occupying the old Victorian workshops.
Historical photographs kindly provided by the London Metropolitan Archives. You can see over 130,000 historical images of the capital — from the 16th century onwards — via its Collage website.