"My Obsession With London's Modernist Council Estates"

"My Obsession With London's Modernist Council Estates"

Thaddeus Zupancic — author of London Estates: Modernist Council Housing 1946-1981 — writes about the capital's great modernist housing.

A housing estate with a modernist clocktower
35–59 Market Square, Lansbury Estate, Chrisp Street E14 GLC Department of Architecture and Civic Design Designed from 1967, built in 1971–3

I have always been interested in social housing, mostly in Central Europe.

I grew up in Slovenia, and then in Germany and France. After I moved to London my interest didn't wane — not at all. As Owen Hatherley pointed out there is no district of London, other than Belgravia and Mayfair, that does not have council estates of significant size.

I never lived on one, but did live in several ex-council properties, which is — obviously — not the same.

An angular mosaic of ballet dancers
Michael Cliffe House, Finsbury Estate. Commissioned in 1961, built and completed by Franck & Deeks for Islington London Borough Council 1965–7
A tall tower block of grey and yellow
Edrich House, Studley Estate, Binfield Road SW4 Lambeth Architect’s Department Borough architect: Edward Hollamby. Project architect: George Finch 1968
An austere looking set of modernist apartments
Oatlands Court, Wimbledon Park Side SW19 LCC Architect’s Department Architect in charge: Colin Lucas Project architects: H.H. Gillett and A.P. Roach Designed from 1948, built in 1952–3

There are quite a few successful London housing estates — ones which still serve the purpose they set out to do. Interestingly, they're ones that are still council-owned and were not transferred to a housing association or an arm's-length organisation, mostly estates in Islington and Camden and now, again, in Westminster.

This doesn't mean that all councils have the same approach to their own housing: the ideological opposition to it from the 1980s onwards meant that it became marginalised, neglected and underfunded. The really successful ones are, I think, Churchill Gardens Estate, Lillington Gardens Estate, Dunboyne Road Estate, Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate, Cheltenham Estate with Trellick Tower, Spring Gardens in Highbury, Hillcrest Estate in Sydenham, Vanbrugh Park Estate in Blackheath and Dawson's Heights in East Dulwich.

An estate overlooking a lake
Binsey Walk, Southmere, Thamesmead SE28 GLC Department of Architecture and Civic Design 1967–8 (demolished)
A concrete spiral staircase
George Loveless House, Dorset Estate, Bethnal Green, Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin for Bethnal Green Borough Council 1951-7
A leisure centre with pointy roof - and a high rise behind it
Riverside Youth Club Pepys Estate, Deptford SE8 GLC Department of Architecture and Civic Design 1968

I think the extraordinary cluster blocks – with subsidiary residential towers linked to a core containing stairs and lifts — by Denys Lasdun were completely fascinating. And then: the beautiful, extraordinary staircases by Berthold Lubetkin, together with his blocks, of course too. Ernő Goldfinger's high-rises. The ambition and the elegance of the Alton West Estate by the Brutalist wing of the LCC Architects Department. And Neave Brown's concrete, the primary material on his part of the Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate, is outstanding.

A large modernist housing estate with balconies
Tangmere, Broadwater Farm Estate, Tottenham N17 Haringey Department of Architecture Borough architect: Charles E. Jacob. Deputy borough architect: Alan Weitzel Designed from 1966, built in 1967–72 (demolished)
A series of black and white patterned tiles
Woodhall House, Fitzhugh Estate, Trinity Road, Wandsworth SW18 LCC Architect’s Department
Architects in charge: Rosemary Stjernstedt, Oliver Cox and Kenneth Grieb. Decorative tiles by Oliver Cox 1953–6
Five grey high rises
Brandon Estate, Kennington SE17 LCC Architect’s Department Architect in charge: Edward Hollamby Presented in 1955, built in 1957–61

I feel despondent, really,  about the demolition in recent years of places like the Heygate and Robin Hood Gardens. I truly liked both estates. The eastern block, 105-214 Robin Hood Gardens is still there, but not for much longer. The Heygate Estate, though, was a truly sorry story of opaqueness and dubious decisions by Southwark Council — and a fantastic deal for their commercial partners, developers Lendlease: they bought the entire 10 hectare estate for £50m.

And then there is the drastic decrease of a number of social rented homes, as they are called now — which is the equivalent of the old council house; "affordable housing" as is understood now is anything but.

A white and yellow housing estate with diagonal stairs to one side
Bowater House (1953–6) and Great Arthur House (1953–7), Golden Lane Estate, Golden Lane EC1 Chamberlin, Powell & Bon for Corporation of London A competition-winning design by mode from 1952, built to revised design by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Grade II listed
A wall with a red embossed 1965 on it
Tabard Gardens Estate, Tabard Street, Southwark SE1 Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin for the LCC Designed in 1963–4, built in 1965
A brick housing estate with pagoda in the centre of a courtyard
Whitbread Centre, Whitecross Street EC1 Fitzroy Robinson & Partners for Islington London Borough Council Designed from 1975 for Whitbread & Co. Transferred to Islington London Borough Council and completed in 1982

I am not a housing campaigner, but there is a lot that we can all learn from the past — from decent financing and maintenance — onwards. Yes, the taste changes all the time, but I really believe that a small detached house with a little garden at the front and the back is not the answer to all our housing questions. It simply can't be.

What is also needed is a reform of the right to buy — it was already abolished in Scotland and Wales, for instance — but gradual changes, for instance change the five year tenancy criterion for the sale of a council home to a 15 year one, and abolish all discounts.

A modern looking riff on mock Tudor architecture
17a and 17b Longton Avenue, Sydenham SE26 Walter Segal’s Lewisham self-build group in association with the Lewisham Architect’s Department Borough architect: Julian Tayler Deputy borough architect: Brian Richardson First phase (Segal Close, Ormanton Road, Elstree Hill, Longton Avenue) 1977–80
A wide, long set of apartment blocks
Winchfield House, Alton West Estate, Roehampton SW15 LCC Architect’s Department Designed in 1952–3, built in 1955–8 Grade II* listed

My favourite housing estate of the lot? Can I please have one large, one medium-sized and one smaller one? If I can, then it's the Churchill Garden Estate among the large ones, the Golden Lane Estate among the medium-sized ones and the Dunboyne Road Estate among the smaller ones.

London Estates: Modernist Council Housing 1946-1981, by Thaddeus Zupancic, published by FUEL

All images © Thaddeus Zupancic

Last Updated 19 March 2024

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