In Pictures: London's Council Houses

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 17 months ago

Last Updated 12 December 2022

In Pictures: London's Council Houses
The unexpected stained glass inside Trellick Tower.

This extract from The Council House by Jack Young shows just how innovative (and sometimes beautiful) London's council houses and estates can be.

Spa Green, Islington (built 1946-49)

close up of the latticed balconies
Spa Green was so well received when it finally opened that it sparked a mass housing programme across Finsbury.

What do Spa Green Estate and London Zoo's penguin pool have in common? They were both designed by the Georgian-born founder of the famous Tecton practice, Berthold Lubetkin. Conceived in the late 1930s to replace slum housing, yet delayed by the second world war, this estate was so well received when it finally opened that it sparked a mass housing programme across Finsbury. The 126 flats here, split across three blocks, borrowed new and innovative features from Lubetkin's acclaimed Highpoint blocks — two private developments that he had previously designed in the 30s. Lifts, central heating, balconies, large entry lobbies and fitted kitchens together provided far more amenities than the majority of the population then enjoyed. Influenced by Lubetkin's love of textiles, the blocks' vibrant design helped Spa Green to achieve mutual investment from both council and tenants in a way that other estates of the time were unable to. The resident's handbook proudly declared it 'an outstanding advance in municipal housing'. Now that the site is Grade ll* listed, it's hard to dispute that claim.

Bevin Court, Pentonville (built 1951-54)

a very red staircase
The staircase is a 'balletic masterpiece'.

A private driveway snakes through trees towards an imposing entrance with the name 'Bevin Court' proudly sculpted above the door: a description perhaps more easily associated with a sprawling country estate than an inner-city council one. But for all its perceived grandeur, this Grade II-listed building actually shows many signs of post-war austerity. Berthold Lubetkin designed this estate in conjunction with Francis Skinner and Douglas Bailey following the dissolution of their former practice, the Tecton Group. However, budget cuts meant that plans had to be scaled back during construction. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, something brilliant was created. Lubetkin's original plan outlined a series of three blocks; when this became too expensive, he was forced to join them together into a three-pronged building. A central staircase was added to connect the three wings, and it is in this vibrant red masterpiece that Bevin Court truly shines. Reaching from the ground to the sixth floor, the freestanding staircase offers views all the way from the top to the bottom. Lubetkin believed that 'a staircase is a dance'; this one is a balletic masterpiece.

Golden Lane Estate, City of London (built 1953-62)

close up of the windows with greenery in the foreground
Golden Lane was the immediate forerunner to the Barbican estate.

A primary-coloured precursor to the Barbican's next-door concrete utopia, Golden Lane Estate is the earliest work of architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. The trio were lecturers at Kingston Polytechnic when they each submitted designs for the estate to a competition hosted by the Corporation of London that intended to reinvigorate a bombed-out plot of land. Having agreed to form a partnership should one of them win, when Geoffry Powell's proposal was awarded first place, their now famous practice was born. Mainly catering for workers such as nurses, caretakers and the emergency services who needed to live within striking distance of the city, the 557 homes here were designed for single occupants and couples. Despite each home's limited footprint, the architects' interiors revolutionised small-space living, with sliding screens and vaulted spaces, and the estate's nine blocks achieved Grade II-listed status in 1997. Chamberlin, Powell & Bon's vibrant design spoke to a shared feeling of renewed ambition in the aftermath of war, and the project put in place a new standard for what social housing should be: exciting, bold and, above all, colourful.

Cranbrooke Estate, Mile End (built 1964-66)

a weeping willow in the foreground of this image of the concrete Cranbrook Estate, punctuated with green detailing
The estate has a rippling quality reflected by the water below.

On the banks of Regent's Canal sit the emerald-flecked towers of the Cranbrook Estate. Snaking all the way around the figure-of-eight-shaped Mace Street, this estate was conceived by Bethnal Green Borough Council in 1955 as a major regeneration of an area of decaying Victorian workshops and terraces. The large-scale project saw 1,500 residents temporarily displaced from the 17-acre site: not an insubstantial number for a borough that, at the time, housed only 54,000 people and measured little over a square mile. The 529 new homes were however reserved solely for these displaced residents — a decision that helped to preserve the area's tight-knit community. The blocks here undulate in height across one-storey retirement bungalows, a row of five-storey flats bordering Roman Road and six 15-storey towers. Each form of accommodation has been carefully positioned to maximise sunlight and space, with the blocks being angled slightly differently from one to the next. Overall, this varied composition gives the estate a rippling quality reflected by the water below.

Holmefield House, Westbourne Park (built 1966-7)

a blue campervan matches the blue pattern tiles of the council block
Nautical colours, mock-classical pillars and porthole windows give Holmefield House a whimsical feel.

In the shadow (both literally and figuratively) of Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower (see further down), the tiles of Holmefield House gleam in the sunlight that breaks through its neighbour's iconic cut-outs. Unfortunately for Julian Keable & Partners, this proximity makes it hard to avoid comparing their project to Goldfinger's Grade II-listed giant. However, it is a true testament to Holmefield House's architectural merit that it holds its weight. Commissioned by the now disbanded Kensington Metropolitan Borough Council, Holmefield House was actually completed four years before Goldfinger's tower moved in. Keable & Partners' design for the estate feels unconventional — almost whimsical — with its nautical colours, mock-classical pillars and porthole windows that punch through the thick exterior. Following the flow of the canal that runs alongside it, the block's sinuous form, constructed from sand-lime bricks, encloses a trio of secluded walled gardens that offer residents quiet areas of retreat. It may be overlooked by the tower, but this lively design should not be overlooked by us.

Dawson's Heights, East Dulwich (built 1968-72)

Kate Macintosh was just 26 years old when she designed Dawson's Heights.

Like an ancient stronghold, the ziggurat form of Dawson's Heights looms over East Dulwich from its 13.8-acre hilltop site. At the time of its construction, Kate Macintosh was just 26 years old. Having won a competition organised by Southwark Council, this budding young architect was awarded the project of a lifetime. Facing the challenge head-on, she aimed to create a new London landmark — taking inspiration from the topography of Edinburgh Castle, which she grew up nearby. The stepped layout of the blocks allows sunlight to reach them all year round, and gives two-thirds of the 296 flats here expansive views over both central London to the north and leafy Sydenham to the south. Each flat has its own private balcony (an extravagance justified in Macintosh's tight budget by their joint function as fire escapes) and a communal garden fills the gap between the two blocks. This green valley provides an abundance of space and light, introducing a warm, human element to this monumental estate.

Trellick Tower, Notting Hill (built 1968-72)

The Trellick Tower, looking up from the base
This place was Once dubbed the 'Tower of Terror' by the press.

If the name of Hungarian-born architect Ernö Goldfinger instantly rings a bell, it may well be thanks to his immortalisation as Ian Fleming’s most infamous Bond villain — the novelist reportedly took offence to Goldfinger bulldozing several Victorian villas to build his own home in Hampstead, and enacted his revenge in print. One of the most colourful characters of the Modernist architectural movement, Goldfinger left his mark on schools, private homes and office blocks throughout London — but none of his creations are more instantly recognisable than his 1972 box-office classic, Trellick Tower. Once dubbed the 'Tower of Terror' by the tabloids – a name that does indeed sound more fitting to a Bond movie than a council block — by 1998, Trellick Tower had shaken off both its nickname and its negative reputation and was the first post-war housing project to be awarded Grade II-listed status. Today, the concierge (included in Goldfinger's original plan) welcomes both council tenants and high-paying private residents to its 217 sought-after flats and houses.

Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate, South Hampstead (built 1972-8)

close up of the moos stained concrete balconies with pot places and satellite dishes
The building's unusual shape is designed to diffuse the noise of passing trains.

One of the few post-war housing estates to be awarded an elusive Grade II* listing, Alexandra & Ainsworth's three plant-covered terraces stretch out for 350 metres alongside a tree-filled park. Following the curve of the neighbouring train line, the outermost block here hangs suspended over the tracks; its unusual shape is designed to diffuse the noise of passing trains. Camden Council, which formed in 1965, became quickly renowned for its radical housing projects, many of which were commissioned under the leadership of Sydney Cook. Determined to build radically better, purposefully beautiful council housing, Cook found a natural ally in Neave Brown, who designed Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate as an inner-city utopia. Shops, a community centre, a special-needs school and many more community facilities were all incorporated into the building plan, alongside 520 dwellings. Each home here has its own front door that opens directly onto the network of walkways, while in-built benches along the concrete promenade allow residents and brutalism fans alike to sit back and savour the site's refreshing stillness.

Whittington Estate, Highgate (built 1972-9)

beautiful modernist balconies
Whittington Estate was - and still is — top of its class

Peter Tábori was a high achiever. While studying at the Regent Street Polytechnic, he asked the local authority for a final-year project. Sydney Cook, the Camden Borough Architect of the time, was so impressed with the young architect's design that he commissioned him to make it into a reality; thus, construction began on Whittington Estate. The estate's six parallel terraces house around 1,100 people across 271 homes, and embody what has come to be known as the 'Camden-style' council architecture advanced by Cook: geometric, pre-cast concrete complemented by dramatic, dark-stained timber detailing. Pedestrianised streets run in between the terraces, and scattered green spaces soften what might otherwise be a stark, heavy appearance. Each dwelling here has its own direct-access front door, giving residents an increased feeling of ownership over their homes. The kitchens were also thoughtfully placed to overlook the walkways below, enabling parents to easily supervise their children at play. In these considered design details, Whittington Estate was — and still is — top of its class.

The Council House by Jack Young is published by Hoxton Mini Press, RRP £18.95

All images © Jack Young