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Exploring a century of ideas about housing with the AA Night School

Sam Jacob, the founder of the AA’s Night School, leads ‘a classroom’ of cyclists around London to experience and learn from a century of ideas about housing

The AA Night School links up the often siloed worlds of education and practice.

With so much focus now on housing, both within the profession and in wider society, including issues of affordability, new models of development, seemingly random calls for new so-called garden cities and new towns, it seemed a timely issue to explore.

Where better to experience the reality of contemporary housing issues than out among it? Forget the lecture theatre, the essay, the symposium or presentation; the media that the educational and professional spheres usually conduct their dialogues. You cannot beat the visceral experience of the city itself as both socio-historical document and the site for conjecture. The city is, in other words, both the map and the territory.

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With this in mind, and to coincide with the exhibition I curated in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Night School teamed up with Andrea Klettner, who edits Love London Council Housing blog, to lead a bike tour through the history (and present) of social and affordable housing. A group of 26 architects, planners, residents and housing providers were brought together, with each asked to explain a particular scheme’s history, present and, in some cases, future.

Despite the Night School name, we set off on our bikes on a very gloomy Saturday last month at 10am. We plotted a 12-mile route - which would take five hours - from the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green via Lubetkin’s Cranbrook Estate, through the Lansbury Estate, Robin Hood Gardens then out to Thamesmead. If you join the dots, you draw a line through a century of ideas about housing. It is a line also through the fluctuating fortunes and shifting politics of British housing.

The journey inevitably juxtaposes this built history with the contemporary visions that are fast emerging across an east London bristling with cranes.

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Though they share the same ground, what is startlingly apparent is a broken narrative. From the early tenements of Model Dwellings Companies of the Victorian era, through the careful construction of community at the post-war Lansbury Estate, to the hyper expressive Modernism of the Balfron and to Thamesmead where expression, community and landscape were carefully layered by the Greater London Council architects in the early 1970s there is a clear development. Projects become more sophisticated, more ambitious. Sure, there was architectural hubris, but there was also intense thought about community, neighbourhood and place. Exactly the same kinds of things we now strive for, just using a new kind of language (social sustainability for example). This is the point: we have been here before.

Of course, there is a generation gap severing this narrative. A gap during which professional confidence and political will collapsed. We have had to overcome this, to relearn planning, design and the politics of building housing. But the effort of reconstructing the ability to deliver housing has taken its toll. To put it bluntly, we have reinvented the wheel.

This professional naivety, coupled with fear of failure, might be the inevitable response to the perceived failures on all sides (architects, planners and local authorities). The result, though, is we have essentially reinvented the tenement block (like the Victorian philanthropic projects we see at the origin of the story, updated by a neo-Modernist brick effect) with a rough approximation of ‘traditional’ street patterns as the single solution to contemporary housing. Equally, the politics and economics of housing have reverted to a neo-Victorian state; experiments in other models (land trusts and self-build) are only beginning to re-emerge.

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A century of experiment, of careful and detailed design, and of lessons learned have been lost. You cannot help but feel that Bellway’s Festival Quarter - nicely designed as it is - is a step back from the design and ambition of the Lansbury Estate its branding obliquely references.

This is not a call to repeat a Lansbury (or Balfron, Thamesmead, etc), but rather a plea for us as clients, planners and architects to re-engage with the rich history of Modern housing design, to learn from and be part of the same narrative thrust towards a better world.

The living history of housing that surrounds us shows that the ambition of creating pleasant communities and great places is nothing new. Take the green mound at the centre of the Boundary Estate, the careful integration of housing, shops and market at Chrisp Street in Poplar, the ideas of a contemporary picturesque at Thamesmead. These are all not only evidence, but proof of possibilities, that still have meaning and use to us now. 

  • Sam Jacob, founder, AA Night School and director, Sam Jacob Studio

Dorset Estate

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Dorset Estate is a great example of a post-war estate that worked. Designed by Berthold Lubetkin, it includes a good mix of low, mid and high-rise housing alongside a park, pub and community centre. Next door is Sivill House - which I’m biased about because I live there - but it really is a great building. The flats are triple aspect, and unless they are being really loud, it is impossible to hear your neighbours. The concrete, Lego-esque facade looks great, and if I am being fussy, the worst thing about living there are the super-slow lifts. If only the same could be said about all developments now.

  • Andrea Klettner, of ING media and Love London Council Housing

Keeling House

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Keeling House was completed in 1957. It is a case study in high-rise family living. Denys Lasdun’s focus on achieving good solar orientation for all flats led to its cluster form that breaks down its massing and avoids the repetitive characteristic of later council housing towers. Groups of four apartments are accessed off short galleries, successfully separating the communal and private areas, giving greater privacy and individual doorsteps. While innovative, the layout of the maisonettes are reminiscent of the two-storey terraced house they were built to replace, but with fresh air and views.

  • Paul Karakusevic, director, Karakusevic Carson Architects

Cranbrook Estate

Cranbrook Estate 1965

Cranbrook Estate 1965

Cranbrook is a utopia that got distracted. Lubetkin himself later said that perhaps, actually, it should be demolished, for it was designed for a (socialist) future that never came. The chequered towers are unmissable from nearby streets. But it’s only if you cross the estate – ideally at dusk - along the looping roadways or down the emphatic diagonal avenue, that you get a real sense of the original architectural vision, despite the best efforts of decades of repair and renewal to conceal it. You become aware of the games of scale that the buildings play, and the way that they twist and dance around each other. Ghosts of an idea about housing that, albeit re-examined and re-interpreted, is worth hanging onto.

  • Daisy Froud, co-founder AOC

Lansbury Estate

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Built as a ‘living architecture’ exhibit for the 1951 Festival of Britain, the Lansbury remains a theme park of the British post-war condition. Its compact neighbourhoods are a built prototype for Abercrombie’s plan for London. Its long-gone exhibits like Gremlin Grange, a deliberately shoddy semi-D, speak of the British elite’s rejection of suburbia and popular construction. Its clocktower, with a double-helix stair to allow for high visitor numbers, was closed to prevent suicides, thereby standing as a monument to every closed rooftop, gated lobby and ‘No Ball Games’ sign imposed upon modernist space. And in the story of ‘Poplarism’ and George Lansbury, after whom the estate was named, we read an archetypal political struggle between freedom and control.

  • David Knight, co-founder of DK-CM

Balfron tower

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Winding through the low-rise streets of the Lansbury Estate, we come to the majestic slab of the Balfron Tower, Erno Goldfinger’s pixelated cliff-face that stands as an East-End mirror to his Trellick Tower in the west, together book-ending the city like stately concrete robots. It contains a stack of 136 flats and 10 maisonettes, these two-storey units articulated on the 16th floor as a horizontal ribbon, like a distinctive cummerbund around the building’s portly girth.

When the tower opened in 1967 Goldfinger himself moved in for two months, holding champagne-fuelled soirées at the top of the building, like Ballard’s doomed architect in High Rise. Built as social housing by the GLC, the democratic vision is now coming to an equally sticky end: the Balfron is soon to be scrubbed up by Studio Egret West and sold off as high-end private flats.

Robin Hood Gardens

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Born into bad times, Robin Hood Gardens never truly materialised as the vision of progressive social housing dreamt up by the Smithsons. Emerging from the spaces between London’s major road network, the great cliffs of Poplar once guarded its residents from the crashing cacophony of vehicles beyond its walls.


With ‘streets in the sky’ situated on every third level, and generous garden space made from construction debris, the architects hoped to improve lives through design in an era of concrete optimism. But, while its Brutalist neighbour the Balfron Tower dodged the wrecking ball, this estate will soon be razed to the ground after failing to get listed and preserved.

  • Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

Thamesmead

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Thamesmead was conceived as ‘a town of the 21st century’ in the 1960s. The vision for Thamesmead was to create a thriving community of 60,000 Londoners, living and working in an area blessed with an abundance of natural open space, lakes and waterways. A futuristic city built in the style of the time, Thamesmead has never quite met the planners’ original aspirations. Poor connectivity, problematic housing policies, design and technical problems, combined with underinvestment, ineffective governance and a lack of amenities have all contributed to a poor reputation. But Thamesmead has the potential to help solve some of the most pressing issues for Londoners. Not just thousands of new homes and jobs, but a unique place and offer for future generations.

  • Dan Hill, head of thamesmead strategy, Peabody
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