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‘dRMM’s Trafalgar Place is the first trumpet blast of the world to come’

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Should the RIBA have steered clear of putting another controversial housing scheme on this year’s shortlist? asks Catherine Slessor

When it comes to housing projects deemed worthy of its imprimatur, the Stirling Prize has had decidedly mixed fortunes. On the credit side, the Accordia complex in Cambridge won the coveted tiara in 2008, the first residential project in the Stirling’s history to do so. And last year Níall McLaughlin’s Darbishire Place was shortlisted, showing what a modern reconceptualisation of Peabody housing might look like. But with only 13 units, it was a barely audible riposte to the Cerberus of chronic unaffordability, lack of provision and ruthless social cleansing currently rampaging through London. On the debit side, Darbishire Place was joined by RSHP’s execrable Neo Bankside, the architectural equivalent of Nero strumming his lyre as Rome conflagrated, and recently in the news as its residents complained about being overlooked by the newly opened Tate Switch House.

Given that housing, especially in London, is currently the nation’s hottest political and typological potato, the RIBA might have been tempted to steer clear of it when compiling this year’s Stirling shortlist. Instead, with impeccable sang froid, it has elected to embrace another scheme with controversial credentials, dRMM’s Trafalgar Place, phase 1 of the high-stakes reconstitution of the former Heygate Estate.

‘Eight minutes from central London’, as the estate agent’s blurb breathlessly intones, the Heygate became emblematic of the evils of post-war mass housing. Originally home to over 3,000 people, it also had the dubious distinction of being the conduit for Tony Blair’s first address following his electoral landslide in 1997. Blair saw Modernist housing blocks as symbols of Old Labour exclusion and deprivation and launched his crusade for transformation.

The Heygate has been transformed by being obliterated

Since then, the Heygate has been transformed by being obliterated. Developer Lendlease acquired the site from Southwark Council and it is now being relentlessly terra-formed through a £1.5 billion masterplan. Despite assurances, out of the proposed 2,704 new dwellings, the number of socially rented units has shrunk to 82 from 1,194 when the estate was operational. In a protracted and painful diaspora, the last residents finally left in 2013, evicted, decanted and dispersed miles from their original neighbourhood. It is unlikely that they will ever return.

The parable of the Heygate is depressingly indicative of the current neoliberal crusade of capital and politics against the poor and disenfranchised. As geographer David Harvey puts it: ‘The metropolis is now the point of massive collision – dare we call it class struggle? – over the accumulation by dispossession visited upon the least well-off and the developmental drive that seeks to colonise space for the affluent’. Modern ‘sink-estates’ and their economically disempowered residents have long been considered fair game by press and politicians. The current Conservative government’s response has been the Housing Bill, calculated to finally dismantle and cauterise the public housing sector, which it clearly despises, describing it as a ‘Petri dish for incubating Labour voters’. In this, architecture almost seems irrelevant. But something has to rise from the Heygate’s post-apocalyptic tabula rasa and dRMM’s scheme is the first trumpet blast of the world to come. Trafalgar Place, as it is patriotically rebranded, is a wedge-shaped satellite to the south-east of the site. Its original slab blocks have been removed and replaced by a mixture of medium-rise blocks, towers and courtyards. Rising and falling, the new composition eddies discreetly around what is a surprisingly picturesque terrain, edged with mature London planes.

There is a reassuring heft to the brick, with windows set in deeply chiselled reveals

To the west is the 19th-century Peabody Walworth Estate, its red brick and honorific terracotta a reminder that ‘nothing is too good for the ordinary people’, to paraphrase Lubetkin’s famous adage. Trafalgar Place is also made of brick, rather beautifully, with subtly graduated façades and a rusticated base that helps to elevate it beyond the default biscuity-ness of so much new housing. Its glass-enclosed balconies are also more generously proportioned than usual, like miniature outdoor rooms. There is a reassuring heft to the brick, with windows set in deeply chiselled reveals. There is also structural ingenuity: two of the buildings employ a system of cross-laminated timber, rather than concrete, reflecting dRMM’s longstanding interest in working with wood.

With its lucidly expressed language of repeated elements Trafalgar Place has the sense of a modern Georgian pattern book, a template that could be plausibly replicated elsewhere. On the ground, a new pedestrian route cuts through the site, under the watchful eye of a Lendlease concierge. A landscaped courtyard for the use of residents covers car parking. There is tinkling water, lavish planting and new street furniture. It feels decidedly civilised and consensual, in a Flemish or Scandinavian sort of way. But who actually lives here?

Of the 235 dwellings, three quarters are for sale on the open market. A quick trawl on Zoopla brings up asking prices of £495,000 for a one-bed flat and £725,000 for two bedrooms, in line with what has become the depressingly inflated norm for inner London. The remainder (54 units) are described as ‘affordable housing’, with half for sale at a proportion of the open market value (60-80 per cent) and half for social rent through a housing association. That works out at 27 flats.

However, it’s not immediately apparent which bits are private and which social. Externally, the architecture does not distinguish and internally, the flats seem well-proportioned, light and airy, with outdoor access via a balcony, garden or roof terrace. The architects also point out that finishes in both are comparable. Nonetheless, the social mix, now dictated by affordability, is very different from the original Heygate.

Viewed simply as a piece of architecture in the context of a national architectural awards programme, Trafalgar Place has undoubted qualities. Yet it also forms part of a more disturbing agenda, over which its architects, however well intentioned, have little control. The obliteration of the Modernist social project fundamentally calls into question what kind of city we want and whether the power still exists to make it viable. Slipping through unremarked, London’s hollowing-out and banlieuisation is a pernicious, anti-social reductivism that sees the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • 'A petri dish for incubating labour voters' sounds like something straight out of the (ex) Dame, Shirley Porter's song book.
    I wonder how much Southwark got for the sale of the Heygate to Lendlease?
    I wonder how far that money could've gone to financing social housing - of the quality of dRMM's designs - to rehouse as many as possible of the original residents in the locality, rather than as few as possible?

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