Owen Pritchard finds a quiet and effective model of regeneration, at a former unloved estate in Kings Lynn
At the AJ120 Awards, protesters gathered to accuse architects of being ‘funeral directors of the working class’. Point one of the leaflets that showered down on the attendees gathered on the lawns of the Tower of London read: ‘We protest against the AJ120 nomination of HTA Design, Hawkins\Brown and Mae Architects for the award of collaboration of the year for their part in the eviction, demolition and gentrification of the Aylesbury estate.’ Another point declared: ‘We protest against the demolition of housing estates built by architects who had a vision of the social duties of architecture so lacking in today’s architects.’
The protest showed that architects matter, and that campaigners think the profession will listen to their concerns. The solutions are less clear. Architecture’s role in wider social, economic and political mechanisms is hard to pin down qualitatively or quantitatively – architecture’s purpose shifts depending on the context of the discussion. When I read the protesters’ manifesto, Mae was one of only three architects named specifically. Which made me think of King’s Lynn.
Mae has provided a model of sustainable and intelligent redevelopment
You probably won’t have heard of Hillington Square. It’s an unremarkable, rather unlovable, estate in the Norfolk market town of King’s Lynn. You probably wouldn’t even notice it despite the fact it flanks the town centre and contains 320 homes. It was built between 1967 and 1971 to provide housing for London overspill, and is a familiar five-storey ‘slab-block’ covering just under 1ha. In 2006 the housing stock was transferred from the council to Freebridge Community Housing, which was tasked with improving the quality of the buildings and the lives of tenants.
This is not a glamourous project. It is unlikely to capture the imagination in the way a new-build development such as Newhall in Harlow has, and it doesn’t have the architectural qualities of, say, the Brunswick Centre or Park Hill to work with. It does, however, offer an approach that makes the most of the existing scheme’s modest qualities, and does justice to the ideas underpinning the original development. It was this approach that saw Mae beat more than 70 other practices to win the job, with the judges particularly impressed by its intention to work closely with the residents and wider community.
The Hillington estate has a list of familiar problems: a series of blocks with confusing deck access and poor legibility; an inward-facing development with little connectivity to the wider area; poorly maintained and underused outdoor space; and failing building fabric which meant homes were expensive to heat. Hillington Square was ripe for demolition, but without the money to rebuild, Freebridge Community Housing asked Mae to find the latent opportunities to breathe life back into this estate.
Mae’s approach has been to understand the estate at the urban scale, the scale of the neighbourhood and the way individuals will live in the units. By studying the structure and layout of the estate and the surrounding historic urban grain, the architect has identified where to open up the estate to improve circulation and connectivity. Its first bold move was to demolish the walkways that linked the housing blocks, so removing a physical barrier across the estate’s principal entrance. The refurbishment work to each of the blocks is a continuation of the provincial quirkiness of King’s Lynn’s architectural language, but with restrained flourishes such as ‘hit and miss’ brickwork at the top of the new circulation cores and patterns cut into the storage room doors.
This is an exercise in common sense. The long continuous deck access has been divided up to provide balconies and shorter shared spaces for up to eight families. Each block now has designated entrances with stair and lift cores, which allow each to now have its own address. These tactics aim to give the residents a sense of ownership. Coupled with well-planned circulation and a legible layout, this maze of buildings should become more appealing. Mae has started to unpick the overbearing structures that created a unified, cumbersome mass, giving each block some much-needed independence.
One of the other drawbacks of the original design was that the ground floors were lined with rows of garage doors, providing an uninspiring facade wrapped around the internal courtyards. The garages are now gone, and the ground-floor bedsit flats have been slightly enlarged. There are new entrances to the first-floor flats, and secure storage space off the communal walkway, clearly designated by new brown brick bay extensions that provide circulation across the frontages.
Above, individual units range from bedsits to three-bedroom maisonettes. The layouts remain the same as before but the building fabric has been updated to improve performance and appearance. Some access decks have become balconies, giving the elevated properties some private outdoor space.
Phase one of this £30 million transformation is now complete. The tenants have moved back in and the second block is being renovated. Mae has provided a model of sustainable and intelligent redevelopment for an estate and community that could have been easily displaced and lost. It is here where some of the protesters’ criticisms are, partially at least, answered.
Phase one of Hillington Square may not be Park Hill or Robin Hood Gardens, but this is a quiet and effective model of regeneration that retains a community and updates a tired piece of King’s Lynn. It places the rapid development of London, and in this case the Aylesbury Estate, into sharp focus. Mae is an architect juggling the consequences of being such a visible agent of change in the city and beyond. It is at the centre of the dichotomy the profession faces as part of the mechanisms of regeneration and its perceived evil twin: gentrification.
Hillington Square consists of 320 flats. There are 15 residential blocks on the site; four and five storey flat-roof buildings with communal stairs, lifts and deck areas. The accommodation consists of 40 bedsits, 62 one-bedroom flats, 40 two-bedroom flats, 98 two-bedroom maisonettes and 80 three-bedroom maisonettes.
For this flagship project, Freebridge Community Housing aims to improve the liveability, appearance, wider public perception and desirability of the estate, to make the development feel safer and less claustrophobic, to improve the condition of the dwellings themselves, and to improve the properties’ energy performance.
Alex Ely, partner, Mae Architects
Our organisation is committed to developing homes and creating opportunities for people within west Norfolk. We see ourselves as a place-shaping housing provider; not just interested in the quality of the housing but also in creating a sense of place around the homes that we own.
When people first moved into Hillington Square in the late 1960s, they felt they were ‘moving into paradise’. The estate offered modern space standards, fitted kitchens, heating and indoor bathrooms. But over time it became tired and outdated; a place to live for people who had little alternative.
We spent a long time thinking about what we wanted to achieve, and a lot of time talking to the residents too.
A number of options were available. We could have just completed the work the government required of us in respect of the Decent Homes Standard, patching up areas where necessary. We also considered knocking down the estate and starting again, although this would have presented us with other difficulties in respect of planning.
We rejected both these options and developed a brief, working with Hemingway Design, which helped us define how we could make the very best from what was already there and select the best design team. We also worked with the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team to ensure we removed barriers to community contact throughout the estate, creating a place where people wanted to live.
Once we had an idea of what we wanted to achieve, we appointed Mae to develop a vision and help us make it happen. Mae brought a strong team to the project, with an attention to detail that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
It was involved in the many consultation events we continued to have, speaking with residents, the wider community and the local authority’s planning team. And we’re sure that without this approach we wouldn’t be successfully bringing the heart back into the community and making Hillington Square a place where residents are very proud to live.
Tony Hall, chief executive, Freebridge Community Housing
Hillington Square is a £30 million refurbishment of 320 properties and remodelling of the estate layout and public realm improvements.
The scheme aims to improve the liveability, appearance, wider public perception and desirability of the estate, to make the development feel safer and less claustrophobic, to improve the condition of the dwellings themselves and to improve the properties’ energy performance.
Our view was that the estate had inherent value and meaning, and that through intelligent replanning and refurbishment it could overcome its social and environmental problems.
The remodelling delivers a neighbourhood that fulfills the aspirations of the client and the residents in the following ways:
- Creating a Place Building on urban structure, urban grain, morphology and public realm to create a new identity for the area.
- Improving connectivity Drawing on the historic street pattern, we have created better links for pedestrians and cyclists to the rest of the town.
- Finding an appropriate architectural language We have reimagined the architecture, removing the continuous frontage of garages and reconfiguring the elevations.
- Improving public realm We have identified spaces for new landscaped public gardens, remodeling the low-grade outdoor environment that lacked places to play or socialise.
- Making a humane neighbourhood We have remodelled the estate, reconfiguring the continuous deck access by providing new clear entrances, well planned circulation and legible street layout.
- Securing long-term sustainability We have upgraded the building fabric to cut the cost of heating the homes.
- Leaving a legacy Creating a carefully balanced, mixed residential neighbourhood for existing and new residents, mitigating social segregation.
Alex Ely, partner, Mae Architects
Related projects in AJ Buildings Library