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Best intentions

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aj buildings in use

Lansbury in London's Tower Hamlets was built as the 'live architecture' element of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Designed as a model neighbourhood, the key issues are - did it work, and what lessons can we draw from it?

In all of this year's coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, it is amazing how little has been heard about Lansbury, especially when the struggle to design coherent housing neighbourhoods remains a crucial issue.

Compared with the South Bank and to Battersea Park, Lansbury - built as the 'Live Architecture' element of the festival - is remarkably intact. Twelve hectares of housing (maximum height six storeys), shops, schools and churches survive, although much of the landscaping has been eroded and the influx of 'right-to-buy' owners has led to the usual rash of plastic windows, hanging baskets and Georgian-style doors.

It is well worth travelling to Poplar and guiding yourself around the 1951 route. The original black and white marker posts are no longer there, but in fact there is more to see now than there was back then, as the two most prominent buildings, the Roman Catholic church and the marketplace clock tower (one at each end of the site), were not finished in time.

Sadly, though, you can no longer visit the festival's show flat, house and old person's bedsit, while some temporary buildings were swept away at the end of the year. This means that you can neither listen to 'recordings of noises such as radios, babies' cries and suburban orgies as they sound when transmitted through different types of wall' (AJ 6.9.51), nor admire an early example of astute corporate sponsorship - an instant 'vertical feature' provided on the cheap by the loan of a real crane by McAlpine, still an unfamiliar enough object to add excitement.

However, Lansbury is more than the sum of its individual buildings. On his first visit, a decidedly under-impressed J M Richards, keen to be positive, anticipated that 'the total effect may prove much less ordinary than that of the separate buildings so far completed', and it is the aspiration to create a complete neighbourhood which merits reassessment. What can Lansbury teach us about post-war ideals and about how we can make the best of post-war housing today?

What aspects of Lansbury should we now seek to replicate or avoid?

Taking the tour We have Frederick Gibberd to thank for Lansbury. Having been sounded out for the job of festival coordinator (which he did not want and which later went to Hugh Casson), he wrote to the festival's council for architecture stating that 'the only way architecture can be exhibited is as architecture'.

The concept of neighbourhoods had its roots in the 'Garden City' movement and was central to the planning of new towns, and to Patrick Abercrombie and J H Forshaw's 1943 'County of London' plan. In Stepney and Poplar, the post-war aim was to reduce densities to 336 people per hectare (about half the previous level), and Abercrombie subdivided the area into 11 segments - each one to match the catchment area of a junior school. 'Neighbourhood number nine' was named after George Lansbury (1859-1940), the pre-war leader of the Labour Party and Poplar mayor. Rather than tackle the whole site, the exhibition area was just the southernmost 12.4ha.

Ideally, a site nearer the South Bank would have been found, but the politics of the London County Council complicated the process; and friction between the architects (under the chief architect Robert Matthew) and the chief valuer - who in 1946 had been given responsibility for housing construction - was largely responsible for the appointment of a wide range of architects.

Principally to sideline the valuer's department, it was agreed that 80 per cent of the area was to be designed by private architects, and the housing was divided between Geoffrey Jellicoe, Peter Shepheard of Bridgwater and Shepheard, Graham Dawbarn of Norman and Dawbarn, and Edward Armstrong (who later pulled out). Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardell was commissioned to design a primary school and nursery, and Judith Ledeboer an old people's home (the only significant building to have been demolished). For the first time, the team included a sociologist, Margaret Willis. The two churches were privately commissioned:

the Congregationalists appointing Cecil Handisyde and T Rodgers Stark; and the Catholics choosing Adrian Gilbert Scott.

The visitors' tour began with the series of temporary exhibition buildings. These included 'Gremlin Grange', a full-size horror show of inept construction and what not to do - a 'demonstration of how many things may go wrong when scientific principles in building are ignored'. Suitably scared by the rising damp, smoking fireplace, poor lighting and cracking walls, visitors moved on to the Town Planning Pavilion (which showed just 'how urgent is the need for new towns'), and then fortified themselves at the 'Rosie Lee' cafeteria, a design worked up by Leonard Manasseh from a sketch by Sadie Speight, with a 2.4m high teapot on the roof.

The first 'live' building to be visited was Trinity Church on East India Dock Road, with its exposed concrete-beam roof structure and thin campanile. Restored in 1972-74, it is now a Methodist - rather than a Congregationalist - church, and its hall serves the local Vietnamese community. It is a charming but wilfully eccentric building. The only work of the collaboration between Stark (an LCC architect) and Handisyde (who worked for the Building Research Station), it feels overpacked with ideas, while increased traffic on the East India Dock Road has made its main entrance practically redundant. Nonetheless, its courtyard hums with the rattle of mahjong tiles and it has a lively buzz.

Carrying on past a retained corner pub, the first housing on the tour was part of Jellicoe's east site, which consisted of 166 dwellings in all - a mix of flats, houses and maisonettes with 16 different plan types.

The houses on Grundy Street are arranged in terraces around grassed closes, but the individual blocks neither join nor meet coherently at the corners, and the effect is decidedly haphazard and clumsy.

The shopping centre and marketplace by Frederick Gibberd, designed to replace the flourishing Chrisp Street market, was the first pedestrianised shopping centre to open in Britain. It still has a double arcade of shops, set back beneath maisonettes and flats, but the original covered meat and fish market has gone, as has the small garden. The planned extension, north to Cordelia Street and south to include a cinema, never happened.

Tower Hamlets council's 1980s makeover of the square was disastrous, with a large covered area for stalls thrown down 'on the skew', replacing the original rectilinear layout of individual stalls. Gone too is the amazing pub sign: a three-dimensional representation of 'typical Londoners' dancing around an elevated mini-Skylon.

The Susan Lawrence School is much like YRM's contribution to the Hertfordshire schools programme, which had opened in Stevenage the previous year. Both were notable for a mix of new and traditional materials used with a standardised steel frame. Here the interior, too, was far from austere, with William Morris wallpaper and Peggy Angus tiles in the entrance hall. Sadly, the spar-faced concrete slabs on the classroom wing have failed and have been crudely replaced. However, the Hornton stone has mellowed well, and the school is popular with its headmistress.

The whole estate is dominated by the huge, 800-seat Catholic church of St Mary and St Joseph.A requirement to replicate the seating capacity of its bombed predecessor meant that Gilbert Scott could draw on his older brother Sir Giles' rejected scheme for Coventry Cathedral, but the result is simply too large for the site. Unfairly described by Ian Nairn as a 'sprawling lumpish mass' and 'both aggressive and flaccid, vulgar and genteel, pretentious and timid', it uses brick and Lombardic tile in a version of Jazz-Moderne - already dated by the time it was completed.

But its Greek-cross plan has adapted well to modern worship and it now appears a good building in the wrong place.

Housing on the central site was designed by Bridgwater and Shepheard, and was mildly innovative in that putting the kitchens at the front of the house eliminated the need for a tunnel-passage for rear service deliveries. Norman and Dawbarn's north site places nine flats with rear access over 12 maisonettes, which required the party walls to step across the block (worthy of note at the time, but hardly revolutionary). The west site was the most conventional of the lot: Sidney Howard's mix of three- and sixstorey blocks have glass-brick balcony panels, but were similar to other staggeredplan perimeter blocks going up in London.

Now and then

Back in 1951, the response to Lansbury was far from euphoric. J M Richards described the housing as 'worthy, dull and somewhat skimpy', while Punch felt the Congregationalist church looked like 'an unfinished ball bearing factory' and regretted the use of 'hideous yellow brick' - London stock bricks and slate roofs were recommended for all the housing to give uniformity and follow the local vernacular. 'Is it very cheap or something?' asked Punch.

Clough Williams-Ellis felt the estate needed 'sweetening' and that some colourwashing would help but, overall, there seems to have been an enormous desire to will its success, even if this meant hiding a little disappointment. 'One welcomed this brave new baby townlet, peeping hopefully out, as it were like a little kangaroo from the pouch of its old mother borough of Poplar, ' said Williams-Ellis only three years after the event. He was not alone in finding Lansbury 'poignantly inspiriting'.

Did many people go to Lansbury? Compared with the fun and soft-lit outdoor dancing at South Bank it must have been somewhat unenticing to the general public.

Although the cafe was designed to serve 2,000 people a day, and the ticketed parts of the display were open until 8pm each night, only 86,646 visitors made the journey.

In 1974, the AJ sent a planner (Arthur Ling) and an architect (Christopher Woodward) to Lansbury to see how it was faring.

At a time when large-scale 1960s housing projects were at their least popular, the editorial rightly pointed out that 'at a superficial glance its self-effacing quasivernacular character is exactly what many architects and students seem to be aiming for today' (AJ 3.7.74).

Ling had worked on Lansbury for the LCC, and regretted the lack of coherence to even its basic scale in later local schemes. He felt that the lessons that an already sadly shabby estate taught were the importance of landscaping, to knit buildings together, and a need to 'return to planning', to try and achieve continuity. Woodward was more dismissive, deriding Lansbury's 'lack of mental effort', the 'pathetic stage-set precinct' and housing 'decorated with all the trivial cliches of the year'.

Returning on the 50th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, it is surprising just how few festival-style motifs there are to spot.

What is remarkable about Lansbury is its ordinariness, its lack of specialness. It is easy to drive right past it, as a later undistinguished Greater London Council development screens most of the original site from East India Dock Road, and it has none of the dramatic impact of Erno Goldfinger's nearby Balfron Tower.

In many ways it was a rehearsal for new towns, rather than later inner-city projects.

This is not surprising given its pedigree and timing, but the feeling of being transposed to Stevenage or Harlow is strangely disconcerting. One positive aspect (which was little remarked on) is the harmonious mix of old and new, the positive impact of integrating retained buildings and the reuse of Victorian bollards, natural stone paving and stone sets.

Is Lansbury a successful community?

There seems to be some doubt. There are clearly some racial tensions and the market feels down at heel, but the precinct still boasts some popular chain stores. The clock tower was never a great success as a lookout - too appealing to local suicides from its inception, it has long been boarded up.

Major (£13 million) plans to regenerate Lansbury were drawn up in the late 1990s, but these were dependent on European Regional Development Fund and Single Regeneration Budget funding, which was conditional on a majority of the residents voting in favour of a stock transfer of their homes to Poplar Housing Regeneration Community Association.

Fears about the long-term implications of leaving council ownership meant that the proposal was rejected and now only minor works are planned.

Following designation of the estate as a conservation area, and the listing of many of the main buildings, these will be part financed by a Heritage Lottery Townscape Initiative grant of £800,000, which has been matched by Tower Hamlets council, and will concentrate on the market square.

English Heritage's Martin O'Rourke is only too aware that this will not go very far, but he is keen to see a start made, as he thinks it will boost morale locally. In many ways his job has been made harder by the most recent attempt at improvements: it will be hard to justify removing the ugly new market structure, even if this is blatantly not working - the most flourishing stalls spill out around its edges and most ignore the overhead canopy and construct their own individual stands.

While recladding the columns in blue and white mosaic, reopening the clock tower and returning to the original paving scheme will be an enormous improvement, local people are not likely to be over-impressed by superficial changes. Living in the shadow of Canary Wharf, they are only too aware that jobs are needed for local people.

For the moment, the City extension has provided little beyond limited cleaning and security work, and there is a worrying trend of right-to-buy properties being let out to 'City boys' who decamp to somewhere grander at the weekend and do not spend any money locally.

Part of the funding deal will be a requirement on Tower Hamlets council to serve an Article 4 Direction on the estate. This will rescind homeowners' rights to change doors, windows and front garden walls. Local resident John Jones is surely not alone in finding the most made-over homes the most optimistic - he 'loves to walk down a street where the properties all look different' - but conservationists may try to eliminate this diversity.

As ever, the real challenge is to make postwar public housing work without creating a yuppie enclave. It remains unclear whether this is compatible with preserving the architectural distinctiveness of the housing and not just that of the public buildings and spaces.

As for acting as a model for the way forward, Lansbury failed to achieve even the density levels it set itself, and it has not adapted well to car-culture. Even with the passage of time, its constituent elements seem disparate, and the concept of building around churches positively archaic.

To borrow Clough Williams-Ellis' kangaroo analogy: one wishes Lansbury had grown up vigorously, with lots of progeny of its own, but, sadly, it never quite emerged from the pouch.

Lansbury is close to All Saints DLR station.

'Living Architecture 2001', a conference on model neighbourhoods, will take place at St Mary and St Joseph's Church on Thursday 20 September. For details tel 020 7253 3334

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