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Getting their act together

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refurbishment study; King’s Cross has seen many high-profile architectural events in recent years, but the public housing was beset by problems of deprivation. A five-year collaboration between public and private bodies has helped redress the balance

The British Library is complete, King’s Cross Station is set for a revamp, and the Great Midland Hotel above St Pancras is to become a luxury hotel once more. Such architectural splendours have been much in the news, but little is said of the murky backwaters which constitute residential King’s Cross. The Estate Action Project is in the final year of a five-year programme to renovate and refurbish over 1000 dwellings in a 2km2 area just south of the Euston Road. At £46 million, the budget is approximately one-tenth of the cost of the British Library.

Project management is the responsibility of Camden Building Design Services (bds) which is in turn accountable to the client, Holborn District Housing Office, and architectural work is shared between bds, the Floyd Slaski Partnership, Hunt Thompson and afh Shaw Sprunt. Funding is provided by Camden Council, the Government Office for London, the Housing Corporation and private finance. Marianne Davys of bds, formerly an architect at Allies & Morrison, appoints and oversees the many professional consultants involved, and, along with client co-ordinator Janet Crook, monitors all consultation programmes, cost control, design co-ordination, and reporting. They share the near-impossible task of mediating between residents and the many institutions and professionals involved, to define a common purpose, and translate it into practical terms.

Residents’ views are represented by an elected community steering group supported by two tenant support workers employed by the King’s Cross/Brunswick Neighbourhood Association, and Camden Training Centre has organised placements on site for residents working towards vocational qualifications in a trade, helping to blur the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’. But Davys and Crook are keenly aware of the pitfalls of participatory design. ‘Everybody wants work to happen as quickly as possible,’ says Crook, ‘but achieving consensus between 2000 residents is a time-consuming painstaking business.’ Day-to-day decisions are the result of a pragmatic mixture of genuine participation and enlightened control. But there is broad consensus as to the most pressing concerns: fear of crime, poor-quality housing, and inadequate public space.

Crime is probably the most pressing, but here again the project organisers are realistic about the extent of their influence. Police evidence suggests that relatively few crimes are committed by locals, and in any case drug abuse and prostitution, for which the area is notorious, are outside the scope of the programme. Instead the team has concentrated on architectural measures to combat what Crook describes as ‘the sheer indignity of having your private space continually abused by prostitutes and drug-users’. And complaints about this are rife - one of the first calls for drastic action came from a female resident appalled to find her two-year-old playing with a used condom on the balcony of her flat.

‘It’s very difficult to create an environment which feels secure, without creating a fortress,’ says Davys. Physical solid evidence of protection can be psychologically comforting, but can also be unwieldy and oppressive. Where possible, high-tech solutions are avoided. Good visibility and lighting combined with simple design solutions are encouraged, using high-quality robust materials with low maintenance implications. cctv and remote surveillance are effective and unobtrusive, but also impersonal, invasive, and, arguably, focused on the detection rather than the prevention of crime. In the event, electronic equipment has been combined with non-technical solutions: remote surveillance of public areas is combined with increased concierge services: door/entry systems are combined with new entrance porches. Birkenhead, the estate nearest King’s Cross station, and in desperate need of security improvements, is protected by cameras and by concierge, but also by a no-nonsense wall, described by Crook as ‘brutalist but effective’.

As well as feeling vulnerable to crime, residents complained that the 1950s and 1960s blocks were cold, and generally shoddy, with poor access for elderly and disabled people. Davys feels that the least glamorous jobs are often the most crucial, and that a successful regeneration scheme demands a certain amount of humility from the professionals involved. ‘Originally we planned to build five new houses on the Birkenhead Estate. It was very tempting to be able to say ‘We’re the only London borough which is building new houses,’ and to have such concrete evidence of progress … two are being built, but in the end the residents’ view that density was high enough prevailed. They wanted us to concentrate on upgrading what was already there.’

‘Invisible’ improvements concerned with thermal performance and building envelope to energy efficiency include the installation of humidistat fans for all dwellings suffering from condensation problems, and a tamper-proof system which supplies pre-heated air into the flats particularly affected by damp. Ventilation to kitchens and bathrooms has been improved, additional central heating has been installed. Most of the buildings have been overclad with an insulated render. Windows have been replaced, repaired, or double- glazed, and roofs have been insulated, renewed, or simply repaired.

Invisible work may be crucial to comfort, but Davys is aware of the psychological value of ‘visible’ work. ‘We got scaffolding up as quickly as possible, to reassure people that something was actually being done.’ Re-cladding has served the dual purpose of upgrading energy efficiency and, together with cosmetic works such as new balconies and railings, transforming the appearance of the estate. Curiously, residents on one block voted against a re-clad, despite being assured of a 50 per cent improvement in thermal performance. Plans to colour-code different blocks faltered when residents from two different blocks insisted on having the same colour.

There are now plans to uplight the six blank gable ends of blocks which run along the south side of Cromer Street, with images designed as part of the £100,000 public art programme co-ordinated by Morag Morrison, in co-operation with the Public Art Development Trust and Camden Arts. Plans for a text-based scheme using the work of King’s Cross poet Aidan Dun were rejected by locals on the grounds that it would look too much like graffiti. Artist Anya Gallacio is working on a planting scheme to link the three green spaces of Bramber, Regent Square and Sidmouth Mews, and smaller art projects are dotted over the Estates Action area.

Tibbalds Monro is responsible for the design of ‘in-between’ spaces, a remit which ranges from the introduction of pedestrian/ cycle routes and traffic-calming measures to the landscaping of the area’s three public squares. Designs for open spaces between blocks are low-maintenance and simple, with children’s play areas situated away from densely populated areas: ‘Of course all the adults agree that children should have somewhere safe and local to play,’ says Crook, ‘It’s just that nobody thinks it should have to be near where they live.’

The three urban squares, Regent Square, Argyle Square and Bramber Green, each have a distinct character, identified by the team. Regent Square is described as ‘historic/ traditional’, inspiring a nostalgic approach: the original railings have been reinstated, and planting relates to the original layout, although there are new entrances, seats, and realigned footpaths to take account of desire lines. Crook’s description is rather more evocative: ‘If you think of a dog toilet with a fence round it - that’s what Regent Square was.’ Dog-grids were introduced to deter dogs, but were also a deterrent to wheelchairs. Turning the grids upside-down seemed to work, although a female resident with one short leg complained that her foot still got caught between the bars. Further investigation revealed that the real problem was the stiletto heel on her ‘good’ leg.

Argyle Square is characterised as contemporary/urban, a polite description of a square which until recently suffered from drugs, drinking, fly-tipping and dogs. The artificial mounds which screened unsavoury activities have now been levelled, making room for a flat area for children’s play. The existing sports court has been renewed, pre-war railings have been reinstated, and new entrances are linked by a diagonal path. Bramber Green is characterised as community-based - prompting the creation of a garden for the new Age Concern Day Centre and a play area for the under-fives - and habitat-rich - reinforced by the planting of wildflowers, trees, and shrubs.

The Estate Action’s progress report quotes Frank Lloyd Wright’s observation that ‘a physician can bury his mistake, but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines’. And there have been mistakes. Some are the surprises which are inevitable in working with existing buildings, such as work being held up by concealed defects in the building fabric. Others are down to the sheer complexity of programming, cost, and contract administration, and the team admits that it under-estimated the extent of disruption to tenants. But the project enters its final phase on time and on budget,confirming that local-authority/private-sector partnerships can make wise and effective use of public funds.

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