Fifty years on, the Festival of Britain is remembered fondly, its success largely attributed to the fact that it favoured fun and frolics over worthy self-importance. In this issue of the AJ, we examine one of its more serious legacies. Designed as a model neighbourhood, the Lansbury Estate in London's Tower Hamlets was the 'live architecture'component of the festival.With 12.4ha of housing, shops, churches and schools, it was highly ambitious. It would be satisfying to proclaim it as an out-and-out success. But it would not quite be true.
Utopian neighbourhoods tend to be deemed a success only when they have been appropriated by those infinitely more wealthy than the original residents.
Lansbury has not been swamped by wealthy incomers - saved, presumably, by an aesthetic which is immune to gentrification. Several original residents and/or their offspring are still in residence. It is a community which thrives in some respects, but which has learnt that visionary architecture cannot offer inoculation from racial tensions, disaffection and poverty.
It is futile to speculate as to whether or not the residents of the estate are more or less content than they might otherwise have been. But it is reasonable to assert that Lansbury has played its role in Britain's social and architectural evolution. Construction standards were high, with particular emphasis on the importance of acoustic separation between units. Accommodation was relatively generous - Parker Morris standards drew on the experience of projects such as Lansbury, protecting future generations from the miseries of over-cramped quarters.
It is difficult for the contemporary observer to see Lansbury as outstanding in stylistic terms. But the fact that it now seems to epitomise 'ordinariness' is symptomatic of its success - evidence of the extent to which its aesthetic permeated post-war public architecture.
But perhaps the greatest tribute to its architects is that the estate has managed to avoid the notoriety which has haunted so many experimental housing projects.
Lansbury has demonstrated the power of visionary public housing by outliving its status as a flagship project and becoming, simply, a pretty ordinary place to live.