Practical public realm design can build on Thamesmead’s best points, says James Pallister
The Thamesmead housing estate, built by the GLC in the late 1960s, occupies a site between the Thames and the South London Escarpment, which many centuries ago was marshland. Over thousands of years, the area’s proximity to rising and falling levels of the Thames has shaped it and its people, from the Romans, to the monks who drained parts of it in the 13th century, to the Victorian navvies who cut the canal which would link Royal Woolwich Arsenal to the Thames in the 19th.
When the GLC came to build, water ingress was an issue to consider: the North Sea Flood of 1953 was fresh in people’s memories, and to mitigate any inundation the ground floors of the new blocks were given over to garages, or raised up on stilts. Waterways were also deployed by GLC architect Robert Rigg, who believed in the calming influence they had on youths, seeing them as a means of minimising vandalism.
Passing by these waterways on a bright autumn day, one can see Rigg’s point. Street names like Curlew Road and Poplar Way in the later housing blocks (replacing the post-war consensus evoked by Attlee Road and Keynes Way, which have been quietly dropped) add to the image, and its infamous status as the-place-they-filmed-Clockwork Orange seems an irrelevance.
The Architecture Foundation is currently running a design competition on Thamesmead’s Moorings Estate. Sarah Wigglesworth Architects with Brick Box, Jan Kattein Architects, Dallas Pierce Quintero and What:If Projects are vying for the opportunity to deliver a small-scale public realm project for Gallions Housing Association. The mid-way crit was this week. All the teams are still sizing up the brief, but the best ideas seemed to be modest and practical, and build upon the qualities of the estate. As ever, the trick will be producing something of lasting value to its residents, rather than seeing it as a means of fulfilling a practice’s passing fancy.