Peabody has the opportunity to remedy a pitiful mess at its development in Thamesmead but will it take it? asked militant modernist Owen Hatherley
Everyone, in the run-up to the election, agrees that many thousands of new homes are needed in and around London. Some are even so bold as to suggest that this should be done by social housing providers, or, shockingly, by local authorities. So we might expect a lot of new housebuilding after the election and, on cue, venerable housing association Peabody has announced plans to build thousands of homes in Thamesmead, south-east London. This was the location of a previous attempt to solve London’s housing problems, intended as a ‘new town’, but unfinished and demonised, largely on account of its role in Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange.
So what mistakes did Thamesmead make, and how can Peabody be certain it won’t make them again – or others entirely? Built on decommissioned Royal Arsenal land and named by a public poll, Thamesmead was a project of the Greater London Council, so was always dominated by council flats. But a large portion was always private – an early example of the percentage-juggling that now dominates ‘affordable housing’, although with the overwhelming emphasis then on the public provision, not, as now, on the private sale. Thamesmead isn’t wholly the ‘giant council estate’ of legend with a fair amount of private housing, because after the original, much-criticised ‘heroic’ Brutalist phase, it went through ’70s vernacular and then ’80s pomo incarnations, all of them making good use of water features – canals, ponds, lakes. It was supposed to be connected to the extended Jubilee Line in the 1970s, but the usual cost-cutting meant it will only get a rapid transit station when Crossrail arrives in 2018 – an obvious spur to this new redevelopment.
The ‘iconic’ image of Thamesmead, used extensively in A Clockwork Jerusalem, last year’s British Pavilion at Venice, is Southmere Lake. Here were towers on podiums, a set of long, linked blocks of low-rise, stepped-section flats of the sort later favoured by Camden Council, a more linear deck-access block, a pub/social centre, and a dramatic health centre on pilotis, which found its way into the photo selection of the usually Modernist-hostile Bridget Cherry’s Pevsner: London South. Southmere Lake is where ‘regeneration’ started a few years ago, and the results were sad. Owners Gallions Housing Association demolished all the parts of the lakeside area most likely to be instantly listed, were they in NW1 rather than SE28 – first the Health Centre, then the Tavy Bridge shopping area and its linked flats, and finally, last year, the deck-access lakeside block. What replaced this was the blandest of bland PFI health centres, and pitiful flats – all of them, on this flood plain, on the ground rather than on the podiums insisted upon in the original plan, and none of it even bothering to address the lake. A mere two towers were upgraded, the other 20 or so left alone. The result is a straggling half-demolished mess of crap spec housing, wasteland and forlorn Brutalist fragments.
Oddly, it’s this messy area between Abbey Wood station and Southmere Lake, rather than the empty spaces and distribution sheds of Thamesmead West that the new masterplan focuses on. If GLC Thamesmead was made a ghetto by poor transport links and right-to-buy, the Peabody Thamesmead risks being yet another well-connected, ‘aspirational’ riverside dormitory, with some social housing. We ought to expect better, and insist that the Mecanoo/Proctor and Matthews plan makes something coherent out of this interrupted, smashed-up series of superimposed plans. Perhaps they could start by respecting and extending, rather than destroying, the social ideas and placid, Modernist-natural landscape of the original.