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The Places that Camden Built: Part 2, For the People

View from Camden Offices, by Elly Clarke.

In the second installment of her exploration of Camden's architectural highlights, Ruth Lang looks at some of the borough's best social housing...

The architectural legacy of Camden was spawned not merely from the drive of private development but also a determination for providing the civic and civil. The birth of this ethic likely stemmed from the work undertaken by the former Borough of St Pancras prior to its incorporation in 1965 following the radical Borough plan of 1949, which decreed that 50% of the housing stock would need to be rebuilt by the mid 1970s. Despite much demolition and rebuilding no coherent plan was dictated, yet by the time of its incorporation into the Borough of Camden, St Pancras had “built proportionately more council houses than any other council in the country… in the post-war era and Camden Labour’s 1964 manifesto had pledged to continue ‘this effective housing policy…at rents you can afford’”[1].

Estates were developed to explore new approaches to urban living, rather than merely to provide the residential units required. The Brunswick Centre[2], for example, was intended as just one part of an overarching scheme for the area to provide a catalyst for future development of the area. Originally begun in 1968 by architect Patrick Hodgkinson and ex-chief architect of London County Council Leslie Martin, but not completed for another 10 years (a process outlasting Martin’s involvement), the design was an experiment in high density, low-rise, low-cost living, incorporating private amenity space as well as shared leisure and retail aspects within a mixed-use development in an attempt to avoid residential and social segregation. Initially shocking in appearance amongst a street otherwise lined with Georgian houses and Edwardian buildings, the structure aims to address the scale of its surroundings through its stepped form and the permeability into the central square which is created. It forms part of an architectural genealogy of ziggurat forms familiar to the area in the work of Neave Brown’s Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate (1972-8: see below), Peter Tabori’s Stoneleigh Terrace (1972-79) and Denys Lasdun’s nearby Institute of Education (1970-6: expanded upon later) and was designated grade II listing by English Heritage in 2000 for its “pioneering” primarily reinforced concrete megastructure.[3]

View of the Brunswick Centre pre-development (2000), courtesy of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.

The in-house architects’ department at Camden Council also sought to provide alternative typologies to the much-maligned high rise blocks which formed the bulk of the output by many other local authorities[4]. The ziggurat form adopted by Neave Brown in his design of the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate[5] was in response to the site’s location adjacent to the railway line, with the intention of creating an oasis of a four-acre linear park within. The over 520 housing units for which the estate has won renown – each afforded its own front door and a private garden, thanks to the stepped design - are just part of a much larger community complex incorporating three schools (including the former Alexandra Priory School (1978), a special school for children with severe mental disabilities), a youth centre, a community centre and a neighbourhood shops, interconnected with a series of pedestrianised walkways. The ingenuity of the design and high quality of the architectural response on such a confined site has since led to its designation by English Heritage as Grade II and II* listed throughout.

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Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, Swiss Cottage.

The scheme spawned many further sites of innovation; from the meandering hilltop town style of Branch Hill in Hampstead in which the stepped profile enables natural light to penetrate into each property along the pedestrianized street; to Maiden Lane (1982) situated just behind Kings Cross and comprising 225 low rise dwellings, which was to be the last of Sydney Cook’s ‘avant-garde’ estates which gave the luxury of private amenity space to their high-density urban residents. The housing projects built under the guidance of borough architect Sydney Cook (1965-73) are often held up as being the “last great output of social housing in the UK” [6], being built “not merely to meet pragmatic requirements but to establish a new kind of architecture based on a radical reinterpretation of traditional English urbanism”.[7]

Yet it’s clear that this ethic did not cease with his departure and that the ethos of innovation lives on. Camden has recently become the siting for the first UK pasivhaus project at Ranulf Road (2010) by bere:architects, which incorporates incredibly high levels of energy efficiency and aims to reduce the carbon footprint in the building’s construction and use. This has been followed by one of the first large scale developments in the UK to achieve this benchmark standard; the Chester Balmore housing scheme (2012-14) developed by Rick Mather Architects in collaboration with Architype was commissioned by Camden Council itself, and has been praised for being highly responsive to its local context, in a break from can otherwise be formulaic response to such rigorous environmental principles.

Pasivhaus project, Ranulf Road.
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Chester Balmore, Highgate.

The Borough has also fostered high-quality private development, such as Nicholas Grimshaw’s Grand Union Walk (1988) built alongside the Canal. The Council’s then penchant for renovating existing housing stock, coupled with the rezoning of residential from work areas under the guidance of the 1943 County of London Plan, meant that ex-industrial sites such as this were earmarked as prime for new developments and open to innovative design. A defensive corrugated metal wall faces the street in continuation of the site’s contextual history, whilst enabling the living spaces to cantilever out over the canal on the opposite side to provide open-plan, top-lit living and bedroom spaces to the 12 private residential units.

On the road side of the site where the old Aerated Bread Company factory stood from 1915-38, the Sainsbury’s supermarket (1997-8) by a later incarnation of the same architectural practice is similarly demonstrative of the High-Tech style which defined the work of Grimshaw and his previous professional partner, Terry Farrell[8] who designed the TV-AM building just along Hawley Crescent [see ICON section]. These two approaches – of Grimshaw’s High Tech and Farrell’s Postmodernism – were to number amongst British architecture’s key definitive styles of that era, here providing two seminal works side by side. The design of the Sainsbury’s scheme itself sprung from a dilemma thrown up by the site parameters, in redeveloping the landlocked (and potentially windowless) brownfield industrial site[9] whilst also responding to the form of the Georgian terraces opposite. Grimshaw’s solution was to increase the proposed single-storey form with an arched roof, using full-height glazing with vertical supports spaced in bays to the road face in order to mirror the rhythms of the historic terraces opposite.

Nicholas Grimshaw flats Camden Town back of Sainsburys
Nicholas Grimshaw flats, Camden Town.

The creation of the Borough of Camden in 1965 also brought with it the adopted responsibility for education, and greater potential for input into school design in the area. Embracing the contemporary zeitgeist for concrete, HKPA – including architects Stanley Amis and Bill Howell who had built Nos. 80 to 90 South Hill Park, previously mentioned – designed the Ackland Burley school (1966) which manipulates the bulkiness of the material employed to form distinct monumental blocks to aid orientation.

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Ackland Burley school, Tufnell Park.

Built on a site shared with two other special schools completed in 1955, Frank Barnes school for Deaf Children (1976-7) on Harley Road appeared like a concrete block castellation in the landscape. It was designed by Ivor Plummer, an architect working within the Schools Division of the GLC, with an aesthetic necessitated by the negotiation of complex programmatic concerns. Heavy concrete blocks provided a defense against noise and vibrations intruding from the busy traffic junction outside, the castellated aesthetic which resulted being reinforced by the necessary inclusion of turreted ventilation towers to feed the conditioned air to the 12 separate acoustically sealed classrooms. The horseshoe turret shape of the classrooms themselves was dictated internally by a desire for acoustic attenuation as well at the parameters of the fixed hearing aid technology of the day. Only small windows pierced the barricade facing the road to the north, but these spaces opened up to full-height views over treed lawns to the southwest. Despite the complex negotiation of technological parameters which dictated the form of design, the scale of and impression upon its child users was central to the architects’ concerns. The school was groundbreaking in its typology at the time, but has now sadly been demolished.[10]

Article by Ruth Lang. #Camden50

[1] Municipal Dreams “The Branch Hill Estate, Camden: ‘the most expensive council housing in the world”, 2nd July 2013

[2] See also Architectural Review, October 1972

[3] The Centre also makes and appearance alongside Jack Nicholson in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s The Passenger

[4] Swenarton, Mark “Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road”, University of Liverpool

[5] Brown was the project architect, working as part of the Camden Architects’ Department at the time. The estate is also colloquially known as Rowley Way. See also the film “One Below the Queen: Rowley Way Speaks for Itself”.

[6] “Cook's Camden” exhibition, The Building Centre, London. November 2010

[7] Swenarton, Mark “Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road”, University of Liverpool

[8] Particularly in the design of their first project, a block of flexible-living flats at 125 Park Road, just over the borough border in Westminster.

[9] The addition of an underground carpark was key to exploiting the site to its full potential, which necessitated the invention of trolleys which could be slotted into travelators.

[10] Franklin, Geraint, Elain Harwood, Simon Taylor, and Matthew Whitfield, “England’s Schools 1962–88 A Thematic Study. 33. Research Report Series.” English Heritage 2012