Florence Heyworth: London’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon – Alexandra Road Estate Then and Now

Audio version

Read by Ellie

Text Version

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council's Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London NW8 0SN. Designed by Neave Brown (Camden Council’s Architects Department), 1968. CON_B04264_F003_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

        ‘Huge picture windows look out over a peaceful oasis of greenery and mature
        trees. Many a time I have sat and been simply uplifted by this lush view of
        nature or been
stunned by the beauty of the sun burnishing the windows
        opposite with a copper glow’.
[1]

        Su Cross, resident of the Alexandra Road Estate

A photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate at sunset, showing lush greenery on the balcony gardens, by @whereisfenchurch on Instagram.

A photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate at sunset, showing lush greenery on the balcony gardens, by @whereisfenchurch on Instagram.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, social housing developments transformed city skylines across Britain. High-rise tower blocks were idealised as utopian ‘streets in the sky’. By the mid-1960s, however, far from being hailed as innovative feats of architecture, tower blocks were condemned by residents and architects alike as undesirable, inconvenient and structurally unsound. The partial collapse of Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block, in May 1968, fuelled growing calls for a change in direction.

Neave Brown, a New York-born British architect (1929-2018), envisioned a new style of social housing. He believed that ‘ziggurat style terraces’ could revolutionise publicly-owned estates: the sloping structure would provide residents with access to their own outdoor space, in the form of private balconies and terraces, and provide each home with its own front door opening directly onto the street.[2]    

In 1968, Brown designed what would become the Alexandra Road Estate in Camden, London. One of the most significant issues which the project needed to address was the sound and vibration from trains which passed directly adjacent to the site. Brown designed an 8-story stepped building which would block noise from the trains, built on rubber pads to minimise the vibration.[3] His plan consisted of 520 apartments, to house over 1600 people[4], a school, a community centre, a youth club, a heating complex, a care home, a special needs school and a park. When Brown presented his model for the development to the Camden Council in 1969, the councillors applauded its ‘ambitious and imaginative quality’.[5] 

Exterior view of Alexandra Road flats backing onto a train track.

Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, NW8, London, England. Camden Architects Department. negative number: B88/811. The Courtauld Institute of Art. Accessioned at CON_B04264_F003_001.

Tweet from @Rob_Feihn on twitter, showing photographs of the Alexandra Road Estate. "Early morning visit... still looking visionary!".

Tweet from @Rob_Feihn on twitter, showing photographs of the Alexandra Road Estate. “Early morning visit… still looking visionary!”.

Construction work on the project began in 1972, and this marked the beginning of a succession of unfortunate events, including unforeseen foundation problems and external issues such as high rates of inflation and shortages of reinforcement steel. The project ultimately cost £19,150,000 (over double the anticipated £7,200,000) and took 6 years to complete (rather than the anticipated 3 and a half).[6] Alexandra Road was deemed a ‘wildly expensive’ ‘disaster’ in the media, and Neave Brown never worked as an architect in Britain again.[7] However, despite its reputation in the press, Camden’s housing department found that the flats at Alexandra Road ‘were probably the easiest ever to let’.[8]

Su Cross, a resident of the estate, describes her first impression of Rowley Way (the main street): ‘the dazzling white concrete structures had such a jolly Mediterranean feel. It was immediately possible to visualize its potential as London’s equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’.[9]

An adaptation of CON_B04264_F003_004. Also includes image by Latheev Deepan Kolad. Collage by Bella Watts and Florence Heyworth.

An adaptation of CON_B04264_F003_004. Also includes image by Latheev Deepan Kolad. Collage by Bella Watts and Florence Heyworth.

The striking architecture, easy parking and straightforward access to the estate has made it a popular area for location scouts.[10] Scenes of the estate can be seen in BBC shows such as Spooks, Silent Witness and London Spy; films such as Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006) and Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014); as well as numerous music videos including J Hus’s ‘Calling Me’ (2015) and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’ (2016).

Stills from Slewdem Mafia’s Nothing Like Yours; Fatima’s Somebody Else; and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’.

Stills from Slewdem Mafia’s Nothing Like Yours; Fatima’s Somebody Else; and The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’.

In SPID Theatre’s 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’, filmed on the Alexandra Road Estate, one young person said: ‘I know it definitely made me proud to say yeah, my estate was filmed in Kingsman, my estate was filmed in different documentaries’.

However, filming in the area is not popular with everybody: other residents interviewed in the documentary were worried that frequent filming diverts attention away from poor conditions and maintenance issues. One resident explained how ‘there isn’t a day that goes by where you’re not seeing some film crew or photographer or model. For the people living on the estate, it’s a double-edged sword’. She felt that ‘their privacy is being invaded or… that it’s just for show’, and expressed concern that ‘how they live is not necessarily being taken care of, so things like the repairs and maintenance is probably the most important thing in the front of their mind and they just want the council to sort it out’. Polena Barbagallo similarly described how ‘we have people filming here every day’, but ‘underneath all that the structure is decaying.’[11]

Residents have also expressed concern over how the estate is being represented in the media. Council estates have often been used in TV and film as a ‘shorthand for crime and deprivation’,[12] perpetuating negative and harmful stereotypes. Residents have noted how set decorators will often ‘dirty up the estate with fake graffiti and rubbish and generally [make] it look threatening’, which ‘totally misrepresents the estate’.[13]

Equally, there is the issue of the ‘fetishization’ of council estates, whereby ‘urban’ and working-class aesthetics are monetised by labels and celebrities for profit,[14] while the challenges facing the residents of such estates are side-lined and neglected. As of 2012, only 18% of the estate’s flats were leasehold, [15] but estates like Alexandra Road are quickly becoming gentrified, with private flats on the estate now costing anything upwards of £500,000 to purchase.[16]

The misrepresentations of the estate in the media have led to several community-led documentary projects, including the 2012 documentary ‘One Below the Queen’ and the 2019 documentary ‘Estate Endz’. For more information about filming on the estate, see http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film

Exterior view of Rowley Way, the main street on the Alexandra Road Estate. NW8, London, England.

Camden Architects Department. Negative number: B88/810. The Courtauld Institute of Art. Accessioned at CON_B04264_F003_005.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, showing beautiful green growing on the balconies, posted by @gregorzoyzoyla on instagram, 18 August 2017.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, showing beautiful green growing on the balconies, posted by @gregorzoyzoyla on Instagram, 18 August 2017.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, with a wintry, yellow-grey sunrise light, posted by @votre__prenom on instagram, 16 December 2018.

Photograph of the Alexandra Road Estate, with a wintry, yellow-grey sunrise light, posted by @votre__prenom on instagram, 16 December 2018.

In 1994, Peter Brooke, then National Heritage Secretary, hailed the Alexandra Road Estate as ‘one of the most distinguished groups of buildings in England since the Second World War’.[17] In 1995, Andrew Freear (recipient of the Architectural League of New York’s President’s Medal) declared Alexandra Road to be ‘the last great social housing project’.[18]  However, the estate is by no means a relic of the past. In 2012-13, a group of residents put forward a bid to the National Heritage Lottery and received £2 million to put towards developing the park, a project which was completed in 2015. Since 2012, the Tenants Hall has begun to be used as a space for yoga classes, table tennis and a fruit and vegetable food cooperative.[19] The ever-evolving nature of the estate is captured by Elizabeth Knowles, a long-term resident: ‘When I think about Alexandra Road it seems it has taken on a life all of its own — and there seems to be no stopping it.’[20]  

 

Further material:

Alexandra Road Estate Spotify Playlist
I hope you enjoy this ‘Alexandra Road Estate’ playlist I have created – all the music videos for these songs were shot on location at the Alexandra Road Estate!

Blogs to Explore
See Sophie Bailey’s I Suppose It’s Not The Place’s Fault and Ben Britton’s The New Towns Are No Longer New for fascinating insights into the social housing of the 1950s.

Bibliography:
Professor Mark Swenarton. Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
Wei W (2008) Housing terraces in the UK (Part II). 7 July. Available on: https://kosmyryk.typepad.com/wu_wei/2008/07/housing-terra-2.html
Andrew M (1993) Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing? In: The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993): 14-15.
Report: Alexandra Road Estate Investigated by National Building Agency. In: The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 173, no. 8 (1981): 339.
Swenarton M (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981. In: Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
McLennan W (2017) Our estate, the movie set? We just want you to fix our boilers, say residents. Camden New Journal, 7 December. Available on: http://camdennewjournal.com/article/our-estate-the-movie-set-we-just-want-you-to-fix-our-boilers-say-residents

Endnotes:
[1] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html
[2] Professor Mark Swenarton. Creating a Piece of City: Neave Brown and the Design of Alexandra Road. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
[3] https://kosmyryk.typepad.com/wu_wei/2008/07/housing-terra-2.html
[4] Mead, Andrew. “Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing?” The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993). 14
[5] London Borough of Camden, Housing Committee, 1 April 1969. Cited on: https://www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/rowley-way-london-nw8/
[6] Report: Alexandra Road Estate Investigated by the National Building Agency.” The Architects’ Journal (Archive: 1929-2005) 173, no. 8 (1981): 339.
[7] Mark Swenarton (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981, Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
[8] Mark Swenarton (2014) Politics versus architecture: the Alexandra Road public enquiry of 1978–1981, Planning Perspectives, 29:4, 423-446, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2013.864956. 425
[9] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html
[10] http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
[11] http://camdennewjournal.com/article/our-estate-the-movie-set-we-just-want-you-to-fix-our-boilers-say-residents
[12] https://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/02/10/stop-portraying-council-estates-as-crime-ridden-and
[13] http://alexandraandainsworth.org/on-film
[14] https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/working-class-streetwear-high-fashion
[15] https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/the-alexandra-road-estate-camden-a-magical-moment-for-english-housing/
[16] https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/esmagazine/brutal-attraction-meet-the-londoners-who-live-in-the-citys-most-controversial-buildings-a3278566.html
[17] Mead, Andrew. “Perspective: Alexandra Road: What Does It Mean for Public Housing?” The Architects’ Journal (Archive : 1929-2005) 198, no. 35 (1993). 14.
[18] Andrew Freear, “Alexandra Road: The last great social housing project,” AA Files, vol. 30, 1995, 35.
[19] News Update (September 2015). http://www.rowleyway.org.uk
[20] http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Alexandra_Road_Housing.html


Florence Heyworth
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Sarah Way: Interpreting the Conway with BeyondAutism

Audio Version

Read by Gill Stoker

Text Version

One of the main aims of digitising our amazing photographic archive and putting it online for the public to access for free is to allow our materials to connect with new audiences. We want to allow our images to become resources for a myriad of endeavours, from academic to recreational to personal and everything in between!

Part of the benefit of working with such a large group of volunteers is that we are able to hear ideas from many people with diverse experiences every day and test them right from the start of the digitisation process. We have some great examples of that here in this blog – but what about creative members of the community who aren’t able to frame their interpretations into a blog post or to help us digitise our images because of their physical and learning needs? What would they make of our collection?

This summer we were lucky enough to have a chance to answer this question through a partnership with BeyondAutism and their Post-19 service. BeyondAutism is a pioneering service led by the Head, David Anthony.  The college offers young adults with complex needs aged 19 to 25 “an individualised personal curriculum.”

This image shows students and teachers at BeyondAutism as they cut copies of the Conway digitised images and paste them onto large canvas supports to create collages.

BeyondAutism students and teachers creating the artwork

“Our students follow a programme of study that best prepares them for adulthood, focusing on the skills required for independent or supported living, training and employment, health and wellbeing and community participation.”

This image shows Courtauld staff and interns enjoying the creation process with students and teachers at BeyondAutism as they cut copies of the Conway digitised images and paste them onto large canvas supports to create collages.

Courtauld Digitisation staff and interns getting involved in the creative process

After an initial meeting, we decided to start a collaboration. The wealth of creativity amongst their cohort and the bountiful diversity of images in our collection made us confident we could find some way to forge a meaningful workshop. A few weeks later David struck gold: we could use our library of London architectural photography to allow his students to explore ideas for independent or supported living. The students would creatively interpret what being part of the community of London meant to them in a very instinctual, tactile way.

A tactile approach to our image collection

We provided hundreds of images and large canvases while the team at BeyondAutism provided specialist support, tactile materials and lots of PVA glue. Eight brilliantly dedicated students, the college staff, our Digital Media team and interns all got involved in co-producing. We started tentatively with a few images stuck on a very large blank canvas in the morning but by the afternoon we were pouring glue freely over multi-textural work and brightly coloured feathers contrasting the Conway’s black and white images of iconic skyscrapers and monuments.

This image shows a particular student at BeyondAutism who benefits most from working in a room alone with his teacher so that they can concentrate undisturbed.

A student at BeyondAutism working on a solo project with his teacher

The results were a very sensory, sticky and wonderfully original set of collages, all unique in their outcome, all reflective of a much bigger process of coming together, learning from each other and understanding the beauty of diversity. We built our digitisation project around Samuel Courtauld’s vision of “Art for All” and this experience has made us determined to be bolder in exploring what this can mean at every level.

This is a tilted image showing all four collages created at the BeyondAutism workshop

The finished works at the close of day

We will exhibit the collages in The Courtauld’s Conway Library this autumn, so if you are interested in attending the opening and hearing more about this topic do contact us at: digitisation.volunteering@courtauld.ac.uk.

This is a picture of the first artwork. It is a collage of neat cut outs of London buildings in black and white with limited colour accents in green and red at the top

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 1

This is a picture of the second artwork. It is a collage of roughly ripped cut outs of London buildings in black and white with red feathers, blue transparent film, and yellow tiger print elements, as well as a dinosaur sticker and a stylised man

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 2

This is a picture of the third artwork. It is a collage of roughly ripped cut outs of London buildings in black and white with yellow, green and orange feathers, blue transparent film, and yellow tiger print elements.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 3

This is a picture of the third artwork. It is a collage of neat cut outs of London buildings in black and white with blue transparent film, pink paper a red pooling element and a stylised man.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 4

This is the fifth and final canvas created in the BeyondAutism workshop. It is a collage of pieces of images from the Conway Library depicting mainly London buildings.

BeyondAutism Workshop Untitled 5


Sarah Way
Courtauld Connects Volunteer Manager

Sophie Bailey: “I suppose it’s not the place’s fault”

Audio Version

Read by Elena Vardon

Text Version

Philip Larkin, when he was “coming up England by a different line”, remembered Coventry as the place “where my childhood was unspent”. New Towns like this are remembered (or unremembered) as gaps in the map of Britain, places to be avoided and embarrassed of. But before they were a joke, they were a dream. Stevenage was one of the many “New Towns” which would be conjured into reality by the New Towns Act of 1946 as part of the construction of Labour’s promised “New Jerusalem”. This included the creation of the NHS and the introduction of the tripartite school system. The old town of Stevenage was selected to be developed as were other well-known New Towns such as Hemel Hempstead, Harlow and Basildon. These were all near London but far enough to allow Londoners to escape the smoke, smog and overcrowding of the city, and would help to reduce the housing crisis in the aftermath of the war. The “Year Zero” phase after the war and the relatively small existing populations in the towns allowed for New Towns to be constructed upon a virtual tabula rasa. Town planning corporations managed the developments of the towns and supplied housing, which was carefully managed to ensure a mix of social classes.

Lewis Silkin, the Labour Minister for Town and Country Planning and the principal planner for Stevenage declared: “[I] am most anxious that the planning should be such that the different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated… When they leave to go home I do not want the better-off people to go to the right, and the less-well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other “are you going my way?””. He intended Stevenage to be “gay and bright” and like all New Town planners aimed to replicate the neighbourly spirit of London slums within a self-contained community, near to the countryside but equipped with its own shops, schools and leisure facilities.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, "Stevenage High Street Constable".

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage High Street Constable”. CC BY NC.

Nonetheless, like all things once designated “New”, the New Towns suffered the indignity of ageing and today the modestly utopian vision of the 1950s has faded as fast as the murals. Hemel Hempstead, part of the original wave of New Town developments, once topped a popular vote of the ugliest British towns, with other New Towns like Hatfield (and Coventry) also made the Top 10. Lewis Hamilton, one of Stevenage’s most famous sons, caused a stir in the town when he seemed to refer to it as a “slum” in reference to his life story when accepting an award. Doubtless Hamilton did not mean to compare the town to a real slum, but it is somewhat ironic that New Towns, once symbols of hope, are now associated with the very environments they sought to replace.

The photographs of architecture in the Conway Library at the Courtauld allow us to see these towns in a different light: already a concrete reality which people inhabited, where they shopped and worked, but not yet touched by stigma or decayed by years of neglect. The Conway Library also contains numerous photographs of innovative new private houses, each remarkable for its modernity and worthy of documentation. However, New Towns represent an artistic and political project on a grand scale. More than those of private houses, these photos preserve a moment in the life of Britain.

Many of the photographs depict new developments in pristine condition, imposingly tall and with spotless concrete.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Kent House”. CC BY NC.

Collage by Sophie Bailey, “Stevenage Mural”. CC BY NC.

However, the most interesting photos are those in which we can see people interacting with the environment around them. As hoped by its planners, crowds of shoppers fill Stevenage town centre, trailing bags and children. An arm curves round a window to wash it from the outside. Children hold hands under the domineering concrete porch of Kensal House. The beauty of these photographs, and the instantly inhospitable effect created in the photos without people reminds us of the original dream of the New Towns. They were not intended to become dilapidated “concrete jungles”, but to provide dignity and security for the post-war generation. Their inhabitants, perhaps defying the photographer’s wish to capture the buildings and towns alone, insist on presenting themselves to the viewer and making their human realities the central issue of the towns.

 

Further material:

New Towns Spotify playlist

These songs are by people who grew up in or want to record new towns, council estates, the great sprawling suburbs. They capture the mood of these places, the boredom, the evocative images of hot tarmac and train station platforms, the struggle of trying to live a new childhood in a place which seems destined to be forgotten.

Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown Project

Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs perfectly captures the monotonous beauty of the suburbs. Their collaboration with Google Labs is an innovative use of technology for an evocative artistic project. Enter your home address and the website will personalise a short film to your location.

 

 


Sophie Bailey
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant