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

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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

Ben Britton: “The New Towns are no longer new” – Basildon in the Conway Archive

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Black and white Conway image of the whole Brooke House and Basildon Town Centre mounted on board

Brooke House and Basildon Town Centre. CON_B04252_F001_001. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

In 1956, before Brooke House was built, or any part of Basildon for that matter, there was a sign in its place that read: “This is the site of Basildon Town Centre”. Over the next few years, the first buildings of what was already Basildon were put up, fulfilling the sign’s prophetic message. I was particularly intrigued to find a folder in the Conway Library containing 20th Century municipal and residential architecture, not least of all because it is shelved directly opposite several boxes-worth of photographs of the Hagia Sofia, which is about as iconic as European architecture gets. There is something important to be gained, I think, from recognising the aesthetic and historic value of a medium-sized post-war town in Essex, alongside so much other human achievement.

Black and white Conway image of East Walk, Basildon, featuring mostly low-rise buildings. The image is mounted on board.

A predominantly low-rise town. CON_B04252_F001_009. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

“The New Towns are no longer new”[1] reads a parliamentary select committee’s investigation into the problems now faced by the swathe of purpose-built towns following the end of the Second World War. These towns were, in theory, a continuation of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision to house those displaced by slum-clearance in an overcrowded London. There is certainly a shared utopian ideal between the New Towns and the Garden Cities, and not one mutually exclusive of pragmatism. But there the similarities end, as finally the avant-garde of British architects were given permission, and funding, to build the modern sorts of towns that they had always dreamed about.

Among them was Sir Basil Spence, who, having won the contract to redesign Coventry Cathedral (beating competition from Giles Gilbert Scott), rose to prominence and became Britain’s most prolific modernist architect. He, along with A.B. Davis, designed Brooke House and the vast majority of Basildon’s town centre.

Black and white Conway image of Brooke House taken from below. The image is mounted on board

A view of Brooke House divorced from its surroundings. CON_B04252_F001_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

It is tempting, as with so much Brutalist architecture, to make claims of the building’s dominance over the low-rise landscape, and certainly it is possible to indicate this with a Rodchenko-esque photograph (see above). But the general impression given by the pictures in the Conway Archive is not one of overbearing concrete. Both up close and from a distance, we are able to see how the entirely residential building inhabits a humbler space at the centre of town, acting as a sheltered forecourt for the surrounding shops. Even the undoubtedly massive pylons even have a slight slimness to them, to the point of looking vaguely insectoid and flimsy under the immense weight they support.

A black and white image of Brooke House's forecourt, mounted on card.

A view of the forecourt. CON_B04252_F001_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

What this goes to show is the humanist bent of the design of the New Towns. Certainly they are monumental (the problems they were attempting to remedy necessitated their scale) but equally they were a radical approach to the problems of working-class living conditions at the time. The Liberal MP Lord Beveridge, whose work laid the foundations for Britain’s welfare state, described the ideal New Town as one of “beauty and happiness and community spirit”.[2] It is the effort towards these ideals that I think is captured in these photographs, before the subsequent economic downturn and regeneration programs undergone by Basildon.

Black and white Conway image of Blenheim House, mounted on board.

John Gordon’s mosaic on the façade of Blenheim House (formerly home to the Locarno Ballroom), the largest of its kind in Britain at the time. CON_B04252_F001_009. The Courtauld Institute of Art, CC-BY-NC.

It is not the case, as the Parliamentary select committee’s report seems to suggest, that New Towns such as Basildon were always devoid of community cultural centres. Instead that these facilities (a cinema, an arts centre, a library etc.) required a consistent investment which the New Towns, unfortunately, did not receive. Equally, accusations of the towns’ lack of heritage in the 2008 report contradict the assertion that they “are no longer new”.

Indeed, in Basildon’s case, just before the release of the 2008 report, National Lottery funding had been used to establish a heritage trail through the town focussing on its post-war architecture. And the aesthetic effect of this architecture has its own heritage in England’s radical humanist tradition, of the likes of Milton’s poetics, or More’s Utopia. So to find photographs of Basildon amongst so much readily-accepted great architecture is a reassurance; its place in an archive of this significance is a foothold for its place in the grand scheme of British architectural history. And, in its own way, it is an investment, of sorts.


Ben Britton
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Ben Britton is a writer based in London with an interest in modernist aesthetics and cultural heritage.

References:

[1] House of Commons, Communities and Local Government Committee. ‘New Towns: Follow Up’. Ninth Report of Session 2007-08. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmcomloc/889/889.pdf

[2] Boughton J (2018) Municipal Dreams. London: Verso Books, p. 79.

Useful links:

John Boughton’s Municipal Dreams blog: https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/