Douglas Murphy reviews a timely study of a brief but golden era in state-funded social housing
‘Cook’s Camden’, by Mark Swenarton (Lund Humphries, 328pp, £45)
In awarding Neave Brown the 2018 Royal Gold Medal, the RIBA jury was doing a number of things: it was reflecting a feeling many in the profession have that in a time of crisis, architects’ talents are wasted when so little is being done to build for ordinary people; it was picking up on public sentiment, as growing numbers appreciate and enjoy the architecture of the post-war period; but it was also, in a way, saying sorry – for the lost career of an extremely talented and politically committed architect that was cut short by the 1980s backlash against the welfare state.
Living area at Lamble Street/Mansfield Road, by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth /LBC (1972-80); Alexandra Road by Neave Brown/LBC (top, 1967-79)
All of Brown’s work in the UK is now listed, the only architect with that honour, but this is because there’s so little of it: five flats for him and his friends in Winscombe Street, and then two remarkable social housing estates; Fleet Road and Alexandra Road. These, along with Branch Hill, Mansfield Road and Maiden Lane, by Benson & Forsyth, and Highgate New Town by Peter Tabori, make up the core output of ‘Cook’s Camden’, the London borough’s architects department run by Sydney Cook from 1965-73, now the subject of a definitive new study by Mark Swenarton.
Fleet Road, by Neave Brown/LBC (1966-78)
Camden was a wealthy borough thanks to its Hampstead and Holborn ratepayers, and its left-wing council was determined to do things radically across the board, especially in housing. Plucking most of them straight from the Architectural Association, Cook encouraged his shockingly young staff to think boldly on one particular problem – how to achieve high-density housing that nevertheless remained low-rise, in rejection of the orthodoxy of towers that dominated the UK’s construction industry at the time.
Rather than abolishing the street, the architects’ task was to re-imagine it for the modern world. Flats were based upon terrace models, all would have private outdoor space, and front doors that opened to the public realm. Developments were conceived as covering sites entirely and then being carved out, rather than as objects placed in a landscape, and traffic was segregated.
All the estates have elements in common, like variations on a theme: a post-Corbusian aesthetic, highly articulated sections, including the use of ziggurat and split-level designs, and intelligent interior planning frequently incorporating sliding partitions, dark stained timber strip windows, and ingenious storage. Together they make up a body of work that is among the best housing built anywhere in the world at that time.
Swenarton tells the story of Cook, the architects, their ideas and the ways in which those worked, or didn’t. The estates were mostly designed in the late 1960s but their builds were made near impossible by post-1973 recessions, and by the time they were complete Thatcher was in power, and modernist council housing was a scapegoat. A farcical inquiry into ballooning costs at Alexandra Road marked the end: Neave Brown didn’t build in Britain again, and it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that Benson & Forsyth had even a whisper of the success their early works promised.
Today the estates are far from pristine, but their landscaping has matured beautifully and they are extremely popular, both with their council tenants and a steadily growing population of leaseholders and private renters. Where once they were endlessly used as locations for crime dramas, now you are just as likely to find fashion shoots there.
Comprehensively researched and explained, the book includes a full set of new drawings, along with contemporary photographs both internal and external by Tim Crocker, while another valuable aspect is the interviews with many of the surviving protagonists. ‘Cook’s Camden’ is a vital history of a remarkable human achievement, and should be read by anyone with an interest in housing architecture, and what can be achieved for ordinary people.