diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 01, 2017

5 Hampstead/St Pancras
Modern day Camden is an amalgamation of three pre-1965 boroughs - Hampstead and St Pancras, as selected here, plus Holborn nearer the centre of the city. One thing fledgling Camden became famous for was its progressive approach to social housing, erecting several architecturally-unusual estates, each focusing on density rather than height. There are dozens, but I went in search of three I'd not visited before, with my reaction ranging from "wow" to "oh".

Modernist Camden

1) Whittington Estate, Highgate N19

The Whittington Estate can be found round the back of the hospital of the same name, at Camden's northeastern tip. The first stage of the Highgate New Town development, it was designed in the early 1970s by Hungarian architect Peter Tábori. What we have here are four parallel streets on a sloping site lined by stepped terraces of three or four storeys. If you know your Camden housing, it looks a lot like the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate on the other side of the borough, but this is a sequence of cul-de-sacs rather than one straight-through.

The south-facing flanks are blessed with private sun-loving balconies, many overflowing with bright foliage, others used to stash bikes and other household goods. Every so often a steep-ish narrow staircase rises up to provide access to the upper maisonettes. Meanwhile the northern side of each main building is more practical, generally a flat wall with the front door and main living rooms behind. Lulot Gardens is the quietest of the four streets, while Stoneleigh Terrace is over twice as long as the rest and faces what's technically a main road, with a quieter concrete alley tucked behind.

All the garages are hidden on the level below, allowing each of the main thoroughfares to be pedestrianised. I'm not sure I'd want to park down there, but the effect for those on foot is optimal, even if I did have to nip out of the way at one point to avoid a food delivery moped. Head down to the far end and you reach a sportsball area, and behind that an amazing path which overlooks... the back of Highgate Cemetery. Look down and you can see visitors who've paid £4 for the privilege, admittedly with a much better view of what the gravestones actually say.

The overall effect is retro sci-fi, the kind of buildings a 70s version of the future might have imagined we'd all be living in. We're not, obviously, we're being packed into stacky flats, but Camden's architects showed how high density building could be achieved with something rather more communal. Living inside one of these concrete boxes isn't always as functional as the exterior suggests, of course, and disrepair and decay have been the downfall of many a great architectural concept, but one of the 3 bedroom maisonettes is currently on the market for £825,000 so this looks like a genuine success. [another report] [5 photos]

2) Maiden Lane Estate, York Way N7

Maiden Lane's a few years younger than the Whittington and rather different in style, but then in Camden that's the way. You'll find it off York Way, where the Overground crosses the mainlines out of St Pancras and King's Cross, just north of the development maelstrom currently engulfing the latter. This time the architects are Benson and Forsyth, who transformed a former goods yard into an expanse of almost 500 residential units. They would have built more but a plan to cover the railway fell through, and the southeastern corner of the site remained stubbornly light industrial.

The housing blocks come in waves, three or four storeys high to the east of the site, dropping to two and eventually one towards the mainline. Many flats have long low balconies, and many buildings have a row of tilted skylights to bring illumination within. A dual aspect duplex design dominates, except on the quieter back alleys where the bungalows hide behind thick slatted screens. Most surfaces are an almost Mediterranean white, indeed from some angles it feels like you could be standing within a Balearic hotel complex, except there's a bright blue playground where the pool should be.

It's easy to get a bit lost wandering around, there being several passageways and a number of levels of walkway threading through. The Community Centre acts as a bit of an anchor, and in a nice touch anyone can go up on the roof to enjoy the view. Elsewhere are the chimneys for the heating system - Camden schemes always seem to have some somewhere - and a single convenience shop outside which small dogs wait patiently. What's especially incongruous is the abrupt contrast between these cuboid homes and their Victorian neighbours on St Paul's Terrace, where some rather more comfortably off residents brush up.

But a big change is underway at Maiden Lane as Camden Council redevelops large parts of the site. They've already replaced the industrial corner with new flats and a 20 storey tower, while the frontage to York Way now resembles more typical London-wide schemes with bland undershops. Scores of families have been decanted while their blocks are replaced, a little taller, with white-framed balconies as a nod to the designs they replace. Their kitchens and heating are now much better, but a substantial element of non-social housing has crept in, and the entire process has been slow and disruptive. Camden's hi-vis army may never get round to replacing the lot, merely refurbishing, but current progress jars. [another report] [6 photos]

3) Dunboyne Estate, Gospel Oak NW3

An agglomeration of bold social housing can be found where Hampstead meets Belsize Park meets Gospel Oak. The largest of these surrounds Lismore Circus, where two really long blocks face one another on opposite sides of a green causeway. But I was heading for the Dunboyne Estate across the road, a relatively compact project which broke the mould as Camden's first high-density low-rise scheme. Architect Neave Brown designed three parallel blocks with a strong modernist aesthetic, each with dual aspect and overlooking paved deck terraces. "The strict geometry of the bright white concrete blocks is an effective foil to the organic, individually-planted gardens", apparently, according to the Grade II listing.

But when I arrived, what I found was a fortress. The entire development has been secured behind a protective boundary, with black metal railings screening what used to be the two public entrances. Keypads protect the pedestrian gates, while the access road at the rear won't open without the right electronic gizmo. A small grocery store remains outside this secure perimeter, because to hide inside would be economic suicide, but the architectural delights of the estate can now only be enjoyed by residents - the architect himself is one. The triumphs of Camden's social housing are increasingly the preserve of a select few.

n.b. Council estate tourism is never going to catch on, nor should it. I felt a bit uncomfortable walking round taking some of these photos, and attempted to be discreet, but how were the residents to know I was only interested in their buildings, not them or their belongings? If you'd like to investigate Camden's cutting edge housing further, including the aforementioned Alexandra and Ainsworth (ooh) and the sylvan Branch Hill (golly), the best map for doing so has alas sold out. Meanwhile a lavish book has just been published called Cook's Camden, and a number of excellent in-depth reports are available on the Municipal Dreams website.

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