diamond geezer

 Tuesday, May 03, 2011

It really is sixty years ago today that the Festival of Britain opened. The main Festival on the South Bank was the hub of the entire event. The Pleasure Gardens in Battersea were much enjoyed. You've probably heard of both, and if you're old enough you may even have visited them. But East London also hosted a Live Architecture Exhibition as part of the Festival, and that's not quite so well known.

plaque at Lewisham stationPlans for an "Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning, and Building Research" began in 1948, because it takes time to throw a major national celebration together. It was thought that the general public wouldn't be interested unless they had some buildings to walk through, so the idea was to hijack a post-war housing development currently at the planning stage and turn that into the exhibition space. Eyes alighted on a heavily-bombed area of Poplar, between the Limehouse Cut and the East India Dock Road, which it was thought was just close enough to the South Bank (via riverbus) to attract the crowds. Originally known as "Neighbourhood 9", it was renamed the Lansbury Estate in honour of George Lansbury the famous Poplar politician.

Building work ran behind schedule (nothing changes), but by 1951 there were at least some new buildings for visitors to see. The first tenants were Mr and Mrs Albert Snoddy, their two children and a pet tortoise called Tommy, all of whom were rehoused from a nearby slum about to be demolished. On 14th February they moved into a ground floor flat in Gladstone House, where they paid the princely rent of £1 9s a week. The great Lansbury experiment was underway. [video]

The first visitors arrived on Thursday 3rd May 1951, entering the site at the foot of Saracen Street, and paid 1s 6d for the privilege. First up was "Gremlin Grange", a mocked-up house deliberately designed with defects such as cracked walls, leaky water tanks and too-thin walls. This was closely followed by the Building Research Pavilion in which the scientific principles behind good construction were exemplified, followed by a properly-built bungalow to contrast with the house before. Then came the Town Planning Pavilion - a red-and white-striped tent on the East India Road, climaxing with a scale model of the fictional New Town of Avoncaster. Visitors could then treat themselves to a cuppa at the Rosie Lee Cafe before setting off on a lengthy tour round the actual Lansbury Estate to see all these building principles put into practice. All terribly worthy and educational, which perhaps explains why only 86000 people turned up over the next five months. Battersea Pleasure Gardens, in contrast, registered 100 times as many paying visitors.

The exhibition pavilions are long gone, replaced by slightly more modern apartment blocks. But 60 years on almost every other part of the original Lansbury Estate still stands and remains in use. Gladstone House is still there, surrounded by green lawns and trees, although there's no sign of Tommy the tortoise [photo]. Two blocks up is 2 Overstone House, the exhibition's official show flat (pictured here), where today's inhabitants have decorated their front door with two propped-up blue mops. The terraced houses on nearby Pekin Street look completely out of place in an estate of mostly flats, but were presumably included to show a more desirable form of architecture suitable for New Town expansion. And looming over them all is the cavernous brick tower of St Mary and St Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, now at the heart of the local community. [photo]

On the far side of the estate is Chrisp Street Market, whose square and surrounding buildings were also completed for 1951 [photo]. The pub on the corner is still called The Festival Inn, and appears to be frequented by folk for whom every day is an alcoholic celebration [photo]. The shops were meant to form the neighbourhood centre for the whole of Poplar and the Isle of Dogs, and remain popular with Lansbury residents, but are considerably more downmarket than the new malls at Canary Wharf. The most striking remnant of the Festival of Britain is the Clock Tower on Chrisp Street, originally designed as an observation tower. It has two staircases - one meant for going up and one for going down - but alas these have long since been padlocked and the view is now wholly inaccessible. [photo]

plaque at Lewisham stationMost of the original homes on Grundy Street are currently shrouded behind blue netting while the council undertake repairs and maintenance to extend the lifespan of these pioneering houses. All shrouded that is except for number 14, the exhibition's official show home (pictured here), which was presumably built to a much better specification than its neighbours and will outlast them all. Only one major building from the original estate has been lost, and that's John Roche secondary school. It was deemed surplus to requirements a few years ago and so has been bulldozed to create space for 490 new residential units. The builders are in now, creating what they've chosen to call New Festival Quarter, but the identikit mix of modern mews and tall blocks is nothing that the original 1951 planners would ever have been proud of.

I was wandering around with my camera in the leafy squares of the Western Housing Site when one current resident looked down from her balcony in Granville House and demanded to know why I was taking quite so many photographs. She was disappointed, and somewhat mystified, to discover that I was merely a Tower Hamlets resident touring the area in an attempt to appreciate the Festival buildings. "You don't have to live in them!" she said. "They've not had any money spent on them in sixty years." One day, she hopes, the man wandering around with the camera will be from the council and he'll have a proper renovation budget to spend. It's good to see that so much of the Lansbury Estate survives, and a tribute to all those who put this futuristic architectural exhibition together. But it's getting on, and it's not perfect, and I'm afraid it won't last for ever.

If you're especially interested in the Lansbury Estate and the Live Architecture Exhibition,
» here's the full story,
» here's a map from 1951,
» here's a gazetteer of permanent developments.

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