Happy new year to everyone.
This post has in fact been in the making for years – further delayed by Covid-related workload – as I have tried to collect my thoughts and fill in gaps and it can still only scratch the surface of understanding something about the history of flats. Some flats and indeed estates I am going to talk about are now listed, showing their architectural significance. Others were not such a great success and have since been demolished. However, flats have provided homes to thousands of people over many years. Whilst the main focus here is on flats as social or council housing, we’re also looking across tenures to think about some of the main design influences, what went right, and what was less successful.
Flats are different from houses and warrant a separate history. But where do we start with a history of flats? And even what is a flat? Here a flat is defined as a low, medium or high rise block with some shared spaces, including hall, stairs, landing and equivalent. Flats do not include maisonettes, which are defined to include private access to the immediate outside space, with no communal sharing of access. They may be purpose built or converted either from a larger house or a building with another history.
Philanthropy or council?
Our story really starts with Peabody’s first block of flats for the poor in Spitalfields dating from 1864. The photograph illustrates what appears to be Peabody’s fist philanthropic flats, although there is strangely nothing to distinguish this historically very important block, other than its recognition by ‘flat iron’ style from the Peabody website.
Philanthropists provided housing and flats on scale before councils generally did. Legislation from the late 1800s was starting to address poor housing and public health conditions and whilst local authorities had increasing powers to intervene in poor housing conditions, they did not generally have resources to provide new housing and they had to look to philanthropists like George Peabody to redevelop areas. Peabody purchased much slum clearance land, creating multiple homes for the poor. One of the earliest estates was the Abbey Orchard Estate at Westminster pictured here.
By around 1900, pioneering local authorities had started to raise local rates to build, and legislation started to provide a framework for planning infrastructure. The Boundary Estate was the first such estate, completely demolishing what was there before and redeveloping this site. Decisions on compete redevelopment or more targeted regeneration have significant impact on what follows, and what is lost, both in the physical environment, but also for those whose homes, communities and in some cases livelihoods, are affected for good.
This is all documented in Sarah Wise’s excellent book The Blackest Streets (the name based on Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps). What Boundary Estate achieved was a well-planned, new place to live. Unfortunately few who lived there before the clearance could afford to move back, the community and livelihoods were interrupted/destroyed, a constant feature of redevelopment and regeneration schemes that continues to this day, the poor sometimes re-located elsewhere.
Flats for heroes to live in?
Although many still occupied poor housing, new council housing developments were sporadic and piecemeal until the Homes Fit for Heroes policy (or, in its actual term, A Land Fit For Heroes to Live In) after the devastating effects of the first world war, the Housing and Planning Act 1919 (the so-called Addison Act) for the first time introducing state subsidy to council house building. This was for cottages / houses (covered to an extent in my other blog on suburbia), but also for flats that were able to meet relevant criteria. As we have seen, building flats had already gained traction through urban, philanthropic schemes. Some architecture that was to follow drew from far wider design influneces.
It’s hard to reconcile the existence of slums on the one hand with modernist construction on the other, but a range of influences and movements and a sharing of ideas across Europe. The hugely productive and adaptive Le Corbusier of course particularly stands out, in influencing modern living accommodation but also the design and layout of cities. We will return to him again after the second world war. His 1923 ‘Towards an Architecture’ presented new ideas about how we could – and should – live, adopting radical new ideals and rejecting traditional forms. Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Modern Architecture are pilotis, or reinforced concrete pillars to replace supporting walls; openness of design of space for internal use; free design of façade; large horizontal windows for maximum light; and roof gardens. For Le Corbusier, houses should be machines for living in, and modern living accommodation ‘towers in the park’, so high rise flats set in landscaped open spaces.
So against this background, there were a surprising number of flats, not just so-called cottages or houses, built during this interwar period. Perhaps the best place to start with background to what was being built is the social documentary Housing Problems (1935) which outlines what local authorities were trying to achieve in replacing the ‘slums’. One striking thing about this delightful film is that it was – as we now know – so near to the start of the second war, but that the war was not then in the air and the overriding theme was one of hope. The film looks at two important interwar blocks of flats, Kensal House and Quarry Hill (Leeds) and new techniques in construction for urban living. Quarry Hill has long since been demolished but Kensal House is still there (which I photographed several years ago now one very sunny morning), testament to good planning and design in creating successful living environments.
Both are interesting for their modernist design principles in seeking to create full provision, with no gaps, for the working classes. Kensal House (1936) was commissioned and financed by the Gas Light and Coke Company and is also particularly interesting as a woman architect, Elizabeth Denby, was pivotal to its design. She had earlier been involved in working class flats in Peckham and had written and presented about slum housing from the perspective of those living there, quite a departure from an otherwise male and very top-down approach. The idea of the urban village utilised new building technologies and incorporates facilities and clubs, adding to quality of life.
Around the same time, other flats were being constructed, albeit with a very different market in mind. The Isokon Lawn Lane flats (1934) are regarded as the pinnacle of modernist design by architect Wells Coates, who then went on to design Embassy Court in Brighton. These have now been renovated and remain amazing examples of 1930s architecture. It was also around this time that another influential architect, Lubetkin, who had worked with Le Corbusier, arrived in London and his early contribution to flats included the Highpoint apartments in Highgate in 1935. These were interesting because they included pilotis and also balconies.
I was also interested to find more interwar flats built by local authorities and knew the best person to ask would be @MunicipalDreams who of course did not disappoint and suggested I visit the Ossulston Estate (1927-1931), between Euston and Kings Cross stations and literally next to the British Library. Looking at these flats, it’s hard not be struck by the determination and drive to provide council flats for ordinary people to live in and sadly also to not wonder where this determination has gone and the mess of a housing market we now have.
It is also interesting to compare the differences between tenures in this interwar period and I have covered elements of this in my eBook Housing and Hope. In the same way that suburban houses and bungalows were developing for owner occupiers, so council and private flats were constructed. Design-wise, some of the more interesting include Isokon and Embassy as modernist. However, other designs took impetus from elsewhere, such as the unique Ealing Village 1936 influenced by the glamour of Hollywood and the English equivalent at the nearby Ealing studios. Capel Close – in suburban Metro-land – is its contemporary (1935-6), also nodding toward filmstars with its Hollywood balconies and retaining original features like crittal windows.
Flats after the second world war
The end of the war brings us to massive destruction of towns and cities across Europe and decisions about what could be done through substantial post-war reconstruction. Again Le Corbusier comes to the fore, this time in the Unité d’Habitation (1946-52) Marseilles, which was to be immensely influential.
Post war, council housing (including flats) was celebrated. Work on Churchill Gardens in Pimlico started in 1946. The Lansbury Estate in Poplar was developed from 1949 and showcased in the 1951 Festival of Britain, demonstrating a philosophy of neighbourhoods provided with local amenities and different styles of architecture. Lubetkin’s Spa Green Estate (from 1946) was radical in both architecture, technology and thought for those who would be living there and Bevin Court (1954) is simply stunning inside. The Golden Lane Estate was officially opened in 1957, was designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (later of Barbican fame).
Much further north, a competition was held to design flats in Sheffield and one entrant was the Smithsons. They did not get the commission, but their design was significant. They developed Le Corbusier’s ideas around deck access and ‘streets in the sky’. The design for competition for Park Hill was in fact delivered by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, under the supervision of the council’s city architect. It was a huge council estate, created between 1957-1961, initiating a framework for much else to follow, including brutalist architecture. I have visited Park Hill a couple of times, around a decade or so ago, and around three years ago. At the time of writing, Park Hill remains under regeneration and now looks really very different and far more colourful. This in itself is quite a move away from what was originally envisaged by the architects.
By 1958, the then new (now listed) Alton estate at Roehampton was clearly influenced by Le Corbusier. It is easy to see his substantial influence, with the pilotis tracking across the hillside setting and the flats ‘floating’ above as shown clearly in the adjacent photograph. Thanks to Jim Gritton for sending me this iPlayer link about Alton.
The Smithsons – having not been successful in their Park Hill proposal – were to later design the Robin Hood Estate, completed in 1972. It incorporated their vision of ‘streets in the sky’ trying to replicate what they had seen of street life in working class communities, only higher up! This estate is near to the Lansbury Estate and Balfron Tower, demarking the many visions of housing could look. Robin Hood is one of many broadly similar later 1960s estates now demolished. Ironically, part of the Robin Hood estate is to be displayed at the V&A museum, testimony to its importance in the history of architecture. Other examples from Brent Council include Chalk Hill (based on Park Hill) and Stonebridge Park which altered the skyline from low to high rise construction, some featuring in this rap from YouTube, titled North West London Ghettos.
Estates aside, there were also new stand-alone tower blocks. Arlington House was built for private ownership in Margate, with views over the sea. Erno Goldfinger designed the iconic Balfron tower (26 floors, 1965-1967) and Trellick Tower (31 floors, 1968-1972), key examples of brutalist architecture, and featured as the top image in this blog post.
This ideal of a new, clean, modern way to live though the 1960s is demonstrated widely in popular culture. For example, in Cathy Come Home and the new flats the young couple move into, we see a spacious and well-lit flat with modern amenities and high views across the urban area. The wonderfully illustrated Ladybird books tell us about the history of housing and why flats were significant. There was even a children’s animated series – Mary, Mungo and Midge – about a girl, her dog and a mouse, from 1969 to the deep tones of the newsreader Richard Baker’s voice, who lived high in a flat in a tower block in a busy town. The flat itself would not be out of place in the Golden Lane estate mentioned above. The Parker Morris space standards are evident!
But flats of course do not have to be high rise. Architect Neave Brown designed the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in 1968 and construction started in 1972. Brown demonstrated that high density urban living was possible with a good layout and community facilities, mixing flats and maisonettes, very distinct from the towers in the park idea.
As we have seen, the modernists sought to ensure that everyone could access good quality, seamless living accommodation, a grand vision indeed. Le Corbusier in particular dreamed of towers in the park – in other words, modern high rise living within green spaces and well-designed accommodation contributing to better quality of life.
So what was starting to go wrong for some of these estates?
But by the late 1960s and into the 1970s things were about to unravel with the utopic tower blocks and some of the new estates. Some had been built way out of town centres and placed people away from work and amenities. There has been little forethought as to the effect these new utopic mass estate would have on communities, many of whom were ‘slum cleared’ and had no say in their future housing. Many from more traditional housing were relocated to flats, with few choices. There was little forethought about design, architecture and likely impact on communities. Tragedy struck when Ronan Point partially collapsed in 1969 when it was brand new and before it was even fully occupied. Some estates were really poor and were not good living environments from the word go and in some cases, little forethought had been given to issues like maintenance or how they might make people feel. More recently we have of course seen a series of tragic fires, most heartbreakingly at Grenfell in 2019.
Some estates faced multiple challenges and several featured in films, adding to negative connotations. Examples are Thamesmead and Trellick Tower . Now, however, these are deemed desirable and have received substantial regeneration investment, not necessarily benefiting the existing residents in all cases though (but that is for another time). However these have more recently become more ‘des-res’.
To understand living on flats in estates further, we can explore some literature from the US. Oliver Newman observed US projects and crime, including vandalism associated with design and developed the theory of ‘defensible space’ as a psychological space and sense of who it effectively belonged to and who cared for it. Jane Jacobs – whose arch rival Robert Moses preferred complete area redevelopment – coined the concept of ‘eyes on the street’ (see also here and here), with an idea of surveillance and what this would mean in terms of the lived experience and the role this played.
Alice Coleman further developed these theories into the concept of ‘design disadvantagement’ in exploring social malaise, including litter, graffiti and vandalism in relation to the architectural features, such as number of floors. Whilst there is much merit to her research, and indeed it fed directly into then government policy, for example in designing out some features to remove ‘opportunities’ for crime, including secure entry etc. (Photograph of Chalk Hill secure entry door, estate now demolished).
Others take a wider socio-economic view of issues and decline and regeneration. Ann Power’s work on social housing management explores mass housing, poverty, polarisation and social breakdown and the concentration of poor people, lacking many opportunities, choices and power to change their situation, living on estates and the turn-around is possible, given the correct resources and securing appropriate community involvement. See this link for example.
Lindsey Hanley’s (2008) book Estates: an Intimate History is also very interesting reading, relating housing history and policy to personal lived experience of growing up on a council estate in Birmingham. She refers to the role of architects not people in design and her perceptions of the psychological effects of ‘dreams gone sour’ and the influence of ‘walls in the head’. She argues that money and intellectual arrogance shaped policy and that the poorest were left to suffer the consequences.
This all sounds very negative and it is not intended to be, but some estates certainly did not produce the utopic estates initially envisaged. There are however numerous examples of local authorities who have funded and managed some superb estates, but the need for ongoing investment and maintenance is clear.
What other types of flats are there?
We then have buildings that were never intended as homes that are now successfully redeveloped as flats (others less so of course!). Some are included in hospital to home, but there are many others. Some examples are the superb Hoover Building, the Oxo Tower and of course Battersea Power Station and former Arsenal Stadium in Highbury.
For all of these varied and differing flats, those that are now being built can seem rather bland and ‘samey’ and lack the exciting modernist visions of yesteryear in providing radical new and more affordable living environments. Many new and retrofitted build flats had issues with cladding and this situation remains ongoing, causing huge distress about the present and future for many who live there.
Nevertheless, let’s finish on a happier note and one that combines living in flats with its interior décor. What brief history of flats wouldn’t be complete without the most famous of them all? Yes, Nelson Mandela House, Peckham, from Only Fools and Horses. It may come as a surprise to some that it’s not in Peckham at all, but was filmed in Acton, later Bristol, and the towers in the park idea are clear to see. Nelson Mandela House is a like a celebrity in itself, with its own house history and uncertain future, as Boycey tells use here.
I have stacks more photographs but will save those for another time. Another time we will look at iconic buildings converted into housing and flats.
Coleman, A. (1990) Utopia on Trial. Vision and Reality in Planned Housing (revised edition), Hilary Shipman
Hanley, L. (2008) Estates: an intimate history, London: Granta Books
Power, A. (1999) Estates on the Edge: The Social Consequences of Mass Housing in Europe, Macmillan Press Ltd
Stewart, J. and Rhoden, M. (2003) A review of social housing regeneration in the London Borough of Brent, in Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, March 2003, 123 (1) pp. 23-32