Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The Open House weekend is a good thing for many reasons, but one of them is that it gives you the opportunity to snoop around people’s flats. Living in a flatshare in the basement of a run-of-the-mill Georgian house, I am always rather envious of people who live in interesting buildings, so it was bracing to see residents of Pullman Court in Streatham and Alexandra Road in Camden, both beautiful, radical blocks, celebrating the places in which they lat their hats.

On Sunday, we went to Pullman Court, an International style block of 218 private residential flats in three blocks at the top of Brixton Hill. They were built in 1936 and represent a response to two challenges of the day: a chronic shortage of decent housing, and the question of how to apply modern materials and forms to more traditional ways of building homes. Explicitly inspired by the principles of the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture held in New York City four years earlier, the flats were inexpensive and offered modern, stylish accommodation to single workers.

The inside of the flat we looked round was drenched in 1930s Modernity. It had the original electric heaters, slim, sheet-steel window frames and chrome doorframes and wooden sliding-doors between bedrooms. The flats would be small even for a single person, and this one was shared. But the tenant we chatted to said he loved it, and didn’t find it at all constrictive. The thin kitchen, for all its maximisation of space, wouldn’t do for me, and the bathroom barely contained a bath, wash-basin and WC. But the flats do respond to the two problems mentioned above: since Streatham has never been fashionable, living there has always been relatively cheap, and the small area is used wisely to create as big a living space as possible. (It’s also worth saying that, since the dimensions of the flats did not fit the furniture that was then available, the architect Frederick Gibberd also designed tables, chairs and other furnishings which residents could buy – none of these furnishings, apparently, survive today)

The exterior of Pullman Court has changed more than its interior. The blocks were originally painted in different colours – blues, reds, greys and yellows – but they are now all white. In the sunshine, the reinforced concrete walls glimmer, and when the outdoor swimming-pool and roof gardens were once used in the summer, the whole estate must have felt like a Mediterranean resort.

There is, I think, something rather tentative about Pullman Court. Frederick Gibberd was one of the earliest of the British Modernists, and he was only 23 when he was offered the commission. It is a neat, tidy, chic example of functioning form, but it lacks the daring of, say, the Isokon Building or Highpoint One or the De La Warr Pavilion.

This article (click the chapter headings on the sidebar to proceed) charts how Modernism became the backbone of residential building in the twentieth century and how, rather unfairly, its harvest of flats and apartments became associated with the worst symptoms of urban decay. By the late 1970s, social housing construction (long associated with the Modernist style) had begun seriously to wane. Alexandra Road, the last great Council housing project in London, therefore stands as an elegy to the movement and its vision.

I visited Alexandra Road on Saturday afternoon, after my first ever walk over the Abbey Road zebra-crossing (this from a man who, aged 10, owned every Beatles album and could give chapter and verse on the intricacies of their recording sessions). It was designed by Neave Brown, then Camden’s Borough Architect, to provide high-density, low-rise housing primarily to families (Camden has an historic and somewhat notorious shortage of housing of families), and was opened in 1979.

It was designed to be a self-contained community, a late twentieth century update of the street lined with terraced houses, a mixture of communality and privacy, economy and luxury. The complex consciously recalls an earlier vision of LCC municipal housing. It includes a community centre, school, playgroup, children’s play area, older people’s sheltered housing, shops and a green space, all of which – to the credit of the Council and other community-run organisations – are still running.

But for all its wholesome foundations, Alexandra Road is an unorthodox creation. Walking through it for the first time, it is certainly exciting and challenging. Sociable too – neighbours were mingling in the walkway on this Indian summer’s day, adults chatting over cups of tea, children crashing their tricycles into one another and giggling. It is easy to imagine a child falling in love with it – after all, its blocks resemble the sort of scaly reptiles they might make in a junk-modelling class. Its tiered concrete slabs descend from high above the London Overground railway line to the paths which separate one block from another.

The architects’ plans demonstrate clearly enough that everybody can see everybody else, but the resident of the flat I looked around said that privacy was perfectly possible. A fellow tenant in my tour party told me that, for all that people sometimes peered into your window, at least you knew that people were looking out for you. Alexandra Road has never been blighted with the reputation bestowed upon some Council housing estates.

The flat we looked around on Open House day was beautiful: airy, spacious, cleverly proportioned and utterly stylish. There were lots of simple, smart features: interior floor-to-ceiling doors which made every room feel so much taller; sliding-doors for peace and quiet or communal living; stairs which, by a tweak of design, are made wider for the older or frailer person; plain, tabula rasa features, onto which tenants could apply their own designs; balconies on which most residents have created canopies of green. I don’t for a moment believe that this flat was typical. It had been deliberately preserved and protected; back-copies of Architectural Review littered the dining-room table.

But these were stunningly well-designed flats, amenable to the most cluttered or minimalist of tastes. It is a masterpiece of design. Camden Council is lucky to have it and thereby uphold Lubetkin’s declaration that “nothing is too good for ordinary people.”


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