The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Lambeth Architecture: A Brave New World, 1945-1965

Edmund Bird and Fiona Price (LB Lambeth/Lambeth Local History Forum, 172pp, £10)

Reviewed by Robert Drake

Edmund Bird and Fiona Price have already produced guides to the Edwardian and inter-war architecture of Lambeth, but this one is perhaps the most eagerly awaited. The post-war period gave Lambeth an embarrassment of riches, with the Festival of Britain site on the South Bank, and massive reconstruction by an increasingly innovative Borough Architect’s department as well as by the London County Council. However, a surprising amount of this rebuilding is now to be found in the book’s ‘lost’ buildings chapter, including the fabulous 1988 murals in the Durning Library in Kennington (Lyall Watson,1952). This underlines the need for statutory protection, especially as many of these vulnerable buildings have been cases for the Society.

Why stop at 1965, you might ask. This is because it was the year of local government re-organisation in London, with the disappearance of the LCC and the creation of the Greater London Council. Lambeth slightly expanded, with parts of Wandsworth coming under its control, mainly in Streatham and Clapham. I hope there will be another volume taking the story forward into the heroic period of the late 1960s and 1970s, when Ted Hollamby was head of Lambeth’s architecture department with its innovative (if sometimes controversial) social housing.

In contrast, the buildings of the early 1950s were often surprisingly traditional, an example being the former Lambeth Baths in Lambeth Walk (1955-58) by the Borough Council, which replaced a much larger baths destroyed in WWII. In a streamlined moderne style, it became redundant soon after it was built, as few now needed the ‘slipper baths’ it offered to people with no bathroom, though they might still have enjoyed the ‘aerotone’ baths (a precursor of the jacuzzi for the treatment of circulatory and rheumatic conditions).

Happily, the building found a new use as a medical centre in the 1990s. Just next door is the Lambeth Methodist mission, one of the first places of worship rebuilt after WWII by Alex Gavin (1951), with a sculpture, ‘The Word’, by Edward Bainbridge Copnall on its Lambeth Road facade. This is one of a number of replacement churches of the 1950s and early 1960s which include the Grade II* ‘Festival Church’, St John’s Waterloo Rd by Thomas F Ford with murals by Hans Feibusch (now a Society case); and the fine West Norwood Crematorium of 1960 by Alwyn Underdown.

Other highlights include Stockwell Bus Garage ( Adie, Button & Partners, 1951-54) with its phenomenal cantilevered barrel vaults surmounted by glass roof-lights. But the bulk of the book is about housing, especially local authority housing, and schools. One, the former Lilian Baylis School by Architects Co-Partnership for the LCC and completed in 1964, has an innovative series of pavilions around a courtyard. It is now being converted into private apartments, as we saw on a C20 casework event in September last year.

On the housing front, much of what was built in the early 1950s, such as the Tulse Hill Estate, was a case of completing 1930s schemes abandoned because of the war. These contrast with the Corbusian high-rises of the Loughborough Estate in Brixton, completed just a few years later, which at the time were both lauded (with a Civic Trust award in 1961) and reviled (by Ian Nairn, as ‘no more than an arid geometric exercise masquerading as a place’).

This book, with superb photographs by John East, is a must for enthusiasts of 1950s architecture.

Available from the RIBA bookshop, or by post from Lambeth Archives, 52 Knatchbull Road, London, SE5 9QY (£11 including p&p).