Thanks to a recent grant from English Heritage, we have started an exciting new project, that we hope will appeal to members and to potential future supporters. Over the coming months, we will be adding to our website audio slideshows and podcasts that tell the inside story of some of our cases, as told by the voices of people who have been involved in designing the buildings, and those that use or live in them. Every time we launch a new one, we will be sending members a link to it—so even if you don’t regularly visit the website you won’t miss out. Now full-time at the office, I’m the lucky individual charged with compiling these stories, which has taken me out and about around some familiar sites, nosing behind closed doors, and tracking down retired architects for interrogation.
First up was C20’s old friend Robin Hood Gardens, where I was treated to a tour of the site by Ken Baker, who worked with the Smithsons on the scheme until its completion in 1972. Meandering along the ‘streets in the sky’ we were delighted to see that they were full of life as mothers met and chatted, and children sped up and down the walkways on scooters and bicycles. From a sunny patch on the central grass mound, Ken reflected on the composition of the exterior: “When you think about it, it’s got many of the qualities that a piece of Georgian or terraced architecture had, which is an order about it from the base to the parapet. The proportions are similar in the sense that they play a rhythm of designing one bay and repeating it. I’ve often said to people it’s a bit like how you design a cathedral, you design one bay and repeat it until you decide to stop and then you put the transept in. This does something similar which is that a whole bay of the building was designed by Peter, which would be the section and the elevation, and they would repeat. Yet the variation that’s overlaid on it gives just that bit of interest, with the large sticks for each of the dwellings. When you catch the building at an angle like this it becomes completely abstract…”
We also had the chance to meet some of Robin Hood Gardens’ residents who views cast doubts on the Council’s claim that those that live there want to see the place demolished. Taking a break from watching her daughter in the playground, Shirona Ahmed said: “Personally, I know that I am living in an overcrowded space. I have five children and I live in a two-bedroom property. But otherwise, I love living here. It’s nice, everything is nearby. The children come to the park and they enjoy it.”
For the next project, I had the chance to interview Michael Neylan, the architect of the Bishopsfield Estate and numerous social housing schemes for Southwark Council. Michael talked through his early career at Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, and the challenges of designing in his spare evenings and holidays, before he won the competition in 1960 aged only 29. He also described some of his journeys through Persia, which inspired the distinctive ‘Kasbah’ form of the development in Harlow: “I had always been interested in courtyard development and the perimeter development of sites and, certainly in Iran, the courtyard is almost always the organising element of buildings of any size. Certainly the great mosques and madrases and so on are built on a courtyard system, but also private houses and hotels… I don’t think I actually went there with that intention, it’s what I learnt when I was there. I think the appeal was something totally different but still comprehensible… I hitched a lift with some people who were driving overland to Australia and when we got to the Afghan border I turned round and came home…”
A few weeks later I visited Bishopsfield and saw for myself how the courtyards worked, bringing light, air, and an increased sense of space to very private homes. Several families have lived here since the buildings were completed, including retired architect David Ives, who worked in Frederick Gibberd’s architectural office in the town and remains passionate about the success of the estate. Bishopsfield still attracts many young families, and the community comes together at its annual Open Garden Day, with a jazz band and barbeque set in a public courtyard.
Revisiting the site almost fifty years after it initiated his career in social housing, Neylan observed with pleasure that the staggered brick volumes had softened with age and planting. Many houses have also been lightly adapted to fit changing needs and personal tastes, and every courtyard bursts with greenery and vivid colours. He reflected on the ‘baptism of fire’ of his first scheme and the ambitions of the Harlow Development Corporation in seeking bold new housing solutions: “They were a good client. I think probably I was not a very good architect… It is young to take on something on one’s own, and I was very unwilling to change the scheme. I felt that if anything was changed it would open the floodgates because some people didn’t like it as much as others, within the corporation.”
Future topics will include the Finsbury Health Centre and the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes in Blackpool, but our list of subjects is still being compiled—we are looking for a good mix of current casework buildings and others, and want to prioritise those where our recording will form a valuable oral history source for posterity, as well ones that will make informative and enjoyable ‘mine films’.
Do you know a building with a good story? An Art Deco masterpiece? An industrial icon? Can you suggest good people for us to interview about it? Maybe you live in it, use it, or have been involved in its construction or preservation. If so, get in touch via the usual address or email jo.moore(at)c20society.org.uk.
View the Robin Hood Gardens audio slide show here. can be viewed here.