The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Preservation of Housing Estates

The Society’s involvement regarding large listed housing estates usually concerns the alteration of what may seem like incidental details: The installation of railings, the enclosure of areas for security purposes or the replacement of paving stones. In the last newsletter we had pointed out the importance of monitoring what might at first seem like mere maintenance issues. But it is precisely the high level of detailing which sets the listed estates apart from the rest. And ultimately these changes will affect the overall appearance of such places like the Barbican Estate.

This month I have been consulted on two applications for flats in the Golden Lane Estate. Both concern the wish of tenants to alter the carefully designed interior spaces to accommodate a personal preference. And both exemplify a lack of understanding of some tenants regarding the importance of the architectural environment in which they live. The necessity of handling these issues seriously is crucial in preventing a gradual attrition of the quality of the estate in general.

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon are undoubtedly an architectural practice of great importance. The competition for the Golden Lane Estate proved pivotal in the formation of the firm, when Geoffry Powell assembled Peter Chamberlin and Christoph Bon, who had also submitted their designs, as partners after winning the commission himself. The partnership went on to create the Barbican Estate (1966-80) as well as buildings for New Hall College at Cambridge (1962-6), the University of Leeds in Yorkshire (1963-75) and the University of Birmingham (1966). In addition to their built work, they were the recipients of many prestigious awards: Bronze Medal, Royal Institute of British Architects, 1956, 1957; Ministry of Housing and Local Government Medal, 1965; Civic Trust Commendation, 1973;RIBA Architecture Award, 1973, 1974.

The Golden Lane Estate in particular exemplifies the architects’ interest and skill in planning urban spaces. There is array of building shapes and sizes ranging from mid to high-rise. 200 persons per acre live on what is considered a high-density area. Tennis courts and sunken gardens successfully make use of the basement cavities left over from demolished warehouses. This interaction of mass and void is an inherent part of the sculptural quality of the site. The integrated community includes housing, shops a sports centre and a community centre as well as a tenants’ hall and a pub. Golden Lane is clearly an outstanding environment.

The consistency of quality and detailing, can be found throughout Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s oeuvre. The individual and diverse structures use a common architectural language from the overall layout to the detailing and even permeate to the thoroughly thought out interior spaces. The architects have addressed the question of how to make a place, as well as how to make a building.

The first case I would like to exemplify involves the removal of the original kitchen cabinetry an their replacement with a brand X semi traditional model. The pictures provided in evidence for the case showed dishes, food and paint tins in wild disarray. Any comprehension of the actual original furnishing underneath the mess could hardly be discerned. I was fortunate to find photographic evidence of an immaculately restored flat that showed the careful integration of the kitchen into a flexible interior plan. The dense layout has fit the utilitarian spaces into an overall scheme with meticulous attention to detailing. The resulting interior is a deceptively simple interaction of architectural form. It is possible to accommodate modern utilities within the original cabinetry. Rustic hoods and cookers simply will not do.

The second case at the Grade II listed estate involves an appeal against the refusal to grant Listed Building Consent retroactively. The proposal forwarded to us was for the retention of a new wall between the bedroom and the lounge. These works, which had already replaced the original sliding partition wall, had been completed without having attained listed building consent. Although the new wall is positioned in the location of the former divider, the original intent of a flexible space has been completely obliterated from the Chamberlin, Powell and Bon interior.

The Society is extremely concerned, that these unauthorized works which had been carried out without listed building consent, have resulted in the loss of the historic fabric of this important building. The partition wall is a key element to the original spatial composition of the flats at Great Arthur House. The feature is of unquestionable significance and is also mentioned in the list description. Sliding walls are an integral part of the architects’ overall design for the dense housing scheme where walls, space and light interlock in the playfulness of geometric form. We are petitioning for its reinstatement.

The Society is anxious for what is to remain of the original interiors on a large scale if these changes are allowed to set a precedent. Alterations of this sort, although relatively small in scale and commencing in a piecemeal fashion, will eventually erode the consistent and subtle detailing of what is now still a compositional whole, an ensemble of great architectural integrity.

Eva Branscome