The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Camden’s post war heritage under threat

Chester Road Hostel, Camden

Photo courtesy Mark Swenarton

We are objecting to plans to demolish the Chester Road Hostel in Camden which has “international architectural and historic significance”.

The mental health hostel building is an important part of the second phase of the Highgate New Town development designed by Bill Forrest of the Camden Architect’s Department.  It has international architectural and historic significance as part of the overall project of housing renewal and social care provision carried out by the in-house team led by Sydney Cook.   Its aim was to provide first-rate medical and social services for local residents, encouraged by its first Medical Officer of Health, Dr Wilfrid Harding.

Since the Alexandra Road Estate was first listed Grade II* in 1993, appreciation for the work of the team has continued to grow.   The projects have been extensively studied and published, and expert research continues.


Chester Road Hostel, Camden

Photo courtesy Mark Swenarton

Catherine Croft, Director of the C20 Society, said: “Further projects have been listed, but there has been no recent comprehensive survey for listing purposes of the department’s work as a whole, and it is extremely likely that more buildings will be listed when resources are available for assessment.

“The hostel is a very carefully considered and detailed building, responding to a specific brief and site with sensitivity and imagination.   It deliberately shields its residents from the road, ensuring privacy and a sense of seclusion, which means that its most positive qualities are currently hard to appreciate from the public realm.   That said, its simple and austerely well- proportioned facades make a positive contribution to the character of the conservation area.”

Chester Road Hostel, Camden, Photo courtesy Mark Swenarton

Camden Council says the current building, which was constructed in 1979, is reaching the end of its life and would be too costly to update.  It wants to replace it with a new three to four-storey block which has been designed by Bell Phillips Architects to provide temporary accommodation for homeless families currently in expensive private sector accommodation. Nearby residents are concerned by the dominant scale of the proposed development.

C20 is supporting an application to list the building at Grade II which has been submitted by architectural historians Fabian Watkinson, Tom Davies* and Mark Swenarton.

They state in their application: “The hostel’s heritage significance derives specifically from the achievements of Bill Forrest, one of head Architect Sydney Cook’s first appointments who was highly respected by his colleagues and Dr Wilfrid Harding, the founder of the Faculty of Community Medicine (now the Faculty of Public Health Medicine at the Royal Colleges of Physicians) who achieved resounding success at Camden. Oscar Palacio, whom Forrest was together with, as both partner and Camden colleague plays an important supporting role in this. The hostel should be considered in the context of Forrest’s other work, other health and welfare buildings developed under Harding at Camden and the intrinsic relationship between health and Modernism during the 20th Century.”


Our campaign has provoked some online criticism because the current proposal is for the replacement building to provide temporary accommodation for homeless people. We want to make it clear that we have no objection whatsoever to the siting of such provision here—indeed it would be very much in keeping with the historically significant social ethos of the current scheme. However, the current building has undoubted merit and considerable embodied energy, so we feel that it would be far preferable to find a compatible new use for it, rather than demolish it. It would be undoubtedly be possible to convert the current building to provide housing for homeless people, but if a larger building is thought necessary for this purpose, then we would like to see 2 Chester Road converted to an alternative, socially beneficial use.  

Upcoming event:

‘From Camden to Copenhagen and Oslo’ is the title of a forthcoming C20 Society lecture  by Tom Davies from the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) who will be exploring how ‘hill-housing, Danish Modernism and tours in antiquity bridged the gap between London and Oslo.  His research looks at two distinct traditions in post-war housing, either side of the North Sea, through Alexandra Road and Highgate New Town, Camden and the work of architects Anne Tinne and Mogens Friis and the Selvaag company in Oslo.  The talk on 3 December will be via Zoom and can be booked here