4 Jun 2014

New Book – Out Now! Towns in Britain by Jones the Planner

Now available in all good bookshops ...

This lavishly illustrated book takes an irreverent, sometimes angry and amusing journey exploring our towns and cities, from Hackney and its hipsters to Rab C. Nesbitt’s Govan, from the screaming incoherence of Cardiff Bay to the alleged idyll of Hertfordshire’s garden cities. Written for the informed general reader, Towns in Britain looks at what is happening to our cities today, and is essential reading for those interested in urban design, architecture, and town and transport planning.

Local Shops
Five Leaves Bookshop – happy sending out copies post free
Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham, NG1 2DH, 0115 8373097

London Shops
The Book
Big Green Bookshop
Brick Lane Bookshop
Daunts (Cheapside)
Daunts (Marlybone)
London Review Bookshop
Edward Stanford
Stoke Newington Bookshop
Tate Britain
Tate Modern
Rough Trade East

Big Shops
Waterstones – varies at local stores, so ask

Online Shops

The Bookstore

Get in touch with Adrian or Chris who are happy to take part in talks or discussions about towns, architecture, planning and urban history related themes or issues.

Example of spreads – Introduction

Towns in Britain will stimulate discussion about important topics which affect us all, the housing crisis, the quality of urban regeneration, place-making and the creation of civilised streets. It challenges current political and planning orthodoxies and the baleful impact that so much recent development has had on our cities. It also confronts popular and media stereotypes which dismiss so much of our built environment as ‘crap towns’ and ‘concrete monstrosities’ and illustrates the value of underrated places.

Example of spreads – Coventry

Example of spreads – Bristol

Example of spreads – Deptford to Woolwich

Towns in Britain expands on the themes of the popular jonestheplanner.co.uk blog. Both are primarily written by Adrian Jones and presented by Chris Matthews. Adrian Jones is a town planner and urban designer, formerly Director of Planning and Transport for the City of Nottingham and member of CABE’s national Design Review Panel.

Published by Five Leaves Publishing.

22 May 2014

Berlin, Baugruppen & Mental Walls

Will we survive the impending anniversary of World War One? Can I stand any more of Michael Gove’s lectures on patriotism, Dan Snow poncing about in old army uniforms, VAD romances on the telly and Niall Ferguson’s flights of historical fancy? One of the best places to go to really appreciate the import of WW1 is Berlin. Here in 1914 was imperial bluster to match Edwardian England but also economic and technical dynamism to rival Chicago. The consequences of defeat were both devastating and liberating; a flowering of arts and architecture before the horrors of Nazism, almost unimaginable destruction, the brutality of Stalinism and then global capitalism’s ‘end of history’. Berlin is awash with British school parties ‘doing’ Hitler but of course the broader lessons of this history is what Little England seems so determined not to learn.

The end of history at Potsdamer Platz (it's a bit empty)

Radio HQ from the the Weimar years (a Maccreanor Lavington favourite)

Berlin is not an easy city to understand, especially from a few short visits. It is a big city but its infrastructure is intended for a much larger population than the current 3.5 million people, less than half that of London or Paris which it used to rival. In places it seems strangely empty, cars racing along wide boulevards whilst the few pedestrians wait for the green man who here wears a distinctive little hat, a cute bit of Ossie nostalgia. Greater Berlin was created in 1920 in an amalgamation of 12 separate boroughs. The Weimar years were exciting for architecture, much more of which survives than that of the brief Third Reich which was either bombed or deliberately exorcised like the bell tower of the Olympic Stadium. The arena itself survives as a modern venue, cold and chaste rather than chilling. The old city centre largely lay east of the Brandenburg Gate so after 1945 West Berlin had to duplicate most of the city’s institutions, creating a yet more polymorphic city.

The generous infrastructure - new Hauptbahnhof

Prenzlauer Berg - gentrification central

Berlin’s architectural monuments are not quite what they seem. Bomber Harris and Red Army shelling destroyed 70% of the city and most buildings were massively damaged. This is obvious and explicit in, for example, Foster’s masterful re-building of the Reichstag and Chipperfield’s utterly extraordinarily brilliant and moving re–imagining of the Neues Museum. But much of Schinkel’s shattered legacy was just quietly reconstructed, as was the Schloss at Charlottenburg. The impact of WW2 and its aftermath is overwhelming and everywhere apparent, but is also very matter of fact; this is just how it was. The theatrically retained ‘hollow tooth’ of the bombed spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is unusual and seems slightly hysterical. The city mostly rebuilt itself pragmatically, not through the hidden hand of the market, but by huge and countervailing political wills. In doing so it became a very different place from its former self or from the rest of Germany. The GDR undertook massive housing redevelopments like Karl Marx Allee but invested nothing in maintenance of older areas which had largely survived bombing, like Prenzlauer Berg. By 1989 half the older properties were vacant. Even before the fall of the wall the authorities had begun to focus on renovation and there was pressure from artists and liberals for city centre housing. A squatter culture developed, first in West Berlin in 1979-82, and then in East Berlin after the fall of the wall. Although both movements were suppressed they established a culture and image of the city. The expected boom post the 1990 re-unification and the re-establishment of Berlin as Germany’s capital did not happen. Instead we got Bohemian Berlin, cheap and easy going and so unlike other German cities. But West Berlin still drips affluence. Potsdamer Platz shows the teeth of aggressive capitalism and formerly Ossie alternative Prenzlauer Berg has transmogrified into gentrification central.

The 12 year Reich (1936 Olympic Stadium)

Crazy mixed up place

The 1,000 year Reich lasted only a dozen years, less than the Weimar Republic. 1945 was Year Zero and the division into east and west seemed immutable, although the city remained permeable until 1961. The wall existed for 28 years. It has been dismantled for nearly as long but is still the enduring symbol of the city. The remnants seem remarkably flimsy; it was machine guns that made it effective. Mostly quickly destroyed, what remains of the wall and its death strip is now either fetishised as living history (and actually very moving memorials) or is being redeveloped for glitzy yuppie apartments. Berlin is a crazy mixed up place.

'Doing Hitler' - the popular beginning of history at the Reichstag

A whole generation has grown up since the fall of the wall, but the triumph of neo-conservatism proved more problematic than the ‘end of history’ anticipated. Agata Pyzik in her fascinating ‘Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West’ explores the tensions and contradictions embedded in the whole concept of western ‘normality’ and the expectations that the east should or can conform to this. Berlin represents in a sense a privileged version of the tensions of eastern bloc countries like Poland, sheltered by the strength and power of the Federal Republic from the full cultural and economic shock of privitisation and de-industrialisation. It is the capital again but remains peripheral to the economic, financial and real political power of West Germany, still clinging to an exceptional status.

Spartacist uprising memorial - the alternative history is a lesson for us all

The ‘alternative’ pedigree of Berlin back to Wilhelmine Germany and the Weimar Republic, but post war is a culture grown in the laboratory of the strange half life of a semi de-populated city with its vacant tenements and factories and wilderness plots, vividly evoked in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. Here left wing alternative politics meets financial institutions which see their role as enablers of social and economic objectives – a concept unimaginable in the Anglo-Saxon world. This is why Berlin is a poster-boy for the Baugruppen model of collective custom build housing.

Ideological and belligerent - Wilford's rented British Embassy 

Britischer Architekt - Chipperfield's magnificent Neues Museum

In Blighty an intellectually impoverished, ideologically obsessed and consequently delivery-impotent government thrashes around in the morass of its housing failures. Bandwagons, gimmicks, sound-bites and scapegoats are the order of the day. How to deflect scrutiny from the government’s dismal failure over – everything really, but especially housing policy and especially the lack of social and affordable housing? Boles invents a ‘right to build’ as useful flak to draw enemy fire. Which is a shrewd move as custom build is seductively libertarian and appeals across a wide spectrum. In fact it is such a good idea it deserves to be taken seriously not treated as a gimmick. And of course the government can't resist casting local authorities as a phantom enemy with a new ‘right to sue’, which is extraordinarily disingenuous even by the standards of the Coalition. In fact it is more often local authorities who champion collective custom build, as in Lewisham, Bristol and many other places. Meanwhile the government’s own Homes and Communities Agency support is not even lukewarm.

But will the neo-liberal wall ever come down?

But local authorities actually control very little development land – is the point. It would be far more effective to require big house building companies to deliver a small proportion of their land holdings for custom build, but that is not going to happen is it. The lack of public control over housing land is a fundamental problem for delivery not just of custom build but of all affordable housing and the pre-conditions which make self (or custom) build successful in Holland or Germany don’t exist in England because of, err, Tory ideology - as Andrew Lainton explains. There are some welcome bits in Osborne’s budget package like funding for ‘up to’ 10,000 serviced plots for custom build. But – do the math – this is small beer in the context of the overall shortfall of house building and the collapse of affordable housing supply. And it is such a characteristically bizarre and anti-democratic idea that you empower local people by encouraging complex ad hoc ‘community’ arrangements and at the same time disempowering their elected local authorities.

Ok Britain, this is how co-housing works (Spreefeld)

The Baugruppen model does have a lot to teach us if we are willing to learn the real lessons. A recent study tour to Berlin organized by Sam Brown of the University of Sheffield and Ash Sakula proved very instructive. There housing co-operatives provide about 10% of the housing stock and 10% of new build, which is astonishing and impressive. Historically land and rents were very cheap in Berlin and there are rent controls. But both land costs and rents are rising fast, although still only a fraction of the absurd London values. However this is a big problem for the co-operative housing movement. In particular, Berlin is saddled with €60bn debts from the post unification binge and so the cash strapped local authority is no longer able to provide cheap land.

We've got plenty of this is in Britain - tick

There are about 200 Baugruppen projects in Berlin, representing about a tenth of new co-operative housing provision – a small but significant part of the city’s housing mix. Some of these projects have very strong communitarian ethics, owing much to Boho Berlin and the philosophy of the earlier squatter movement. The Spreefeld Genossenschaft project is in the Kreutzberg area which, according to the Rough Guide, is a magnet for left-wing anarchists, gays, Turkish immigrants, hipsters and tourists. It certainly takes itself very seriously. The development is on a backland site next to the River Spree looking out towards the East Side Gallery section of the Wall with its rich political symbolism. It adjoins a disconcertingly well organised colony of hippies in yurts.

The community room is not quite ready yet (Spreefeld)

Spreefeld Genossenschaft is a co-operative with about 120 members, mainly middle class with quite a lot of older people but there are also many people with children. The development consists of three blocks of flats, each designed by a different small architectural practice, although externally they look very similar. The ground floors will be for various communal uses or workshops. There are about 60 flats in total and each block has a slightly different tenure structure, from essentially conventional to providing significant communal living, including shared kitchens and living rooms. Managing the different requirements/specifications for individual flats and blocks is very complex and time consuming so there are sub groups of about 10 flats/20 people. A core group manages the project.

Spreefeld interior 

Funding is via a public ethical bank which supports sustainable housing; experience shows that ‘Baugruppen’ housing has a very low default rate and banks are happy with this kind of project, so different from the British experience. It is a shared ownership scheme with a maximum 50% ownership and this share cannot be used for speculation. If co-op members leave, the value of the share is assessed independently and repayment can be up to 2 years, allowing time for another acceptable co-op member to be recruited. This could not be more different from the acquisitive ‘housing ladder’ model beloved of Britain’s right wing press.

The generous and utilitarian balconies 

The overall budget is €17m, but it is not really clear what comparative costs are, partly because of the variety of units and the complex menu of works. Land is much cheaper than in Britain, especially London, and is said to represent only about 20% of overall costs. The average flat has 60 m2. with pro rata 30 m2 of communal space. It is claimed that there are savings of 15-20% by taking out risk and developer profit, but the bespoke nature of so much work must push up costs. The shell is built to Passivhaus standards. Internally finishes are very basic and the structural layout allows maximum flexibility, although kitchens/bathrooms are in service stacks. The flats we saw were satisfyingly minimalist with concrete walls, few partitions and very basic fittings, an ethic and lifestyle that evidently appeals. Self fitting out can potentially reduce overall project costs significantly. There is a small communal heating plant and the development is car free but belongs to an electric car club and has 200 bike spaces.

The R50 Project - probably the most successful 

Spreefeld Genossenschaft is undoubtedly impressive but the unusual nature of its communal requirements makes delivery of this project especially challenging. Distant memories of shared student flats made it hard for me to buy into the idealism. A fascinating exposition by a founder member of one of Berlin’s few surviving ‘legal squats’ from 1989 ended with the admission that he left over arguments about who had eaten whose breakfast. But Baugruppen projects are usually more straightforward. The R50 project also in Kreutzberg seems to offer a more practical, replicable approach. This provides 19 flats ranging from 70 to 130 m2 and is explicitly about cheap build and flexible space. The exterior looks very basic with plywood cladding, galvanised metal balconies and mesh and would probably struggle with British planning. Internally the spaces are well considered and attractive. The interior exhibits a strong industrial ethic which is celebrated by some (mostly architect) residents although others go for much more conventional finishes. The project incorporates 25% of the overall floorspace in communal spaces – a lounge/meeting room in the semi-basement, laundry, bike storage and communal balconies and roof garden space. It is not clear how much the basic specification and self fit out have reduced overall costs but it seems a robust and businesslike project that the residents really enjoy and value.

Not always popular with the locals

Not all custom build schemes are so successful. Some looked like standard developer apartments and were apparently unpopular with existing communities in what is evidently the highly fractured politics of the area. One block was repeatedly vandalized and this was partly blamed on ‘insensitive’ design although other blocks looked fairly similar.

Living on a co-building site (Spreefeld)

Can the Baugruppen model be translated to the broken British housing market? Certainly such projects can provide a quality of space and community ambience which is very attractive to the cognoscenti. The greatest benefits of custom build seem to be the engagement of residents in the process from the outset, their ownership of the project in the widest sense and the ability to at least partly create the spaces they want rather than adapting to someone else’s idea of a dream home. The ‘I made that’ tag is hugely important, even if you almost certainly did not build it yourself. But I’m sceptical about the claims that custom build is cheaper. By stripping out developer profit there are clearly savings but volume house builders will have much lower costs in materials and supply chains whereas custom build usually ends up being expensively bespoke. So realistically you may expect to get a better house for the same cost, rather than a cheaper one. System building a standard shell may reduce costs and self-fitting-out can make the process more affordable and income-flexible, although it does require living in a semi-building site for an extended period, as at Spreefeld Genossenschaft.

The R50 entrance and bike storage

The two big problems for custom build are organisational complexity and land costs. Baugruppen schemes are inevitably going to be complex; it is in the very nature of the beast, a collective building project with many individualistic clients, usually idealistic and inexperienced. Project management has traditionally been led by architects but the German experience suggests that the different skills of a facilitator and enabler are required to see the project over a development timescale which can be 3 to 5 years. It is a long haul, and only the fully committed will succeed. Potentially ‘ethical’ or niche developers can bring experience, development skills and essential disciplines required to reduce costs and delivery times. The concept of shell and façade with customised and potentially literal self build behind is a seductive one, drawing on the successful Georgian tradition (Bath and Edinburgh for example). But there is a danger that commercialising custom build can reduce the concept to choosing the fancy dress for standard builders' products, as we saw in Almere.

The R50 community room is ready

The cost of housing land, and its availability, is the elephant in the collective custom build room and especially in London. Of course orthodox believers maintain the market would resolve this little problem if it weren’t for planning. And planning’s obsession with detail rather than overall structure is a problem for custom build which requires more flexibility than the standard developer products (which usually turn out to be dire despite the shed loads of planning conditions). Using planning to collect development tax rather than land tax is also a big issue for affordability, but the central problem is really planning's hopelessly emasculated powers vis-à-vis big landowners and developers. Thatcherite, Blairite and Bolesite housing policies over decades have privatised the enhanced land values as a result of planning permission, rather than captured this for the public benefit. We could adopt, for example, the Amsterdam model where land for development is acquired at existing use value by the public authority and publically commissioned masterplans form the basis of land disposal for appropriate developments. But hang on, that is what we used to do before the neo-con putsch, isn’t it? Well, sort of; that was the idea in the 1947 Planning Act but it was quickly compromised. The mechanisms are still there but the political will isn’t.

Well he's happy with the R50 interior and so am I

If land costs can be reduced and land made available through a planning system that really controls the release of land, then Baugruppen schemes will become much more realistic and deliverable. That would be great, but even in Berlin collective custom build only represents 1% of new housing. It can only therefore be a small subset of what is required to tackle the terrifying housing crisis facing Blighty. Public control over development land would be a game changer for all types of housing provision, but requires a counter-revolution in thinking – an escape from the fear and tyranny of the market God.

Pretty damn good - the Armoured Cruiser at Siemensstadt

Take your pick. High quality social housing abounds in Berlin

Berlin of course has seen dramatic political swings but what has survived remarkably well is the legacy of social housing from the Weimar era. Two World Heritage sites provide some of the best examples. The Siemensstadt Ring at Charlottenburg-Nord is an urban tour de force, part of a self contained industrial suburb around the huge functionalist Siemens factory complex with its chimneys deliberately evoking a traditional German Rathaus. The estate was designed by Gropius and others for low wage workers and built in 1929-31. The flats are small and standardised, laid out it long blocks, but with great subtlety and care. At the entrance to the estate is a moderne extravaganza known as the ‘armoured cruiser’, but most blocks are architecturally undramatic, just very well handled, with subtle curves deflecting their length and visual drama provided by arching over roads, all softened with parks and greenspace. Gropius’s apartments with their great modernist windows and roof terraces are much more striking, as are the nearby blocks with protruding curved balconies.

Britz, by Bruno Taut

Joyful - lets do more of this

Britz was a greenfield suburb designed by Bruno Taut and Otto Wagner in 1925 and completed in the annus horribilis 1933. This was a prototype for low cost construction to be affordable for working people and was designed around idealistic principles of community. The centerpiece is the Horseshoe of 1,000 flats, explicitly modern but with a very humane and neighbourly character. Dramatic use of colour enlivens the elevations and also spare details are made to count, like the attic windows and the brickwork of the entrance arches. Other blocks make dramatic uses of features like stairwells and balconies, creating strong geometric patterns. Behind the Horseshoe are terraces, almost garden city in inspiration but without the whimsy, and again making excellent use of colour and spare details. Traffic and parking are subservient, there are local shops, convenient U-bahn stations, gardens and public spaces are generous and everything seems well maintained. Britz is a pure joy, a re-affirmation of faith in collective action and society, a triumph of careful planning and design. And this was possible in the economically devastated Germany following defeat in WW1. Compare and contrast with the TINA defeatism of today.

Britz, but it could be Letchworth, or Aspley

Berlin has a lot to teach us, about history, about social housing and about custom building. The thing is that we often take from it only those things we want to see.

9 Mar 2014

Thamesmead Town

Chris said he preferred Misfits to A Clockwork Orange

The marshlands of the Thames estuary are bleak and exotic landscapes which allow your imagination and megalomania to flourish. Dickens evoked their haunting beauty of big horizons, sky, water, mud and wilderness most vividly. Proximity to London is largely illusory; the water is a barrier more than an artery and this is a different, hidden world and a very different dimension from the metropolis. But its emptiness and isolation provided a blank canvas for big kit and the twentieth century transformed estuarine outer London into a ragged industrial landscape: factories, refineries, power stations, sewage treatment works, mineral extraction. They are not beautiful but the heroic scale of the ventures and the ambition with which they were accomplished impresses. But in the neo-liberal age of manufacturing decline much of the infrastructure became redundant, leaving big brownfield sites, conveniently out of view for the ruling and chattering classes, and therefore highly suitable for redevelopment, at least in theory. With the glittering precedent of Docklands regeneration, it seemed obvious to extrapolate regeneration to ultimate fantasies – a Thames Gateway linear new town to deflect development from nimby constituencies and a new mega-hub airport to expand London’s continental hegemony whilst only disturbing seabirds and bankrupting the Treasury.

The Thames Estuary Landscape

Neither of these were new concepts. The Woolwich-Erith marshes, formerly part of the huge Woolwich Arsenal installation, were designated in the 1960s as what was effectively the new town of Thamesmead. For Boris’s super-hub airport read Foulness, whose very name helped scupper plans to put London’s third airport on the Essex marshes in the 1970s. The then Michael Heseltine flew over the estuary to view the proposed airport sites and saw vast swathes of derelict docklands and contaminated ex-industrial land. When he became Secretary of State for the Environment he quickly established the London Docklands Development Corporation. Heseltine was cute enough to side step ‘the romantic view of what the market would achieve in such an area when left to its own devices’ (I think we know who he was thinking about). His face saving formula was to pour public money into infrastructure and site development but to give private developers control over the built environment, let them keep the profits of enhanced values and to credit ‘success‘ to the virtues of free market enterprise. And as we know Canary Wharf was such a success it was the poster for Thatcherite Britain in all its tawdryness and self serving delusion. So obviously you roll out this model along the estuary all the way to Southend and Sittingbourne, right?

A little bit of Radburn, but not too much

The Blair government set up the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation in 2004, which quickly sank into the mud of its lack of realism. It was a bonkers concept without clear focus and priorities, reliant on the co-operation and good will of the development industry which surprisingly was not forthcoming. The LTGDC folded in 2012, but nobody much noticed. Now the Centre for London has published a new report ‘Go East; Unlocking the potential of the Thames Estuary’. It is authored by luminaries such as grands projects junkie Lord Adonis and the veteran planner Sir Peter Hall (always good value), with an introduction by veteran and unrepentant Bourbon Lord Heseltine. There is good analysis of what went wrong with the Thames Gateway and somewhat less convincing proposals for how to go forward with a rebranded ‘East Thames’ development strategy. It proposes ‘new towns’ at Ebbsfleet, Barking Reach and Thurrock and a Disneyland at Swanscombe. The recommendation to reinvent the proactive development corporation model as used at Milton Keynes however is sensible. MK is now seen as the great success story although urbanists might disagree.

Form and integrity

Like Milton Keynes, Thamesmead was a Mk2 new town, a hugely ambitious project but one of the newly established GLC not the government. It is not generally seen as a success. Thamesmead was expected to have a population of 100,000 with all the amenities of a town but these were not forthcoming. Crucially, the projected Fleet underground line from the West End and City to Thamesmead was abandoned in 1979, so the town was always peripheral to London. 40 years late Crossrail will soon open to Abbey Wood on the edge of Thamesmead, dramatically transforming its accessibility with huge implications. Buy, buy, buy – (relatively) cheap houses and fast trains; the gentrification monitor is likely to go off the top of the scale. This is especially so for the early phases of Thamesmead (close to Abbey Wood) with their modernist chic of striking sculptural rectilinear blocks and what could be attractive squares.

The futuristic city

Following the usual trajectory there were high expectations for Thamesmead the futuristic city, initially viewed through the prism of the slum conditions and overcrowding of inner London. But as with so many supremely self confident large scale public housing projects of the 1960s, poor  maintenance, lack of the promised new town facilities and its poor transport connections soon took the shine off the vision. Filming Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange there sealed Thamesmead’s fate in popular and media perception and it was thereafter stigmatised as a concrete disaster, a sink estate. But what is interesting about Thamesmead is how well it illustrates the progress of housing development from utopian modernism through municipal attempts at more traditional interpretations of Merrie England (but in a social housing context) to big builder cynicism and incompetence and the death of Buildings for Life.

Pending the completion of Crossrail we arrived at Woolwich Arsenal via DLR. Since our last visit Woolwich has acquired the mother of all god awful Tescotowns, the largest in Europe with over 900 apartments stacked above. Designed by Sheppard Robson it is gross in its concept and bulk and sleekly indifferent in execution,  showing utter contempt for its neighbour, Pugin’s St Peter’s church, which now faces a fine composition of ventilation grills and service entrances beneath a cliff of vile, garish green and yellow cladding. I’m not sure if this is the kind of ‘sod you’ architecture we are now told to admire but what it seems to be missing is the now rehabilitated Owen Luder’s ‘this is what I think’ bit. Its companion, also of vast scale, is the new Greenwich town hall on Wellington Street designed by HLM and cited in the Carbuncle Cup as ‘spectacularly awful’, which is a bit harsh. Perhaps this bad press accounts for the security staff telling me I could not photograph the building even from the street.

The scenic walk to Thamesmead starts via the Royal Arsenal development where apartment blocks are shooting out of the ground next to the Crossrail station. Berkeley Homes announce that ‘in the last five years we have invested £260million in the facilities communities need’, which is awfully nice of them. Overall the scale, grandeur and order of the retained Arsenal buildings provides framework and restraint for new development; it is only when you get to the Thames that the monoculture of vacuous apartment blocks takes control, all sullenly fenced off from the waterside ‘public realm’. However the battery of apartment blocks across the river look even cheaper and nastier.

Stunningly banal – Gallions Reach 

Beyond the derelict and fenced off lock of the Broadwater canal you enter Thamesmead, or rather Thamesmead West. The reality is that the ‘new town’ has very little urban integrity, being broken up by megalomaniac roads and the substantial physical barriers of tips, watercourses and Bazalgette’s massive outfall sewer. Away from the river the housing immediately becomes about as Noddy as you can get and it is hard to imagine you are still in London. In later phases development slightly recovers its balls, at least in scale and crudity, no longer trying to be twee and indeed the new barracks ‘communities’ are gated as effectively as Stalag 17. The token Ecopark estate is bizarrely laid out around a huge car park.

Building for the housing ladder, not places

The Eco Car Park

Behind this is the unsettling mound of the Tor which you can ascend to get a fairly spectacular overview of development and dereliction. You survey a vast prospect of contaminated tips some of which is being reclaimed as parkland and nature reserves. You can imagine the whole area as a fantastic new park, as wonderful as the Royal Parks and a great new asset for London. But where would such vision and patronage come from these days? The best we can hope for is the condescension of ‘planning gain’ on the back of some fat cat asset stripping.

The Tor and its public provision

And there is another problem – the East London River Crossing. There is no road bridge or tunnel between Blackwall and Dartford and even to me the case for a new crossing linking Thamesmead with Becton seems pretty overwhelming. But as with the Fleet line, the bridge plans have been scrapped, first in 1993 and then by Boris in 2008 – surprising for a Mayor who gets off on big infrastructure gigs and is happy to invest £30m in Joanna Lumley’s absurd garden bridge. The Go East gang are big on reviving the East London bridge whose motorway access will slice across the current wasteland.

Can you see Joanna Lumley from here? Parkland potential.

Then there is the projected ‘Tamesis Point’ development on a large tranche of the tips east of the new road. This is promoted as ‘the last piece in the jigsaw of Thamesmead which will be dramatically different from other development in the area’ according to Tilfen Ltd who acquired the assets of the defunct Thamesmead Town. Outline planning permission has been granted for this 25ha development of 2,000 homes with a mile long riverside esplanade of vibrant uses to a masterplan drawn up by David Lock Associates and adopted as SPG by Greenwich in 2003. Certainly this is as grand an essay in Beaux Arts planning as you are likely to see from the air, allegedly taking inspiration from the Paragon at Blackheath and evoking London squares if you can suspend your disbelief, which I can’t. Anyway it has not happened yet. The walk along the Thames path is almost rural with god knows what behind the high duty galvanised security fencing. Eventually you reach earlier attempts at an esplanade, with quite striking rusting ironwork art and concrete bunkers.

A whimper - Thamemead town centre

Looking back across a lake you see Thamesmead Centre. Originally conceived as something like Cumbernauld, it ended up as a whimper, a rather charming toy town vernacular precinct with whimsical clock tower and a stepped plaza down to a watercourse. The few shops look downbeat as well they might as the action has moved to the vast adjacent retail park with its dismal brick dressed Morrisons, tin retail sheds and loathsome drive thru artery blockers all around an ocean of car parking. There is a nondescript leisure centre nearby and a health centre (both much needed given Macdonalds and Colonel Sanders) but for a town of maybe 50,000 people this is just a miserable excuse for a town centre.

Drive Thru

The housing of Thamesmead North continues this theme of loss of confidence and lowest common denominator. Some of the houses are more up market with a dash of Surrey exec and a rash of Edwardiana flats (in marketing concept, not execution). The Thames path is pleasant, looking across to a hauntingly desolate Essex marsh where electricity pylons emphasise its horizontality. But generally the new housing is just so dire it should win prizes. It lays bare the futility of hopes for better housing and place-making invested in By Design, Manual for Streets, Places for People and similar positive tracts of the Cabe era, when there was a batsqueak of optimism for the future. The plan is worse than the house designs, endless disorientating looping roads and culs-de-sac; thank god for mobile phone satellite maps or I’d still be out there. Everything is designed around car parking; a Tony Robinson of the future will definitely conclude we worshipped the car and he or she would be right. Pedestrians certainly don’t get a look in.

Street life

Don't want to play outside

Sod it, can't be bothered to join up the paths, just take the money and clear off.

The formlessness and timidity of Thamesmead’s recent development epoch could not be more different from the boldness of the original vision and the linear clarity of early phases of building. To appreciate how this early development evolved you are best to approach from Abbey Park station via the magnificent Lesnes Park with its Abbey ruins. From here an elevated concrete pedestrian walkway takes you from south east London suburbia to a new world as imagined in 1967. The concept was of linear blocks with raised pedestrian walkways, creating a coherent and very urban framework within a landscape of lakes and greenery. The lakes and watercourses are one of the most distinctive features of Thamesmead and both are essential, for this is a marsh. They provide a strong aesthetic counterpoint to the uncompromising linearity of the housing blocks. The upper level walkways were a requirement because of flooding (the area was inundated in the great flood of 1953, so they really made sense).

Clearly good quality housing which deserves better maintenance

Parkview, closest to Lesnes Park, was the second phase of development begun in 1969. It incorporates the same elements of spine block, lower terraces and point blocks as the first phase, Lakeside, but has a simpler and more relaxed layout around larger space.

Tasty refurbished  concrete. If only the 90s was about this.

Lakeside is denser, more complex and visually dramatic. The upper level walkways with parking and many internal garages at ground level makes for some awkward spaces and relationships but this is not the fetishised separation of traffic and pedestrians which caused such complications in later Radburn estates. Industrialised building was the big idea of the age and these early phases of Thamesmead used the French Balency system but prefabrication was not a success: the process was too complicated and expensive so it was abandoned in later phases. The pale concrete slab construction with wood frames still looks pretty good although purists will hate the ad hoc DIY additions and alterations of right-to-buy owners. The crudity of much of the repair and renovation work by the Gallions Housing Association (which took over the public housing stock from the GLC) is also a disappointment. Recently some improvements to point blocks have been done with sympathy and just a whisper of De Stijl but more substantive make-overs of lower blocks completely destroy the original ethic.

How long before the hipsters move in?

It is interesting to see how the flats and terraces have been adapted by residents, almost invariably to try and evoke a cosier look and to reinforce private space. However the likely gentrification following the arrival of Crossrail will almost certainly take things in an opposite direction, celebrating the modernist sparseness and clarity. It is easy to see how this could become very desirable territory; in places it evokes Bloomsbury squares and the setting of South Mere lake is stunning. But this of course places the value of architectural style above the evils of social cleansing. Thamesmead remains for the time being a working class redoubt.

Bit like Span but without the snobs

Terrible paving and pedestrian crossing

One thing Thamesmead shares in common with MK is lots of serious dual carriageways. Yarnton Way bisects the Lakeside development, which made some sense with a network of high level walkways but these are being dismantled, so you cross the road as in Brasilia or some third world country – at your peril. The Tavy Bridge local centre across the main road at the edge of South Mere contained shops, community rooms and a health centre. This was designed by David Stow in 1970, dramatically jutting out on piers over the lake. It was significant enough to be one of only 10 illustrations of post war architecture in Pevsner’s South London but has been demolished to be replaced with this:

Decline - the new health centre

The rest of Tavy Bridge has also been demolished as part of the ‘regeneration’ of Thamesmead by Gallions Housing Association. The rationale is full of clichés about concrete, planners’ dreams (sic) and failure. Incredibly Clockwork Orange is presented as evidence of this failure; it was a film for god’s sake. The mendacious images of the new development, renamed Southmere village, show stark blocks and towers in what could be concrete but is probably render foiled by beautiful formal gardens in the foreground, sun glistening on the water, swans preening, bluebirds singing. Strangely there are few happy, smiling people. I don’t buy the vision but history is written by the winners.

Thamesmead had vision

South Mere is very impressive, large enough for sailing and there is an attractive boat club (1977) at the far end. The lake provides a fine context for the point blocks of the original new town, and with the three storey terraces and the extensive park in this part of Thamesmead it looks as though the planners’ vision was actually realised. There is cinematic evidence too: the 1996 film Beautiful Thing depicts not a dystopian Thamesmead but a lush, exotic setting for a love story, helped by an overwhelming soundtrack of Mama Cass. However the Southern Outfall Sewer is the effective boundary of such dreams. Together with Eastern Way this cuts Thamesmead in two and you have to be determined to cross it.

Checkpoint Charlie – Eastern Way

Fortress Thamesmead – The Moorings

North of Eastern Way is the third phase of the new town built 1972-77 and called The Moorings for no very evident reason. Here the perimeter block along Carlyle Road becomes a grim barracks which is hard to like but the lower blocks behind, faced in brick, sober and well proportioned are much more successful. There are some nice details like the metalwork panels but the community centre in the middle besieged by razor wire and CCTV tells a depressing story. Possibly an ironic joke is that the streets are called after social reformers: Attlee Road, Bentham Road, Booth Close, Tawney Avenue, Titmuss Avenue etc. There is also Malthus Path.

After The Moorings the original conception of the new town was replaced by attempts at lower density rus in urbe social housing around Radburn layouts, but it is hard to identify any really successful examples. Things went downhill quickly after the assassination of the GLC in 1986, with big builders’ standard dross becoming the norm, eventually giving way to Blair and now Osborne bombast, as we see at Tavy Bridge.

A waterside landscape to work with

Thamesmead paths and natural lanscaping

The extensive watercourses of the area provided a basis for a network of green paths which are very attractive and one of the big successes of Thamesmead. From The Moorings one such route takes you west through the remains of the massive walls of the Arsenal beyond which is what was Waterfield School. This was designed in 1975 and described in Pevsner as ‘like a sleek and glossy high tech factory’. Now the Woolwich Polytechnic School, it appears somewhat altered but still with a clear influence of Hunstanton. Of course security makes it pretty impossible to photograph schools these days, but on Yarnton Way the Bexley Business Academy by Foster is worth looking at. He also built the Modern Art Glass warehouse deep in the Eastern Industrial District.

An old military history still visible

It is difficult to leave Thamesmead without a sense of disappointment. Clearly, the visionary concept was flawed but it honestly expressed social purpose and optimism for the future. Most of what we see today suggests tawdry short termism and self serving hype. Thamesmead was unlucky it was not a government designated new town, as with an autonomous development corporation it might have had more of a chance. It is divided administratively between Greenwich and Bexley and is entirely peripheral to both. Thamesmead seems like a place that has things done to it, mostly by the ubiquitous Tilfen Ltd and Gallions Housing Association. Who is responsible for Thamesmead and why is it such a neglected place? Wild horses roam as in the wild Dublin estate of Into the West (the one with the horse in the lift). Litter is strewn without hope of collection, the toilets in the town centre are ….. disgusting. And this is London, global city blah, blah, blah.

Wild horses and concrete, reminiscent of the film Fish Tank

If localism meant anything it would mean places like Thamesmead controlled their own affairs and had the power and resources to sort out their own problems and to realise their own opportunities. The town would control its land and assets for the public benefit just like the garden cities the government are so fond off (apart from the last bit). But despite all the rhetoric froth I don’t see this happening to Thamesmead.

Thanks to Owen Hatherley and Douglas Murphy for the guided tour.

Owen’s Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain contains an extensive analysis of Thamesmead in the Greenwich chapter.