19 Feb 2012

Bankside, Borough & Bermondsey

Vulliamy's sturgeon - the origin of municipal design in London

The annoying thing about exploring London these days is that in virtually all long views the Shard will pop up. It is like an irritating splinter in your finger that you are always aware of and can’t get rid of - it really pisses you off. But at least you now know where Southwark is – that seems to be the idea. Well actually I knew where Southwark was before and wonder why the Borough has lumbered itself with this boorish icon which would be far more at home in Docklands or Brum.

One day there will be a Blue Plaque for Lang Rabbie  - Southwark Bridge Rd

Southwark is more subtle than that - an extraordinarily complex urban landscape shaped by the river, marshy ground, bridges, viaducts and multifarious activities deemed unsuitable for the City. Its rich mix of buildings and townscape is highly eclectic, often eccentric, usually humane and if sometimes monumental  rarely pompous. Beyond the South Bank crocodile walk it is the smaller scale lively street scenes that dominate your memory of the place. The reinvention of Bankside over the last few decades has been an extraordinary success story but then if you could not make urban regeneration work here you could not make it work anywhere. The catastrophic decline of local industries induced by right wing dogma opened up mouth watering development opportunities just as Mrs Thatcher also pulled the pin out of the hand grenade of deregulation in the adjacent City. But it is not quite as straightforward as that. For a start, glitzy regeneration does not extend far inland and few of the jobs in the new regenerated Bankside seem to go to Southwark residents. It remains one of the most deprived places in the country.

That Halifax advert has much to answer for -  Shad Thames

It would be churlish not to celebrate Bankside which has added a new dimension to London as a global city. Much of this riverside went largely unnoticed until relatively recently and it was Lord Foster’s beautiful if initially wobbly bridge that really changed perceptions and accessibility. Most of London’s bridges are quite difficult and hostile for pedestrians, unlike Paris, but the Millennium Bridge is intimate and very convenient. Not only that but it creates a clear axis between two of the great emblematic temples of London – St Paul's and Tate Modern. The perverse but brilliant decision to establish Tate Modern in the former Giles Gilbert Scott power station built only 40 years before was a real game changer. This grim structure with its fabulous brickwork was converted by Hertzog and de Meuron and opened in 2000. Its success was immediate and overwhelming but I have always felt it is somewhat disappointing. The huge turbine hall is, yes, huge but nothing much happens there. The actual galleries are cramped and the circulation spaces confused and crowded. I’m not sure the extraordinary new extension - big enough dwarf the original power station - will change this.

Elevating pedestrians 

The entrance plaza from the Millennium Bridge is poor and scrappy but this does not actually matter, partly because the building  itself is so overwhelming but also because the success of Bankside does not rely on self conscious ‘public space’ – quite the reverse. The riverside walk is so successful because the public space is actually limited and very subsidiary. The experience is all about people in motion – not just tourists but joggers, cyclists, people going to work. It is not a place you want to or need to linger. The river views are also exciting and, compared to Westminster for example, the Thames has a harder estuarial character with dangerous tides and currents very evident. The buildings flanking the riverside walk are mostly interesting with lots of conversions and remnants of old London to leaven the boring and bland. The Globe is bizarre but actually rather likable and there are real archaeological finds, like Winchester Palace. The walk is anything but boring – the street is the point not the paving, although I notice major new paving is currently underway.

Borough High Street hiding from the Shard

After diving under bridges and behind buildings you end up at Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market and their thrilling juxtaposition with the railway viaducts. Nairn said that the unsentimental throwing together of the cathedral, railway and warehouses is the essence of place which should never be sacrificed and it hasn’t been. If anything the new Thameslink viaduct has heightened the drama, flying over old buildings in a cavalier but very exciting way. Borough Market remains a fabulous place but in danger of losing its soul to too much gentrification.

Neo balls up

The other way to Borough from Blackfriars is along Southwark Street, a wide Hausmann-like improvement which always somewhat lacked empathy. It is now overwhelmed by the looming Shard and dominated by massive and rather faceless new buildings, the latest being Rogers Stirk Harbour’s Neo-Bankside. This has an extraordinary juxtaposition of cold glass and steel against the C18th Hopton almshouses, very reminiscent of the relationships you find between the medieval remnants of Coventry and the post blitz city. Like the adjacent Allies and Morrison’s Blue Fin building, Neo-Bankside is not without elegance, subtlety and precision but ultimately inhuman. We must be grateful for the wit and interest of Piers Gough’s nearby Bankside Lofts. Also Allies and Morrison show how it should be done with their own offices on Southwark Street.

Introducing the council style - off Long Lane

It does not help that Neo-Bankside is offering bargain apartments (inevitably with stunning views) at £1.5 million to £5 million in a borough where most residents are poor and there is a desperate need for social housing. Away from the hum of tourism and creative media much of Borough and Bermondsey is social housing as can be seen on the first part of the train journey from London Bridge to Brighton . This is an enthralling ride not because of the Shard but for the impressive mass of varied and well built council housing. Some general changes in the aesthetics of local authority housing can be discerned: Jacobean-arts and crafts, neo-Georgian blending into a Viennese brave new world, Scando-modernist, a full blooded GLC brutalism and finally a low rise quasi vernacular reaction. The mistakes at Aylesbury and Heygate have been a gift for reactionary polemicists yet for the vast majority of cases in north Southwark council housing clearly worked. 'erbert Morrison and Co. really did create a better future.

Peabody flats - when bankers were at least civil

Any tour of Southwark’s social housing is inevitably partial and arbitrary. The earliest example is probably the 1864 model industrial dwellings with cast iron balconies on Redcross Way which are fairly grim. However Octavia Hill’s 1887 Redcross Cottages and gardens nearby are delightful. Our perambulation starts on Blackfriars Road near the Palestra Building. Designed by Will Alsop, the Ken Russell of the architectural world, this is a really successful building - large but subtle, fun without being frivolous (unlike so much else of his work).It is a true local landmark and puts us in a good mood for a tour on a bright but freezing day, starting off walking southwards on Blackfriars Road. Palestra rises above but does not dominate Nelson Square. A fragment of the late Georgian original survives but the rest is post war redevelopment with 8-9 storey council flats. Pevsner says they are dull, but actually they seem quite desirable to me with their effective rhythm of balconies overlooking the retained square, its public greenery and play space. Many of the housing schemes we are to see evoke the traditional London square, often quite successfully. On Surrey Row archetypal LCC 30s deck access flats are unsurely poised between neo Georgian and streamlined moderne.

London municipality - 1899 housing off Lancaster St

Peabody Square of 1870 looks almost Parisian. It is quite grand; less crowded and institutional than most Peabody estates with well proportioned blocks around pleasant courts which look well cared for. Peabody, as a plaque explains, was a London banker. Don’t hold your breath for such philanthropy from the present sharks. Behind on Webber Row 1970s Peabody houses and flats have a robust design and clever plan. Tall turn of the (20th) century LCC blocks are nicely detailed and the composition of bicycles chained to balconies adds a further level of visual interest. Facing Waterloo Road the flats sensibly incorporate shops. This is the era which signifies London's comparatively late rise to municipality, when progressives the like of Sidney Webb oversaw the planning of County Hall, tramway electrification, school meals, housing estates and slum clearance. The earliest housing is on Lancaster Street (1889) and compared to Webber Row illustrates the change from Jacobean to Arts and Crafts.

GLC brutalism hoves into view - Jurston St

Towards Westminster Bridge Road the scale gets bigger with uncompromising 1970s hard red brick blocks, surprisingly sporting tall chimneys and small gardens, and impressive 8 storey pre-war angled deck access apartments. The confident house building stride of the LCC was disrupted by the introduction of the GLC and the financial effects of the oil crisis. Nevertheless the flats off Jurston Street (and the nearby Kipling Estate) show that the GLC had a bold stab at bricky brutalism. Now with the demolition of the Heygate Estate Southwark are building a number of small scale new housing schemes for its residents, like the interesting and precise housing and open space at Library Street off Borough Road. These are designed by Metaphorm Architects and Sarah Wigglesworth.

Density, intimacy & noddy - the Scovell Estate

The earlier reaction to often badly executed mega deck access developments has frequently resulted in disappointing and inappropriate sub-suburban housing schemes in inner cities (like Surrey Quays). But there were also examples like the Scovell Estate, designed by Southwark architects department in the 1970s, which aims at a low rise villagey effect. The houses are grouped off vehicle free lanes and yards – the cars in an undercroft and the level change created is used to good effect. The atmosphere is remarkably quiet and intimate with nice juxtapositions but there are a lot of blank gables with little of the informal surveillance you would find in a real village and rather too much hard paving.

Social ceramics - Lawson Estate

A jolly rhythm - Lawson Estate, by Burnet, Tait & Partners

Scando town - Lawson Estate

Down Trinity Street and past the early Victorian Trinity Church Square, which Nairn pronounced one of the best squares in London, is the Lawson Estate of 1953. The great man also singled this out for praise, comparing it to housing in Copenhagen: ‘the similarity is unnerving: the same angular polygonal blocks, the same beautifully cut bricks and the same feeling of people first and architectural expression second.’ He was less enamoured of the tall standard LCC concrete slabs added later. Across Great Dover Street is an estate designed by Lubetkin in 1965, not particularly remarkable and somewhat run down but quite a pleasing ensemble of medium and low rise flats around gardens.

The template worked - Tabard Gardens

Far more characteristic of the area is the neo Georgian of the blocks behind Tabard Gardens (there is a lot of Chaucer around here). The Tories ruled the LCC from 1907 to 1934 and there is a shift toward paternalist aesthetics: an imperial neo-Georgian with barrack like symmetry. Yet the architects actually subvert this with quite functionalist interpretation. The blocks employ a standard template but are set amongst generous greenery in a tranquil environment. The standard template clearly worked, and still works today.

Materials and typography from LCC's neo-Georgian years

North of here on Weston Street is an archetypal 60s redevelopment of tower blocks with lower scale courtyard flats; altogether a harder and more challenging proposition but elegant in its composition. It is opposite the fine Leather Market of 1878 now well converted into offices. Most ex-industrial buildings nearby are converted to trendy apartments as we are on the edge of the ‘creative industries’ bit of Bermondsey.

'Good old 'erb' - Meakin Estate

The huge 1902 Hartley Jam Factory complex off Tower Bridge Road has been converted to flats, studios, offices and with its live-work ethos is an exemplar for ‘new’ Bermondsey regeneration chic. Opposite is the 30s Meakin Estate with its wonderfully dramatic mirrored horse shoe arched entrances. This represents an earlier and more substantial vision for Bermondsey. The design owes something to the Fuchsenfeldhof in Vienna or possibly Copenhagen and is very convincing and moving. There are many other blocks of flats nearby with similar inspiration and motifs. They speak volumes of the pride and aspiration of an earlier London and its political leaders such as 'erbert 'Labour gets things done' Morrison. He set out to create 'the most powerful local political organization ever to exist in this country' and he did. By the end of the 1930s the LCC was building around 4,000 flats every year - four times as many as the previous administration. Morrison stood up to Imperial Whitehall and his social policies had powerful implications for the post war era.

Post-war social confidence - off Grange Walk

On Grange Walk blocks of 6 storey maisonettes with expressive open stairwells are set in expansive greenery and have been provided with local amenities like shops. The estate underscores the confidence in society, planning and the future which was such a characteristic of post war Britain. In the post-war era LCC architects like Robert Matthew and Leslie Martin gradually cast aside the old templates as they developed a Scando-Modernist aesthetic of their own. The twenty years leading up to 1981 saw the percentage of local authority housing in inner London increased from a fifth to nearly half – no wonder Mrs Thatcher abolished the GLC. The resurgence of the right re-imposed old orthodoxies which justify and sustain the sort of inequalities that are particularly evident in Southwark, as is so eloquently explored in Owen Jones’s brilliant ‘Chavs’.

Cardiff Bay-on-Thames - Empire Square

In the era of neo-con ascendancy Southwark has made some brave attempts to emulate the housing achievements of its illustrious predecessors but has been obliged to use Thatcherite methods which massively limit its ability to deliver. Bermondsey Spa is a good example. Here a new community of 2,000 homes with schools, health facilities etc is emerging based on a Llewellyn Davis masterplan and employing architectural competition as a tool. The estate agents with typical hyperbole advertise it as ‘London’s best new place to live’. Certainly there is a feel of urbanity in places but the actual buildings are fairly standard with oh so much of that jolly spectrum of cladding. This is nothing however to Empire Square off Long Lane, which is rightly castigated by the excellent local blog as the worst new development in north Southwark by a long shot. What is so crass about this scheme is the whole nonsense about creating a new public square. Yeah right, but a square surrounded by overbearing and faceless crap is of no public value.

The future of social housing? Bermondsey Island

Bermondsey Square is not crap but it is disappointing. It has lots of advantages - terminating wonderful Bermondsey Street, archaeological heritage and the weekly antiques market - but it does not really come alive as a space. You might have expected lots of interesting uses capturing the vitality of the streets around with their mixture of chic and eel and pie shops. (Apparently eels are currently in short supply.) What you actually get is fairly ordinary café-bars, an overpriced deli, a Sainsbury Local and a cinema (although this is not very obvious). The buildings defining the space are a bit like Muji storage – minimal, functional and ubiquitous. Being boxes they have difficulty in effectively defining the awkward geometry of the surrounding streets and creating an inviting inner space. The final phase, Bermondsey Island is much more engaging – a carefully sculpted and articulated janus of a building by Urban Salon which provides good social housing on a difficult site.

The charming village idiot

Bermondsey Street is the sort of place which makes London irresistible with its wonderful jumble of buildings, fashionable uses and interesting punters. It is a conservation exemplar: former leather factories and their hoists jostle for space – at times you could be in Antwerp. The ancient rhythm of the street is punctured by the brilliantly eccentric dumpy Strawberry Hill Gothick of St Mary Magdalene. Bermondsey Street is one of those 'London villages' of the middle class return-to-town movement, which has actually been ongoing since at least the 1960s – remember Mick Jagger’s Notting Hill pad in Performance? These began with left of centre media and arts types and the estate agents followed later. Also known as gentrification, the village ideal has helped to preserve an historic fabric and successfully lobby against excessive road building schemes, yet the other side of the coin is that it can be socially divisive. While skilled workers left the estates as work moved westward the poorest remained, which created two Londons - 'inner city' and 'village'. The myth that council estate equals sink estate stems from a misinterpretation of recent history.

Another bourgeois barrow boy's curio stall - The White Cube

But although inner city and village are different worlds, they arguably co-exist more easily in north Southwark than in much of London. This is partly because of the smaller scale and diversity of much of the social housing which has been developed very largely within the old street network. Also new developments were, until recently, of more modest scale and with a stronger emphasis on quality and good design. Despite the tensions you do not sense a void between separate planets as in Docklands where social housing is overpowered by yuppie bling in its face. But it is fairly absurdist to find the latest White Cube gallery half way down Bermondsey Street. Described as ‘uber-frigid’ by the very amusing Tom Dyckhoff in his recent ‘Let’s move to Bermondsey’ it is certainly very white. The attendants wear black and stop you taking photographs. Currently there is an interesting exhibition of work by Anselm Kiefer with massive works on what I took to be industrial decline and dereliction (hugely relevant). Chris was resolutely unimpressed by the experience.


Around every corner looms the Shard. Its presence becomes overwhelming when you reach St Thomas Street but here it has to compete with the 30 storey tower of Guy’s Hospital. This has been reviled as a concrete eyesore for decades and is shortly and sadly to suffer the indignity of cladding. This is a pity because it has clarity, integrity and purpose. It makes a very effective ensemble with the tranquil entrance courtyard to Guy’s but now the Shard is muscling in. You can escape it by ducking into the C18th Guy’s Hospital Chapel, singled out for praise by Nairn most especially for John Bacon’s monument to the compassion of Thomas Guy. But there is no escape for St Thomas Street, with its former church of 1702 (where the attic became an early operating theatre and is now a museum). Keats used to live opposite. Now the severely elegant late Georgian terraces are totally overwhelmed by bad neighbour development. Whilst we will inevitably get used to the Shard in the long views, the impact on St Thomas Street is criminal.

Please, no More London

There is only one vantage point I found from which the Shard looks good and that is More London. Lord Foster’s huge development is ‘sleek, efficient, scrupulously detailed and built to a well tried formula’ as Ken Powell says in his analysis of architecture and regeneration in Southwark 'City Reborn'. More London captures the ambition of Southwark to be central London, not an inner London borough. It is now the home of the Mayor himself in the slightly disturbing asymmetrical City Hall. Within this context the courting of the Shard by mayors and other politicos looks more understandable. No doubt the contribution the developer is making to the revamped London Bridge Station helped too. This is badly needed but the external images of Grimshaw's scheme look pretty disappointing. The Tooley Street elevation has been compared to a Waitrose and the wavy canopies too look apologetic - hardly his Waterloo International or the peer of say Calatrava's thrilling Oriente station in Lisbon. The station is subservient to the bombast of the Shard. But whatever the architectural virtues of the Shard, and I am far from convinced it will live up to the expectations of its supporters, the political statement that it makes couldn't be more relevant to the current political debate on inequality and the overwheening power of finance. It is 'sod you'.

Public vs Private - Guy's Tower & the Shard

Southwark has got a lot to be proud of in its regeneration, as examined in ‘City Reborn’. More so than most authorities it has taken advantage of its opportunities and has promoted good architecture (if we forget Strata). But the rationale for the massive scale of development has been to provide housing and jobs for local people and this is proving increasingly difficult to deliver. Despite the efforts of the planning authority, developers are not fulfilling their part of the bargain, especially affordable housing that is actually affordable or jobs for local people. Poorer residents risk being increasingly marginalised by the continuing colonisation of the 'City' and the 'village'. In theory Localism will empower them, but actually this is just a cruel charade to mask the increasing power of business.

The white cliffs - Great Dover St

The record of previous generations in delivering successful municipal housing has been largely obscured by Thatcherite rewriting of history. But it is the failures of her model of the housing market that are now all too apparent. London's municipal housing record looks increasingly impressive and needs to be much better understood and celebrated. Much excellent research and analysis has already been done by Elain Harwood, Matthew Whitfield and others. Hopefully this will be expanded into a comprehensive reinterpretation of its achievements of municipal housing which is badly needed. And what London badly needs is a new 'erbert Morrison, not another four years of Boris buffoonery.

SE1 is a museum of social housing - Redcross Cottages



Nikolaus Pevsner & Bridget Cherry, London 2: South
Jerry White, London in the Twentieth Century 
Stephen Inwood, A History of London
Kenneth Powell, City Reborn
Elain Harwood & Alan Powers, Housing the Twentieth Century
Ian Nairn, Nairn's London
Owen Jones, Chavs  


John Lord said...

Really excellent, thoughtful (and thought-provoking) stuff. Thanks. I've never seen the Meakin estate - that's on the agenda for my next visit. It's hard to know where to begin with the Shard, isn't it? Lots of things disappoint me, but the sheer arrogance of the Shard is genuinely distressing.

Lang Rabbie said...

Although I am definitely of the view that the way the Shard hits St Thomas Street is definitely not good enough, the story is complicated.

Much of the damage to the townscape was done in the late 60s by the demolition of a large chunk of the polychrome LB&SCR station trainshed wall for a parcels depot with some spectacularly ungainly vehicle rampps and the service access to the Shard's predecessor Southwark Towers (which on its upper levels was a surprisingly good for its time job by TP Bennetts).

I think that views from the forecourt of Guy's and along St Thomas Street may actually be better as a result of the Shard and the wider "London Bridge Quarter" redevelopment. In my view the greater insult to the surrounding area is the south-eastern part of the Shard, where extra floorspace was retrospectively tacked on to the lower floors of the tower to provide bigger floorplates, giving it an ungainly "bustle" when seen from Bermomdsey Street and other close up locations.

BTW - Thanks to Chris for the caption namecheck but there are plenty of deserving folk more directly involved in the struggle against overdevelopment in SE1 who ought to be recognised.

Beezer B said...

Totally agreed that the one nearby place where views of the Shard work is More London. It feels like your standing in a Sun dial or Stone Henge and you have to line up the alley with the giant pin. From the rest of SE1 it just feels like a middle finger.

I only moved to SE1 a year or so ago and the most startling thing, to me, is how quiet it is round here on a weekend day. This is a part of London completely overrun by other Londoners during the week. On a Sunday it feels like an abandoned seaside town. Peaceful and a little sad.

sarflondondunc said...

Wonderful article I really enjoyed reading it. I know many of the housing you mentioned along Great Dover Street very well as I work for Southwark Council. You may like this photo of took of some fantastic brick work inside on of the old LCC blocks on the Tabard Gardens Estate


Chris Matthews said...

Thanks for all your kind comments and apologies this slow reply:

John, yep totally agree - it's hard to know where to be begin.

Lang, thanks for your informed comments as always. I will look closer at the south-eastern part of the shard next time I'm down. And well yes, a lot of my picture comments are a little tongue-in-cheek, but I was also illustrating Adrian's comments on Southwark which brought you to mind "highly eclectic, often eccentric, usually humane and if sometimes monumental rarely pompous" !

Yes Beezer the relative calm of SE1 is really surprising given its density - this was particularly evident in Tabbard Gardens Estate. Which bring me to sarflondondunc - thanks for that link, fascinating stuff. I must one day sink my teeth in the Metropolitan Archives, there must be a treasure trove of images on London council housing.