Housing at Camberwell, 50th Birthday, London
March 6, 2010
The Camberwell Borough Council architect’s department did some very innovative work on high density housing in early 60s, well before the ideas of environmental design movement were established by Oscar Newman in his “Defensible Space” in 1972 and further researched by Alice Coleman in “Utopia on Trial” in 1985.
The Acorn Place development, later became known as Dene Wood, was one of the most significant high density project built in early 60s. It was highly influential and possibly anticipated different outcome from low and high rise units, avoided ‘putting all the eggs in the same basket’ by producing this mix of high and low density housing, which also respects the local surroundings. The plans and the old b&w photo here are abstracted from an article published in AD in December 1963. Original photos taken by me in early60s and a recent revisit produced the latest photographs used here for comparison purposes and to trace the evolving progress of the social housing.
I was there like a shot looking at these new forms and magical spacestransforming deprived areas of London in early/mid 60s. The warmth of red clay tiles and stained timber joinery with silver birches in the courtyards have stayed with me all this time.
Recently I saw images of higher blocks of this scheme in bad state of repairs on Flickr, describing this project as ‘Dene Wood’ and talk of its possible demolition, which was confirmed soon after wards. The news of premature demolition of housing projects, particularly from 60s, is hardly a surprise these days. However, the possible loss of the courtyards which impressed me so much as a young student, was a bit more difficult to swallow.
The Google Earth indicated that the old carpet pattern of low hosing formed around courtyards was still there and some of my Flickr contacts offered me further help, eventually a special visit to this area became too tempting for me to ignore.
As all camera pointing’ building spotters’ know, the act of pointing a camera these days is considered an aggressive act and the pictures you see here were taken in a great hurry and the game of ‘spot the difference’ took place in front of the computer screen at home.
The initial shock of seeing the bare site where the high rise housing once stood was followed by relief of seeing the ‘carpet’ courtyards still standing, more or less intact and still covered in red clay tiled vertical cladding.
The biggest and almost predictable change was reduction of shared/common spaces in the courtyards to the bare minimum, which is just a sufficiently wide footpath providing access to the front and back garden of the houses. The second detectable change was the complete exposure of external staircases providing access to the upper units and denying hiding spaces to intruders. The growth of TV dish antennas has become too common to even register.
The detailed comparison at home indicated wholesale changes to the timber screens and window design which have been replaced with less quirky and more traditional design carried out with some sensitivity.
The fate of this and other local authority housing schemes must be seen in context with gradual disintegration of architects and property services departments in these offices. Some of these offices with record of brilliant architectural out-put, suddenly found themselves with almost no architects. The close co-operation between teams preparing housing briefs, choosing suitable tenants, normal maintenance and making the necessary changes to meet the changing requirements, became disjointed and sometimes disappeared altogether. A continuous inter-professional pride and involvement in looking after the building stock and the tenants, disappeared and resulting fragmentation started a ‘self-destruct chain reaction’ which is still going strong.
The lessons may well be obvious for all to see. The repeated failure of high level communal corridors for social housing at these densities are well recorded. The avoidance of communal spaces, and provision of visually supervised defensible spaces, in accordance Newman/Coleman have repeatedly improved the ailing estates.
However, I wonder the impact of this strict distribution of private gardens and minimal footpaths to get to these resulting in almost total elimination of communal spaces is likely to have on future generations. Future generations growing here would have been denied the experience of sharing and enjoying the spaces adjacent to their houses and understand the responsibilities of taking care of these communal assets.
Filed in Camberwell, Courtyard Housing, Demolished, Housing, Housing in 60s, Social Housing, Urban Renewal
Tags: 60s Housing, Acorn Place, Camberwell, Camberwell Borough Council, Dene Wood, High Density Housing, Housing in Britain, London, Modern Architecture, Peckham, Social Housing, Urban Renewal