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.

6 Responses to “Housing at Camberwell, 50th Birthday, London”

  1. lee Jeffs Says:

    Having lived on the Acorn estate I enjoyed finding this site and reading your comments. My family were amongst the first to move in long before the builders had finished.Unfortunately what the planners had forgotton was that we needed some where to play! We did have the large space, but since it was “landscaped” with a raised area at one end of our “square” and trees at the other it wasn’t a suitable play area. There were 19, 3 or 4 bedroom houses which had up to 80 kids between them, and that was only one “square” of the estate.It may have looked good to an outsider, but there were flaws in the house designs. I won’t complain too much, but just mention how frustrating the so called central heating was! Too hot downstairs anf freezing cold in the bedrooms. But I must admit to having many good memories of growing up there.It’s just a shame that there was little or no thought put into not only where we would play. but also where we would go to school. I think it was George Brown who officially “opened” the estate Regards, Lee Jeffs.

    • winslowhub Says:

      Thanks for your comments. It is always nice and informative to hear from people who have first hand experience of the housing areas under discussion. I am certain you are right about the heating problems, as it was a constant problem with lots of central boiler rooms and heat distribution. I can also understand the problems of lots of young families moving in almost at the same time and a large number of energetic children not able to find enough space to play. I am certain that these problems only come to notice as the houses are occupied.
      I would like to ask your opinion about the use of the courtyards. You quite rightly say that the raised areas and tree planting made these spaces not suitable for playing and that raises the next question about the present arrangements where these squares are sub-divided in small fenced private gardens and footpaths leaving no space for playing at all. Perhaps there are fewer children of playing age or there are other play areas provided elsewhere. There are lots of mistakes made in these designs and constant ‘tweaking and improvements’ are required to make a success of these large projects and I am afraid that is where the lack of money and attention starts a downward spiral of poor maintenance and neglect. However, I am certain Acorn Estate never suffered from that fate in the lower courtyard housing which is still standing. Your comments would be most welcome. Thanks.

  2. Lyn Sime Says:

    I was born on the estate in March 1964, and I lived in the block of flats, however, it was not called Dene Wood, the name of the block of flats was Wooddene,, and it was on the Acorn Estate. All squares had their own name, and they all related to trees of some sort, we had wooddene for starters, then the squares were named as Ashdene, Oakdene, Willowdene, Pineden, etc. I was appalled they pulled my birthplace down, and what’s made it worse is that they never bothered to rebuild there, so they might just as well as left it alone. I spent 18 very happy years on the estate, and it was a community, where everyone knew everyone, such a sad pointless thing to happen!

    • winslowhub Says:

      I never found out the reason for the demolition but I am certain it was usual ‘wilfull’ neglect making the case for demolition strong. Thanks for your comments. Ian Nairn was also fond of this scheme.

  3. Eddie Rathbone Says:

    I moved onto Acorn estate when I was 15 weeks old in January 1963. We lived in Oakdene.
    Here’s a couple of points.
    1. The rubbish had to be put in the alley ways at the rear of the houses. Care takers would then take the rubbish to the roadside for the dustman. Not a problem until there was a strike
    2. Living so close to others made you appreciate others and the need for friends.
    3. I agree with Sue, the original heating system was rubbish if you lived in one of the houses.
    Hope this helps

    • winslowhub Says:

      Hello Tod. Thanks for your comments. These are always helpful for people who were connected with the scheme and are always helpful. Regards. Iqbal

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