Louis Kahn’s work before Yale University Art Gallery (1950) is not very well known and publicised. However it is worth remembering that he was practicing since  early 30s.
Louis Kahn served as a consultant to the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the United States Housing Authority in 1930s. He had a deep sense of social responsibility and was very interested in providing low cost housing.

He also worked with European émigrés Alfred Kastner and Oskar Stonorov.
In the early 1940s Louis Kahn associated with Stonorov and
George Howe, with whom Louis Kahn designed several wartime
housing projects such as Carver Court in Coatesville (composite; top left), Pennsylvania (1941-1944) and Pennypack Woods in Philadelphia (1941-1943). His last scheme of this period was the public housing in Philadelphia’s Mill Creek Housing project (1951-1963).

In late 40s Louis Kahn‘s career took-off when he established an independent practice and began to teach at Yale University and then at the University of Pennsylvania as Professor of Architecture (1957-1974). During those years, his ideas about architecture and the city took shape and early work of idealism that followed the international modernism was re-examined and reassessed by him and we all know the impact that produced on architectural history for the rest of 20th century.

I visited Canada and USA as a student in 1967 and attempted to see as much of his work as I could. On my visit to Mill Creek Housing I could not help noticing boarded up properties and a general feeling of deterioration. Few years ago  when I learnt that the Estate was demolished, I was surprised and rather puzzled but put it down to possible social deprivation, poor maintenance and ‘sink status’ – a situation one comes across in Britain social housing frequently.

A quick search on internet started to unfold a different story which may be worth noting. Apparently the apartments were built on top of the Mill Creek flood plains. In 1961 several blocks of houses collapsed causing some deaths and as a result 111 houses were condemned and demolished. There were also three 17 storey tall residential blocks, also designed by Kahn in a subsequent phase see composite top right-bottom), which I am informed were a social disaster as far as accommodation was concerned were also demolished.

In the photo on top, Carver Court B&W photo attributed to Wiki Arquitectura. Site layout from http://www.design.upenn.edu.  Mill Creek Housing photo from  from’ In the Realm of Architecture’.

All other individual photos from my 1976 visit.

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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.

Newport Comprehensive School Competition was won by Eldred Evans and David Shalev in 1968, Foster Associates, Brian Frost and Douglas Stephen & Partners were among the finalists. James Stirling was one of the judges.

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Extracts from winners report said that the building is organized around the house system in three tiers; lower school to the south; middle school; specialist teaching block and subject rooms to the north, running parallel to both. The halls and library/sixth form complexes terminate the system to east and west respectively.

The circulation was arranged in a gridiron pattern of movement throughout the school on two levels-covered and open walkways.

Covered east/west routes link all houses to one another and end in the library/hall complexes.

Covered north/south routes are for more frequent daily movements of pupils from bus dropping point to houses from form rooms to specialist teaching block. Open north/south route ends in outdoor teaching terraces.

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There were ten houses: upper school 4; lower school l4; sixth form1; staff1.

Each consisted of three south facing, flexible teaching area, an activity room adjoining two of the form bases and house dining room, all arranged around a protected courtyard into which they could extend.

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Although the house system was rigidly adhered to, architects considered that this would not inhibit different type of organization if required, as they thought that some form of identifiable grouping would always be required.

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* Above extracts and competition entry drawings abstracted from AJ of 24th January 1968.

Unfortunately, all these built in flexibilities did nothing to save the school from poor maintenance and deterioration and eventual premature destruction. An unloved and neglected building was almost hurriedly driven to death.

It was sad to see  intelligent educationalists themselves failing to see the folly they were committing by destroying this important building without any attempt to give it a new lease of life.

 

The organization, though much larger and complex, always reminded me of simplicity of Jacobson’s school at Munkegaardsl in Copenhagen (1952-56).

More photographs are available on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/iqbalaalam/sets/72157604618949581/