Cook’s Camden: London’s great experiment in urban housing

Posted on 23 November 2010 2 comments

Sydney Cook (1910-1979) was the borough architect for Camden from 1965 to 1973 and his influence and legacy are explored in an exhibition called Cook’s Camden at The Building Centre in London.

As borough architect, Cook embarked on an ambitious programme to build high-density, low-rise social housing. The housing projects were designed by architects appointed by Cook, and although Cook himself was not a great architect (according to the exhibition), he was an excellent judge of design quality.

The introduction to the exhibition states:

“The housing projects built by Camden when Sydney Cook was borough architect (1965-1973) constitute not just the last great output of social housing in this country but also arguably the most concentrated architectural investigation into urban housing undertaken in the past half-century.

The Camden architects rejected the characteristic form of post-war social housing – the highrise slab or tower – in an attempt to reconnect with recognisable features of traditional urbanism, above all streets with front doors and a private terrace or garden for every dwelling. And, although the Camden projects were low-rise (up to four storeys) they offered densities comparable to the high-rise model.”

The exhibition is filled with excellent black-and-white photographs of the housing developments by Martin Charles. These photos were taken when the projects were completed and give a good view of these developments in their pristine, just-finished state. But black and white architecture photos (especially of concrete structures) can be a little deceptive; they tend to soften the contrast between surfaces and materials. The impression of looking at the same scene in colour can be very different.

The Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate
The Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate. Photo copyright by Martin Charles.

There’s much to admire in the ambitions of the architects who designed these housing developments, but I have to confess, from the photos, the exterior design of many of the developments looked unattractive to me.

Has there been a high cost in maintaining these housing developments? And if so, why? For any large high-density housing development, maintenance costs and service charges are a crucially important factor. There must be so much knowledge from the maintenance of these housing developments that we can draw on. Yet designing for minimal maintenance and minimal service charges seems to be a poorly investigated topic in housing. Even the recently published London Housing Design Guide, for example, had little to say about service charges.

The most well-known housing development from Cook’s tenure is probably The Brunswick Centre (constructed 1968 – 1973, designed by Patrick Hodgkinson). Sitting in the heart of Bloomsbury, it’s been given a multi-million pound makeover in recent years and finally painted in the pale cream colour originally intended when it was designed.

The Brunswick centre in London
The Brunswick Centre in London. Photo from Flickr by member Banalities.

This is a timely exhibition given the poor state of high-density housing design in the UK, and the very low volume of social housing being built. But what’s missing from this exhibition is a sense of how these developments have fared over time. I’ve mentioned the issue of maintenance and upkeep. But what do the residents of these developments think of their estates? Do they enjoy living in them? Do the spaces in their homes work well for them? How well have these estates fulfilled the ambitions of the architects that designed them? How well do these estates sit in their surroundings?

We do hear from the residents of one estate. Included in the exhibition is a 20 minute film featuring residents of the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate (commonly known as Rowley Way) in North West London. The estate is made up of parallel rows of homes facing each other, overlooking a pedestrian “street”.

The Alexandra and Ainsworth estate
The Alexandra and Ainsworth estate. Photo from Flickr by Banalities.
The Alexandra and Ainsworth estate
The Alexandra and Ainsworth estate. Photo from Flickr by Banalities.
The Alexandra and Ainsworth estate
The Alexandra and Ainsworth estate. Photo from Flickr by Banalities.
Unit plans from the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate
Unit plans from the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate. Click for larger view.

You can watch the film on vimeo, or visit the Rowely Way website for more information, but here are a few random quotes taken from the film.

Neave Brown, the architect, on the idea behind the estate:

“The ideas were…a continuous, high-density, urban scheme which got it’s vitality from picking up ingredients which go [a] long way back in English housing history, quite distinct from German, French, Italian urban plan. Taking that notion of continuity and interpreting that with modernism.”
“Only concrete would do the structure.”

Quotes from residents

“I felt a little like [being in]…a fish bowl. I could see my neighbours, my neighbours could see me, but I like the architecture.”
“We’re an estate but it feels like an actual street as opposed to living in a high-rise building.”
“You’re so close to people, you have to get on with them and also, you do do get on with them because you are so close.”

Quotes from residents on concrete

“I love the concrete, always loved concrete”
“Not very pretty”
“Think you either like it or hate it”
“Very dark and dismal-looking”
“I think it’s quite brave and brutal…”
“It just looks dull”
“I like it in the sunshine, hate it in the rain”
“I think it’s quite Mediterranean”
“It’s not that brilliant and I’ve never been a big fan of grey”
“It needs a good clean”

The exhibition runs until 8 December 2010.


Single Aspect

25 November 2010 13:12 GMT

Thanks for highlighting this exhibition and the extraordinary number of council housing projects across Camden. By todays standards this looks like exemplary stuff, now it’s all high rise sheer sided single aspect flats and internal non-kitchens on modern “regeneration” (social cleansing) schemes. The fact that Camden were determined to include outside space for every resident is something to celebrate and todays architects have a lot to learn from Camden in the period covered. Thanks for highlighting the exhibition.

A. Hussein blog author

25 November 2010 19:18 GMT

Thanks for your comment. It’s hard to imagine the scale and ambition of these projects ever being attempted again. You’re quite right that there’s much to learn from these developments for today’s architects and homebuilders.

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