A walking (and property buying) tour of Camden’s Modernist estates
- Credit: Archant
Camden council estates from the 1960s and 70s offer some of the best Modern architecture in London. Design fans have long understood the appeal, but London’s rising house prices have pushed other buyers to appreciate the well-planned layouts and clean lines of ex-council homes too. Graphic designer and author of Modernist Estates, Stefi Orazi rounds up the best in the borough in this exclusive edited walking tour.
The London Borough of Camden is home to some of the most exciting and avant-garde post-war housing schemes in the country. The amalgamation of the three metropolitan boroughs of St Pancras, Hampstead and Holborn in 1965 made the new Borough of Camden one of the wealthiest in London.
At the top of this Labour-led council’s agenda was housing, and with Sydney Cook (1910–79) as borough architect it soon gained a reputation as a leader in imaginative low-rise, high-density and high-quality developments.
Cook, who was previously the borough architect of Holborn, put together a formidable team of young talented architects including Neave Brown, Peter Tábori, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth. He was unique in encouraging his team to come up with new ideas for housing with site-specific solutions — he rejected standardised planning.
Supportive, encouraging and a hugely popular figure, Cook retired in 1973 due to ill-health. By this time in the face of rising inflation and building costs, many of his schemes ran over budget and faced uncertainty and criticism. A change in the political climate saw an end to almost all council house building. Camden’s ‘golden era’ estates were some of the last large scale ambitious social housing schemes to have been built in the UK.
Today recognition of Cook’s achievement at Camden has finally arrived. Camden contains the highest number of post-war council housing schemes to have been listed including Alexandra Road (grade II*) Brunswick, Fleet Road, Branch Hill, Loudoun Road (all grade II).
We’ve found properties for sale at some of the selected locations (obviously National Trust visitor attraction 2 Willow Road is excluded). Don’t expect a bargain though. The tour, which stretches from Archway to Hampstead includes the most expensive council housing in the country at the secluded Branch Hill Estate.
Allow a leisurely hour and a half for the full tour, which starts at Archway tube and ends at Hampstead – add extra time for a half at The Hollybush on your way home and if you wish to visit Willow Road.
Selected edited walk taken from Modernist Estates in the London Borough of Camden Guide and Map, £4.80 by Stefi Orazi/Modernist Estates, available from thingsyoucanbuy.co.uk
1. 22–32 Winscombe Street, 1963–64
The Grade II listing of this terrace of five three-bedroom, five-person houses and one studio in 2014 made Neave Brown the first living architect to have all his UK projects listed. The buildings were built as a private co-housing project, backed by Camden council, for the architect and a group of his friends to live in.
2. Whittington Estate (Highgate Newtown, stage 1), 1972–79
There is currently a one-bedroom flat available to rent for £1,248 a month (Prestige Properties, 020 7272 6464) in this formerly beleaguered 273-unit development with 268 underground parking spaces by Peter Tábori and Ken Adie. The estate was described by the St Pancras Chronicle in 1983 as a “haven for hoodlums”; now it’s home to a large proportion of architect owner-occupiers.
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3. Waxham, Mansfield Road, 1974–80
Designed by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, who worked with Neave Brown on the Alexandra Road estate in South Hampstead, this Gospel Oak scheme of 64 flats and maisonettes and nine family houses was another groundbreaking local authority scheme inspired by Brown’s work at Winscombe Street. Day Morris (020 7482 4282) has a four-bedroom maisonette on the market for £595,000.
5.Dunboyne Road (Fleet Road), 1967–77
A testament to the success of the architecture, Neave Brown moved from his house on Winscombe Street (see number 1) to a flat in his later, also grade II-listed development in Hampstead. There are 71 two- and three-bedroom maisonettes and one-bedroom flats here along with shops, a playground and 60 garages. Salter Rex (020 7431 1881) sold a three-bedroom property here last December for £700,000.
6. Pass by the Isokon, Lawn Road, 1934
Much has been written about the history and architecture of one of Hampstead’s most iconic buildings where Parkheath (020 7431 1234) currently have a studio for sale for £425,000. The grade I-listed Isokon building was designed by architect Wells Coates in the 1930s as a bold experiment in communal living for professionals with no time for domestic work, Agatha Christie later lived here amongst Soviet spies and Bauhaus designers, rubbing shoulders in the residents’ restaurant.
7. Pass 2 Willow Road (Erno Goldfinger)
No tour of Modern architecture would be complete without a glimpse of 2 Willow Road, home to the architect Erno Goldfinger. It may not be a council estate itself, but Goldfinger did design several of London’s most distinctive social housing schemes including Trellick Tower in Notting Hill and Balfron Tower in Poplar. The Willow Road houses are probably most famous for inflaming Hampstead conservationist Ian Fleming’s rage and providing the name of his most dastardly Bond villain but if time allows pop in to number 2, now a National Trust attraction, to find out more about the building’s history.
8. Branch Hill (now Spedan Close), Hampstead, 1974–78
Another Benson and Forsyth project, the secluded Branch Hill estate was built on the grounds of an Edwardian mansion next to Hampstead Heath as Camden council proved their determination that social housing should not be ghettoised. The Ham & High in 1977 passed verdict on the development thus: “These are the most expensive council houses in England, to their defenders an act of political faith, to critics socialism gone mad.” The estate’s grade II listing in 2010 proved its design credentials, but thanks to a premium location, the scheme remains expensive – two-bedroom properties go for around £1million.