‘They did something very special’: Remembering Camden’s housebuilding ‘golden age’
PUBLISHED: 20:00 16 January 2020
Camden’s council housing has, as it has aged, come to attain a cult status.
Designed in the 1960s by a well-known - and decidedly young - group of architects determined to reject orthodoxy that was pushing them to create high-rise towers, much of the first housing built after Camden's creation in 1965 is thought of as having broken new architectural ground.
Now, a resident in one of the estates has collated the fascinating history into a slim book. Fabian Watkinson has lived on the Whittington Estate in Highgate for a quarter of a century.
He told the Ham&High he had moved in 24 years ago "largely" ignorant of the history of his home. He said: "I knew very little about it. As soon as I saw the estate it struck me - this is really something."
The Camden borough architects department of the 1960s, led by Sydney Cook and featuring the talents of people like Neave Brown, Peter Tábori, Gordon Benson, Alan Forsyth and Bill Forrest, came up with thirteen estates - the majority of which are still standing and have featured in "architecture magazines from Paris to Japan".
Fabian's book - The Golden Age of Camden Council Housing - is designed to bring the bricks and mortar to life.
He added: "I have always been quite interested in architecture, and in this time, Camden produced a whole range of innovative estates and resisted the temptation to build tower blocks - they built something special. I wanted to produce something so that even if you are not able to visit the estates, you can get a feel for how it all works."
He said while it all began with his own home, for him it quickly became clear that the programme of building had been a "remarkable achievement". He added: "When I look at my estate, it's not just the layout, it's the quality.
"What I find interesting is they do share common intricacies."
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The idea of building social housing without resorting to high-rise towers hearkens back to continental architects like Le Corbusier in France, but in Camden it began with a co-operative project led by Neave Brown. The Anglo-American built five homes in Winscombe Street - now effectively part of Highgate Newtown - which set a philosophy that would be followed throughout Camden's early housebuilding programme.
The idea was to divide homes into "zones", with children's bedrooms opening onto a outdoor space at the bottom, living space in the middle, and a zone for parents above. The Alexandra Road project with its "stepped terraces" was the "spectacular culmination" of the project, Fabian argues.
He said: "The logic of the estates is that of Neave Brown and his Winscombe Street model. That then set the logic for the other architects. Each doing it with individual flair but following the same ideas. This captured the imagination.
"It was first of all that every flat had its own private space. It was very important that you had a private space open to the sky."
Other parts of the 1960s-designed housing - particularly the Peter Tabori designed elements owe a debt to Italian hill towns, Fabian added.
He paid tribute to Sydney Cook's role in shepherding his young team through the vagaries of local planning law.
He said: "These were really young architects who were given an opportunity to create buildings they would never have had the chance to anywhere else.
"Sydney Cook is remarkable because without him these young architects would never have had a chance with the planners and politicians."
Despite the innovative designs, wider issues slowed down completion of a number of the estates. "The sad thing is," Fabian said, "they were designed when Camden was one of the wealthiest boroughs. It had young councillors and they were willing to try! But with the oil crisis of 1973, building costs went through the roof and the projects ended up in serious trouble. By the time they were finished in the late 1970s, that style of building had gone out of fashion."
Fabian said part of the purpose of writing the book was to memorialise the work of the architects. He added: "It's something Camden should be very proud of, rather than voting to knock it down, they did something very special."
The Golden Age of Camden Housing is available from bookshops around Camden and the Local Studies and Archives Centre in Theobalds Road.