Sometimes known as ‘Weedington Road’, the London housing estate sitting between Queen’s Crescent to the south and Vicar’s Road to the north was commissioned by Sydney Cook and is a significant piece in the celebrated housing programme pursued when he ran the architects’ department at the London Borough of Camden (as detailed in Mark Swenarton’s book, ‘Cook’s Camden’). It was built in the mid-1970s, and designed in the architecture practice of Frederick McManus & Partners, where senior partner Brian Smith had assembled a talented young team. The project architect was a recent graduate of the Architectural Association, Richard Benson.
The estate is deceptively simple in conception. It consists of four long parallel blocks following the existing alignment of Grafton Road, Weedington Road and Wellesley Road. These streets run north-south and therefore permitted the long blocks flanking them to face east-west. In this way, the masterplan showed sensitivity to the budding conservation movement while respecting the modern orthodoxy on good orientation.
Smaller blocks were added to the south-west and to the north-east on irregular corners of the site. A taller block contributes a presence to the estate on Queen’s Crescent to the south. It includes a well-used public library on the ground floor facing the popular bi-weekly street market. To the east, on the same side of Queen’s Crescent, a three-storey block accommodates shops on the ground floor and offices above. A similar block once formed a crescent on the north side of Vicar’s Road. It was demolished in the 1990s.
Most of the walk-up apartments have a dual orientation, facing onto the street and onto the communal gardens at the rear. The external walls are fully glazed, or rather were until the French doors were replaced in the 1990s. A narrow balcony provides a continuous outdoor space on both sides of the apartment. On the ground floor, the outdoor space (again on both sides of the blocks) is deeper and accommodates plants and garden furniture. The top floor is set back on the garden side, compensating the duplex apartments that are furthest away from the ground with a lavish outdoor space and pleasant views over the treetops.
Car parking is concealed in a semi-basement under the longer housing blocks. Unlike in many housing estates, it is barely noticeable on the street. Vents are neatly inset within the brick plinth providing a base for the garden patios. The pavements are wider than usual, often considerably so. Stairs and disabled access ramps are carefully integrated alongside the plinth. The pavement is planted with mature plane trees and other species offering shade to the apartments in the summer.
Until recently the two large inner gardens were freely accessible to the public. They have since been fenced in, but lanes continue to provide pleasant shortcuts through the estate. They contribute an exceptional amenity for the inhabitants. With a little more maintenance, they could rival with the best inner gardens in London city blocks. They compare favourably with the inner court of the contemporary housing block on Clipstone Street for which the communal gardens in Maida Vale offered a model. The breadth of the space minimises overlooking and prevent an all-too-common sensation of excessive enclosure. Like on the street side, the private patios of the ground floor apartments are raised to afford privacy.
The facades are as simple as the plans and are among the design’s finest achievements. Three white bands run the full length of the blocks, corresponding to the edge of the floor slabs. A discreet metal parapet sits on top, the modern detailing being of consistent quality throughout. The walls were fitted with dark-stained timber casements of the kind introduced to other Camden schemes by Neave Brown. The floor-to-ceiling French doors have since been replaced with white UPVC windows and doors. Originally all equal in width, the casements run without interruption from one end of the block to the other. The combination of the white banding of the floor slab, black French doors and mature trees was strikingly elegant.
Being a resident in Kentish Town since 1989, I have been familiar with the estate over a long period of time. It has successfully resisted neglect and low maintenance, which is in itself a tribute to the strength and resilience of its design. Moreover it is historically significant. Like other projects commissioned by Sydney Cook, it was inspired by a rediscovery of the pioneering modern housing of the 1920s, by its social dedication, its simplicity and its boldness. Architects and architecture students travelled from across Europe to London to visit Kentish Town and other new Camden estates. They did so in the 1970s. They are doing so today still.
The estate belongs with the better-known works by Neave Brown and Benson & Forsyth a few streets away. It shares the same conviction in the value of good housing. It shares an interest in large urban forms within which the individual dwellings are subsumed. It shares, too, a common detailing language of metal railing and, once, timber joinery.
But it differs from the projects in Mansfield Road and Gospel Oak in a significant way. Neave Brown and Benson & Forsyth sought to contribute a new complexity in the space of the dwelling. By contrast, Richard Benson opted for a new simplicity, consistent with contemporary works by Christopher Cross (who recommended him for the job at McManus & Partners), Mike Gold, Jeremy Dixon and Ed Jones. The blocks are a radically simplified version of Le Corbusier’s linear housing blocks. Benson has referred to the deep plan of the Immeuble Clarté in Geneva, (1932) a building which features slim, block-length, continuous balconies, and Mark Swenarton points out that he saw the scheme as combining those qualities with the urban typology of Ladbroke Grove. Benson further contemplated having south-facing apartments at the ends of the long blocks, like in the Unité at Marseilles. He then adjusted the blocks to the characteristic pattern of London streets, adopting their height, raised ground floors and gardens.
Minor additions have been made by the inhabitants on the ground floor patios, the top floor terraces and more rarely on the balconies. They contribute a liveliness consistent with the Victorian terrace houses that still make most of the area. The architecture of the estate accommodates them with ease and even gains from them. It is indebted to the Unité d’Habitation. It is indebted too, probably inadvertently, to the Plan Obus designed by Le Corbusier for Algiers and soon promoted by Herman Hertzberger and other advocates of tenant involvement.
Benson’s Kentish Town scheme may merit consideration alongside those by Camden contemporaries that have been justly celebrated in recent years (not least in the award of the Royal Gold Medal to Neave Brown), but like many others of its vintage, its qualities are not widely recognised, and this leaves large numbers of very good estates vulnerable to the present tendency to demolish and replace.
In housing, everything must be got right. One significant failure will spoil the totality. This Kentish Town estate got everything right, every design decision being precisely measured and balanced. This is a mark of true excellence. The estate was right then, it is right today, and it will still be right in the future. It is among the most successful housing built in London in the 1970s. It must be preserved and treasured.