Walking South from Hampstead in North London down Abbey Road, the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate appears as a dramatic concrete structure, a modernist post-war estate, most closely resembling a stadium from its back facade. It was an unforgettable experience to walk along the long pedestrian passage between the two rows of housing. It instantly evoked lots of reflection about how it feels to be part of this estate and what creates a sense of community.
Designed in the 1960s by Camden Council architect Neave Brown and completed in the 1970, the estate is one of the most widely known examples of brutalist architecture and new-thinking social housing projects from the time where the public administration was a main actor delivering large scale public infrastructure. The project itself was seen as an innovation recreating the London terraced housing with its benefits of light and access to greenery, and at the same time serving the prestige of posh London to low income residents. The wish to popularise prestigeful architecture even in a more dramatic way is seen in the works of other architects like Bofill.
The original idea was to create a community where the residents would belong, use the pedestrian passage between the two long rows of housing and the community centre for gatherings, and benefit from the long green corridor behind the housing. The visual proximity between the residences on both sides was supposed to strengthen the community feeling. The residents all have their own terraces overlooking to the passage where they are expected to interact.
Has this succeeded in creating the desired sense of community?
Passing there, the estate is already separated from the surrounding city structure signaling the move into a new space and community - at that time a social housing community. The passage was almost empty and the massive raw concrete and decay dominated the image. The decayed monumental benches, stairs and spaces give the impression that the residents have no control on maintaining this massive complex. It seemed monotonous, and to counteract this anonymity many residents have personalised their terraces with bold additions: large wild plants, tents, parasols, fencing.
The experience was thought-provoking and encouraged us to watch the Estate's documentary 'Rowley Way Speaks for Itself' with interviews with the architect and the residents. It both confirmed our first reflections and made us rethink how a sense of community can be predicted in design.
Experiencing this estate, we can point to the importance of flexibility in design, and for this scale of estate more integration of functions mixing activities and residences including for example playgrounds and local shopping. We think that diverse and sensitive materiality could have positively affected the quality of the space, overcome monotony and anonymity aspects and created softer environments for living.
The estate was a product of its time, and a daring move by the Council to test a new housing type focusing on community for residents and pedestrians to which we can see parallels in other European projects like for example Alvaro Siza's Bouça Social Housing in Porto, Portugal exploring the concept of a liveable pedestrian street.
It is worth acknowledging the great intentions and efforts made by the council to accommodate for social housing based on new-thinking architecture and to approve this investment. Our perception is, however, that the buildings being dramatically large come across as very dominant and monumental where residents, no matter how diverse, are expected to fit in rather than participate in co-creating the space. A remark that applies to many modernist projects. The estate could have created a stronger sense of community if the design was more flexible, had a mix of space types and activities and tried less to predict how people would and should use the space. Greater integration with the surroundings, breaking up the housing mass, rearranging the green space among the houses instead of behind, and varying the material palette would create a kinder environment.
The planning and architecture debate have increasingly focused on more diversity in terms of housing offers, spaces and activities in neighbourhood design. But it was worth experimenting at that time and brave to look for a new housing type. There is much to learn from our cities to support our continuous exploration of how to create liveable communities and how to improve existing estates and urban areas.
© Nouha Hansen and Roudaina Al Khani