Arts Week 2018: the architectural beauty of Cook’s Camden

Kayleigh Woods Harley, project support coordinator at Birkbeck, reports on Arts Week event Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, a talk delivered by Mark Swenarton. 

On a beautiful Monday evening in the sunlit Keynes Library, Mark Swenarton addressed a crowd of architecture-lovers about his recent book, Cook’s Camden: the making of modern housing. The London borough of Camden in the 1960s and 70s was awash with high rise social housing. But that began to change under borough architect Sydney Cook. While adhering to the need for high-density accommodation, the new designs under Cook were all about simplicity, efficiency and quality.

In 1968 Cook commissioned young up-and-coming architect Neave Brown with his first major housing development at Alexandra Road, just off the famous Abbey Road. Brown was disorganised in appearance when he presented his plans for the site to a large audience wearing the ‘office tie’ which Cook had conscientiously supplied for such occasions. Nevertheless, they were greeted with applause.

The Alexandra Road estate is a seminal example of this new architectural style. Parallel rows of houses are accessed from a central, pedestrianized street. All the houses face one another, to accord with Brown’s belief that children playing in the communal space would be better behaved if all the neighbours could watch them from the window. (Brown designed his own house this way too; he installed a first-floor balcony overlooking the garden, allowing the adults to supervise the children in comfort.) Shirking tradition, Brown’s interiors lack any space-wasting hallways or corridors and he instead created light-filled open-plan spaces with the flexibility of Japanese-style sliding partition walls. The quality of the build and materials was such that these homes – many of which were bought by their tenants under Thatcher’s right to buy scheme – are still highly desirable today.

Brown’s designs became popular with planners because of their economy of space, filling out the development area right up to its perimeter –like laying a carpet wall-to-wall – and other young architects were quick to pick up the gauntlet. Arguably the most beautiful council housing in the world is the Branch Hill estate. Cook handed the strict brief to Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth to build homes on newly acquired land belonging to the estate of the grand Edwardian Branch Hill Lodge. To fulfil the requirement not to build above two storeys, they designed an ingenious interlocking system of maisonettes, each with a large roof terrace overlooking the verdant grounds of the old estate. The development was a not-so-subtle statement about the repurposing of previously aristocratic-owned land for the wider public’s use, giving a snapshot into the political mindset of Cook’s department.

Sadly, when Sydney Cook retired, his grand, pioneering ideas went with him and his young talented architects lost out to their less innovative peers. The political landscape shifted to adopt less progressive notions about social housing, and the architectural style of Cook’s era waned.

Mark Swenarton’s beautiful book is a labour of love which has been ten years in the making. It is published to a high standard with gorgeous original photographs of both the exteriors and interiors of the Cook era developments and new cross-sections have been drawn to modern standards. The book has proved so popular that it is already sold out, but further copies are available to purchase directly from its publisher, Lund Humphries, with more coming back in stock over the coming months.

Kayleigh Woods Harley is a project support coordinator at Birkbeck College. She has held professional service roles at other universities such as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the University of St Andrews. She holds a PGCE in secondary English teaching and a Master of Arts in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Alongside her full-time job, she reads classic literature, art history, architectural history and natural history, writes literary fiction and has an active interest in sustainability issues.

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