The Space of Community in Post-war Council Estates

This text was read on 30 March 2019 at the Design Museum, London, as part of a series of workshops and talks titled Growing Common Land organised by Hester Buck, one of four Designers in Residence at the museum during 2018.

What London’s Estate Regeneration programme has revealed to all but the most inattentive observer or interested implementer is that the separation between the public and the private spheres in UK housing no longer exists in any qualifiable sense. Any trust we may once have had that the duties of the former are independent of the interests of the latter has no foundation in practice. From ASH’s work with council estate communities trying to save their homes from this programme, as well as from our own experience of living on council estates, we have become increasingly interested in the potential of a third sphere of activity, which is neither public nor private, to resist the demolition of what’s left of our council housing, and oppose the propaganda war that precedes and justifies it. What the noisy denigrators of council estates, who invariably live in Victorian houses or Georgian squares, do not understand is that the most important space on a council estate does not fall into the clear distinction between private and public that terrace-dwellers cross every time they step outside their property or tenancy and into the space of the street, but occupies a third sphere.

In seeking to recreate the street life of working-class communities, architects of post-war council estates designed communal spaces into their architecture. These include not only the community halls in which residents meet – and which, because of this, are always the first part of the estate to be shut down by councils intent on demolishing their homes – but also the internal hallways and external walkways between individual homes; the landings outside lifts; the lifts themselves – where, in the few seconds it takes to ascend or descend, relationships with neighbours are made and maintained; the communal gardens often cultivated by residents in their own time; and above all the entrance halls through which the entire estate arrives and leaves and where the concierge – known to every resident and therefore knowing every resident – is the presiding spirit of the estate, setting the tone for its politeness, its friendliness and its ethos of mutual support.

In contrast to the easily-repeated orthodoxy of public opinion, the architecture of council estates in practice encourages community, collective responsibility and communal behaviour – rather than the crime, drug-dealing and anti-social behaviour the public is repeatedly indoctrinated with in our press and media. As just one example of this, on Cotton Gardens estate in Kennington where I live, every one of the numerous estate children holds open the numerous doors between these communal spaces – not because they’re told to by an admonishing parent, but willingly and without fail. I don’t know who instigated this behaviour, but it’s become a point of pride for the estate’s children, and something that has grown out of being a part of a community with which they identify. This contradicts everything we are told about the communities that live on council estates, the negative stereotypes about estate living and the stigma that is branded on the children who grow up in them. This displayed attitude of collective responsibility – which is typical of the estate communities ASH has worked with – is as far as possible from the outside perception of estates as ‘breeding grounds’ for crime and anti-social behaviour propagated by the councils and developers eager to get their hands on the hugely valuable land on which they are built.

Another example of this behaviour is the Alton West estate, which has been targeted for demolition and redevelopment by Wandsworth council eager to profit from land that overlooks Richmond Park, and which was developed in a time when the working class were considered worthy of such views. As in most modernist housing developments, the point and slab blocks that compose this estate are surrounded by expanses of lawn. In principal designed to free up land for recreational use by residents, in practice such land is often poorly laid out and, in an attempt to restrict access, has subsequently been bordered by fences, typically erected in the 1980s when estates began to be stigmatised as ‘no-go’ areas for the general public.

Alton West estate, however, has some of the most successful implementation of this modernist principle I know. On the hill below Highcliffe Drive, where five Le Corbusier-inspired blocks descend on rising piloti down the steep hill, the large expanse of grass and trees below has been designed as a space on which residents can meet, walk their dogs, hold picnics and play games. What caught my eye, however, during my visits to the estate, is the area immediately to the west called Sherfield Gardens. In the north of the two parallel lines of housing, residents have private gardens divided from the street by high brick walls; but in the blocks to the south something different has emerged, and apparently not from design. Here, on a curving strip of land between the pavement and the 4-storey blocks of maisonettes, a topiary of hedges carved into irregular shapes marks out an open maze between the trees. Although presumably the work of gardeners working for Wandsworth council, residents have appropriated this liminal space for their own use.

The curtain windows that line the blocks here are interrupted, on the ground floor, by a door that opens onto a short flight of stairs that descends into the gardens. This in itself is a departure from usual practice; but residents have used and expanded the maze of bushes to articulate degrees of private, communal and public space between their homes and the road. Some have gone all out, and taken possession of the land with fences and doors around their own semi-private gardens. Others have restricted themselves to benches and tables under a gazebo, a clothes-washing line and a barbeque beside newly-planted trees and a distinctively-cropped hedge. While the less proprietorial have made minimal interventions, sometimes no more than the suggestion of a path between plant pots, a garden shed or a bicycle left on the lawn.

In these reclamations of land, the residents of Alton West estate resemble the Diggers of the mid-Seventeenth Century who fought against the enclosure of common land by large landowners by ignoring legislation, digging and planting where they wanted. They did not pull down hedges and fences like the Levellers before them, but they were opposed to enclosure in both principle and practice. In the words of their manifesto, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men:

‘The earth (which was made to be a common treasury of relief for all, both beasts and men) was hedged into enclosures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made servants and slaves; and that earth, that is within this creation made a common storehouse for all, is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few.’

It would be interesting to know whether the residents of Alton West estate are aware that Richmond Park was formed from the enclosure of the common land of several parishes by King Charles I; and that in 1751 the common people broke down the enclosing walls that denied the public access and asserted their rights of way by ‘Beating the Bounds’ of the parish – a Medieval custom I recommend to residents of council estates that are under threat today. Wandsworth council, whose plans to demolish, redevelop and privatise Alton West estate are a continuation of the long history of land enclosure in Britain, perhaps in recognition of residents’ re-claiming of previously unused space, but more likely in an attempt to restrict its use and the affirmation of community that communal space allows, has erected a uniquely ugly metal fence along this strip of land where it borders the pavement, fencing it off from use by the public, at least, if not by the residents.

These forms of communal space, the uses to which they are put by residents, and the role they play in forming their community, is in general unknown to dwellers in privately-owned houses and fenced-in gardens; but it is where the collective life of a council estate takes root and grows. Yet, strangely, on a lot of UK estates much of this space was created by later additions to address the teething problems of this new form of communal living. This can be attributed to the fact that, while on the continent there is a history of living in apartment blocks that encourage residents into communal behaviour, the evolution of UK housing is overwhelmingly a history of terraced housing. When many working-class neighbourhoods were cleared as either designated ‘slums’ or bomb rubble after the Second World War to make way for the programme of council estate building, the new residents had little experience of how to adopt the new forms of collective living into which this architecture was ushering them.

Like my own parents, who grew up in Shepherd’s Bush with a toilet in the back garden and a bath once a week in a kettle-filled bath, working-class residents welcomed the indoor toilets and plumbing of these modernist blocks; but questioned the uniformity of the facades, the lack of back yards, and their isolation from the street that had been their social space. A measure of just how far this lack of experience extended is that, as often as not, the architects too, no doubt under pressure from developers eager to cut construction costs, omitted what have subsequently come to be regarded as the absolutely integral facilities of a community hall, a nursery, playgrounds for children, sports facilities for youth, social clubs, cultural centres, local shops, transport links and, of course, communal gardens. The most successful regeneration schemes, such as that implemented on Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham following the riots of 1985, introduced all these facilities and more to what had been an estate built on a flood plain and all but abandoned by the council. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped Haringey council from putting the estate on their demolition list. But in our own work to try and save estates under the same threat, ASH has learned that the presence of a concierge and a community hall accessible free of charge to all residents is crucial, not optional, to the harmonious life of the estate.

Most importantly of all, perhaps, to the change to collective modes of living modernist estates where meant to bring about, and which is needed now more than ever to combat the Neo-liberal housing policies that threaten them, communal space is neither private, and therefore subject to the property or tenancy rights of the individual, nor public, and therefore the abrogated responsibility of the state. Rather, it is a collective space, over which no individual resident has rights, which none of them owns even collectively, but for which they all take responsibility and share in its benefits. As the corruption of the public sphere by private interests accelerates under increasingly accommodating Government legislation, Greater London Authority policy and council practice in thrall to financial markets, and the lives of those under the management and care of these public bodies are increasingly put at risk of eviction, homelessness and – as the Grenfell Tower fire demonstrated – far worse, this third sphere must be revalued and reclaimed. That act of reclaiming begins with naming its object for what it is: the space of community.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

Commoners breaking into Richmond Park to beat the bounds of their parishes and assert their Rights of Way over the enclosed land, 1751.

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