Look at Grenfell and recall when social housing was beloved | Deborah Orr

Britain’s best modernist estates remind us of the flair ordinary people were once thought to deserve

On Thursday, as the inquiry into the Grenfell fire was formally opened, I took a poignant architectural tour of London. A group of us rode in a Routemaster bus round five of Britain’s most important modernist buildings, most of them landmarks in the history of social housing. And, yes, this country’s mid-20th century social housing masterpieces tend to cluster in the capital, Sheffield’s Park Hill estate being a significant exception. Why? London had the blitz. It had the émigré architects. It had, as ever, cash.

This tour, organised by the Gentlewoman magazine, was led by Joe Kerr, an academic and bus driver, and titled Glimpses of the Future. Those glimpses of the future, as Kerr was assiduous in reminding us, are in the past. Some aspects of them are, anyway.

Our first stop was the Boundary Estate in the East End. It’s the world’s oldest municipal housing project, completed in 1900, and built to replace a slum considered the most notorious in the city. Twenty elegant redbrick housing blocks, built in the arts and crafts style, radiate from a central hill, created from the site’s rubble. A circular path, accessed by four broad sets of steps, runs round the mound, halfway up, affording good views of the terraced gardens on either side. At the top, there’s a Japanese-style bandstand, where concerts were given for the residents.

The Boundary Estate is a Grade II-listed monument to William Morris’s belief that beauty should be accessible to all. It was controversial in its day. Detractors argued that by giving attractive homes and free entertainment to poor people, do-gooders would destroy their motivation to work. It’s a familiar argument.

What’s more, this was being said of the respectable poor, the “working aristocracy”, to use Kerr’s term. The original inhabitants had been dispersed from the area. The utopian vision of the Boundary Estate’s progenitors had its limits. Records suggest that only 11 out of many hundreds were rehoused in the estate that was built over their neighbourhood. Gentrification is nothing new.

The next building was one I had never heard of, Bevin Court. Designed by Berthold Lubetkin, it was supposed to have been called Lenin Court, after the Russian revolutionary. He had lived on the site during 1902-3 in a building that was destroyed in the second world war.

A memorial bust of Lenin had been placed there in 1942, but it was so regularly defaced by fascists that it needed a 24-hour guard and was eventually removed. Vandals were still daubing antisemitic insults on the memorial in 1945, after the evil of Auschwitz was well known. No doubt they would still be doing it today if its plinth hadn’t been incorporated into Bevin Court’s foundations. The name was changed, for the obvious reason that communist fervour had fallen into abeyance by 1954.

The block is unfussily attractive from the outside. Inside, however, there’s a breathtaking constructivist staircase, which spirals up and up, offering a new and more expansive view of the city with every storey. It was built not just to be used but also to be cherished, a magnificent secret for its residents to share.

Camden’s time of bold idealism came later, its apotheosis being the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate. The back of the longest terrace in London will be familiar to people who travel by train between London and Glasgow on the west coast line out of Euston. From the rail tracks, it looks strange: a concrete, upside-down ziggurat that hangs out towards the tracks, with occasional tiny windows. On that side, it protects residents from the noise.

From the front, one sees a sinuous, pedestrian street, each side six storeys high but, thanks to the generous rake, looking much less. It’s hard to believe, looking at the two sides, that the building is the same. Each home has a balcony that’s open to the sky. Every other layer has a built-in plant trough, generally utilised with enthusiasm. Cars are parked and rubbish accumulated in a layer hidden from sight underneath. It’s lovely to see a residential street without vehicles, where children play unhindered.

The estate was conceived by its architect, Neave Brown, as an alternative to the little-box tower blocks that surround it. When it was completed, over time and over budget, Ken Livingstone, then chair of housing for Camden council, launched an inquiry. That was in 1978, just before Margaret Thatcher came to power and the dream of social housing with ambition died. Nevertheless, the Alexandra and Ainsworth was the first of Britain’s postwar estates to be listed. It’s bold and exotic and wonderful.

It was an abject thing that the hopes and aspirations of modernism were squandered so carelessly. In the wake of Grenfell, the missed opportunities and the lost achievements are almost impossibly painful to think about. Each one of these developments was mocked in its day. Only time and lived experience transformed each of them into beloved and coveted places to live. The follies of humans are legion.

• Deborah Orr is a Guardian columnist

• This article was amended on 18 September 2017. An earlier version referred to the “west coast line out of King’s Cross”. This has now been amended to “Euston”.


Deborah Orr

The GuardianTramp

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