The demise of East London’s estates: how brutalism failed a generation

Introduction

In the latter half of the twentieth century, arguably the most defining feature of East London’s physical transformation was the extensive construction of large housing estates, with several iconic tower blocks piercing the East End skyline for several decades. For a generation of men, women, and children and at time of great social and political change, housing estates not only became the epicentre of East London’s historic sense of community but also signified the  start of the area’s regeneration following the Second World War.

Influenced by the great Le Corbusier, between the 1950s and 1970s innovative brutalist structures gradually replaced the slum dwellings and structural damage that resulted from the Blitz, with local planners intent in magnifying the housing boom that was apparent across post-war Britain. However, by the 1980s housing estates became synonymous with the ever-increasing deprivation across East London, with the poor living conditions, declining health and the entrenchment of high crime rates and unemployment exacerbated by the rapidly degrading nature of council estates.

Slum clearances and the rise in brutalist housing

For centuries the East End of London had been notorious for its widespread poverty and a myriad of social problems, intensified by the significant immigration to the area from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. The bleak environment within East London worsened further following sustained Nazi bombing campaigns during the Second World War, which left many areas of the East End devastated, with thousands of homes destroyed and livelihoods lost. In Tower Hamlets alone, 2,221 civilians were killed and 7,472 injured; while 46,482 houses were destroyed and 47,574 damaged (East London History, 2010). The magnitude of the destruction – as well as the pre-existing inadequate conditions, prompted the swift rebuilding of East London’s housing infrastructure that would ultimately serve as the precursor to the area’s revival.

To stimulate East London’s recovery, local authorities promptly sought to address the area’s depleted housing stock by building large council estates to accommodate its war-stricken residents and the growing migration of people from the Commonwealth. Underpinned by the rise in Brutalist architecture which gained widespread popularity in the U.K. and across Europe, large concrete towers were erected throughout East London, surrounded by ‘streets in the sky’ that provided walkways, shops and other community facilities alongside the housing needs of its inhabitants. The post-war housing estates were designed to provide a modern and accessible living environment that was in stark contrast to the rundown terraced housing that had prevailed throughout East London. Estates such as the Brownfield and Rowlett Estate in Tower Hamlets – which housed Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower (1967), Gascoigne Estate in Barking (1960) and Nightingale Estate in Hackney (1972) exemplified a modern way of life that inclined to the post-war aspirations of the East End.

Ronan Point and the decline of East London estates

However, it soon became apparent that in the long-term the substantial drive to build brutalist council estates across East London would help in perpetuating the socio-economic difficulties in the area. This was both due to the monumental structural deficiencies that affected several estates across East London, as well as the often penurious living environments they induced for local residents and communities. Merely ten months after its completion in 1968, Ronan Point – a tower block within the Freemasons Estate in Newham, partially collapsed following a gas explosion, leading to the death of four people and 17 injuries. The collapse of Ronan Point was mainly attributed to the inadequate structural design and construction of the tower block, particularly the use of the Larsen Nielsen system. Ronan Point was built by utilising large prefabricated reinforced concrete to build the walls and ceilings, which left the tower block vulnerable if the joints between flats were connected improperly, particularly in the event of a fire, expected wind loadings or explosions.

The partial collapse of Ronan Point precipitated the decline in public confidence in high-rise social housing, which would later be reinforced by structural deficiencies in other large council estates across East London. The Holly Street Estate in Hackney – famous for its mile-long ‘snake blocks’ that stretched across Queensbridge Road, was widely recognised as a hotspot for violent crime and gangs, with its concave structure allowing delinquency to thrive. In 1998, a photographer visiting the estate witnessed a dead person hanging from the windows of one of the tower blocks (Hackney Gazette, 2017). A couple of miles away in south Hackney, the Kingshold Estate was engrossed in the highly-toxic chemical asbestos and was generally in a poor structural condition, which led to several flats becoming dilapidated and uninhabited – an ideal target for rampant squatting. Similarly, the Oliver Close Estate in Waltham Forest suffered from broken entryphones, vandalised garages and burnt-out bin areas, while the blocks themselves were poorly insulated, and many were structurally unsound (The Independent, 1996). In fact, by the late 1980s a significant number of the brutalist council estates built only twenty years prior were deemed beyond repair and considered ‘no-go zones’, leaving many communities entrenched in considerably poor housing conditions.

Demolition of East London’s brutalist housing stock

By the dawn of the new millennium, local authorities across East London could no longer ignore the rapid decline of their newly built brutalist council estates, and the negative consequences of their decline on local residents. As a result, several councils were forced into knocking down or refurbishing their ‘modern’ high-rise tower blocks and maisonettes in favour of low-rise, council ‘garden estates’ with more traditional street patterns and individual open spaces. For example, Hackney Council initiated an extensive campaign in the late 1980s in replacing most of its brutalist estates, including all of the Trowbridge and Kingshold Estates, and replacing most of the housing stock within the Nightingale, Holly Street, Clapton Park and Kings Crescent Estate. Newham Council eventually brought down all of the Freemason Estate, while Tower Hamlets and Haringey Councils have also engaged in extensive work in destroying its high-rise housing estates built during the 1950s and 1960s. Both Barking and Dagenham and Havering have also began to reinvest in their post-war housing stock – most evidently with the regeneration of the Gascogne and Waterloo Road Estates respectively.

Related image

(Kingshold Estate 1987-1999 © chris dorley-brown, Halston Point and Thornhill Point were both demolished on 23 July 1995)

Conclusions

The large-scale construction of council estates across East London was an attempt by local authorities to address the extensive structural and psychological damage following the Second World War, as well as an ambition to rejuvenate the East End by building innovative homes that echoed the contemporary popularity of brutalism. However, despite initial confidence in post-war council housing, for a generation of families council estates eventually served to rekindle the deep-rooted poverty that had historically existed in the popular memory of the East End. Although in many ways council estates provide a sense of nostalgia for those who remember a time of closer communities and fond memories – particularly given the recent gentrification of East London, for decades council estates were a great hindrance in the socio-economic recovery of the area.

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