My second building project was (you saw this coming) another massive housing scheme in the form of three terraces. Built in the innovative London Borough of Camden, it has had a different fate.
Known as Alexandra Road when we built it, it now goes by the name of Rowley Way.
More photos here.
You can see that the white concrete has weathered to grey (oh the tantrums from the architect when the concrete came out slightly pink).
The long, crescent-shaped site is bounded on the south by existing housing, major streets on the east and west and has continuous frontage along the railroad to the north. The desire to control the sound and vibration from the trains was a major consideration in the organization of three parallel rows of dwellings.* Two rows of terraced apartments are aligned along the tracks with the higher 8 story stepped building designed to block the noise of the trains from reaching the interior portion of the site. A lower, 4-story block runs along the other side of a continuous public walkway that serves both terraced rows of buildings. These buildings are designed to open to the south. The third row of building, along the southern edge of the site, parallels another public walkway between this row and the existing earlier buildings of the Ainsworth Estate and defines an open public park between the second and third row of dwellings.
A community center that includes a school, reception center, maintenance facilities and the heating plant*** mark the entrance to the site from London Road to the west and open to the park areas. The lower buildings contain maisonettes with shared access, terraces, and gardens. Maisonettes also occupy the top two levels of the large slab with entrance from a continuous gallery at the 7th floor. The dwellings in the lower floors in this block are flats that are entered from open stairs serving two dwellings per floor. Parking is located beneath the building along the tracks. Poured-in-place concrete is used throughout. Alexandra road received much criticism during and after construction because of enormous cost overruns caused by the complicated construction, unforeseen foundation problems and inflation**. Notes taken from here.
* You can see this housing block as you come into London's Euston Station as it leans back towards the railway. The block nearest the railway is built on rubber pads to remove the vibration. The blocks had something like a 50 year life so I wonder what will happen then, when they fail.
** I am especially proud of the heating plant, designed in the
socialist style to feed the whole site of 500 homes. This must make it
one of the smallest such schemes in the world, and hence not very
***and a famous exploding sewer. The contractor had to build over the sewer which was in danger of collapsing. It was my job to make an annual walk-through inspection to see whether it was getting worse. Victorian brick sewers are rather interesting to visit. One day there was a freak thunderstorm. It just happened to be the day the contractor had excavated round the sewer. The pressure of the water coming down from Hampstead blew off the top of the sewer and flooded the site. That took quite a time to fix as well.
The building is much admired by (mostly foreign) architects and students make pilgrimages to look at it. I think it is already a protected architectural monument. Articles like "Alexandra Road: the last great social housing project", (Freear, Andrew, AA files, Sept, 1993, pp. 35-46) are written about it.
I haven't been back for a long time and have always been faintly embarrassed by my association with another of these big concrete blocks.
So I was quite pleased to find that people actually like living there, or at least one or two as this extract from the website shows:
A Peaceful LifeBut other people comment on the lack of maintenance and the heating failure, so not much to be proud about there.
In the early 1970's I used to use Alexander Road as a short cut from Kilburn to Swiss Cottage and remember wondering how the unfortunate people living in those imposing but decrepit Victorian mansions survived the winters. They weren't wealthy enough to seal up the windows, how did they manage to heat their huge homes?
Ten years later, my council lottery number came up and Rowley Way was one of the offers. I was amazed to see what the council had done with Alexander Road. By now I had two toddlers and another baby on the way, so my choice was heavily influenced by this fact.I had turned down two other apparently much more desirable flats on the grounds that they did not meet my most basic requirements: safety for the children, personal comfort, freedom and adequate privacy.
I was looking for a home that didn't imprison; where we could sit outside without leaving home; I needed to feel my children were safe being outdoors, walking to the shops unaccompanied for instance. I was also keen not to be isolated, as so often happens to young mothers, and yearned to be part of a vibrant mixed community. Being a "foreigner", I was not constrained by classic English snobberies and preconceptions about public housing and viewed the estate with an open mind.
My first impression of Rowley Way remains vivid. The earthy red brick walk way and the dazzling white concrete structures had such a jolly Mediteranean feel. It was immediately possible to visualize it's potential as London's equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. As soon as you turn off the busy Abbey Road into the estate, it is calm and quiet.This seems a rare luxury so close to central London.
My 3 bed-roomed maisonette is flooded with light from every available source. Huge picture windows look out over a peaceful oasis of greenery and mature trees. Many a time I have sat and been simply uplifted by this lush view of nature or been stunned by the beauty of the sun burnishing the windows opposite with a copper glow. My utilitarian kitchen looks directly onto the brick walkway, which is particularly child friendly, and being pedestrian only (officially that is!) the children play safely there, within watching and shouting distance.
Older children have the playgrounds, which are overlooked by everywhere, thus allowing one to join a community of women with children who effortlessly watch over each others offspring from the comfort of their own homes.
I particularly love the simple clean lines of the flats; the sense of airy space despite their small size and low ceilings. I've seen interiors as diverse as Laura Ashley busy to Bauhaus austere, working equally well in these flats — they are well suited to transformation to personal taste. The walls are so thick that neighbors' noise rarely penetrates. One of the very best features, in my opinion, is the ingenious heating system, which, in the winter, is complete. No icy corners and draughty hallways, and no ugly radiators in sight.
I think, ultimately, the genius of the design lies in the subtle way it supports family life, and a community spirit without forcing it down our throats. It's as easy to be part of the community as it is to stay aloof.
For example, family units are constructed in such a way that only two families are forced, as it were, to be in extremely close proximity (sharing a basement stairwell, in our case). This makes it easier to deal with spatial conflicts.
I've heard people comment on "how inhuman" Rowley Way appears to them. I can only say that my experiences in over 20 years of living in Rowley Way have mostly been positive and very human. Whether you've lived here for 20 years or 20 minutes, people are invariably friendly, polite and sensitive. I believe the space somehow magically engenders this. My closest neighbors and I enjoy mutual respect, naturally, perhaps because we're neither below nor above each other, but side by side, living in peace and harmony. For this I have always been grateful.
Interesting how two similar designs can have such different fates.