At Golden Lane Estate
Contributing Writer Sarah Winman (author of When God Was A Rabbit, A Year of Marvellous Ways and the forthcoming Tinman) sends this report with photographs by Patricia Niven about a proposed development at the much-loved Golden Lane Estate in the City of London
When I came to the Golden Lane Estate twenty-five years ago, I was more than a little grumpy and unimpressed. I’d been living just off Fleet St down by the Thames in a large Victorian building with a small community of musicians, actors and artists. It was exciting for a kid from Essex. It was romantic. We paid rent and were respectful, we looked after the building at night and were eventually given eviction notices. Even back then, homes were turned over for office space. My youth spoiled for a fight and, supported by a wonderful solicitor from Legal Aid, I chose to have my day in court. It never came, though, and I was relocated east to the Golden Lane Estate.
My first impression of the Estate was that it was all hard angles with garish-coloured housing blocks amidst concrete walkways. It seemed cold and unromantic. I was used to Victorian, I just did not get it and I vowed my stay would be temporary.
Yet the place crept up on me. And the more I came to understand and appreciate the brilliance of its design, its sensitive approach to social housing and the oasis of calm it provides, so the deeper my roots buried. I made committed friendships. My dear friend Maureen died last year at the age of ninety-six. I often draw breath when I look up to her flat and what remains of her garden, but mostly I see her absence.
Back in 1952, the architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon aimed to create a successful way of living that would allow people in social housing to thrive: their emphasis was on the principles of light and space. Theirs was a clever and sensible vision, influenced by Le Corbusier, of course, but also Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Hilberseimer. This was Modernist design with pedigree.
Work began in 1953 and steadily progressed to the tower of Great Arthur house, briefly one of Britain’s tallest residential blocks. The site culminated in Crescent House, the block that spans the curve of Goswell Rd and which allowed the architects to move seamlessly from Modernism to Brutalism, as they undertook the design for the Barbican Estate.
The interiors they created revolutionised rooms of smaller dimension. Their use of sliding screens allowed space to be opened up. Vaulted ceilings, dual aspects, open cantilevered stairwells and walls stopping shy of ceilings, ensured that light travelled uninterrupted front to back. And the colour I once thought garish, the opaque red and blue glass cladding, and yellow Muro glass for the tower – a beacon of brilliance at dawn and dusk – were signifiers of hope and optimism in a decade still reeling from loss and the aftermath of war. Nothing was random. And to me, it all worked. Made sense.
Theirs was a unique and holistic approach to social housing. They moved beyond the constraints of individual space to what they thought a community at large might need. So, a community centre was added, a public house, a swimming pool, badminton courts, a bowling green, a nursery, a playground, workshops, too. The spaces between the housing blocks and the relationship between them were equally important to the architects, and you feel this as you walk around. Landscaping of gardens and planting was thoughtful and fluid. Space for people to walk about safely. Space for people to create their own garden visions, an allotment maybe, attracting various wildlife. But most importantly, space that should remain space. Space to pause, to reflect, when beyond the boundaries, the intensity of a City rages. Chamberlin, Powell & Bon understood that space creates well-being, it allows individuals to flourish and create good community. And that is what we have here – a vibrant community that the residents are passionately committed to.
I knew it was only a matter of time before the cynical re-developments that are blighting the East End would encroach upon us here. And so, it comes to pass that a scheme to redevelop the site of the former Richard Cloudesley School, at the north-eastern corner of Golden Lane Estate, is being fast-tracked by the City of London and the London Borough of Islington. The City of London having paid Islington to take its quota of social housing after the nearby Bernard Morgan site, within the City boundary, was allocated for luxury apartments.
The current plans for the Richard Cloudesley site are ill-conceived, actively opposing everything Golden Lane stands for. The re-development is for a new primary school and social housing block, something we should all be celebrating. However, two highly contentious buildings dominate the plans. A two-storey school kitchen and sports hall – weirdly detached from the school itself – stands unnecessarily high at eight metres. (The height Sport England deems sufficient is three and a half metres). The current plan of the sports hall means the destruction of residents’ garages along an access road which will severely affect disabled blue badge holders, forcing one resident to consider moving. It will mean the certain demise of an award-winning allotment which brings so much pleasure and birdlife to a fertile corner. It will mean the destruction of mature trees and a huge reduction of light for residents of Basterfield House, since the outer wall of the proposed sports hall looms over their front doors.
It is the proposed fourteen-storey housing block that will dominate the site, bearing no relation in scale to either Basterfield or Stanley Cohen House, standing at six and four storeys respectively. Space around the buildings has been squeezed to a minimum with no quota even for parking – as one resident overheard at an earlier development meeting, ‘social housing tenants have no cars.’ But what about teachers? An incredible seventy-two housing units are proposed for this tower, three times more than the Mayor’s policy outlined in the London Plan. Cramming people into high density, poorly-built living space is not the answer to the social housing problem and it never will be, history has taught us that.
Everything about this proposed development in its present form shows a complete lack of understanding of the founding principles and respect afforded to social housing by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon at Golden Lane Estate. What is needed is housing with integrity. Lower the housing block to six storeys and build solid considerate homes with clever space. Move the sports hall away from the access road and residential front doors and connect it to the school. This is a chance to build sensibly. An example of how to do so stands right next door.
Sports pitches & pool
Diamond Jubilee celebrations
Estate Diamond Jubilee party
Current view north
View with proposed development (Courtesy Golden Lane Estate Residents Association)
Current view east from the Estate allotments
View east with proposed development (Courtesy Golden Lane Estate Residents Association)
View west along Banner St with development (Courtesy Golden Lane Estate Residents Association)
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