A few months ago I revisited the Branch Hill estate in Hampstead, one of a sequence of ambitious social housing projects realised by the London Borough of Camden between the 1960s and the 80s. https://socialskillsarchive.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/social/
On Saturday, I decided to visit another of these projects – Maiden Lane – completed in 1982, again by Benson & Forsyth. Unfortunately Maiden Lane is not located in the leafy grandeur of Hampstead. It is quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks – behind King’s Cross station.
The estate is much larger than Branch Hill, with hundreds of units arranged in rows of 2 storey squat row houses, 3 storey duplexes, 4 and 5 storey apartment blocks. It is fair to say the estate has not been a great social success, and as you can see from the photographs it is in a state of serious disrepair. The scheme includes several public squares, retail units and a community centre – and was conceived as a fully self-sufficient community. As is often proven, it is almost impossible to create communal spirit out of nothing. Sigrun and I are more interested in small-scale intervention – in the creation of a functioning ensemble, rather than a utopian entity.
Despite borrowing many characteristics from the surrounding Victorian terraces, the low-rise row houses at the periphery of the site are somewhat at odds with their taller neighbours. In both types, you will find private gardens to front and rear and entrances slightly elevated or removed from the street. The newer model has lost the ‘public’ united face of the older typology. In the Victorian terrace, rows of tall windows face the street, providing a visual link between the public and private domain. The newer typology has deliberately abandoned this approach, setting the windows within deep reveals, and using every formal technique to obscure views between the street and the private domain.
On the edges of the estate this does not seem problematic – however as you venture further in the atmosphere becomes rather oppressive- it does not feel safe. The entrances to many of the houses are set in blank concrete walls, with a very low canopy. The main thoroughfares are also compromised. At Branch Hill, these routes are uninterrupted – but here you must pass by dark, blind basement carparks. I don’t think I ever remember feeling quite so unsafe in the middle of the day in Central London. I don’t think I will be making a return visit! That said I would really like to get into one of the houses. They seem a lot smaller than the generous split-level houses at Branch Hill – I assume there were much tighter budgetary restraints. I expect they are just as well planned and comfortable, albeit on a more modest scale.
Over the coming months I hope to visit and photograph some of the earlier estates by Naeve Brown – Fleet Road and Alexandra Road.