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Book Club: Cook’s Camden – The Making of Modern Housing

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

The trials and tribulations of high-density post-war housing has always been a topic that fascinates me. From the slum clearance programme of the 1950s, to the design and construction of ‘homes fit for heroes’ that spanned much of the mid-20th Century, to the controversies surrounding the future of many remaining housing estates today. Arguably, post-war housing can be seen as the birth of brutalism, emerging from early-20th Century Modernism, and no other architectural movement has caused quite as much political embroilment and contention – which is perhaps why it interests me as much as it does.

Famous examples of post-war ‘sink estates’ absorbed in such controversy include Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, the Aylesbury Estate in Sout­hwark, and the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle. Each of these brutalist housing schemes has been, or is currently, undergoing demolition and contentious regeneration, ‘justified’ by arguments over the schemes’ ‘notorious’ reputations and their disrepair, caused in part by years of neglect.

Image 1: The Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, east London. Image by Janet Hall RIBA Library Photographs Collection. Source:  Image by Janet Hall RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Image 2: Source: photo by Cristiana Strava

However, there are a number of examples of urban housing built during this period that enjoy a more successful legacy and are rather celebrated as models of brutalist design, with many enjoying listed status (saving them from demolition) unlike the estates mentioned above. These schemes are situated in the London Borough of Camden – an amalgamation of the boroughs of Hampstead, Holborn and St Pancras. This is what Mark Swenarton explores in his book Cook’s Camden – The Making of Modern Housing. Focusing on low-rise, high-density housing projects built in Camden in the 1960s-70s when Sydney Cook was Borough Architect, the book explores how Cook, along with Architects Neave Brown (who later received the RIBA Gold Medal for his services to Architecture), Peter Tábori and Benson & Forsyth “represented a new type of urban housing based on a return to streets with front doors…at a time when other Councils were building tower blocks, the Camden Architects created instead an urbanism that integrated with, rather than broke from, its physical and cultural context”.

Neave Brown’s development at Alexandra Road in the London borough of Camden. Photograph: Tim Crocker

The book begins with a foreword by Kenneth Frampton discussing the importance of Cook’s Camden in influencing an international movement towards low-rise, high-density housing, with an emphasis on “achieving denser, anti-suburban, proto-ecological patterns of land settlement”. Swenarton then turns to a brief history of the movement to contextualise the Camden Architects, with discussion of the Welfare State and the reaction against the high-rise housing typology of the 60s (caused in part by the collapse of Ronan Point in 1958), enabling the low-density model to be looked on more favourably.

Love them or hate them, the Camden projects to this day retain reputations as “exemplars of street-based housing”, emerging during a period of optimism as the world rebuilt itself after World War II. Cook advocated the low-rise, high-density model of housing to the Camden Council Architects, and Neave Brown’s Winscombe Street, built in 1965, emerged as a precedent the Architects would base future designs on. Designed as a terrace of 5 3-storey homes for Brown himself and 4 other Artists/Architects, Winscombe Street was designed to Parker Morris standards and pioneered a maisonette form (influenced by nuclear families at the time); the lower ground level would be the “children’s zone”, the middle floor would be the “family zone”, or “heart of the house”, featuring the kitchen and living area, and the top floor would be for the adults. The home would also enjoy a terrace – with privacy screens adorned with climbing plants – and a communal garden.

Housing, Winscombe Street, Camden, London: the garden elevation. Source: Martin Charles / RIBA Collections

The success of Winscombe Street became a precursor to Brown’s Fleet Road (his first job at Camden, built in 1967) and Alexandra Road Housing (completed in 1979). These ambitious schemes consisted of 71 and 518 dwelling respectively and marked Brown and Cook’s venture into creating not just social housing, but their “ambition to make a piece of city”. Both developments accommodated not just housing, but additional uses such as shops and studios, and in Alexandra Road Housing’s case, a school, youth centre and public park. The homes themselves enjoyed split level internal layouts, influenced by Winscombe Street, and were illuminated with daylight through large openings which led onto planted terraces and balconies. Made famous by popular culture, Alexandra Road Housing is not without its controversy (indeed, a public enquiry was launched in 1978 to investigate significant overspending), but others have branded the development “a brilliant architectural set piece that was the last great social housing project…internationally it was seen as the pinnacle of Sydney Cook’s achievement at Camden and commanded architectural attention worldwide”.

Whatever your opinion on Brown’s designs themselves might be (us Architects are all too aware of our rose-tinted perception of Brutalism), the book goes on to highlight his positive influence on other Camden Council Architects, notably Peter Tábori’s Highgate New Town, and Benson & Forsyth’s Maiden Lane.

Image 1: Maiden Lane Estate Visit, Jan 2018 by Robin Farmer

Image 2: Peter Tábori and Kenneth Adie/LBC, Highgate New Town. Source: Tim Crocker

The book concludes with details of the political shifts that marked the end of Cook’s department in the 1970s, leading to spending cuts in the housing sector that contributed to the depletion of the low-rise, high-density housing model. However, the Camden Borough Architects combined portfolio has made Camden’s housing stock what it is today, which remains both infamous and inspirational; “here was a group of Architects who used all the powers and skills at their disposal – analytical, visionary, rational and imaginative, practical and poetic – to come up with designs that provided something better than what was being built around them at the time…if, half a century later, our architects could do the same, we would have good reason to be satisfied”.

Throughout, the book is beautifully illustrated with Architectural drawings and both historic and modern photography. What captures me most are the images of the homes within the Camden estates being enjoyed by real people today, just as the Architects would have intended some 50 years ago. The book also serves as an inspirational mood board for anyone with a penchant for mid-Century modernist interiors like myself – indeed, I think my own houseplants would enjoy the generous south facing skylight on page 178, and the pops of orange on pages 204-205 certainly wouldn’t go amiss in the WR-AP office!

Image 1: Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth/LBC, Mansfield Road Upper Maisonette. Source: Tim Crocker

Image 2: Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth/LBC, Lamble Street. Source: Tim Crocker

Overall, Cook’s Camden is essential reading for those with an interest in post-war brutalism and the internal politics surrounding planning systems and social housing. I would particularly recommend this to anyone seeking to build their knowledge of this important piece of Architectural history to the next level. It’s thorough and certainly not a book you can read in one go, but it will sit very nicely on the coffee table when it’s not being perused.

You can buy your own copy here

This months book club has been written by Alice, whose main line of architectural curiosity lies with the development of social spaces and resilient homes, and how we can define better and more inclusive places for communities and individuals. You can read more about her here.


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