Visual arts

Mellow yellow – how a feelgood buttery brick revived a decaying 1960s estate | Architecture

If 1960s housing was known for concrete panels, the 1980s for cartoonish pediments, and the 2000s for tacky (sometimes fatal) clip-on cladding, the current epoch will be remembered for bricks. But not just any old brick. It is a yellowish, biscuity brick, whose particular patina falls somewhere between a digestive and a Hobnob. It is a brick that summons strains of the traditional London stock and Cambridge gault, suggesting a crunchy, crumbly, wholesome goodness, no matter what actually lies behind the facade. It is the comforting Hovis ad of cladding choices, a no-nonsense cooked clod of clay, which comes with an unlikely name: Mystique.

The irrepressible rise of the Mystique brick can be traced back to its use on one particular housing project in Cambridge, which won the Stirling prize in 2008. With its combination of terraced streets, mews houses and courtyards, the Accordia development was a refreshing bolt of common-sense design that would influence the next decade and more of British housing. In an age when new blocks of flats looked increasingly cheap, the low-rise buttery brickwork suggested a new era of weight, depth and permanence, a return to front doors on the street, housing as it used to be.

Almost 15 years later, two of the architects of Accordia – Alison Brooks and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) – have been working together again, joined by a younger firm, Gort Scott, in an altogether tougher context. They have swapped leafy Cambridge for the gritty South Kilburn estate in Brent, the poorest borough in west London, and exchanged an enclave of million-pound homes for the 235 council flats of Unity Place. But the Mystique is back, in bigger quantities than ever.

Alison Brooks, who lives nearby and has worked on the estate for 12 years, building two other projects (also in Mystique), says the first task was to restore the street network. She describes the previous 1960s blocks as “moated”, set back on a podium of car parking that effectively blocked access between the streets. A new pedestrian route now runs through the site, where avenues of cherry trees frame a playground, forming a picturesque vista that terminates in the gothic revival facade of St Augustine’s church – affectionately known as the “cathedral of north London”.

Modernist slabs … the Unity Place site before redevelopment.
Modernist slabs … the Unity Place site before redevelopment. Photograph: Paul Riddle

The bulk of the scheme follows the new London vernacular, a kind of politely proportioned, stripped-back Georgian architecture, synonymous with recent housing in the capital. Citing a popular precedent, the architects took inspiration from the desirable mansion blocks of nearby Maida Vale, replacing the 18-storey slab and four-storey walk-ups with a higher-density arrangement of six to eight storeys that frame private courtyard gardens. Brooks’s trio of buildings depart from the norm: they are kinked and chamfered, with oversized mansard roofs clad with champagne-coloured terracotta tiles, and screened balconies that dance across the facades. Across the street stand the two more sober L-shaped blocks by FCBS and Gort Scott. The former reflects Brooks’s slanted geometries at its upper storeys, while the latter enjoys inset balconies and is crowned with a sharp white concrete colonnade around its top two levels, echoing the tracery of the church.

The aim, says George Wilson of FCBS, was “similar themes done slightly differently”, with a consistent material palette – the acres of Mystique brick, offset with metallic beige metalwork – livened up by tweaks to the massing. The location of a mains water pipe beneath Brooks’s site, for example, led to one block being cut into a quirky triangular flatiron shape, adorned with balconies on its prow and topped with a cornice. Another of her blocks features green-glazed bricks and long, broad balconies overlooking the courtyard, breaking up the oatmeal mass of the rest of the scheme.

'The design of the flats themselves seems a bit of an afterthought' … an apartment interior in Unity Place.
‘The design of the flats themselves seems a bit of an afterthought’ … an apartment interior in Unity Place. Photograph: Paul Riddle

While attention has been paid to creating a good streetscape, the design of the flats themselves seems like a bit of an afterthought. The majority are dual aspect, but there are some floors of some single-aspect flats reached from gloomy double-loaded corridors (ie with doors to apartments on both sides), with uninspiring layouts. The result can feel as if the homes have been squeezed inside a predetermined envelope, rather than the blocks designed around the best possible internal configuration. The architects weren’t retained in the design-and-build process, so there is some of the usual bogging, like doors to balconies in common areas that have been replaced with unopenable fire vents, making them impossible to access. The inclusion of a district heating system in the basement also now seems questionable – in vogue at the time of design, the general consensus has since moved on from them being as beneficial as once thought, as they sometimes lock residents into costly contracts.

The project is the latest phase in the regeneration of the South Kilburn estate, which has had as checked history as any such schemes. Once home to Victorian terraces, the 48-acre site was mostly cleared in the postwar years, an action justified by bomb damage and overcrowding, and replaced with modernist slabs, some built with the “Bison block” system of prefab concrete panels craned into place . In the right light they have a charm that, to a degree, recalls the Hungarian modernist Marcel Breuer, but they were built without the correct rubber seals, leading to years of cold, damp, draughty misery for residents.

“You could spill a bucket of water on the 10th floor,” says Leslie Barson, who has worked on the estate for 29 years, running a home education center and community kitchen, “and someone on the fourth floor would get a damp patch. ”

Successful attempts to fix the estate brought their own problems. The Blairite New Deal for Communities in the 2000s was an unmitigated disaster, with more than £50m spent on the estate, and hardly anything to show for it. A probe into misconduct resulted in the resignation of the program’s chief executive, and the sacking of his deputy, in 2006.

Several blocks built since then have been plagued by construction flaws. Granville New Homes, built by contractor Higgins in 2009 and bought by Brent’s housing company for £17.1m, has suffered from leaks and cladding issues, leaving an estimated repair cost of £18.5m. Ironically, Higgins has since been chosen to repair defects to another block, Merle Court, built just around the corner in 2012. Last year, a window crashed to the pavement from a fifth-floor flat at Bourne Place, built by Denne for L&Q in 2013. It was described as “another day of stress and terror” by residents, who had long complained of loose-fitting balcony doors falling from their hinges. The list goes on: a catalog of calamities that regularly makes the pages of the Kilburn Times, featuring tenants who feel “trapped” in what they say are “defective and neglected” housing association homes.

'The best of the bunch so far'... Unity Place.
‘The best of the bunch so far’… Unity Place. Photograph: Paul Riddle

“There are seven housing associations on the estate and they don’t talk to each other,” says Barson. “When rats run from one block’s bins to another, they won’t do anything because it’s someone else’s problem.”

Barson and her colleagues at the Granville community center have been battling for a decade to get the residents’ voices heard in the process of regeneration, with some success. The Victorian building where they have run a community kitchen since 2014 will now be saved, although it will be swamped by further flats, and she is critical of the lack of proper community space in the new developments. “Kids from different blocks could play together before,” she says, “but now all the gardens are gated. There is a new ‘hub’ for council services, but nowhere you can have a birthday party or a coffee morning.”

Pablo Sendra, a housing activist and academic at UCL, has been working with residents to develop an alternative community-led plan for part of the estate that has yet to face the wrecking ball (PDF). Working with architects, social scientists and a quantity surveyor, they have shown how two of the 1960s blocks that didn’t use the concrete panel system (William Dunbar and William Saville houses) could be eminently retrofitted and, along with some infill development, provide a higher proportion of social-rented homes than the council’s demolish-and-rebuild strategy, with a fraction of the embodied carbon cost. But the council refuses to reconsider.

“The older buildings just don’t work,” says councilor Shama Tatler, lead member for regeneration. “No matter how much money we put into refurbishing, it’s impossible.” She cites the 2019 estate-wide ballot, in which 84% of residents voted to press ahead with regeneration, although critics point out the survey didn’t differentiate by block, and the question posed a blunt “yes or no” to improvements.

To Brent’s credit, it’s doing better than many London boroughs. There is a commitment to rehouse everyone on the estate, and there will be a net increase in social-rented units, from 1,568 to 1,626, along with 155 shared ownership homes – cross-subsidized by 1,356 flats for market sale. Unity Place is the best of the bunch so far, and it is something of an anomaly in being 100% social rent, after Brent secured £111m from the mayor of London’s pot for “genuinely affordable” homes, £30m of which funded this.

It sounds like a big win, until you realize that the council bought the development from Telford Homes and Notting Hill Genesis for £92m in 2019 – having sold them the site for just £3m a few years earlier. It is an indictment of the lack of central government funding for so long that local authorities have been left having to buy back market homes with mayoral handouts, while housebuilders continue to laugh their way to the bank, often leaving leaky, dangerous, shoddily built blocks in their wake.

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