London Uncovered: Brick By Brick

One drawback of London's fast moving and packed property/lettings market online is that it can sometimes be hard to find out an in-depth history of specific buildings. If you type the name of a block of flats into Google, you will find a dozen sparse ads for room lettings there before you find a site with any meaty information that gives insight into the history and context of the building itself.

I went to Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre yesterday to do some writing in their cafe. I was working on a piece  about swimming and so it helped to watch the mens swimming team in and around the pool for inspiration (right?). On my way out it was an empty and rainy Sunday afternoon, and I noticed this building across the road:

It's the sort of "ugly" building you walk past everyday. With all of the busy traffic you could quite easily not notice it at all. In fact, if you're walking under its nose along the row of shops and take-aways built into its ground floor then it's almost impossible to take in.

I was intrigued by the unusual boxed-off balconies in the two rows of top flats. It looks to me as if the living room (assuming they're flats at the top) has a wide balcony, and then the (I'm guessing) bedroom above has a tiny single balcony, and both are squared off to make the two balconies of each individual flat self-contained?

Who lives in this building? How long has it been here?

Run-down lettering outside the building told me it's called Centre Heights and so I made a note to Google it once home. I love the name - "Centre Heights" - so grandiose and generous to itself with regards to its off-centre positioning in London and the fact that it's only 8 floors or so high. You could imagine a quite good sit-com called Centre Heights.

After ploughing through endless lettings listings and old ad-funded links that date back to 2007, (including one from a couple of years ago in which the 4th floor was available as an office space for £29 per square foot) I managed to find out that it was designed in 1961 by Panos Koulermos and his mentor Douglas Stephen.

I then found this interview with Panos Koulermos about his time in London as an architecture student in the 1950s. The grisly Centre Heights was in fact his first major project before he moved abroad to forge a highly successful career as a prolific and celebrated architect abroad.

After his architectural initiation with the grey modernity of Centre Heights he went on to design stylish stuff like this years later:

In the interview Koulermos also mentions the famous pioneer of Brutalism - Le Corbusier - as a major influence. He then gave an example of other "Corbu" inspired piece in London, the Langham House flats in Richmond designed by his contemporary Jim Stirling. I Google imaged these flats and found this:

They're the sort of flats that today people would think ugly, poxy, cheap and dated. Yet if you cast your mind back to the 1950s post-war London, I can just imagine how these neat little flats were considered idyllic with spacious windows and cute balconies. You can imagine the dream can't you - a young couple frying eggs in the kitchen, children playing on the grass outside, someone humming a jazzy tune while they hang their washing out.

It's weird to think that these buildings from the 1960s that we storm past everyday were meticulously dreamt up, drawn, designed and built by leading architects from a now gone era.

Of course back then they couldn't have imagined how diverse, complex and selfish the world would become.  That this kind of idyllic communal living, that fragile post-war connectivity, was about to be shat on by capitalism.

Another strong example in London is the Alexandria Road Council Estate near Abbey Road by Neave Brown:

This was the summery dream:

And this is what it became with neglect and decades of English weather:

I actually quite like it. It's definitely one of my 7 Wonders of London and I wouldn't want to upset the architect Neave, who is still alive and vocal in London today.

The Alexandria Road Council Estate has found itself a cult status. There are guided walks along it periodically. Indeed, affluent lefties have snatched up the now privatised flats on this estate and understandably they go for quite high prices. The estate is often used as a filming location and for "edgy" fashion shoots.

The breathtakingly Brutalist estate was the embodiment of a dream: There was housing, a school, an onsite nurse, a groceries store and underground parking. The people assigned to the social housing at Alexandria Road, or "Rowley Way" as it has been nicknamed, would never have a reason to leave. It was meant to be the perfect capsule community (for people who needed social housing...) A post-war dream that early critics saw as perhaps an attempt at keeping poor people boxed off and out of sight.

Today we see a curve of run-down flats with cascading balconies, thick with weeds and piles of junk in the small concrete front gardens. It looks like an abandoned city from an episode of Star Trek. The blanket silence when walking along the estate really chills the bones. The complex has a reputation for crime and muggings along the curved pedestrian pavement (you can trap people in it by walking down from both ends while they're on it...). In fact just catching a glimpse of this estate while passing by on the bus is a harrowing enough experience.

London is full of fascinating pieces of architecture. And while I'm sure there are lovely coffee table books about it and uncountable architectural theses, it would be good to have a visually-pleasing and user-friendly database of it all that is accessible to the public. No?

It would be good if there was a definitive website where we could look up any building in London and find out its story. Not just the bare bones of what year it was built and who by. But information on who lived there, memorable events that happened there and any archive press cuttings about the building. People could contribute their own stories, before they're lost forever.

I don't know about you but I often think when walking past an interesting building "I wonder what scandals, what secrets, what parties, what nights of queer mischief happened there?". That's just my mind, but I'm sure we all have our questions. Because with a city as busy and pumping with people as London, any building that has been around for a few years must have seen its fair share of fun.

I was chatting to a businessman in Soho a few weeks ago and I mentioned the "Walkie Talkie". For those of you who don't know, it's this beast that they're building on Fenchurch Street:

I love the Walkie Talkie. It's big, it's imposing, it's villainous and everything a skyscraper should be.

He told me though that his first ever job had been in the building that they scrapped in order to build it! I gave the building a Wikipedia whirl and discovered that sure enough, on the site of the new "Walkie Talkie" used to stand this cute skyscraper instead:

I love it. Demolished in 2008, "20 Fenchurch Street" was one of the first tall buildings in the City and was even Grade II listed. It just goes to show - nothing is safe, even when Grade listed. If you know what this building's real name was then please do leave a comment below, I can't find it anywhere. I'm assuming people didn't call is "20 Fenchurch Street".

I found this blog about London architecture called Brutalism and Boozing while researching Centre Heights:

If you know of any good London architecture blogs or websites then please do leave me a link below. And that's that. An amateur architectural rambling from me. Perhaps my New Year's Resolution will be to give Hampstead History a rest for 2013 and build up my knowledge on London's Brutalist scene.

Anyways, that'll be all.

(Picture at top, a digital creation by artist Filip Dujardin. Sadly this building doesn't exist. Although if it did - that cantilever in the top right would be pretty dangerous!)



  1. You may find some of the recorded (and upcoming) lectures here interesting..
    The recorded ones have a feedburner link down the bottom.

    1. Thanks Mark - will check it out! Jack x

  2. "you can trap people in it by walking down from both ends while they're on it..."

    mate you know you can do that on a street as well?

  3. Thanks MArk for the RA link, I look forward to having a good read.

    Anonymous - I don't usually reply to anonymous comments. But yes, I'm quite aware Rowley Way isn't the only place people are mugged on earth. That's not to say it doesn't have a claustrophic pedestrianised road this is locked in on both sides. Sorry!

  4. Jack
    Here's another link:
    Totally understand where you are coming from in looking at one random little flat in a London street and wondering who lives there and what their story is ...

    1. Brilliant, thank you. I've saved this to my favourites and will have a good read through. I've found you on Twitter too so I can receive your updates. Jack x