Working class paradise? The artists celebrate the centenary of Becontree
Becontree is boring. An unwavering barrage of brick houses, not quite identical, but not far away. A vast state of edge of low rise neo-vernacular.
It is also, in its own way, astonishing. When Becontree was built by London County Council after World War I, it was the largest housing estate in the world. If the notion of “subdivision” evokes images of high slabs and concrete walkways, this is not it. It’s a very British affair – cottage style houses with gardens to the front and back, far enough east of town to take your lungs out of it.
And this year, as it celebrates its centenary, it represents the remarkably intact survival of a hugely ambitious social housing program that puts current efforts to shame. Between 1921 and 1935, nearly 26,000 houses to accommodate 100,000 people were built around a central circular plan, with living space, proper kitchens, indoor bathrooms and private gardens that seemed like a paradise for those who were fleeing the extreme poverty of the slums of East London. A train line was laid to transport construction materials from the docks and 50 miles of roads were built.
On a blustery spring day during a lockdown, there isn’t much sense of the centennial celebration. Becontree, unlike much of east London, has remained incredibly unresponsive. But plans are in place for artists to create a series of works and interventions aimed at strengthening community infrastructure and recognizing the special nature of this huge now historic estate.
The most visible will be two new playgrounds designed by artists Eva Rothschild and Yinka Ilori. Portuguese writer Leonor Antunes designs a series of plaques to commemorate famous residents (there have been many, from football managers Alf Ramsay and Terry Venables to singer Max Bygraves to Dudley Moore and former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey) . There will also be permanent works by Shezad Dawood, Elsa James and Joy Labinjo, and sound installations by Joe Namy, Larry Achiampong and Emma Smith. The centenary year will end with an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London by artist Verity-Jane Keefe, who has been deeply rooted in community work at Becontree for years, tapping into stories, details and memories .
One of the most intriguing works to come out of the centenary is, unlike eye-catching playgrounds and installations, the most seemingly mundane. Keefe, along with community groups, RIBA, architects nimtim and artist Katie Schwab, are trying to reinvent the greensward corner plots that are a hallmark of the estate. These remains of lawns, largely due to the circular city plan and the desire to leave a green space around the houses, never had their vocation truly defined. Usually fenced with low railings, they are neither public nor private. The idea is to revitalize these unused patches of grass as public spaces, pocket parks in a repetitive landscape of houses and parked cars. It is an evolving project and an important idea for many suburban landscapes rich in such underutilized space.
Likewise, artist / designers Studio Morison was commissioned to design a range of bespoke street furniture at Becontree. It is an area with only a minimum of shops in its center: a stroll through the shops for an elderly person can be a real outing. Designed from crushed rubble from local construction work, the result (not yet installed) will be elegant and courteous, lending a bit of civic solidity to the public realm. These and other projects are supported by RIBA and arts organizations, including Create London.
Meanwhile, the muf architect / artists is working at Kingsley Hall, the local community center, to create a renewed and expanded experience which he calls ‘public luxury’. The design is a bit playful, but with enough substance to appear as a civic center.
The strangest thing about Becontree is that this huge estate is almost entirely lacking in civic infrastructure. The few shabby stores are a bad excuse for a mall. The original plans were ambitious but, with a touch of Arts & Crafts paternalism and Puritanism, they scorned institutions such as pubs and theaters or more urban places such as plazas or shopping streets. These areas were designed as escapes from the city, transporting the working classes of alcohol and darkness into the fresh air; they abandoned the language of urbanity, density, squares, main streets, avenues, mixed uses, workshops, etc. It was purposely a dormitory suburb and the unintended consequence was a car addiction which in turn turned the streets into something much less passable than the green future imagined – instead, a landscape of parked vehicles. and underutilized public space.
Many of the artists’ interventions aim to tackle, in one way or another, this absent public domain. The playgrounds are a touch of joy amid what can be a pretty austere settlement. Ilori’s vivid use of color injects a sense of pleasure; The design of the Rothschild playground is a landscape of pyramids inspired by Lego and Minecraft as much as the pharaohs.
The aim must be to celebrate social innovations and the creation of housing for so many people in such radically improved conditions. We must also salute the inhabitants, and few artists would be better equipped than Keefe, with his almost obsessive anchoring in the stories of places and people, the quirks and specificities of this field. While walking, she shows architectural curiosities, a strangely expressionist church with pointed expressionist windows, the local tradition may have developed in the 1970s of pargeting (creation of plaster reliefs on the facades of houses: groynes, squirrels, flowers). The four square mile estate is so vast that it has developed its own ornamental language related more to pastoral aspirations than to any other architectural mode.
All of these quirks will be celebrated in the exhibit at RIBA, but interventions must also recognize failures. Becontree was a model on how to quickly build decent housing for the masses and it held up incredibly well. It remains imperfect, but this explosion of art is a must-see opportunity to address some of these imperfections, to appreciate the magnitude of what has been achieved, and to ask why the provision of decent housing and the ambition seem so impractical today.
Edwin heathcote is the architecture and design critic of the FT
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