Last week Sunday at this time, I was in the middle of sunny Poplar to take another guided walk. Poplar, you might ask- why? It’s easy. I have been to the area on two occasions in “interactive games” – one time at a treasure hunt with A Door In a Wall in the Lansbury Estate and one time at an immersive Macbeth Theatre event in the Balfron Tower. In both occasions, i had become curious on what is behind these (on the first view) so grim masses of concrete.
Luckily for me, Andrew Parnell of Footprints of London is offering an architectural Walk through the social housing estates of Poplar, called “Stock Bricks to Brutalism: Housing Design History in Poplar” – so this was the perfect opportunity to learn more. Not that I am any expert in Architecture – far from it. But I am interested in seeing the design of housing, see patterns and ideas behind the planning and – how it has turned out in reality (and as Poplar Shows, the planned effects have not always been reached).
In the 2 hour walk, Andrew took us through 4 Major Estates in Poplar and talked about how the area had changed from a small village under the Jurisdiction of the Tower of London (Tower Hamlets) to a hub of industrial activity in the 1800s with the arrivals of the Docks – Mainly East India Dock and West India Dock all those labourers caused the area to grow to the size of around 60,000 people in 1920 already – in devastating living conditions.
The industrial character made it a target in both world wars, with especially heavy bombing damage in WWII, causing the area to be “comprehensively re-developed” after the war, with little consideration of the leftovers.
Consequently, Poplar offers a rare opportunity to see (the remains of) different styles and philosophies of housing estates and Andrew was a master in explaining them all, pointing out little details and telling stories from the past. An important question that surfaced a few times during the walk is the “chicken and egg” problem of “Does Architecture cause a certain behaviour in people or do people behave in a certain way and architecture follows”? Especially the Brutalist Estates, foremost Balfron Tower and Robin Hood Gardens were designed for a “better living for the working classes” and have gotten a horrible reputation as hotspots of crime and social decay.
The walk covers the following estates (I have provided links with more historical / architectural background, for those interested. I do not aim to give a detailed historical / architectureal background – if you like this, go on Andrew’s walk, he’ll explain it so much better than me :))).
- Will Crooks Estate – one of the early estates from the 1920s (if I remember correctly). 4 buildings (not too high, as there were no elevators at this time for social housing) enclosing an open space in the middle designed for recreation (today also parking). Small design details like grills in the balconies or different types of tiling to create a design visual effect show that social housing was already back then more than just putting together bricks to house people. Nice detail – the house closest to Poplar High street is curved to mimick the line of the street. Not visible from the front but very clearly from the side.
- Lansbury Estate – This estate has been built over more than 30 years from the 1950s to 1980s. Its one of the most famous estates in the country, spanning more than 124 acres of land. Originally featured as showcase for the Festival of Britain in 1952, it is designed to be a self sufficient “town in a town” for more than 30,000 inhabitants. The style is a variety of traditional and restrained modernist styles and one can definitely see it changing over the course of the 30 years. It also features two important street art pieces, the Giant Chihuahua by Boe and Irony close to All Saints station and countless shutters in Chrisp Street market painted by American artist “Above” in 2014. Chrisp Street Market and the Clock Tower are an iconic site for the estate.
- Brownfield Estate with the famous Balfron Tower – Balfron Tower is probably the most famous building in Poplar. It has changed from one of the most hated estates to a grade 2 listed building and is due to refurbishment soon, and will probably be one of the most sought after places to live once its remodelled. Needless to say, there is a massive discussion on what is happening with today’s tennants and how it will affect the neighbourhood. I had the chance to spend an evening and night in the tower during an immersive Macbeth Theatre event and its one of the most amazing pieces of Architecture i have seen. Its brutalist, but its so functional from the design of common areas up to the flats which waste no space and have great original features.
- Robin Hood Gardens – another Brutalist Estate designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1972 by the famous British Architect Couple Alison and Peter Smithon. Two long buildings with Walking “Streets in the Sky” enclosing a “stress-free zone” of urban garden in the middle. Sounds amazing, looks very brutal and run down today, but being there and understanding the vision of the building and getting to grips with it make it understandable that there is a mass protest, lead by world famous architects like Zaha Hadid today, has tried to save the estate for Demolition for years. It looks like the battle is lost though and going on this walk might be the last chance to see it before it gets torn down. Here is a link to a video of the Smithsons talking about Robin Hood Gardens. Even if you don’t care to watch Architects talk 20+ min about their creation, the first 5 minutes are very much worth watching, as you see old footage of the docks and the flats being built and you can even still see East India Dock as an actual Dock with water. Also, the semantics of the architect couple is quite interesting.
If you are curious now and would like to join Andrew on one of his next walks, you are lucky – he’ll be guiding it again on
- Sunday 20th March, 11.00
- Sunday 3rd April, 11.00
- Sunday 17th April, 11.00
The walk costs £12 (£9 concessions) and is on a strictly pre-book base only. Book early, tickets are in demand. You can book here. You can find the official description of the walk on Footprints of London’s website (search for the date you want to go at).
Below are a few more pictures- with a small commentary. Enjoy!