“Don’t run away with the idea that the Festival of Britain is going to be solemn,” wrote the newspaper editor Gerald Barry in early 1951. “Not a bit of it. It will afford us all the opportunity, as occasion allows, for some harmless jollification. After more than a decade of voluntarily imposed austerity, we deserve it, and it will do us good.” The Labour MP Herbert Morrison added that the festival was “the British showing themselves to themselves – and the world”.
Some 10 million visitors went on to attend the event in 1951 which centred on the new South Bank complex – which included the new Royal Festival Hall – and Battersea Park. The main site also boasted the Dome of Discovery with an exhibition on the theme of: “British initiative in exploration and discover is as strong as it ever was.” The biggest star of the show for many however was the Skylon, a 90 metre high, thin steel tower that appeared to float above the South Bank.
But five miles to the east there was another aspect to the Festival of Britain – a “live architecture exhibition”. Visitors travelled by boat and bus to Poplar to explore pavilions demonstrating new ideas and construction techniques. And, as the description suggests, there was a practical aspect to the exhibition as well, with festival-goers given the opportunity to look round show homes in what was billed as a model estate and one that would happily serve residents for many years to come.
On offer for first East Enders moving into the Lansbury Estate that year – and on show for the event’s tourists – were spacious flats and maisonettes, with inside bathrooms and gardens allowing residents to hang their washing outside. The homes were a far cry from the overcrowded slums that many would have come from. After years of rationing, this was perhaps the tonic that people needed.
This pioneering new Poplar development consisted of more than just housing however. The Lansbury Estate was laid out according to London-wide plans created by Leslie Patrick Abercrombie and made provision for schools, shopping areas, churches and open spaces. And at the time, the nearby docks were still very much alive (they weren’t wound down till the 1960s and 70s) so residents would have opportunities to work close to their homes, helping keep the local community intact.
The architecture critic Lewis Mumford wrote of the Lansbury Estate in 1953: “Its design has been based not solely on abstract aesthetic principles, or on the economics of commercial construction, or on the techniques of mass production, but on the social constitution of the community itself, with its diversity of human interests and human needs. Thus the architects and planners have avoided not only the clichés of ´high rise´ building but the dreary prisonlike order that results from forgetting the very purpose of housing and the necessities of neighbourhood living.”
Priority for the new homes was given to Poplar residents. And just in case anyone had forgotten what the houses they replaced looked like, the Festival of Britain built up a mock-up of an East End slum, a reminder of a less than glorious past. More than 8,500 houses had been reduced to rubble during the heavy bombing of the area in the Second World War. This increased overcrowding as the homeless were forced to board with friends and relatives.
If there was a centre piece to the Lansbury Estate it was – and in some ways still is – Chrisp Street Market. Built on an earlier linear shopping street, it is one of (if not the) first example of an open air pedestrianised market in Britain. Attractive maisonettes were built above the shops around the market square. And there is an eye-catching clock tower, with steps leading to the top where you get a commanding view of the area. When I visited earlier this month, this spot was bustling with activity – with shoppers frequenting the market stalls.
The first batch of homes on the Lansbury Estate were built on Ricardo Street and three connected streets, forming a square. It was on this stretch that a school – originally called Ricardo School – was built in time for the exhibition. Considerable thought went into the design of this, with a long, narrow two-storey classroom block overlooking the playground. Because the building was only room deep throughout, the architects installed windows on both sides of each room, providing teaching spaces filled with considerable natural light.
There had been a number of churches which pre-dated the Lansbury Estate, but they were damaged by Second World War bombing. Two churches were ready for the festival, including Trinity church. church. And the wonderful SS Mary and Joseph Roman Catholic Church – which was designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott (grandson of George Gilbert Scott, Grand Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station) came shortly afterwards.
Compulsory purchase orders were issued for the housing that stood on what would become the Lansbury Estate. But this legislation didn’t allow for old pubs to be demolished. So exploring the area today, you can see examples of drinking establishments which pre-date by many years the housing built from 1951 onwards.
While there was a wave of house-building in 1951 and the years that followed, the fulfilment of the Abercrombie plan continued well into the 1970s (and some believes still continue today). There were soon calls for higher density housing and near to the Lansbury Estate some of the first tower blocks were built.
One of the best known is the Balfron Tower, on the neighbouring Brownfield Estate, was designed by Erno Goldfinger – the flamboyant Hungarian émigré on whom Ian Flemming partly based Goldfinger in his James Bond books – and building began in 1965. The architect himself temporarily moved into one of the flats himself as a “sociological experiment” and held community parties there. “I want to experience, at first hand, the size of the rooms, the amenities provided, the time it take to obtain a lift, the amount of wind whistling around the tower, and any problems which might arise from my designs, so that I can correct them in the future,” Goldfinger said before moving in.
And he was pleased with his design. “A community spirit is still possible even in these tall blocks, and any criticism that it isn’t is just rubbish,” Goldfinger said. Many today see Balfron Tower as modernist masterpiece, with spacious and light rooms, south facing balconies and considerable attention to detail. Goldfinger believed that tower blocks enabled “us to bring the countryside into towns” because they gave “enough room for green spaces, lawns and trees where children can play.” If you are visiting, look out for the Brutalist playground (which is now closed off) and includes a concrete slide.
Unfortunately for Goldfinger, no sooner had the Balfron Tower been completed than high-rise blocks were already starting to receive a bad name. In May 1968 came the Ronan Point disaster – when a section of a 22 storey Canning Town tower collapsed, killing five people – and confidence in this type of housing was given a beating. As I’ve written on this blog before, tower blocks soon gained a reputation as gloomy places, where vandalism regularly occurred and crime was rife. One resident at Balfron Tower told a local newspaper in 1978 that he felt like a “battery chicken in a box.” More recently, frequent heating and electricity shutdowns, flooded walkways and unreliable lifts have been reported.
For some this depressing image of 21st century stretched across Poplar. “The Lansbury Estate became a ‘no go’ estate, riddled with drugs, street crime and random racist violence,” wrote Ed Glinert in his 2005 book East End Chronicles. “George Lansbury, who, as a long-time councillor and MP, did so much to improve life in impoverished Poplar, would be horrified today at the estate that bears his name: horrified by the bleak architecture, the decrepit shops, the blight, the litter, rubble, boarded-up buildings, brutality, mindlessness and meanness – not to mention shattered Poplar beyond, bereft of amenities and care.”
Balfron Tower escaped the bulldozer, but the circumstances of its ongoing preservation are controversial to some. It was bought by the social landlord Poplar HARCA which evicted the social housing tenants just over five years (many were moved to refurbished homes in the neighbouring block, which was also designed by Goldfinger) and intend to sell the properties on the private market. Refurbishment plans were approved at the end of last year.
Given that Canary Wharf is only a short walk or DLR ride away (the tall HSBC and Citi towers follow you round as you walk around Poplar), it’s easy to see why it would be a popular spot. And so alongside the original post-war housing, there have been a number of ambition schemes in recent years. One of the more recent is New Festival Quarter which includes a roof terrace, 24-hour concierge and private gym.
Poplar HARCA has faced a fair bit of criticism over Balfron Tower, but in many respects I think its work in the neighbourhood should be applauded. Funds raised from the building’s redevelopment will be re-invested in providing refurbished homes for those in lower incomes. The organisation has already done – in my view – a good job in making the area a pleasant place to visit. But if 1951 festival-goers were heading over to the Lansbury Estate and wider Poplar area today for a cup of tea and explore, would they be impressed?
For excellent architecture tours of the Lansbury Estate and neighbouring areas (including the Balfron Tower), check out Open City’s website. The two-hour Poplar walk is guided by Michael Owens, a highly knowledgeable urban planner and lecturer, who helped organise the Lansbury Festival to coincide with the estate’s 50th anniversary.