I’m and very quaint – 19th century is

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I’m sitting in
the lobby of a small and very quaint – 19th century is my guess – hotel
in London, with a cold glass of lemonade that a waitress has just made me. I’ve
been told Denys Lasdun prefers to meet here, he doesn’t like large hotels with
too many people as it makes him feel uneasy. As I’m waiting patiently on a well
sat upon but attractive sofa, for Denys Lasdun to arrive. Denys Lasdun is about
to be interviewed by me, a 23-year-old shy, architecture student, about to meet
and interview one of the most highly regarded architects of our time about post
war housing, of which he had a considerable involvement.

I study the
interior. It’s a small hotel…perhaps more like a guest house, with grand
features such as columns in the doorways, three-metre-high ceilings and
traditional bay windows that look out onto a small and overgrown garden. The
mid afternoon sun is streaming through the bay windows, lighting up the whole
front waiting room; it catches the bottom of the chandelier which cause a burst
of multi-coloured lights to light up the ceiling.


The peaceful and
very quiet stillness is suddenly disturbed as I hear clunking footsteps coming
down the 19th century staircase. I turn around to face the door just
as Denys Lasdun is walking through the doorway and takes a seat to my left on a
large dishevelled but attractive armchair.

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He is a dapper
man, dressed in a brown tweed jacket and trousers with a small yet
distinctively scruffy bow tie.


I sit down on the
sofa and nervously introduce myself and how much I admire him and his work.

‘Thank you’ – he replied


I clear my
throat and decide to get straight into the questions, I don’t want to take up
too much of his time.


‘So…I’d like to ask you about your involvement with
post second world war housing- specifically Keeling House…your thoughts and
experience in it – what you wanted to achieve with it and if you felt you
achieved it?’


There’s a pause
before Lasdun starts speaking. I can see him thinking.


‘Hmm…Lets rewind; pre World War II, Bethnal Green –
the heart of the working class East End of London. This area was heavily
targeted and bombed by the Germans as it contained some of the city’s most
important dockland areas and was a hub for the transport of vital goods to
London and the rest of the UK. After a lot of Londoners homes were flattened, I
wanted to become involved with redesigning and redeveloping homes for these
people…there were a lot of people to rehome, but the opportunity to move
forward in terms of housing design in the UK was something I wanted and had to
be involved in.’


He pauses for a
second as he looks over and sees me scribbling, trying to take note of every
word he says.

‘Prior to  WWII the
world’s economy had been wrecked by the great depression and 23% of the
boroughs men were without jobs and overcrowding was a rife issue in the area. London
County Council did what they could to improve the quality of living by increasing
the number of properties to be built but this was difficult as the council did not
have the money it needed to do so.’  He pauses again,
this time for about a minute; until he hears me stop writing. I thought this
was considerate of him – allowing me time to write what needed to be written.

Just then the waitress brings over another drink. Lasdun said as a huge grin
appear on his face. He takes a sip and then places it on a small coffee table
beside his chair. ‘Shall I continue?’ ‘Please!’ I said, whilst I
decide to take a sip of my drink. ”After the war, during the years of the British
reconstruction, public housing was a priority within the policy of the Welfare
State. The resolution of the housing problem required relative standardization
in interior planning and technology, which could all too easily lead to
solutions that were boring, anonymous and uninteresting and that was something
I just did not want! I was wary of the box-diagram approach and keen to evolve
new ideas that were better suited to pre-existing social and urban patterns. My
experience working with other architects such as Coates and Lubetkin,
introduced me to a lot of generic aspects of housing for the masses and the
dangers of high rise planning.” 

‘In 1952, I was commissioned by London City Council and
Bethnal Green Borough Council to redevelop a site off Usk Street, which had
been flattened during the war. Sulkin House, an eight storey block of flats
with 24 maisonettes in total. I incorporated an idea called the ‘cluster-block’
design that would pave the way for a larger project I was involved in, not far
from this project called Keeling House.’Again, he paused to sip his drink. ‘So, in terms of the idea behind the social programme
of the building; how it affected the former residents of Bethnal Green and what
they thought of it; could you tell me more about that?’ I asked. He continued; ‘The disposition of the plan is such as to
illuminate the necessity of escape stairs and also isolate the noise of public
stairs, lifts and refuse disposal from the dwellings.’ ‘My main goal was to provide something for people
who’d lost everything. Privacy was certainly a driving force as I designed it
so that each balcony only served two flats, obliquely. Somehow looking for a balance of privacy and seclusion,
that comes with tenement housing, but with an opportunity for neighbourliness
as well. I feel I did achieve this as most of the tenants could reach their
front door without passing one another.”He paused and stared out of the window…”These were people who came from little terraced
houses or something with backyards.  I used to lunch with them and try and
understand a bit more about what mattered to them, and they were proud
people.  They kept pigeons and rabbits in their back yard and hung their
washing there…And as a result of these contacts I didn’t have flats.  I
said no, they must have maisonettes, two up and two down, or whatever it was,
because this would give them the sense of home.  And from these
conversations, they wanted a degree of privacy.  They said: you know,
we’re not used to being in a great sort of huge block of one of
thousands.  So the thing was radically broken up, this building, into four
discrete connected towers, each semi-detached on a floor, each a maisonette.” ‘Oh, so you actually spoke to residences
who were going to live there?’ I asked, perhaps a little too surprised. This gave me the impression
that he actually cared about how his architecture would have an effect on those
living in it and living around it. ‘Most definitely! You can’t design worthy housing
without proper research into who and what you’re designing for.”And what was the inspiration behind the
plan? Its shape and form?’ I asked, whilst quickly jotting down what Lasdun had just said. ‘Keeling House copies the same cluster block concept but on a much
larger scale. Resembling the unfurling form of a plant with stem, leaves and
petals this time 16 storeys, rather than eight, the four blocks circle the
central service core and contains 64 homes in total. It is a clever design, if
I may say so myself, that breaks away from the usual appearance of your typical
tower block. It’s designed so that all living spaces are south facing, gaining
the most amount of sun light as possible whilst facing away from the core… this
also provides greater privacy to each flat.’ He pauses again
for a minute, quietly sipping on his drink whilst still gazing out of the
window. I’m glad of this as it gives me a chance to take a 30 second break from
writing. So lastly, does Keeling House hold any resemblance to
buildings you’ve designed before?’ 

‘Yes, much of the inspiration for Keeling House came
from Hallfeild School, a small commission. The infants wing is arranged in a
cellular arrangement and it anticipates the Bethnal Green cluster blocks. My
interest in biological analogies and double curves may also be found in the
Royal College of Physicians, a commission that came about for me a decade
later.”The building was not to most locals taste at first.’ He continues. ‘They found it
stark and intrusive, out of keeping with the surrounding Victorian terraces.

Some even went as far as saying It was the ugliest building they’d ever seen –
‘ugly and bleak’. But to me, Keeling house was a vision into the future. A
glimpse into what housing could be like for many people and a glimpse into what
housing should be like.’ I look over and
ask; ‘Was it always your intention to
design housing in a brutalist style? Is that how you’d best describe it?’ ‘It is undoubtedly brutalist and well designed but
certainly hasn’t got away with being the best. One of the key features of this build
was the central free-standing tower which contained the services and lifts,
with the separate towers clustered around it. The services area of each floor
where a common space – an area for residents to meet and chat; also a space
used where residents could hang their clothes out to dry but because of the
height and shape of the building, the wind surged here, making it an unpleasant
socialising area. Which really did disappoint me. Not long after completion,
some problems with the flats appeared and it was costing the council an
increasing amount of money to repair, money of which they didn’t have. The
council decided they needed to get rid of the flats and were willing to sell
the block for £1 to the Peabody Trust – but they were not willing to take on
the task of repair without the promise of government or lottery funding. This then lead to the
council’s decision to have the flats demolished.’ ‘How did you feel about that?’ I said. ‘I was devastated! These homes that I saw as a vision
for the future were to be demolished unless somebody bought them privately. But
the city was in such disrepair…That’s when the local residents of Bethnal Green
protested against the demolition and wrote that poem. A Protesters Poem, is
what I call it. I’ve kept a copy on me since I first heard it, would you like
me to read it to you?’ ‘Yes, please do.’ He produced a
crinkled and well folded piece of paper from his tweet blazer pocket and began
to recite the piece…    ”When
the councillors are tucked up in bed so cosy and meek,Will
they think of our families they are throwing on the street.Furniture
in storage, bed and breakfast for our home.You know about the crumbling block but now the time has comeWhere
all the neighbours will unite and try to make a stand.We
have feelings too but you just don’t understand.What
can we tell our children when they come knocking at the door?Is
this the sort of people our ancestors fought for?

for a moment as Lasdun folded away the piece of paper. It amazed me that these
people felt so strongly about this building that they had written these words.

But then, it wasn’t just a building to them. It was their home. As ugly as some
thought it was, it was still their home. I could tell the poem meant a lot to
Lasdun, as he sat and looked deeper in thought than he had before, with an
almost sad look in his eyes. ‘That’s quite something’ I
said. ‘A meaningful message from people
who are thankful for what you gave them…  

We’d been sitting there for about half an
hour now, Lasdun talking as I noted his every word. He wasn’t what I expected
as an Architect. His ideas behind Keeling House were far more interesting than
I’d originally imagined; it symbolising an interest in biological analogies and
resembling plants. Linking his designs to a very organic source symbolises the
link between architecture and man. How good design through brutalist architecture
impacts our basic needs and effects our emotions. I begin to question what man
kind would have become, had we not considered these architectural styles? Uninspiring,
mundane and monotonous.

Categories: Architects


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