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 also attractive armchair.
I notice he he’s
dressed very smartly, a brown tweed jacket and trousers, white shirt and a
small and messily done up bow tie.
I sit back down
on the sofa and nervously introduces myself and how much I admire his work and
‘Thank you’ – he says in a
soft, well spoken English accent.
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
There’s a pause
before Lasdun starts speaking. I can see him thinking.
‘Hm…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 cities 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.
‘ You also need to remember that before WWII was the height of the great
depression, 23% of the boroughs men were without jobs as well as being a
severely overcrowded borough. 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; this time a Bloody Mary.
‘Ah, smashing!’ Lasdun
said as a huge grin appear on his face.
‘Just what I need on a hot day like this!’
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 swig of my lemonade.
”After the war, during the years of reconstruction in
Britain, rebuilding public housing was a priority within the Welfare State. The
resolution of the housing problem required standardization in interior planning
and technology, which could too easily lead to solutions that were boring,
anonymous and uninteresting and that was something I just did not want! I was cautious
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.” (1)
‘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. This was 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.’ (2)
Keeling House lies on Claredale Street.
Again, he paused
to sip his Bloody Mary.
‘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.
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
‘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 served only two flats. 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 glared 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 affect 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.’ (4) 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. Does Keeling House hold any resemblance to buildings you’ve
‘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.’ (5)’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.'(6) 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 unquestionably 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 amenities, with the
separate towers clustered around it. The services area of each floor where a
common space – an area for residents to meet and socialise; also a space used
where residents could hang their clothes out to dry but because of the shape of
the building, the wind surged here, making it a disagreeable socialising area.
Which really did disappoint me. Not long after completion, some difficulties
with the flats appeared and it was costing the council an increasing amount of
money to repair, money that they didn’t have. The council decided they needed
to get rid of the flats and were prepared to sell the block for £1 to the
Peabody Trust – but the trust were not willing to take on the task of repair
without the promise of government or lottery funding. This lead to the council’s
decision to have the flats destroyed.’ (7) ‘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 pulled out a well
folded but slightly crumpled piece of paper from his tweed blazer pocket and
read out the following… ”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?HELP US STAND TOGETHER”
I sat in silence
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…