Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1994.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
CHAPTER IX - The Lansbury Estate
The Lansbury Estate, to the north of East India Dock Road, is the most important, largest and best-known council estate in Poplar. It demonstrates the different trends in post-war council house design and layout. The interest of the estate lies as much, if not more, in the story of its planning and construction, as in what was actually built. This is especially true of its first phase, which formed the basis of the Live Architecture Exhibition in the 1951 Festival of Britain.
General Development and the Planning and Building of the First Phase
The County of London Plan, 1943, and the Stepney-Poplar Reconstruction Area
The origins of the Lansbury Estate can be traced to the County of London Plan of 1943 that was commissioned by the LCC and prepared under the direction of Professor Patrick Abercrombie, one of the leading experts on town planning at the time, and the Council's Architect, J. H. Forshaw. According to the plan:
there is much to be learnt from the urban co-operation and sturdy individualism of these London communities, typical examples of which are the eastern boroughs. To try to remedy their obvious defects by a rigid formula of reconstruction which ignored their natural grouping would be to shirk the problem of meeting some of their essential human requirements. Perhaps the worst defect, even greater than their architectural drabness, though not than their older squalor, is the absence of local community centres. (fn. 3)
It was proposed therefore to emphasize the identity of existing communities, to increase their segregation, and where necessary reorganize them as separate entities. Each community was to have its own schools, public buildings, shops, and open spaces. Nevertheless, there was still to be some interdependence between adjoining communities. The elementary school was to be the determining factor in the size and organization of the subsidiary or 'neighbourhood units' within a community (each unit having a population of 6,000–10,000 people): 'The desirable scholar-capacity of the elementary school and the desirability of fixing a maximum walking distance from the home to school, make the latter the one suitable building on which to base the size and arrangement of the neighbourhood units.' (fn. 4) The idea of such units was originally put forward in 1929 by Clarence A. Perry in his Regional Survey of New York; it was championed by the Ministry of Health's Housing Manual of 1944, issued for the guidance of local authorities, and was adopted by the planners of the first generation of British New Towns.
Lansbury had close connections with the New Town movement. The general plans for its inception were based on transferring a considerable part of the existing population into New Towns, while Lansbury both reflected and, to some extent, informed the planning and architecture of the early New Towns. Among those who were involved in Lansbury, Frederick Gibberd was the master-planner for Harlow New Town, Geoffrey Jellicoe prepared the preliminary plan for Hemel Hempstead New Town, and Judith Ledeboer planned one of the neighbourhoods at Hemel Hempstead.
Detailed plans to redevelop an area of 1,500 acres in Stepney and Poplar were said to be 'far advanced' by 1943, (fn. 5) and in July 1945 this area was included in the LCC's first post-war redevelopment programme. (fn. 6) The locality had suffered severely during the war, about 24 per cent of the buildings having been destroyed or seriously damaged. (fn. 7) Percy Johnson-Marshall (1915–93), who was in charge of the Council's Reconstruction Areas group, recalled how bombing had taken the roofs off many houses and made them quite irreparable, while 'the whole area was devastating to look at and the schools were mostly in ruins, the sites were all covered with rubble or grass or weeds'. (fn. 8) Steps were taken by the LCC to control or prevent rebuilding, reconstruction or replacement of war-damaged buildings in the area. (fn. 9)
The LCC proposed to reduce the population of Stepney and Poplar to 42 per cent of its pre-war level, in order to achieve the average density of 136 persons per acre proposed in the County of London Plan. (fn. 10) Such a high figure was accepted, partly because it was felt that it would be a very long time before many of the industries could be moved out of the area. In fact, the LCC's own surveys carried out in 1950 suggest that many industrial firms were prepared to move out of the locality immediately. (fn. 11)
Following a public inquiry, the Minister of Town and Country Planning declared the Stepney and Poplar Reconstruction Area in December 1947 and gave the Council powers to make compulsory purchase orders. Although this only applied to 1,300 acres, he asked it to continue planning for the 1,960 acres included in its submission to him, using the normal powers given to it under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. (fn. 12) The Reconstruction Area was divided into 11 neighbourhood units, of which Neighbourhood 9 became the Lansbury Estate. It consisted of approximately 124 acres, bounded by East India Dock Road, Burdett Road, Limehouse Cut, and the North London railway line. In December 1948 the LCC agreed powers of compulsory purchase for about 37.75 acres within the Neighbourhood, involving some 1,000 properties in about 370 separate ownerships. (fn. 13) These powers were duly confirmed and ministerial consent was given to expedite the completion of this part of the estate by 31 December 1951. (fn. 14)
The Festival Involvement
Expedited powers were required because it had already been decided that this first phase of redevelopment should become the Live Architecture Exhibition, conceived as an adjunct to the main Festival of Britain exhibition to take place on the South Bank. (fn. 15) In July 1948 the 'Festival of Britain 1951 Council for Architecture, Town Planning and Building Research' (hereafter referred to as the Architecture Council) had met for the first time. It advised the Festival Executive Committee on the three topics in its title, and Hugh Casson, as Director of Architecture for the Festival, was a member of both the Architecture Council and the Executive Committee. Immediately, the Council was also given the more specific task of planning a separate Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning, and Building Research. At this stage it was envisaged that the main and the science exhibitions would be sited in Battersea Park.
As a basis for its discussion, the Council was given a paper written by Frederick Gibberd. He was then involved as architect and planner in a number of projects in addition to Harlow New Town, such as the redevelopment of Nuneaton's bombed town centre and a slum clearance scheme in Hackney. Gibberd had declined an offer to act as controlling architect for the main Festival exhibition, but, with his strong interest in rebuilding schemes and town design, he had very definite ideas about how the architecture exhibition should be staged, and these he presented in his paper for the Architecture Council.
He began with the premise that the only way to get the public interested in an exhibition of architecture, planning, and building research was to create an actual environment which the public could walk through and experience. But how was it to be done by 1951, and at a reasonable cost? Gibberd argued that 'the solution is to take a bombed or cleared site of four to six acres as near as possible to the site of the main Exhibition; to develop it as a cross section of a Neighbourhood, with such other additional permanent structures as may be necessary to complete the visual picture, providing such buildings are of ultimate use to the neighbourhood'. He proposed that some buildings should be left unfinished during the exhibition, to reveal various aspects of building construction and science. A chief architect and planner would prepare a master-plan showing the layout of the Live Architecture site, the massing and grouping of the buildings, the circulation patterns, and the open spaces. (Though not stated, the inference is that Gibberd would himself have liked that role.) A number of independent architects would be assigned to the detailed design of individual groups of buildings and 'would be given freedom of expression; save only that they would be required to design within the broad framework of the master conception, and to use such equipment, finishes and structural systems as was necessary for the Exhibition point of view'. Gibberd had been very impressed with the workings of the Harlow Development Corporation, though again this is not made explicit in his paper, and he envisaged a similar body to carry out this scheme.
The buildings and site would be on loan to the Festival authorities and afterwards would be handed over to the local authority. They would then form 'a permanent record of the stage we had reached in 1951, in solving the aesthetic and scientific problem of creating a new environment'. The money normally spent on the usual type of exhibition could be devoted to displays explaining this environment, and to providing amenities such as cafes and gardens. All these purely exhibition buildings and features would be temporary and would be dismantled after the Festival closed.
Gibberd's concept appealed to the Festival's DirectorGeneral, Gerald Barry (1898–1968), who wanted some permanent and useful structures to be left behind after the exhibition, and also to Herbert Morrison (1891–1963), Lord President of the Council, who was the Minister responsible for the Festival and had long been involved with housing on the LCC. (fn. 16) The Architecture Council was equally impressed by Gibberd's suggestions and, though not accepting all of them, agreed in principle that the Architecture Exhibition should be 'Live', that is, using actual buildings, rather than models, as exhibits. It also agreed that it should be as near as possible to the main exhibition. A month later the Secretary of the Festival, possibly with unconscious cynicism, stated that 'the Government's sanction of the neighbourhood unit in a Live Exhibition was influenced by the fact that most of the materials and cost would be met by the Local Authorities concerned'. (fn. 17)
The Council now had to find a site for the exhibition. It required a scheme with a suitably wide range of building types which could be sufficiently complete by 1951, but was not too advanced to prevent the Architecture Council from having some influence in its design and layout. The Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the LCC had been asked for suggestions and, though they put forward various alternatives, both included the Stepney and Poplar Reconstruction Area in their list. The LCC also proposed Woodberry Down, Hackney, and Ocean Street, Stepney, where the land had already been acquired and work was in hand or about to start: the Council felt that if the aim was to have 'something tangible in an interesting state by 1951' these might be better choices. Indeed, the LCC's officers were initially extremely doubtful whether sufficient land for Neighbourhood 9 could be acquired in time to have enough development on show by 1951. However, after discussions with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the latter gave assurances that every attempt would be made to facilitate and simplify the standard procedures, and on this basis a tentative timetable was drawn up which allowed a suitable site to be made available for redevelopment by about September 1949. The Festival's Architecture Council expressed a strong preference for the Neighbourhood 9 site and recommended its use for four main reasons. In the first place, it had been damaged in the Blitz (as had Ocean Street, but not Woodberry Down). Secondly, the buildings on the fringes of Neighbourhood 9 were considered quite pleasant and typical of the old East End (whereas Ocean Street was bounded by an ugly gas works and 'a somewhat unfortunate' postwar Stepney Borough Council housing scheme). Thirdly, unlike the other schemes, the plans for Neighbourhood 9 had not been finalized (although they were more advanced than the Architecture Council seems to have realized). Finally, it was more accessible from the river than any of the other sites, allowing visitors to travel by boat from the South Bank to within a short walkingdistance of Neighbourhood 9. (fn. 18) This was important because, amongst other things, the Festival was expected to give a fillip to the ailing riverbus service. (fn. 19)
There then followed a period of frustrating delay, as far as the Architecture Council was concerned, while discussions took place between the various government ministries, local authorities, and the Festival organizers. However, by November 1948, part of Neighbourhood 9 had been selected for the Live Architecture Exhibition, although the initial 30 acres was considerably more than Gibberd had envisaged. Cyril Walker, the LCC's Director of Housing and Valuer, initially disapproved of the proposal to assign an LCC housing development to this purpose. He was worried that concentrating the Council's efforts on acquiring the properties there would divert staff from obtaining sites for other schemes in the housing programme. He was also unhappy that the Festival authorities, in their desire for original and interesting layouts and designs, would force a departure from the Housing Committee's normal policies, more especially their decision not to build further tall blocks of flats until there had been a chance to assess those built on the Ocean and Woodberry Down Estates. (fn. 20) This seems to have led to a potentially serious difference of opinion with members of the Architecture Council, who were adamant that they expected to give 'advice and consultative opinion' on the buildings involved.
Nevertheless, on 7 January 1949 the Chairman of the LCC formally agreed to the Festival's request that Neighbourhood 9 should be the site for the Live Architecture Exhibition, subject to all additional expenses incurred as a result of the exhibition being reimbursed. In the meantime, on 30 December 1948 the Architecture Council had been shown plans of Neighbourhood 9 and a model of the suggested layout; Robert Matthew – the Architect to the LCC and a member of the Architecture Council – and Walker gave an explanation of the County Council's intentions and probable procedure. Walker and the Architecture Council seem to have made their peace to the extent that the Council recorded its 'warm appreciation' of his offer of co-operation. The Architecture Council also quickly made contact with churches, brewers and others interested in the development of Neighbourhood 9.
In May 1949 the LCC's Housing Committee allocated 12.5 acres in Neighbourhood 9 for housing. In all, 1,440 people were to be housed on the basis of 3.6 people per dwelling. (fn. 21) The housing developments were divided into five sites: No. 1 'West', Nos 2 and 4 'East', No. 3 'Central', and No. 5 'North'. It was suggested that the LCC's Director of Housing should carry out the work for Site 1, but that four architects in private practice should be appointed for the others. In accordance with standard LCC procedure, a list of six architectural practices (also agreed with Casson and the chairman of the Festival's Architecture Council, Howard V. Lobb) was submitted to the Housing Committee, although the LCC would normally have employed only one or two outside architects for a project of this size. (fn. 22) The list consisted of two practices which until then had not been on the Council's approved panel – those of Geoffrey Jellicoe and Norman & Dawbarn – together with Edward Armstrong, Bridgwater & Shepheard, Hawes & Jackman, and Riches & Blythin. In the event Armstrong was offered Site 2, Bridgwater & Shepheard Site 3, Jellicoe Site 4, and Norman & Dawbarn Site 5. When Armstrong withdrew because of pressure of work, his site was combined with Jellicoe's, to make one large scheme in the east of the area. (fn. 23) In addition, a new market place and shopping precinct, off Chrisp Street, were to be created, Ricardo Street School, which had been badly damaged during the war, was to be completely rebuilt, a new Roman Catholic secondary school was to be erected, two bomb-damaged churches were to be entirely rebuilt by the church authorities, three new public houses were to be put up by the brewers, and an open space was to be laid out on East India Dock Road. (fn. 24) Most of these developments were also assigned to private architects.
From 21 February 1949 an LCC district surveyor, J. H. Whittaker, from the Architect's Department, was appointed as co-ordinating officer for all the Council's work involved in producing the Live Architecture Exhibition. (fn. 25) Despite the earlier Ministry assurances, the designation of the Poplar site as part of the Festival of Britain did not necessarily smooth the way when it came to trying to get ministerial consents. Because of the general economic situation, the Minister of Health refused to approve a comprehensive health centre and suggested instead a relatively simple building to accommodate a small medical and dental practice. The LCC felt that such a building would be unworthy of the exhibition and might prejudice the subsequent use of the site for a 'proper' health centre. It therefore agreed to reserve the site for the construction of such a centre at some time in the future. (fn. 26) The Minister of Transport was equally uncooperative over the new road between Garford Street and West India Dock Road, work on which had been stopped by the war; its completion would have provided a route for the proposed buses between the steamer service to Limehouse Pier (as then intended) and the exhibition. In refusing consent for its completion, the Minister claimed that in the prevailing economic circumstances the road was neither in itself of sufficient priority or even 'of enough importance to the forthcoming Festival of Britain to justify exceptional treatment'. (fn. 27)
As 1949 drew to a close there was considerable disquiet among the Festival authorities about the Architecture Exhibition and there were even suggestions that it should be abandoned. This had been brought about by two main concerns. One was the apparently slow progress of development and the fear that very little 'live' architecture would actually be on display by 1951. The other was that the Government's budget for the Festival was being eroded because of the economic situation. The estimated cost of the Architecture Exhibition had varied between £300,000 and £500,000 (these were the figures given by the Festival's Director of Finance, although Casson is minuted as stating that the original figure was £800,000), but in June 1949 it was cut, at the Government's insistence, to £240,000. As far as the likely lack of 'live' architecture was concerned, the Architecture Council seriously considered substituting, on a three-acre site, a one-third scale 'Lilliput' model of the estate as it would eventually appear, in which a normal two-storey house would have been approximately 10ft high and the public would have been able to walk along its streets. Ealing Studios was approached for advice and an estimate of £100,000 was made. In December 1949 the Executive Committee of the Festival, 'with the greatest reluctance', recommended that the Live Architecture Exhibition 'should cease to be a feature of the official Festival of Britain Programme', and that the 'Lilliput' model and the Town Planning and Building Research Exhibitions should be transferred to the main South Bank exhibition site.
The LCC was clearly aware of this threat and some of its officers suspected, perhaps unfairly, that the Festival authorities would try to blame the LCC's apparent lack of progress for the cancellation of the Architecture Exhibition. (fn. 28) At the very meeting at which the Architecture Council discussed the Executive's proposal to abandon the exhibition, the LCC's co-ordinating officer, Whittaker, and senior planner, Arthur Ling, made every effort to convince the Festival authorities that the project was still viable. They pointed out that it was in the preliminary stages, when schemes had to get the approval of various committees, that delays often occurred, but they argued that this resulted in a saving of time in the long run. They also stated that the LCC would use every means in its power to expedite the work and keep to target dates. The Architecture Council was sufficiently impressed to recommend full Festival backing for the project, but at this stage it endorsed the Executive's suggestion that the temporary exhibitions should be moved to the South Bank. However, after receiving further assurances from the Clerk of the County Council, the Festival's Executive Committee decided that the temporary exhibition would be at Poplar, and, indeed, that it could be staged on the site intended for the health centre. (fn. 29)
Planning and Building the New Estate
By October 1949 the LCC was inviting Stepney and Poplar Borough Councils to make suggestions for a name for Neighbourhood 9, in the belief that this would be more likely to foster a community spirit. 'Leybourne' (after Robert Leybourne, the first vicar of St Anne's, Limehouse), 'Lansbury', and 'New Limehouse' had already been proposed, and it was decided in February 1950 that the most suitable designation was 'Lansbury'. (fn. 30) George Lansbury (1859–1940), the great Labour politician and journalist, served on Poplar Borough Council from its inception in 1900 until his death, twice being Mayor, (fn. 31) and he was also a member of the LCC from 1912. He was MP for Bromley and Bow from 1910 to 1913 and again from 1922 until 1940. Between 1929 and 1931 he served in Ramsay MacDonald's cabinet as First Commissioner of Works. He succeeded MacDonald as leader of the Labour Party in 1931, but resigned in 1935. (fn. 32)
The first building work on the Lansbury Estate began in December 1949, with the commencement of the Ricardo Street Schools. (fn. 33) Yet by February 1950, when Jack Godfrey-Gilbert (Senior Executive Officer in the Festival Office) made his first visit to the site, the prospects of very much being ready by the time of the Festival still looked extremely doubtful:
There were the remains of a church on the corner of East India Dock Road and Upper North Street with some of the gothic arches still intact. There were derelict remains of houses here and there but the remainder of the site was completely flat except for one large square house … The whole area had an atmosphere of foreboding, gloom and despondency. (fn. 34)
Nevertheless, by May 1950 all the designs for the temporary exhibition buildings had been approved, a site layout had been prepared, and a start had been made on further sites. (fn. 35) In November 1950 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Lansbury to see how work was progressing. (fn. 36)
In fact, many of those involved in the project felt that it was progressing rather too slowly. The acquisition of sites was a protracted process, involving negotiations with many individual property-owners. Finding sufficient alternative accommodation for rehousing was another major problem, exacerbated by the telescoping effect of the exhibition deadline. (fn. 37) In several instances sites or parts of sites were handed over to building contractors three months or more behind what was already a tight schedule. Last-minute adjustments had to be made in the layouts of some of the development schemes in order to avoid existing buildings which could not be demolished on time.
Further problems were caused by so many developments going on in close proximity. At times one contractor got in the way of another. Skilled tradesmen might suddenly switch from one contractor to another. It was also suggested that because some firms had more than one contract at Lansbury, the larger jobs were completed at the expense of delays to the smaller ones. (fn. 38) Further delays were caused because new post-war standards were being introduced by the Government just when plans for Lansbury were nearing completion (see page 46). The designs for both the old people's home and Cardinal Griffin School had to be altered at a very late stage because of new Ministry regulations. (fn. 39)
There was a certain amount of improvisation and cutting of corners. The usual tendering procedures were abandoned in the case of the Ricardo Street Schools, (fn. 40) and the Council entered into an immediate contract for the construction of the shopping area and market place in order to have it ready for the Festival, although not all of the work had then been approved by the Minister. (fn. 41) During the laying out of the open space at Trinity Garden, because of the urgency the construction of the terrace was not even put out to tender, but was given to a contractor already working on an adjacent scheme. (fn. 42) Subsequently, standing orders were suspended to allow that contractor to carry out the immediate demolition of some of the properties on the site of the garden. (fn. 43) Inevitably, there was a last-minute scramble to have things ready for the Exhibition, and the LCC authorized overtime and frost precaution measures for the development of the housing sites at Lansbury. (fn. 44) Unfortunately, the winter of 1950–1 was the wettest in living memory, (fn. 45) but despite the workers on site losing some 8,320 hours because of bad weather, they managed to make up all of the lost time. (fn. 46)
The very first tenants at Lansbury, Mr and Mrs Albert Snoddy, their two children and pet tortoise, moved from No. 6 Yattan Street, Poplar, into a three-bedroom flat in Gladstone House on 14 February 1951 (Plate 132c). They were welcomed into their new home by the Mayor of Poplar and the Chairman of the LCC's Housing Committee. The rent was £1 9s per week, including rates. (fn. 47) The impression of the family happily and thankfully moving into their bright new home is rather undermined by Mrs Snoddy's later admission that she would have preferred to stay in their old house, but as it was to be pulled down they had little choice but to take the flat offered, although a house would have been more suitable. Nevertheless, in 1984 Mrs Snoddy was still living in the same flat in Lansbury and seemed quite happy with it. (fn. 48)
The 1951 Exhibition
The Festival of Britain Live Architecture Exhibition at Lansbury opened without any sort of ceremony on 3 May 1951 (fig. 77). (fn. 49) Although car parks were provided, most people arrived there by bus or trolley-bus, which connected with underground trains and the special riverboat service between the South Bank and the newly rebuilt West India Dock Pier, instead of Limehouse Pier, which was demolished (see page 411). (fn. 50)
The visitor's eye was instantly caught by a 'vertical feature': a tall construction crane, 200ft high, which towered over the temporary exhibition enclosure on East India Dock Road, between Saracen Street and Upper North Street. The crane, which was lent by McAlpines, was said to be the only one of its kind in London. (fn. 51) It was suggested, somewhat implausibly, that it might be used to carry people up in the bucket to see the Exhibition from a height of 60ft or so, (fn. 52) but it remained a strictly 'decorative' feature, and at least one commentator found it 'immensely impressive'. (fn. 53)
The temporary buildings in the exhibition enclosure included 'The Rosie Lee' cafe (designed by Sadie Speight in association with Leonard Manasseh), which was said to be capable of serving 2,000 people a day (Plate 129a). (fn. 54) It had a striped yellow-and-green canopy, supported on light metal frames, and in front was a paved area, planted with trees. (fn. 55) The Building Research Pavilion was introduced by 'Gremlin Grange', a scaled-down version of an inter-war 'jerry-built' semi-detached house, showing graphically how many things might go wrong when scientific principles were ignored (Plate 129c, d). It had structural cracks and leaning walls, external plaster was falling off, the damp was rising up the walls, and at the top the chimney stacks leaned dangerously. Inside, fireplaces smoked, the water tank leaked, there were internal cracks in the walls, and the artificial light was bad. It was, perhaps, too much of an exaggerated parody and its reduced scale only emphasized its pantomime qualities. (fn. 56) Nevertheless, visitors were supposed to be so shocked that they would then be receptive to the right and scientific ways of doing things displayed in the Pavilion, for which the architect was John Ratcliff, the Deputy Director of Architecture for the Festival. The interior layout of the displays was expressed on the outside by a series of boxes, which to East India Dock Road presented a sequence of brilliantly painted red, blue, white, pink, and mauve cubes. (fn. 57) Inside, each box displayed a theme, such as stability, rain penetration (with real water flowing over patent glazing), heating, lighting, maintenance, and noise ('where the visitor may listen to a recording of noises such as radios, babies' cries, and suburban orgies, as they sound when transmitted through different types of wall'). (fn. 58) As the visitor left the pavilion a section through a full-sized mock-up of a bungalow showed how, by applying scientific methods, the faults of 'Gremlin Grange' could be avoided.
After this came the Town Planning Pavilion, a large, broadly striped red-and-white tent, suspended from an elaborate frame of tubular scaffolding. Inside, a series of themes demonstrated the principles of town planning and the urgent need for new towns. They were: 'The Battle for Land' (a mural by Stephen Bone), (fn. 59) 'The Needs of the People', 'How can these needs be met?', and 'Work in progress'. At the far end was a vermiculite dome, containing the 'Heart of the Town' model, designed by Tom Mellor, showing how the centre of an imaginary town ('Avoncaster') might be remodelled; one observer thought it looked 'rather like a new centre for Norwich under a Lancashire sky'. (fn. 60) The architects for this pavilion were Hening & Chitty, who were also the co-ordinating architects for the temporary exhibition site as a whole. The displays in both pavilions, other than the model of 'Avoncaster', were designed by Ronald Avery. Having been shown the principles of good planning and sound building, visitors were finally able to see these put into practice by following the approved route around the initial stage of Lansbury. (fn. 61)
Although the suggested route shown on the plan in the official handbook looked simple to follow, it proved more difficult on the ground, and it was easy to get lost. (fn. 62) A contributor to Punch explained why: 'There is supposed to be a white dotted line along the pavement which you can follow all round the circuit; but there is no indication where it starts or ends, or of which way you should be going, and some really comprehensive coloured signposts like those so admirably provided on the South Bank would make all the difference.' (fn. 63)
A number of the permanent buildings in the exhibition were open to the public during the Festival period. Trinity Church could be viewed by parties applying in advance, (fn. 64) one of the rooms in the south wing of Lansbury Lodge was furnished and open from 6 August, (fn. 65) while the primary and nursery schools in Ricardo Street were opened to visitors in the summer holidays. (fn. 66) A terraced house, No. 14 Grundy Street, was furnished as a show house (Plate 129e). A local paper commented: 'To many newly-weds and those contemplating marriage it is like a dream come true.' Nevertheless, at about £365, the total price of the main items of furniture was considered rather high, (fn. 67) and the inclusion of a television set in a council dwelling was criticized by a Member of the LCC. (fn. 68) The house was one of those designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe, and he also laid out its garden: 'The gardens are very short and as tenants are required to hang their linen diagonally across them the architect has shown how a diagonal path may be arranged.' In spite of the smallness of the gardens, it was claimed that the planting of vegetables on the same scale as in the show garden would be worth £9 per year to the tenant. (fn. 69) No. 2 Overstone House, one of the blocks designed by the LCC's Housing Architect, was furnished as a show flat. (fn. 70) The Festival Office had wanted two houses and two flats to be on show, but the LCC felt that in view of the desperate housing situation this would be impolitic. (fn. 71)
Those visitors who had managed to follow the official route round the Live Architecture Exhibition finally reached the main exit and bus departure point at the west end of Canton Street. To cover the whole route was extremely demanding and Punch suggested that 'something in the nature of bathchairs' might have been a help. (fn. 72)
The Live Architecture Exhibition closed on 28 September, with as little ceremony as it had opened. (fn. 73) The exhibition enclosure had attracted 86,646 visitors, the equivalent of 580 a day. This was a very disappointing figure when compared with either the 10,000 to 25,000 a day predicted in 1950, (fn. 74) or the eight million people who actually visited the South Bank exhibition. (fn. 75) The reasons for the poor attendances are not difficult to appreciate. Lansbury could never hope to compete with the South Bank, which received most of the publicity and offered an attractive range of exciting exhibits, displays, and events. (fn. 76) There had always been some concern as to how the subjects of building science and town planning could be made to appeal to the average layman. Many of the more festive or special exhibition features were victims of the general economic situation. In particular, the cut in their own budget sometimes forced the Festival authorities to adopt penny-pinching measures – refusing, for example, to pay for an extra coat of paint to freshen up the Ricardo Street Schools in time for the Festival. (fn. 77) Even the expense of street decorations at the approaches to the Lansbury exhibition had to be shared amongst several authorities. (fn. 78) There was, too, an unresolved conflict between the desire to have a prestigious housing exhibition with a carnival atmosphere, and the desperate need to rehouse people after the war. Moreover, when Gibberd had suggested the idea for a Live Architecture exhibition he had envisaged a rebuilding scheme close to the main exhibition site. In fact, Lansbury could hardly have been more inaccessible from central London and the South Bank, particularly by public transport, even with the special arrangements laid on during the period of the Festival. It is not surprising that most Festival visitors preferred to spend their time on the South Bank. In addition, the Live Architecture Exhibition was poorly publicized and the signposting in the immediate vicinity of Lansbury was inadequate. (fn. 79)
On arrival, even those with an informed eye, such as John Summerson, found it difficult to get a clear idea of what the overall scheme was meant to look like. (fn. 80) Similarly, J. M. Richards, who had been a member of the Festival's Architecture Council, recalled that 'as an illustration of Britain's housing and town-planning effort it was a little disappointing, because most of the buildings were still at such an early stage that no clear impression of its architectural form was possible'. (fn. 81) With hindsight it seems that the decision to make Lansbury the Live Architecture Exhibition site was taken too late and that the LCC's officers' initial doubts were justified. In fact, the estate reached the appropriate stage of completeness about the end, instead of the middle, of 1951.
Nevertheless, considerable numbers of specialist groups, from this country and abroad, visited the exhibition. (fn. 82) For example, in July the 90 delegates who were in London for the International Federation of Housing and Town Planning Conference spent a morning touring the exhibition and site. (fn. 83) It also attracted at least one royal visitor, the Duke of Edinburgh. (fn. 84) And though not attracting a great deal of attention in the general press, Lansbury did receive considerable notice in the professional and technical journals.
The Permanent Part of the Live Architecture Exhibition
Lansbury was very much a planning-led project, with the research, the general plan of the neighbourhood as a whole, and the layout of the first 30 acres of the Live Architecture Exhibition being carried out by members of the Town Planning Division in the LCC Architect's Department, under the leadership of the Senior Planning Officer, Arthur Ling, (fn. 1) who like Gibberd was one of the new generation of architect-planners. Under Ling, the Reconstruction Group, led by Percy Johnson-Marshall, (fn. 2) had immediate responsibility for the planning of Lansbury. This was a multi-disciplinary team of architects, planners, landscape-architects, surveyors, and a sociologist, Margaret Willis – the first to be appointed to a planning team in the United Kingdom. (fn. 87) A large number of preliminary surveys were carried out to ascertain the existing situation and to ensure that the planning proposals met the area's needs. The County Council organized a public meeting in the area to explain the plans and invite local comments, but, because the layout and individual designs were already well advanced, it would have been too late for much alteration to have been made. (fn. 88) In any case, according to Walter Bor, although the Lansbury planning team (of which he was a junior member) sought public involvement, it was 'officially discouraged as "divulging improperly confidential Council matters" affecting local residents'. (fn. 89) That the Council's plans were not unwelcome to at least some residents is suggested by a short leaflet issued by the Missionary Council of Trinity Church in 1941; in this, the proposals for the rebuilding of Poplar anticipated to a large degree what was actually done in the first phase at Lansbury. (fn. 90)
The LCC decided that the actual reconstruction should be carried out in four stages, with the 'Live Architecture' site (about a quarter of Neighbourhood 9) representing the first phase. The data collected in the preliminary surveys were used to produce a diagram showing little more than a chequerboard of different site uses. This served as the basis for a three-dimensional model on which small-scale representations of the buildings were physically rearranged until satisfactory massings and groupings had been achieved. From this 'a preliminary solution was worked out which was not intended to be a rigid framework into which detailed plans must fit but rather a broad indication of the lines on which the plan was expected to evolve'. (fn. 91)
The neighbourhood was to be regarded as a series of visual groups, with the buildings being planned around open spaces of varying sizes and shapes, each with its own type of tree planting and its own character, and linked by roads and pedestrian ways. These groupings were also thought to be important from a sociological point of view: 'A feeling of neighbourliness and social responsibility is much more likely to develop where dwellings are grouped than where they are strung out in long terraces or repetitive blocks of flats.' Rather optimistically it was felt that 'children are also more likely to behave well if they are part of a community and if they have their own play space adapted to their needs'. (fn. 92) The final massing of the public buildings was particularly difficult to foresee, and in some cases this meant adjusting the adjacent buildings to produce a satisfactory grouping. This emphasis on grouping and space surrounding buildings reflects the sentiments of the 1944 and 1949 Housing Manuals (see page 43).
The appointed architects had to work within the constraints of the overall plan, and, in addition, the requirements for the different types of accommodation in the housing blocks were also fairly inflexible. It was felt that, 'the fact that most of the architects concerned co-operated willingly and restrained their freedom of design to the extent necessary to achieve the unity of the whole group, speaks volumes for the extent to which architecture as a social art has evolved in the last few generations', though this surely represented the opinions of a planner rather than an architect. (fn. 93) Because Lansbury was meant to be an exemplar of post-war rebuilding for other local authorities, financial constraints were tight and at least two of the architects involved, Jellicoe and Peter Shepheard, are said to have found these 'at times irksome, having regard to the temptation to introduce what might otherwise appear warranted Exhibition luxuries'. (fn. 94) The situation was not helped by rising costs. For example, during 1949 prices rose by at least six per cent, but the Ministry of Health's 'ceiling' figures limiting the costs of individual housing schemes remained unchanged; effectively this meant that standards had to be lowered, and for some of the Lansbury schemes the bye-laws were waived to allow the heights of the rooms to be reduced to 8ft. (fn. 95) J. M. Richards quite rightly pointed out that 'cheapness is not in itself an architectural virtue' and that 'some of the aridity of design from which the Lansbury housing suffers is undoubtedly due to so much having to be sacrificed for the sake of cheapness'. (fn. 96) The architects involved were asked in general (although not invariably) to use London stock bricks and purple-grey slates, to provide not only a harmony in materials between the various parts of the scheme, but also because these were the traditional materials in this part of Poplar. This, again, was in line with pronouncements in the 1944 and 1949 Housing Manuals.
Opinions on the architectural merits of the overall plan differed widely. On the one hand it was claimed by the Architect and Building News (very closely based on an official LCC press release) that:
the architects concerned have certainly not been prevented from producing very characteristic and individual designs. There has been no question of design having been cramped into a uniform mould. (fn. 97)
On the other hand, as Gibberd subsequently wrote: 'The overall design within which we were all required to work tended to be conventional and a bit dull.' (fn. 98) The end result, according to J. M. Richards, confirmed Gibberd's view: 'Without too much unfairness we can describe the general run of the small-scale housing at Lansbury as worthy, dull and somewhat skimpy.' (fn. 99) Other commentators supported the view that there was too much uniformity. (fn. 100) In particular, making the architects follow the old East London housing tradition seemed a mistake, with the result that, in Richards's words, 'the new appears as but a pale imitation of the old'. (fn. 101) Similarly, it was argued that there should have been more variety of materials and at least two critics objected to so much yellow stock brick. (fn. 102) These views were soon taken up by the LCC Housing Committee, which in 1953 asked 'whether any restriction has been placed on the development of the Lansbury Estate, or of any other site, which would necessitate the invariable use of London stock bricks and slate tiles [sic], or otherwise preclude variety of treatment?'. The answer was that there was no such restriction. (fn. 103)
In fact, even in the first phase more variety was achieved than might have been expected. Some red brick is employed on several schemes, and it was the only material used for the end elevations of the covered market and for all four sides of the Clock Tower. The whole of the initial central housing scheme by Bridgwater & Shepheard, as well as Hopkins and Russell Houses on the adjacent west site (by the LCC's Housing Architect), and part of Cardinal Griffin School are in Uxbridge flint facing bricks. These supposedly matched London stocks, but were mainly used because they were cheaper. (fn. 104) The Catholic church is faced in two-inch bricks from Leicestershire (which were said to be yellow in colour but appear to be light brown), and is roofed in brown Lombardic tiles. The shops and maisonettes around the Market Square and along Market Way are roofed in slates which are grey-green rather than the preferred blue-grey; Bridgwater & Shepheard's housing scheme uses asbestoscement slates (again as an economy measure). (fn. 105) The shops are faced with pale blue faience tiles, as is the covered market, and some terrazzo is employed on Trinity Church (light grey) and Cardinal Griffin School (dark green). The Elizabeth Lansbury School even has some Tyrolean render.
Structurally speaking, the housing in the Live Architecture Exhibition was traditional, employing loadbearing brick walls; indeed, in the case of the flats on the west site, the form of construction was altered from a reinforced-concrete frame to load-bearing brickwork to save expense. Some of the other buildings, such as Trinity Church (with its suspended roofs), Cardinal Griffin School, and the Clock Tower in the Market Square, did employ reinforced-concrete frames or construction. The Susan Lawrence and Elizabeth Lansbury schools were given light welded steel frameworks, as well as utilizing reinforced and precast concrete, and made use of a good deal of prefabrication in their construction.
Stylistically, most of the housing is fairly anonymous, with the Jellicoe scheme most obviously trying to present an updated version of urban Georgian. Roofs are generally low pitched and, in the case of the housing, metalframed casement windows, with top-opening vents, were ubiquitous. The Festival style is only represented in a few details, such as the 'trellis' porches and balconies to the flats designed by the LCC's Housing Architect, the cantilevered staircases at the rear of the Saracen Street terrace by Norman & Dawbarn, and the Clock Tower. Otherwise the schools and Trinity Church are in the Modern style, while the Catholic church is in a more dated 'Jazz-Modern Byzantine' style.
Although the average density for the whole Lansbury Estate when fully completed was supposed to be 136 persons per acre, none of the initial housing schemes reached such a high figure, and Bridgwater & Shepheard's central site scheme only managed 87 persons per acre. Houses, maisonettes, and flats were provided in a bewildering variety of arrangements, and offered accommodation ranging from bed-sitters to four-bedroomed dwellings. This was very much in line with the 1944 and 1949 Housing Manuals, as was the generous use of terraced dwellings, which was also a characteristic of the first generation of New Towns.
With regard to the street layout, it was recognized that East India Dock Road had to remain as a main arterial road, and it was proposed to widen it to 100ft and make it into a dual carriageway. It was also intended to cut down the number of side streets opening on to this main road. However, only minor adjustments were made to the existing street pattern for this initial stage of the Lansbury Estate, and Gordon Stephenson (who had been in Lord Reith's reconstruction group at the Ministry of Works, where he drew up the initial plan for Stevenage New Town, and was Professor of Civic Design at Liverpool) (fn. 106) argued that if more of the existing roads had been dropped, it would have provided larger blocks of land and made redevelopment easier. (fn. 107) In September 1949 the Minister of Transport made an order extinguishing the rights of way over the whole or parts of 15 streets in the area. Of these, only six ceased to exist (Annabel, Chilcot, Nankin, and Swale Streets; Elizabeth Place and Randall's Buildings), although substantial parts of Ellerthorp Street, Gough Grove, Mary Place, Pekin Street, and Vesey Street disappeared, and small sections of Augusta, Giraud, Grundy, and Southill Streets were destroyed. (fn. 108) In addition, a part of Jeremiah Street eventually disappeared too. Conversely, some new streets were constructed, of which Saracen Street, built at an estimated cost of £17,000, (fn. 109) was the only through road, linking East India Dock Road with Hind Grove. Otherwise the new streets were short closes, reviving some of the old names. These were Pekin, Annabel, Elizabeth, and Chilcot Closes. (fn. 110)
Through traffic was to have been re-routed around the eastern edge of the area, so that it would not continue to bisect the neighbourhood. In particular, it was intended that Upper North Street, a busy through-road, should be partially diverted, and the southern section pedestrianized to form the first part of a walkway leading northwards to Bartlett Park. (fn. 111) In the event neither the pedestrianization of this street nor the creation of the walkway took place. Market Way was built northwards off the Market Square as a new pedestrian way, and was intended to link with the other major pedestrian route, a broad parkway, 100ft wide, leading to Bartlett Park, (fn. 112) but the parkway, too, never materialized.
An attempt was also made to unify the landscaping and the street furniture. For example, the general lines of the massing of trees were laid down and each architect worked out his own individual treatment, which was then modified as necessary to fit into the general scheme. (fn. 113) Considerable trouble was taken to preserve as many of the existing trees as possible. Thus, the layout of the West housing site carefully preserved 20 trees on the site, (fn. 114) while a boundary wall to the schools in Ricardo Street was deliberately made serpentine in order to wrap round two existing trees. (fn. 115) Peter Shepheard went to great lengths in his housing scheme to get the contractors to preserve a tree on the site, only to find that the first occupant, in whose garden it stood, had it ripped up within days. (fn. 116) An innovation was the use of what was called 'accelerated landscape', that is the planting of semimature trees on the new site. (fn. 117) This suggestion came from the Festival's Landscape Advisor H. F. Clarke, and the Festival authorities paid for the extra cost involved. The idea was to achieve the effect of four or five years' growth by the time of the exhibition. Some of these semi-mature trees were brought from Hillier & Sons' well-known nursery at Winchester, while the others came from the LCC's own nursery at Avery Hill. In all, only just over 40 such trees were purchased for Lansbury, (fn. 118) and one of the leading planners involved subsequently complained that 'the failure of the L.C.C. to undertake large-scale planting of mature trees was very unfortunate'. (fn. 119) Specially designed items of street furniture proved too expensive, but, according to Johnson-Marshall, 'a prolonged search was made for a well-designed lamp-post of standard make, and although the one selected has faults, it was the best one available at the time'. (fn. 120) Similarly, new matching street-name signs were ordered by the Borough Council for the whole exhibition area. (fn. 121) The siting of street furniture was also carefully worked out with the Borough Council, again using a large model of the estate. (fn. 122)
As the plans for each site got under way, so the planners' apparent domination quickly disappeared. In particular, Adrian Gilbert Scott's Roman Catholic church was completely out-of-scale with the planners' intentions. In such cases the urgency imposed by the Festival exhibition undermined the planners' control and this deadline often meant that compromise and expediency were essential. Where sites were developed by the LCC itself, its Architect tried hard to insist that the private architects appointed should work to him. However, except in the case of the Ricardo Street Schools (where, in fact, Ling was able to get F. R. S. Yorke to alter the roof of the assembly hall to fit in with Gibberd's shopping centre), (fn. 123) the Council's commissioning departments were adamant that normal procedures had to be followed and they gave direct instructions to the appointed architects. Thus, the Director of Housing and Valuer sided with Peter Shepheard against the LCC Architect's Department over the use of tiles instead of slates. (fn. 124)
No less than nine of the LCC's Committees and thirteen of its departments were involved in the development of the 30-acre Live Architecture site. (fn. 125) Indeed, the standard practices and regulations laid down by the different Council departments, together with the stipulations of the various Ministries involved, often left little room for flexibility. Some of the LCC's surviving files show the vast numbers of pieces of paper and endless meetings that were required to ensure that everyone concerned was kept informed and to resolve even the most trivial matter. (fn. 126) For example, when a report was presented in May 1949 giving a schedule of building development for the site it was in the name of seven of the Council's chief officers. (fn. 127) As Johnson-Marshall points out, the statutory procedures and bureaucratic processes meant that 'the time between first conceiving the idea and actually getting a brick on the ground was apt to be long, and the difficulty was to keep a continuation of thought over the necessary period'. (fn. 128) Gordon Stephenson found that Lansbury smacked of 'too much co-operation and committee work', (fn. 129) and Gibberd was probably right in his contention that a special development body ought to have been set up.
Although there were differences of opinion between the LCC and Poplar Borough Council, especially at officer level, (fn. 130) Percy Johnson-Marshall paid tribute to the 'long and continuous collaboration' between the LCC and the Borough. (fn. 131) In fact, the Borough Council proved itself in word and deed always eager to co-operate. (fn. 132) The lighting, sewers and roadworks in the area were all collaborative ventures between the two authorities. The Market Square was officially the Borough's responsibility, although the design work was by Frederick Gibberd and much of the construction work was arranged and superintended by the LCC.
The total cost of the first phase of Lansbury was estimated at approximately £1,600,000. Of this, about £1,300,000 had to be borne by the LCC, together with roughly £500,000 for the acquisition and clearance of the site. Poplar Borough Council's contribution was estimated at £27,610 (not including architects' and surveyors' fees, or administrative costs). The Chairman of the LCC claimed that the expenditure involved would represent a rate burden of less than a tenth of a penny. The estimated expenditure on buildings and preparations for which the Festival authorities were responsible was £240,000. (fn. 133) Subsequently the cost of accelerating the acquisition of the land to meet the deadlines for the exhibition was put at about £15,000, and this, plus various other expenditure incurred in expediting work, was claimed by the LCC from the Festival Office. (fn. 134)
Verdicts on the Live Architecture Exhibition
The Live Architecture Exhibition attracted the attention of most of the leading architectural and planning commentators of the day. William Holford (who, after Abercrombie, was the foremost contemporary authority on town planning and civic design, and was the author of the plan for the post-war reconstruction of the City of London), although generally sympathetic to the initial plans and first phase of Lansbury, did express doubts, which have since proved well founded, whether the 'Neighbourhood' would ever become a meaningful social entity. He pointed out that people might well identify with much smaller or larger units – on the one hand with the 'quarter' or group of streets in which they lived, on the other with the whole borough, or even the East End. He also suggested that all the social and economic needs of the inhabitants could not necessarily be met by a neighbourhood of only 10,000 people, which was based on school catchment areas and the desirability of everyone being within ten minutes' walk of the shopping centre. (fn. 135) Significantly, when in 1987 the London Borough of Tower Hamlets introduced Neighbourhoods as the main units of local government within the borough, Lansbury did not feature but was subsumed within the larger Poplar Neighbourhood. Moreover, there is little evidence that Lansbury has ever managed to establish itself as anything more than a housing estate.
By November 1950, 533 people had been displaced from the Lansbury site, and it was estimated that by the time the Festival was over 1,624 people would be housed there in 444 new dwellings. (fn. 136) However, while the emphasis of the 1943 County of London Plan and the whole Lansbury project was on maintaining the existing community, the housing allocation policy militated against this. Those displaced by the new developments might find themselves rehoused at Roehampton, or wherever the next available letting might be. (fn. 137) Equally, nominations for housing in the first phase at Lansbury were made in the normal way from the LCC's waiting list and were based on the priority of the needs of those on that list. (fn. 138) There was some resentment among the local population, especially when it was claimed that 80 per cent of the new inhabitants of Lansbury would be outsiders. (fn. 139) Indeed, it has been argued that Lansbury was too much concerned with physical reconstruction, and that despite the claims and hopes, in the final outcome too little attention was given to the social and economic components of the community which it was intended to recreate. (fn. 140)
What effect did the Live Architecture Exhibition have upon Lansbury? The LCC's plans were already well advanced before the Festival authorities decided to adopt part of the estate. Clearly Ling and Gibberd were already thinking along very similar lines, and there is little evidence that the Festival's Architecture Council had any significant effect on design matters, either in terms of general layout or of individual buildings. It is true that more architects in private practice were involved than would normally have been the case, but the potential effects of this were limited by the tight planning, design, and economic restraints. Certainly there was a greater range of type and size of accommodation than there would have been had Lansbury been an ordinary LCC housing estate. The exhibition deadline obviously provided a focus for attention and was responsible for accelerating the rate of development; in particular, the nursery school would not have been built until several years later had it not been for the Festival authorities' strong wish that it should be included in the Live Architecture Exhibition.
Despite such progress, the 30 acres of the Lansbury Estate, with only 1,197 dwellings by 1951, (fn. 141) seemed a remarkably small achievement six years after the war had ended and one observer commented that: 'Many who come from abroad, as those from Warsaw or from reconstructed towns in Italy and elsewhere, may well be excused for wondering how it is that the victorious nation has achieved so little in so long a time.' (fn. 142) What had been intended to be a prototype, a new beginning, seemed in many ways to become a dead-end. In 1951 Harold Macmillan, Minister of Housing in the new Conservative Government, placed the emphasis on numbers of dwellings produced, and high-rise, high-density housing was to be the way forward. In 1958 such an authoritative voice on public housing as that of Cleeve Barr could say of the Live Architecture site:'… the tight layout reflects the limitations, at this density, and on such a scale, of using only 2- and 3-storey housing generally with the addition of a few 6-storey blocks.' (fn. 143)
The general reaction to this first phase of Lansbury can be fairly summed up as 'worthy, but dull'. Over the years, although there have been some dissenting voices, the longer view has been kinder. As early as 1953, Lewis Mumford, the great American writer on urban planning, was more enthusiastic about Lansbury than most British commentators. Perhaps this was because he did not visit the estate until the first phase was more or less fully built, or possibly because he was an outside observer. Whatever the reason, writing in the New Yorker, he suggested that his fellow Americans 'might profitably consider this masterly effort as a guide to our thinking' on public housing. He commented:
'I have not looked at all that Europe has to offer since the war, but I shall be surprised if Lansbury is not one of the best bits of housing and urban planning anywhere … the aesthetic results are remarkably good.' (fn. 144)
The buildings and the initial layout generally matured well. Only the Market Square and Shopping Precinct showed signs of age, and this was due not so much to any weakness in the concept, but rather to lack of care and maintenance, combined with the failure to develop fully the shopping centre in the way originally intended. In an attempt to remedy the run-down appearance of this part of the estate. Tower Hamlets Borough Council and its Poplar Neighbourhood Committee have, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, initiated a programme of improvements. The houses and low-rise flats at Lansbury, set amongst gardens, shrubs, and trees, provide a pleasant environment, which has proved popular with those who live there.