Denys Lasdun, (Britain)
Bethnal Green, London
The Cluster Solution
By the 1950s, some Modernist architects were starting to question the received wisdom of the urban planning doctrines of CIAM.
The Athens Charter of 1933, inspired by Le Corbusier, had envisaged a functional, zoned city, characterised by large, widely-spaced apartment blocks and landscaped public places. But now that Modernists had the chance to put these grand-scale ideas into practice, the more perceptive could see the flaws in this vision.
Keeling House in London's East End was an attempt to address some of these problems. Its creator, Denys Lasdun, had worked with both Wells Coates and Berthold Lubetkin, but was worried that modernists were ignoring successful elements of already existing neighbourhoods. Lasdun believed that it was vital for Modernist architects to maintain a sense of place and belonging if they were to successfully reshape the modern city.
In the early 1950s, Lasdun was invited to build two housing schemes in Bethnal Green, east London. His first scheme, in Usk Street, was a precursor for his much more ambitious fifteen storey 'cluster' block, Keeling House, which was completed in 1957.
Sheets in the Sky
Keeling House had four wings grouped around a central service core. Lasdun, who had studied photographs of traditional terraced street life in the area, hoped that this unusual design would succeed not just in providing local residents with the benefits of modernist architecture, but would also preserve the vitality and neighbourliness of the Victorian-era streets.
Keeling House was an attempt to stand these streets on their ends. Each wing looked onto another, so that physical contact between neighbours would be encouraged (something that Lasdun believed was unlikely to happen in a flat slab block). There were no closed-in corridors, instead the walk from the lift to your front door would take you past communal 'drying areas', where residents would meet and gossip over their laundry as they had done in the old streets below.
The service area of each floor Lasdun hoped, would become a noisy imitation of the pleasantly chaotic terraced rows: here people would leave their bicycles, stop to have a cigarette, chat, and admire the view. The apartments themselves were two-storey maisonettes, the typical shape of an east-end terrace.
The New Urban Cool
But Lasdun also cared about privacy. He disliked the tendency in Modernist theory to treat people as mere statistics to be housed and ticked off on a list. The flats in Keeling House are distanced from the service area, and the outward-facing balconies deliberately do not look onto one another. The towers were also arranged so that everyone felt the sun at some point in the day. Keeling House, painted white- the colour of clean living and a favourite Modernist touch- soared above the dark terraced rows below.
Lasdun's design attracted much interest. Just as Peter and Alison Smithson were urging Modernists to create a 'sense of belonging' in their work, Lasdun had demonstrated a way forward. But although Keeling House was popular with residents, it was not immune from the social problems which engulfed many council-run estates (modernist and conventional) in later years.
Some felt that Lasdun had put too much emphasis on privacy, and that his attempt to build an east-end community fifteen storeys above the ground had failed- in effect, his plans to encourage social interaction were fine in theory, but failed in practice.
Keeling House today has been completely renovated by a commercial developer, and apartments in the building sell for several hundred thousand pounds each. Four penthouses have been added on the roof of each tower, and a full-time concierge now sits in a glass entry foyer, surrounded by the soft gurgling fountains.
Conceived as a remedy to Victorian-era housing problems and flaws in the accepted Modernist solutions of the 1950s, Keeling House today stands as a monument to the revival in urban living and the economic boom of the 1990s.