Kensal House

For the first time, a modernist block was to be occupied by the working class, rather than the middle classes.

By: The From Here To Modernity team (Programme and web teams)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Monday 26th November 2001
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Heritage
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Kensal House Creative commons image stevecadman under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Maxwell Fry, (Britain)


Construction Date:

Ladbroke Grove, London

Slum Clearance

Kensal House is one of several progressive, modernist housing schemes built in Britain in the 1930s, but unlike the Lawn Road Flats and Highpoint One, these flats were not inhabited by middle classes intellectuals. Completed in 1937, Kensal House marks the point in the story of British Modernist architecture when the social/political ideals of the early modernists come to the fore.

Along with the (now demolished) Quarry Hill Flats in Leeds and Berthold Lubetkin's Finsbury Health Centre, Kensal House hints at the increasing confidence of British modernists to shape the society in which they lived.

British cities in the 1930s were in desperate need of housing reform. Heavy industries still dominated and workers, and their families found themselves crammed into tiny apartments with little or no amenities.

The crowded streets and dank apartments quickly became breeding grounds for disease and a catalogue of easily preventable ailments flourished. Tuberculosis, diphtheria, and whooping cough all took their toll on children and workers unlucky enough to be stuck in these slums.

The Greenwood Act of 1930 was one of numerous official attempts to rectify the appalling situation (and one of the first to emphasise the importance of careful planning), but in this era, reform was often piecemeal and left to progressive-minded industrialists.

An Urban Village

So it was with Kensal House. Designed by the British Modernist Maxwell Fry (who was assisted by social reformer Elizabeth Denby), these two striking white blocks in west London were commissioned and financed by the Gas Light and Coke Company and intended for re-housed slum dwellers.

The Company's aim was to show that a modern building, fulfilling the latest safety specifications, could run cheaply and safely on gas power. Denby and Fry had loftier aims. They wanted to show that an "urban village" (Fry's words) could be created from scratch, and simultaneously offer people healthier, happier, safer, and more fulfilling lives than those they had known in the slum.

The sixty-eight apartments in Kensal House were spacious (certainly in comparison with the slums), and consisted of either two or three bedrooms. Each had two balconies- one for drying washing, and another for relaxation. The blocks were placed on a north-south axis with the bedroom and living rooms on the outside, so ensuring that both benefited from sunlight during the day.

This emphasis on fresh air and light contrasted with the dark slums.

A Modernist Prototype

Rents were kept low, but Kensal House was about more than just cheap housing for the working classes. Fry and his employers provided the new tenants with an astonishing built-in range of social and communal facilities.

The estate incorporated a community centre, a crèche, a communal laundry and canteen facilities. Residents could attend metalwork and woodwork classes, or join the gardening club. A specially built kindergarten allowed children to play safely in a safe, clean environment, watched by their parents. A nurse also visited the children on a regular basis.

On top of all this, the residents were represented on the committees that managed the estate.

For people who had lived in London's slums, Kensal House was another world. Clean, safe, self-contained, and stacked with amenities which even local councils could not provide, it was one of the first solid examples of what Modernist architecture could do for the working classes. And although modest compared to similar schemes in Germany and France (which often included 200 or 300 apartments), it was hailed in 1937 as a prototype for modern living.

It is still popular with its residents today.

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