Golden Age | Modernist Architecture
Love it or hate it, Modernist architecture has made its mark on Clerkenwell. For designer Stefi Orazi, concrete tower blocks and communal estates have inspired her range of products and property blog. Here she explains what she loves about the Golden Lane Estate she calls home…
When I was first looking to buy a property back in 2004, Golden Lane Estate was really the only serious contender. Having lived nearby in the Barbican for several years, I was drawn to Golden Lane’s swimming pool and often peered into its duplexes, with their primary colour panels. With its cantilevered stairs and double-height windows, I knew this was somewhere special. In fact, the estate was granted Listed Building status in 1997: the blocks are Grade II, apart from Crescent House (Grade II*).
Designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (the same architects as the Barbican), the Golden Lane Estate was the firm’s first project following an open competition in 1951 to design a social housing scheme. Built on a war-damaged site and completed in stages between 1957 and 1962, the scheme consists of eight low-rise residential blocks and one 16-storey tower with a flamboyant roof canopy. At just over 50 metres, it was briefly the highest residential building in the UK.
During these post-war years there was a real drive by planners and architects to “build a better Britain” and it’s this sense of optimism that I find inspiring about Modernist architecture. Slum housing would be cleared and bomb sites used to build decent homes with hot running water, fitted kitchens and inside toilets. For the first residents, it must have felt like total luxury. This bold vision can be seen elsewhere in Clerkenwell, in particular the Spa Green Estate (1949) and the Finsbury Health Centre (1938), both designed by émigré Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin, who believed “nothing was too good for ordinary people”.
Unfortunately, a lot of Modernist post-war architecture, especially concrete high-rises, soon got a bad reputation, and indeed a lot of it was bad. There was often little regard for quality, existing communities or how people would interact in the estates. But in Golden Lane the spaces between the blocks are as important as the blocks themselves. Amenities such as a bowling green (now tennis courts), swimming pool, children’s nursery, community centre, shops and a pub were integrated into the scheme and it works, even 50 years later. The flats are modest in proportion, but built-in storage, sliding doors, and full-height glazing maximise the space.
As a result of the 1980 Right to Buy scheme for council tenants, about 50 per cent of the flats are owned, which makes for a good mix of residents. I know people who have lived here since it was first built, brought up families in the maisonettes and then downsized to smaller flats. The estate is relatively small and the openness allows you get to know your neighbours easily. We regularly hold events such as Christmas markets and summer fairs; there’s also a community allotment. In fact, I’ve met some of my closest friends through living here.
On the downside, the estate is showing signs of age. Estates require good management and constant upkeep, and there are elements of Golden Lane that could definitely do with a bit more care. ‘With its cantilevered stairs and double-height windows, i knew this was somewhere special’
Of course, one of the things you can’t beat about living here is the area. There seems to be a brilliant new restaurant opening up on my doorstep every month. You can walk to the West End in half an hour, take a short stroll across the river to the Tate, or be in Shoreditch in 15 minutes. So despite wanting a bigger flat and spending hours looking at different properties on the market, nowhere seems quite good enough to lure me away from Golden Lane.
See Stefi’s range of Modernist-inspired products at www.thingsyoucanbuy.co.uk – including a screenprint in a limited edition of 100 featuring the artwork above – and visit her blog at www.modernistestates.com