I’m sitting inthe lobby of a small and very quaint – 19th century is my guess – hotelin London, with a cold glass of lemonade that a waitress has just made me. I’vebeen told Denys Lasdun prefers to meet here, he doesn’t like large hotels withtoo many people as it makes him feel uneasy. As I’m waiting patiently on a wellsat upon but attractive sofa, for Denys Lasdun to arrive.
Denys Lasdun is aboutto be interviewed by me, a 23-year-old shy, architecture student, about to meetand interview one of the most highly regarded architects of our time about postwar housing, of which he had a considerable involvement.I study theinterior. It’s a small hotel…perhaps more like a guest house, with grandfeatures such as columns in the doorways, three-metre-high ceilings andtraditional bay windows that look out onto a small and overgrown garden. Themid afternoon sun is streaming through the bay windows, lighting up the wholefront waiting room; it catches the bottom of the chandelier which cause a burstof multi-coloured lights to light up the ceiling. The peaceful andvery quiet stillness is suddenly disturbed as I hear clunking footsteps comingdown the 19th century staircase. I turn around to face the door justas Denys Lasdun is walking through the doorway and takes a seat to my left on alarge dishevelled but attractive armchair.
He is a dapperman, dressed in a brown tweed jacket and trousers with a small yetdistinctively scruffy bow tie. I sit down on thesofa and nervously introduce myself and how much I admire him and his work.’Thank you’ – he repliedsoftly.
I clear mythroat and decide to get straight into the questions, I don’t want to take uptoo much of his time. ‘So…I’d like to ask you about your involvement withpost second world war housing- specifically Keeling House…your thoughts andexperience in it – what you wanted to achieve with it and if you felt youachieved it?’ There’s a pausebefore Lasdun starts speaking. I can see him thinking. ‘Hmm…Lets rewind; pre World War II, Bethnal Green -the heart of the working class East End of London. This area was heavilytargeted and bombed by the Germans as it contained some of the city’s mostimportant dockland areas and was a hub for the transport of vital goods toLondon and the rest of the UK. After a lot of Londoners homes were flattened, Iwanted to become involved with redesigning and redeveloping homes for thesepeople…there were a lot of people to rehome, but the opportunity to moveforward in terms of housing design in the UK was something I wanted and had tobe involved in.’ He pauses for asecond as he looks over and sees me scribbling, trying to take note of everyword he says.
‘Prior to WWII theworld’s economy had been wrecked by the great depression and 23% of theboroughs men were without jobs and overcrowding was a rife issue in the area. LondonCounty Council did what they could to improve the quality of living by increasingthe number of properties to be built but this was difficult as the council did nothave the money it needed to do so.’ He pauses again,this time for about a minute; until he hears me stop writing. I thought thiswas considerate of him – allowing me time to write what needed to be written.Just then the waitress brings over another drink. Lasdun said as a huge grinappear on his face. He takes a sip and then places it on a small coffee tablebeside his chair.
‘Shall I continue?’ ‘Please!’ I said, whilst Idecide to take a sip of my drink. ”After the war, during the years of the Britishreconstruction, public housing was a priority within the policy of the WelfareState. The resolution of the housing problem required relative standardizationin interior planning and technology, which could all too easily lead tosolutions that were boring, anonymous and uninteresting and that was somethingI just did not want! I was wary of the box-diagram approach and keen to evolvenew ideas that were better suited to pre-existing social and urban patterns. Myexperience working with other architects such as Coates and Lubetkin,introduced me to a lot of generic aspects of housing for the masses and thedangers of high rise planning.” ‘In 1952, I was commissioned by London City Council andBethnal Green Borough Council to redevelop a site off Usk Street, which hadbeen flattened during the war. Sulkin House, an eight storey block of flatswith 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 farfrom this project called Keeling House.
‘Again, he paused to sip his drink. ‘So, in terms of the idea behind the social programmeof the building; how it affected the former residents of Bethnal Green and whatthey thought of it; could you tell me more about that?’ I asked. He continued; ‘The disposition of the plan is such as toilluminate the necessity of escape stairs and also isolate the noise of publicstairs, lifts and refuse disposal from the dwellings.’ ‘My main goal was to provide something for peoplewho’d lost everything. Privacy was certainly a driving force as I designed itso that each balcony only served two flats, obliquely.
Somehow looking for a balance of privacy and seclusion,that comes with tenement housing, but with an opportunity for neighbourlinessas well. I feel I did achieve this as most of the tenants could reach theirfront door without passing one another.”He paused and stared out of the window…”These were people who came from little terracedhouses or something with backyards. I used to lunch with them and try andunderstand a bit more about what mattered to them, and they were proudpeople.
They kept pigeons and rabbits in their back yard and hung theirwashing there…And as a result of these contacts I didn’t have flats. Isaid 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 theseconversations, 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 ofthousands. So the thing was radically broken up, this building, into fourdiscrete connected towers, each semi-detached on a floor, each a maisonette.” ‘Oh, so you actually spoke to residenceswho were going to live there?’ I asked, perhaps a little too surprised.
This gave me the impressionthat he actually cared about how his architecture would have an effect on thoseliving in it and living around it. ‘Most definitely! You can’t design worthy housingwithout proper research into who and what you’re designing for.”And what was the inspiration behind theplan? 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 muchlarger scale. Resembling the unfurling form of a plant with stem, leaves andpetals this time 16 storeys, rather than eight, the four blocks circle thecentral service core and contains 64 homes in total. It is a clever design, ifI may say so myself, that breaks away from the usual appearance of your typicaltower block. It’s designed so that all living spaces are south facing, gainingthe most amount of sun light as possible whilst facing away from the core… thisalso provides greater privacy to each flat.’ He pauses againfor a minute, quietly sipping on his drink whilst still gazing out of thewindow.
I’m glad of this as it gives me a chance to take a 30 second break fromwriting. So lastly, does Keeling House hold any resemblance tobuildings you’ve designed before?’ ‘Yes, much of the inspiration for Keeling House camefrom Hallfeild School, a small commission. The infants wing is arranged in acellular arrangement and it anticipates the Bethnal Green cluster blocks.
Myinterest in biological analogies and double curves may also be found in theRoyal College of Physicians, a commission that came about for me a decadelater.”The building was not to most locals taste at first.’ He continues. ‘They found itstark 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.
Aglimpse into what housing could be like for many people and a glimpse into whathousing should be like.’ I look over andask; ‘Was it always your intention todesign housing in a brutalist style? Is that how you’d best describe it?’ ‘It is undoubtedly brutalist and well designed butcertainly hasn’t got away with being the best. One of the key features of this buildwas the central free-standing tower which contained the services and lifts,with the separate towers clustered around it. The services area of each floorwhere a common space – an area for residents to meet and chat; also a spaceused where residents could hang their clothes out to dry but because of theheight and shape of the building, the wind surged here, making it an unpleasantsocialising area.
Which really did disappoint me. Not long after completion,some problems with the flats appeared and it was costing the council anincreasing amount of money to repair, money of which they didn’t have. Thecouncil decided they needed to get rid of the flats and were willing to sellthe block for £1 to the Peabody Trust – but they were not willing to take onthe task of repair without the promise of government or lottery funding. This then lead to thecouncil’s decision to have the flats demolished.’ ‘How did you feel about that?’ I said.
‘I was devastated! These homes that I saw as a visionfor the future were to be demolished unless somebody bought them privately. Butthe city was in such disrepair…That’s when the local residents of Bethnal Greenprotested against the demolition and wrote that poem. A Protesters Poem, iswhat I call it. I’ve kept a copy on me since I first heard it, would you likeme to read it to you?’ ‘Yes, please do.’ He produced acrinkled and well folded piece of paper from his tweet blazer pocket and beganto recite the piece… ”Whenthe councillors are tucked up in bed so cosy and meek,Willthey think of our families they are throwing on the street.Furniturein storage, bed and breakfast for our home.You know about the crumbling block but now the time has comeWhereall the neighbours will unite and try to make a stand.Wehave feelings too but you just don’t understand.
Whatcan we tell our children when they come knocking at the door?Isthis the sort of people our ancestors fought for?HELP US STAND TOGETHER”I sat in silencefor a moment as Lasdun folded away the piece of paper. It amazed me that thesepeople 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 somethought it was, it was still their home.
I could tell the poem meant a lot toLasdun, as he sat and looked deeper in thought than he had before, with analmost sad look in his eyes. ‘That’s quite something’ Isaid. ‘A meaningful message from peoplewho are thankful for what you gave them… We’d been sitting there for about half anhour now, Lasdun talking as I noted his every word.
He wasn’t what I expectedas an Architect. His ideas behind Keeling House were far more interesting thanI’d originally imagined; it symbolising an interest in biological analogies andresembling plants. Linking his designs to a very organic source symbolises thelink between architecture and man. How good design through brutalist architectureimpacts our basic needs and effects our emotions. I begin to question what mankind would have become, had we not considered these architectural styles? Uninspiring,mundane and monotonous.