CENTRAL HILL “WE ARE AT RISK OF LOSING AN ARCHITECTURAL GEM” – 20th Century Society’s anger as ‘listing’ bid turned down
A bid to get the Central Hill estate – under threat of demolition from Lambeth council – ‘listed’ has been turned down by Historic England.
The 20th Century Society – which made the application to get the building listed – says the decision places one of London’s most exceptional and progressive post-war housing estates in a hugely vulnerable position.
“We are now at risk of losing an architectural gem, and hundreds of residents are at risk of losing their much-loved homes.”
Historic England say: “The Central Hill estate is a social housing development, built in 1967-75 by Lambeth borough council, designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt.
“We have carefully considered the architectural and historic interest of the scheme, and the adjacent Pear Tree House which was built slightly earlier, in 1965, to the designs of Ted Hollamby.
“Central Hill is an interesting example of a post-war housing estate. “It is the largest of the Hollamby-era housing schemes to have a bespoke design and the plan ensures homes enjoy plenty of natural daylight.
“However, the estate wasn’t a pioneer for social housing at the time and much of the success of the scheme is due to the topography, rather than architectural flair.
“In comparison with listed estates, such as those by Camden borough council, there is not the complexity or quality of detail within the architecture to warrant listing at a national level.
“Whilst Central Hill has many merits, it falls short of the very high bar for listing post-war housing estates and will therefore not be added to the National Heritage List for England.”
In its application the 20th Century Society said:
“Hollamby had reservations about housing families in point blocks, and in a number of Lambeth developments (including Central Hill) sought to meet the required densities with low rise developments. He became ‘the acknowledged leader in high density housing with low buildings’ (Jill Craigie, ‘People Versus Planners’, The Times, 14 September 1968). By the time of Central Hill’s development, the lessons of placing point and slab blocks in isolation were being learned: Central Hill provides a mix of low dwelling types and a varied skyline.
The Central Hill design predates comparable Camden schemes such as Highgate New Town (1972-8), Branch Hill (1974-6) and Maiden Lane (1976-81).
In the parallel debate between the Le Corbusier-inspired and the softer Swedish-inspired philosophical camps, Hollamby and his team fell clearly into the humanistic Swedish camp, creating low rise high density housing at a human scale. This humanism is a characteristic of both the key architects involved with Central Hill: Ted Hollamby and Rosemary Stjernstedt.
Central Hill easily matches and surpasses the quality of the Branch Hill estate (design of 1970 by Benson and Forsyth, listed Grade II), considered one of the best low-rise, high-density estates designed by Camden Architects’ Department in the 1960s and 1970s.
The blocks of housing at Central Hill are carefully arranged to maximize views for each dwelling, with many being dual aspect, while the Branch Hill houses are single aspect and regimented. The use of materials is sophisticated in both, with a white concrete frame forming an exposed structural-skeleton, in both cases detailed with board-marking. As shown by this comparison, the Central Hill estate clearly meets the high bar for listing.
Existing trees were incorporated into the layout and, in accordance with a joint statement of planning policy approved by the GLC and London boroughs of Bromley, Croydon, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark, no buildings in the scheme projected above the existing tree line (A&B News, 30/11/66, p. 944). The architects’ intention was ‘to retain the sylvan wooded atmosphere that exists at present’ (Central Hill Development Report, p. 9).
Significant engineering was needed to prepare the steep site for the development. The road named Central Hill is set into the hillside, and its support involved construction of a continuous reinforced concrete retaining wall of varying height for much of the site. Hawke Road was diverted by means of a bridge over depressed ground, with the area under the bridge used as a car park.
Due to low permeability of the clay subsoil, the nature of the development, the slope of the site and the relatively high water table, structural engineers decided it was necessary to introduce subsoil drainage in order to obtain an adequate factor of safety against slip. The water table was lowered by means of graded aggregate filled buttress drains which were collected at the bottom of slope and fed into main drainage system via silt interceptors. (A&BN, 13/2/69, p. 70.)
The Central Hill estate is one of the most important examples of social housing in London. It compares favourably with listed examples in Camden, which is widely regarded for its low-rise, high-density housing. The Twentieth Century Society’s casework committee recently considered Central Hill and feels strongly that it meets the necessary standard for listing.
The Twentieth Century Society is a membership organisation which campaigns for the conservation of the best C20th architecture. It was founded in 1976 as the Thirties Society and is now recognised by government and has a statutory role in the planning process. For more details, please see their website, www.c20society.org.uk.
Further reading: Historic England give Brixton Recreation Centre Grade II listed status – article by Mike Urban – Brixton Buzz November 3, 2016