During the Second World War, roughly 200,000 houses were destroyed, 250,000 were made uninhabitable, and three million were damaged.
Before the war, slum clearances (large-scale demolition of poor-quality housing), unemployment and the rising cost of building materials had also played havoc with habitation.
And so began an extraordinary period in British history: between 1945 and 1949, the London County Council (LCC) built 44,000 new homes in London alone. Clement Atlee’s government (1945-51) built one million new houses across the country, of which 80% were council owned. Winston Churchill supposedly won the 1950 election on a pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year, which was achieved.
It was an exciting period: new ideas about living and space had arrived with European émigrés and refugees, whilst young architects who had spent the war years working on military construction were employed by councils across the country.
By no means definitive, here are seven of the best-listed post-war estates. Tell us about your favourite in the comments.
1. Cook’s Camden, London, 1965-73
Neave Brown was one of several young, ideological architects (many of them graduates of the Architectural Association) hired by Camden’s Chief Architect Sydney Cook to work on almost 50 new social housing projects.
Land shortages in the borough called for clever ideas: the back of Alexandra Road Estate acts as a sound barrier to protect residents from the train line.
The design was in stark comparison to the favoured ‘streets in the sky’ or tower block focus from the earlier post-war era.
Brown focused on high-density, low-rise buildings, working to the principles of the omnipresent London terrace to foster community relations.
Other projects overseen by Cook include Highgate New Town (Peter Tabori), the Brunswick Centre (Patrick Hodgkinson), Maiden Lane and Branch Hill (Benson and Forsyth).
2. Keeling House, London, 1955
Three months after Alexandra Road was added to the List, Denys Lasdun’s East London ‘cluster’ became the second piece of post-war social housing to be granted listed status.
At 16 storeys high, it embodies Lasdun’s ideas on urban renewal and housing: the flats mimic terrace houses (each being a maisonette), and design details promote contact and community.
3. The Lawn, Essex, 1951
At just 10 storeys high, The Lawn in Harlow, Essex, is modest in height by modern standards.
But this was Britain’s first tower block and was part of Frederick Gibberd’s master plan to house 60,000 people in a new town. It is listed at Grade II for ‘the care and subtlety of the overall design, which represents the best British housing design of the early 1950s’.
4. Tayler & Green, Norfolk, 1946-74
Outside of London and its surroundings, social housing looks very different.
Architects Herbert Tayler and David Green were based in Lowestoft, Suffolk, where ‘housing was taken unusually seriously’. In 1945 they were appointed to design houses in villages like Loddon, Blundeston and Ditchingham.
This gentle terrace in Ditchingham melts into the landscape. The Waveney Valley is notoriously wide and flat. British architectural critic Ian Nairn called the design ‘an attempt to entrap the whole of East Anglian space in one great gesture. It is a kind of oath of allegiance to the landscape.’
5. The Cheltenham Estate, London, 1972
Set in North Kensington, London, the Cheltenham Estate is home to one of England’s most famous and recognisable pieces of social housing: the Trellick Tower.
In the 1960s, the LCC (which became the GLC in 1965) started to look beyond its in-house teams and towards private practices.
Ernő Goldfinger, the maverick Hungarian architect, was selected. His design mirrors that of Balfron Tower, which he completed in Poplar a few years earlier.
6. Byker, Newcastle, 1969-82
In the early 1960s, city officials in Newcastle set out to demolish and rebuild vast swathes of housing across the city to improve living conditions.
Byker was a solidly working-class neighbourhood that was home to 17,000 people at the time.
Ralph Erskine was an English architect who had worked extensively in Sweden, which, combined with his Quaker upbringing, had solidified his socialist and humanist principles.
When designing the estate, Erskine set up a former undertaker’s office so residents could meet with him and see the plans. The colourful exterior adds to the lighthearted design.
7. Excalibur Estate, London, 1946
By 1940, 1,647 homes had been destroyed in the London borough of Lewisham, which only exceeded in Lambeth and Stepney.
The 1944 Housing Act authorised £150 million to be spent on temporary houses. Flat-pack bungalows were constructed at great speed, often by Italian and German Prisoners of War. Over 150,000 went up across the country.
Excalibur is a unique example of prefab estate planning on a large scale and is the largest surviving estate of its type in England.