Things are changing again behind Euston, where the impact of HS2 is resulting in some high quality new social housing
Central though it is, few people are aware of London’s Regent's Park Estate. That’s because this is not posh Regent's Park, though there are one or two surviving fragments of Nash to be found there. Besides, although it was originally part of Nash’s grand plan, it’s in a different borough and a different volume of the Buildings of England. It’s a large postwar council estate, built by what was the Borough of St Pancras from 1951 onwards, designed by various architects starting with the prolific Sir Frederick Gibberd. But the time-capsule nature of the place has been rudely interrupted by a new railway line: HS2, which is lopping a corner off the estate.
Three of the original Gibberd L- and T-shaped blocks have now been demolished but forward planning by Camden, paid for by HS2 to the tune of £40 million, has yielded a good result: eight excellent new blocks by architects Mae and Matthew Lloyd, slotted into the existing street layout, mean that displaced residents have been given better new homes in their neighbourhood, along with much-improved landscaping by East.
Time for an urban ramble, then. I and photographer Wilde Fry meet architect Alex Ely of Mae in a new café in the super-glassy ‘Regent's Place’ office district west of the Euston Tower, but we don’t want to linger there. Calm down, this was back in February when we were all free as birds. A different kind of reality awaits just a few yards north, sandwiched between Albany Street, Hampstead Road and the great railway cutting leading into Euston Station. It’s the widening of that cutting for HS2 which has led to the estate reorganisation.
We bring different areas of interest to this. Ely knows all about the architects of the postwar period and the planning row of the late 1940s that brought the estate into being. The area, always a ‘service zone’ for workers in the Nash masterplan and gradually filled with industrial buildings and modest spec-built homes, had become very run down and been declared a slum, although it had not been particularly badly bombed. Ely relates how there was resistance at first to the idea of a modernist clean slate, but the progressives – among them Sydney Cook, later to become chief architect for Camden – won through.
I am also keen on the first big slum-clearance social housing here, the contiguous Cumberland Market Estate. This is a grand series of neo-Georgian blocks built for the Crown Estate in the 1930s, complete with be-clocktowered entrance block, by architect C E Varndell. He got a street named after him. As built, the eastern range of Varndell’s 600-home complex (now run by Peabody) rose right from the wharfside of the terminal basin of an arm of the Regent’s Canal. Cumberland Basin was where the boats loaded with coal, stone, hay, vegetables, even livestock, arrived, and the square of Cumberland Market square just to the south was where London’s hay market was sited: one big customer was the nearby cavalry army barracks on Albany Street, still there today.
In the early years of the 20th century the square with its cheap rentals had become a haunt of artists, notably Robert Bevan’s Cumberland Market Group. But both the Market and the canal basin had closed for business by the 1930s, and during the war this branch of the canal was filled in with rubble from the Blitz, brought in trucks from sites of destruction all over the capital . Later a layer of topsoil was added and the basin is now a large area of allotments, an urban oasis if ever there was, with birds chirruping and bees buzzing. ‘I’d rather have this than a typical landscaped square,’ observes Ely.
As we stroll around the newer estate, it’s hard to make out much of the Nash masterplan, disrupted as it is by the post-war replanning. On the map, though, you can see it. The ghost of Nash’s sequence of squares continues southwards along Osnaburgh Street, now fragmented and subsumed into the council estate: after Cumberland Market comes Clarence Gardens, then Munster Square – the last two remade with low-rise terraces of houses and maisonettes in curious pinkish-purple brick by architect Armstrong and McManus, concluding the original estate. This seems to have been a reaction against the earlier arrangement of discrete, taller blocks by Gibberd, architect Davies and Arnold, and the borough architects: a conflict is apparent between the 1950s ‘townscape’ ideals of the estate with its abundant green space and long views, and the densities required. Even the Armstrong and McManus section has a couple of tall towers to get the number of units up. But this slightly chaotic planning regime with its visible 1950s shifting of aesthetic gears has resulted in a diverse and to my mind agreeable place. In a world of gentrification and social cleansing of ‘regenerated’ council estates, this feels like real London.
Let’s note however, that it’s one rule for the poor, another for the rich. While HS2 has led to demolitions of many homes here, a little further north where Nash’s Park Village East flanks the railway, no houses will be lost. Instead hugely costly engineering gymnastics will put the HS2 tracks into a double-decker ‘dive-under’ there, all to maintain what is of course a conservation area with well-heeled and vocal residents. It should be said that Camden opposed HS2 from the start, and extracted as much mitigation and compensation as it could.
So our walk takes us past eight new infill blocks – some by Mae, some by Lloyd. The quality is palpable, from Lloyd’s gateway tower of modelled brick on the Hampstead Road to Ely’s continuous-balconied block on Robert Street, designed to echo in a rather different manner the deck-access Armstrong and McManus blocks opposite. Both firms of architects respond subtly to their surroundings in this way (and Ely points out that his ‘blade columns’ in Robert Street are a homage to Denys Lasdun’s nearby Royal College of Physicians). Lloyd’s are slightly more richly-textured, Ely’s cooler, but they are both keenly aware of their contexts. I suppose this is the bricky ‘New London Vernacular’ but it’s a distinct cut above most of it. If all new council housing was designed to these standards, we’d be living in the New Jerusalem. Which is apt in a way, because to my mind the 1950s Regent's Park Estate was planned and built with much the same ambition.