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It’s a cover-up

Will Wiles

Getting plastered isn’t always as bad as it seems

Not far from where I live in east London there are a couple of blocks of council houses, designed by the London County Council’s architects’ department and built as part of the Ocean Estate at the strikingly early post-war date of 1953. They are built of slightly nicotine yellow brick with large casement windows and monopitch roofs, displaying the influence of Scandinavian modernism on the LCC at the time (or so Pevsner says). Individually they are distinctive little family homes and together comprise a surprisingly coherent and intact streetscape, arranged around a series of small greens. The residents clearly care for them, and I daresay in 20 or 30 years someone at Tower Hamlets will shake themselves from slumber and make them a conservation area. 

I hope they do, anyway, because the investors are circling. An end-of-terrace in the block was recently bought by a small developer, refurbished, and resold – a sequence of events that was easy to see because they slapped creamy render all over the yellow brick, leaving it gleaming like a gold tooth. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and they’re not the first – a few of the other homes in the group had been rendered. Several of these were, I expect, proud right to buy homeowners eager to exercise the privileges of their new status and differentiate their properties. Architects (and critics, and future historians) might flinch at the slow erosion of the group’s coherence, but that’s urban life. 

They slapped creamy render all over the yellow brick, leaving it gleaming like a gold tooth

What’s funny is that the group has a non-identical twin – a couple of blocks to the south, there are two more streets of post-war LCC cottages, without the Scandi influence and ensemble appeal, but solid and pleasant. These were originally rendered, and here homeowners and investors make their mark by chipping off the cement and revealing the rather undistinguished pink brick beneath. 

The individual choices involved might be perfectly reasonable, but viewed collectively the fates of these two groups of homes suggest a certain indecision on the part of homeowners about the value of brick – or at least an agreement that the appearance of difference is more important than any other external treatment. Nevertheless I marvel at the mutations in the image of the workaday brick.

It was humble stuff, in the 19th century, at least compared to stone, which is why better class dwellings went in for stucco. But stucco thus had a disreputable air of artifice. ‘Even when most perfect, we know [stucco] to be a deception, and intended to hide deformity and worthlessness,’ wrote Robert Bakewell in 1834. That it was dressing a meaner material was no secret – the real concern was that builders might use such a duplicitous tool to get away with all kinds of tricks. Charles Eastlake, writing in 1868, calls it ‘specious’ and the invention of  ‘an evil hour’: ‘good and bad work was reduced, in the eyes of the general public, to one common level’. (Both these quotes are drawn from Clive Aslet’s The English House, an amusing whistle-stop tour of 1000 years of domestic architecture published in 2008.)

Today, the streets in between the two clusters of LCC survivals are being filled in with giant blocks of apartments, one of which I inhabit. These are clad in brick slip panels, meaning that the brick’s transmutation is complete: now it is the surface treatment, covering the more prosaic modern concrete frames and insulation panels. And pre-2008 blocks in the neighbourhood have what only can be described as fake stucco: a concrete finish intended to resemble render over bricks, but with no brick beneath. Two different eras, the appearance of two different materials, and a bewildering variety of meaning, concealment and revelation, all on the doorstep. 

Will Wiles is an author. Read him here every other month.