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End of an Experiment

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From my desk I can see the Lakanal flats which caught fire so catastrophically on Friday. I’ve looked at the modernist slab block, end-on, almost every working day for the last three years. On Friday afternoon there was thin grey smoke coming from one window. As I went out into the street a woman from across the road told me that she’d just called the fire brigade. While we watched the smoke turned black and then with a muffled sound, somewhere between a thud and a roar, flames burst out of the front. Glass and burning debris started to shower down. After twenty minutes or so I left. I wasn’t doing any good. People were running towards the estate but by this time the police had tape up and were holding them back.

Lakanal, named after Joseph Lakanal (1762-1845), the French revolutionary educationalist, is part of the Sceaux Gardens estate. It was built in 1955-59 in a haze of post-war Corbusian enthusiasm for all things French. The other blocks, mostly lower rise, include Voltaire, Fontanelle and Racine. Lakanal’s twin high-rise is Marie Curie. In summer, with the trees in leaf shadowing its pale-green panelled balconies, Lakanal could pass for not too poor a relation of the Unité d’Habitation. Designed, nominally, by the Southwark borough architect F.O. Hayes, it was probably the work of an Austrian in his office, Felix Trenton.

Sceaux Gardens was only one of the later experiments in social housing in an area dense with them for over a century. I work in the earliest, Pilgrims’ Cloisters, built by William Peacock in 1837 on the model of an Oxford college, and intended as a rest home for aged pilgrims. The Pilgrims’ Way passes nearby and there was little else here then. camberwell-mapAcross the road in Havil Street is the circular Victorian workhouse hospital. The art nouveau South London Gallery is on the main road and the Arts and Crafts grammar school on Wilson Road. They mark, like tree rings, succeeding fashions in architecture and philanthropy. The terrible end of the Sceaux Gardens experiment – and it surely will be the end, they will have to take the block down – should not be blamed too hastily on anyone, even its architect. The fire seemed to travel in a zig zag up and down the building. It will take time to understand what happened. Today the estate is full of subdued activity: firemen and police and residents waiting for answers.


  1.  Mike says:

    The design of Lakanal House “should not be blamed too hastily on anyone, even its architect” thinks Ms Hill. Presumably she doesn’t see why the Housing Committee of the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell (not Southwark) should have bothered to make a study visit either to Stoke Newington, where the local Council provided high density social housing without resorting to high rise construction, or to Paddington where the block I live in, nine stories high, has three staircases, one in the middle and one at each end. The estate – Hallfield – was deisgned by Denys Lasdun and was largely responsible for his winning the contract to design the South Bank complex.

    I certainly feel a little bad about it myself, since I wrote Southwark Council’s housing capital programme bids for three years in the 1980s and never bothered my head about which of its larger blocks were firetraps and which weren’t.

  2. Mike says:

    Thinking a little further as to why they (the architect and Housing Committee) of Camberwell Borough Council didn’t undertake those study visits, the following (possibly fantasy) occurs to me…

    Both Camberwell and Stoke Newington were solidly Labour councils – Paddington was a marginal. Camberwell had a right-wing (and I suspect largely Catholic) Labour Party, the other two left-wing ones – which in the 1950s meant close to the Communist Party.

    I wonder if that was why they weren’t prepared to learn from their comrades north of the river. Were those who died in the fire at Lakanal House the last victims of the Cold War?