A new V&A exhibition in the heart of the East End’s Lansbury Estate showcases the ambitions of post war planning which should be a model for new housing, says Gillian Darley
The Lansbury Estate in the East End borough of Poplar constituted the ‘Living Architecture’ exhibit at the Festival of Britain in 1951. The thirty-acre site was laid out by the London County Council to demonstrate what progressive planning might achieve. The ninth of eleven neighbourhoods but confusingly, the first to be built, it was part of a plan for Stepney and Poplar, itself within the London-wide Abercrombie plan. Situated close to the docks, the area had been heavily bombed and the need for rebuilding was urgent.
The V & A in the East, soon to have a physical home within the Olympic Park, is already testing the water in all kinds of ways. It has set up the Micro Museum in a tiny shop unit on the edge of the still thriving Chrisp Market in the heart of the Lansbury Estate. The museum includes displays of early material about the estate and a recording booth intended to catch the memories and impressions of locals both past and present. Walks, discussions and regularly changing displays all highlight the contribution made by this modest pocket handkerchief of land to the post war development of London and beyond.
Now sandwiched between gigantic developments to both east and west, high rise stacks of accommodation far beyond the means of almost all Londoners, Lansbury is a reminder of an era of social responsibility, of planning that willed the city back to rights much as the Beveridge Report did for the country. Limited by severe material shortages and animated by the idealism of young professionals in and around the London County Council, the Lansbury was named after the most principled and well known of East End Labour politicians. When it was opened – at an entry cost of 1/6d people saw show homes, a special festival enclosure, the pedestrian only market place, a first at the time signalled by the Frederick Gibberd designed clock tower. Around it, a sequence of neatly detailed stock brick terraces, a primary and a nursery school, old people’s housing and, opposite, housing for less dependent elderly people. Only the library was never built.
A key figure was Judith Ledeboer, an early woman graduate of the Architectural Association, whose long wartime theoretical experience in housing now turned practical – a person who saw a neighbourhood unit not as a statistical exercise but as a balanced, mixed community suggested by daily life. So priority went to housing convenient to local shops, which should face south, she wrote, so that the infants could sit snug in their prams in the sun, housing for the elderly and a nursery school alongside the YRM designed primary school. She advocated space, even gardens, and a measure of informality in the layout. Ledeboer and her architectural partner David Booth designed the first ever LCC Old People’s Home, at Lansbury, matched across the road by housing for elderly, but still independent, people – the idea of ‘continuing care’ being very innovative.
So how does a 1950s model estate impinge on the monumental difficulties faced on the housing front? Lord Heseltine and his panel of worthies have, we are led to believe, spent the year discussing how to distribute the £140 million fund that George Osborne allowed for the regeneration of troubled housing estates, but the suspicion is that there will much fiddling at the edges and little joined up thinking – essential social, economic and physical planning in other words. In the meantime Philip Hammond just announced the doubling of the housing budget, with an extra £1.4 bn for affordable new homes. Tiny Lansbury contained the widest possible ambitions which was carried through largely to the new and expanded Towns. The fear must be the result of this new money will be immense schemes with almost no ambitions at all beyond profitability.