Camden modernism: the baby and the bathwater.

By the early 1970s, even the young, idealistic people at Camden Borough Architects Department accepted the criticisms of tower blocks for mass social housing, which had replaced 19th century slums across London.

So the question became: how do you build a low-rise estate, granting everyone a front door onto a street, but in a modern style and — crucially — at the *same density* as a tower block? For if your project did not house as many people as a tower block the council, facing ambitious building targets set by the state (imagine!), would reject it outright.

Squaring that circle took an ingenuous stepped, ziggurat terrace style. The resulting estates, including Stoneleigh Terrace (1972–79) photographed here, are gobsmacking and rightfully made Camden famous.

But attitudes change. Phase 2 of Stoneleigh Terrace was scrapped and in 1981, just two years later, density on the site was instead provided for by a post-modern emulation of the demolished, more traditional 19th century houses. Without meaning to comment on the quality of these, it seems to me that just as modernism was learning from apparent failings, a baby and bathwater incident occurred.

1981 development

The last, rather drab, photo here tells a story about the history of urban design in London. Our tour guide took us to this exact spot to explain. The gap in the wall, covered by a grill, is where the bridge from Phase 1 to a modernist Phase 2 would have been. To the left, you can just about make out the 1981 development they built instead, and through the centre you can see a street of 19th century houses that were refurbished rather than demolished. Turns out they wern’t “slums” after all, but very lucrative family homes.