Better living through gas: Kensal House

This post is an  appendix to the journey up Ladbroke Grove I’ve been on in the last two weeks. I won’t bother you with many more of my personal reminiscences but I do remember being struck by Kensal House in the time when I was working in North Kensington and taking the 52 bus home every night to Kensal Rise. Looking down from the upper deck of a bus I recognized the unique character of Kensal House sitting below the level of the road next to the railway. I wasn’t any kind of expert on the architecture of the area then but I could see it came from a more optimistic time than the late 1970s and had seen better days.

 

Kensal House 1936 K66-702 - Copy

[Ladbroke Grove 1936]

In the 1930s planners and architects were enthused with the possibilities of new forms of housing, and possibly were no longer in thrall to paternalistic Victorian notions of raising up the working classes by improving their living conditions. Le Corbusier’s description of a house as a machine for living in was a fresh idea. (from 1923) It was a brave new world of course as of 1931 (although Aldous Huxley’s phrase was ironic). The housing scheme which utilised a no longer needed corner of the Gas Works site was sponsored by the Gas, Light and Coke Company. There was a team of architects headed by Maxwell Fry, with Robert Atkinson, C H James and Grey Wornum (whose work has been on the blog before). They were joined by a housing consultant, Elizabeth Denby.

In 1938 Ascot Water Heaters Ltd published a survey of recent developments called “Flats: Municipal and Private Enterprise” which featured the new estate.

Kensal House site plan - Copy

In the introduction Bernard Friedman says: “To the Greeks physical fitness, beauty of form, and congenial environment were essential to the harmony of life.”

Kensal House 1936 p68 top

[On the left, the school]

Maxwell Fry goes on to describe the thinking behind the scheme. Although he sounds a bit patronizing (“The idea that animated both sides of the work was the desire to build a group of homes where people whose incomes allow them little above sheer necessity could experience as full a life as can be”.) it is also clear that he was concerned with the lives of future residents – ” hardship centres around the lack of practical things, such as space, sun, air hot water, cooking facilities and so on. If these things are not remedies in the new home…then it is no great change for the better.” He goes on to explain that a “type plan” for three and two bedroom flats. The bedrooms would be all on one side of the flats allowing them to be smaller and the living rooms bigger with light on the bedrooms in the morning and the living rooms in the afternoon. Above the ground floor the flats all had balconies with built-in flower boxes. The kitchens were equipped with “drying balconies” and of course Ascot Water Heaters provided constant hot water. (Fry emphasizes these, but then they were the publishers.). Fry also emphasizes the “more civilised” internal staircases (“a nice feeling of going up your own staircase.”)

Kensal House 1936 p68

[1936. Note the balconies]

The consultant to the project, Elizabeth Denby describes it as “the first urban village to be built in Britain“. The design committee also had responsibility for ensuring the new residents settled in and that rent and fuel costs remained reasonable. She remained on the new estate for a while in her consulting role. She reports on the success of the Club Rooms and the social club which took in members from the surrounding area, and took particular pleasure in the enthusiastic take-up of the gardening facilities. “On a sunny evening or at the weekend each balcony was its tenants leaning elbows on the rail, smoking, gossiping,  happy, like a group of cottagers perched above each other on a steep cliff. The possession of canaries by some of the tenants intensifies the country illusion.” Again, you can see a degree of condescension in her surprise that working class people responded to improved living conditions by looking after their new homes but the scheme was well-intentioned and did succeed in showing the way forward for planners.

 

Kensal House 1937 K70-565

Both Denby and Fry mention the light available in the new flats – big windows, airy spaces, the feeling of a garden. This was an idea that was taking hold in the sun-worshiping 1930s. Sun lounges, gymnasiums, fresh air and exercise. I’ve encountered that enthusiasm for the outdoors in various spheres such as the Bauhaus houses in Chelsea and the dancing philosophy of Margaret Morris.

As it grew older Kensal House got a little worn down, as I saw it in the 1970s but its fortune revived and the atmosphere of pleasant living in a garden-like environment is still visible in a set of photographs from 1992.

Kensal House 1992 K-191

This one and the one below show the same walkway between blocks, possibly even the same trees.

Kensal House 1992 K-197

So that little pocket of 1930s optimism remained.

 

Kensal House 1992 K-192

The gas lamps have been replaced as in this view of a grassy knoll, but the sense of separateness is still intact.

Kensal House 1992 K-193

Behind this picture you can see the same water tower from last week and the site of the Sainsbury’s super store as it was.

Kensal House 1992 K-194

The fenced gardens and the curved facade.

Kensal House 1992 K-196

The shaded lane between the blocks.

Kensal House 1992 K-198

Kensal House (a Grade II* listed building) is still in the architectural text books, still praised as an example of well designed urban development. So Fry and Denby and their committee could claim to have done something useful and interesting on a small slice of industrial land.

Postscript

A little while ago I worked with the SPID Theatre Company on a project they were doing with residents of Kensal House so thanks to them and the residents’ group who visited the library during the course of their project. Read more at their website: spidtheatre.com/wordpress where you can download a brochure about Kensal House.


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