Monday, 9 December 2013

Oakshott Court

The area behind the railway stations of King's Cross, St Pancras and Euston has been built up and destroyed a great many times since it was first properly built upon in the early 19th century. In the last few years, the area behind King's Cross, at one point a mass of goods yards, canals, factory buildings and other industrial detritus, has been receiving a high-speed makeover. Central St Martins have already relocated to a huge converted granary building, an odd but compelling mix of art factory and slick modern fit-out, and the area between is being built on rapidly. Blocks of new yuppie flats with a welcome dash of inter-war New York detailing look over a series of huge education and media buildings. The Francis Crick institute, architecturally remarkable only for its size, is having its skin attached as I write, and Google are currently revising plans for an absolutely gargantuan office block as well.

Behind Euston still feels quite neglected; it's quiet, not much 'active frontage' here, and the shops that are there are not upmarket - caffs, old fashioned newsagents, etc. But there are some surprising architectural moments that are worth looking at, one of which I visited a few days ago, in a break from reading 1970s eco-apocalypse books in the British Library around the corner.

But first, a quick glance at the Sidney Street Estate; a flash of European modernity dropped into London in the early 1930s, most highly influenced by the flats of 'Red Vienna'. Large courtyards accommodating community facilities are now securely gated off, blocked to outsiders.

But the main destination, yet again, is a Sidney Cook estate for Camden Council from the 1970s. Around the side of the Cock Tavern were a number of grey haired Irishmen, out for a cigarette break from their lunchtime pints. The price of alcohol, always a notable nightmare in London, has become ludicrous recently; it seems to be debated whether this is a major cause of the decline in pubs across the UK, but in this period of general decline it is becoming harder and harder to enjoy a pint which leaves you with pennies back from a fiver (speaking of which, for some reason I still remember a scene from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, c.1980 wherein a character buys eight pints and peanuts, telling the barman to keep the change. "From a fiver?" he splutters; "thank you very much!!!" - even adjusting for inflation prices have still more than doubled...)

Anyway... the site is angled slightly off-cardinal, perhaps 30 degrees. The north-north-west and east-north-east sides of Oakshott court are presented as long, fairly blank, and small windowed. Doors open at the ground floor, and the upper floors cantilever over, in an obvious sign of the stepped-section so beloved of Camden Brutalists, which first appears in a Walter Gropius design of 1928 for a 'Wohnberg'; a 'residential-mountain', before appearing here and there in Corbu and others, before becoming a mainstay of Team X and their affiliates.

Meditation centres are D1 use class, apparently. Get yourself a Biglife.

The Pevsner guide to North London claims that Oakshott Court has 'forbiddingly overbearing rear parts.' I disagree; I find their sturdy regularity to be restrained and rhythmical. Unfortunately, it has to be admitted that the Pevsner guides from the last two decades are pretty poor when it comes to recognising the architectural merit of modernist housing. For every system-built block whose horrors they correctly bemoan, they also indulge in quite scattershot anti-modernist slanders; 'inhumane' etc etc. It's not bad scholarship, it's just a sign of how completely the critical landscape had changed by the 80s and into the 90s. Now, thanks to exhibitions, books, and a new generation of critics, as well as the panacea of sufficient historical distance, not to mention the deterioration of housing politics in this country, we are far better able to point out the merits of architecture like this, and hopefully in future editions of the guide we will see this rectified.

 Oh hello...

What's this? Not something I've seen before on a Camden Estate, this odd drum form. It derives from a kind of Mendellsohn-ish modernism, perhaps even Art Deco, but also might be a reference to some Constructivist and Futurist examples of the idea. I hate to use the word but this is a most definitely 'dynamic' form. It's interesting because it only seems to serve the flats directly connected to it, which would seem to betray its prominence, but then we might see it as an outward gesture as well, providing a satisfyingly proud hinge around which the facades can bend.

In fact it's really rather odd that the rear facades would be described as 'forbidding', considering how in keeping they are with the existing buildings on the other side of the road; London County Council flats built 50 years before Oakshott Court. There are clear formal parallels in the linearity, the regularity, the simple grid broken only by horizontal bands and vertical pipework.

The facades terminate blankly, although this blankness actually works to convey the sectional conceit, almost as a diagram.

Spot the estate map; as so often, it functions as a basic diagram of the architectural conceit.

From the southerly corner of the complex, it all begins to make sense. The tower that hinged the two facades together at the outside is clearly the most prominent point from the other direction; from it, two wings of stepped section flats stretch out across the site, with a green space completing the square plot.

The first row of flats are sunk into the ground about 3m or so. They are maisonettes; entered from the upper level and then with a small garden to the front.

Various walkways wrap around the L-shaped block; this is at ground level, and provides entrance into the lower maisonettes (with their little plant boxes) and the lower level of the next set of flats above.

It was one of those autumn days; sharply cold, partially clouded; where the light can change from a dusty grey, shadowless and plain, to boldly shadowed, where everything is picked out in either a wan gold or a pale blue, depending on whether the low sun is occluded or not.

Communal facilities; a bench, wrapped around some planting. Who knows; perhaps in summer elderly residents park themselves here as their dogs run around the green spaces, perhaps teenagers sit around getting stoned, or perhaps, like this day, in the stingingly dry cold, it sits empty at all times.

Running up the diagonal are a series of steps which take you between the different deck-access levels. As a passed this point, I jumped as there was a young man (wearing a work uniform I might add) sitting on the steps to the right, supping on a lunchtime can of strong lager. Startled, I carried on upwards, using the other staircase. Not exactly an ideal sense of public space and safety.

You can see here that the flats have clerestory windows in the roof above them, bringing light into the deeper, more northerly spaces in each flat. At a very simple level, it's little touches like this which elevate the work Cook's Camden above other housing architecture; attempts to bring in architectural features which would genuinely improve the experience of living in a not particularly large property. That this all occurred in the aftermath of the oil crisis, amid a context of collapsing contractors and sky-ward construction costs is not the damnation some think it is.

The flats with ground level entrance are the friendliest on the site; they are the ones whose inhabitants have spent the most effort on cultivating their small private gardens, they are the ones where the buildings feel at their smallest. There is something very intimate about the scale at this point, even without masking its communality.

It seems that Mary Wollstonecraft once lived in a building on this site; although its unlikely that she lived in the Somers Town Goods Yard, which Pevsner tells us sat on the site before Oakshott Court; just yet more shifting uses around the peripheral railway lands of the 19th century.

The increased scale and stepping up towards the back of the building allows not only for the larger blocks to receive daylight, but also for the vehicular infrastructure that was necessary for any development at that point. A straight road runs through the development at ground level, lined with garages.

Think back to some of the more inept mass-housing blocks, and consider how their entire ground planes were frequently given over to garages, and how against the 'active frontage' orthodoxy that now appears. But then think about other developments, such as the Barbican or Alexandra Road, and how cars are virtually invisible there, tucked into the basement, leaving a fully pedestrianised ground level above. Then recall Highgate New Town, and how the laying off of the car park attendants created a perfectly hidden landscape for trouble, leading to the permanent sealing off of the parking garages.

Not so subtle messages hint at the fear of young people, the fear of anti-social behaviour.

I mentioned Highgate New Town before, one of the most exciting and accomplished developments by Cook's Camden. The architect for that development was Peter Tabori, who remarkably was hired by the council to build his diploma project. Tabori was also the architect of this slightly later scheme, and if you didn't know already, the obvious similarities might have alerted you to that fact.

Where Highgate New Town is mainly built from a combination of pre-cast concrete and breeze-blocks, Oakshott Court takes the same sectional principle and repeats it with brick as the main material. Also, where the earlier project makes total use of the generous slope of the site, here Tabori deserves credit for being able to artificially conjure up a similar set of steps. It appears also that the budget was clipped more successfully here; the stairwells might be very similar, but in the earlier scheme they are blessed with glazed rooflights above the doorways, providing shelter for getting home with your shopping, wheres here they are far more spartan.

A lovely lady and a grumpy man live here.

The more tightly packed blocks of Oakshott Court also mean that the expansive, bucolic character of Highgate New Town, tumbling down through mature trees, is lost in this scheme. It's definitely a little more hard-edged, with the liquid-applied roof and the underwhelming levels of planting. It's also a little more dense at this higher level as well. Still; if the interiors are anything like the ones further up the road, then the inhabitants here are blessed with excellently planned flats.

  • CCTV cameras to be installed on the estate and response to anti-social behaviour.
(and yours truly in the reflection)

The internet isn't particularly useful in trying to find out about any other works that Tabori completed; in Pevsner North London he's given as the architect of just the two schemes that I've mentioned here. I'd be grateful if anyone knows of further information on other projects that he worked on subsequently.