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Safe as houses: Ely Court in London by Alison Brooks Architects

AR Housing 2016 finalist: low-rise, airy housing reanimates this South Kilburn Estate.

The South Kilburn Estate in the London Borough of Brent has made the national headlines on several occasions over the years, generally in articles about shootings, gangs and drug dealing. Begun in 1959, it replaced a chunk of Victorian villadom – condemned for having fallen into slumdom – and travelled the usual sorry trajectory of its ilk: initial optimism in a brighter future, followed by a slow decline. As Richard Barrett (Brent Council operational director, property and projects), who was born in the area, describes, ‘Probably towards the end of the late 1980s, maybe into the ’90s, some of the social problems started to creep in – the sense that what we’d actually created here was an inward-looking community. Nobody came on the estate unless you lived on the estate, or you turned onto it by accident.’

And it was this situation that, in 2004, prompted Brent Council to commission PRP Architects to provide them with an ambitious regeneration plan (adopted as the South Kilburn Supplementary Planning Document in 2005). Rather than refurbishment, the masterplan advocated the demolition of many existing structures and their replacement with new buildings containing 2,400 homes, an operation to be carried out in phases until 2023 or thereabouts. To finance the cost of this reconstruction, around half of the homes would be sold to private buyers on the open market, while the other half would rehouse secure council tenants displaced from the demolished buildings. 

Ely Court, designed by Alison Brooks Architects (ABA), is an £8.2-million residential scheme of 43 dwellings (25 private and 18 social-rent) belonging to phase 1b, and was completed in December of last year.

Site plans - Click to expand

Site plans - Click to expand

Site plans - Click to expand

As Nelson Carvalho of ABA explains, ‘The goals of the regeneration plan were to restore a sense of safety and security and to bring back low-rise elements to the development.’ PRP’s solution to the problem of South Kilburn was to look back to traditional urbanism, in the manner that would later be championed by the ‘Create Streets’ movement. Out with many of the slabs and towers and the often desolate and unsafe open spaces in between them, and in with rows of street-line-respecting buildings that would densify the urban tissue, reinstate to a certain extent the Victorian road layout, and ensure passive surveillance à la Jane Jacobs. 

ABA’s Ely Court stands on the northern side of Chichester Road, and replaces two postwar three-storey blocks of flats. The scheme is broken into three parts: to the west, a ‘flatiron’ building of social-rent apartments that shares a party wall with a 19th-century pub; to the east a long block of private-sector apartments and maisonettes; and to the rear of the latter a ‘mews’ row of social-rent dwellings. Backyards fill the space between the long block and the mews, while between them and the flatiron building is a sizeable, pre-existing open space, which the masterplan had recommended should be built upon. But ABA realised that not only would that create problems at the new buildings’ rear, because of the presence of a 10-storey 1960s block, but that here was a chance to integrate that existing block into the redevelopment scheme and create a real sense of urban space. This formerly underused and rather dismal area, home to several mature trees, has now been relandscaped and is one of the great successes of the Ely Court operation. ABA also created a new street at the rear so that they could build their mews row, a move that got rid of a potentially unsafe space at what had been the centre of a city block.

‘The goals of the regeneration plan were to restore a sense of safety and security and to bring back low-rise elements to the development.’

In their juggling act to meet the brief’s requirements in the most practical way, ABA decided to divide their long block of private homes into superimposed parts, with two-storey maisonettes at ground level and two storeys of flats above, a configuration that allows them to respond contextually to the Victorian villas on the other side of the street. The maisonettes’ plans are a tried-and-tested variant on the classic London terrace house, and the apartment layouts are pretty classic too – including in their dimensions, which are frequently larger than the poky dwellings that have come to be the speculative norm today. 

Plans - Click to expand

Plans - Click to expand

Plans - Click to expand

Since the brief stipulated blind tenure – no difference of treatment between private and social-rent sectors – the other two parts of the scheme use similar solutions and are similarly generous. There is also a generosity in the handling of the exteriors, which, to borrow a phrase from the jury of Building Design’s 2012 Architect of the Year Awards (won by ABA), are ‘background architecture at its best’. Faced in good-quality Dutch bricks, similar in hue to London stocks but a bit whiter and brighter, the elevations are sober but never dull, their tall windows flooding the dwellings with light and setting the external rhythm. 

On the Chichester Road frontage, ABA have been careful to consider the oblique view, with projecting metal porches on the maisonettes that accentuate the cadence. In reaction to these projections, the terraces on the floors above are recessed (something developers usually refuse), and those on the top storey are open to the sky. According to Carvalho, ‘Brent Council really is at the heart of the success of this scheme, because their ambition has always been to introduce the highest quality. Their strategy is to employ architects directly and commission schemes up to planning. Those schemes are then used to draw up the land deal with social landlords after which they proceed as a design/build contract with a general contractor and an executive architect. But Brent ensured that we kept guardianship throughout the entire process, and the mechanisms to defend against watering-down worked pretty well.’

Two bedroom floor plans - Click to expand

Two bedroom floor plans - Click to expand

Two bedroom floor plans - Click to expand

Social-rent resident Nathalie Botwe, who moved from a condemned block to the top-floor flat in the flatiron building, is unequivocal in her praise for her new home. ‘When I was offered this flat I was shocked. The size! It’s a really lovely place. I love the windows, the tall ceilings. I like the fact that it’s light, it’s airy. You don’t often get social-housing properties that look like this. I’m very, very happy.’ Asked if it has changed her relationship with her neighbours, she replies, ‘Actually it has. Where I was before I didn’t really speak to my neighbours, but here I’ve gotten to know quite a few of them. I guess I find myself spending more time in the neighbourhood. When I first moved to South Kilburn I didn’t feel safe, but now I feel much more comfortable. People have become a lot more pleasant too.’ 

Clearly the lessons of Jane Jacobs have paid off here, in what is ultimately a conservative approach to urban planning and housing design. But in the context of today’s market-driven meanness, such conservatism is arguably a form of radicalism, a return to both Parker Morris and urban quality. ABA’s Ely Court displays a gentility and sensitivity that were not always present in some of the earlier buildings constructed under the South Kilburn regeneration plan, and it is only to be hoped that their lead will be followed.

‘When I first moved to South Kilburn I didn’t feel safe, but now I feel much more comfortable. People have become a lot more pleasant too’ 

But if housing awards are to be taken seriously, they cannot just examine the quality of an architect’s response to a brief, they also have to consider that brief, its consequences, and the motives of those who wrote it. And here the picture seems less clear. While I would stop short of using the term ‘social cleansing’, as the residents’ association set up for regeneration has done, I don’t see how anyone could deny that Brent Council has embarked upon an operation of concerted gentrification. With the arrival of 1,200 private homes – reportedly selling from £405,000 for a one-bed flat to over £900,000 for a two-bed maisonette – the demographics of the neighbourhood will be irrevocably changed. 

To give Brent the benefit of the doubt, one could argue that they are aiming for ‘balanced and mixed communities’ (as the council’s 2004 Unitary Development Plan puts it), with wealthy freeholders sharing the neighbourhood alongside affordable-housing tenants (they’re no longer council tenants since they’ve all been transferred to private-sector housing associations). But given that the aspiration in the United Kingdom is always to buy, to hoist oneself up onto the housing ladder, the fact that, under the current rules, affordable-housing tenants have been priced out of the neighbourhood could mean that many will eventually leave. 

Sections - Click to expand

Sections - Click to expand

Sections - Click to expand

According to Botwe, the densification of the urban tissue has come at the price of a drastic cut in the number of children’s play areas and also of community and play centres. ‘It’s a real shame,’ she says, ‘because my children will never experience the childhood I did. And I don’t really want them hanging out in the street. It would be nice for them to have a park to play in and a community centre where they can socialise. As adults, we’re happier since the regeneration. But I wouldn’t say the children are happier.’ 

The message being sent out to social-rent tenants appears ambiguous: we’ll rehouse you in better material conditions, but you may end up feeling a stranger in your own neighbourhood. So yes, Ely Court, in the context of the South Kilburn Estate, is an immense improvement on what it replaced; yes it’s a sensitive and considered response to brief and context; and yes the lives of the estate’s inhabitants have been improved by it in the immediate present. But is the regeneration plan really in their long-term interests?

Ely Court 

Architect : Alison Brooks Architects
Structural engineer : WSP, Tully De’Ath
Services engineer : Norman Disney & Young 
Environment : PRP Architects, Hilsdon Holmes
Landscape : Churchman Landscape Architects, Adams Habermehl 
Photographs : Luke Hayes

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