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Lewisham, the Notopian future of London

Lewisham

Photographed by Robert Clayton, a new town centre for Lewisham in south London reveals a dispiriting vision of the future

Lewisham

Source: Robert Clayton

One simple, hard-to-dispute demand that has been heard a lot in London in the last few years, is: ‘Build More Bloody Houses’. Housebuilding has been at a historic low (not as deep a low as social housing, but let’s leave that aside for a moment), and in a housing crisis and with the capital’s population at an all-time peak, it is a no-brainer, in the parlance, that the capital needs homes and it needs them fast, if anyone but the super-rich is not to be priced out. Labour councils, who run most of London, are keen to meet their housing targets to keep up with the accelerating demand.

To get some idea of what building more bloody houses is likely to look like, one very interesting place to visit is Lewisham. Here, an ultra-dense new district with nine high-rise blocks has emerged almost from nowhere in the last few years. Living a couple of miles away in Woolwich, I’ve watched it shoot up suddenly around Lewisham’s train/DLR/bus interchange; fast, dense and apparently architecturally well-mannered. This is London’s current state of the art. In promotional images, it combines the rectitude of the ‘New London Vernacular’ with the soaring, ‘aspirational’ world of roof terraces and floor-to-ceiling views of the City skyline. Yet in Robert Clayton’s photographs, taken on the street, it looks a townscape disaster of aggressive fences and stark architecture. Either way – right here is the future of London.

Lewisham

Source: Robert Clayton

The ‘New Lewisham’, as the local promotional press have taken to calling it, ticks every available box of current London planning and architectural policy. It stands on ‘brownfield’ land, as demanded by the old Urban Task Force – in this case, some light industrial sheds, a roundabout, and, less publicised, the Sundermead Estate, a low-rise, brick council estate (after the Housing and Planning Bill, council housing can be zoned as brownfield, so it matters little). It has a mix of tenures – private, shared ownership, ‘affordable’, and student housing. It has active frontages. It has ‘planning gain’, with a new leisure centre at the heart of it. It is not funded, owned or let by one entity, whether council or developer, but a dizzying list of bodies that are private, public and somewhere in-between. And architecturally, it shows the congruence of the 1997-2010 insistence on high density and modernity with the London Design Guide’s mandatory grids, with regular fenestration, stock brick cladding and large balconies.

It makes an interesting contrast to, say, King’s Cross Central – there, a long-running project was finished by serious architects working for developers held under pressure from local authorities and campaigners to unusually high standards, befitting the entry into London on the Eurostar. The entry into Lewisham is another matter.

Lewisham

Source: Robert Clayton

The first parts of the development are public. LA Architects’ Leisure Centre, with its bright coloured panels, replaces the more peripherally located Ladywell Leisure Centre. The Sundermead Estate, taken over by housing association L&Q, was replaced with River Mill Park, opening up the stream-like river Ravensbourne, and then, alongside it, with a development known as Renaissance SE13, designed by Assael. The clients here, Barratt Homes, once so famous for their detached cul-de-sacs, have long moved into the tower block market to which their closes were once the antithesis. The blocks boast ‘Italian-inspired names’ – Torre Vista, Venice Corte, Sienna Corte, Sienna Alto, Da Vinci Torre, Roma Corte, Tuscany Corte, Paris Corte, a touching survival of New Labour’s Italophilia. Three towers and several low-rise blocks provide 788 apartments, with 146 ‘affordable’ (80 per cent of market rent, remember) and three social, run by the London City Mission. One of the towers is dominated by blue glass and metal cladding, but the two brick blocks are the most notable, extremely laconic grids extruded 20 storeys into the air; it owes something to Allies and Morrison’s ‘background’ architecture, though here of an usual thinness.

Walking underneath, you can see how this is around a quarter of a brick thick, stapled onto concrete. But what is much more clear on the ground, and in Clayton’s photographs, is how pitiful the public space is. A wedge of asphalt with a sad little kids’ playground, fiercely gated in; a door inset into a blue-grey barcode facade with the sign ‘Danger: 11,000 Volts’; the ubiquitous granite setts; metal gates enclosing giant pot plants; three layers of fences between some flats and the street, planted with creepers in the hope we won’t notice. The development was recently listed by the Evening Standard as being one of the ‘top 5 Help to Buy Homes from £360,000 for first-timers’.

Lewisham

Source: Robert Clayton

Just behind Renaissance SE13, past a still extant retail park with Poundland, Matalan and Sports Direct, is another cluster, this time divided between two clients – housing association Family Mosaic, and American student housing developer Chapter. The latter, two extremely polite and slightly monumental blocks of purple brick-clad Dutch Modernist/Neo-Georgian, was system-built in collaboration with Vision Modular Systems, before the appliqué quarter-brick panels were added to give decorum to prefabrication; a common room has a gym and all the usual student facilities, in a style a little more blingy than the brick. Adjacent is the grey metal and plastic Arden Court, courtesy of ECE Architecture and Family Mosaic.

This particular part of the development is darkened by the canyon-like effect of tall blocks looming over a narrow service road, something avoided by postwar council estates, what with their green space and carefully arranged orientation to the sun. This is one of the relatively ‘social’ parts of the development, all of it for Shared Ownership, and it’s grim, with a carceral gating system screening flats from the street. The active frontage is a branch of Screwfix. The last part is so far unfinished – the towers of Lewisham Gateway, by PRP Architects in the tripartite Vernacular style, with penthouses on the top. And that’s it – that there is the new centre of Lewisham, and that is what we’re meant to want a lot more of.

Lewisham

Robert Clayton

All this has come about from a partnership that includes, along with the aforementioned developers and housing associations, Lewisham Council, the Mayor of London, Transport for London, and the Homes and Communities Agency. Some of it – the park, at least – is passable, and it’s easy to say it’s ‘better’ than the sheds that were there before. But it makes very clear three things.

First, is that the result of a numbers game is always going to be grim, with any sort of attempt at character and liveliness being fairly irrelevant. Second, expecting that ‘more’ will mean any help for anyone other than the already affluent, is optimistic. Here, council housing was actively erased from the site, and for all the involvement of the housing associations, this place will not even make the tiniest dent in Lewisham’s council waiting list.Third, the new vernacular, so long as it coexists with a developer-driven urbanism which sees spaciousness as so much wasted, unrentable space, means little more than politesse curtain-walled over plutocracy. If the New Lewisham is anything to go by, New London will consist of high-security, high-rise dormitories, built right into the inner city.

Lewisham

Source: Robert Clayton