Thursday, 20 May 2010

Packington v3.0

The Packington Estate in Islington is being knocked down and rebuilt. The blocks at the end of our road have just been demolished. The photo below shows the last corner being torn down. You can see in the background a piece of Victorian terrace, which escaped the original redevelopment, and to the right of it, the main building of the Islington City Academy, née the notoriously bad Islington Green School, which is also reckoned to be unfit for purpose and is being knocked down this summer. And the orange machine that crushes and tears down the buildings using massive serrated jaws at the end of an extendable neck has inevitably been named by the boys 'The Dinosaur'.

As well as being quite thrilling for some, the current redevelopment is a huge endeavour, involving over 500 dwellings covering 10 acres. The quantity and extent of rubble has to be eye-balled to be believed.

It's got to go as it's unsafe: its concrete slab construction is not dissimilar to that of a house of cards. If there were a gas explosion it would collapse in much the same way (as per Ronan Point). It also happens to be riddled with asbestos. It was built in the 1960s (natch) in the face of bitter protests demanding the terraced housing on the site be refurbished rather than replaced (see here for a compilation of press articles covering the dispute - great stuff if you like that sort of thing).

So this huge development hasn't lasted even fifty years. But putting aside its dangers, its aesthetics and its layout are enough to make you welcome its destruction. No-one likes it, not even the campaigners to keep modernist post-war buildings. I object most strongly to how it's built like a castle, obliterating the street plan, closing off through routes, and having its shops practically segregated from the wider populace by being hidden in its midst. It's even surrounded by a basement-level concrete area (admittedly green in parts) that's functionally a moat,

This isolationist design can't have helped the residents to feel part of the surrounding community, nor does it encourage the surrounding community to consider its residents their neighbours. I can't believe this hasn't been a factor in the low-level crime that occasionally breaks out around the estate: scooter joy-riders and window smashers, mostly.

We live in a more or less identical terrace to those that were destroyed - the southern end of our street was flattened to make way for the estate. They're now nearly all refurbished, though some were home to squats well into the 1990s. We love it here but the look of the Packington was nearly enough to deter us from buying back in 2004. We visited after dark one night and were intimidated by the baleful glow of the estate looming at the end of the road. It reminded me of the view of Minas Morgul in the Lord of the Rings film (above). However, we liked the layout of the house, it seemed good value and it was handy for yon local amenities so we went ahead.

The Packington Estate then was a disaster on most levels. Its replacement is looking promising, however, aiming to be much more integrated with its surroundings. There's a return to the old street plan, open thoroughfares, outward-facing shops, ready access from most approaches (no moat), and a mix of ownership (housing trust, affordable and private). They've finished the blocks that face the canal. They're a pleasing mix of London brick and light-grey render and feel very much part of a new, open and pleasantly buzzy area around the bridge over the canal from Packington Square into Shoreditch (above).

We have a tendency to feel smug about post-war developments such as the Packington. From our perspective it is easy to condescend to the purblind planners and their destructive ideas. But I wonder what each of us would have done in their shoes? And I dare say the same sort of mistakes are being made in different ways as I write - I know Soho residents might have something to say along these lines with regard to the Crossrail development.

Over here, it's turned out all right in the end. But I can't help shuddering when I think of the disruption and cost involved in entirely demolishing and rebuilding such a huge area of Central London twice in fifty years.


Peter said...

I recall years ago talking to a couple of architects trained in the sixties. I was railing against the sterility of the modern high rise. It became clear right away that their whole formative influence was the 19th century urban slum--dark, damp, crowded, etc. For them, it was all about bright and light and clean air, and they evinced no sense that drab functional uniformity would have consequences in human behaviour.

Let's hope round two is more enduring, but I'm not sure I understand why "better integrated with its surroundings" gives you cause for hope. It sounds nice in a gooey holistic way, but doesn't success depend on surroundings both worth being integrated with and interested in integrating?

Gaw said...

Integration of some sort doesn't have to do much to be a benefit - crime is shown to fall when a place is merely opened up to traffic.

In this instance, I see the estate's boundaries becoming much more fluid - the open communications and the mixed ownership will help as will the presence of similar (private) developments across the canal and upstream. I can't see how the much-prized 'sense of community' has a chance without this basic level of physical integration.

worm said...

ahhh, the packington, I know its dealers well...Absolute sink hole of a place!

I suppose constantly demolishing and rebuilding things gives our builders something to do

I think the problem with all those 60's developments stemmed from Corbusier - he had an arrogance that meant he wished to impose a 'vision' on an area, rather than looking at an area and seeing how he could fit his vision in. His talent was such that other lesser architects felt they had to be equally assertive, and coupled with shoestring budgets, we got crap like the Packington estate that we are now glad to demolish!

Barendina Smedley said...

Thanks for the Soho solidarity shoutout, Gareth! The demolition here is all the more vexing for those of us who see that Crossrail isn't going to go ahead. Which is to say, 'I told you so' is all very well, but I'd rather have the nice art deco building, too.

Anyway, never one to dismiss this whole 'progress' lark despite its woeful track record, I do rather warm to the idea of re-creating an older street-plan that re-intergrates an estate with the community around it. (Oh dear, I am channelling 'Perspectives' again, aren't I?)

From what I have seen in London, blurring public-private has to be a good thing - as does increased exposure to traffic. (The one thing that has always made me feel safe in our Soho house is that fact that 'help' - or at least superabundant voyeurism - is only ever an open casement and a medium-sized wail away.) Break up 'utopia' and bring in the real world instead - that sounds quite sensible. But all the same, I'm sorry you're having to put up with all the nuisance of demolition on that scale. At least perhaps your boys enjoy watching all those big wreckers, etc?

Sean said...

10ton mobile jaw crushers are my favorites, 50 tonnes of Concrete an hour, it has to be seen to be belevied.

The numbers are great too, With skips costing up to £150+VAT each and aggregate being purchased at £12/ton it is easy to see why.

We will be along in 20 years or so to clear the new sty, sorry to be so crude, but at least in keeps me in ale.

Gaw said...

Worm: Having drug dealers conveniently located isn't much of a selling point nowadays!

Bunny: It's a terrific demonstration of something positively reactionary.

Is Crossrail really going to be cancelled? Damn I was looking forward to saving that ten minutes on the way to the airport...

Sean: Well, that makes it all worthwhile.

Hey Skipper said...

I think the problem with all those 60's developments stemmed from Corbusier - he had an arrogance that meant he wished to impose a 'vision' on an area ...

And, by definition, on the humans in that area.

Every similar "estate" aka stack-a-prole development in the US turned into an unmitigated disaster.

I think that counts as an absolute historical fact.