Denys Lasdun, as a former partner in Tecton later knighted for his design of the National Theatre on London's South Bank, was not an obvious London New Brutalist, neither a chippy Northerner nor a would-be social philosopher. Rather, he built a major career largely on commissions for establishment clients, such as the University of Cambridge and the Royal College of Physicians, for finely crafted, monumental modern buildings. Nonetheless his council housing block Keeling House was recognised as one of the first applications of Brutalist ideas into the design of working class housing, and was featured in Banham's The New Brutalism monograph. And whereas some accounts today would portray Brutalism as a purely stylistic phenomenon, Keeling House, and his earlier cluster blocks in Usk Street, both commissioned by the London Borough of Bethnal Green (later subsumed into Tower Hamlets) stand out for their commitment to a social idea. That idea was a little different to the spaced out, decorative blocks in space at Paddington's Hallfield Estate, that Lasdun took over from the defunct Tecton; it is also, needless to say, different to that of his luxurious flats in St James's. The latter were designed for the rich from the start – and the process by which Keeling House became a block of Luxury Flats is a lot more circuitous.
Hallfield Estate was a fairly mainstream exercise, comparable to other examples of immediately post-war housing in London, with a combination of mildly decorative facades and blocks spaced out informally in a tree-filled landscape. It is precisely this rather Platonic sense of spaciousness, and the allegedly ingratiating nature of the decorative detailing, that the London clique known as the 'New Brutalists', grouped around Alison and Peter Smithson, explicitly opposed. Keeling House and Usk Street are in this context a sudden shift in Lasdun's work, both in terms of form, and in terms of the approach to social space and social class. Lasdun, like the Brutalists, had studied the images of East End streets produced by photographers such as Bill Brandt and the Smithsons' associate in the Independent Group, Nigel Henderson, and was an enthusiast for the idea of an urban 'cluster', borrowed from the work of the American urbanist Kevin Lynch. The area he was working in, Bethnal Green, had been the subject of Willmott and Young's famous study, Family and Kinship in East London, which argued that suburbanisation, dispersed planning and a spaced-out purist modernism helped destroy working class communities, leading to a privatisation of a formerly very public way of life. It is still controversial as to how much the much-discussed destruction of community by either the suburbs or by tower blocks could be directly ascribed to architecture and planning – the rise of the television, of consumerism, and the colonisation of the street by the private car all had arguably far greater effect. Nonetheless, Peter Benenson, the deputy head of Bethnal Green's Housing Committee, was keen to keep residents in the bustling old streets rather than, as was customary, decamping them or otherwise decentralising their lives, and hired Lasdun on this basis. The first draft was Usk Street, small, rather weird and gaunt blocks draped around service towers – but Keeling House, the second draft, would be the paradigmatic example of the attempt to recreate or at least maintain a working class community in the sky1.
Fourteen storeys and four interconnected towers, Keeling House was described by its defenders in homely, domestic terms, despite the formal strangeness and complex geometry of the building. For instance, a laudatory catalogue of Lasdun's buildings in the '70s described how 'the compact lift and access landings at maisonette entrance levels alternate with drying platforms at bedroom levels which provide for the same multiplicity of uses as the traditional backyard...the cluster plan form, with its narrow towers of paired maisonettes and partially enclosed internal spaces, maintains something like the pre-existing groupings of streets that gave the original urban grain to the district'.[ii] This idea of 'urban grain' has obvious similarities with the Brutalist notion of a rough, demotic modernism. However, the general verdict was largely careful rather than laudatory. In The Future of London, a popular Pelican book on city-planning, Edward Carter described it as a merely 'experimental' building, though noted that it was being closely studied, but at this stage – 1962, four years after the building's completion – the jury was out. 3This opinion were shared by the great, garrulously populist critic Ian Nairn, normally a fan - if a querulous and sceptical one – of both Lasdun and more generally, of Brutalism, who wrote that there was 'a lot of talk about the vertical re-creation of the East End street, but not much performance in fact...meanwhile the old streets go down without a thought. If you want to like modern architecture, don't come to the East End.'5This verdict was repeated in Alan Powers' recent Britain – Modern Architectures in History, which similarly rubbished the cluster concept, noting that 'within a short time it was recognised as 'a social failure, though a sculptural triumph'. 4This, in the context of the denigration and sell-off of council housing by consecutive governments since 1979, has become a catch-all description for many Brutalist buildings by those sympathetic to the style. Naturally, to others both are a failure.
The accepted story of Keeling House leaps from this tale of aesthetic glory and ethical ineptitude to its closure in 1992, condemned as structurally unsound, to its re-opening in 2001 by a property developer Lincoln Holdings, who hired the firm of Munkenbeck and Marshall to redevelop it as luxury flats. Penthouses were added, flats were converted into chrome-dressed open-plans, a concierge was added, and moreover, the entire tower and its grounds were gated off from the surrounding, and still very poor, streets of Bethnal Green. This narrative comes with the story that the original tenants were sick of being forced into this unusual building, and would presumably have been much happier in a Barratt Home in Essex. This was challenged in Benedict Seymour's 2001 short film The Occupation. One section of this critique of East London's regeneration features a guided tour by an estate agent of the new flats. When asked about the original tenants, she maintains that they wanted to be rehoused, fed up with the tower's problems. Meanwhile, when asked who wants to live in the regenerated tower, she notes that it's aesthetes and, as the euphemism goes, 'creatives' who have been visiting with an eye to a bespoke flat in an 'up and coming area'. 'Anyone interested in the arts...anyone who wanted to live in something artistic' are apparently flocking to the place. Indeed, persistent rumour has claimed that Blur and Gorrilaz's Damon Albarn has a flat there.
However, in Seymour's film, another voice says something quite different, claiming that the residents were actually very fond of the building, but were told that it could not be maintained any longer, let alone restored or rehabilitated. The voice belonged to the local community activist Kay Jordan, who elaborated on what happened to Keeling House in email correspondence:
'They (the Council) got the tenants out on the basis that the building had to be demolished. It had been condemned because water had got into the reinforcement rods on the flank walls which had corroded, expanded and blew the concrete cover, which was too shallow. A standard problem I believe of concrete frames of this age. The view (of the tenants I spoke to) was that none of them wanted to move. They all loved the block because the layout meant that they all knew their immediate neighbours on the small wings and they all looked after their outsides as well as the insides, and the centre core meant they bumped into and knew the neighbours on the other wings. They were all sad to leave. There was an outrage that such an historic building should be demolished and (I think) with the help of Lasdun himself it was listed so that it couldn’t be knocked down. The Borough then decided to tender its sale for a song6.
After a failed bidding attempt to run it as a Housing Co-Operative, Keeling House was sold to the aforementioned property developers, and ended up in its present form, as the exact opposite of what it was designed as. Whereas the original building was supposed to embody a civic mentality, mutual aid and collectivity (although privacy was also part of the design, and no balcony looked out on another), the new Keeling House was an enclave, designed specifically to barricade itself against streets outside which were slums still, despite over a century of social housing experiments, now so underfunded and under so much pressure to sell off that several other buildings have faced a similar gentrification – although none of them with the same brutal ironies as Lasdun's tower. What is notable, however, is that in the case of Keeling, the regenerated tower would be explicitly aimed at those employed in 'the creative industries'. This method of marketing and regenerating Brutalism would later be attempted on a vast scale, at Park Hill, the Brunswick Centre and Balfron Tower; Keeling House has had the curious honour of being the pioneer gentrified Brutalist council block.
1 See Elain Harwood, England – A Guide to Postwar Listed Buildings (London, Batsford, 2003), p524 and p528
2 William Curtis et al, A Language and a Theme – the architecture of Denys Lasdun and Partners (London, RIBA, 1976), p23
3 Edward Carter, The Future of London (Pelican, Harmondsworth 1962), p112
4 Ian Nairn, Nairn's London (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1966), p166
5 Alan Powers, Britain – Modern Architectures in History (Reaktion, London, 2007), p90
6 E-mail to the author, 23/6/09