Alexandra Road Housing

(London, England) 1968-78

Two views of the pedestrian streets of the Alexandra Road housing project

This is a project which created considerable animosity among critics because of its surprising initial success. To start with, it was public housing, which always arouses controversy. Next, it was unfashionable, constructed in reinforced concrete, and looked naked, brute, in the tradition of Le Corbusier. Neither in its materials, type nor overall geometrical figure did the building acknowledge its context by citation, and it was not built incrementally. Furthermore, it was planned as a high-density development, with high intensity circulation patterns and collective services.

In the ideology-loaded debates of the last fifteen years, many of the accomplishments of Alexandra Road have been overlooked. This is much to the detriment of current architectural practice, which needs to learn from experiences. both positive and negative, but especially positive, since so much bad design surrounds us with the failures that not surprisingly result from it.

Alexandra Road does not conform to the clich├ęs of many current trends which overlook those commonsense facts that count so much in housing: that relatively generous dimen sions. buildings that do not obstruct one another, good lighting conditions, contact with the outside and good solid detailing are essential to public success, irrespective of stylistic, mood or institutional matters.

In many respects the uniqueness of the project is in its scale and its serenity, as if in response to the anxieties of the post-1968 shock. It relies heavily on neo-brutalist precedents which it filters and combines purely on criteria based on quality, something which undeniably gives an air of pragmatic conservatism to the project. The architects themselves refer to 18th- and early 19th-century housing which, they believe, 'established place and parity for every dwelling in which the whole exceeded the part ... an architecture composed of elements belonging to a common culture, rendering irrelevant the sad distinction between public and private housing."

The scheme covers an area of 6.47 ha. To the north, there runs a main railway line; to the south, there lies an area of Victorian houses extending down to St John's Wood; to the east, the shopping centre at Swiss Cottage; and to the west, a new mixed development of low and

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