Kensal House – Rising Again?

Rebecca Watson Brown encourages members to cherish this famous modernist estate.  

Maxwell Fry and Elizabeth Denby’s Kensal House (1937) is a flagship building of pre-war UK modern architecture, appearing on the front cover of J.M. Richard’s widely-read contemporary tome An Introduction to Modern Architecture. The estate merits the society’s interest because its continuing renovation is not necessarily guaranteed; also for the inspiration which Fry, the architect, and his collaborator Denby, a social housing consultant, derived from modernism elsewhere.

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Kensal House in period – via HiddenArchitecture.net

The Kensal cocktail: Modernism, Viennese housing estates and the gas company

Working class housing issues in the inter-war period were acute, explaining why projects such as Kensal House were desperately needed. With the industrial revolution in the 19th century came the establishment of the working class especially in towns. They lived in ‘disease-infested’ slums, where the basic human needs of space, light and running water were not fulfilled. Leading British modernist Wells Coates believed this was due to ‘lack of planning;’ the industrial revolution had created a crisis in architecture and there was a need to house the growing urban population. Coates argued that pre-modernist houses were museums rather than living spaces; form should follow function, per the Bauhaus principle.

In the 1920s, UK governments responded to the housing challenge with the construction of estates on virgin sites at the edges of cities, the Garden City Movement. However in the 1930s the emphasis shifted to slum clearance, with Acts passed in 1930, 1933 and 1935. Blocks of flats rose on cleared land in the inner city.

Kensal House was financed by the semi-public Gas, Light and Coke Company (GLCC), which enabled the company to receive government subsidies for the construction and also meant collaboration with the Kensington Borough. In the inter-war period electricity was emerging as a competitor to gas and the GLCC thought the construction of social housing would promote the modernity of gas and boost the caring image of the company.

The company appointed a committee of architects, namely Messrs. Robert Atkinson, Maxwell Fry, C. H. James and Grey Wornum, who each designed a plan for the scheme; Fry’s proposal won. Denby was also a committee member, with the task to ‘consider the kind of equipment most suitable for working-class homes.’ As executive architect Fry said that his responsibilities were more on the ‘technical’ side and Denby was more involved with the ‘social’ aspects of construction.

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Unité d’habitation by designed by Le Corbusier – photo by A. Savin – Wikipedia commons

Modernism gained momentum in the 1930s across Britain. Modern Movement architects from Germany and Austria emigrated to Britain or to the US after the rise of Nazism (1933).The massive 1920s estates of Viennese workmen’s flats with their courtyards and emphasis on communal life were influential. Both Gropius and Le Corbusier stressed the importance of communal life; provision of communal services was central to the French architect’s later Unité d’habitation block of flats in Marseille.

Fry was influenced by all these trends for Kensal House, his second collaboration with Denby. With her experience of the Kensington slums, Denby considered that improving the situation of the working class was not only down to material refinement, but also to moral changes, to be achieved by creating a sense of community. This social aspect, which interplayed with the architecture of Kensal House, made it unique in the UK at the time.

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Kensal House site plan via Hidden Architecture

Brits go Bauhaus – the external structure

The site was a former gas-works site in Kensal Green, one of the poorest parts of North Kensington. Financed by the GLCC, the estate was intended to provide adequate living conditions for low-income families. The 68 flats of Kensal House are situated in two large blocks, which run parallel to Ladbroke Grove. The way the blocks run from north to south is an example of the use of the Zeilenbau concept – literally housing in rows – requiring that living rooms face westwards and have the evening sun. Bauhaus principal Walter Gropius was among the architects who favoured this ‘heliotropic’ approach,  reflecting the emphasis placed on natural cycles.

Reinforced concrete was used for the frame of the blocks and the walls were insulated internally with 1-inch, compressed cork. The block’s exterior was then covered with white concrete paint. This choice of colour probably had a sanitary purpose, but today makes the building look rather dirty, due to irregular upkeep. Blue paint was used on the bridges and exterior staircases, which connect the blocks. Use of one bold colour can also be found for example on the exterior of Bauhaus masters’ houses.

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Kensal House in period – via HiddenArchitecture.net

Beams and columns support the structure from beneath.  This use of columns to create an airy and passable space on the ground-floor level may have been influenced by Le Corbusier’s idea of allowing the air to circulate beneath and to give the impression that the building is not subject to the laws of gravity. There are also bridges, which connect the blocks, perhaps derived from Le Corbusier’s ‘elevated streets’ concept. Between the two blocks, space was grassed over and later planted by enthusiastic tenants. Apart from the housing blocks, Kensal House also had its own nursery. The nursery sits on the “sunny side of the playground” and its semi-circular form follows the perimeter of the gas-holder, which had previously occupied the site. Use of this feature shows that Fry and Denby were willing to reference the gas company, given its investor role. The flat roofs show Bauhaus influence.

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Site plan for the nursery block via HiddenArchitecture.net

An industrial approach

Standardisation of housing was an aspect of Modernism;  architects believed industrial standardisation would promote equality of housing.  As Fry said the supervising committee ‘Like the industrialist, concentrated energies upon a type plan, a pattern’. The two-and three-bedroom flats all had a similar layout, with one bathroom and kitchen and adjoining drying balcony being the functional workspace of the apartment; the living room was the largest room, approximately fifteen feet by twelve. Uniform appliances were part of the industrial low-cost approach: every flat included an Ascot gas water heater.

Standardised building components had been used before, for example at Törten in Dessau, where Bauhaus architects used them for speedy, economic construction.

Channelling communal life inside

Kensal House was more than the usual social housing estate, combining economic, aesthetic and most importantly social considerations with an emphasis on family and communal life. Denby described Kensal House as the first ‘urban village’ in Britain; she had by then been working for a decade. With Fry, she sought to put tenants’ needs at the forefront, drawing on ideas of communal living from Le Corbusier and Gropius and her decade of practical experience in the north Kensington slums.

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Kensal House today – photo Rebecca Watson Brown

The club rooms at Kensal House had a stage, a snack-bar, a committee meeting room and a room equipped with carpentry and sewing tools. The First Feathers Social Club used these rooms and attracted not only residents, but also people from outside of Kensal House, as did the nursery; thus the wider area also profited from Kensal House infrastructure. The club was intended to keep the young off the street, enable social interaction and help people to learn for example carpentry skills.

The on-site nursery school also contributed to self-sufficiency and to the healthy communal life of Kensal House. It cared for young children based on the play-centred principles of Friedrich Froebels and Montessori theory, encouraging the child’s independent growth. With its large windows, the nursery building spread natural light. The roof slightly projected over the façade so one could keep windows open even when the weather was bad, to promote air circulation.

The tenants’ committee created a sense of pride, according to Denby and contributed to communal life. Each of the seven internal staircases elected two representatives. The committee met monthly to discuss the upkeep of Kensal House, giving. Kensal House a sense of autonomy and self-governance, which made it seem like an ‘urban village’.

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Kensal House today – photo Rebecca Watson Brown

Afterlife

The consequence of speedy modernist-style construction and deterioration of contemporary building materials was often rapid decay. This was partly the case with Kensal House too; in a GLCC survey (1942), people complained about damp ‘oozing out of the walls’ of flats. Lack of maintenance during the war may have contributed to damp. Residents also complained about the small size of the kitchens, unable to seat large families.

The underlying communal concept faded after the war, thanks to the rise of television, contributing to the steady decline of Kensal House. The GLCC was nationalised in the early fifties and Kensal House passed to the London County Council. LCC opposed tenant involvement; so the tenants’ committee and communal facilities, such as the club and nursery withered. And it was exactly these that had made Kensal House so unique by creating a sense of community pride.

Today Kensal House is still social housing, with a grade 2 listing. The communal element is slowly returning with a theatre company using the club rooms to teach children from Kensal House and disadvantaged children from elsewhere drama. The nursery was reopened in 2005 after a £600K refurbishment. Kensington and Chelsea council, which partly financed the work, emphasised the need to attract children from the Kensal House Estate in order to keep ‘The historic link between the nursery school and neighbourhood housing’.

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Kensal House today – photo Rebecca Watson Brown

Kensal House was an experiment with a successful outcome. It drew on continental European concepts to make “Man the central concern of architecture,”  in Le Corbusier’s words. The estate sought to provide better living conditions for low-income working class families and to strengthen community through shared facilities. Fry and Denby did not see housing just as shelter, but created an atmosphere which was unique for British social housing estates of the period. The idea of creating a self-sufficient environment, a mini-town within a city, can be seen in post-war modernist projects, such as the Golden Lane Estate – also social housing – and the Barbican, which draws heavily on Le Corbusier’s idea of the ‘vertical garden city’.

Sign up with the BFI and view the 1938 film about Kensal House on their site for free.

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