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CIAT Central Region: Rowley Way site visit

Having read about the refurbishment of the Rowley Way Housing Estate in Camden London, I got in touch with Camden Council to arrange a visit. My interest was initially piqued by the proposed refurbishment of this Grade II listed housing estate from the 1970s. Built-in concrete and glass, the refurbishment was clearly going to be a challenge and I estimated that it would be highly informative to Architectural Technology professionals - I was right!

For those who are not aware, the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, known colloquially by the road, Rowley Way (that is now pedestrianised) predates and passes through the Neave Brown designed ‘Brutalist’ terraced and tiered housing apartments, which are very visually striking. According to Wikipedia, it features in 17 films/TV series and 20 music videos. From a town planning perspective, it is seminal and contentious because of its general layout, although the layout of the 520 apartments is ingenious, albeit compact.

If we are forgiving of the lack of forethought regarding current requirements for disabled access and those less mobile, the split-level balconied accommodation is light, airy and adaptable due to its sliding partitions. It also manages to keep out the sound of the adjacent railway, neighbours and rowdy pedestrians. The concrete and its geometry are largely responsible for the sound deadening qualities of the design. Whether this was the reason for the extensive use of poured concrete, or it was an aesthetic response to the desire to be ‘modern’, ‘minimalist’ or rather born of frugality, I do not know. In true ‘Brutalist’ style the concrete exhibits, unashamedly, the markings of the site-cast shuttering. For those who attribute this to the aforementioned motives of frugality, it was not. It was a conscious and well-meaning desire to create honest architecture, celebrating modern technology and in so doing, turning architecture back to vernacular and facing a new bright cosmopolitan future. Sadly, the term ‘Brutalism’ has been coined because it was never intended to be a reference to the brutality of concrete as most probably think, but rather a reference to the French phrase béton brut meaning raw concrete, although this will not convince some of its aesthetic appeals, I know. However, the uncompromising striking appearance of the concrete is one of the reasons for giving the development a listed status in 1993 and why improving the building’s wall insulation is so difficult. At this point, I would like to thank David Wadsworth, Project Manager at The London Borough of Camden and Paul Martin of Levitt Bernstein, the architectural consultants, for allowing Central Region to visit and talking us through the refurbishment project. They are dealing with so many challenges and I really think it will be worth watching their progress as they deal with so many competing priorities. We can learn so much from such projects and so can I ask my fellow Members of CIAT to keep a lookout for such projects to learn from because if our Government does get serious about reducing the carbon footprint of our housing stock, we need to be ready to take up the challenge.

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Written by Tony Keller -Director, Building Tectonics Ltd


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