In The Grand Manner (part 1)

This, and the subsequent posts in the series, is a copy of an article printed in Country Life, June 19th, 1975. By reproducing it here I hope to bring a bit of history to a wider audience. The ownership and copyright rest with the original writer and publisher and should they request it, it can of course be removed.

When London was present with a virgin site of some 1,500 acres for use as a new residential and industrial area it was to be expected that the development would be in the grand manner. There were, however, problems on an equally grand scale to be face before building could begin.

Thamesmead lies facing a 3 1/2-mile river frontage between Woolwich and Erith, some ten miles from the centre of London. It was mainly marshland lying below the Thames high-water level, crossed by drainage ditches and covered with scrub. Reclamation work had gone on in Roman times, and later the monks of Lesnes Abbey drained part of the land. The Royal Arsenal arrived in the 17th century, and convicts carried out their “hard labour” filling in further areas. After the Second World War armament production ceased nand the site was purchased by the Greater London Council in the 1960s.

The initial project, on some 300 acres, started in 1967. This was the era of tower blocks and industrialised building systems, and of unlimited energy  and belief in perpetual growth. It was natural enough that these ideas should influence the GLC architects, and to criticise the monumental scale of the buildings, now that high-rise is unfashionable is, perhaps unfair. Nevertheless, the first impact that the new riverside city makes, with its massive grey concrete terraces and towers, is a somewhat daunting one. An exciting distant vista becomes overwhelming at close quarters, despite the liberal interspacing of grass, trees and artificial lakes.

In fact, it is the artificial landscaping that gives it a slightly unreal, futuristic appearance. Indeed, this no doubt was the reason why Thamesmead was chosen for filming part of The Clockwork Orange (sic) – that disturbing vision of our future. In 20 years, however, when the trees mature the impact will have softened. And although the concrete will retain its harshness, the newer parts of the development, using more sypathetic mixtures of brick and timber, should mellow the tone of the buildings.

Whatever one feels about Thamesmead, there can be no  question that a great deal of imagination and thought has gone into it, and that compared with the usual large-scale local authority development, it is an outstanding piece of planning. It won the Sir Patrick Abercrombie Award for Architecture and Town Planning for its 1967 master plan, and has attracted international attention and brought in thousands of professional and lay visitors from all over the world.

 

When it is completed in the 1990s, Thamesmead will contain about 50,000 people at a fairly high density, varying from about 50 to the acre in some areas to 140 to the acre in others. To avoid it becoming a dormitory town, generous provision has been made for factories and offices. To a large extent it will be a self-sufficient community, with local and central shops, and extensive educational, social and recreational facilities.

Part two coming soon…

 

 

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