‘Some people think this is a mess’ – the wild and fantastic genius of Becontree | Architecture
‘A Visiting Becontree is demanding, ”wrote Nikolaus Pevsner in his Buildings of England guide,“ even for enthusiasts ”. The charms of the world’s largest inter-war communal estate, which is celebrating its centenary this year, were not immediately apparent to the German-born architectural historian in the 1960s. They do not. are perhaps not for many today either. Spanning four square miles of Barking and Dagenham in east London, Becontree has neither the shrill architectural drama of a place like Thamesmead, nor the quaint bucolic charm of a garden city. Instead, it’s an archetypal vision of indescribable suburbia. Rows of brick terraced houses, each with their own front and rear gardens, are arranged along avenues and crescents, populated by the occasional parade of shops. So far, so banal.
But what Pevsner lacked on his tour was having Verity-Jane Keefe by his side. Seen through the eyes of this artist who has worked in and around the estate for 15 years, the place becomes a kaleidoscopic patchwork of individual creative acts. There are the houses decorated with fake Tudor paintwork, the fortified facades with crazy rustic paving, the porches decorated with portholes. Pastel-painted pebbles attract attention with a swirling plaster, both surpassed by a sculpted plaster relief depicting a squirrel emerging from a decorative cockade.
Around the corner you’ll find entrance doors framed by Corinthian columns and dangling plastic topiary balls, as well as doors guarded by a pair of golden cement lions. An entire crescent, built of wood by Swedish carpenters in the 1920s, showcases the rustic aesthetic of the Sylvanian families’ treehouse. Another street features sleek art deco windows, straight out of Poirot. The closer you look, the more Becontree turns out to be a wonderfully rich catalog of curious household details. It is an open-air museum on the impact of successive housing policies, the different tastes of municipal maintenance services and generations of owners with purchasing rights worked in plaster and paint.
“Some people think it’s a real mess when they finally come here,” says Keefe, as we stroll the streets, marveling at the range of door types, porch shapes and other inventive additions. “Becontree is always shown in bird’s-eye views as that perfect vision of identical ‘hero houses’ with neat privet hedges. But reality is a place made up of thousands of individual choices and adaptations over time.
Built between 1921 and 1935 by London County Council, Becontree was the most ambitious social housing project of its time. He transformed a 3,000-acre strip of vegetable gardens in Essex into a model cottage garden estate of 26,000 houses for 100,000 people, many of whom were relocated from the slums of the East End and were able to take advantage of the first time hot water and indoor toilet. “Heaven with the doors closed” is how one of the first inhabitants described it.
In the decades that followed, it suffered the same fate as many social estates of the day, suffering from poor maintenance and seeing many homes sold for right to buy. It was recently listed as one of the most lucrative places for homeowners to invest, with the second highest buy-to-lease return in the country.
So how do you celebrate the 100th anniversary of a place like this, so far from its original conception, and which continues to be in motion? The official centenary program, organized by the Borough of Barking & Dagenham with the artistic organization Create, includes a range of initiatives, from a pair of new colorful playgrounds by Yinka Ilori and Eva Rothschild, to new public spaces on the estate’s corner plots, designed by nimtim architects, to be completed next year. But the project that penetrates the place the most is Keefe’s yearlong residency, Living Together, which explored the impacts on heritage of deindustrialization, immigration, workers’ rights and the right to work. ‘buy, in collaboration with groups of residents.
Keefe describes his method half-jokingly as “hidden.” It’s a form of attentive gaze that reveals the hidden depths of detail, combined with knocking doors and a casual charm that leads to being invited to discuss ceramic owls over a cup of tea. The results are never clear, nor immediately obvious. Besides the organization of reading groups and virtual walks, one of the most surreal products of the residency was a series of performances by community banjo groups in the pedestrianized dead ends of the estate – known as “banjos” for their rounded shape.
Keefe’s year of observation and documentation has now culminated in an exhibition, Lived in Architecture, where she transported the ad hoc charm of Becontree to the majestic surroundings of the Royal Institute of British Architects in Portland Place, London. This may be the first time the Riba has seen crazed cobblestone, pebble and cement lions celebrated in its sacred halls – and it makes for a brilliantly surreal spectacle.
Visitors enter through a faux brick arch painted with a vaguely faux Tudor motif into a show designed as a series of stage facades, showcasing a range of entrances and details sampled across Becontree. One recreates the characteristic common porch of the estate, where the front doors of two houses are framed by a single arched opening – except, in this example, a neighbor decided he preferred not to share, so they walled up their half of the entrance and built a new front door on one side, flanked by classical pilasters and topped by a PVC pediment.
Replica facades lead to small rooms where designs from the Riba archives have been selected to elaborate on themes of adaptation, extension and personalization of the last 200 years of architectural history. Some of the connections seem a bit tenuous, but the goal is to give historical weight to what might otherwise be called suburban kitsch, showing that the home improvements you find in Becontree have an illustrious pedigree.
“There’s a lot of stigma around pebbles,” Keefe says. “People assume everything was added in the 1980s, as a result of the right to buy, but that was actually part of the original estate plans.” The exhibition includes Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s use of the render of plaster (“the OG pebble” as Keefe puts it), as well as photos of a modernist house in Chelsea by Bauhaus maestro Walter Gropius which was then pebbled. by Theo Crosby in the 1970s.
Other drawings show designs of classic large porches to bolt onto the façades of Georgian houses, and beautiful images of the neglected Victorian architect George Devey, who was a master of fictional historical collage. Its beautifully fruity country houses looked like they had been enlarged over the centuries, combining simulated Tudor walls with Flemish gables and medieval ramparts in densely layered fantasies.
A highlight of the show is a 15-minute film, titled Wild Fantasies Always Worth Considering, which mixes Keefe’s poetic observations on Becontree with the voices of residents discussing the original features of their home. It includes images of a pair of master plasterers at work, recreating the infamous squirrel for the exhibition, where it now proudly hangs on the wall alongside images of the Villa Medici in Rome and Henri’s Nonsuch Palace. VIII. Henry was so enamored with Medici stucco work that he brought in an Italian craftsman to recreate the tenfold effect on the facades of his opulent Surrey Palace in the 1500s (since demolished). The technique, known as pargeting in England, was copied by countless ambitious owners in the South East and saw a revival in Essex in the 1980s. What about the origins of the squirrel?
“When I asked the guy to render the front of the house,” one Becontree resident is heard recalling in the movie, “he said he could do something as a focal point. came home and it was there. I never asked for a squirrel. We got stuck with it, we have to love it. We love it, we have no choice. “