Green architectural campaigns have made it clear that concrete is too toxic and carbon-intensive to warrant a place in construction. Owen Hatherley revisits Thamesmead, a futuristic, concrete-filled 1960s London satellite that currently faces a drastic redevelopment, where much of its original architecture is being demolished. He argues that renovating and adapting spaces like Thamesmead is the only way to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
The first things you’ll see if you visit Thamesmead are concrete and water, and one thing you’ll soon notice in your mouth and nostrils is construction dust. This place, now one of the most intensive building sites in London, was originally planned as a new futuristic town, laid out on Ministry of Defence-owned marshland and built by the Greater London Council (GLC).
Between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s, concrete maisonettes and towers were constructed, along with a network of canals, lakes and nature reserves. Over the last few years, these have been substantially demolished and dismantled, and new buildings are going up in their place.
Thamesmead was once a much-photographed destination for architectural tourists. But a combination of right-to-buy council housing, the abolition of the GLC and a certain film by Stanley Kubrick saw Thamesmead gradually become a conveniently forgotten district. I think of myself as knowing it well – I’ve lived in south-east London for nearly my entire adult life, and for six years lived close by in Woolwich, but I’ve never lived in Thamesmead, though I’ve had friends who have.
When I went on Greenwich Council’s waiting list for social housing in the 2000s, there was a box you could tick – “Would you consent to be housed in Thamesmead?” They had to ask specially, back when some London housing was still “hard to let”. Today, demand is such that even Thamesmead is easily rented out. Soon you will be able to see a lot less concrete, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t here.
Modernity and nature side by side
The first sight of Thamesmead is unforgettable – thrilling or terrifying, utopian or dystopian, according to your taste. The best place to see it is Lesnes Abbey Woods, the last untouched woodland in inner London, which is just above the town. Its thickets of trees frame the ruins of a medieval abbey, and a complete view of a forest of concrete council tower blocks, the most you’ll see clustered in one place in England.
From the woods, a somewhat knocked-around but still intact system of pedestrian pathways will lead you to a concrete walkway over the railway line to London Bridge, and then through recently renovated green paths on a ridge alongside long, low-rise blocks, in the ‘megastructure’ style of the late 1960s.
The walkways stop briefly as you approach the building site at Southmere Lake, but then start up again. They connect with the Ridgeway – an elevated public pathway above Joseph Bazalgette’s Victorian Outfall Sewer – which discharges at the ornate Crossness Pumping Station nearby.
As you’ve walked along these pedestrian paths, you’ll have noticed birds everywhere, and a population of horses, kept by the estate’s Roma and Irish Traveller community. Travellers were here first, living on the marshes before the GLC took it over.
The abstraction and harshness of the buildings is softened and compromised by nature – the horses, the woodlands, the lakes.
Thamesmead is in constant tension with the environment all around it. The first phase was built before the GLC’s Thames Barrier, and the housing was raised above the ground because of the flood risk. All new buildings here since the 1980s have ignored it, somewhat overconfidently. Yet the abstraction and harshness of the buildings is softened and compromised by nature – the horses, the woodlands, the lakes.
There is much to criticise about the plans of Thamesmead’s current owners, the Peabody Trust, but they have at least invested in these green pedestrian paths, and in making the lake more lively with vegetation.
Thamesmead was based on the apparently contradictory idea of integrating the most extreme modernity with nature, and people here probably live in closer connection to the natural world than anyone else in London. There is more green space and more water per resident than anywhere else in the capital, and a lot of it is relatively untamed, rather than a neat series of lawns.
The architects and planners would have argued that it was only with modern methods that you could let this happen – building as high and dense as you can, so that you can leave as much of the site unbuilt upon as possible.
The opposite approach was taken by the land-hungry private suburban developments of the 1980s onwards, whose little front and back gardens, detached houses and looping, car-dependent street patterns actually show a more wasteful attitude towards the natural environment. The north of Thamesmead is full of these developments, typical products of Conservative government thinking in the 1980s and 1990s.
Thamesmead of the 1960s was designed for the car, and underused motorways still run through it. Nonetheless, the network of walkways, canal paths and bridges planned alongside meant that everything was walkable by pedestrians. In the more straightforwardly suburban later phases, the pedestrian is irrelevant, and green space can be found in a private back gardens only.
The argument for renovation
Looked at in depth, Thamesmead was in some ways an exemplary green development – you might be under the City Airport flight path, but the trees and the water everywhere make the air far more breathable than in the Georgian streets of Greenwich to the west or the 1930s semis of Bexley to the east. And unlike those private worlds, this was meant to be a place for everyone.
When built, over two thirds of Thamesmead was council housing. As Valerie Wigfall outlines in her 2008 book ‘Thamesmead: A Social History’, this was a place full of local-community initiatives, from radio stations to local papers to various community centres and buildings, many of them self-organised and still surviving, like the Link centre under one of the flyovers.
Yet it is a place that has constantly been treated as a problem to be solved, not as a place whose qualities could be emphasised and celebrated. It has been chipped away at by poor-quality new development, and Peabody’s current vision for the place centres on massive demolition of the first-phase housing, replacing it with housing for the more affluent.
Destroying the buildings compounds the problem, with their embodied carbon wasted by their demolition and replacement.
The ecological problem with Thamesmead came in its original construction – all that reinforced concrete, a material that is hugely profligate of materials and energy. But destroying the buildings compounds the problem, with their embodied carbon wasted by their demolition and replacement. All the buildings here are structurally sound, and could easily be renovated, following the example of, for instance, the Grand Parc in Bordeaux, a similarly monumental estate redesigned by the architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal without any loss of social housing stock.
And everything that has been built here in recent years is made out of concrete too – its unrivalled ability to stack upwards cheaply has been exploited for the new dense housing by the lake. Except it has been coated in a polite layer of biscuity brick cladding, to be “in keeping” with a Georgian London tradition that is totally absent and irrelevant here.
The best thing one could say about some of the ecological mistakes in the original town is that they didn’t know any better. We do now, but continue to build in exactly the same way, only adding an appliqué dressing to remind us of the pre-concrete past.
I find much more to admire in the GLC’s attempt to reconcile modernism and nature than in what Thamesmead, like so many other places in London, is becoming: a series of mock-18th-century facades stacked up to 20 storeys, and placed like a Potemkin screen across an ecological disaster area.
This article was edited by Alexander Harris from It’s Freezing in LA! and is part of a series of articles about toxicity. It also appears in Issue #9 of It’s Freezing in LA! magazine.
About the contributors
Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune, and the author of several books and pamphlets, including a map/guide to Thamesmead for Open City London.
Jess Nash is an illustrator whose work is based on her love for culture and social commentary. She has collaborated with Vans, MoMA, Penguin Random House and Untangle Grief.