3: Lillington Gardens estate

The Lillington Gardens estate in Pimlico is a dense, cloistered development that, for me, resonates with the quasi-mythical landscape of the Western Front of 50 years previously.

It was designed by John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke after a national open competition in 1960-61, when the momentum for commemorating the First World War was gathering pace. Darbourne won the competition in 1961, aged only 26, and set up a partnership with Darke to see it through. This competition seems significant in terms of memory-images as it is the sort of committee-driven forum in which subconscious memories would evoke approval for designs without the conscious knowledge of selectors.

Construction was in three phases, from 1964 to 1972, mostly at the expense of some of Pimlico’s characteristic terraces designed by the early Victorian master builder Thomas Cubitt. Again, the desire to wipe away 19th century remnants, suggestive of the conditions that led to war, is evident.

Being one of the first attempts in London to move on from high-rise planning typologies, the critic Nikolaus Pevsner said the estate held a special place in the history of British housing as a model of how low-rise dwellings could reach the same densities (210 per acre) as tower blocks.

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The estate comprises 540 units built as council housing, some of which are now privately owned. It was one of the largest comprehensive developments of its time, with more than 2,000 people accommodated (comprehensive refers to the fact that social amenities such as a doctor’s surgery, library and pubs were also provided).

As with the previous examples, the reactions to Lillington Gardens are striking in their range. I will present some examples before looking at the estate through photographic images and maps.

Positive critiques include:
“The housing blocks lining the perimeter project into the central landscaped area, creating a series of intimate inter-connected gardens and play spaces. The design, allowing almost half of homes to have a front door at ground level, creates a safe, overlooked public realm.”

“This large, complex red-brick building, with cantilevered balconies, ‘streets in the air’, irregular profile and ample external planting, offered a popular and expressive alternative to the drab postwar tradition of mixed development.”

“The brown Hasting-made brick is unusually dark for the Sixties, but the effect is never monotonous. The centre is traffic-free. The buildings seem without any overall system, reflecting the intricate internal planning, which makes use of scissor-plans and split levels. The general plan is no less ingenious, with internal courtyards and cross wings threaded through with paths and ramps. Higher levels are reached by brick-paved internal streets. In general the character is tough, not amiable, but then so is the church. But toughness does not dominate, not least because of the exceptionally careful landscaping.”

“The Library was built last (1973-74). It has a split-level interior, and is claustrophobic, but was considered progressive when new.”

On the other hand:
“Economics have been carelessly thrown overboard for a warped aesthetic of crumpled facades and disordered dwellings that sometimes fail to fit a recognisable structural plan; some homes have the kitchen one-and-a-half floors from the entrance and furthest from the front door; wide ‘roof-streets’ lead to cramped door access, sometimes three sharing one doormat half a flight of steps away; many living rooms have no sunlight to satisfy the architects’ desire that everyone would live looking into the community garden (surely facing south over the real street is a valid as well as more interesting experience?); an even more alarming failure is the connection of the roof-streets with the real ones below – there are sordid windy porches on the ground floor and blind lifts to the upper streets, ferrying people like they were crossing the Acheron.”

“The sequence of moving from one garden to the next shows a hit-and-miss picturesque anti-plan that disorientates one even more than Chesterton’s ‘rolling English road’. This is disturbing since it shows a lack of understanding of the essence of city planning – it is as though the authors had misread Camillo Sitte [an Austrian town planner who rebelled against straight boulevards and regular, grid-iron street plans].”

“John Darbourne wanted ‘a feeling of one thing opening out on to another rather than a huge, easily assimilated rectangular area’. The result is more like the Illustrated London News’s comment on GE Street’s high-Gothic church on the site: ‘rising … as a lily among weeds’.”

“Lillington Gardens heralds a change to continuous structures on more intricate and introverted plans.”

This wide range of views of itself would seem to demand a closer look.

The Lillington Gardens estate in Pimlico feels like a caveman’s troglodyte world, full of dark passageways and tunnels leading round unknowable corners.
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A, particularly neat, German trench          Lillington Gardens, alleyway

All that seems to be missing from the photo on the right below is the soldiers lounging.
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Night watch in the Ypres Salient               Lillington Gardens

The point to make about the trench-alleyway in this picture on the right below is how unnecessary it is, apart from mirroring the Bayou. Steps leading directly down to the footpath would have sufficed and would not have set up the divisive alternative to the street.

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Bayou de la Mort, Ypres           Lillington Gardens

The winding, defensive nature of trenches is brought out in these two images, fifty years apart. (The corners were inserted in the line of the trench to muffle blast forces from exploding shells.)
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Sanctuary Wood, Ypres            Lillington Gardens

As with Robin Hood Gardens and Marble Arch, the Lillington Gardens estate in Pimlico has an evocative similarity with a trench map:

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Thiepval trench system, Somme           Lillington Gardens, phase 1