Sunday, 31 January 2016

Golden Lane

I moved to Golden Lane near Old Street in East London five years ago thanks to a Russian friend who came to stay. An architect from Samara, a city on the Volga, Vitaly dragged me around London’s modernist masterpieces for a week, in shock that I had never seen them. We had a wonderful time playing in Golden Lane - peering into peoples’ windows and photographing their cultivated corners of the communal garden. It was the first social housing scheme to be built after the Second World War - the apogee of socialist idealism - free housing and education for all who needed them. A large area was cleared to make way for it - an area that showed up as blue/black on Charles Booth's survey of London i.e. criminal. 

The estate was for blue collar workers serving the City to allow the City back up off its knees after the war. What was left of the bombed out pre war housing was cleared and in its place a carefully landscaped estate was constructed. The competition had been extremely popular but three of the entering architects had agreed that if any of them one, they would form a single practice and design the estate together. That is exactly what happened and thus Chamberlin, Bonn and Powell was born. They studied european housing estates and considered local needs ,and came up with an estate of 6-storey houses with a 20 storey tower in its centre - the country’s first high rise residential building. 

There were apartments for single mothers, single people living alone, just married couples, and two and three bed apartments for families. The apartments in the 6 storey blocks were duplex and double aspect with beautiful design features that created a feeling of much more space than there is. These include a cantilevered staircase and a double height window overlooking it. The buildings are surrounded by carefully landscaped grounds: gardens, fountains, trees, a community centre, a meeting room, two tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a row of shops. It was paradise on earth. 

I thought it was when I looked around: the colours of the buildings - yellow, red, blue, were all faded from 50 years in bright sunlight. The detailing seduced me - beautifully glazed and fired square tiles on the balcony with black grouting, and the same on the steps. 

Two years later when I decided to move back to London, I found a flat in Golden Lane and soon moved in, with my Russian cat, on the ground floor, so she could run around in the garden. It said in the estate rules that no pets were allowed but I was reassured by the agent that lots of people had cats and that the estate management tolerated them, referring to them as ‘parrots’. Malinka and I decided that was ok. 

I moved in my library of Russian books and called Vitaly to tell him about this turn of events. He was very pleased and promised to come and stay soon once he had saved the modernist building in Samara that he was campaigning for (see previous post). 

Opposite me live Fred and Buffy - who I consider to be the king and queen of the estate. Both in their seventies, they are a handsome couple (Buffy does some modelling). Both their children, from previous marriages, live on the estate. Buffy is an artist and Fred is a writer and retired teacher of architectural theory. Fred is passionate about Russia and has a fascination for Stalin. Buffy and Fred both make beautiful collages - Buffy on the theme of the estate and nature, Fred often on Russian themes, and sometimes the Barbican and other buildings nearby. At the moment Fred is working on a series of collages about Stalin’s wife who committed suicide, Nadia Allilueva, that he recently showed me “it’s so great, Clem, the printer ran off 20 for me.” Fred insists that Stalin was cast down by the suicide, demonstrating that he was not just a monster he was a man too.

Their flat opens on Open House weekend every year with a long line of people queueing to get in. It is worth the wait. They have it down to a T. They spent 6 weeks with wire brushes and chemicals scrubbing the paint off their staircase when they first moved in, to get it down to the bare concrete “we nearly divorced,” said Buffy. They have a lot of the original fittings, and beautiful chairs - that together with some african hangings and masks, and some of Buffy’s paintings and her choice of bright but muted colours on the walls create just the right tensions and contrasts for the full modernist 1950s experience. 

My flat is entirely different - the internal wall on the ground floor that once divided the kitchen from the living room was taken out several years ago creating one large unified space, which is excellent for parties, as the result of which I am the designated party flat: this suits Malinka and I fine. She lies in the middle of the room with her white belly in the air when guests come round. Fred and Buffy are always the stars of any party on Golden Lane and dance longer than anyone.

1 comment:

  1. A love letter to Golden Lane :-)
    I have never visited, but I intend to be in the queue to see Fred & Buffy's flat come the next Open house weekend!