Greater London Council Architects Department
Greater London Council
G F Wallis
Westminster City Council
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In the late 1960s, plans were drawn up for the wholesale redevelopment of Covent Garden. But a bitter fight by local residents and businesses, under the banner of the Covent Garden Community Association (CGCA) forced the withdrawal of these proposals, and in 1973 the government instructed the Greater London Council (GLC) to draw up new plans “with full public participation”. The GLC’s subsequent Action Plan was thrown out in favour of the CGCA’s alternative plan “Keep the Elephants out of the Garden” after a public inquiry. This included a substantial increase in provision to cater for local families in poor housing, their sons and daughters, and residents who had been forced out of the area and wanted to return.
The CGCA targeted the area’s main redevelopment opportunity - Odham’s print works. Despite lack of GLC commitment, the CGCA steered the Odham’s Walk development through, and even secured the bulk of nominations to the new dwellings for people who met their local focus, a remarkable achievement in the face of the new concept of housing ‘need’ recently enshrined in legislation which favoured applicants who had no links with the local community. Donald Ball’s design team produced an adventurous solution: a perimeter rampart of 73 L-shaped patio flats cascading around 8 open stairs for the first two storeys and rising to a lift-accessed upper level walkway serving a further 29 flats; all above a podium of shops and parking, with ramped diagonal access across the site.
At completion in 1981, Christopher Woodward launched a virulent attack on the complex nature of the development as ‘indefensible space’, predicting vandalism and muggers, and urging a return to the straight streets of the old Covent Garden (though another critic pointed out that social problems are not resolved by a clear field of fire for water cannon and rubber bullets). Woodward attacked the terraced patios and upper walkway as leading to loss of privacy, and doubted whether they would provide scope for individual treatment by tenants. And he pooh-poohed the seductive renderings of the scheme by Gordon Cullen as misleading and unlikely to be realised.
elephants in the garden
In fact, this is one of few housing developments where the original artist’s impressions are not only matched but surpassed by the reality. The planting has matured magnificently, and the patios and planters display every possible variation in treatment, from minimalist austerity through an Italian family’s vegetable garden to fiery blazes of crocosmia and pelargoniums. There is no vandalism, no graffiti. And the overlooking patios and upper walkway has proved an invaluable security feature: sharp eyes and tongues deter the inevitable ne’er-do-wells in an area prone to drug abuse. Surveillance is enhanced by a significant proportion of retired people, many original residents, and again strengthened with CCTC at the two accesses to the scheme for non-residents to make their way to small commercial tenants, such as a dentist, optician and tanning house within the block. This is closed off again each night as these premises shut up.
CGCA’s allocation policy has proved its worth, bolstered by the formation five years ago of a Tenant Management Organization by the energetic residents’ association. This runs the block, employs an on-site manager, and maintains the CGCA’s criteria for tenant selection. A strong community has weathered the consequences of over-optimistic detailing (waterproofing, insulation, inadequate planter depths), a multiplicity of stakeholders - Right to Buy has spawned absentee landlords) - and the dead hand of bureaucracy (Westminster Council, which retains overall control, will not let a resident caretaker with a young son swap his one bedroom flat for a family flat tenanted by an elderly couple who want smaller accommodation, because of ‘the rules’). But the residents are resilient. Despite these problems, and those of dealing with an investment company freeholder whose interest appears to be in the shops and car park below (which Westminster should have purchased on GLC’s demise), they would not part with their stake in a remarkable oasis of calm in Central London, or the community they have struggled so long to maintain.
Odham’s Walk demonstrates that design has to consider management to produce a successful result for housing of any complexity. Good design by itself can rapidly fail without effective management. Good management can only alleviate the consequences of poor design. But the two working together will succeed, even in the face of ill-considered legislation, conflicting ownership responsibilities and a testing local environment.