Alexandra Road Park

Overview

Heritage Category:
Park and Garden
Grade:
II*
List Entry Number:
1469254
Date first listed:
18-Aug-2020
Location Description:
Statutory Address:
Alexandra Road Park, Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, Camden

Map

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Location

Statutory Address:
Alexandra Road Park, Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, Camden

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
County:
Greater London Authority
District:
Camden (London Borough)
Parish:
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TQ2604583830

Summary

Public park, forming part of a housing estate. The layout of the park was initially designed by Neave Brown as part of Alexandra Road Estate in 1968-1969; Brown revised the layout somewhat in 1974 with detailed drawings and planting plans by Janet Jack; the park was completed in 1979. Jack was a consultant in the 2015-2016 restoration of the park by J and L Gibbons with Erect Architects.

Reasons for Designation

Alexandra Road Park, a public park forming part of a housing estate, initially designed by Neave Brown in 1968-1969, and revised in 1974 with design and planting by Janet Jack; completed 1979, is registered at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:

Historic interest:

* as an very rare scheme for a defined public park within a 1970s housing estate, designed by the architect of the estate in collaboration with a professional landscape architect, responding to the developing mid-C20 movement promoting adventurous, imaginative play, as well as providing space for privacy and repose, and wildlife habitats.

Design interest:

* Designers: the park is an important collaboration between Neave Brown, the leading public housing architect, and Janet Jack, a highly-respected landscape architect; * Features: ingenious use of restricted space using changing levels together with diagonal walls and paths to define areas for play punctuating informal areas for relaxation, each with a distinctive character, enhanced by careful structural planting; * Innovation: such a very formal, sculpted landscape is rarely associated with modern housing estates and gives the park itself an international significance.

Survival:

* the essential form and character of the park, together with its structural elements, survives largely intact.

Group value:

* the park is an integral part of the Grade II*-listed Alexandra Road Estate, the built structures within the park sharing in that designation; individual elements of the estate listed separately at Grade II are Brown’s school and youth centre, and Tom Kay’s complex of housing, shops and workshops. The Grade II-listed mid-C19 Church of All Souls stands to the east of the estate.

History

Alexandra Road was first developed around 1866, being named for Edward VII's bride following their marriage that year. After the Second World War its large villas and gardens became run down, offering a prime site for high-density redevelopment. In 1961 the freeholders, the Eyre Estate, produced plans for a dense network of smart, semi-pedestrianised closes of middle-class housing, with a tall tower to accommodate long-term tenants living on the site in subsidised housing, and given security under the 1957 Housing Act. Hampstead Borough Council rejected the proposal, which would have affected the protected view of St Paul’s from Primrose Hill as well as increasing traffic. In 1965 Hampstead was succeeded by the dynamic new Camden Council; Camden acquired the site for its own housing needs, giving responsibility to its new architect’s department led by Sydney Cook. Cook headhunted Neave Brown who in 1963-1965 had produced a widely-published terrace of housing with shared rear garden for himself and friends at Winscombe Street (listed at Grade II) which in its reimagining of the London terrace anticipated his work for Camden, first in a scheme of four back-to-back terraces of flats and maisonettes linked by rooftop gardens at Fleet Road (now the Dunboyne Road Estate, also Grade II), and then at Alexandra Road.

Brown’s Alexandra Road Estate was devised in 1968, its simple curved form of three terraces recalling an C18 formality. The largest terrace, with seven storeys of small flats over a car park, shielded the site from the railway to the north; on the other side of a pedestrian way to the south was a four-storey block of maisonettes as well as a terrace of three-storey houses for the largest families. Between the terrace of maisonettes and the access road to the houses space was left for a park, to provide recreational facilities lacking in the area. By the time building began in 1972 the brief had become more complex: the need for a park was confirmed, together with a community centre, a special school, a reception centre for children taken into care and a home for the disabled (these last two buildings were realised by Evans and Shalev, the latter a colleague of Brown’s at the Architectural Association), together with housing association housing, a pub and shops. In the end most of these extra facilities were squeezed on to the eastern half of the site away from the terraces and park; one of the housing schemes (by Tom Kay) is listed at Grade II. Of the additional elements, Brown designed the school and tenants’ hall (a combined building listed at Grade II) and the park, placing the hall over the school on falling land to the east of his terraces and adjoining the park. The housing scheme was completed in 1978 at huge cost. Its positive reception by the architectural profession was overshadowed by a year-long enquiry, which revealed unforeseen problems with a stream that had delayed the foundations, and problems with an inexperienced firm of builders and poor supervision – but no faults with Brown himself.

The estate’s stepped sections of flats and balconies are characteristic of the body of low- and medium-rise, high-density housing – mainly realised in white concrete – designed by and for Camden’s Architect’s Department at this time, Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre (1967-1972, listed Grade II) being another notable example. The approach is indebted to Sir Leslie Martin, who developed an unbuilt precursor to the Brunswick Centre. Brown also drew on a tradition of low-rise housing which stretched back to the work of Mart Stam and Bruno Taut in 1920s Germany; this re-emerged after the war in Le Corbusier's unbuilt Roq et Rob project of 1948 and found eloquent expression in Atelier 5's 1959 Siedlung Halen, Bern, Switzerland. Though these European examples explore ways of combining privacy and community, and the modulation between inside and outside spaces, including gardens and terraces – and at Seidlung Halen the retention of natural landscape – they offered no source of ideas for a park.

Brown envisaged the park as being at the heart of the project, and his plans of May 1968 show the essential form as realised, in a series of mounded units configured by diagonal concrete banking to maximise the space and extend the views, with the terraces of maisonettes and houses providing a hard border to north and south. An existing line of trees was to be retained. This initial design was included in the model presented to the housing committee in April 1969 and in the published version of the site plan, but Camden produced a detailed brief only in 1974; the final scheme was then prepared, with Brown bringing in Janet Jack, a near contemporary from the Architectural Association with whom he had already worked at Fleet Road. As well as the planting and other landscape elements, Jack devised the play spaces and their original equipment, inspired by the ideas on free play developed by the Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørenson and introduced to Britain by Marjory Allen, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, the pioneer authority on the subject here in the 1960s.

When the Alexandra Road Estate was listed at Grade II* in 1993 it was the first post-war public housing estate in England to be listed, with the structural features of the landscape being included in the listing. A management plan for the park was produced in 2012 and the park was restored with Heritage Lottery Funding in 2015-2016, with J and L Gibbons leading the project and reviving the planting (making reference to Jack’s original plans, now in the Garden Museum) and Erect Architects installing new play equipment. Jack’s original planting plans of 1974-1975 informed this restoration and Jack herself was involved in the work.

Neave Brown (1929-2018) was born in the United States, the son of a British father and American mother, and first came to Britain to read English at Oxford University, later switching to architecture. He studied at London’s Architectural Association in 1950-1956, and on graduation worked for Lyons, Israel and Ellis and Middlesex County Council (frequent destinations for ambitious young architects) before setting up his own small practice, which he combined with teaching at the Architectural Association. Retaining some freedom to work independently, he joined the Camden Architect’s Department in 1965, bringing in former students including Peter Tábori, Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth to develop Camden’s distinctive housing programme. However, following the completion of Alexandra Road Brown worked only abroad, designing housing in Italy and in the Netherlands.

Janet Jack, née Kaye (1934-2016) studied at the Architectural Association in 1952-1967. After graduating she worked for the Architects’ Co-Partnership and in 1958-1959 studied in the United States before turning to landscape architecture in 1963, when she became an assistant to Sylvia Crowe. Upon qualifying with the Institute of Landscape Architects in 1971 she set up her own practice, which in 1981 she merged with the massive and multi-disciplinary Building Design Partnership in which her husband Bill was a partner, setting up a landscape team; in 1986 she became the practice’s first female partner. Her work for BDP included the landscape of the Channel Tunnel Terminal at Folkestone in the early 1990s and the roof garden over Cannon Street Station (1991), and she also worked independently with architects including James Stirling (at the Clore Gallery, Tate Britain), and Evans and Shalev (at Truro Law Courts). She retired from BDP in 1991 but continued to work privately, for instance with Evans and Shalev at Jesus College, Cambridge.

Details

Public park, forming part of a housing estate. The layout of the park was initially designed by Neave Brown as part of Alexandra Road Estate in 1968-1969; Brown revised the layout somewhat in 1974 with detailed drawings and planting plans by Janet Jack; the park was completed in 1979. Jack was a consultant in the 2015-2016 restoration of the park by J and L Gibbons with Erect Architects.

LOCATION, SETTING, LANDFORM, BOUNDARIES, AREA The park occupies a linear site running west/east between the terraces of the Alexandra Road Estate. The core site is three acres/1.243 ha, but connecting paths raise it to four acres/1.7ha, the figure most commonly given. It is bounded to the west by Abbey Road, to the north by the pedestrian Langtry Walk (included in the registration) and to the south by the rear access way behind Brown’s three terraces of houses along Ainsworth Way. South of Ainsworth Way are the relatively tall 1950s blocks of the London County Council Ainsworth Estate. To the east the park ends in a raised bank crossed by diagonal paths leading to Brown’s tenants’ hall, described by him as ‘The Knuckle’. The original soil is London clay. The park opens out at grade to Abbey Road and Langtry Walk, but rises to the south and east, built up on soil excavated for the building of the block of flats to create a bank crossed by paths leading to the upper terrace level by the tenants’ hall and the terraces of houses to the south. Other parts of the design, notably the play areas, are sunken to give shelter and confine ball games. Wind is funnelled by the surrounding housing, and the walls and planting were designed to provide shelter.

ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES The main entrance is from Abbey Road, at the north-west corner of the park, where a drive leads to the games pitch and ‘The Hive’ nursery. A secondary entrance to the south-west adjoins the car park serving the terraces of houses. There are two bridges over the access road behind these terraces, at the south centre of the site (giving access from the Ainsworth Estate as well as the terraces of Ainsworth Way) and at the south-east corner adjoining the tenants’ hall, where the raised walk links to the upper level of the estate accessed from the north-east. There is continuous access to the park from the north at the lower estate level along Langtry Walk, with access at the ends and at two points in the middle of the terrace of maisonettes to Rowley Way, the main pedestrian thoroughfare through the estate (the two walkways leading between Rowley Way and Langtry Walk are included in the registration).

PRINCIPAL BUILDINGS The park’s walls are included within the Grade II* listing of the housing estate, as are other structures forming part of the original 1974 construction, including inset seats, planting boxes, ramps and steps. Brown also designed the listed school and tenants’ hall building which adjoins the park to the east. The Hive nursery to the west, opened in 1982, was designed by Kisaburo Kawakami, one of Brown’s assistants on Alexandra Road.

LANDSCAPE Just as the street is the dominant element in the design of the Alexandra Road Estate, translated into a modern context, freed of traffic, the park develops the idea of a street as a sequence of incidents, tracing a loose zigzag through the confined space to connect a series of spaces or lungs and maximise the tight urban form. Jack described the park as ‘one uninterrupted walking environment and conceived as a continuous playground’; the relative informality of the layout and undulating levels is given architectural definition by the structural elements: Brown’s site-cast white-painted concrete walls are smooth or board-marked with chamfered edges; blocked circles formerly contained lights (like those also lost from the housing estate). The walls contain the distinct spaces and the pathways leading from one to another, the visitor being both conducted between the spaces, and exercising choice as alternative routes present themselves; each space is entered obliquely, introducing an element of gentle surprise. The compartmenting of the park is enhanced by its changes in level and by its planting, the visual separation providing calm relaxing spaces in a landscape designed to be used by a large number of residents from the dense surrounding housing. There are seats incorporated into walls, and low walls which can be sat on, as well as benches with concrete bases and slatted timber seats – some have been restored and some replaced. Jack’s planting was intended to be low-maintenance, with tough plants which would appeal to the senses, reflect the changing seasons and attract wildlife. The very lush and large-scale use of plants was consistent with contemporary modernist approach to planting in relation to hard architecture. By the time of the 2015-2016 restoration, the trees and shrubs had grown to such an extent that visibility into the park was obscured; the restoration has stripped back the planting to approximately the intended scale, with numerous trees retained from Jack's original scheme, included birch, ash, lime, London planes, holm oak, Norway maple and flowering cherries. Lower structural planting includes Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’, Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’, Fatsia japonica, and broom. Fences are planted with climbers and ivy is used as groundcover.

At the north-west entrance is a plan of the park in concrete, installed as part of the restoration work. Progressing from west to east the park narrows slightly, with paths linking sunken play areas (one being a fenced ball park, and the other four being irregularly-shaped polygonal walled playgrounds) set between landscaped banks and open spaces. Adjoining The Hive at the west end of the park is the ball park, with new metal fencing on low blockwork walling. To either side are banks planted with plane trees, and with a line of wild cherry trees along the top of the southern bank. At the eastern end of the northern bank, terracing in railway sleepers recalls two stepped timber slide structures which formerly occupied the site. The next space is The Bowl, its yew hedging backed by ash trees, originally enclosing a sunken bowl, later replaced by a circular lawn because of drainage problems. The enclosed stage area survives to the east, paved with granite setts, and framed by Cotoneaster, with planting boxes behind. This leads up to walled playgrounds 2 and 3, separated by a diagonal path. Intended for children aged 8 and over, the northern playground is marked for ball games, and the southern playground contains a 2016 climbing frame inspired by the triangular structural bars of Jack’s much smaller original geodesic dome. Next are the two largest open areas, The Meadow and The Mound, with a diagonal path and walled enclosure between them, The Mound being skirted by a raised ‘woodland walk’ along the south side of the park. A low concrete seat runs along a retaining wall to the south of The Meadow, and to the north a long bench is enclosed by a high wall separating The Meadow from The Mound. The Meadow is planted with lime, cherry and plane trees, with a large eucalyptus to the south. The highest point of The Mound contains a fenced clearing, with a grove of Norway maple planted at its centre. The eastern side of The Mound is planted with holm oak, with Norway maple to the north. Towards the east the banks and woodland walk are planted with ash and silver birch. On the north side of the park, at the east end, are playgrounds 4 (for children aged 3 to 8, now with swings set between low mounds), and playground 5 (for children aged from 2 to 5, where Jack created a slide ramp, reinvented by Erect) before paths and steps lead up to the tenants’ hall. At the east end of playground 5 is a spreading plane tree.

Sources

Books and journals
Charlton, S (editor), Harwood, E (editor), 100 20th-Century Gardens and Landscapes, (2020), 195, 247
Swenarton, M (author), Cook's Camden: The making of modern housing, (2017), 59-107
Frears, A, 'Alexandra Road, The Last Great Housing Project' in AA Files, , Vol. no. 30, (Autumn 1995), 35-46
Websites
Mark, L, 'Alexandra Road Park by J & L Gibbons and Erect', Architects' Journal, 21 October 2015, accessed 7 December 2018 from https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/buildings/alexandra-road-park-by-j-and-l-gibbons-and-erect/8690360.article
Other
Crouch, S, 'Alexandra Road Park, Conservation Management Plan' (Heritage Lottery Application) 2012
English Heritage/Historic England report: Register of Parks and Gardens Thematic Survey: Landscapes of Post-war Housing Development (2003), part one, p14

Legal

This garden or other land is registered under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953 within the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by Historic England for its special historic interest.

End of official listing

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