The Boundary Estate

Rochelle School at The Boundary Estate. Source: Michelle Mason for Design Exchange

Shoreditch is one of London’s most desirable addresses. Residents pay among the highest rent of all Londoners to enjoy award winning restaurants, buzzy nightlife, trendy boutiques, close proximity to jobs centers, and experience a creative lifestyle that permeates the neighborhood. Outsiders pay for the privilege to feel cool for a night.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 19th century, the slums of the East End offered an existence of immense squalor. In a struggle for basic survival, people lived on top of each other in unimaginable poverty. The death rate (40/1,000) was four times higher than that of London, not exactly a paragon of safety itself. Toward the end of the century, conditions had deteriorated to such an untenable state that the government was compelled to action. 1890’s Housing of the Working Classes Act empowered local governments to demolish slums. The London County Council took advantage of this power, clearing the Old Nichol, the worst of the East End slums, to make way for an innovative social (read affordable) housing scheme.

Overseen by Owen Fleming, work began in 1893 and formally completed in 1900. 23 buildings were delivered containing 1,069 apartments and 188 shops, with 77 workshops and two schools nestled into the fabric. Its Arts & Crafts style buildings are exquisite, each one designed by a different architect, providing much needed idiosyncratic character. For its many successes, the neighborhood christened as the Boundary Estate failed those who lived in the Old Nicole. Hardly any were offered housing in the new apartment blocks, and none were provided assistance in finding new accommodations.

Remarkably, the redevelopment nearly retained the same density as the area it replaced (359 per acre vs. 381 per acre). A decade before its construction, those 15 acres represented the worst of the urban experience. By the turn of the 20th century, The Boundary Estate was the gold standard for urban redevelopment, with light, air, greenery, and open space afforded to all its residents. Design is a most powerful tool when wielded correctly.

The Boundary Estate still offers affordable housing, though some units have been converted to market rate in recent years. Shoreditch has grown around its most innovative redevelopment, to become the hub that it is today. We need look no further for validation of this than Instagram’s most beloved Coffee Shop setting up shop steps away from Fleming’s realized plan.

Century old affordable housing schemes are not necessarily the first place one looks to when envisioning future innovative projects. In America, both century old & affordable developments have troubled histories, with the majority having been torn down or neglected. How can we find anything of inspiration here?

Tenement Blocks. Source: Alamy

Lesson One: Build for the pressing need, but with quality and flexibility in mind.

The Boundary Estate was principally built to meet the urgent need of housing London’s working class. Critically, the prevailing mandate was to provide quality housing, not just a box where one would sleep at night. Strong brick buildings represented a long term investment into the people who would ultimately live there. In refusing to compromise on the cost of materials, the LCC sought to convey an ideal of permanence in graceful accommodations for the working class. Potemkin structures they were not, with quality carried beyond mere aesthetic placation for wealthy passersby who could not tolerate the appearance of a slum. Apartments were generously sized, with several floor plate options available to meet the varied needs of a broad spectrum, whether they be individuals, small or large families, the youth or the elderly. New residents had access to small retail shops (perfect for fledgling business owners) and workshops to promote live/work lifestyles and local employment before it became popular. Anyone could imagine a better future for themselves with such a foundation.

The Estate has been able to accommodate waves of different types of residents over the last century, from the earliest working classes and immigrant families from around the world, to wealthy market rate tenants living side by side blue collar workers. Though not explicitly designed as a mixed income community, quality assured that The Boundary Estate would be a desirable place for anyone to live in, and it has become just this. Mixing of income groups exposes people to one another, eliminating prejudices & stereotypes borne out of otherification, nurturing unity in community. How desperately we need this today!

Contrast the successes in Shoreditch with many of the affordable housing projects built in the US over the last century (anecdotally, I’m tempted to say most). Imposed austerity has led to a reliance on cheap materials, from construction through annual maintenance. Economized floor plans have been designed squeeze in as many units as possible, leading to small homes and consistent overcrowding. Frugality has proven a disastrous course, with near constant renovations required to keep buildings upright, barely at that. Infamously, New York City’s public housing authority, NYCHA, has a $40 billion backlog of deferred maintenance. Infuriatingly, this astronomical sum is only the amount needed to bring these buildings up to basic habitable standards and working order. Horror stories are well known, but unattended. New York has shamefully abdicated its responsibility to nearly 400,000 people living in 175,000 apartments, forcing them to go without heat in the winter, trapping disabled residents hundreds of feet above the ground by neglecting to repair elevators, and ignoring units run over by allergens, pests and rodents. These are issues for those lucky enough to live in public housing, not subject to the whims of slumlords in the hardly regulated private market. What are we doing? My blood is boiling trying to type these words down.

NYCHA and dozens of big city housing authorities across the country are chronically underfunded, reflecting their unfavored position. Without delving into another history lesson, American affordable housing projects were doomed from the start. Beyond their cheap build-outs, they were, and continue to be, isolated from core areas away from jobs, shops and cultural amenities, damning residents to long commutes with limited access to transportation. Forced car ownership and its many costs further burden marginalized public housing residents. These developments are not mixed use, further harming prospects of malleability. Limited tax revenues, decreased safety through less eyes on the street, suppressed community with few gathering spaces, and fewer opportunities to work close to home are the results of this shortsightedness. Projects in the US cannot be adapted to meet the needs of a broad range of people, and ultimately deteriorate without sustainable operation models. Stigmatization is the natural result for those who are segregated, suppressed and deprived of the essentials of urban life, ludicrously perceived as lesser for having to struggle against a system that has failed them from inception to the present day. A catastrophe by any objective standard.

Why are we not thinking today as the LCC did in 1890? Not only are we in a crisis of public housing, but we’re in a crisis of housing generally. Our urgent need of the day is unaddressed. Grassroots movements rail against the paralyzing regulations and lack of political will that exists nationally, but they’re not enough on their own. How do we solve an existential crisis when the actors tasked with solving these extraordinary challenges sit idle, or worse, profit off of the status quo? When we don’t build anything, the consequences for those in need are dire. When we don’t build in a considered way, we only push the pressing needs of today to another generation, and in so doing damn future prospects, as America’s failure in public housing proves.

NYCHA housing, Brooklyn. Source: NYC.Gov

Lesson Two: Don’t Compromise on Design

The Boundary Estate is exceptionally beautiful. Its beauty starts with its plan. 7 “dials” radiate out from the central Boundary Gardens. Streets are lined with trees and 5–6 story buildings that provide a sense of enclosure people are drawn to, like being in an outdoor room. The streets are not rigidly orthogonal as in a grid, but gently carve to provide sloping changes in perspective. These Arts & Crafts styled tenement buildings are adorned with red brick, accented by light brick striations and punctuated by uniform windows with white frames. The 23 principal buildings in the scheme were designed by separate architects, inhibiting homogeneity. Each building is imbued with the character of its designer, offering passersby an interesting and ever changing buildingscape that still conforms to a larger plan, so as not to be disorienting. Workshops and retail spaces complete the beauty of the plan, incorporated on the ground floor or just behind the apartment buildings to break up the residential massing. The result is a holistically designed development, with few contemporary parallels.

Unfortunately, design is too frequently thought to be trivial. Even where it’s supposedly taken seriously, the end result of many projects confirm that talk of aesthetics was mere lip service. Poor design is often justified as value engineering in order to reduce costs to make a project feasible. But, if one has to sacrifice design to such an extent that little more than a box is built, the project was likely never financially viable. Developers are in for a rude awakening at the first sign of trouble, as residents will flock to quality when options abound in well functioning markets. Places that aren’t worthy of loving are not loved. Inevitably, less attractive places are not well maintained, succumbing to their destiny of obsolescence. From a property owner’s perspective, yield is maximized the longer an asset is operating at peak performance, which can be ensured through the quality of design.

I am not advocating for every structure to look like the Taj Mahal or Westminster, as monumentality & ornateness have limited roles in everyday buildings. Rather, human-scaled design, people-friendly materials (brick, wood & stone), and welcoming surfaces should be the standard for a majority of developments, of varying contextual vernacular or modern rendition. Glass & metal should be welcome, but complementary to natural materials humans have evolved to gravitate towards. The consequences of poor design are profound. Nothing less than our mental & physical well being are at stake. How we perceive the world is shaped by our surroundings.

Fall at The Boundary Estate. Source: @clerkenwellboyec1

Lesson Three: Match great challenges with bold solutions

Old Nichol was the worst slum in London. Dangerous, sordid, derelict. Action needed to be taken. Razing it to the ground was an easy, necessary way out, but only half of a solution. It would have been equally easy, if not easier, for the LCC to sell off lots to private developers.

Instead, the Council envisioned a transformational project, one that would inspire dozens of estates across the city, and ultimately around the world. Not only did the scheme comprise social housing, a noble goal in its own right, but it offered a grace one historically would only find on the mansion blocks of places like Chelsea or Belgravia. It’s salubrious design offered the working class their first taste of fresh air & sunlight since before the Industrial Revolution. Unlike its Western counterparts, The Boundary Estate was made for every day urban life, not retreat or isolation from the city. Residents could walk to dozens of shops for quotidian provisions, socialize with neighbors along tree lined streets, and work in the comfort of their backyards (sometimes literally). It was the ultimate mixed use community of its day. Residents were empowered to make the most of the scheme, flexing it to their needs. Contrast this with large scale mixed-use (non public) projects today, where developers strain to offer all things to all people. The end result is ironically underwhelming & subject to mockery; how often does one use a meditation room, luxury dog spa or valet waste service?

Bold solutions are not rooftop pools or climbing walls. These are desperate marketing gimmicks. Nor are they merely storing as many people as possible in boxes without consideration of their more than basic Maslowian needs. Boldness is being willing to create a place that is the backdrop for which people can afford to live however they’d like, not buildings as the main character, and certainly not the rejected set in another lot. If places are built right, they’ll ascend to the role the community requires of them.

Not every developer has to have the noble ambitions of the LCC, or respond to challenges as dire as the Old Nichol. But, if one is bold enough to create solid, understatedly beautiful places where people take precedent, they might find that their projects will outlast the luxury, glass clad starlets of the day.

Marlow House. Source: Michelle Mason for Design Exchange

We are faced with a choice in how we build places for people. There has been, and there will always be a choice. Building is the form we give to our priorities, representing who and what we care for in our society. Do we build for dignity in basic rights that can be passed down to posterity? Do we create places that inspire our imaginations, that force us to expect better of the world around us? Do we rise to the challenges in front of us, or kick the can down the road? While the built environment of the US has never been equitable, we have rarely shown any care to meaningfully change this state. Prior attempts have been half-baked, if baked at all. Our inability to rise to the challenges of today to provide decent, graceful living standards to all of our people is an indictment on those with the power to change the status quo. It’s time to reframe our priorities. Let’s not be too stubborn to look back to the past in order to forge a better future. After all, our favorite places today were built in our yesterdays.

Sources:

Boundary Estate Conservation Area, London Borough of Tower Hamlets

The Boundary Estate, Design Exchange

‘Bethnal Green: Building and Social Conditions from 1876 to 1914’, in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11, Stepney, Bethnal Green, ed. T F T Baker (London, 1998), pp. 126–132. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol11/pp126-132 [accessed 3 December 2020].

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Coby Lefkowitz

Coby Lefkowitz

Urbanist, Developer, Writer, & Optimist working to create more beautiful, sustainable, healthy, equitable and people-oriented places.