Architecture Engages with the Local Community at Stonebridge

Rosie Sonnenschein

Rosie is a recently qualified architect who has worked for SEH regularly since completing her Part I. She wrote her diploma thesis about the Stonebridge regeneration.

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Social housing in Stonebridge has taken many forms over the years. In the late 1960s through the late 1970s, in response to an urgent need for post-war housing, a series of tower and slab blocks were built.

Altogether 6 tower blocks, 7 medium-rise blocks, and 171 terraces were completed, ranging in height from six to twenty-two stories and housing a total of 8000 people.

The tower and slab blocks became run-down fairly rapidly, largely due to inadequate maintenance. The national government would not provide the local council with enough funds to keep the housing in decent condition, and existing social problems were exacerbated by the decrepitude of the urban environment. Stonebridge became an infamous ‘sink estate’.

In 1994, Shepheard Epstein Hunter (SEH) was brought on board to lead a decades-long regeneration of Stonebridge’s housing. A gradual ‘de-estatification’ of the area took place, a process that resulted from thoughtful masterplanning, architectural design, and active engagement with the residents throughout the regeneration. The tower and slab blocks were demolished in stages, replaced with a variety of flats and houses. Stonebridge now blends in with the surrounding city and is no longer a highly visible island of social housing.

Finally completed in 2016, this newer version of Stonebridge is considered a success by many people, from local residents to architectural critics. This success was partly down to a policy of engagement with the local community. SEH consulted the people of Stonebridge at many points during the design process, and directly addressed the concerns of residents in their designs for the area.

During the early design stages, residents said they wanted more of a sense of identity and variety from their surroundings than in the tower blocks. The 1970s estate was like “living in a concrete jungle”, and it was disheartening to have each block look identical to the next.

The new masterplan for Stonebridge, developed in 1994 by SEH and Terrence O’Rourke, responded to this lack of variety and identity in several ways. Instead of tower blocks set within large, undefined swathes of green space, Stonebridge was replanned with streets much more typical of London, lined with a combination of terraced housing and blocks of flats. Most of the housing is no higher than four stories, at the express request of the residents living in the tower blocks at the time.

The streets are punctuated by small playgrounds, bus stops, schools and other public buildings such as the Children’s Centre. These public facilities add variety and landmarks to the streets, making each one distinctive and easy to navigate. The streets themselves were even named after people, places or things that were meaningful to the local community. Windrush Road for example was named after the Empire Windrush ship, which brought some of the local kids’ grandparents over to the UK from Jamaica and Trinidad.

As a precaution against the housing becoming too uniform and repetitive, the early phases of regeneration employed half a dozen different architects, many from underrepresented backgrounds. The intention behind this policy was that there would be a number of very different looking, but cohesive designs for the housing. As Henry Bird, a director from SEH at the time of the regeneration reflected, SEH “employed some small local, one-man, two-man-band type architects, we employed some black architects, some lesbian architects. And they were each given one of the sites to do…The first phase was built using about ten different architects.” The variety of designers employed within the scheme really shines through, with each building looking different but not alien from the next along in the street. Local residents even have nicknames for some of the buildings, based on their appearances.

Left: Found from an old presentation in the housing office at the Hillside Housing Hub, this photo shows Haskell House in the 1970s, the largest high rise block on the Stonebridge Park Estate. Right: Stonebridge as photographed by Rozie Sonnenschein in 2016.

Later on in the design process, residents were able to choose where in the masterplan they would live, the required number of bedrooms for their flat or house, and in some cases the orientation and type of the living areas. One resident chose to have her living room facing the street, so she can watch what’s going on during the day and interact with people. She frequently props open her side door on warm days, to chat with whoever walks past. Although some people in her block of flats have left, and new people arrived, her original neighbour from the tower block days still lives right next door. The two of them requested to live close together, and have remained close friends both figuratively and literally.

The resultant housing of Stonebridge today is the architectural embodiment of the community at the time of consultation. The street names, the maximum building height, the size and location of each flat corresponds directly to the people living inside them. In one of the more extreme examples, an extended family ended up with a twelve bedroom flat!

Most people were completely thrilled with their new homes. Their concerns were not only listened to but also acted upon by the architects, and people could clearly see these houses were designed specifically for them. The new housing has restored pride of place to the community of Stonebridge.

Image credits:

Photograph of Stonebridge from the air in 1970 from report presentation, Stonebridge Estate - Past and Present, The Hyde Group, courtesy of Ann John.