The Architecture of Poplar

There is a great article in East End Life this week (a rarity I know) on the architecture of Poplar – as part of their walks series.

The article rightly highlights All Saints Church and the more newer icons such as Goldfinger’s wonderful Balfron Tower and, in my view the equally wonderful – but badly managed, Robin Hood Gardens as the places to see in Poplar.

But the question to ask is will any of the architectural developments we are building today in Poplar be in such an article in 60 – 100 years time.

Housing Developers will argue that the economic climate and the housing shortage at the present time means that it is necessary to be functional – so that as many homes can be built as quickly as possible.  These were, of course, the same arguments that were used in the 1950s and 1960s – and and now many of those buildings are demolished as they were totally unloved.

I have long argued that great buildings raise the aspirations of the population of an area and also places a link to the past and an understanding of our place in history – We can say All Saints was built in the 1820s, Poplar Baths was built in the 1930s, Balfron Tower was built in the 1960s and this building we are building today will be equally looked upon by the residents of Poplar in 50 – 60 years time.

Spotlight Centre

There certainly some impressive buildings which have been built in Poplar in recent years.  Such as William Cotton Place, St Paul’s Way Trust School and the Spotlight Centre (above).

Will these buildings be equally impressive in 50 years time. The signs are not good – the new St Paul’s Way school is the third building on the site in my lifetime and none of these buildings have any feeling of permanence.

This may, of course, be my own architectural prejudices coming out.  I am a unashamed traditionalist – but I just cannot see the architecture we are building now having the same emotional affect on us in 50 years time as we do about Balfron.

Let me know what you think.


Who is Social Housing For

The speech from the Leader of the Opposition today at the Labour Party Conference, poses the fundamental question of Who should Social Housing be for. Should it be the last refuge for the destitute or should it be a form of reward for those who try strive to improve themselves – as was hinted in the speech.

It is clear that in the last 15 years, social housing has come to be the last refuge – and attitude has been reinforced with policies like short term tenancies although this has been muddled with items like Housing Benefit Changes and linking Social Rents to Market Rents – which could mean that in some inner city areas the target tenants may not be able to afford the rents.

As many readers will know, I am proud to have been brought up in a Council Flat. Although strangely, today my parents (who were both in full time employment) would not have got anywhere near a Social Home – even though they were no by guide well off.

It is interesting to note in this discussion that attitudes on this has changed widely during the years. Boundary Estate, which is recognized as the first Council Housing Scheme, was not designed for those at the very bottom of the Social ladder. The rents were initially set at above the average laborers wages – to target skilled artisans – many of the existing dwellers in the Old Sarum slum which it replaced where displaced to other equally awful slums. It was only in the 1930’s and increasingly with the advent of the large housing estates that the attitude of Social Housing for all workers become common.

I have not got the answer to this question. However it is going to be central to the policy of Social Housing in the coming years.

If it is just going to a form of temporary accommodation to those at the lower end of the society – everyone on short term tenancies – to be kicked off as soon as they start earning money. These will become ghettoes – and I would question on why Housing providers would spend any money on these and certainly not expensive community facilities.

On the other hand – if they are just for those deserving of homes and soon as anyone commits a crime or falls behind with their rent -they are kicked out. They will become upper working class ghettos – looking down at those not admitted. You will then have to question where everyone else would go (yes – the “underserving poor” have to live somewhere).

The best way forward must be a truly mixed community – with social Housing allocated to all types of workers. Yes that will mean that some families – who are not that eager to come off benefits and do a full time job, if one was available, would be housed – but these can be best dealt with policies which aim to raise the aspirations of residents – such as the excellent Family Intervention policies run by Housing Associations such as Poplar HARCA, rather than threatening them with eviction.

Although, sadly, a return to the situation where every worker is entitled to a socially owned home on a fair rent – is many years away – this must be the ultimate goal. It is only with this ultimate aspiration can the strange stigma which this country attaches to renting, be eliminated.

September 2021

coljax photos