Simon Jenkins: Save Excalibur Estate

Lancelot: Your rage has unbalanced you. You sir, would fight to the death, against a knight who is not your enemy. Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around.
Arthur: So be it. To the death!
- Excalibur

The Guardian's Simon Jenkins has today devoted his column to the fate of the Excalibur Estate in Catford, which Lewisham Council is planning to redevelop. He introduces Catford thus:

As history, south London's Catford lacks pzazz. It has none of the raw brutalism of its neighbour, Lewisham, or the old world charm of Peckham. Sandwiched between Hither Green cemetery and the Ravensbourne ditch, it is one long aesthetic groan.

He goes on:

But it nurtures in its bosom the largest surviving 1940s prefab estate in Britain, admirably named Excalibur. Lewisham council wants to throw it, like the fabled sword, into the lake of oblivion. This week Excalibur was declared fit only for demolition...

This is today an extraordinary place. The demure terraces of south London give way to what might be a shack estate on Canvey Island. Both council tenants and owner-occupiers have decked their facades in fanlights, coaching lanterns and fake rustication...

We save buildings not just for their beauty. We save them for their visual variety and the memories they evoke in individuals and communities...

The prefab estate is a small piece of working-class history, no less worthy for not being conventionally beautiful. It is a chapter in the nation's story, when misguided, utopian bureaucrats came face to face with their own incompetence. Yet the result was a building that curiously struck a chord with a group of men and women who had been traumatised.

Jenkins is a guy who's never found a subject on which he doesn't know better than the experts, but on this occasion his argument rings true.

London's architectural variety is one of the things that makes it unique (which another reason why the Brockley Cross Beach Huts are to be welcomed) and the residents of Excalibur exhibit a lot of civic pride in their neighbourhood. On the other hand, they are low-density and Lewisham has big targets to hit in terms of creating new homes in the borough. They also have a slim majority in favour of their proposals, according to their own consultation.

Jenkins says that striking the right balance between preservation and progress is tricky. So too is balancing historicism with practicality. Should Excalibur be pitched in to the Ravensbourne or remain in the rock of Catford?

Thanks to Mike for spotting.

25 comments:

drakefell debaser said...

Brockley Cross Beach Huts are to be welcomed.

Have I missed something? Are we getting a beach?

I quite like the Excalibur Estate and I gather that those that live there, like it too. It should be listed and left alone IMO.

Brockley Nick said...

@DD - aka Martin's Yard (I've now added a link)

Matt-Z said...

It's not long ago that the last few prefabs on Ivydale Road were still occupied. Last I saw they were boarded up and almost derelict. I wonder what will sprout up in their place?

drakefell debaser said...

Thanks Nick, I missed that article and what great news that is.

thisisengland said...

Perhaps Excalibur will be transformed into a giant Sainsburys with a beach hut aesthetic. Be still my beating heart.

Brockley Nick said...

what?

Welcome to 2011 said...

@Thisisengland you're so authentic. I wish I could be.

Anonymous said...

If Lewisham Council are saving money with cuts,why waste money on the demolition of this Estate when the people living there seem quite happy.

Mb said...

Well 56.2% prefer the alternative (on a 91% return to the questionaire) so far from clear that the people there are 'happy'. Mind you as always 44% are not so chuffed. Age must be a huge factor, if you've grown up there your hardly likley to be keen to move. It was built as emergency social housing, as Jenkins says one reason it is now unique is because of a lack of action to replace with something more permanent.

A tricky one but can Lewisham afford the space and expense of maintaining these as a museum piece?

Undecided.....

max said...

The choice given was between old huts falling apart and new homes.
If there was a third choice to repair and insulate the old homes the result may have been very different.
But that's standard Lewisham Council consultation.

Tamsin said...

People who live there have been fighting to stave off compulsory removal and demolition for years - including some redoubtable old ladies who I see when they come into the Saville Centre and call into our office to photocopy articles about the campaign.

max said...

With all the talk about community cohesion, for once you have a functioning village and there comes the decent homes initiative to destroy it.
Reminds of Asterix.

Anonymous said...

Never mind Excalibur they should start with Milford Towers.

Anonymous said...

a king without a sword, a land without a king....

urbansurgery said...

Until Lewisham addresses its school places shortage i dont see it as a candidate host for endless densification.

Once upon a time they were cock-a-hoop for regenerating the dog track site. Ho-hum and the neighbourhood gets an inaccessible derelict scar for years.

As referred to above the 'referendum' was as ever a poorly constructed question (depending one which result you were hoping for).

In a week when all Irish development companies are being invited to re-apply to the government for funding even for prior agreed loans, (95% of major lending is now state funded) unless the cash is ring-fenced and proved to be present along with a conditioned development plan and programme, not a single tudorbethan stone-clad mock-cottage prefab should be touched – ugly as they may be.

Headhunter said...

I am a fan of restoration and the retention of interesting examples of achitecture however in this case I think I err on the side of demolition. These buildings were thrown up and intended as temporary accommodation at a time following WW2 when the country was desperately short of homes. The architects and builders probably never intended them to last longer than about 10 years before their inhabitants were rehoused in something more permanent. Restoration and development of these buildings so that they attain government public sector housing standards would be hugely expensive. At time that Lewisham BC is looking to save cash, I would prefer that they keep libraries open than pour money into something like this. Perhaps a couple of them could be taken away and rebuilt at some architecture museum somewhere as an example of their type? Perhaps the Geoffreye Museum would take them and rebuild them as an example of temporary post war accommodation. However as far as I'm concerned retention of these building is pointlessly expensive.

Anonymous said...

@HH
'Pour money'?

You'll probably find the council will do that anyway through demolition.

It's a tradition in Lewisham for the council to make a building or area run down so the public in frustration will accept anything 'new' as being better.

In the centre of Lewisham properties that in 30 years of existing had no major maintenance carried out were demolished when all they required was repairs to the roof.

Residents were provided with 'new and better' properties that had fewer bedrooms and smaller rooms.

That hell-hole known as Milford Towers was built to last 50 years but within 15 years it was dire.

In 1954 a private plan for a giant 'Sportsdome' was rejected because the council claimed it would prevent the re-vitalising of the area.

Now in 2011 a 'state of the art' leisure is being built with £20-30m of public money in the centre of Lewisham.

How many times has Lewisham's shopping area been re-generate or re-vamped at public expens over the past 50 years?

There was the shopping mall in the 1970's along with citi-tower, clock tower moved a few feet, the infamous roundabout, pedestrian area in front of the mall, widening of Molesworth Street.

Then there was Lewisham 2000 which resulted in the bus station but within 10 years it was announced it was to be demolished and another road scheme be introduced.

I believe Lewisham 2000 cost £12m and as far as I can see has never been completed and it's to be demolished by a £16m road scheme.

By the way the temporary railway bridge put in place after the Lewisham rail crash is still in place, maybe that should be demolished...mmmm.

Anonymous said...

While I'm here...the reason Lewisham is a string of 'villages' is because people want to isolate themselves from being associated with Lewisham.

Anonymous said...

Trouble is, Lewisham Council doesn't care about local history or preserving interesting architecture.

mat said...

MB, just over half say they want new, but when I've been involved in consultations, they are on the line of, say yes and you get no repairs to your homes for the next 20 years, say new build with our favoured developers and we give you the earth.

Anonymous said...

if some want demolition and some want to keep the prefabs.

How about the following solution...:

1. keep a some examples for those that want them just as they are and one as a museum piece. The council or a historical organisation would help renovate one property as a museum.

2. Those that want new properties can have them.

3. Those that want insulated modernised prefabs can have them as an alternative. These could even have living roofs.

Anonymous said...

@MB...."Well 56.2% prefer the alternative"

well how about only demolishing 56% of the estate?

However in these times of cuts surely it should be kept as it is until the financial situation is better.

Anonymous said...

Well i have just heard the councils offers are now coming in to at least one freeholder in Mordred road £140,000.

Anonymous said...

Lewisham council
Some of us will not be moved

HOB said...

Interesting interviews & pics with residents in today's Guardian week-end supplement... we knew nothing about this estate and would be interested if anyone connected posted any further developments in the residents' campaign of resistance

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