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Homes boy: Sydney Cook’s Camden

Bernard Miller examines the legacy of pioneering borough architect Sydney Cook which is assessed in a new book

16 November, 2017 — By Bernard Miller

Alexandra Road

AS an uncertain 60s teenager consulting Sydney Cook, Camden’s borough architect, about studying architecture, I doubted I had the maths.

Unassuming Cook reassured me: “The only maths I’ve ever needed is the ability to count the walls in a square room and sometimes I get that wrong.” Flippant? No! Laughing, he added: “A good architect needs to know who to turn to for specialist skills.”

Sydney Cook did. And Mark Swenarton’s meticulously compiled book, Cook’s Camden, describes who and how. It reads like 12 books in one.

Younger readers will not remember an era, swept away by Thatcher and Blair, when councils had municipal architects and departments, designed, often built and maintained their own housing, setting standards against which all housing was judged. Some of the most innovative housing designs came from local councils and the new housing was a source of urban pride.

While Cook’s Camden focuses on buildings and urban design, it reveals Cook’s greatest design and construction achievement as not the wonderful, often award-winning housing he bequeathed to Camden, frequently against technical, financial and political odds, but the team he created to achieve that goal.

Launched in 1964, the Borough of Camden’s first council established an architects department of 98, including 43 architects or assistants. Swenarton, with a wealth of sources and references, credits many remarkable team members, especially Neave Brown, winner of this year’s Royal Institute of British Architects gold medal, best known for the Alexandra Road Scheme. He joined the team in 1965 only after assurances that Camden’s architects were given scope to pursue their own designs.

Sydney Cook

Dispelling the myth that blocks like Grenfell or (pre-Cook) Chalcots towers are essential for tackling housing shortage, Cook’s team built low-rise high-density housing of the highest standard in groupings people can relate to.

Cook’s Camden does more than name-check other team architects, such as Peter Tábori (Highgate New Town’s stepped white housing), Bill Forrest (Elsfield, liner-like white flats, Highgate Road), Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth (Alexandra Road, Maiden Lane, Branch Hill). It provides mini-biographies, acknowledges designers and sources from which they drew inspiration, and analyses their contribution to overall schemes. Many of their residents will be enthralled.

Fans like me of modern, Scandinavian-style design, are offered endless visual delights; architects’ sketches and plans, photographs of modern exteriors, and stunning, stylish, frequently minimalist interiors.

Interested in the technical obstacles of building on awkwardly shaped, steeply sloping, poorly drained sites with problematic subsoil? Worried about engineering, safety, circulation, parking? Swenarton records how Cook sculpted these many challenges into striking solutions.

Concerned about the economics of building quality housing to high design standards at low cost? Cook’s Camden could be your primer. For those of us still dreaming of mass housing within the means of most of the borough’s inhabitants, the 99 per cent, the historical costs will bring tears to your eyes. In 1978 the Labour council moved people into the first council homes in Branch Hill, Hampstead, a stunning scheme on some of the country’s most exclusive land. Bringing council housing to the heart of Hampstead Heath was the opposite of social cleansing. Costing £100,000 per house, the Tories demanded an apology. That would not buy a garden shed now.

To design guide, engineering blueprint, organisational flowchart, historical thriller and economics reader, Swenarton’s book adds an act of political audacity now largely forgotten but of great importance to me. Through its 1972 Housing Finance Act, Edward Heath’s Tory government aimed to wipe out all council housing by raising council rents to market levels in three stages and removing government funding.

A site for sore eyes – Branch Hill

My mother, Millie Miller, one of Camden’s first councillors in 1964, an admirer of Cook and his work, was then leader of the council.

With 20 years of local government, especially housing, experience, recognising Cook’s combination of talents, she welcomed every opportunity to interact with him, not just on new housing but in areas this book has no space to address.

A fan of Scandinavian design and social policy, unlike many fellow councillors, she was captivated by and fought for much of his team’s work. If the Housing Finance Act had succeeded, Camden’s progressive housing programme would have perished. After protracted, agonising debate, risking massive fines, suspension from public office, even prison, Camden Council decided by one vote not to raise council rents as ordered. To everyone’s amazement the government backed off, merely withholding some funding.

Three years later, then an MP, Millie voted with Harold Wilson’s government to rescind the Act and in 1977, months before her death, helped push through this country’s last progressive Housing Act.

Around that time, realising she would not live to see it completed, she visited and was thrilled by the Branch Hill building site.

Cook’s Camden is mostly about modern housing. His contributions to renovation, restoration, campaigns to save Camden Lock, the Roundhouse, Bloomsbury, St Pancras, Covent Garden, Soho, Theatreland and more deserve another book.

Cook knew not only which experts to turn to for specialist skills but how to meld people into teams, motivating them to work together in remarkable ways.

He had no need to count walls in a square or even polygonal room because Sydney Cook ensured that every Camden wall counted.

Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing. By Mark Swenarton, Lund Humphries, £45


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