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A Model of Philanthropy

The housing legacy of George Peabody

  • Decent, affordable homes: a winter garden of one of the flats of the new Peabody Mint Street development in London, designed by Pitman Tozer Architects, 2014. (Photo: Nedko Dimitrov) 1 / 17  Decent, affordable homes: a winter garden of one of the flats of the new Peabody Mint Street development in London, designed by Pitman Tozer Architects, 2014. (Photo: Nedko Dimitrov)
  • Early Peabody housing: Southwark Street SE1, originally consisting of 12 blocks of 22 flats each, opened in 1876: intended to “ameliorate the conditions of the poor and needy” (Photo: © Peabody, c.1960s) 2 / 17  Early Peabody housing: Southwark Street SE1, originally consisting of 12 blocks of 22 flats each, opened in 1876: intended to “ameliorate the conditions of the poor and needy” (Photo: © Peabody, c.1960s)
  • The recent Mint Street development, designed by Pitman Tozer Architects, 2014, providing affordable housing in sight of the towers of the City of London. (Photo: Kilian O'Sullivan) 3 / 17  The recent Mint Street development, designed by Pitman Tozer Architects, 2014, providing affordable housing in sight of the towers of the City of London. (Photo: Kilian O'Sullivan)
  • The Wild Street Estate, Drury Lane WC2, was completed in 1881. Early tenants included West End theatre workers and employees of Covent Garden Market. (Photo: © Peabody, c. early 1900s) 4 / 17  The Wild Street Estate, Drury Lane WC2, was completed in 1881. Early tenants included West End theatre workers and employees of Covent Garden Market. (Photo: © Peabody, c. early 1900s)
  • Built in 2002, Peabody’s BedZED urban village, designed by Bill Dunster, was the UK's first large-scale 'carbon neutral' community and a model for sustainable housing design. (Photo: ZEDfactory) 5 / 17  Built in 2002, Peabody’s BedZED urban village, designed by Bill Dunster, was the UK's first large-scale 'carbon neutral' community and a model for sustainable housing design. (Photo: ZEDfactory)
  • A Clerkenwell estate, constructed in 1884, today: showing the generous communal yard. (Photo: © Ellie Duffy) 6 / 17  A Clerkenwell estate, constructed in 1884, today: showing the generous communal yard. (Photo: © Ellie Duffy)
  • Roscoe Street, Clerkenwell EC1– now demolished and replaced by newer housing – was opened in 1883, and originally consisted of 11 blocks. The coal store held 20 tonnes and there were 32 pramsheds! (Photo: © Peabody) 7 / 17  Roscoe Street, Clerkenwell EC1– now demolished and replaced by newer housing – was opened in 1883, and originally consisted of 11 blocks. The coal store held 20 tonnes and there were 32 pramsheds! (Photo: © Peabody)
  • Another view of an existing Clerkenwell estate today, showing the distinctive striated London stock brickwork. (Photo: © Ellie Duffy) 8 / 17  Another view of an existing Clerkenwell estate today, showing the distinctive striated London stock brickwork. (Photo: © Ellie Duffy)
  • Bethnal Green estate opened in 1910. Unlike earlier estates, each flat had its own WC, although laundry and bathing facilities were still centralised. It was designed by W. E. Wallis. (Photo: © Peabody) 9 / 17  Bethnal Green estate opened in 1910. Unlike earlier estates, each flat had its own WC, although laundry and bathing facilities were still centralised. It was designed by W. E. Wallis. (Photo: © Peabody)
  • A “Small Projects Panel” competition resulted in six architects chosen to design housing schemes for 20 or fewer homes. Here Adam Khan Architects’ proposal for the Pembury Youth Hall site (Image: © Peabody/ Adam Khan Architects)& 10 / 17  A “Small Projects Panel” competition resulted in six architects chosen to design housing schemes for 20 or fewer homes. Here Adam Khan Architects’ proposal for the Pembury Youth Hall site (Image: © Peabody/ Adam Khan Architects)&
  • The design of Pitman Tozer Architects, part of the “Small Projects Panel”, for the same site at Pembury Youth Hall in Hackney. (Photo: © Peabody/ Pitman Tozer Architects) 11 / 17  The design of Pitman Tozer Architects, part of the “Small Projects Panel”, for the same site at Pembury Youth Hall in Hackney. (Photo: © Peabody/ Pitman Tozer Architects)
  • An egg and spoon race at a Coronation party on the now demolished Bedfordbury Estate in Covent Garden, 1953. (Photo: © Peabody) 12 / 17  An egg and spoon race at a Coronation party on the now demolished Bedfordbury Estate in Covent Garden, 1953. (Photo: © Peabody)
  • Another selected practice from the “Small Projects Panel” competition: Jan Kattein Architects and their proposal for the Morpeth Road site... (Photo: © Peabody/ Jan Kattein Architects) 13 / 17  Another selected practice from the “Small Projects Panel” competition: Jan Kattein Architects and their proposal for the Morpeth Road site... (Photo: © Peabody/ Jan Kattein Architects)
  • An alternative proposal for the Morpeth Road site by Urban Salon, who were also selected for the Peabody “Small Projects Panel”. (Photo: © Peabody/ Urban Salon Ltd) 14 / 17  An alternative proposal for the Morpeth Road site by Urban Salon, who were also selected for the Peabody “Small Projects Panel”. (Photo: © Peabody/ Urban Salon Ltd)
  • A street party at the Herbrand Estate in Bloomsbury, 1924. The estate was built in 1885. (Photo: © Peabody) 15 / 17  A street party at the Herbrand Estate in Bloomsbury, 1924. The estate was built in 1885. (Photo: © Peabody)
  • “Small Projects Panel” member Lyndon Goode Architects: their proposal for the Palmer Garages site in Islington. (Photo: © Peabody/ Lyndon Goode Architects) 16 / 17  “Small Projects Panel” member Lyndon Goode Architects: their proposal for the Palmer Garages site in Islington. (Photo: © Peabody/ Lyndon Goode Architects)
  • Palmer Garages: same site, different proposal – by Studio 54 Architects, showing the variety of approaches that Peabody has recognised for its “Small Projects Panel”. (Photo: © Peabody/ Studio 54 Architects) 17 / 17  Palmer Garages: same site, different proposal – by Studio 54 Architects, showing the variety of approaches that Peabody has recognised for its “Small Projects Panel”. (Photo: © Peabody/ Studio 54 Architects)

With a rolling crisis in the supply of housing in the UK – where the shortfall in new homes has become ever more acute – Ellie Duffy looks at how one 150 year old organisation still provides an inspiring model for housing provision.

To meet projected demand and make up for the current shortfall in housing supply, it has been calculated that Britain now needs to be building up to 300,000 new homes a year. In fact it is currently building at a rate of less than 110,000 – the lowest output since the 1920s. In London, where housing shortage is particularly acute, the housing crisis is being fuelled by a global property market and disproportionate numbers of wealthy “buy to let” or “buy to leave” investors. Places to live for ordinary people are scarce and expensive. Beds in sheds scandals – where householders illegally rent out space in ramshackle garden sheds to multiple occupiers – are increasingly common in the city.

Housing shortage isn’t new to London. In 1862, George Peabody, an American merchant banker and philanthropist who’d transcended humble origins in Massachusetts, was so appalled by the living conditions of workers in the rapidly industrialising city that he established a fund to finance the building of decent and affordable housing for ordinary workers.

As a precursor to both state-provided council housing and the modern-day housing association, Peabody’s innovative dwellings were intended to “ameliorate the conditions of the poor and needy” – probably the majority in the quickly-growing Victorian city. That such an initiative was powered by the vision and capital of one individual seems remarkable today, when philanthropy and social conscience seem to have fallen out of fashion with the super rich.

Those familiar with London may well recognise the “Peabody dwelling” as one of the city’s defining housing typologies. Dotted around inner London from Chelsea to Spitalfields are small estates of apartment blocks dating from 1864 onwards. These are characterised by their slightly austere, bricky solidity, mid-range height (typically five to six storeys), and somewhat guarded enclosure around inner courtyards. Another defining trait is striated brickwork in yellow London Stock – a feature of many of the early blocks.

Early Peabody housing: Southwark Street SE1, originally consisting of 12 blocks of 22 flats each, opened in 1876: intended to “ameliorate the conditions of the poor and needy” (Photo: © Peabody, c.1960s)

Health and sanitation were important drivers behind the housing designs: to ensure good daylight and cross ventilation apartment blocks were spaced apart around open courtyards; the pattern of communal sinks and lavatories on landings and the inner network of refuse chutes informed internal apartment layouts; and many of the early estates were planned around shared laundry and washing facilities. Management of this new type of housing was originally kept fairly hands-on in the form of a superintendent, supported by a team of porters, whose role – as well as that of collecting rents – included ensuring residents were vaccinated against smallpox, recording incidents of infectious disease and locking the estate gates at 11pm. Typical early residents included labourers, printers, tailors and bookbinders – in a term of the times: the industrious poor.

George Peabody died in 1869 but the scale and ambition of his charity ensured the survival of the organisation. Today, in the midst of another kind of technological revolution, Peabody is playing an increasingly important role in the delivery of new affordable housing in London. As well as managing its 27,000 existing properties (home to up to 80,000 residents in a variety of tenures) and providing community services (such as employment training, health and wellbeing initiatives and family and parenting advice), it has recently embarked on an ambitious programme of new home-building projects across the city.

At the larger end of the scale this includes Peabody’s new responsibility for the management and regeneration of Thamesmead, a district in south-east London that was originally conceived as a visionary new town of 60,000 residents in the 1960s. Smaller projects, however, are also very much part of the contemporary Peabody picture.

In the early days Peabody made use of a single architect for all its design (H. A. Darbishire was Peabody architect until 1900, Victor Wilkins from 1910–1947). More recently the organisation has become known for commissioning a much more diverse range of architecture. Schemes such as the BedZed carbon neutral development by Bill Dunster (2002), the Silvertown shared ownership flats by Ash Sakula and Niall McLaughlin (2004) and the newly completed Mint Street housing in Bethnal Green by Pitman Tozer have broken new ground in a variety of areas including sustainability, internal planning, materials usage and financial modelling.

Built in 2002, Peabody’s BedZED urban village, designed by Bill Dunster, was the UK's first large-scale 'carbon neutral' community and a model for sustainable housing design. (Photo: ZEDfactory)

Peabody recently held a competition for architects for a “small projects panel” for schemes of 20 or fewer homes. On the look out for innovation and emerging talent, it took the unusual step of discarding onerous pre-qualification requirements, opening up entry to any practice with a built project behind them – including extensions or refurbishments. The competition, which asked for design proposals for one of three inner London sites, attracted more than 300 entries. Of these, 20 practices were invited to interview stage and the final panel of six was announced in February this year.

The successful architects are now working on the early consultation and design stages of a range of projects in boroughs across London. Adam Khan Architects, Urban Salon and Studio 54 are drawing up plans for the three sites in Hackney and Islington that were part of the original competition brief. The remaining practices  – Lyndon Goode, Pitman Tozer and Jan Kattein – have been allocated new plots: an infill project at Whitecross Street in Islington (a Peabody estate from the 1880s); the conversion of an existing commercial building in Lewisham; and the development of two garage sites in Greenwich. The idea is that the panel, which is mixed in terms of experience, practice size, style and approach will share knowledge and experience, with those more experienced in the technicalities of housing providing a coaching role.

The original Peabody dwellings were at one time derided by the great chronicler of England’s architectural landscape, Nikolaus Pevsner, who in the 1950s dismissed Darbishire’s designs as “familiar but nonetheless detestable”. But if, as well as providing homes, the buildings being commissioned today posit models for the future or forge new standards in the way that the first Peabody dwellings did, they will have performed very well indeed. As Peabody’s Development Director, Claire Bennie, noted in her summing up of the recent competition process: “architecture is not an isolated, artistic endeavour. It is the fascinating, negotiated product of art and broader societal concerns including economics, politics, and the tangled complexity of human interaction.”

– Ellie Duffy is a director of the graphic design agency Duffy, London. #duffydesign

www.peabody.org.uk

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