Design of the Golden Lane Estate

“The total floor to floor height between maisonettes is 17 feet 9 inches, the individual room height 8 feet, the total clear width 13 feet 4½ inches. The subdivisions within these dimensions both externally and internally are based on the square, and on multiples of whole numbers, with emphasis on the number 3.”

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, Architects

Diagram produced by Chamberlin Powell and Bon showing the proportional relationships which are constant throughout the buildings on the Golden Lane Estate.

The brief

The terms of the 1952 competition were to come up with a design for 940 one, two, three or four room flats at the maximum possible density of 200 residents to the acre, with a central heating and hot water system, a basement storage area in each block, and a community centre.

The site

The site was a former commercial area which had been cleared of buildings by bombing during the war. Most of the surrounding buildings still standing were undistinguished commercial properties. The site was originally about 4 acres in extent but it was later increased to nearly 7 acres by the purchase of adjacent land between the original site and Goswell Road.

Geoffry Powell’s design

Powell’s design for the competition provided 12 low-level terrace blocks, one 11-storey block, and a community centre, in a formal layout. When the competition was held in 1952, the land for the estate did not extend as far as Goswell Road, so Powell made a virtue of the original lack of street frontage and created an inward-looking estate, with terraces grouped round a series of courtyards. The pre-war road pattern was erased. Powell’s design took advantage of the basements left by the former buildings to produce a series of varied levels, with sunken courtyards and gardens areas.

Changes to the design

The plan was altered considerably, and the layout became less symmetrical, but the design’s underlying principles remained unchanged. There were a number of reasons for changes.

  • The original site was extended in 1955 when the City also bought three acres of land up to Goswell Road.
  • The rules on the height of blocks of flats was changed, allowing Great Arthur House to be built higher than originally proposed.  In fact, increasing the height of Great Arthur House and the number of small flats it could contain became essential when the London County Council imposed limits on the density of buildings as against open space in any development.
  • The original plan contained a very defined pedestrian walkway running north to south to the east of Great Arthur House with regular terraces on either side. The final layout was much less rigid.

The terrace blocks

There are 10 terrace blocks, almost all aligned east-west, round four traffic-free courts of differing sizes. Although many of the blocks are very similar, the architects attempted to give each of them a distinctive appearance so they would not look mass-produced. They have load-bearing brick-faced cross walls. In between, there is blue or red opaque glass cladding.  Some have perforated concrete balconies.

Great Arthur House

Great Arthur House is a 16-storey tower, aligned north-south, and it is the centrepiece of the estate. It was the tallest block of flats in London (and the UK) when it was built. It contains two stacks of concrete balconies on each side, and has golden yellow glass curtain walling. So much colour was a novel and dramatic part of the design. The main feature of the tower is the curved concrete structure on the roof, containing the building’s water tanks, which was compared to ‘a concrete aeroplane’. The roof was also given a pergola and water garden for the benefit of residents on the upper floors.

The bastion

One surprising feature in the hard rectangular landscape is the round bastion at the northern end of the site, looking like a concrete sheep-fold, which was an original part of the design.

Crescent House

The final phase of building was Crescent House on the Goswell Road front. This building became possible in 1955 when the original site was extended by the City buying the strip of land between the rest of the estate and Goswell Road.

Crescent House, which was completed in 1962, is in quite a different style from the buildings which preceded it on the estate.

The other blocks on the Golden Lane Estate which were built before 1957 are characterised by their coloured opaque glass cladding. Colour is a notable feature of all Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s important early works. The most dramatic example is the bright yellow walling of Great Arthur House.

Crescent House, with its heavy reliance on concrete, anticipates the Barbican estate which the architects were already designing. Crescent House may have been designed by Michael Neylan, one of the architects at Chamberlin Powell and Bon at the time.

Pedestrian precinct

The estate was laid out as a pedestrian precinct. All public roads which had intersected the site before the war were obliterated. The design of the estate made every effort to avoid the need for any vehicles in the estate; and, when they were necessary, to keep them away from residents. The main service road was constructed underground at the rear of the shops along the Goswell Road frontage. Refuse chutes within the blocks were kept as much as possible close to the perimeter of the site, so that service vehicles could serve the buildings from the public roads.

Variety of flat types

The blocks were designed to contrast both in height and in character; family flats created in blocks four or six storeys high; small two-room flats were placed mainly in Great Arthur House, the central 16-storey block, and in Crescent House, adjacent to Goswell Road.

A particular characteristic of the Golden Lane maisonette planning was the variety of plan types within each block. In the lower ones, the staircases leading from the living room level up to the bedroom level were planned so that the stairwell contributed to the spaciousness of the living room and provided a well-lit landing at the top. In the top storeys, the staircase occurring at the back of the living room was lit from above. Four-room maisonettes occur adjacent to the secondary public staircases, and the third bedroom opening out of the living room in alternate maisonettes.

Courts and gardens

The various blocks were positioned so as to divide the site into a series of courts, which wer interrelated, but all different both in their appearance and function. The ground level within these courts is not identical. The main pedestrian walking areas are at ground level while the more secluded courts are largely excavated to basement level.

Anti garden suburbs

Chamberlin Powell & Bon were quoted in the Architectural Association Journal, April in 1957, as saying:

‘There is no attempt at the informal in these courts. We regard the whole scheme as urban. We have no desire to make the project look like a garden suburb’

Influences on the Golden Lane Estate

I am no architect so I am passing on the views I have read.

  • Double height stairwells and double height spaces over the balconies are indebted to Le Corbusier’s preference for provision of high spaces for living areas.
  • Stylistically, it is contemporary with Sir Basil Spence’s listed work at the University of Sussex in Brighton, though it is more varied in its materials. Both have as their sources Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul in Paris and Stirling and Gowan’s work at Ham Common.
  • Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation of 1947 was an early influence, with its use of coloured panels to add interest to the facades, roof sculptures, and double height spaces in living areas.
  • Le Corbusier’s later brutalist works Haut Ronchamp and Maisons Jaoul later displaced Unité d’Habitation in influence.
  • Great Arthur House references the roofscape of Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles.