December 2019

A Modern Masterpiece DEREK JONES hails the award of the Stirling Prize to an estate of council homes For this edition I am stretching the meaning of the word ‘Around’ in our masthead to include a celebration of a prestigious architectural award to Goldsmith Street, Norwich, quite some distance away from Ruthin. It is the first time the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize has been awarded to a council estate, not before time. With the building of environmentally- friendly social housing at Llanbedr and more proposed adjacent to Glasdir plus the prospect of new council housing in Denbighshire for the first time in nearly 40 years, I am taking it for granted that members would be interested in the Norfolk development, however distant it may be. I have lived and worked in council estates during a good part of a very varied career, including one of the first, Becontree, Essex, population 100,000, built between the two world wars of the last century. It was far from being the worst, and many former ‘Eastenders’ thought the world of it. On the other hand, few today would be happy at the thought of roads driven on straight lines, numbered from 1 to 2000, across the Essex marshes. A hundred years after the Housing and the Working Classes Act of 1919, things have moved on quite a lot. Whatever the need, few local councils would now even think of building on such a scale. Interestingly, Denbighshire is an exception. And, of course, the Thatcher government’s policy of the ‘right to buy’ has, to some extent, altered people’s perceptions of social housing. Yet the prejudice remains, and there are still some appalling examples of ‘jerry-built’ council houses in many parts of the country. That is why we should celebrate when a socially conscious architect, Mikhail Riches, should design and build a small estate where anyone, rich or poor, would be glad to live. RIBA has called Goldsmith Street ‘a modern masterpiece’. There are 105 ultra low-energy houses (45 houses and 60 flats), where fuel bills are expected to be 70 per cent below the average cost. The bricks are of warm creamy clay, the houses have curved corners and include brick porches. Each flat has its own front door at ground level, all of them painted in different colours to emphasise individuality. No effort has been spared to introduce small but important features such as letter boxes built on to external porches to avoid draughts in the houses. The Goldsmith streetscape is designed to promote small and safe children’s play areas. There are several communal gardens, and curved walkways running perpendicularly through the middle of the estate. Car parking is pushed to the outer edge. There are generous lobby spaces for bikes. The designer, David Mikhail, has said: ‘It is not often we are appointed to work on a project so clearly aligned with what we believe matters: buildings people love which have a low impact on their surroundings’. Alan Jones of the RIBA has commented, ‘Faced with the worst housing crisis for generations and crippling local authority cuts, Goldsmith Street is a beacon of hope’. It’s a long way from Norwich, but I can’t help feeling that, as the need for council housing has re- emerged everywhere in the UK, this new award-winning project might strike a few local bells, and not just at affordable or social housing sites such as Llanbedr or Glasdir but in inspiring the new wave of market housing to come.
Archive from 2013 Historic Interest