Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Pimlico Parade

(this essay is a reflection on/explanation of a walk as part of Critical Practice's 'Parade' event at the parade ground of the former barracks opposite Tate Britain, on an extraordinarily hot day in summer 2010 - it entailed a long walk around the area, so what was at first a decent crowd ended up as me, Pyzik and two exceptionally loyal walkers. It was of course written before the events at Millbank Tower last year, although some of these photographs were taken afterwards)

There was never really any question about where to parade in Pimlico, and that was out of the former Parade Ground, not to mention out of the sweltering heat that the crate-construction could never quite provide shade from; so our stall advertised a walk, first one hour after the start of the Parade, then two hours, as we attempted to convince at least some visitors to come along. The idea was a Tour Around Socialist Pimlico, where we would try to find the hidden socialist potential of these deeply overdetermined streets. The area around here, where Pimlico adjoins the back end of Westminster, is one of the last great London secrets, a haven of experimental and socialistic housing in the seemingly deeply unsympathetic shadow of the Houses of Parliament's tortured crockets, or under the glass contours of the Millbank Tower used alternately as campaign offices by New Labour and Cameron's New Tories.

The phrase which always comes to mind here is 'hiding in plain sight'. Though we're the shortest of walks from some of the biggest tourist traps in the world, it's quiet, mixed, strange, at times poor, though never the kind of traumatic poverty you can find elsewhere in London. This sort of contrast is supposed to be what London is 'all about', but elsewhere it has become increasingly grotesque, as council estates give over their open space for the construction of 'aspirational' towers for incomers, as the most painful poverty and the grossest wealth live next door to each other. There are huge contrasts of wealth here too, but never on the same horrifying scale as a Clapham or a Hackney.

So, where are we exactly? The City of Westminster is not habitually considered a residential area, but for most of the 18th and 19th century it was a fearful slum, and at the sort of proximity to Parliament that would make it the ideal assembly point for an insurrection. The 'Improvement' began in the late 19th century through the Peabody Trust, the charitable body which built tenements for the 'deserving poor' all over London, and still does. Some of their cliffs of yellow stock-brick flats still stand here, still partly social housing next to some of the world's most expensive property. From here until the 1970s, the area would become the centre for some London's strangest and most overlooked council estates. It would briefly return to prominence in the 1980s, when Westminster City Council was under the control of an enthusiastically Thatcherite group around the Tesco heiress Dame Shirley Porter.

Although it had always been a Conservative council, Westminster was a marginal, at the constant risk of falling to Labour. Porter decided the easiest way to keep control was to expel the Labour voters, which she did, by forcibly moving tenants from safe and well-maintained properties in Pimlico and the centre of Westminster, to asbestos-ridden blocks in Paddington, sometimes out of the borough altogether to encampments in Barking, and sometimes onto the streets. Soon after this gerrymandering was discovered, Porter left the country, and is still essentially a fugitive from justice, yet her approach would be extremely influential on later Conservative and New Labour policy, where wholesale transfers of council tenants from inner to outer boroughs would accompany the selling off of council housing. Porter called her gerrymandering Building Stable Communities; Labour called it Building Sustainable Communities. And it worked – Westminster is now a safe Tory seat. Yet perhaps her most amusing, and perhaps Pyrrhic, defeat was at the hands of the Duke of Westminster, owner of the Grosvenor Estate, which his ancestors had given over to 'the housing of the working classes' in perpetuity. He took Porter to court, and her defence was to claim that the working classes no longer existed. She lost, with the peculiar side-effect that the existence of the English proletariat was proven in court by the Duke of Westminster, Britain's richest man.

Walking around the place now, Porter can be seen to have won an only partial victory. There is some deeply horrible infill, in the bumptious, shoulder-padded style of the 1980s, but there are still many corner shops, greasy spoon cafeterias, community centres – often the places lacking from the gentrified but apparently more 'edgy' streets of Hackney.

This was especially obvious on our walk, as part of the small group were two locals, an elderly couple, one in a wheelchair. We started at the London County Council's Millbank Estate, exactly at the back of the Parade Ground. Designed in the 1890s, this was the second council estate in London, after the very similar Boundary Estate in Shoreditch. While the charity-driven Peabody blocks near Parliament are social housing on sufferance, deliberately grim and imposing, sanitary but unfriendly, the blocks built by local government were, with equal deliberateness, humane, lined by trees, and finely architecturally detailed in a muscular style, with a park at the centre. The contrast is an object lesson in the idiocies of the 'Big Society', with its fetish for charity and its denigration of 'the state'. Aptly, as the LCC estate shows the explicit influence of the Socialist idealism of the Arts & Crafts movement at its best - William Morris' News from Nowhere partially built round the corner from the Parliament he re-imagined as a stables. Aptly, in the hinterland of the Tate Gallery, the blocks are named after painters, and this being Victoriana, the remembered – Millais, Ruskin – are mixed with kitchmeisters like Lord Leighton.

A convoluted walk from there takes through more of Peabody's tenements and terraces, and past the Hide Tower, a tall, clipped and minimal concrete tower block that strangely remains unobtrusive, hence, presumably, the name. Our destination is the Grosvenor Estate, another, later London County Council development, this time of the late 20s. The designer was Edwin Lutyens, the neoclassical architect of New Delhi and much of interwar London – this was a very rare use of outside architects by the LCC. The prosaic description does it no justice – this is a space right out of Kafka, or rather Lewis Carroll – a series of square blocks of flats with checkerboard patterns on the outside and long, white access balconies on the inside, with the rendered concrete resembling some kind of icing, the patterns like Battenburg Cake. From Regency Street or Page Street they create one of the strangest urban landscapes in London, an outright English Surrealism that was one of that decade's few real equivalents to (but not imitations of) continental Modernism. The blocks enclose communal gardens, and smaller neo-Georgian pavilions, which house hairdressers, a corner shop, a 'Multi-Cultural Centre'. There's particular justice in the aristocrat's victory over the Tesco Council leader here, in that an area like this would be gold dust to the property speculators, if they ever got hold of it, but here it appears to be entirely functional council housing. I'd read in a book on Porter that these flats were originally built without inside toilets, but am firmly corrected by the two locals. 'My grandparents lived here, and they definitely had loos'. From here, we walk to the red-brick Edwardian Regency Estate on the other end of Page Street – similar in scale to the LCC Millbank Estate, but with the original arts & crafts touches replaced with a more familiar Tudorbethan. We stop here, to look at the archways that enclose the communal gardens, noting the typically stern sign warning against 'hawkers', and they decide to leave the walk, wheeling into their flats. Were it open, we would at this point have made a stop in the Regency Cafe, a moderne, black vitrolite palace of tea, but it closes early on Saturdays.

From here, we cross Vauxhall Bridge Road, noting a hoarding promising 'Homes for Key People', to Lillington Gardens, a 1960s council estate designed by Darbourne & Darke. Some of the blocks are named after theatrical and literary figures, inadvertently making this one of London's camper estates – Noel Coward House, indeed. For enthusiasts of the era of social democratic planning, Lillington Gardens is as much a peak of architectural and social achievement as the Millbank Estate round the corner, both of them lushly detailed in red brick. Here, the architects took their inspiration from the Church of St James the Less, a cranky polychrome brick monster, and the brickwork is some of the most gorgeous in London. The flats are on multiple levels, here sprouting walkways and there traversing service roads, but mostly enclosing winding pedestrian paths, lined with overgrown vegetation (the cars are there, but hidden underneath). They provide a whole self-enclosed world, a dramatic but never dominating townscape, unafraid of the sublime but not aggressively so. There's not much housing as good as this anywhere, which makes it particularly satisfying that, for a time, until the introduction of the Right to Buy council housing, it was impossible to actually purchase a flat here. It was a right, but not a property right. This is one of the few estates that few have a bad word for, yet the funny thing is that the architects designed an almost identical complex in Islington. It was stigmatised as a 'sink' and mutilated, although this may or may not be connected with the intensity of gentrification there.

The rest of Pimlico is full of the stucco'd early 19th century terraced housing designed for the Empire's more lowly clerks, which time, sentimentality and gentrification has elevated into a model for all housing to follow. Along some of these squares and rows, to Pimlico Comprehensive School, designed by the LCC's successor, the Greater London Council, the entity which was abolished by the Conservative Party as a threat to central government. It's a little concrete battleship inside a stucco square, in the same angular, dramatic style as the GLC's Hayward Gallery over the river. The School was almost completely destroyed in the late 2000s, to make way for one of the new Aspirational City Academies, in order to inculcate neoliberal ideology in Pimlico youth. But we're here for another contrast nearby.

Dolphin Square is the only place on the walk that was built as private housing – and luxury private housing at that, a monumental late 1930s complex whose current inhabitants include Prince William. We sneak in through the private archway, and notice that a bit of a party is in progress – the ruling class evidently has something to celebrate. Creeping to the other side, we arrive in Churchill Gardens. This, the largest of Pimlico's estates, was once a model for the whole country, embodying the brief socialist hope of Clement Attlee's 1945 Labour government. Although it was commissioned by a strange alliance of Conservative and Communist councillors, it was built contemporaneously with the 'three-dimensional socialist propaganda' of the LCC's Festival of Britain. It's all wide open spaces and huge, confident slabs, on an utterly heroic scale. Voices bounce and echo off the glass stairwells. At the centre is the steel tower which once housed the estate's heating system, which ran off waste from Battersea Power Station, just over the river. It sits derelict now, the baton passed between developers every couple of years - the biggest property scam in London. It's where the Conservative Party launched their 2010 election campaign, and an apt place to finish, as they intend to slash housing benefit, ensuring that inner London is only a place for those who can afford it. The estates of Pimlico, however, are still marching distance from Parliament.

An edited version of this appears in Parade: Modes of Assembly and Forms of Address.


  1. Owen - would you guest blog something similar for my blog http://www.pimlico-flats.co.uk/blog ?

  2. Sorry - you can mail me on nick at pimlico-flats.co.uk

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