Thamesmead: a modern history

Thamesmead is fascinating. As a symbol of the post war dream gone wrong, it is also hugely significant. On an aesthetic level, as an idea or concept that encapsulates simplicity, logic and modernity, I love the place. But I feel guilty, a voyeur, as I do not live there and would not wish to.

What I love about Thamesmead is the optimism and belief in modern methods that underpinned its design. The ideology that was dominant from the 1950s to the early 1970s – people should walk from place to place, buildings should be constructed using the latest technology, we can create and improve on nature rather than be dictated to by it – was borne out of a desire to improve people’s lives rather than destroy them. Many of the homes that came out of this period were in fact an improvement on what had gone before. Indoor bathrooms, central heating, decent sized living space were all attractions to new tenants.

Aesthetically, the logic and order of the place is appealing. It is not to everyone’s taste, but the clean lines and repeating patterns present a unified and coherent façade. It is modernism – function before form and a lack of pointless decoration – taken to its extreme. There is not a curved edge anywhere. Every slab, pillar, balustrade has a purpose and is created in smooth grey concrete – no natural materials, no decoration.

All of which is, sadly beside the point. While it is great to theorise, design and pontificate about modernist ideas, people have to live there. And that is what the architects and planners got wrong. While promising a futuristic life in a 21st century town, they totally misunderstood what makes a community. The isolation (there is still no train station directly serving Thamesmead) and lack of amenities meant that basic needs were hardly met. Add to this the hard nature of the surroundings; the phrase ‘concrete jungle’ could have been invented to describe the area, and what you get is a place where life becomes less futuristic or exciting and more mundane and depressing.

Which, sadly, is how Thamesmead will be remembered. A fascinating experiment, but a flawed experiment that used people’s lives as its subjects.

Below is a modern history of Thamesmead, built using To see it on storify, click here

Thamesmead: The town of tomorrow

  1. The idea of Thamesmead was to create a new town to rehome inner Londoners whose homes were unfit for living. It was part of the GLC’s
    post war drive for modern social housing that also encompassed estates such as the Ferrier Estate in nearby Kidbrooke. Thamesmead is located outside central London, to the south east of the capital.
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:28:21
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:12:50
  4. The original plan, designed by the GLC’s own architect’s department, was to create an entire new town with several distinct areas of housing. Of these, only a couple were actually built.
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:21:17
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    Mon, Feb 02 2009 19:00:00
  7. The optimistic model was a futuristic city built in the style of the time – concrete, high rises, walkways everywhere. Main arterial roads were to take inhabitants quickly to and from the estate, but within the estate pedestrianised walkways were intended to transport people around.
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:12:14
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    An interesting quote from the Kentish Times newspaper at the time under the headline Town of Tomorrow: “Thamesmead has been designed as a township where people live separately from cars and, now that work has really got under way, it is good to catch a glimpse of the future”.
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    Wed, Apr 11 2012 17:08:21
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:30:11
  12. Construction started in 1967 on the first sections of the estate. By 1968 the first tenants had moved in.
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:22:30
  14. Many homes were built on stilts as the area was at risk from flooding – the 1953 North Sea flood had inundated the area.
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:12:14
  16. This was also the reason for the expanse of water in the area – it was used to store run-off from the Thames if the level rose too high.
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:12:14
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    Thu, Jan 29 2009 19:00:00
  19. Despite cheery shots such as these and three promotional films made by the GLC between 1968 and 1974, problems surfaced early on in Thamesmead’s life: the lack of amenities such as shops; the lack of adequate transport links; the tendency of the buildings to leak; the insinuation that the GLC was using the estate to dump ‘problem families’ away from central London all added up to give the estate a poor image.
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    Fri, Apr 13 2012 05:57:17
  21. The social club, built as a meeting place as there were no pubs nearby, looked, like much of the estate, like it had landed from Mars.
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:48:08
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:52:28
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:48:08
  25. These images show both the community that developed in Thamesmead and the sprawling, grey appearance of the estate.
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 07:30:57
  27. This image was used by Stanley Kubrick when filming his version of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, in 1972. The conflation of Thamesmead with the nightmarish world of Alex and his droogs confirmed its status as an architectural mistake in the eyes of many of the watching public.
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    By the 1970s, Thamesmead should have been completed. By 1974, just 12,000 people were resident and the project was put on the back burner for three years.

    Eventually, after a re-think, the use of concrete was dropped, the planners reverted to good old 18th century brick and the building of high-rise blocks was halted.

    Wed, Apr 11 2012 17:08:22
  29. Further problems, chiefly cost, limited the construction of the planned estate by 1974. High rises could not be built above 200ft because of the problems of pollution from a nearby power station. The intended plan for a full scale town was dropped and new buildings were constructed in different materials, leading to the patchwork of housing styles still prevalent today.
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    Thu, Oct 13 2011 17:59:04
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    Sun, Oct 30 2011 20:54:31
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 08:02:31
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    Thu, Apr 12 2012 08:03:04
  34. After this Thamesmead became a byword for failed social housing experiments of the 1960s. The very notions that Thamesmead was built on – that people could live happily in high rises, surrounded by concrete; that you could construct communities out of nowhere; that walkways and balconies were substitutes for the streets of inner cities – were discredited and ignored. A favourite of film and video directors who wish to add a splash of the concrete jungle to their work, the estate is still home to 30,000 people, some of whom have lived there since it opened.

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