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 storify.com. To see it on storify, click here