The history of Rowley Way and why we love it

Picture of Danny Brewer

Danny Brewer

In the midst of the swinging 60s, Neave Brown, the architect of Rowley Way in the borough of Camden, had a vision for an estate as “a magical moment for English housing”. 

 

Formed in 1964 after the collapse of the London County Council, Camden was the third richest London borough in terms of rateable value. The Labour council, aware it had to build more homes, took centre stage for the creative housing boom of the era. In fact, some of the UK’s most ambitious and exciting local authority housing projects have been built in the borough.

The Alexandra Road Estate looks the same as it did in 1973.

 

The council employed a team centred around Neave Brown and led by Sydney Cook. As borough architects, they rejected the cheaply made concrete high-rise model that most councils were adopting to save money. Instead, they chose to reignite the values of terraced housing, giving each home its own front door and outside space with (on a good day) a blue sky view. Inspired in part by Royal Crescent in Bath), the estate was designed to follow the curve of the adjacent railway.

Royal Crescent in Bath
Royal Crescent was an inspiration for Neave Brown when constructing Rowley Way.

 

Unbelievable claims (and costs)

Before the estate was constructed, Alexandra Road was home to around 600 decaying Victorian Villas. Camden had scheduled them for demolition, but local residents mounted tough opposition to the initial redevelopment plan, which proposed three 14-storey tower blocks. This scared off potential developers and ended with the council buying the 13.5-acre site.

 

The basic design of Neave Brown’s estate, similar to what we see today, met resolute opposition from Camden’s planning department. Even though Brown has proposed a scheme that far exceeded Camden’s target of 150 people per acre, they simply didn’t his confidence that he could achieve a population density of 210 people per acre with a low-rise development.

 

Ironically, it was the council’s short period under Conservative control between 1968 and 1971 that saw planning permission being granted, and a budget of £7.15 million (£49 million in today’s money) was set. Naturally, unexpected problems hit, and the eventual cost ballooned to £21 million (£132.5 million today).

 

One hurdle was the planned pedestrianisation of the original Alexandra Road, which also faced tough local opposition and was only granted permission after a public enquiry in 1972. Once work got underway, a layer of soft clay was discovered, causing severe foundation problems, compounded by a burst water main AND a shortage of materials and labour.

 

The Rowley Way revolution cometh

Unsurprisingly, the rising cost of the development was highly criticised. In 1978, Ken Livingstone, then chair of Camden’s Housing Committee, ordered a public enquiry to investigate the build and mitigate the backlash towards the Labour Party. Criticisms were levied at the management of the project alongside excessive architects’ fees. Such was the furore that Neave Brown never worked again in the UK.

 

While the spiralling costs were a major issue, they also reflect the high quality of materials used that give Rowley Way such longevity. The entire estate was constructed off-site in reinforced concrete, with timber joinery framing the edges, front and rear. To combat worried about it being too stark, large amounts of greenery were planted throughout the estate. One critic coined the finished design as the ‘hanging gardens of Camden’, blissfully unaware that it’s more of a compliment!

 

Inside, the apartments had different designs for families and couples. All have bedrooms to either the rear or on lower levels, and every home has a proper terrace with glazed sliding doors. The controversial heating system is still revolutionary today – instead of radiators, the party walls are heated internally, leaving more wall space for furniture.

 

In total, 520 dwellings were built for 1660 people.

 

My favourite Rowley Way designs 

A typical two-bedroom maisonette in ‘B Block’ – one of our managed homes 

 

There are similarities that run through the different layouts, but my favourite is the typical one-bedroom apartment: they’re more compact and designed for professional singles and couples without children.

A typical living room at Rowley Way
An ‘A-Block’ apartment with the original design open plan sliding doors from bedroom to living room – another managed flat.

 

 

The square floor plan has a natural sense of flow, with windows at opposite ends to ensure fresh air is pulled through. The rooms can either be open to each other or screened off with sliding walls – it must have been such a fascinating design process.

 

A bedroom and living room at Rowley Way
An open bedroom to reception room with original fixtures and fittings

 

All the original internal fixtures and fittings have been Grade 2 listed since the early 1990s. These include sliding wooden walls, windows, bathroom fittings, kitchen cabinets and tiles. They need to be retained in their original condition if they’re still present.

 

Unfortunately, some apartments were stripped of their original fixtures before the listing status, but the ones I’ve been lucky enough to visit still retain theirs. And to give credit where it’s due, some of the remodelled apartments have been done exceptionally well.

 

An original kitchen at Rowley Way
Original tiles & cabinetry in two of our managed properties

 

 

For me, the stand-out element is that every home has a decent-sized terrace. This was an essential part of the design for Brown as a place to escape, relax, or even look at. He could never have predicted the pandemic, but his focus on quality of life has been proven many times over the last couple of years.

A typical terrace at Rowley Way
Terraces across the estate are all similar in depth and width, and were deemed essential for mental well-being.

 

 

The realities of living at Rowley Way

The initial reaction from the first tenants that moved in was positive, with almost half saying they were impressed by the kitchens, windows and sliding walls. The central heating system was popular with tenants, with the nickname ‘Costa del Alexandra’ becoming the norm!

 

Alas, this didn’t last long, and acute problems quickly developed. Each heated wall served two apartments, and residents complained of extremes of heat in winter and summer. The system was tough to fix, and Camden eventually agreed to pay half the affected tenants’ heating bills until the matter was resolved.

 

By the 1980s, tenants had become unhappy with Camden’s day-to-day management and led a vote to get them ousted. The management was then handed to a local housing cooperative, and an £8 million refurbishment project was subsequently awarded to a private firm of architects who completed an overhaul of the estate.

 

In the early 2000s, management ironically swung back in Camden’s favour as the cooperative struggled to maintain the daily running of so many homes. The more extensive resources of the local authority council turned out to be better suited to larger estates.

The luscious greenery of Rowley Way

 

Architecturally, despite the weathering, the estate remains impressive and a worthy pilgrimage site for students of modern architecture. It’s so revered that the Grade 2 listing status given in 1994 was far earlier than the usual 30 years required from the time of construction.

 

Peter Brooke, the former Secretary of Heritage England, described Rowley Way as “one of the most distinguished groups of buildings in England since the Second World War”.

 

There’s a strange delight in recalling that the original intention of the estate was a commitment to public sector housing, something that’s vastly underfunded today. At last count (2012), only 18% of the estate had been bought privately, keeping the Alexandra Road Estate faithful to its original aim.

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