Extending and mending Thamesmead: re-envisioning the town of tomorrow, today

It was a good place to be as a kid. There was so much nature and wide open space. In the spring there would be grass fights, in the summer there’d be water fights, in the autumn would be mud bombs and winter would be snow balls. Philip Samuel, Resident from 1975

In the mid-1960s, a vast concrete housing estate began to rise out of neglected marshland on the south bank of the River Thames. Headed by the Greater London Council (GLC), the scheme intended to solve the post-war housing crisis, and was heralded as visionary. Its design was both architectural and urban experimental: concrete townhouses, blocks of apartments and elevated walkways were all built around a system of lakes, canals and parkland. Architects, sociologists and politicians all turned their attention to the transformation of a marshland into the ‘town of tomorrow’.

In the beginning, the estate was so exclusive that families had to be vetted to get a home there. However, there were real hardships and difficulties for these early pioneers. The slow development of local infrastructure, leaking concrete buildings and, most importantly the failure to provide the new township with the quick and efficient transport links its population required started to erode Thamesmead’s shiny new image. In 1971 Thamesmead provided a backdrop to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film, A Clockwork Orange. The abolishment of the GLC 1986 and ongoing lack of investment meant a continual slide into disrepair, crime and marginalization over the subsequent three decades.

In 2016 it was announced that the estate would undergo a £200million redevelopment. A joint venture partnership between a developer and a public housing association – Lendlease and Peabody – will steward the future of Thamesmead.

Thamesmead Waterfront comprises 100ha of the 647ha of the overall area. It is one of the few remaining undeveloped sites in London and the Southeast UK that offers the scale and capacity to accommodate significant, sustainable, long-term economic growth and housing. Thamesmead’s community is strong, but it is predominantly inward facing and physically isolated; weak transport connectivity reduces resident mobility, and the area is classified as amongst the most deprived 40% of neighbourhoods in England.

This studio will investigate what it means to extend and mend a ‘new town’. We will explore the many physical and social edge conditions and tensions that arise when the new meets existing populations and places.
Students will be asked to consider what qualities distinguish a place as urban or suburban. As the boundaries between work, learning and living have blurred geographically over the past 18 months do characterizations of urban and suburban still make sense?

We will study what holistic resiliency means in the context of an isolated district that will soon have better transport links to the metropolis of London.

The scale of Thamesmead Waterfront means that it has the potential to tackle all-encompassing challenges post COVID-19: climate change, social inclusion, diversity, diverse models of living and working, changing commuter patterns, infrastructure in a currently sub-urban context.

Students will have the opportunity to meet, work with and hear from local school students, the professionals that represent the diverse disciplines on the development and consultant teams and local government planners.

This course has an irregular meeting schedule. Studio sessions will take place on Wednesdays and Fridays, with a few exceptions, but will not meet every week. Kathryn Firth will be in residence (Cambridge) during the weeks of 8/30, 9/6, 10/18, 10/25, 11/1, 11/29, 12/7