Kensal House Utopian Dreams

A utopian housing estate called Kensal House lies at the northernmost end of Ladbroke Grove, nestled between the railway line and a big supermarket that is the destination for many a weekly shop. The buildings of Kensal House are easy to dismiss, if you even spot them in the first place. They don’t have the impact of Brutalist Trellick Tower or the classic charm of the Notting Hill townhouses. Their significance is out of sight from the road. It lies below street level in the unusual community spaces of this estate.

Kensal House was created by Executive Architect Maxwell Fry and sociologist Elizabeth Denby on the site of an old gasworks at the northernmost end of Ladbroke Grove. Funded by the Gas, Light & Coke Company to show that gas, a new energy in the 1930s, was cheap and efficient enough to run a municipal block, Fry and Denby used Kensal House to put into practise their ambitious Modernist ideas for social change starting at home.

Unlike other similar contemporary schemes which catered to single young affluent professionals, the housing blocks, now Grade II* listed, created a home for working class families relocated from the surrounding Kensington slums. The communal spaces designed for the families of Kensal House and their collective 250 children were ground breaking: allotments, a nursery, a woodworking club, and many more. These buildings created a space where the balance of the architects’ dreams for the tenants came together with the tenants’ dreams for themselves, but how have those shared spaces fared today?

Community spaces were important to the residents, including one room: Feathers Social Club, which can be spotted in a 1938 film about the estate. A musical band of residents practises on the stage whilst men play darts and women chatter over a cup of tea before heading home to bed. In the other social rooms some men restore broken furniture whilst others mend shoes. A former resident told Kensal Voices, a 2013-2014 SPID project in collaboration with the V&A Museum, 20th Century Society, and North Kensington and Kensington Central Library, ‘We had everything: we had the grounds to play in, we had the club to come to, the nursery was here. Everything was here. You didn’t need to go anywhere else. There was enough space for the children to play.’

However, as technology improved and entertainment was able to be had in the confines of one’s own home, the use of the community spaces decreased. At one time there was a youth centre run by an elderly couple called Eileen and Frank before the community rooms fell into a state of disrepair for many years. That was until, SPID, a youth charity specialising in site-specific community art on council estates moved in. They found a home in the old Feathers Social Club and have invested in revitalising the space with ideas and ventures that share the same thread as Fry and Denby’s ideals. Kensal House’s nursery originally set out to turn around the fortunes of localchildren and give them the chance to flourish.

In the 1930s and 40s, a third of the nursery children lived at Kensal House and it was here that they had their daily milk. And it seems that here, too, Fry and Denby’s dreams are coming true. The nursery space is now the home of Full of Life, a centre for young adults with complex needs that focuses on developing their communication and personal skills whilst supporting them and their parent carers. The semi-circular design of the nursery, taken from the gas cylinder which once occupied this site, was built to allow the sun to penetrate through the windows in to the
building and allow a wide reaching view of the outside world.

The nursery and its garden are now once again used for the benefit of local young people, as was intended. Once a building has been built, the link between what the building was intended for and how it is used is often broken. After a space is inhabited it acquires different measures of success. It could be disliked because your furniture doesn’t fit or it’s too far from where your best mate lives. Ultimately, you can chuck out the furniture, paint the walls, and use your individual space as you like.

But the lasting difference with Kensal House is the Modernist idea that the inter-disciplinary team of Fry and Deny poured into the plans and mixed in with the concrete used to cast the estate: the power of community, the importance of the spaces they inhabit, and the real benefit community can bring to everyday life.

Thank you to Emily Burt for writing our guest blog this month. You can follow her on Instagram and read more of her work here.

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