‘A tour of Becontree is demanding,” wrote Nikolaus Pevsner in his Buildings of England guidebook, “even for the fanatic.” The charms of the biggest interwar council property on the planet, which celebrates its centenary this yr, weren’t instantly obvious to the German-born architectural historian within the 1960s. Nor could they be to many at the moment. Sprawling throughout 4 sq. miles of Barking and Dagenham in east London, Becontree has neither the strident architectural drama of a place like Thamesmead, nor the quaint bucolic charm of a garden city. As an alternative, it’s an archetypal imaginative and prescient of nondescript suburbia. Row upon row of brick terraced homes, every with their very own back and front backyard, are organized alongside avenues and crescents, populated by the occasional parade of outlets. Up to now, so humdrum.
However what Pevsner lacked on his tour was having Verity-Jane Keefe by his facet. Seen by means of the eyes of this artist, who has been working in and across the property for the final 15 years, the place turns into a kaleidoscopic patchwork of particular person artistic acts. There are the houses adorned with mock-Tudor paint jobs, facades fortified with rustic crazy paving, porches jollied up with porthole home windows. Pastel-painted pebbledash jostles for consideration with swirling roughcast render, each outdone by a sculpted plaster relief of a squirrel rising from an ornamental roundel.
Flip the nook and you discover entrance doorways framed by Corinthian columns and dangling plastic topiary balls, together with gates guarded by a pair of golden cement lions. One entire crescent, constructed from timber by Swedish carpenters within the 1920s, has the country treehouse aesthetic of Sylvanian Households. One other avenue sports activities streamlined artwork deco sun-trap home windows, like one thing straight out of Poirot. The nearer you look, the extra Becontree reveals itself to be a splendidly wealthy catalogue of curious home particulars. It’s an open-air museum of the influence of successive housing insurance policies, the completely different tastes of council upkeep departments and generations of right-to-buy house owners wrought in plaster and paint.
“Some individuals assume it’s an actual mess after they lastly come right here,” says Keefe, as we stroll the streets, marvelling on the vary of door sorts, porch shapes and different creative add-ons. “Becontree is at all times proven in chicken’s-eye views as this excellent imaginative and prescient of equivalent ‘houses for heroes’ with neat privet hedges. However the actuality is a spot made up of 1000’s of particular person selections and diversifications over time.”
Constructed between 1921 and 1935 by the London County Council, Becontree was the most ambitious public housing project of its era. It reworked a three,000-acre swath of market gardens in Essex right into a mannequin cottage-garden property of 26,000 houses for 100,000 individuals, many rehoused from East Finish slums and capable of get pleasure from working scorching water and indoor bathrooms for the primary time. “Heaven with the gates off,” was how one of many first residents described it.
Within the many years since, it has adopted the identical destiny as many council estates of the interval, affected by poor upkeep and seeing many houses offered off by means of right-to-buy. It was lately listed as some of the profitable locations for landlords to speculate, with the second highest buy-to-let yield within the nation.
So how do you have a good time 100 years of a spot like this, so removed from its authentic conception, and which continues to be in flux? The official centenary programme, organised by the borough of Barking & Dagenham with arts organisation Create, features a vary of initiatives, from a pair of vibrant new playgrounds by Yinka Ilori and Eva Rothschild, to new public squares on the property’s nook plots, designed by nimtim architects, to be accomplished subsequent yr. However the mission that the majority will get below the pores and skin of the place is Keefe’s year-long residency, Living Together, which has explored the impacts on the property of of de-industrialisation, immigration, staff’ rights and the fitting to purchase, in collaboration with teams of residents.
Keefe half-jokingly describes her technique as “lurking”. It’s a type of cautious close-looking that reveals hidden depths from particulars, mixed with door-knocking and an easygoing appeal that results in being invited in for chats about ceramic owls over cups of tea. The outcomes are by no means clear, nor instantly apparent. Together with organising studying teams and digital walks, one of many extra surreal merchandise of the residency has been a sequence of community banjo-band performances on the property’s pedestrian cul-de-sacs – known as “banjos” for their round-ended shape.
Keefe’s yr of statement and documentation has now culminated in an exhibition, Lived in Architecture, the place she has transported the ad-hoc appeal of Becontree to the stately surrounds of the Royal Institute of British Architects at Portland Place, London. It’s presumably the primary time that the Riba has seen loopy paving, pebbledash and cement lions celebrated in its hallowed halls – and it makes for a brilliantly surreal sight.
Guests enter by means of a pretend brick archway painted with a vaguely mock-Tudor sample right into a present conceived as a sequence of stage-set fronts, that includes a spread of entrances and particulars sampled from throughout Becontree. One recreates the property’s attribute shared porch, the place two houses’ entrance doorways are framed by a single arched opening – besides, on this instance, one neighbour determined they might quite not share, so that they bricked up their half of the doorway and constructed a brand new entrance door to 1 facet, flanked by classical pilasters and topped with a uPVC pediment.
The duplicate frontages result in little rooms the place drawings from the Riba archive have been chosen to elaborate on the themes of adaptation, extension and customisation from the final 200 years of architectural historical past. A number of the connections appear a bit tenuous, however the purpose is to present historic weight to what would possibly in any other case be snootily dismissed as suburban kitsch, displaying that the house enhancements you discover in Becontree have an illustrious pedigree.
“There’s numerous stigma round pebbledash,” says Keefe. “Folks assume it was all added within the 1980s, following the fitting to purchase, but it surely was truly a part of the unique property plans.” The exhibition contains Charles Rennie Waterproof coat’s use of roughcast render (“the OG pebbledash” as Keefe places it), in addition to pictures of a modernist home in Chelsea by Bauhaus maestro Walter Gropius that was later pebbledashed by Theo Crosby in the 1970s.
Different drawings present designs for grand classical porches to be bolted on to the entrance of Georgian houses, and delightful pictures by the ignored Victorian architect George Devey, who was a grasp of fictional historic collage. His magnificently fruity nation homes had been made to look as if that they had been prolonged over the centuries, combining mock-Tudor partitions with Flemish gables and medieval battlements in densely layered fantasies.
A spotlight of the present is a 15-minute movie, titled Wild Fantasies Are All the time Price Contemplating, which weaves Keefe’s poetic observations of Becontree along with the voices of residents discussing the quirky options of their houses. It contains footage of a pair of grasp plasterers at work, recreating the notorious squirrel for the exhibition, the place it now hangs proudly on the wall subsequent to pictures of the Villa Medici in Rome and Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace. Henry was so enamoured by the Medici stucco work that he imported Italian craftsman to recreate the impact, tenfold, throughout the facades of his opulent palace in Surrey within the 1500s (since demolished). The method, which turned known as pargeting in England, was copied by numerous aspirational householders within the south-east, and loved a revival in Essex within the 1980s. And the origins of the squirrel?
“Once I requested the man to render the entrance of the home,” we hear a Becontree resident recall within the movie, “he stated he may do one thing as a focus. I got here residence and it was there. I by no means requested for a squirrel. We’ve been caught with it, we now have to adore it. We do adore it, we’ve received no selection.”