Thamesmead

Thamesmead

The Forgotten Town for the 21st Century

Heralded by the Greater London Council (GLC) as a “town for the 21st century”, the Woolwich-Erith Riverside Project was only christened Thamesmead in 1967 following a Name Our New Town competition with a £20 prize. To be built on marshland and part of the Woolwich Arsenal site, it was intended to help ease the capital’s post-war housing shortage and to be a town of 60,000 people exploiting a riverside position with sufficient local employment, amenities and transport infrastructure.

The 1967 master plan envisaged a combination of long spine blocks and high- rise point blocks but Thamesmead’s design and landscape was influenced by the site. Pollution from local heavy industry prohibited building above 200ft dictating squat 13-storey point blocks rather than the few intended tall, slim blocks. In 1953 the site was flooded by the North Sea inundation, thus for flood protection all habitable accommodation had to be on the first floor with garages and service areas below. The houses were innovatively linked by raised walkways also serving to separate pedestrians from road traffic. To assist in controlling water levels a series of balancing lakes and canals would drain run-off water into the Thames at low tide.

Such was the initial international attention given to Thamesmead’s architecture that the early residents found the great number of visitors highly intrusive. However, media focus on the GLC’s flagship project soon switched to its failings, in particular the urban alienation of disillusioned residents. Today its reputation is synonymous with the film A Clockwork Orange but the problems predated the film’s 1971 release. The much vaunted walkways had the unintended consequence of dark no-go areas below, facilities took too long to develop, transport links were poor and contaminated land and ground conditions led to expensive construction and delays.

Despite being the culmination of the GLC’s housing works, ultimately only stages 1 and 2 were completed in a form resembling the master plan which largely remained an unrealised vision. Mostly forgotten today, much of Thamesmead, ironically, now comprises suburban housing and although there is a programme of regeneration for stages 1 and 2 this is proceeding slowly and has resulted in the demolition of the futuristic Lakeside Health Centre (Derek Stow & Partners, 1972).

50 years on from the initial construction phase this gallery is illustrated by historic photographs from the RIBA Robert Elwall Photographs Collection and the work of contemporary photographers Christopher Hope-Fitch and Joanne Underhill. To see additional images of Thamesmead click here. All of the images are available to download, purchase or license.

Visit the photographic exhibition Thamesmead: A Town for the 21st Century at the RIBA which runs until 16 May 2019.

Feature by Jonathan Makepeace.

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105767 items
`RIBA105882Rolling Bridge, Paddington Basin, London: the bridge rolled up

 
RIBA2088Hillfield (House A), Whipsnade Zoo Estate, Whipsnade: the sun-catch

 
RIBA2093Fagus factory, Alfeld an der Leine, Lower Saxony


RIBA2187Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong: first banking level reception area and atrium above

 
RIBA2478Battersea 'A' Power Station, London, by night

 
RIBA3066Designs for six circular badges showing birds


RIBA3067Designs for six circular badges showing flowers

 
RIBA3068Designs for six circular badges showing animals

 
RIBA3069Designs for six circular badges showing animals and flowers


RIBA3070Designs for six circular badges showing sea creatures and birds

 
RIBA3085Design for a beach house, California, for Rupert R. Ryan

 
RIBA3086Design for the river front of St Olaf House, Hay's Wharf, Tooley Street, Southwark, London


RIBA3091Design for the Odeon cinema, Leicester Square, London

 
RIBA3093Design for the interior of Fischer's Restaurant, New Bond Street, London

 
RIBA3316Unexecuted design for Frinton Hotel, Frinton-on-Sea, Essex


RIBA3318Marine Court, St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex

 
RIBA3716Ronan Point, Clever Road, West Ham, London, after building collapse

 
RIBA3717Central Market Building, Covent Garden, London


RIBA3718Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

 
RIBA3719John Ruskin

 
RIBA3720Frank Lloyd Wright


RIBA3721Owen Jones

 
RIBA3722Christ Church, Spitalfields, London, seen from Brushfield Street

 
RIBA3723St Stephen Walbrook, City of London


RIBA3724Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire: the south (entrance) front

 
RIBA3725St Stephen Walbrook, City of London: distant view of the steeple

 
RIBA3726Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, London: the library


RIBA12953Plan of Nottingham Castle

 
RIBA64332Berkeley Library, Trinity College, Dublin: students relaxing on the raked concrete benches by the east front entrance

 
RIBA64334Berkeley Library, Trinity College, Dublin: the entrance hall


RIBA84028Plan of Nottingham Castle

 
RIBA84030View of Nottingham Castle with gabled houses and a church at the bottom of the hill

 
RIBA84031View of the north face of Nottingham Castle: elevation


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