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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108594 items
RIBA4060Designs for Sleek Tower (left) and Verandah Tower (right), Brisbane, Queensland

 
RIBA4062Design for the restoration of the Parthenon, Athens

 
RIBA4063Design for remodelling Brownsea Castle, Brownsea Island, Dorset, for Colonel William Petrie Waugh: perspective


RIBA4064Design for the staircase of the chapel-library wing, Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire

 
RIBA4065Design for the extension of the east end of the Church of St Bartholomew, Brighton

 
RIBA4066Competition design for the South Kensington Museum, London: view from the south-west


RIBA4067Design for new Senate Houses in St James's Park, London

 
RIBA4069Design for a wallpaper frieze entitled 'Seagull'

 
RIBA4070Design for an imperial palace for sovereigns of the British Empire: perspective of one of the courtyards


RIBA4073Design for a library bookcase, Knightshayes Court, near Tiverton, Devon

 
RIBA4074Design for the Bishop's throne, Cathedral Church of Saint Finn Barr, Cork

 
RIBA4076View from the cottage of Humphry Repton at Hare Street, Essex, before proposed alterations


RIBA4077Competition design for the Rathaus, Hamburg

 
RIBA4078Designs for the New Bodleian Library, Oxford: perspective from Trinity College gardens

 
RIBA4079Designs for Oakhurst, Ropes Lane, Fernhurst, West Sussex, for Mrs E. F. Chester: perspective from the north-west


RIBA4080Designs for Dixcot, North Drive, Tooting Bec Common, London, for R. W. Essex: perspective of entrance front

 
RIBA4081Design for a poster for the Central Liquor Control Board entitled 'Use and Beauty' to decorate a pub or canteen, possibly in the Carlisle area

 
RIBA4082Design for a wallpaper entitled 'Bushey' produced by Essex and Company


RIBA4083Design for a wallpaper frieze entitled 'Shallop' showing shallops (boats), birds and islands

 
RIBA4084Design for a wallpaper and tapestry produced by Essex and Company to honour Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897

 
RIBA4085Design, prossibly for a wallpaper, showing stylized oak leaves and acorns


RIBA4086Design for a wallpaper and textile showing a bird among leaves, flowers and berries

 
RIBA4087Design for the 'River Rug'

 
RIBA4088Edwin Smith and Olive Cook


RIBA4089Olive Cook

 
RIBA4090Edwin Smith

 
RIBA4091Edwin Smith


RIBA4092Edwin Smith

 
RIBA4094Edwin Smith and Olive Cook in the garden, 9A Church Row, Hampstead, London

 
RIBA4095Preliminary design for Crooksbury House, near Farnham, Surrey


RIBA4096Unexecuted designs for a country house on the Hudson River, New York State, for Mr E. H. Harriman: perspective sketch of entrance front

 
RIBA4097Design for the dining room sideboard, Munstead Wood, Godalming

 
RIBA4098Unexecuted design for the Grand Foyer, International Music Hall and Opera House, Hyde Park, London


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