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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RIBA372737 Bidston Road, Oxton, Birkenhead, Merseyside: the dining room

 
RIBA3728Tricorn Shopping Centre, Portsmouth, Hampshire: the vehicle ramp at the west corner of site

 
RIBA3729Tricorn Shopping Centre, Portsmouth, Hampshire: the front along Market Way


RIBA3734Seagram Building, 375 Park Avenue, New York

 
RIBA3735World Trade Center, New York

 
RIBA3736House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, London: the sitting room


RIBA3737Design for the sitting room of penthouse flat, 26 Broadwalk House, 51 Hyde Park Gate, London

 
RIBA3738Odeon cinema, Fortis Green Road, Muswell Hill, London: the ticket booth

 
RIBA3740House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, London: the kitchen


RIBA3741Architect's home, Rungsted Kyst

 
RIBA3742Wildwood, Princes Drive, Oxshott, Surrey: the living room and hall

 
RIBA3743Wildwood, Princes Drive, Oxshott, Surrey: the kitchen


RIBA37441 Royal Crescent, Bath

 
RIBA3745Chrysler Building, 405 Lexington Avenue, New York: close-up of the steel-clad pinnacle

 
RIBA3746Forte's Crescent Restaurant, Festival of Britain, Festival Pleasure Gardens, Battersea, London


RIBA3747Dell Restaurant, Hyde Park, London

 
RIBA3749Casa del Fascio, Piazza del Popolo, Como

 
RIBA3750Garden seat, Rousham


RIBA3751Thomas Farnolls Pritchard

 
RIBA3753Chiswick House, London: detail of the Corinthian columns

 
RIBA3754Patrick Nuttgens


RIBA3755Stephen Rowland Pierce

 
RIBA3756Sir Donald Gibson

 
RIBA3757Theatre of Bacchus, Athens, with James 'Athenian' Stuart shown sketching in the foreground


RIBA3758Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), Alhambra, Granada

 
RIBA3759Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakesh

 
RIBA3760Mosque and shrine of Moulay Idris II, Fez


RIBA3761Tiles and decorative plasterwork, Alhambra, Granada

 
RIBA3762Great Mosque (Mezquita), Cordoba: the dome over the bay in front of the Mihrab

 
RIBA3763Santa Maria la Blanca, Toledo: the arcades


RIBA3764Alhambra, Granada: Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters) looking towards the Mirador de la Daraxa

 
RIBA3765James Stirling

 
RIBA3767Hatfield Technical College, Hertfordshire: the assembly hall and dining block with sculptural panel by Trevor Tennant based on the college plan


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