Kent House lies within a bottle’s throw of the full-on horror of contemporary Chalk Farm Road. Thankfully Messrs Connell, Ward and Lucas would not have had to face the unholy mix of drunken teens, goggle-eyed tourists and some of London’s most rapacious minor capitalists to visit the site, but you might have to. If it all gets too much we’d recommend the nearby Sir Richard Steele public house for refreshments.
The flats were commissioned by the St Pancras House Improvement Society and conceived as an early example of what Modernism could offer in regard to social housing in Britain. State attempts to alleviate the dire conditions of London’s poor, who continued to suffer from overcrowding and associated health problems, were in their infancy this point, and more concerted efforts were being made by the progressive housing societies. The contrast between the sooty Victorian slums and these bright and cheery flats with their modern conveniences would have been nothing short of a revelation. Unfortunately, given the political and economic climate of the period, they were to be Connell, Ward and Lucas’s only commission of this type.
Completed in an impressive six month period there were originally twenty flats of two or three bedrooms each, spread over two blocks. There were two flats per floor, each with private balconies and access to the communal areas at ground level and on the roofs. A slightly different plan was originally proposed, with one large block and one small one, but the total number of flats per square foot contravened local planning rules and so this was scrapped in favour of two blocks of near equal size. This was no doubt a blessing to the tenants who thus benefited from greater communal space and more daylight as a result.
The only disharmony to the site comes from a small shop unit (originally a Fish and Chip shop) which can still be seen on Ferdinand Street. It seems likely its inclusion was a contractual obligation, perhaps to replace a shop demolished to make way for the flats and operated as a separate business. Little or no attempt appears to have been made to incorporate it into the main structure, nor indeed much attempt to do anything interesting with it. Given the practice’s prior experience in various retail endeavours (Lucas’s Ecole du Petit Cordon Bleu was particularly impressive) it seems rather a lost opportunity to do something bolder had not a small café been provided elsewhere for residents instead.
Happily, given the fate of much quality social housing in London, Kent House has not fallen into the hands of property developers in recent years and continues to fulfil its role as originally conceived. It underwent extensive major works in 2006 (by Philip Bailey Architects) and was re-opened by HRH the Duke of Kent. The work included a reduction of the total number of flats (down to 15) and a welcome return to much of the original colourful paint scheme of pale pink, red and turquoise, although the large bars of blue used beneath the roof railings were not reinstated. Less pleasing (from an aesthetic point of view) was the mandatory ‘upgrading’ of the balcony railings, which though undoubtedly now safer are left rather cage-like in appearance. Extensive interior work was also carried out to bring bathrooms and kitchens up to date, but we have yet to meet anyone who has been inside to report back. We would also love to get up on the roof and explore the communal spaces.
Images from the Dennis Sharp Archive showing Kent House in the 1930’s (left) and the early 2000’s (right) prior to the return of the original colour scheme and the imposition of safety railings.
© Modernist Tourists 2016