Kent House facade

Kent House lies within a stone’s throw of contemporary Chalk Farm Road. Thankfully Messrs Connell, Ward and Lucas would not have had to run the gauntlet of drunken teens, shell-shocked tourists and some of London’s most rapacious minor capitalists to visit the site, but you might have to.

The flats were commissioned by the St Pancras House Improvement Society and were an early demonstration of what modernism could offer 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, and as such the most ambitious efforts were made by 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, the Kent House flats were to be Connell, Ward and Lucas’s only commission of this type.

Completed in an impressively short 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 granted access to communal areas at ground level and on the roofs. A different plan was originally proposed, with one large block and one smaller one, but the total number of flats per square foot contravened local planning rules and this was scrapped in favour of two blocks of near equal size.

The small shop unit (originally a Fish and Chip shop) which can still be seen on Ferdinand Street is somewhat of a mystery. Possibly its inclusion was a contractual obligation, 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. 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.

Kent House 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 in the total number of flats (down from 20 to 15) and a welcome return of the original 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) are the upgraded balcony railings which, though undoubtedly now safer, impart a rather cage-like appearance. Extensive interior work was carried out to bring bathrooms and kitchens up to date, but we have yet to see inside.

Images from the Dennis Sharp Archive showing Kent House in the 1930s (left) and the early 2000s (right) prior to the return of the original colour scheme and installation of safety railings.

© Modernist Tourists 2016