‘A tour of Becontree is demanding,” wrote Nikolaus Pevsner in his Buildings of England guidebook, “even for the fanatic.” The charms of the biggest interwar council property on this planet, which celebrates its centenary this 12 months, weren’t instantly obvious to the German-born architectural historian within the Nineteen Sixties. Nor might they be to many immediately. Sprawling throughout 4 sq. miles of Barking and Dagenham in east London, Becontree has neither the strident architectural drama of a spot like Thamesmead, nor the quaint bucolic allure of a backyard metropolis. As an alternative, it’s an archetypal imaginative and prescient of nondescript suburbia. Row upon row of brick terraced homes, every with their very own back and front backyard, are organized alongside avenues and crescents, populated by the occasional parade of outlets. To this point, so humdrum.
However what Pevsner lacked on his tour was having Verity-Jane Keefe by his facet. Seen by way of the eyes of this artist, who has been working in and across the property for the final 15 years, the place turns into a kaleidoscopic patchwork of particular person inventive acts. There are the houses adorned with mock-Tudor paint jobs, facades fortified with rustic loopy paving, porches jollied up with porthole home windows. Pastel-painted pebbledash jostles for consideration with swirling roughcast render, each outdone by a sculpted plaster aid of a squirrel rising from an ornamental roundel.
Flip the nook and you discover entrance doorways framed by Corinthian columns and dangling plastic topiary balls, together with gates guarded by a pair of golden cement lions. One complete crescent, constructed from timber by Swedish carpenters within the Nineteen Twenties, has the country treehouse aesthetic of Sylvanian Households. One other avenue sports activities streamlined artwork deco sun-trap home windows, like one thing straight out of Poirot. The nearer you look, the extra Becontree reveals itself to be a splendidly wealthy catalogue of curious home particulars. It’s an open-air museum of the impression of successive housing insurance policies, the completely different tastes of council upkeep departments and generations of right-to-buy house owners wrought in plaster and paint.
“Some individuals suppose it’s an actual mess once they lastly come right here,” says Keefe, as we stroll the streets, marvelling on the vary of door sorts, porch shapes and different creative add-ons. “Becontree is all the time proven in hen’s-eye views as this good imaginative and prescient of equivalent ‘houses for heroes’ with neat privet hedges. However the actuality is a spot made up of 1000’s of particular person decisions and variations over time.”
Constructed between 1921 and 1935 by the London County Council, Becontree was essentially the most bold public housing mission of its period. It reworked a 3,000-acre swath of market gardens in Essex right into a mannequin cottage-garden property of 26,000 houses for 100,000 individuals, many rehoused from East Finish slums and capable of get pleasure from operating sizzling water and indoor bogs for the primary time. “Heaven with the gates off,” was how one of many first residents described it.
Within the many years since, it has adopted the identical destiny as many council estates of the interval, affected by poor upkeep and seeing many houses bought off by way of right-to-buy. It was just lately listed as probably the most profitable locations for landlords to speculate, with the second highest buy-to-let yield within the nation.
So how do you have fun 100 years of a spot like this, so removed from its unique conception, and which continues to be in flux? The official centenary programme, organised by the borough of Barking & Dagenham with arts organisation Create, features a vary of initiatives, from a pair of vibrant new playgrounds by Yinka Ilori and Eva Rothschild, to new public squares on the property’s nook plots, designed by nimtim architects, to be accomplished subsequent 12 months. However the mission that almost all will get below the pores and skin of the place is Keefe’s year-long residency, Residing Collectively, which has explored the impacts on the property of of de-industrialisation, immigration, employees’ rights and the proper to purchase, in collaboration with teams of residents.
Keefe half-jokingly describes her technique as “lurking”. It’s a type of cautious close-looking that reveals hidden depths from particulars, mixed with door-knocking and an easygoing allure that results in being invited in for chats about ceramic owls over cups of tea. The outcomes are by no means clear, nor instantly apparent. Together with organising studying teams and digital walks, one of many extra surreal merchandise of the residency has been a collection of neighborhood banjo-band performances on the property’s pedestrian cul-de-sacs – often known as “banjos” for his or her round-ended form.
Keefe’s 12 months of statement and commendation has now culminated in an exhibition, Lived in Structure, the place she has transported the ad-hoc allure of Becontree to the stately surrounds of the Royal Institute of British Architects at Portland Place, London. It’s probably the primary time that the Riba has seen loopy paving, pebbledash and cement lions celebrated in its hallowed halls – and it makes for a brilliantly surreal sight.
Guests enter by way of a pretend brick archway painted with a vaguely mock-Tudor sample right into a present conceived as a collection of stage-set fronts, that includes a spread of entrances and particulars sampled from throughout Becontree. One recreates the property’s attribute shared porch, the place two houses’ entrance doorways are framed by a single arched opening – besides, on this instance, one neighbour determined they might slightly not share, in order that they bricked up their half of the doorway and constructed a brand new entrance door to at least one facet, flanked by classical pilasters and topped with a uPVC pediment.
The duplicate frontages result in little rooms the place drawings from the Riba archive have been chosen to elaborate on the themes of adaptation, extension and customisation from the final 200 years of architectural historical past. A few of the connections appear a bit tenuous, however the goal is to provide historic weight to what may in any other case be snootily dismissed as suburban kitsch, displaying that the house enhancements you discover in Becontree have an illustrious pedigree.
“There’s lots of stigma round pebbledash,” says Keefe. “Individuals assume it was all added within the Nineteen Eighties, following the proper to purchase, but it surely was really a part of the unique property plans.” The exhibition consists of Charles Rennie Waterproof coat’s use of roughcast render (“the OG pebbledash” as Keefe places it), in addition to photographs of a modernist home in Chelsea by Bauhaus maestro Walter Gropius that was later pebbledashed by Theo Crosby within the Seventies.
Different drawings present designs for grand classical porches to be bolted on to the entrance of Georgian houses, and delightful pictures by the neglected Victorian architect George Devey, who was a grasp of fictional historic collage. His magnificently fruity nation homes have been made to look as if that they had been prolonged over the centuries, combining mock-Tudor partitions with Flemish gables and medieval battlements in densely layered fantasies.
A spotlight of the present is a 15-minute movie, titled Wild Fantasies Are At all times Value Contemplating, which weaves Keefe’s poetic observations of Becontree along with the voices of residents discussing the quirky options of their houses. It consists of footage of a pair of grasp plasterers at work, recreating the notorious squirrel for the exhibition, the place it now hangs proudly on the wall subsequent to pictures of the Villa Medici in Rome and Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace. Henry was so enamoured by the Medici stucco work that he imported Italian craftsman to recreate the impact, tenfold, throughout the facades of his opulent palace in Surrey within the 1500s (since demolished). The method, which turned often known as pargeting in England, was copied by numerous aspirational householders within the south-east, and loved a revival in Essex within the Nineteen Eighties. And the origins of the squirrel?
“Once I requested the man to render the entrance of the home,” we hear a Becontree resident recall within the movie, “he mentioned he may do one thing as a focus. I got here dwelling and it was there. I by no means requested for a squirrel. We’ve been caught with it, we’ve got to find it irresistible. We do find it irresistible, we’ve received no alternative.”